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Test Yourself: Who is Mary, sister of Martha?

Don't worry - I provide all the references so the test is easy.

Today we are talking about Mary of Bethany as the sister of Martha and Lazarus. I have previously shown there is no evidence that Mary Magdalene is the same person as Mary of Bethany or the sinful woman who washes Jesus's feet in Galilee in Luke 7. This merging of women has diminished and maligned woman disciples. I have also discussed whether Jesus criticizes or commends Martha of Bethany.

Jesus honours Mary of Bethany twice:

  • when he affirms her choice to learn as a disciple rather than do the household chores

  • when the disciples complain about her wasting money on expensive ointment and anointing Jesus in Bethany

In fact, she may be seen as a devout disciple, one of the first to believe what Jesus said when he predicted his death and rising. She saw Jesus conquer death when he made Lazarus rise from the dead. Mary took the role of a prophet in anointing Jesus as king the week before his death.

woman in head covering at beach
Photo: PNW Production

In my biblical fiction Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold, I use the name Miriam, a variation on Mary, to distinguish her from other Marys. Miriam is a separate person from Mary Magdalene and both of them are distinct from the woman in Luke 7 who is forgiven and commended for her faith. The Eastern Church has always recognized them as three distinct women. Some early Christians thought these three women were the same and Roman Catholic Pope Gregory confirmed this teaching in 591. Over a millennia later, in 1969, the Roman Catholic Church updated its calendar to honour Mary of Bethany separately from Mary Magdalene.

Below is a chart I created comparing the references to Martha, Miriam, and the women who anoint Jesus: Luke 10:38-42, John 11:1-45, John 12:1-8 Matthew 26:1-13, Mark 14:1-9.

Refer to this chart to test yourself and your views of who Mary and Martha are, and what we can learn from them.

chart of gospel references
Chart of references to women anointing Jesus (c)

Each of these passages may be viewed either as lifting up women or limiting them to submissive roles in the home and family.

Martha may be lifted up and called the head of the house or she may be put down for her excessive worrying, backward priorities, and making demands on her sister. Those who want the Bible to tell women to be busy in the kitchen say that Jesus does not criticize Martha for putting a priority on her hostess and cooking duties, but for being worried about many things.

Mary may be lifted up for acting as a disciple and putting a priority on learning God's ways. She may be lifted up as a prophet who heard Jesus's word and believed it. Alternatively, she may be put down as a woman who indulged in vanity and laziness. Those who do not want the Bible to portray women in leadership say that Mary had no idea of who Jesus was, did not hear or believe his predictions, but was simply washing him in the role of a good hostess.

Below is an excerpt from my upcoming Forgotten Followers Interactive Study Guide listing alternative ways of viewing the above biblical passages. Beside each phrase or viewpoint, check the column that says whether it limits women or lifts up women.

checklist activity
Interactive activity: does the Bible lift up or limit Mary and Martha?

I hope this exercise reveals just how much of our own viewpoint we bring to the reading of Scripture. When I am looking at the Bible, I try to look through the lens of Jesus: how he treated women, respected them, listened to them, taught them, equipped them, and empowered them. Jesus lifted up the lowly.

From the Bible, we know that religious leaders sought to kill Lazarus (John 12:9-11) because of his testimony that Jesus raised him from death. Tradition tells us that the siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, escaped on a boat and ended up near Marseille, France. Early records tell Martha preached, healed people, and fought off a dragon that was persecuting a community. Martha's sister Mary preached the message of love and in her final years lived in prayer and meditation in a cave in the mountains of Saint Baume. Mary's sarcophagus was hidden there in 710 after the Pope had declared Mary, sister of Martha, the same person as Mary Magdalene, so the sarcophagus is labelled Mary Magdalene.

After many years of hiding this faithful woman by merging her with Mary Magdalene, the church has acknowledged that Martha's sister Mary is not the same woman as Mary Magdalene. Let us not forget Mary of Bethany, a devoted disciple, and prophet.

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