Translating Alabastron in Mark 14:3: an Archaeological Solution to a Philological Problem?

 

End of Mark’s Gospel, Codex Vaticanus, Early 4th c., mostly ch. 16

By Patrick Hunt –

“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.” Mark 14:3 (NIV)

Many questions arise from this familiar text even in comparison with the other synoptic gospel texts of the same story. Although not often asked, one of the most enigmatic is why the vessel was broken? Alabaster as the stone medium here may raise more questions than answers even though this is the traditional translation of alabastron (“alabaster jar” in the NIV above). Some of the questions include the following: Which was more valuable, the alabaster vessel or the perfume? If the vessel was sealed to preserve the nard, why would it have to be broken to access the perfume? Was this a waste of a good alabaster vessel regardless of the valuable perfume inside? Perhaps most important, what if the vessel wasn’t actually alabaster stone but the common name – alabastron – for it remained from its earlier alabaster form?

Translations of the Greek New Testament attempt to provide the best possible illumination of words in their most accurate semantic and syntactic forms. Philology of Koine Greek can often, however, be a morass of possibilities and nuances with both elusive etymology and statistical representation.

Thus this set of problematic synoptic texts deserves attention. The familiar gospel story (Mark 14:3; also Luke 7:37-8, Matthew 26:7 as well as John 12:3) is also voluminously depicted in art [1]: a woman breaks a vessel of perfume (ἀλάβαστρον ) and washes Jesus’s head with the expensive perfume. Caravaggio is one of the very few artists who renders a translucent glass vessel rather than alabaster stone, not the least to showcase his virtuosity in showing light through liquid. Nearly all translations render the word ἀλάβαστρον for the vessel as being of alabaster. But how likely is this? A little archaeological and philological history might offer better possibilities.

As suggested, what if the value of this offering  is not so much in the precious stone alabaster but the actual perfume (νάρδος, nardos in Greek), “pure nard” from the exotic spikenard plant Nardostachys jatamansi ssp.) possibly imported all the way from Himalayan India and which many perfumes aimed to imitate (see note [2] below)? This emphasis is implied in expanded versions of the story in Matthew 26:12-13, where Jesus says the expensive value is appropriate because it was done as a memorial: “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” Jesus doesn’t at all note or lament the vessel breakage – never he does suggest that breaking an expensive vessel was memorable – but he emphatically justifies this  expensive ointment use as proleptic of his impending death. The extremely high value of the expensive nard is often estimated as around 300 drachmas, almost a year’s wage for a typical work at this time, hence the objection of some of those present in the following verses (Mark 14:4-5) who deemed it a waste.[2]

The text states that the woman had an “alabastron of pure nard ointment” (ἀλάβαστρον μύρου νάρδου πιστικῆς) where pistikes is “pure”.[3]  The value of spikenard was enormous, consumed by the wealthy but appreciated by poets: in the late first c BCE the Roman poet Horace promised his famous poet friend Virgil, author of the Aeneid, a whole cadus (~36 quarts) of wine in exchange for a small onyx box of spikenard in his poem Carmen 4. xii. lines 16-17.

Let’s examine the word alabastron (ἀλάβαστρον), normally translated “phial, bottle or vessel”,  from both philological and archaeological perspectives. Here in Mark 14:3 it is a direct object, hence the ending in ν (“n”) but it would have the same ending if either nominative or accusative when neuter, but when it is masculine (alabastros in nominative, subject case), it would only end in ν (“n”) if it were in the accusative case as direct object.

Alabaster stone alabastron, Cypriot, 5th-4th c, BCE, Metropolitan Museum, New York, Cesnola Collection, Acc. # 74.51.5093

Archaeologically, an alabastron is a very common name for a perfume vessel regardless of its medium (normally stone, ceramic, glass) especially from Classical, Ptolemaic and Hellenistic cultures. [4] Faience is another, less common medium for an alabastron.[5] There are too many ceramic alabastra to count, most often in red or black figure style, but even in white-slipped ceramic that resembles alabaster, possibly intentionally. Glass alabastra are certainly common in Italy Greece and the Levant in the Hellenistic period (late 4th to 1st c BCE). Based on extant museum examples, the distribution likelihood of the preferred medium for alabastra suggest that the higher quantities were ceramic and glass, not alabaster, in the Roman period.

White-Ground Ceramic “Paisadic” Attic painted alabastron, ca 520-500 BCE, British Museum (#1887,0801.61)

Most lexical discussions of the noun alabastron note that it originated as likely alabaster stone (banded calcite), especially from the initial point of contact with Egypt where alabaster was common as an unguent vessel, not only from the Bronze Age onwards but especially around the Corinthian trading colony of Naukratis in Egypt 7th c. BCE onward on the Canopic Nile, as the Greek historian traveler Herodotus relates in his History 2.178-9, as the original alabastra vessels – mostly cylindrical in shape – were made of alabaster. Note several Naukratis alabaster stone alabastra in Penn Museum, Ashmolean Museum and Boston Museum of Fine Art, from 7th c. BCE to 4th c. [6a-b-c] or from Late Dynastic XXVI/XXVII to Ptolemaic Periods. The production of Egyptian alabaster stone alabaster at Naukratis continues into the Roman Era: “alabaster vessels…still produced in the Roman Period” [7]. Even Pliny observes that unguents “keep best in alabaster”, but this is somewhat ambiguous in translation, since he uses the word alabastris (dative for indirect object) instead of a form of alabastrites. [8-9]

Both ceramic and glass soon rival alabaster stone as media for perfume vessels in Egypt and elsewhere from the Hellenistic and Roman world. I’ve seen countless more extant ceramic and glass alabastra rather than the rarer and older alabaster (mostly from earlier Egypt as already noted). Below is an Egyptian-style glass alabastron from Magna Graecia (Southern Italy) of the 2nd-1st c. BCE in the Louvre Collection.

Glass perfume alabastron, 2nd-1st c. BCE, Louvre Museum,  Dept. of Greek, Roman, Etruscan Antiquities, 3.5 in h, Acc. # S2375, acquired from Italy,  Campana Collection, 1861

Opaque white glass – possibly imitating alabaster stone – could be achieved by adding alumina to the glass melt, as also seen below in a Christie’s 1st c. CE white glass alabastron.

Christie’s London July 6 2016 Catalog: “Roman Opaque white glass alabastron, circa 1st c. AD”

So many other glass alabastron examples from the Hellenistic and Roman periods can be found with even minimal effort in many museums, as seen below from the National Archaeology Museum of Florence or from the Corning Museum of Glass, which also has a glass alabastron from the 2nd to 1st c. Eastern Mediterranean (Acc. #66.1.229).

Museum of Tarquinia, Italy, Hellenistic glass alabastra, (P. Hunt photo, 2013)

Equally, the Archaeological Museum of  Tarquinia has Hellenistic glass alabastra in display, seen above as item 24 in the case vitrine, since the Hellenized Etruscans had either perfected the technology or imported the craft from the East via Phoenician traders or Greeks in Souther Italy influenced by Ptolemaic Egypt. Ennion was a 1st c. CE famous glassmaker from Sidon in the Roman province of Syria, where a large bulk of Roman glass was produced. [10]  Roman glassblowing emerged in the first half of the 1st c. CE in central Italy after Etrurian and Southern Italian ventures.[11]

Pretiosa Vitrea, Florence, 2018

Hellenistic Glass alabastron, ca. 2nd c. BCE, National Archeological Museum, Florence, from Exhibition of 2018 

Glass could be had very cheap by the Roman Era, as Strabo notes in Geography XVI.2 that a single copper coin could purchase a glass cup, although some artistic glass was also valuable. It is most likely, however, that the perfume was far more valuable than the vessel.

Now back to the definitions of alabastron. The Greek-English Lexicon (Liddell & Scott) states an alabastron may be made of alabaster but is not limited to this medium.[12] Strong’s Concordance also notes that the alabastron is not exclusively crafted from alabaster stone.[13] Thus, along with the Oxford  Classical Art Research Center-Beazley Archive definition [already stated in note 4 above], it was made in a “range of materials.”  So how did all the translations limit the meanings t only be alabaster stone?  One possibility is the prevalence of tradition. It may well be that when Jerome (late 4th c. CE) translated the Greek New Testament into the Latin Vulgate in a period of huge literacy decline, he rendered the Greek alabastron into the Latin alabastrum, making it more likely to be translated as alabaster stone in a tradition that has lasted for more than two and a half millennia.

Now the speculative part: was the New Testament vessel “broken” (συντρίψασα) because its completely sealed top was otherwise intended to preserve it so well that it had to be broken? In the 5th c. Augustine states the whole vessel was broken but Barnes suggests it was only the seal that was broken [14] perhaps to get around the problem of “breaking” a whole vessel, especially alabaster stone precious in its own right. But given the possibly long distance travel involved, a fused glass alabastron ampule wold far better preserve the perfume, especially for a one-off use.

Fusing glass is not hard, as Roman and Levant craftspersons had mastered adding stoppers as well as handles and decorative pieces. Silica normally melts at around 1400 ° C but is malleable at “glass transformation temperature” (GTT)  much lower around 580 ° C for soda-lime-silica.  Temperatures around 1000 ° C were easily achievable in metallurgy in antiquity (since the melting point of both gold and copper required melting the silicate rock ore) and in ancient glass manufacturing, salt, or lead were commonly added to further lowered the temperature significantly, with nature as a flux. But glass was soft and bondable in a much lower and wider temperature range as can be seen from the above GTT at around 580 ° C.  The longer the neck of a glass alabastron, the easier to twist, pinch or otherwise seal the vessel without affecting the nard inside, although some heat could even improve the unguent provided it wouldn’t volatilize or vaporize outside the vessel. Certainly sealing the glass with sufficient heat would best preserve the perfume. Clear glass would not be so efficient because light could break down (photolysis) the perfume even if the perfume was a compressed sap of nard embedded or floating in olive oil or other unguent, but if the perfume had nowhere to evacuate because the seal was permanent this would less a problem. Dried out nard would be much less valuable, so sealing it was vital, especially if transported over distance.

Again, back to the question of breaking the vessel, why would one have to “break” (συντρίψασα in the Koine Greek of Mark 14:3 and variants of it elsewhere) the perfume vessel if it were carved alabaster, which could never be completely sealed anyway as well as glass, which could be completely sealed by heat without destroying the nard inside, especially if in a long-necked glass alabastron? The logical options are that breaking the vessel was either extravagant or necessary. Another hermeneutic possibility must be considered: was the alabastron broken because it was a symbolic act, a one-off that meant the vessel would be profaned if used again? Plus was it also symbolic of Jesus being “broken” in sacrificial death? Certainly more questions arise, but it is no longer a given that the vessel described in the New Testament gospels had to be alabaster stone, which trammels the value of the precious spikenard itself.

Notes:

[1]  Patrick Hunt. “Irony and Realism in the Iconography of Caravaggio’s penitent Magdalene”, chapter 6,  in M. A. Erhardt and A. M. Morris, eds.,  Mary Magdalene, Iconographic Studies from the Middle Ages to the Baroque. Studies in Religion and the Arts, vol. 7.  Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2012, 161-86, esp. 175-77.

[2]  Pliny, Natural History XIII.2 also states that the viscous “unguent of cinnamon… has an enormous price…up to 300 denarii per pound” and many perfumes aim to “imitate Indian nard” (Nardostachys jatamansi ssp.).

[3]  There is some debate whether pistikes means pure but the majority consensus suggests this.

[4]  Oxford Classical Art Research Center- Beasley Archive, under “alabastron” : “a long-bodied vessel…long history in Corinth…Examples have been found in a range of materials, including alabaster. The Greek term for this stone – alabastron (probably of Egyptian origin – probably reveals the inspiration for the shape, and many [ceramic] examples are covered with white-ground, as it to imitate the stone. It seems primarily to have been a vessel for perfumed oil…” (https://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/tools/pottery/shapes/alabastron.htm)

[5] While faience appears to be a rare medium for perfume alabastra, some can be found from, for example, 7th c. BCE Etruscan Cerveteri (Tomb 111, Monte Abatone) as well as the Fusco Necropolis (Tomb 85) of Siracusa (Sicily) and Phoenician Motya (Sicily), another one claiming to be faience is at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles (#88.AI.135), among others; whether they were all manufactured in Rhodes or elsewhere may be arguable but they were known to be exported to the rest of the Mediterranean. See Federica Galiffa, “A new faϊance alabastron with figurative decoration from Cerveteri”, Abstracts of the Crafts of the European Iron Age Conference, Cambridge, September 2015, 25 (http://www.arch.cam.ac.uk/iron_age/craft).

[6a]  Penn Museum # AN1120293001001, E47, published by A. Villing et al., Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt. London: British Museum, 2013-15 (#EA 001). [6b] Ashmolean Museum, Oxford #AN1407611001001  (#AN1896-1908-E.3695), also published by A. Villing et al., Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt. London: British Museum, 2013-15 (#EA 004). [6c] Also note the Naukratis alabaster stone alabastron at the Boston Museum of Fine Art #AN1275621001001 (Accession no. # RES 88-40), again published by A. Villing et al., Naukratis: Greeks in Egypt. London: British Museum, 2013-15 (#EA 007).

[7]  B. G. Aston. Ancient Egyptian stone vessels: materials and forms. Heidelberger Orientverlag, Heidelberg, 1994; A. Masson, ‘Le quartier des prêtres du temple de Karnak: rapport préliminaire de la fouille de la maison VII, 2001-2003’, Cahiers de Karnak XII, 2007, 593-655, esp. 612, plate XXVIII no. 1-3. [British Museum curator comments: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/publications/online_research_catalogues/search_object_details.aspx].

[8]  Pliny Natural History XIII.3 :  unguenta optime servantur in alabastris : which is ambiguous because it is unclear whether alabastris are vessels made of alabaster or merely the vessel form known as alabastra.

[9]  alabastrites is clearly a Latin word for alabaster stone “stone composed of carbonate of lime…precious stone found in Egypt” Harpers Latin Dictionary (Andrews-Freund, revised Lewis and Short), 1907, 79.

[10]   Christopher Lightfoot et al. Ennion: Master of Roman Glass. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2015.

[11]   Rosemary Trentinella, “Roman Glass,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History, 2003.

[12]  H. G. Liddell and R. Scott, eds. “often” made of alabaster [but not limited to this medium] in earlier citations than in the New Testament, Greek-English Lexicon, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996 ed., 59.

[13]  James Strong. Exhaustive Concordance. Entry # 211 “alabastron”.

[14] Interestingly, in Augustine De consensu evangeliorum  (Harmony of the Gospels 278) LXXIX.155, Augustine states the whole vessel was broken. Albert Barnes, Notes on the Old and New Testaments, vol. 9. The Gospels, Baker Books, (originally 1870) 1983, 381 (Mark:14:3).

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