Mary and Martha by Mary Ann Beavis

Mary and Martha are not frequently mentioned in the New Testament, but their names are well known. The most famous story about them appears in Luke 10:38-42, but they also figure prominently in John 11:1-12:8 and in many postbiblical traditions. Although contemporary understandings of their significance to the early church have been eclipsed by the scholarly preoccupation with Mary Magdalene, they were highly revered by ancient Christians, and their role in the Gospels and beyond is starting to be recognized.

Who are Mary and Martha in the Bible?

Luke 10:38-42 portrays Jesus visiting the house of Martha (compare John 12:1, which has the meeting take place at the house of Lazarus, who is not mentioned in Luke’s story). Her sister, Mary, sits at Jesus’ feet listening to him. Martha, “distracted by her many tasks,” asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42).

When most people read this story, they often imagine a harried housewife complaining about her lazy sister. Jesus’ gentle rebuke reminds his audience to attend to what’s important—his presence. However, Martha is not shown doing housework, and Jesus doesn’t specify what the “one thing...the better part” is. Rather, Martha is a householder who hosts Jesus; she is engaged in much “work” or, better, “service” (Greek: diakonian). By contrast, Luke depicts Mary as a disciple sitting at Jesus’ feet. Both women are engaged in different aspects of ministry, or ways of following Jesus and his teachings. The story illustrates how householders should treat visiting teachers. Mary Stromer Hanson observes that it isn’t even clear that Mary is in the house with Martha and Jesus; possibly, Martha’s complaint is that Mary’s discipleship has taken her away from home.

John 11:1-12:8 also features the sisters. Here, they are located in Bethany, and the story revolves around Jesus’ raising of their brother, Lazarus, from the dead. We are told that Jesus loved all three siblings (John 11:5), the only people mentioned by name in the Gospel as being loved by Jesus. Both women figure significantly in the story: Martha confesses that Jesus is the Messiah (John 11:27), and Mary’s tears prompt Jesus to raise Lazarus (John 11:28-44). In gratitude, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume at a banquet where “Martha served” (John 12:2). Here, Judas criticizes her for wasting money, but Jesus commends her. All four Gospels contain stories of a woman who anoints Jesus; only John names her as Mary of Bethany.

Who are Mary and Martha in Christian Tradition?

The sisters appear in many postbiblical traditions. Early Christians often interpreted Luke 10:38-42 as depicting active (Martha) and contemplative (Mary) vocations. Some later texts and artifacts depict the sisters at the cross and resurrection. The first usage of the title “apostle to the apostles” (third century) refers to Martha and Mary, not to Mary Magdalene. This tradition endures in the Orthodox icon of the holy myrrh-bearing women, including Mary, Martha, and Mary Magdalene.

The gospels name only one Martha, but multiple Marys: Mary of Nazareth (Jesus’ mother), Mary of Bethany (Martha’s sister), and Mary Magdalene. Because of their similar names, early Christians sometimes confused Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany. Contemporary scholars have perpetuated the confusion by identifying the Mary mentioned in some ancient texts (such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Thomas) as Mary Magdalene. However, in these texts, Mary is often not called “Magdalene”; she appears with Martha, she poses at Jesus’ feet; she is criticized by a disciple; she is defended by Jesus or a disciple; and she is a beloved disciple, commended by Jesus. That is, the woman called simply “Mary” is portrayed more like Mary of Bethany than Mary Magdalene. These texts portray Mary in many roles, from the woman who receives special revelations to miracle-working missionary and Eucharistic minister (see Beavis 2013).

Because the gospels mention so many women named Mary—and it’s hard to know which one is which—later Christians tended to conflate or compress them all into a single figure. Eastern Christians resisted this conflation, traditionally regarding the two Marys as distinct saints. In the West, however, Pope Gregory the Great pronounced, in the sixth century, that the “sinner” Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50) was Mary Magdalene rather than Mary of Bethany. A popular medieval French legend spread this idea, portraying Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus as missionaries to southern France, where Mary preached and performed miracles and Martha saved the village of Tarascon from a dragon, taming it with a cross and holy water. Many Christians—especially in France—continue to believe that Mary and Martha are buried in France, far from their native Bethany.

Mary Ann Beavis, "Mary and Martha", n.p. [cited 23 Apr 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/mary-and-martha

Contributors

Mary Ann Beavis

Mary Ann Beavis
Professor, University of Saskatchewan

Mary Ann Beavis is professor of religion and culture at St. Thomas More College, the University of Saskatchewan. She is the author of many articles and several books, most recently a commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Baker, 2012).

In the Gospels, the sisters Mary and Martha are mentioned only in Luke and John, but they figure prominently in many early and medieval Christian traditions.

Did you know…?

  • Mary and Martha are identified as “loved” by Jesus in John 11:5.
  • Luke doesn’t say that Martha was doing housework.
  • In the Western church, Mary of Bethany was confused with Mary Magdalene.
  • Mary and Martha are the original “apostles to the apostles.”
  • Mary of Bethany is the woman who anointed Jesus.
  • In early Christian writings and artifacts, Mary and Martha are portrayed at the cross and at the empty tomb.
  • Martha was portrayed as a dragon-tamer in medieval legend.
  • Mary and Martha are among the holy myrrh-bearing women in the Orthodox Church.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Of or related to history after the writing of the canonical Bible; can also mean transcending a culture that focuses on the Bible.

Luke 10:38-42

Jesus Visits Martha and Mary
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.39She had a si ... View more

John 11:1-12:8

The Death of Lazarus
1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perf ... View more

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Service or a religious vocation to help others.

An alternate spelling for "tel" meaning a mound or hill-shaped site containing several occupational layers one on top of the other over milennia.

Luke 10:38-42

Jesus Visits Martha and Mary
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.39She had a si ... View more

John 12:1

Mary Anoints Jesus
1Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.

Luke 10:41-42

41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;42there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, ... View more

John 11:1-12:8

The Death of Lazarus
1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perf ... View more

John 11:5

5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,

John 11:27

27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

John 11:28-44

Jesus Weeps
28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”29And when ... View more

John 12:2

2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.

An apocryphal gospel made up of sayings attributed to Jesus Christ and considered to be Gnostic in viewpoint.

Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.

One who embarks on a mission of good (usually religiously motivated) works, often to a distant locale.

A resin or oil from certain small trees found in many regions of the world that is used as a perfume or incense and also medicinally.

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

Luke 10:38-42

Jesus Visits Martha and Mary
38Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.39She had a si ... View more

Luke 7:36-50

A Sinful Woman Forgiven
36One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table.37And a woman ... View more

The third division of the Jewish canon, also called by the Hebrew name Ketuvim. The other two divisions are the Torah (Pentateuch) and Nevi'im (Prophets); together the three divisions create the acronym Tanakh, the Jewish term for the Hebrew Bible.

John 11:5

5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,

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