“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).
Mary and Martha of Bethany are well-known Bible figures. The two sisters seem to have had different temperaments, and their characters are often polarized in the retelling of their story. These polarised characterisations are caricatures which obscure the real picture of the women, their faith, and their situation. This article looks at some of the information we have on Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. This information gives us a more accurate picture of these friends of Jesus.
Mary and Martha’s Marital Status
Mary and Martha are mentioned in each of the four gospels in various narratives. There is no mention of fathers or husbands in any of these accounts. It was highly unusual for women to be unmarried in biblical times, so it is possible that the sister were young orphaned women who had not yet married, or older widows who had not remarried. Another real possibility is that Mary and Martha belonged to an ascetic Jewish sect and had chosen singleness and celibacy.
It is believed that a colony of ascetics (perhaps Essenes) lived in Bethany. Literary evidence from one the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that these ascetics had a hospice in Bethany for the ritually unclean, which included lepers (11QTemple 46:16-47:5). The ascetics were known for their acts of charity and it is likely that their hospice also helped and accommodated the poor and destitute. Jesus may have been in this hospice when he announced, “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8).
Mary and Martha’s Age
Jewish women were usually married by sixteen years of age. (It was not uncommon for Jewish girls to be legally betrothed before their twelfth birthday and married by their fourteenth.) Because we do not know about any husbands or children, it is difficult to estimate the ages of Mary and Martha and their brother.
Martha is often, but not always, mentioned first among her siblings, so she was probably the oldest (e.g. John 11:5). In comparison with his sisters, Lazarus plays a more passive role in the gospel narratives, so he may have been considerably younger. His young age would have made his death even more lamentable.
Mary and Martha’s Wealth
If we assume that the narratives about Mary and Martha were not set in a hospice run by an ascetic community, then they appear to have been wealthy women with a home large enough to accommodate Jesus and his entourage. Moreover, Mary had in her possession very expensive perfume which was worth a year’s wages (John 12:3-8). Or had the perfume been a donation from a wealthy benefactor for the work of the poor? Did Mary use perfume to anoint Jesus that was meant to be sold to help the poor? (See Matt. 26:8-9, 11; Mark 14:4-5, 7; John 12:4-5, 8.)
Martha seems to have been regarded as the mistress of the home (Luke 10:38). The name “Martha” is the feminine form of an Aramaic word meaning “lord” or “master”, so “Martha” may be a title rather than a name (not unlike the Greek title, or term of respect, “Kuria” used in 2 John 1:1, 5).
Several wealthy women in the New Testament appear to have been the mistresses of their own homes with no mention of a husband or father: Lydia, Nympha, Chloe, John Mark’s mother, the chosen lady. Other New Testament women are mentioned as being of independent means. Jesus’ ministry was sponsored by Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many other women who accompanied Jesus and ministered to him out of their own, personal resources (Luke 8:2-3). It was uncommon, but not rare, for a woman to be independently wealthy, or a homeowner, in New Testament times.
Mary and Martha’s Temperament and Faith
From the short biblical accounts of the sisters, it seems that Martha was the more practical of the two (Luke 10:40; John 11:39; 12:2) and Mary the more emotional (John 11:32-33; 12:3). Mary also seems to have been the more popular (John 11:45). She still seems to be the more popular in the church today.
Martha has been unfairly maligned by some because of just one incident (Luke 10:38-42); however she made some very astute statements of faith concerning Jesus and eternal life recorded in John chapter 11:
Martha answered, “I know he [her deceased brother Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” John 11:24 (cf. Josephus, Wars, 2.8.11 (154))
“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” John 11:27
This second statement is very similar to Peter’s recorded in Matthew 16:15-17:
“But what about you?” he [Jesus] asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”
Jesus states that Peter could not have known that he was the Christ, the Son of God, unless God the Father had revealed it to him. Likewise, Martha’s faith statements may have come by divine inspiration.
Mary and Martha were both devoted disciples of Jesus. Sitting at someone’s feet was the usual posture of a disciple who was being taught, and in Luke 10:39 we see Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. Perhaps some of the other men and women who travelled with Jesus were also sitting with Mary while Martha was busy preparing a meal.
Being hospitable and serving a meal was an almost sacred duty in the culture of that time. Martha was doing a very good thing, the expected thing, but Mary had chosen the better option. Mary had chosen the one thing that was really necessary: to be with Jesus and learn from him (Luke 10:42). Jesus promises that Mary’s choice to be trained as one of his disciples will not be taken away from her.
Later Mary would choose to do another fine thing when she lovingly anointed Jesus with her expensive perfume in preparation for his death (Matt. 26:6-13; Mark 14: 3-9; John 12:1-8). Did Mary knowingly anoint Jesus as a prophetic act? (cf. John 12:7) Mary was criticised and misunderstood because of her extravagant act of ministry, but Jesus defended her actions and prophesied, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matt. 26:13; Mark 14:9).
Mary and Martha would continue to be devoted disciples of Jesus. We learn nothing, though, about Lazarus’s faith or his character, but he does become a bit of a celebrity after Jesus raised him from death (John 12:1-2, 9). He then became the target of the chief priests’ plot to assassinate him (John 12:10-11). If Ben Witherington’s suggestion is correct, however, that Lazarus is the “beloved disciple mentioned several times in John’s gospel, we know quite a bit more about him” (cf. John 11:3).
Jesus at Bethany
The name Bethany (beth anya) means “Poor House” or “House of Misery”. The village may have been named after the hospice for the sick and destitute. But Jesus did not experience poverty in Bethany; instead he experienced the warmth, love, and hospitality of dear friends.
Jesus spent a lot of time during the last weeks of his earthly ministry in Bethany. Jesus began his ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday from Bethany (Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29); and he stayed in Bethany the following week (Matt. 21:17; Mark 11:11-12). So it seems that Jesus may have spent the last few days before his crucifixion in Martha’s home. According to Luke’s gospel, after his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven from near Bethany (Luke 24:50-51).
Mary and Martha were both woman of great faith, spiritual acuity and devotion. The church needs both Marys and Marthas who will be exuberant, pragmatic, and insightful in their devotion to the Lord Jesus, and are always choosing the more necessary thing of spending time with Jesus, learning from him.
Map of Israel in Jesus’ time showing the proximity of Bethany to Jerusalem. Bethany was only two miles from Jerusalem which made it a perfect location for a hospice for pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem who became ritually unclean and were unable to participate in the Jewish festivals. © Visual Bible Alive.
 The following are the New Testament passages that mention Mary, Martha and/or Lazarus. Mary learning and Martha serving: Luke 10:38-42 here; Lazarus raised from the dead and Martha’s faith statements: John 11:1-45 here; Mary anointing Jesus: John 12:1-11 here; cf. Matthew 26:6-13 here; Mark 14:3-9 here. (I believe that the account in Luke 7:36-50 refers to a previous, unrelated anointing by an unknown woman.)
 The name “Essenes” has been given to the authors and scribes that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars, however, are now debating if there really was a sect called the Essenes and if they wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. Josephus provides a lot of information about the ascetic sect he refers to (perhaps incorrectly) as the Essenes in The Wars of the Jews, Book 2, chapter 8, 2-13 (119-160). Josephus admired these people and their merciful, harmonious, and devout way of living. The ascetic sect associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls began in around 100 BC and vanished after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. (John the Baptist was also an ascetic.)
 The house of Simon the Leper was in Bethany. Simon the Leper (schimon ha-zanua) may be a mistranslation of his real Hebrew name “Simon the Devout” (schimon ha-zarua). Lepers were isolated from society; they usually didn’t hold dinner parties (cf. Mat 26:6; Mark 14:3)! On the other hand, it seems that there were lepers in Bethany. Is it possible that a man with leprosy had guests for dinner? (See endnote 5.)
 Mary, Martha and Lazarus may not have been blood relations. Josephus writes that the Essenes chose other people’s children who were pliable and capable of learning and that they regarded these children as their own (Josephus, Wars 2.8.2 (120)).
 In Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels it is clear that the anointing occurred in Simon the Leper’s house (Mark 14:3; Matt 26:6). In John’s gospel, the anointing of Jesus by Mary seems to have occurred in Martha’s house. Or perhaps Martha had been helping out at Simon’s home (John 12:2, cf. Luke 10:38, 40). The connection between Simon and Martha, Mary, and Lazarus is unclear. Perhaps Simon was their deceased father and their house was stilled called the house of Simon the Leper, or the house of Simon the Devout. (See endnote 3.) Perhaps Simon was a wealthy man, afflicted with leprosy, who had bequeathed his home to the community in Bethany. It is probable that all the gospel references to a house in Bethany refer to the one communal home or establishment of ascetics, and that Martha was the main housekeeper (cf. Josephus, Wars 2.8.4 (125)). (We hear nothing about Simon the Leper/Devout in the New Testament, unless he is Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50. In this gospel passage there is an account of a previous anointing from an unnamed, unknown woman. I believe Simon the Leper/Devout and Simon the Pharisee are two different Simons.)
 NT Wright comments on the serious social ramifications of Mary’s act of sitting at Jesus’ feet here.
 Jenny Rae Armstrong has written a beautiful and powerful short piece on Mary’s anointing of Jesus here.
 Ben Witherington writes about the possibility of Lazarus being the “beloved disciple” in his book What have they done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the Bible. The transcript of his lecture entitled The Historical Figure of the Beloved Disciple in the 4th Gospel can be read here.
 Others believe that Bethany may mean “House of dates” or “House of figs”. Bethany was a natural oasis and known for its trees which produced olives, figs, almonds, and carobs.
Paths of the Messiah and Sites of the Early Church from Galilee to Jerusalem by Bargil Pixner (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010) 227-330, here.
Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 2, see chapter 8, paragraphs 2-13 here.
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