What exactly was the perfume used to anoint Jesus?

In most of the gospels we read the story of Mary breaking open an alabaster jar and anointing Jesus with costly oil called “nard” just before his burial (John 12:3-5). We know why she did it as she was aware, through the Holy Spirit, that Jesus was about to go to his death. But what exactly was the oil she used, and why did she use it? 

The word “nard” is short for spikenard. Spikenard oil comes from the root of an Indian plant, of the same family as Valeria, which we use today to help us relax. It only grows between 3-5,000 metres up in the Himalaya mountains. Because it smells amazing, the oil has been used as a perfume since ancient times and is still part of the Ayurvedic medical tradition. It was part of the flourishing trade connection between the Roman and Persian empires and India. It’s location, production and global demand meant it was very expensive. The equivalent to a year’s wages worth of oil, or about $50,000 in today’s terms, was poured over Jesus’ head (John 12:5).

 

It’s use goes back well into the Old Testament too. It was offered as a sacred perfume on the incense altar in the time when the tabernacle was relocated to the First Jerusalem Temple. It continued to be an important component of the Temple service in Jerusalem . It is mentioned twice in the Song of Solomon (1:12 and 4:13).

It was also a common flavouring in top end Roman kitchens and was used to season foods in Medieval European cuisine, especially as a part of the spice blend used to flavor a sweetened and spiced wine drink. From the 17th century, as prices dropped, it was one of the ingredients for a strong local beer.

So, Jesus was anointed with exceedingly expensive perfume from the Himalayas in India in a sacred tradition that goes back to the first temple in Jerusalem. It is quite possible that this beautiful smell pervaded every moment of his life from that point till his death and burial and was noted by those Jews who tried him, the Roman governor and the soldiers who crucified him, a sweet smelling sacrifice indeed!