Question: "What is an alabaster box?"
Answer: The Bible speaks of an alabaster box in two separate incidents involving women who brought ointment in the box to anoint Jesus. The Greek word translated “alabaster box” in the KJV, as well as “flask,” “jar” and “vial” in other translations, is alabastron, which can also mean “perfume vase.”
The fact that all four gospels include a similar but not identical account (with three of the passages mentioning an alabaster box of ointment) has given rise to a certain amount of confusion about these incidents. Matthew 26:6–13 and Mark 14:3–9 describe the same event, which occurred two days before Passover (Matthew 26:2 and Mark 14:1) and involved an unnamed woman who entered the home of Simon the leper. Both passages mention an alabaster box, and both say that the unnamed woman anointed Jesus’ head.
John 12:1–8 seems to speak of a different, yet similar event, which took place six days before Passover (John 12:1) in the home of Martha. Here, an alabaster box is not mentioned, but the name of the woman who anointed Jesus is: Mary, Martha’s sister. The incident in Matthew and Mark and the incident in John all took place in Bethany, but on different days. Also, Mary is said to have anointed Jesus’ feet, but no anointing of His head is mentioned. Jesus defends Mary’s action against the criticism of Judas, saying, “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7).
A third anointing of Jesus (the first, chronologically), described in Luke 7:36–50, took place in the house of Simon the Pharisee rather than the house of Simon the leper. This event occurred in Galilee, not Bethany, about a year before the crucifixion (Luke 7:1, 11). Luke mentions an alabaster box (verse 37). The woman on this occasion was forgiven of many sins, but her name is not given. Like Mary, the sinful woman anointed Jesus’ feet with the perfume. She comes to Jesus weeping and showing loving worship to the One who forgave her of her sins.
The similarities these three incidents share have caused some confusion, but the differences are significant enough to warrant viewing them as separate events. In two of the incidents, the gospel writers mention the presence of an alabaster box.
Alabaster was a stone commonly found in Israel. It was a hard stone resembling white marble and is referred to as one of the precious stones used in the decoration of Solomon’s temple (1 Chronicles 29:2). In the Song of Songs, the beloved man is described as having legs like “alabaster columns” (ESV) or “pillars of marble” (NIV, KJV). So the container the women used to carry their perfumed oil was made of a white, marble-like substance. Ointment, oils, and perfumes used to be put in vessels made of alabaster to keep them pure and unspoiled. The boxes were often sealed or made fast with wax to prevent the perfume from escaping. Alabaster was a beautiful substance and strong enough to keep the oil or perfume completely contained until the time of its use.