If I stopped to mark all the Biblical moments that give me pause, my Bible would double its weight in sticky notes. (Sticky notes are the mattress-mites of academic books.) However, I just got the shiny new facsimile copy of the 1560 Geneva Bible, which means I get to experience verses I’ve already read again, this time with the benefit of 16th century marginalia and its alienating typeface, both of which somehow make it easier to be an ahistorical twat. One of the privileges of the early modernist is that—on your least mature days—your work is interrupted by episodes of rolling around in weird English like a psoriatic pig in mud. Shakespeare notwithstanding, there are days when sixteenth-century English sounds like David Sedaris’s French in “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”
This is one of those days. On another day like it I’ll get down to business and actually make my Bible verses comic series, but in the meantime, draw your own mental picture from this little episode:
“And when Iesus was in Bethania, in the house of Simon the leper, There came to him a womá, which had a boxe of verie costelie ointemet, & powred it on his head, as he sate at the table.”
That’s Matthew 26:6-7.
For those of us willing to cast historical contingencies aside, there are already MAJOR ISSUES. Some random gal just gallops on in and pours a box of super-expensive ointment on Jesus’ head?
The first question to strike the discerning reader is how do you pour ointment?
The second is likely to be how did Jesus feel about a box of ointment (again–a BOX of OINTMENT–who knew it came in boxes? I just can’t imagine an unlikelier phrase, and imagine what getting it off would take in a pre-detergent age) being poured ONTO his head?
Did it get into his eyes?
His disciples were annoyed, though not, as you might expect, because they hated to see their leader BLINDED by OINTMENT in a career-ending mishap*:
“And when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, ‘What needed this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and been given to the poor.”
Now, were I to have an indignation at a woman who waltzed in an doused my friend in ointment, this is not the first indignation I would have. But I respect it: evidently the box of ointment was very costly, and the whole incident does seem very wasteful. Fair if slightly tangential point, disciples.
To which Jesus replies, “Why trouble ye the woman? For she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you, but me shall ye not have always.”
At this, even the Christianest of Christian readers’ eyes goggle. Screw the poor, they’ll always be around! Jesus says, like someone on the set of Entourage instead of, oh, Hope Incarnate For All Mankind. Crazy lady here had the sense to spoil me. TAKE NOTES, FELLAS.
But this is where the ahistorical twat within me reconciles, after an airport chase, with history. Because the marginalia in my shiny new 1560 Geneva Bible shows that sixteenth-century readers were going out of their minds at the cognitive dissonance here too. “This fact was extraordinary, neither was it left as an example to be followed,” they say, in what might be the most diplomatic way you can (as a Christian) say DON’T LISTEN TO CHRIST HERE HE’S VERY TIRED, AND ANYWAY, HE DOESN’T HAVE A HEAD FOR US TO DOUSE IN OINTMENT ANYMORE, SO: “Also Christ is not present with us bodily or to be honoured with any outward pomp.”
And that’s why I love what I do.
*I’m modernizing spelling for the rest of this