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You are the Messiah | John 11:17–27

Martha or Mary

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be alright.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

John 11:1–27

This familiar Johannine story is read today like a unified text; the story as the author wrote it, but few modern readers would be aware of the complexities in the earliest manuscripts with regard to this episode. We note in verse 27 that it is Martha who makes the confession of faith: ‘I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world;’ Mary having stayed at home (v.20). But the ancient sources are not consistent on this version of events. Tertullian, for example, writes: ‘Martha filium dei eum confessa (Adversus Praxean, 23.31), but this comes with the footnote that earlier books ‘and perhaps Septimius (Tertullian) himself’ attributed this confession to Mary. The Pilgrimage of Etheria, dated to the late fourteenth century, leaves Martha out of the story of Jesus’ visit to Lazarus altogether. Something strange is happening with the text.

Elizabeth Schrader has made an interesting observation about the earliest Greek manuscripts of John 11; that there may be evidence of a scribal attempt to downplay the character of Mary of Bethany, likely on the grounds that she is often associated with another Mary — Mary of Magdala. She identifies Papyrus 66 (𝔓66), a near complete copy of the Gospel of John, possibly written as early as the first half of the second century, as being of particular interest.

Close analysis of the text shows that the scribe — or perhaps an editor — has changed what had been a single sister of Lazarus, Mary, into two sisters, Mary and Martha; even going so far as to change the number in the verbs from singular to plural. What makes this the more interesting is that ‘Martha’ appears to have been created by the replacement of a single letter. As can be seen from this section of 𝔓66, the iota (ί) in Μαρία — the Greek for Mary — has been scratched out and replaced with a theta (θ), giving us Μαρθα — or ‘Martha.’

What this would appear to tell us is that an earlier version of this story lacked Martha. Perhaps there were two versions of the story; one with and one without Martha. Whether or not Martha was a later scribal invention intended to downplay the role of Mary of Bethany (as Mary of Magdala) remains a matter of speculation. Still, it is likely that Tertullian writing in the early third century was aware of a version of this story without Martha. If the original lacked Martha and if Mary of Bethany is to be identified with Mary of Magdala, then this Mary — Mary Magdalene — was first both to confess him as the Messiah, the Son of God, and to witness and proclaim the resurrection (John 20:18); details which would have given Mary of Magdala significantly more influence in the Early Church than we have thought her to have had.


Published by Jason Michael

Scottish journalist and blogger living in Dublin, Ireland. Postgraduate in Sociology, Academic Fellowship (History of World War I) and lecturer in Biblical Studies.

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