Abarim Publications' online Biblical Greek Dictionary
The noun αλαβαστρον (alabastron) describes a flask or vase made of alabaster, which is a white semi-translucent material. This word occurs 4 times (in three verses) in the New Testament, see full concordance, but only in the scene in which Mary of Bethany (says John) brought such a vessel into the house of Simon the Pharisee and anointed Jesus' head (say Matthew and Mark) or feet (says Luke). The familiar term Christ is the Greek word χριστος (christos), meaning anointed, from the verb χριω (chrio), to anoint. This word's Hebrew equivalent is משיח (mashiah), Messiah, from the verb משח (mashah), to anoint.
This amazing story roars with meaning, in a dazzling array of layers. The vessel that contains the oil obviously reminds of the temple that sanctifies the gold and the altar that sanctifies the offering (Matthew 23:16-22). And note that the sweet smell of Mary's costly oil was considered its breath or spirit (the Hebrew word רוח, ruah and the Greek word πνευμα, pneuma mean spirit but also wind or fragrance).
It's not certain where our word may have formally arisen from, but its formation and adoption into Greek first and Latin later was surely helped along by some clear verbal forces. Several Roman scribes reported that alabaster came from mines in an Egyptian region known as Alabastron (this same naming convention also gave us parchment from Pergamum, copper from Cyprus, peaches from Persia and so on), which in turn reminded of the name Bastet, the cat-headed goddess of pregnancy and childbirth.
In the old world, cats were revered for their ability to keep the house clear from mice and such. As we explain in our article on the name Tigris, anything pointy points toward rules, legislation and law enforcement, whereas anything hidden — the word for mouse, namely μυς (mus), closely relates to μυστηριον (musterion), mystery — typically eludes the pointy grip of the legislative cat. Our modern scientific tradition is essentially an outgrowth of the ancient mystery traditions (cave-dwelling and flat-footed great apes are much closer related to burrowing and flat-footed mice and rabbits than toe-walking herds animals and their toe-walking predators), but the crucial difference is that YHWH gives clarity into the inescapable workings of the universe, the knowledge of which gives freedom (Leviticus 19:31, and see our article on Logos), whereas some mystics (mice) cherish obscurity because that makes them look smart, and some lawyers (cats) cherish human edicts because it makes them look powerful (1 Samuel 28:3).
Cats became prominent in the House of Man when humans became farmers, and grain was stored and mice became a problem. Agriculture also required the formal description of property rights (and land-ownership), and thus legislation, and thus centralization of government. Dogs were prominent long before cats. Dogs and humans entered into a symbioses that domesticated them both, and which allowed them to domesticate the herds and become shepherds. Sheep and dogs tend to be loyal to their human, and formal legislation is largely alien to a nomadic society. The genes of modern cats and dogs have been forged in the fire of human expectations for thousands of years, and the quintessential enmity between cats and dogs stems from the quintessential enmity between agrarian Cain (means spear, and is pointy) and shepherd Abel (means breath, and thus reminds of perfume).
To a creative Greek poet, our word αλαβαστρον (alabastron) may have reminded of the noun αλαβαρχης (alabarchos), which described an Alexandrian official responsible for Roman taxes levied in the port. This word is also of puzzling origin. Perhaps it has to do with αλαβα (alaba), meaning ink, but equally likely is an origin of this latter word in the term for Alexandrian port authority, who surely used copious amounts of costly ink (pun intended), not to write beautiful literature but rather ugly tax records, bills and receipts. This noun αλαβαρχης (alabarchos) is thought to be a modified form of αραβαρχης (arabarchos), meaning Chief Arab (together with the familiar αρχων, archon, first or chief), which in turn implies that the name Arab does not denote someone from Arabia but rather that Arabia was named after the Arab, whose name means Nomad — verb ערב ('arab) means to criss-cross — and obviously may describe a roaming merchant vessel.
Our further creative Greek poet may also have associated our noun αλαβαστρον (alabastron) with the familiar noun αστηρ (aster), meaning star, and this perhaps in combination with the aforementioned noun αλαβα (alaba), meaning ink. The pun of all this continues in the similarity with the word ערב ('oreb), meaning raven, the proverbial ink-black criss-crossing bird, who not only brought bread to Elijah at the well (1 Kings 17:4) but also the entire world's written wisdom to the library of Alexandria. (Jesus made his home in Nazareth, which may be derived from the verb זרע, zara', to scatter to sow seed, and translated as Diaspora).
A Hebrew speaker who came across our word αλαβαστρον (alabastron), however, would surely have been reminded of the grim noun בשת (boshet), meaning shame, hence names like Ish-bosheth and Mephibosheth, and perhaps the noun ακροβυστια (akrobustia), foreskin (in combination with ακρον, akron, pointy end). To a Hebrew, this word ακροβυστια (akrobustia), meaning foreskin or having a foreskin, translated as a "shameful extremity," and circumcision, as everybody knows, was a procedure that would befall the heart: "So circumcise your heart, and stiffen your neck no longer" (Deuteronomy 10:16, Romans 2:29).
To our Hebrew speaker, all this would have confirmed with great emphasis that God desired a society in which men don't parade around with stiff necks and hardened hearts, always looking for someone to dominate and subdue, but rather treat others the way they want to be treated, with generosity, hospitality and flaccid calmness.
The first element of our word αλαβαστρον (alabastron) would hence have reminded of the verb עלה ('ala), meaning to go up or ascend (hence also the Ali-part of the name Ali Baba, which likewise may have been chosen for its obvious proximity to our word "alabaster"). That means that to a Hebrew speaker, our noun αλαβαστρον (alabastron) would have seemed like a transliteration of a term that means Erected Shame, or (perhaps more relevant to our present context): Expensive Shame.
Note that much of the dramatic momentum of the story of Jesus derives from the historic friction between Mosaic Jews and Hellenized Jews. As we point out in our article on the name Hebrew, that same friction resulted in the "domestication" of the European languages by the Good Shepherd that is Hebrew and the Shepherd Dog that is Greek. All this strongly suggests that the story of Mary and her alabaster jar is not about some lady and her teacher, nor about the birth of some religion, but rather about the burial (and thus resurrection) of the Christ in the very linguistic soil of the world.
Also note that the Hebrew words for alabaster, namely שש (shesh) and שיש (shayish), are closely similar to שש (shesh), which denotes the number six, the noun שושן (shushan), meaning white lily, and thus the name Susa, of the Persian city to which Daniel was deported and where Esther became queen. Adjectives ישש (yashesh) or ישיש (yashish) mean venerably old or white-haired. Verbs שוש (sus) and שיש (sis) means to exult or rejoice, and the nouns ששון (sason) and משוש (masos) mean exultation, joy or gladness. This in turn reminds of the Greek verb χαιρω (chairo), to rejoice, and its noun χαρις (charis), collective joy or social felicity. Important to our present story: the latter word describes the vehicle through which salvation comes (Ephesians 2:8).
The noun λιβανος (libanos) means frankincense (Matthew 2:11 and Revelation 18:13 only) but comes with decidedly negative connotations. It's a transliteration of the Hebrew noun לבונה (lebonah), also meaning frankincense (Exodus 30:34, Leviticus 2:1), which derives from the verb לבן (laben), to be or become white (and white is the color of leprosy, pride or stupidity). Noun לבנה (lebanah) describes the moon, the proverbial light-thieving not-sun and least fixed and thus least dependable body in the night sky. Noun לבנה (lebenah) means brick, and the denominative verb לבן (laban) means to make bricks, which immediately reminds of Genesis 11:3 (the Babylonian tower builders) and Exodus 1:14 (the Israelites enslaved to serve Egypt's building program).
Ergo, our word λιβανος (libanos), frankincense, describes an undeniably pleasant smell that comes from mind-numbing labor: the kind that makes formidable towers that nevertheless fail to save and must ultimately collapse. This same verb לבן (laben), to be or become white, also yields the names Laban (of Jacob's tricky uncle, who was nevertheless the father of Israel's mothers) and Lebanon (of the country known for squandering its magnificent cedars for use in buildings, including Solomon's temple of YHWH). Our noun is used in Matthew 2:11 and Revelation 18:13 only, and represents what the Reformers would later refer to as "works": that which may yield pleasant results but isn't salvific. Unlike for instance salt (also white but without a nice smell), frankincense did not cure or preserve but merely smelled nice.
From this noun derive:
- The noun λιβανωτος (libanotos), which describes a vessel for keeping λιβανος (libanos): a frankincense censer (Revelation 8:3 and 8:5 only). Such a censer was common in Greek temples and this word is common in the classics.
- Together with the noun χαλκος (chalkos), meaning copper: the noun χαλκολιβανον (chalkolibanon), of entirely obscure meaning (copper-white? powdery brass? metal that looks pretty but is otherwise not salvific?). This mystery-word occurs in Revelation 1:15 and 2:18 only, consistently descriptive of the "feet" (ποδες, podes) of the Son of Man, and associated with fire and ovens. Here at Abarim Publications we would guess that our word χαλκολιβανον (chalkolibanon) figuratively refers a popular form of esotericism or mysticism, like the proverbial public secret. Our further guess is that it has to do with mass literacy, since literacy was once the prerogative of the priestly class but was given like Promethean fire to the masses upon the completion of the alphabet (see our articles on Logos, Hebrew and Beelzebub).
The noun αρωμα (aroma) describes anything smelling nicely (hence our English word aroma), whether spices, oil or perfume. It's not wholly clear where this word comes from but the -μα (-ma)-part is a very common nominal suffix that describes an instance of doing the verb, or else a thing that does the verb. The verb in question could then very well be αιρω (airo), to lift up and carry away, but evenly so αρω (aro), to join or fit (hence words like harmony and art).
Perhaps an even more satisfying association may be wrought with the Semitic root רום (rum) meaning to be high or to rise up. This is also the root from which the name Aram derives, and frankincense being colloquially known as the Lebanese (λιβανος, libanos; see above), aroma might have been thought of as the Aramean.
Note that the temple of YHWH was built as a joint venture between king Solomon of Judah and king Hiram of Tyre, who donated cedars from Lebanon (1 Kings 5:6). Rather likewise, the Hebrew Scriptures have been preserved in a font that most people recognize as typical Hebrew, but which is actually Aramaic. Hebrew has always remained the holy language of the Scriptures, but since their return from Babylon, the Jews spoke Aramaic in common conversation (which is also why the Talmud was written in Aramaic).
Our noun αρωμα (aroma) is used 4 times, always in plural; see full concordance.
The noun ναρδος (nardos) means nard, a.k.a. spikenard, and describes an aromatic oil that was extracted from plants by beating and crushing them (particularly their spikes).
It's not clear where our word comes from, but it obviously corresponds to the Hebrew term נרד (nerd), also meaning nard (which occurs in Song of Solomon 1:12 and 4:13-14 only). This Hebrew term may have been imported from some other language, but it may have stuck because it also closely resembles a term derived from either the verb ירד (yarad), to go down, or else the verb רדד (radad), to beat or spread into a protective covering. That would mean that to the Hebrews, and whether by design or by accident, our word נרד (nerd) would translate as "beaten" or "extraction".
Our noun ναρδος (nardos) occurs in Mark 14:3 and John 12:3 only, in the same context as the above, namely that of Mary anointing Jesus. In this same context, Matthew and Luke use the more common word μυρον (muron), costly ointment.
The noun σμυρνα (smurna) means myrrh, and occurs in the New Testament in Matthew 2:11 and John 19:39 only. It's formally unclear where this word comes from, but the Proto-Indo-European root "smer-", to smear or anoint, comes to mind (PIE "smerwa" means grease or butter). What also comes to mind is the curious propensity of the Greek language to create words from existing words by adding (or dropping) a leading sigma — in our article on the noun σειρα (seira), we offer a modest list of such curious Geminis.
That said, our noun σμυρνα (smurna) could easily be constructed from the Hebrew noun מור (mor), also meaning myrrh. In our article on the many Hebrew roots of the Greek language, we offer a slightly less modest list of Greek words that may actually be Hebrew, and in our article on the name Hebrew we offer a daring proposal on how these two language may relate — namely as Shepherd (Hebrew) and Sheepdog (Greek, whose Hebrew imports are like human commands in a dog's mind).
It's been often said that Mary and Nicodemus used myrrh to embalm Jesus, which is of course incorrect. The Jews certainly had burial customs, but embalming Egyptian-style was not one of them. The Jewish burial "custom" (which derived from the Torah, and was Law rather than folklore) prohibited touching a dead person (Numbers 19:11), so Jews wrapped their dead in linen (οθονιον, othonion) so as to prevent touch, whether deliberate by a desperate mother, or semi-accidental (compare the story of Uzzah). Mary and Nicodemus added myrrh because myrrh marked the consummation of marriage and thus the resurrection of the ovum as a living person (see our article on Stephen).
From our noun σμυρνα (smurna) derives:
- The verb σμυρνιζω (smurnizo), which is probably used to mean "spice up" but not necessarily with actual myrrh. This verb is exceedingly rare in the classics and occurs in the New Testament in Mark 15:23 only, in a description of what the crucified Jesus was given to drink (and which he refused): the liquid commonly referred to as οξος (oxos), vinegar-wine (basically stagnant water with just enough alcohol to kill all pathogens).
Actual myrrh is proverbially expensive and also not suited for consumption, so it's unlikely that our verb literally speaks of mixing with myrrh. Instead, the author may have inserted this verb to tie into the theme of consummation of marriage (which is what myrrh was used for in the Jewish world, as we note above). The ancient authors didn't use the same terms as we moderns do, but it's overly clear that the resurrection of Jesus was understood to be self-similar to a woman getting pregnant — when the expelled and very dead ovum in the Fallopian tube is met by the seed of the husband, and becomes a living zygote and returns to the physical economy of the woman (see our article on Stephen for more details).
The point that Mark appears to make is that one's own will is not a factor of one's resurrection, and while the seed of the Logos enters via one's organs of intake (ears, mouth) to be duly process by one's mental digestive systems, the "sperm" (σπερμα, sperma, means seed; human seed is carried within an alabaster-white liquid) of the Holy Spirit becomes effective only upon one's death and completely inundates the receiver, merges with him and changes his core constitution from a physical being to a social being (the ovum that dies is merely a single cell of the great many cells that make up the woman's body, but a resurrected zygote is a single-cellular human, as much as a human individual as the whole multi-cellular mother is).
Upon ovulation, the ovum dies, is expelled from the mother's vital body, and is well on its way to the realm of death and wastes. Like "a thief in the night" the Holy Spirit snatches the ovum off its natural trajectory to the netherworld and returns it to the light of day. All this obviously shares its many themes with the story of poor wood-cutter Ali Baba and the forty thieves (see Matthew 21:13, 28:13, 1 Thessalonians 5:2, John 11:38).