A few days before Jesus’ death, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, “came with an alabaster case of perfumed oil, genuine nard, very expensive,” and poured the oil on Jesus. (Mark 14:3-5; Matthew 26:6, 7; John 12:3-5) Mark and John’s accounts say that this perfume was worth 300 denarii—about a year’s wages for an ordinary laborer.
What was the origin of this expensive perfume? The source of the nard, or spikenard, mentioned in the Bible is generally considered to be a small aromatic plant (Nardostachys jatamansi) found in the Himalaya Mountains. Costly nard was often adulterated and even counterfeited. However, both Mark and John use the expression “genuine nard.” The fact that this perfumed oil was so expensive suggests that its source may have been distant India.
Why does Mark’s account describe Mary as “breaking open the alabaster case”? An alabaster case was usually fashioned with a narrow neck that could be effectively sealed to prevent the escape of the precious scent. Alan Millard in his book Discoveries From the Time of Jesus says: “It is easy to see how the excited woman would break [the neck of the case] off, not stopping to unseal the top, releasing all the perfume at once.” This would explain why “the house became filled with the scent of the perfumed oil.” (John 12:3) A very expensive gift, indeed, but an appropriate one. Why? This appreciative woman had recently seen Jesus resurrect her beloved brother, Lazarus.—John 11:32-45.