Mark's Transformation of John's Gnostic Feet: 
Mark 14:3-9, A Redaction of John 12:1-8?
Dr. Markus Locker

 © 2002, M. Locker. All rights reservedcontact.gif


In her study on the relationship of Luke and John, Barbara Shellard concludes that Luke 7:36-50 is most probably secondary to John 12:1-8. The author suggests further that Luke's source is not a Johannine tradition but John's Gospel itself.1 Shellard's most convincing argument hereby is to interpret Luke's literary inconsistency and unbalanced structure as the result of the evangelist's editorial effort to illustrate his own favorite theme of repentance.2 Luke, as is appears, combines two sources (Q/Mt + SLk) and inserts a parable (Luke 7:40-43).3 Proceeding in this way allows the evangelist to imprint his theology on the pericope, emphasizing the ethical norms of penance and forgiveness (cf. Luke 7:37 and 47).

Based on the foregoing, the following article hopes to show that perhaps John is also prior to Mark 14:3-9. Whereas this assumption finds support by the similar interpretation of Mark 14:13-9 and John 12:1-8,4 it largely remains depending on the plausibility of an explanation to why Mark would have changed the Johannine account with respect to first, excluding the names of Mary (John 12:3) and Judas (John 12:4. 6b) and second, changing Jesus' feet (John 12:3) into his head (Mark 14:3).

This paper proposes that all of Mark's changes of his Johannine source have the same reason and serve the same purpose. Mark, as it will be argued, emphasizes his own Christology, at the same time refuting a Gnostic Christology inherent to certain motifs in his source.5 In order to completely carry out his Christological cleansing, Mark conceals Mary's name, omits Judas Iscariot and changes the motif of tous pódas into kephale (Mark 14:3).

Reasons for the Marcan Redaction

Barbara Shellard quotes J. F. Coakley stating that "the original incident probably involved feet rather than head, but was changed by Mark either out of respectful reserve, or to serve as the anointing of the King of Jews."6 Peter Hofrichter endorses this perception of the Marcan redaction and explains that the evangelist accomplishes this redactional task by identifying Jesus with the Messiah, who as the eschatological king of Israel will be God himself.7 Hofrichter explains,

"Um die Identität Jesu als Messias, als, "Gesalbter," sinnfällig zur Darstellung zu bringen, nimmt Markus sich schließlich die Freiheit, die Erzählung von der Salbung in Bethanien für seinen dogmatischen Zweck kühn zu verändern. Aus der Szene einer luxuriösen Behandlung der vom Weg ermüdeten Füße Jesu im Hellensitenbuch gestaltet Markus eine ganz unmotivierte aber prophetische Salbung seines Hauptes, Es ist dies die verborgene und geheimnissvolle Salbung Jesu zum endzeitlichen Messias-König" (Mark 14:3).8 

The author proceeds showing that the change from 'feet' to 'head' serves to illustrate Mark's Christology. An unknown woman unconsciously anoints Jesus, the hidden Messiah as king. Through this ritual he de facto is the Messiah. Mark's hidden royal anointing corresponds to the motif of Jesus' paradoxical exultation and enthronement on the cross.9 

As mentioned above, Mark's redactional changes of John 12:1-8 likewise serve the purpose of refuting any possible Gnostic Christological interpretation of Jesus' anointing. Hereby Mark seems to join in the final redaction of the Fourth Gospel. Pursuing this goal, the evangelist first builds up on, but ultimately supercedes, the anti-Docetism of the Fourth Gospel.10 In order to verify this hypothesis, it will be shown that the Johannine Bethany tradition was so strongly gnostically incriminated that Mark could not even take over its already redacted form. Mark further redacts the final Johannine text as to completely erase its Gnostic past. 11

John's Gnostic Feet

An indirect reference to a Gnostic interpretation of Jesus' anointing can be seen in 1 John 2:20. John's First Letter assures the orthodox members of the community that they "have been anointed by the Holy One, and [they] all know." This distinguishes them from the Johannine antagonists, who themselves claim to possess the true anointing (cf. 1 John 2:27) and knowledge.12 Exegetes agree on interpreting to chrisma (1 John 2:20-27) as referring to Christian baptism13 (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:21) and thus, though unintentionally, offer the key for understanding Mark's redaction of John 12:1-8.14 If the Johannine antagonists claim to be without sin because of baptism, then they can only refer to the tradition of the "the footwashing" in the Fourth Gospel (John 13:1-20). 

John 12:1-8 and John 13:1-20

Three motif parallels suggest viewing John 12,1-8 in direct connection with John 13:1-20. First, both scenes are embedded in a meal (deipnon in John 12:2 and in John 13:2). Second, both scenes feature the motif of feet (tous pódas in John 12:3, and 7 times in John 13:5-14), and finally, both narratives assign an important role to Judas Iscariot (cf. John 12:4ff and John 13:2). He causes Jesus' initial interpretation of the events.

Likewise, the contextual interpretations of Jesus' anointing and the footwashing show two significant similarities. First, in John 12:7 Jesus explains that Mary's anointing foreshadows his burial. In the same way, John 13:2(3) puts the entire footwashing scene into the context of Jesus' betrayal and death.15 Second, Judas' criticism in John 12:5, as well as Peter's replies to Jesus in John 13:8-9 give a similar new interpretative direction to both scenes. While John 12:1-8 emphasizes care for the poor, John 13:15 stresses the service for one another. In both pericopes, therefore, the Christological and/or soteriological significance of the actions of anointing16 and washing the feet17 is broadened by a secondary interpretation about ethical concerns.18 

Moreover, both narratives show the same interpretative movement from a primary level, pointing to Jesus' sacrifice, to a secondary level, referring to brotherly love.19 Altogether these similarities strongly suggest that the original forms of both stories supported a similar theological claim.

Johannine Gnosticism in John 12:1-8 and John 13:1-20

Scholars agree that in both scenes it is the hand of a redactor that widened the pericopes' significance. Originally referring to the sacrifice and death of Jesus, John 12:1-8 and John 13:1-20 explicate the Lord's commandment of love.20 However, one question has not yet been satisfactorily answered, namely whether or not the emphasis on Jesus' death in John 12:7 and John 13:2ff is part of the original text or already the result of an early Johannine redaction. The key for answering this question, once more, is found in the First Letter of John. One of the primary beliefs characterizing the ethics of the Johannine antagonists is their claim to be without sin (1 John 1:8.10).21 The question about the origin of this conviction points to Jesus' assurance in John 13:10: 

"One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean. . ." 

Assuming that in its original form the footwashing pericope was a metaphor for Gnostic Baptism,22 Jesus assures his disciples that the baptism23 they received by washing their feet cleanses from sin (cf., John 13:11).24 Martin Hengel explains the consequences of this belief,

Es ist verständlich, daß für die Gegner der Tod des Menschen Jesu keine Heilsbedeutung mehr besitzen konnte. Sie hielten sich, vermutlich aufgrund ihrere Teilhabe am Geist-Parakleten für sündlos (1 John 1: 8-10) und konnten sich daher auch - nach dem Urteil des Alten - ohne Mühe über das Liebesgebot hinwegsetzten.25 

This understanding of the antagonists' claims allows for two propositions. First, both above-mentioned interpretations of John 12:1-8 and John 13:1-20 as referring to Jesus' death already stem from the hand of a redactor. In John 13:3 the reference to Jesus' betrayal most probably is rooted in an early Johannine redaction to a story of the footwashing that represented the antagonists Spirit-Baptism. This baptism was based on the tradition that Jesus; 

". . . knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God" (John 13:3),26 washed the disciples feet (John 13:5) and declared; "He who has bathed . . . is clean all over" (John 13:10).

It is then the final redaction of the Fourth Gospel that inserts John 13:14-16 into the footwashing scene. Like the First Johannine Letter, vv. 14-16 emphasizes that "every one who does right is born of him (1 John 2:29)."27 

Both redactional interpretations of John 13:1-20, though in a more complex way, are also manifest in John 12:6:8. This certainly justifies the understanding that for all levels of Johannine redaction Mary's anointing of Jesus' feet, like the washing of the disciples' feet, alluded to the Spirit-baptism of the Johannine antagonists.

Mark's Anti-Gnostic Redaction

Judas Iscariot 

Apparently both inner-Johannine anti-Gnostic redactions of John 12:1-8 were not strong enough for Mark. It is not enough that Jesus' interpretation of the anointing as pointing to his own burial is the answer to the question of only one person (John 12:7). Moreover, Judas Iscariot himself seems to have traits of false, possible Gnostic belief. John 13:2 explains that the "devil had already put it into Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him." In connection with John 8:44, this seems to indicate, that John, like Mark and more so Matthew (Mark 14:10-11; Mt 26:14-16; 27:3-10) wants to stress herewith the Jewish responsibility in the death of Jesus. However, this view does not sufficiently provide for an explanation of why Mark did not keep Judas Iscariot in his anointing scene.

In line with the argumentation of this paper it becomes necessary to take a second look at John 8:44. "Being of the devil," is not simply caused by being a Jew. In fact, many Jews believe in Jesus (cf. John 8:31). However, Jesus' declaration in John 8:24 (". . . for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am him") perhaps may suggest that some Jews conjectured that believing in Jesus means to be without sin.28 The Fourth Gospel categorically refutes this Gnostic claim climaxing in the words of Jesus, "Why do you not understand what I say. . . (John 8:43)." 

In conclusion, it is this Gnostic misunderstanding of Jesus' words that constitutes Judas' being of the devil (cf. John 13:2).29 Consequently, after Satan has finally entered Judas (John 13:30), he went out and it was night. Both descriptions of Judas' action "to go out" and "to go into the night" affirm the above thesis. The motif of exerchomai in John 13:30 seems to refer to the experience of the Johannine community told in 1 John 2:18-19.30 In a similar way nuktos in the Fourth Gospel signifies the darkness of false belief.31 These observations allow for the assumption, that it is because of Judas' Gnostic identification that Mark does not mention him in the anointing. He places Judas' question (John 12:5) into the mouths of an indignant crowd, generally representing all adversaries of Jesus (Mark 14:6).32 

The Feet of Jesus

To strengthen his rebuttal of Gnostic Baptism, Mark chooses to avoid any connection of the Johannine anointing tradition to orthodox, as well as to Gnostic, baptism. In the early church "footwashing" might have been generally identified with baptism.33 Thus, Mark altogether replaces John's Gnostic feet with Jesus' Messianic head.

Mary of Bethany

Mark is left with one more task to completely cleanse the Johannine anointing tradition from all its Gnostic stains. John 11:2 indicates that the person of "Mary of Bethany" was deliberately linked to the Johannine tradition of anointing Jesus' feet.34 Andrea Link writes,

"Die Füße des Meisters zu waschen, war ein Akt der Verehrung durch den Schüler. Maria handelt so an Jesus wie eine wahre Schülerin des Messias. Sie wäscht nicht nur seine Füße, sondern salbt sie ..." 35

Thus, retaining her name would not have allowed the evangelist to erase all reminiscence of the anointing to the Gnostic underpinnings of John 12:1-8 and its reference to John 13:1-20. For Mark, Mary of Bethany must become a woman without name.


The above textual comparison of Mark 14:3-9 with John 12:1-8 has shown that Mark's text can be satisfactorily explained in line with Peter Hofrichter's hypothesis that the Gospel of Mark is an antithetical response to a pre-redactional stage of the Fourth Gospel. In addition, it adds sufficient evidence to the hypothesis that perhaps John 12:1-8 is indeed prior to its Marcan parallel. 


1 Barbara Shellard, The Relationship of Luke and John, JTS 46 (1995): 85-87.

2 A similar observation is made by Josef Ernst, Das Evangelium des Lukas (RNT), Regensburg 51977, 254f.

3 The shift from oikos (v. 36) zu oika (v. 37) might reveal the difference between redaction and tradition. Cf. François Bovon, Das Evangelium nach Lukas (EKK III/1), Benziger, 1996, 390-3.

4 "Mk, Mt und John deuten das Ereignis als Vorwegnahme der Salbung Jesu zum Begräbnis. John und Mark zeigen dabei einen immer wieder identischen Wortbestand, Das Salböl ist "unverfälscht" (oder, von der Pistazie) gr., pistikos, kostbar; war 300 Denare oder mehr als 300 Denare wert; Jesus sagt bei der Verteidigung der Frau, "Laß(t) sie"; sie tat es für das "Begräbnis" (gr., entafismos) Jesus. - Mark und John deuten daher den Vorfall im Sinne eines persönlichen Prodigiums. Das Zeichen der Frau deckt die noch verborgene Zukunft auf, hat aber selbst Anteil an ihrer Verborgenheit und muß daher von Jesus gedeutet werden. Für Mark und John ist daher mit einer eng verwandten gemeinsamen Vorstufe zu rechnen." Klaus Berger, Theologiegeschichte des Urchristentums, Tübingen/Basel 21995, 659. 

5 This idea is taken from Peter Hofrichter, arguing that Mark was prompted to write his Gospel as antithesis to a more and more Gnostic interpretation of a pre-redactional Fourth Gospel, called the Hellenistenbuch. "Spitzen der markinischen Antithese zum Hellenistenbuch könnten gewesen sein, 1. die Ablehnung einer Gleichsetzung Jesu mit dem wiedergekommenen Elias, weil Markus einerseits jede Präexistenz Jesu ausspart und andererseits die Wiederkunft Jesu selbst erwartet; 2. die Rückführung des Messiasglaubens auf Petrus; 3. die apokalyptische Deutung des Menschensohn-Titels nach dem Buch Daniel und die Erwartung des Weltendes und der Wiederkehr Jesu zum Endgericht; 4. die Trennung der Tischgemeinschaften von Juden und Heidenchristen; 5. die Autorität der "Säulen" der palästinensichen Kirche Petrus, Jakobus und Johannes anstatt der Hellenisten Andreas und Philippus und die Verankerung im engsten Freundeskreis Jesu; 6. die Einführung des judenchristlichen Zwölferkreises und 7. die Zurückführung der Eucharistie auf ein Abschiedmahl nach dem Vorbild des Paulus." Peter Hofrichter, Modell und Vorlage der Synoptiker, Hildesheim 1997, 30. 

6 J. F. Coakley, The Anointing at Bethany and the Priority of John, JBL 107 (1987) : 248ff. Cf. Shellard, Luke/John, 85. 

7 Hofrichter, Vorlage der Synoptiker, 27. 

8 Ibid., 28.

9 Ibid., 53.

10 Josef Hainz about G. Richter, "Die [Johanneische] 'Redaktion' stand vor der Aufgabe die Schriften des 'Evangelisten' mit Zusätzen und Klarstellungen versehen zu müssen, um sie so den wirklichen Ketzern zu entreißen...Kennzeichnend...sind daher zwei Tendenzen...antidoketische Aussagen über Jesu wahres Menschsein und seine wirkliche Leiblichkeit...[z.B.] - des Gekommensein im Fleisch [und] ekklesiologische Ausagen zum Erweis der Orthodoxie, -[z.B.] - die Einarbeitung der gesamtkirchlichen Sakramentsauffassungen (Taufe und Eucharistie) sowie gesamtkirchlicher Theologumina (Gnade und Fülle)." Josef Hainz, Neuere Auffassungen zur Redaktionsgeschchte des Johannesevangeliums, in: ders., Theologie im Werden. Studien zu den theologischen Konzeptionen im Neuen Testament, Paderborn 1992, 175.

11 Peter Hofrichter argues that in its original form, i.e. among others the Christological reading of John 1,13, the prologue of the Johannine Gospel presents the origin of Christian Gnosticism. Cf. Peter Hofrichter, Im Anfang war der Johannesprolog (BU 17), Regensburg 1986. 

12 "Der Hinweis in 1 John 2:27 (vgl. 2,20) auf die Geistsalbung, die es unnötig macht, "daß euch einer belehrt", wendet sich gegen die Lehre der Gegenseite, falsche Propheten, die die Gemeinde zerstören." Martin Hengel, Die Johanneische Frage. Ein Lösungsversuch, Tübingen 1993, 112.

13 Wolfgang Bauer, 1., 2. und 3. Johannesbrief (SKK NT 17), Stuttgart 1991, 60; Werner Vogler, Die Briefe des Johannes (THNT 17), Leipzig 1993, 95f.

14 Whereas for those scholars who argue for a dependency of John on the Synoptics, it is likely that the repetition of tous pódas serves John's redaction of Mark's account, it is equal possible to see the repetition as Johannine redaction to a Gnostic motif by forging it into a gesture of humility and gratefulness. Cf. Ernst Haenchen, Johannesevangelium. Ein Kommentar, Tübingen 1980, 433. Also Shellard, Luke/John, 85.

15 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (TAB) Garden City 1966, 564.

16 Felix Porsch, Johannesevangelium (SKKNT 4) Stuttgart, 1989, 128.

17 "Die erste Deutung (VV. 6-10) betrifft die (durch Jesu Tod gestiftete) Gemeinschaft der Jünger mit Jesus. Sie versteht die Fußwaschung als ein Zeichen der Selbsthingabe Jesu in seinem Tod und will die Heilsbedeutung dieses Todes herausstellen." Porsch, Johannes, 141.

18 Siegfried Schulz, Das Evangelium nach Johannes (NTD 4), Göttingen 51987, 172f. 

19 "This passage [13,14-15] is related to the 'new commandment' of love stated in 13:34 and made the norm of love for the disciples by the whole of Jesus' life and even more by his death (see 15:12; 1 John 2:6; 3:3, 7; 4:17b)." Rudolf Schnackenburg, The Gospel according to John, New York 1982, 24.

20 Porsch, Johannes, 142; Schulz, Johannes, 170. 

21 Hengel, Johanneische Frage, 185.

22 The use of the verb "to bath" for the footwashing is the principal evidence for a (secondary) [as seen later this paper disagrees with this point] baptismal interpretation of the footwashing. The verb "to bath" louein, and its cognates are standard New Testament vocabulary for Baptism. Cf. Brown, John, 566. 

23 The motif u[dwr in John 13:5 might indicate that Gnostic baptism was understood in "water and Spirit" (cf. John 3:5).

24 Brown, John, 567. Cf. especially John Christopher Thomas, Footwashing in John and the Johannine Community (JSNTSup 61) Sheffield 1991, 149ff.

25 Hengel, Johanneische Frage, 185. 

26 "Jesus handelt als der, der da 'weiß', als der vollkommene 'Gnostiker', dessen Tun und erleiden nicht in dem Wirkungszusammenhang des weltlichen Geschehens Ursprung und Ziel hat, sondern in dem Gott wirkt, mit dem als dem "Vater" er in Einheit steht." Rudolf Bultmann, Das Evangelium des Johannes (KKNT II Abt.), Göttingen 161959, 354. 

27 Hofrichter, Im Anfang, 107f.

28 This view could give a new suggestion to Klaus Berger stating, that "die Gründe für die Feindschaft [between the Pharisees and the Johannine Group] werden aus dem JohEv nicht klar erkennbar." Klaus Berger, Im Anfang war Johannes, Stuttgart 1997, 77. The strong reaction of the Fourth Gospel to the Jews is rooted in their identification as the origin of a "false belief" in Jesus (cf. John 3:2; also Nicodemus comes in the night to Jesus.) In fact, the Christian Pharisees and the Johannine antagonists could have been the same group.

29 Ibid., 99. 

30 Wes Howard-Brook explains, "For those of us who have taken the risk at one time or another to experiment in community with others, how might we feels to be reliably informed of the presence of a betrayer in our midst? . . .Would betrayal likely bear as serious consequences for us as it did for Jesus and for the Johannine community? We find in 1 John that the community's experience did indeed parallel that of the first disciples (1 John 2:1,8-19). Brown has argued that this internal betrayal eventually resulted in the destruction of the Johannine community in a terrible fit of accusation and hatred." Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God. John's Gospel and Radical Discipleship, Maryknoll 1994, 303.

31 In the context of the Nicodemus controversy it is commonly agreed upon that within Johannine dualism, night symbolizes the realm of evil, untruth, and ignorance (cf. John 9:4, 11:19). This indicates that Nicodemus deliberately is placed after the sign of Cana as to identify him as one of those to whom "Jesus did not trust himself" (John 2:24). This view is supported as later in the Gospel the motif of night becomes the center of an aphorism about erroneous faith; "But if any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him (John 11:10)." Nicodemus' coming in the night is the clearest form of being in the darkness (John 8:12; 1 John 1:5; 2:8. 9:11). The Pharisee is described as the opposite of being enlightened by Jesus who is "the true light that enlightens every man . . ." (John 1:9). Moreover, the relationship of John 1,4 "In him was life, and the life was the light of men" to 1 John 1:2, ". . . the life was made manifest, and we saw it, and testify to it, and proclaim to you the eternal life which was with the Father and was made manifest to us . . ." indicates that being in the night is not knowing about the life of Christ in "water and blood" (1 John 1:7; 5:6-8). Thus, for the Johannine reader, Nicodemus' coming in the night clearly identifies him as member of the Gnostic opponents. The reality of the Gnostic threat is once more expressed through Jesus' words in John 12:35f. While the orthodox part of the community is identified as the "sons of light," (John 12:36) the darkness of the Gnostic schism is imminent, "Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtakes you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes" (John 12:35). 

32 "Mit der sympathischen Einrede des Judas, das Salböl doch lieber zugunsten der Armen zu verkaufen, hat Markus trotz der Erklärung des Hellenistenbuches Probleme. Er streicht daher den Namen des Judas." Hofrichter, Vorlage der Synoptiker, 53.

33 Thomas, Footwashing, 147ff. 

34 Most probably a secondary redaction (Bultmann, Johannes, 304), the introduction of the sisters of Lazarus, could too have functioned as to de-christologize the coming footwashing scene. 

35 Andrea Link, Die Frauen des vierten Evangeliums, in Theologie im Werden, hg. v. Josef Hainz, Paderborn 1992, 269. 

Dr. Markus Locker studied theology at the University of Vienna, Maryhill School of Theology and Loyola School of Theology, and is an Assistant Prof. for New Testament at Loyola School of Theology, Quezon City, Philippines.