Mary of Bethany, a Model of Listening
Barbara E. Reid
In the New Testament distinguishing among women who share her name
The number of women in the New Testament who are named Mary creates a good deal of confusion over which is which. The mother of Jesus is the most prominent, appearing in Matthew 1-2; 12:46-47; 13:55; Mark 3:31-32; 6:3; Luke 1-2; 8:19-20; John 2:1-1; 19:25; Acts 1:14. Mary of Magdala features in all four gospels as a witness of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, and as the first to discover the empty tomb, see the risen Christ, and be commissioned to proclaim the good news (Matt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1, 9; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1-18). In the Gospel of Matthew, Mary the mother of James and Joseph also witnesses the death of Jesus (27:56), and she is presumably “the other Mary” at his burial (27:61) and at the tomb (28:1). In Mark, the companion of Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion, burial, and tomb is “Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses” (15:40, 47; 16:1); in Luke 24:10 she is “Mary the mother of James.” In John 19:25, Mary the wife of Clopas is standing near the cross. In Acts 12:12, Mary the mother of John Mark hosts the community of believers. Paul greets a co-worker named Mary in Romans 16:6. Finally, Mary of Bethany appears in the Gospels of Luke (10:38-42) and John (11:1-12:8). The many Marys and the similarities of their stories and those of other unnamed women in the gospels have made it difficult not to confuse them. To complicate matters, in 591 Pope Gregory the Great preached a homily in which he declared that Mary Magdalene, the unnamed woman who was a forgiven sinner in Luke 7:36-50, and Mary of Bethany were all the same person. In what follows, we will focus on the three scenes that feature Mary of Bethany, first in the Gospel of Luke, then in John.
In the Gospel of Luke, the episode with Mary and her sister Martha (10:38-42) occurs while Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem. The exact locale or name of their village is not given (cf. John 11:1; 12:1). The story begins: “a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home” (10:38). Then Mary is introduced as her sister, “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (10:39). Both women are open and welcoming to Jesus and his word.
A tension appears in v. 40: “Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’” Jesus responds, “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” (10:41-42). What is not readily apparent in this (NRSV) and other translations is the exact nature of the problem. The phrase periespato peri pollēn diakonian has been understood variously: Martha is “worried and distracted about many things” (NRSV); “burdened with much serving” (NAB), “busy with all the details of hospitality” (NAB 1970 edition), “distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (NIV). Most of these renderings miss that the noun diakonia and the verb diakonein can refer to serving a meal; most often they connote ministerial service in Luke and Acts (Luke 8:3; 22:25-27; Acts 1:17; 6:2, 4; 11:29; 12:25; 19:22; 20:24; 21:19). It is more likely that the vignette reflects conflicts in the early Church over women’s roles in ministry rather than a historical episode in the life of Jesus. Martha voices the concern of women who are involved in “much ministry” who want to persuade others, represented by Mary, to move beyond endorsing women’s hearing of the word to advocating for their putting it into action publicly. Luke attempts to resolve the dispute by putting on Jesus’ lips an affirmation of Mary’s choice over Martha’s. The Third Evangelist shares a perspective similar to that of the authors of the deutero-Pauline letters who placed restrictions on ministering women (e.g., 1 Tim 2:11-12; Titus 2:3-4).
Traditionally, Christians have seen Mary as the contemplative sister and Martha as the active one, and they interpret Luke 10:38-42 as affirming the importance of prayer before undertaking active ministry. Many Christians identify with Martha, finding themselves pulled into relentless activity by many demands even as they long for time for contemplation. While it is true that it is always challenging to balance contemplation and action in the Christian life, this is not the message of Luke 10:38-42. Throughout the Gospel, Luke stresses that discipleship consists in both hearing and doing the word (6:47; 8:15, 21; 11:28). There is something amiss here where Jesus exalts one over the other.
Early copyists of the Gospel struggled to rectify the situation. While the oldest manuscript of the Gospel, P75 renders v. 42 as “There is need of only one thing,” other manuscripts replace “one thing” (henos) with “a few things” (oligōn). Some manuscripts combine the two, which results in nonsense: “but of a few things there is need, or of one” (oligōn de estin chreiaēhenos). Finally, some copyists omitted the whole phrase, probably due to its incomprehensibility.
Some scholars have interpreted Jesus’ approbation of Mary’s sitting at his feet and listening (see Luke 8:35; Acts 22:3) as his approval of women pursuing theological education. Some even go so far as to say that Jesus is revolutionary or unique in encouraging women’s learning. This interpretation, however, cannot be sustained. In Hellenistic times formal education of women began to be more acceptable, as a number of Roman writers, such as Martial, Musonius Rufus, and Pliny the Younger, affirmed. That some Jewish women were educated in Torah is evident from epigraphical evidence for Jewish women leaders of synagogues. The real issue is not about women being disciples or pursuing theological education; the controversy swirls around what they do with their education.
While Luke creates a triangle in which Mary and Martha are pitted against one another with Jesus declaring “Mary has chosen the better part,” the portrayal of the two sisters in the Fourth Gospel is quite different. Both appear in the climactic scene of the raising of their brother Lazarus (11:1-57) and in the subsequent chapter at a dinner in Bethany (12:1-8). Both of these are critically important scenes that set the stage for the Passion Narrative.
In John 11, Mary is introduced ahead of her sister, and is further identified: “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill” (11:1-2). This is an odd narrative sequence, since the anointing does not take place until chapter 12. It may indicate that the memory and import of Mary’s action was such that she could scarcely be mentioned without it being recalled (see also Mark 14:9 and Matt 26:13, where Jesus declares that what the anonymous anointing woman has done will be told in memory of her).
In the Fourth Gospel, Mary and Martha act in harmony, while each has a distinctive role to play. Together they send the message to Jesus that their brother is ill (11:3); both are loved by Jesus (11:5); and the other Jews come to console both sisters about their brother (11:19). When Jesus arrives, Martha takes center stage, going out to meet him while Mary sat in the house (v. 20). The dialogue that ensues between Jesus and Martha is one of the most significant in the gospel, culminating in her declaration, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (11:27). Martha then calls her sister Mary, and tells her: ‘“The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him” (11:28-29).
While commentators generally give more attention to Martha’s dialogue with Jesus and her acclamation of faith (11:17-27), Mary’s role in 11:28-37 is equally important. Mary voices the struggle of all believers who lose a loved one to death as they question God’s seeming absence and why God has allowed their beloved to die: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32). Mary’s words echo those of Martha (11:21), but not to simply replay the same dialogue. The drama moves to a climax as Mary’s tears and those of her companions cause Jesus to be deeply moved and disturbed in spirit (11:33). Jesus’ sharing in Mary’s grief makes a powerful statement that even in a community that believes in the resurrection and life eternal, death and the pain it causes are still real.
It is notable that in this scene, the other Jews are connected to Mary. They were introduced as having come to console Martha and Mary (11:19) but here they are with Mary in the house; they follow her out (11:31), and they come with her and weep with her (11:33). At the conclusion of the scene, the connection to Mary is noted again: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him” (11:45). Mary, like the woman of Samaria (4:39) and Mary Magdalene (20:18), leads other Jews to believe in Jesus.
In the next chapter, Jesus comes to Bethany for a dinner at which Martha serves and Lazarus is at the table (12:1-2). Mary moves to the fore: she “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (12:3). Judas objects that the perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor (12:5), but Jesus defends Mary, and interprets her prophetic action as preparation for his burial (12:7).
In all four gospels, a woman anoints Jesus, but only in the Gospel of John is she named. In all but Luke (7:36-50), the anointing takes place just before the passion, and in each case there is an objection that the ointment could have been sold and the money given to the poor. In each, Jesus defends the woman and interprets her action as a preparation for his burial. In Mark 14:3-9 and Matthew 26:6-13, the anointing of Jesus’ head is a prophetic action that mirrors the anointing of kings (e.g., 2 Kgs 9:3-6). In Luke, the scene takes place in Galilee and a woman who had been forgiven many sins anoints Jesus’ feet. Here, the anointing is not a preparation for Jesus’ burial, but an extravagant gesture of love that flows from having been forgiven, which Jesus contrasts with the puny love of his host. The Lucan story serves a very different function than the other three. These accounts add one more layer to the confusion about the various Marys.
In addition to being a prophetic action that prepares for Jesus’ burial, the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary of Bethany in John 12:1-8 prefigures Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet in John 13:1-20. Mary’s action, like that of Jesus, is parabolic, giving a proleptic interpretation of his death. It symbolizes the kind of service that disciples are likewise asked to perform with a willingness even to lay down their lives out of love. The stench of death (11:39) is overcome by the permeating fragrance of love. While Martha plays a critical role in 11:17-27 by making a profound expression of faith, Mary plays an equally significant role by enacting Jesus’ commandment to love in the manner that he does.
When the Lucan and Johannine portrayals of Mary of Bethany are taken together, she exemplifies the listening stance of a disciple who first hears the word and then enacts it. So important were Mary and her sister in the memory of the early Church, that Hippolytus of Rome (AD 170-235) identifies them as the first witnesses to the resurrection (Cant 25.6), apparently considering the Mary at the empty tomb to be the sister of Martha, and not a separate Mary of Magdala. While Mary of Magdala has received much attention in recent years, Mary of Bethany is equally deserving of our notice.
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