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
Did you know…?
- Mary and Martha are identified as “loved” by Jesus in
- 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.
Who are Mary and Martha in the Bible?
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.
Who are Mary and Martha in Christian Tradition?
The sisters appear in many postbiblical traditions. Early Christians often interpreted
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 (