712. Alabastra - Ointments - Reclining at Meals

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Matthew 26:77There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. (Matthew 26:7). There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head as he sat at meat.
A similar incident, though occurring at another time and place, is recorded in Luke 17:36-38.
1. In Alabastron, in Egypt, vessels were anciently made of a peculiar stone, a kind of soft, white marble, which was found in that vicinity, and which was supposed to be specially adapted to preserve the odor of perfumed ointments. The Greeks named the vessels from the town where they were made. The stone afterward was called by the same name, and at length all perfume vessels, of whatever form or substance, were called alabastra. They have been found made of gold, glass, ivory, bone, and shells. Specimens of these ancient perfume-boxes, or vases, made of alabaster and of other materials, some of them richly ornamented, are in the British Museum, and also in the Abbott Collection, New York.
The alabastra were of various shapes and sizes, though they were commonly long and slender at the top, and round and full at the bottom, like a Florentine oil-flask. According to Epiphanius, the alabastron ordinarily used for fragrant ointments contained about half a pint.
2. The Eastern people not only make a free use of simple oil for the purpose of anointing (see note on Psa. 23:55Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. (Psalm 23:5), #249) but they prepare fragrant ointments, some of which are very costly. The custom is very old, and prevails among various nations. Even among the rude Parthians the kings had a “royal ointment,” which Rawlinson describes as “composed of cinnamon, spikenard, myrrh, cassia, gum styrax, saffron, cardamom, wine, honey, and sixteen other ingredients.” He does not, however, give them the credit of inventing this odoriferous compound, but suspects that they adopted it from the more refined Persians, whose “monarch applied to his own person an ointment composed of the fat of lions, palm-wine, saffron, and the herb helianthus, which was considered to increase the beauty of the complexion. He carried with him, even when he went to the wars, a case of choice unguents, and such a treasure fell into the hands of Alexander, with the rest of Darius’s camp-equipage, at Arbela” (Five Ancient Monarchies, vol. 3, p. 212).
The holy ointment of consecration among the Jews, though it was not permitted to be used for ordinary purposes, gives us an idea of the variety of ingredients used in compounding ointments. This “holy anointing oil” was composed of myrrh, sweet cinnamon, sweet calamus, cassia, and olive oil. See Exodus 30:23-2423Take thou also unto thee principal spices, of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half so much, even two hundred and fifty shekels, and of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels, 24And of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, and of oil olive an hin: (Exodus 30:23‑24).
In later times greater attention seems to have been paid to the perfume of the ointments which were used for hospitality or for personal purposes. The fragrance of some ointments is said to have remained in the alabastra for hundreds of years. The ointment mentioned in the text is called by Mark “ointment of spikenard,” probably because that costly aromatic plant was one of the principal ingredients.
From Job 41:3131He maketh the deep to boil like a pot: he maketh the sea like a pot of ointment. (Job 41:31), it appears that the different ingredients of which ointments were anciently compounded were boiled together. The high estimation in which the more costly ointments were held is manifested not only in the expression “very precious” in the text, and in the remarks of the disciples as indicated in the eighth and ninth verses, but in several other passages. See 2 Kings 20:1313And Hezekiah hearkened unto them, and showed them all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armor, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah showed them not. (2 Kings 20:13); Psalm 133:22It is like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments; (Psalm 133:2); Eccl. 7:11A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one's birth. (Ecclesiastes 7:1). That such ointments were sometimes very expensive is evident from a comparison of John 12:3,53Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. (John 12:3)
5Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? (John 12:5)
where we find that a pound cost three hundred pence. Reckoning the penny at fifteen cents (see note on Matt. 20:22And when he had agreed with the laborers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. (Matthew 20:2), #683) and the pound at twelve ounces avoirdupois (see note on John 12:33Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment. (John 12:3), #812) this would make the value three dollars and seventy-five cents an ounce. The fragrant character of ointment is also referred to in Song of Solomon 1:3; 4:10; Isaiah 57:99And thou wentest to the king with ointment, and didst increase thy perfumes, and didst send thy messengers far off, and didst debase thyself even unto hell. (Isaiah 57:9); Revelation 18:1313And cinnamon, and odors, and ointments, and frankincense, and wine, and oil, and fine flour, and wheat, and beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men. (Revelation 18:13).
3. The expression “sat” at meat would be more correctly rendered by “reclined,” since the guests were lying on a bed, according to the fashion of the times. When or by whom the custom of having dinner-beds was introduced is not known; the Persians usually have the credit of it. The Jews, no doubt, learned it from them, as did also the Greeks. The Romans, who likewise practiced it, are said to have derived it from the Carthagenians. We find reference to the custom in Esther 1:6; 7:86Where were white, green, and blue, hangings, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and pillars of marble: the beds were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of red, and blue, and white, and black, marble. (Esther 1:6)
8Then the king returned out of the palace garden into the place of the banquet of wine; and Haman was fallen upon the bed whereon Esther was. Then said the king, Will he force the queen also before me in the house? As the word went out of the king's mouth, they covered Haman's face. (Esther 7:8)
; and in Ezekiel 23:4141And satest upon a stately bed, and a table prepared before it, whereupon thou hast set mine incense and mine oil. (Ezekiel 23:41).
Among the Romans three beds were generally used in the dining-room, and thus combined were called the triclinium: they were arranged around the sides of a square in the center of the dining-room, which was itself sometimes called triclinium. The tables were in front of them, and within easy reach of the guests, and the left side was open, to allow the servants to pass in and out. The triclinia varied in style at different periods. The frames on which the couches were placed were sometimes made of costly wood and highly ornamented. The beds themselves were stuffed with various substances: straw, hay, leaves, woolly plants, sea-weed, wool, and, among the wealthy and luxurious, with feathers and swan’s-down. Cushions or pillows were placed on the beds, so that the guests might rest the left arm, on the elbow of which they usually leaned, the right hand being left free to reach the food. See note on John 13:2323Now there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved. (John 13:23) (#814). Some authorities, however, state that when the guests began eating they lay flat upon the breast, and afterward, when hunger was satisfied, they turned upon the left side, leaning on the elbow.
The Romans allowed three guests to each bed, making nine in all. It was the rule of Varro that “the number of guests ought not to be less than that of the Graces, nor to exceed that of the Muses.” Sometimes, however, as many as four lay on each couch. The Greeks went beyond this number, and so did the Jews.
The front of the bed was somewhat higher than the table, and as the triclinium was on an inclined plane, the feet of the guests lay toward the floor. In the incident recorded by Luke the woman anointed the feet of Jesus. This she could easily do by passing between the rear of the triclinium and the wall of the room. In the account given in the text and its parallels, Matthew and Mark speak of the woman’s anointing the head of Jesus, while John speaks of anointing his feet. By comparing the two accounts it thus seems that she anointed both head and feet. She probably first entered the passage where the servants waited by the table. Here she could reach the head of the Saviour, and then going behind the triclinium she could easily find access to his feet, as did the other woman in the house of the other Simon mentioned by Luke.