A New View of Mary and Martha
by Mark M. Mattison
Luke 10:38-42 has long troubled me. On the one hand, Jesus’s commendation of Mary unambiguously empowers women. Jesus’s disciples—that is, those who learn from him and study under him (or in modern terms, those who “study theology”)—are not limited to men. Everyone is welcome to pursue biblical studies, women as well as men.
However, countless sermons on this passage include a troubling dark side. Jesus commends Mary by rebuking Martha. “Be a Mary, not a Martha,” the saying goes. Sitting around discussing doctrine is better than doing the dishes.
But this reading seems to fly in the face of common sense, not to mention Jesus’s own teaching. Why should the theologian be “better” than the one who serves the food? If everyone sat around talking all day, where would dinner come from? Thin air?
Jesus’s statement in Luke 10:42 has often struck me as being completely at odds with his own words twelve chapters later. There, Jesus’s disciples “got into an argument about which of them should be considered the greatest” (Luke 22:24, DFV). Jesus replied that:
the greatest among you should become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. Who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? Isn’t it the one who sits at the table? But I’m among you as one who serves (Luke 22:26,27, DFV).
And yet, in Luke 10:42, it appears that Jesus tells Martha just the opposite. In Luke 22, it’s better to serve than to sit and be served, but in Luke 10, it seems better to sit than to serve. Given Jesus’s words in Luke 22:27, I’ve often wondered why Luke didn’t say that Jesus got up to serve.
This reading of Luke 10:38-42, however, has been strongly challenged by Mary Stromer Hanson. At November’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta, Georgia, she read a thought-provoking paper titled “Mary of Bethany: Her Leadership Uncovered”? (Read the paper online by clicking here.) It reiterates the thesis of her book, The New Perspective on Mary and Martha: Do Not Preach Mary and Martha Again Until You Read This! (Wipf & Stock), 2013.
Hanson raises important questions about the traditional reading. She points out that we read into it things that aren’t actually there. For example, we assume that Jesus and twelve other tired, hungry men showed up on Mary and Martha’s doorstep unannounced. Any decent host would be alarmed. But the passage doesn’t state that any other disciples were present. In fact, the ensuing conversation includes only two people: Martha and Jesus.
Before considering possible implications, read Hanson’s translation of Luke 10:38-42, found on pages 31 and 32 in her book:
As they were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha received him. She had a sister called Mary, who also was one who sat at the Lord’s feet, always listening to his words. But Martha was constantly torn apart concerning much ministry. She suddenly approached him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister regularly leaves me to minister alone? Tell her therefore that she may give me a hand.”
But the Lord answered her saying, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and agitated concerning much, but only one thing is needed: For Mary has chosen good and it will not be taken away from her.”
This translation involves several key arguments. An important one is the translation of diakonia as “ministry” instead of “service” in verse 40. The Divine Feminine Version of this passage also made a point of using the word “ministry.” But Hanson goes much further.
Many translations follow the King James Version in stating that “Martha received him [Jesus] into her house.” But the words “into her house” are not actually in the Greek text; they’re supplied by translators. All the text explicitly states is that Jesus entered a village and was welcomed by Martha.
The crux of Hanson’s argument, however, involves verse 39. She includes the relative pronoun preserved in a widely dispersed set of manuscripts (but bracketed by the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament) and translates the word kai as “also,” implying that Martha as well as Mary regularly “sat at the Lord’s feet,” a figure of speech denoting discipleship (cf. The New Perspective, p. 27).
This important difference can be illustrated by comparing the New American Standard Bible with the King James Version of verse 39:
New American Standard Bible
“She had a sister called Mary, who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word.”
King James Version
“And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word.”
According to Hanson, since “sitting at the feet” is a figurative description rather than a literal one, Mary is not necessarily physically seated before Jesus’s feet while Martha addresses him. In her presentation, Hanson said that:
“Sitting at the feet,” as in Acts 22:3, is the traditional vocabulary of discipleship. So both Martha and Mary are known as “sitters at the feet” or disciples of Jesus. This is a figurative description, not literal.
Martha addresses Jesus directly in Luke 10:40 because Mary, again according to Hanson, isn’t even there. While Martha is struggling to keep up with the local village ministry, Mary is traveling around ministering abroad. Martha wants Jesus to deliver a message to Mary when he encounters her in his travels, asking her to return and assist Martha in the village ministry.
Finally, Hanson proposes an alternative translation of verse 42. She translates tēn agathēn merida (literally, “the good portion”) not superlatively (as in “the best portion”) but rather positively (as in “a good thing”; cf. The New Perspective, p. 31). In other words, Mary’s choice of ministering abroad isn’t necessarily better than Martha’s choice of ministering to the village; Mary’s choice of itinerant ministry is equally good.
Whether all of Hanson’s arguments will prevail remains to be seen. But whatever the final verdict, her translation and interpretation should, at the very least, reinforce the importance of paying very close attention to biblical texts and exploring multiple possibilities.
Mark Mattison is a writer and independent scholar. He is the author of The Gospel of Mary: A Fresh Translation and Holistic Approach, and served on the translation team for the Divine Feminine Version of the New Testament, both are available on Amazon.
Additional resources of interest on Christian Feminism Today – “The Gospel of Mary: An Inclusive Gospel,” an article by Mark Mattison and Mark’s review of June Kerr’s Rabboni My Love: A memoir of Jesus’ Wife, Mary Magdeline, and The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks, edited by Ray Riegert and Thomas Moore.
© 2015 by Mark M. Mattison and Christian Feminism Today