When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples,“You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.”
Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.”
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table.
The leading figure in the plot to arrest and kill Jesus was Caiaphas, the high priest. Caiaphas had been appointed high priest by Valerius Gratus, Pilate’s predecessor, in A.D. 18, about twelve years before this. He was the son-in-law of Annas, the hereditary high priest who had served from 6-15 A.D., until the Romans deposed him. Caiaphas survived until A.D. 36, which means that he held his office for eighteen years. This tells us something important about him. Between 37. B.C. and 67 A.D., when the last of the high priests was appointed just before the destruction of the temple, the Romans appointed and deposed no fewer than twenty-eight high priests. So if Caiaphas survived for eighteen years, it could only have been because he was a shrewd politician who wanted to hang on to power at all costs.
This is precisely what the gospel accounts disclose. In John’s gospel we are told of a meeting of the leaders at which most were confused about how to deal with Jesus. They acknowledged Jesus’ miracles, but they were afraid that if he was allowed to go on as he had been doing, everyone would believe on him and the Romans would come and take away their place and their nation (John 11:47-48). What should they do? Shrewd old Caiaphas had the answer. “You know nothing at all,” he said. “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (v.49-50). This was a bold, self-serving policy that dismissed every other suggestion but was nevertheless couched in words that suggested falsely that his concern was only for the well-being of the people.
Matthew does not record anything that Caiaphas said, but he makes clear that Caiaphas was at the center of the plot to kill Jesus. It would not have been unlike him to have counseled Jesus’ arrest and murder with the shrewd, calculating qualification: “But not during the Feast, or there may be a riot among the people” (Matthew 26:5).
It is an inescapable irony of the story that Jesus had prophesied his death in two days while they, who wanted him dead as soon as possible, were plotting a delay of at least nine days—two days until the Passover and seven days of the feast. Human beings plot, but it is the will of God that is done (Proverbs 19:21), and here God’s will was that Jesus should be killed at the very time the Passover lambs were being slain to indicate that Jesus is indeed “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
At the very time these leaders were preparing their plot to arrest and kill Jesus, another person was preparing for his death but in an entirely different way and different spirit. This person was Mary of Bethany, though Matthew does not name her in his account. It is John who records that “Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume [and] poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair” (John 12:3). Matthew says only that “a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table” (v. 6).
A great deal has been written about the place and timing of this event. Some have been troubled by the fact that Luke has a similar story about Jesus being anointed by a sinful woman in Galilee (Luke 7:36-38). But the setting in Luke is different and the time is earlier. These were distinct events.
A more troubling problem is the placing of this second anointing in the days before Christ’s death by Matthew and Mark, on the one hand, and by John on the other. John says that the anointing occurred “six days before the Passover,” when Jesus had first arrived at Bethany (John 12:1), but Matthew and Mark seem to indicate that at this time the Passover was only “two days” away (Matthew 26:2; Mark 14:1).
Clearly one or the other of these writers has displaced the event for his own purposes, and commentators come down on different sides of the issue. A careful reading of the accounts shows that only John is actually dating the story, however. Matthew and Mark record Jesus’ prediction of his passion as being only two days away. But when they tell the story of the anointing they only say that it happened “while Jesus was in Bethany” (Matthew 26:6). This is in line with what we know of the gospel writers. John is precise about his chronology, while Matthew and Mark move and often group material to fit the points they are making. Matthew has not reported that Jesus was in Bethany before this, and he has not had a place to put the story of Jesus’ anointing until now. The chapters before this record Jesus’ fierce denunciation of the religious leaders (ch. 23) and the Olivet Discourse (chs. 24-25).
Matthew tells of the anointing here because this is the section of the gospel in which he is beginning to tell how Jesus was finally moving forward to the cross. It is part of the preparation for his sacrifice.