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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

Test Yourself: Who is Mary, sister of Martha?

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

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

Jesus honours Mary twice, once when he affirms her choice to learn as a disciple rather than do the household chores, and once when the disciples complain about her wasting money on expensive ointment and anointing Jesus in Bethany. In fact, she may be seen as a prophet, anointing Jesus as king the week before his death.

Unfortunately, this devout woman has been maligned and hidden by merging her with the unnamed sinful woman who anoints Jesus's feet in Galilee in Luke 7. In the novel, 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. In 1969, the Roman Catholic Church updated its calendar to honour Mary of Bethany separately from Mary Magdalene.

Below is a chart from my upcoming interactive study guide for Forgotten Followers, which compares 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. Use this chart to test yourself and your views of who Mary and Martha are, and what we can learn from them.

Each of these passages may be viewed either as lifting up women or limiting them. Martha may be lifted up and called the head of the house. Her sister is affirmed in acting as a disciple and prophet. On the other hand, the passages could be read in a way that limits women to submissive roles in the home and family: Martha is not criticized for putting a priority on her hostess and cooking duties, but for being worried about many things. Mary is not a prophet anointing Jesus with oil to be a king, but washing him in the role of a good hostess.

Below is an excerpt from my 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.

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). Tradition tells us that the siblings Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, escaped on a boat and ended up near Marseille, France. After many years of hiding this faithful woman by merging her with Mary Magdalene, the church has acknowledged that Martha's sister (Miriam) is not the same woman as Mary Magdalene. Tradition tells us Martha's sister preached the message of love to the population and in her final years lived in prayer and meditation in a cave in the mountains of LA Saint Baume. Let us not forget Miriam, Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha, disciple, and prophet.

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