What Jesus Learned from Mary of Bethany

What Jesus Learned from Mary of Bethany June 20, 2019

Across the Gospel tradition, a trio of siblings who reside in Bethany make several highly significant appearances. Lazarus gets most of the attention, perhaps understandably, not always being singled out as possibly the author of the Fourth Gospel, but because he is central to a story in which he is raised from the dead, which was bound to draw attention. But his sisters do not deserve to be neglected, and they are also said to be close friends of Jesus.

Lazarus probably reflects the Galilean pronunciation of the name Eleazar (see Ruth Edwards, Discovering John). This raises an interesting question: does this suggest that Lazarus and/or his family were from Galilee? We would expect Jesus to rely on extended family and other similar connections when traveling.

The story of Mary and Martha in the Gospel of Luke is an important one that is often discussed as an expression of Jesus’ view of women. Kate Cooper writes in Band of Angels, “Luke gives us a Jesus who wants to change the place of women in the spiritual landscape…Luke sends a clear message that Jesus welcomed women to his circle of disciples” (p.42).

The question that I want to raise is whether this was already true prior to this incident, or becomes Jesus’ stance during and as a result of it. I would have expected things to unfold differently if Jesus had already said that women should set aside their usual cultural responsibilities and learn from him the same as men do. Then we might expect Jesus to rebuke Martha and also to praise Mary differently. But note that Jesus does not either criticize Martha for failing to follow his own instructions sbout this sort of matter, or praise Mary for having done as he previously instructed. What he says is that Mary has made a choice, and what she has chosen will not be taken away from her. That does not sound like we are witnessing business as usual. It sounds as though Mary has done something creative and daring, and Jesus is approving of it. She has made a courageous move to place herself among his male students, in a desire to learn from him. At the same time, Jesus is learning something from her. Something that will become part of his own teaching, to be sure. But it is, like all that humans teach, something that he first learned, that he worked out as something he wants to emphasize not by abstractly reflecting on gender roles, but by witnessing a woman daring to transgress the constraints of the place assigned to her by social norms of her time.

There are two possible ways that we might understand the nature and significance of Mary’s action, and thus what Jesus took away from it. On the one hand, it may well be that Jesus had previously affirmed that women were welcome to learn as long as their usual responsibilities were taken care of. If that was the case, then this marks a shift towards greater equality, as Jesus affirms the appropriateness of women leaving male needs uncared for while they sat and learned. On the other, it may be that Mary was actually situating herself as disciple when no woman had done so, or been invited to do so, previously.

Either way, the implications of her action and Jesus’ affirmation become clear if we think about what Martha had been doing. This was their home. It was their responsibility to cater to the needs of their guests. Jesus is allowing those responsibilities to be set aside. Some will have wondered how the disciples will ever eat if Jesus adopts this stance. Culturally, it is almost as revolutionary as saying the dead should bury their dead. If those traditionally responsible in their culturally subordinate roles do not do what has traditionally been expected of them, how will anything get done, whether feeding guests or burying dead parents? Jesus would eventually answer that question, it seems – but I’ll leave exploring that for the book…

Of related interest:

Mary, Martha, and Time Management

Ben Witherington shared a lecture he gave about women and the Bible

Female Disciples in Early Christianity: Non-Hierarchical Christianity at St Paul’s, London

Disrupting Evangelical Biblical Womanhood

Martha, Mary, Meister Eckhart: A mystical provocation to mothers as host bodies

Gesù a Gerusalemme

Jesus l’homme qui aimait les femmes

The Rural Reverend shared an imagined dialogue.

Janet Sunderland wrote about this Mary and two others.

The Commonweal article about women deacons is also somewhat related.

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  • David A. Van Lieshout

    I ‘ve always been fascinated how Lazarus, Mary, and Martha along with Mary Magdalene and Mary Mother of Jesus are absent from the New Testament once the Resurrection occurred. They were as close to Jesus as any of the 12 but seemingly vanished once the Acts of the Apostles were written. Jealousy??

    • Well, almost the entirety of the Twelve vanishes in Acts, and so either most of those who were associated with Jesus left town and/or left the movement, or Luke’s shift of focus away from Jerusalem results in the lead characters in his drama also changing as he gets into his second…act (pun apologetically acknowledged, but not really sorry).

      • John MacDonald

        This is off topic, but I just found out you have a Nietzsche scholar colleague in your department at Butler (Kaitlyn Creasy)! Very Cool! For Nietzsche’s work on The Eternal Return and Will to Power alone Nietzsche towers as one of the great forces of western thought. I actually just did a blog post on this today: http://palpatinesway.blogspot.com/2019/06/the-grundbegriffe-of-heideggers.html

  • Luis Gutierrez

    Mary of Bethany, by anointing Jesus, and Jesus allowing her to do so, is a pointer toward the appropriateness of ordaining women to the ministerial priesthood.

  • Mary Hanson

    I wrote a thesis on Luke 10:38-42 and then rewrote it in a book, The New Perspective on Mary and Martha, Wipf & Stock 2013. What do you think of this possibility? A brief sketch:
    The text does not indicate a dinner being served. Vs. 39 can read: And she had a sister who also was known as a ‘sitter at the feet.’ This translation is justified by translating the second kai in that verse ‘also.’ This second kai is not translated in most English translations. The participle parakathestheisa has an article (in brackets in the UBS4) and can be translated substantively making it a noun. “And she had a sister who also was a ‘sitter at the feet.’
    In other words, I see no evidence that Mary is on the premises that day. Mary does not speak because Mary is not there. Martha’s great worry concerns her sister who is gone. She asks Jesus, “Do you not care that my sister often leaves me to do all the diakonia?” Jesus knows where Mary is—perhaps following him (Luke 8:1-3) — and Martha implores him to “Tell her therefore, that she may give me a hand.” Martha is burnt out with diakonia. Jesus says, “Mary has chosen ‘good’ and it will not be taken away from her.
    Not only is Jesus empowering women to learn, but to follow him in evangelism. Does the Greek sustain this interpretation? https://www.marystromerhanson.com/

    • Interesting suggestion. Did your research turn up evidence that the designation “a sitter at the feet of” was used much as “follower” might be, as a way of denoting a disciple?

      • Let me clarify my question. I know that “to sit at the feet of” denoted discipleship just as “to follow” did. What I am curious about, since I haven’t looked into this in the depth you have, is whether the phrase was used independently of its literal application, for instance saying “Joshua sits at the feet of Rabbi John” to indicate that the former is the latter’s student, even when the one is not at that moment sitting and learning from the other. Sorry for not being clearer about what I was asking!

        For others who may be interested in learning more about this topic, see also: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/07/01/mary-and-martha-by-mary-stromer-hanson/

  • John MacDonald

    I just read Neil Godfrey’s take on this post. He wrote:

    (1) A stark illustration (not a very subtle one) of part of the point I was trying to get across and that appears to be central to Alex Rosenberg’s case is found in James McGrath’s recent blog post, What Jesus Learned from Mary of Bethany.

    The data is there for all to see: Lazarus, Bethany, Mary, Martha, Jesus teaching, etc. But the scholar then exercises his theory of mind and imputes into each of the main characters motives that he finds congenial to his own experiences and beliefs and personal identity. Someone else could as easily find alternative motives and intents for the various characters and produce a quite different message or meaning of the story.

    He will probably enjoy listening to other stories drawn from the same data even if he feels they are not for him personally. But take away through analysis the data’s justification for narrative creation and see how popular you are with him …

    (2) He regularly falls into his Sunday School preacher mode. His essay is exactly what we would expect to hear from a preacher in the pulpit expounding the lesson for today’s service from the holy book. It’s called biblical scholarship. see https://vridar.org/2019/06/23/i-dont-find-that-argument-persuasive/#comments

    • Wow, he really seems to have no idea that there is a longstanding practice of history that seeks to explore not just what we are told that individuals did, but their motives. Obviously there is an element of speculation, but it is no different in principle than when we see someone act in our own time and guess their motives. And obviously there is a risk in both cases that we will read our own thinking into what others have done and thus misinterpret their motives. That’s why we do history as a community of scholars and not merely as individuals – so that others can evaluate and critique our reconstructions.

      I’m definitely writing my book (and also blog posts about the book) with a view to audiences in churches. When Neil Godfrey blogs, he has his audience of mythicist blog readers in view in the first instance. When someone writes a biography of particular figures in American history, they may be interested in their relevance to their own time and national context. None of that entails treating the relevant sources as a “holy book” or anything else of the sort.