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Last week The Reformed Journal linked to a sermon video and transcript by Diana Butler Bass, given at the Wild Goose festival a couple weeks ago. In her sermon, titled “All the Marys,” Butler Bass highlights the current doctoral work of Elizabeth Schrader, PhD student at Duke University. Here’s the long and the short of Schrader’s argument.

John 11 tells of Jesus travelling to Bethany and raising Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus has two sisters, Mary and Martha, who are distraught. Martha runs out to Jesus, demanding an explanation of why he did not come sooner, to which Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

Martha responds, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

Schrader was reading this story from the oldest and most complete manuscript of the Gospel of John, Papyrus 66, dated around the year 200. Having recently been digitized, these manuscripts can now be accessed by anyone with a library login and a computer. And as Schrader studied the text, she noticed that there were numerous instances where the name “Martha” had been written in as a correction over top of an initial “Mary.” The first sentence of John 11 in this manuscript thus initially read that Lazarus was “from the village of Mary and Mary his sister.” There are other instances when a singular name is replaced by plural “sisters”, and Schrader notes that 1 in 5 manuscripts of John 11 have some inconsistencies and issues concerning Martha.

Thus, Schrader concludes that Martha was not in fact a sister of Lazarus and wasn’t initially included in John 11, but that scribes conflated this story with that of Mary and Martha – another pair of sisters found in Luke 10 – and added Martha in.

Schrader further contends that Mary the sister of Lazarus is none other than Mary Magadalene (she’s not the first to do so). She argues this based on textual similarities in this story and the story of Jesus’ resurrection in John 20, in which Mary Magdalene is the first person to see Jesus after he is raised from the dead, identifying him as “Lord.”

The significance of this, Schrader contends, is that if it is in fact Mary Magdalene who uttered the Christological confession in John 11, she is a much more significant character in the Biblical narrative than she’s been made out to be for centuries. In fact, Butler Bass asserts that “Magdalene” isn’t the name of the town Mary is from, but a title. Magdala in Aramaic means “tower,” so she is Mary the Tower. Which becomes rather significant if she did in fact make the Christological confession in John 11, because the only other Christological confession in the gospels comes from Peter, after which Jesus calls him “Peter the Rock.”

Peter the Rock and Mary the Tower. Foundations of the church.

Now – there are a lot of possible explanations for the inconsistencies Schrader points to in these old manuscripts. Scribes made copy errors all over the place. I’m not sold that Schrader’s reading of John 11 is correct, neither her assertion that it’s Mary Magdalene in John 11 just because it’s also a story of a resurrection.

But I’m not convinced she’s wrong, either. After all, there have been other instances where the importance of women in the early church has been downplayed through scribal alteration (think the female name Junia being changed to the male form Junias). And a lot of scholars are acknowledging that her research raises important questions – her work has already been published in the Harvard Theological Review and is being considered by the Nestle-Aland Translation Committee of the Greek New Testament. Most people seem to be waiting for her to conclude her doctoral work before really digging into it.

At the very least, I find her work to be a reminder that we should approach Scripture with a great deal of humility and a vast amount of curiosity. There are so many nuances and contextual realities in the text that are still being uncovered and explored today. Far from feeling like this places us on shaky ground, I stand in awe and wonder that God is still revealing things to us through and in his Word today.

And whether Mary Magdalene is found in John 11 or not, she is in John 20. Almost every day of the last six years or so I’ve worn a necklace pendant imprinted with an image of Mary Magdalene, a tangible reminder that Mary was the first preacher of the good news, and I am called to do the same. Wherever she’s found in Scripture, she remains Mary the Tower – an example of deep faith, a beacon pointing the Church of all ages towards Jesus, the resurrection and the life.

For further reading:
All the Mary’s” by Diana Butler Bass

Is Martha Missing in the Oldest Surviving Text of John 11?” by Marg Mowczko (a not-so convinced engagement with Schrader’s work)

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong is the Pastor of Preaching and Worship at Community Christian Reformed Church in Kitchener, Ontario


  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thanks for a fun and intriguing excursion through the gospel accounts.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Well, maybe she’s right. But I’m so jealous for Martha, and that SHE gets to make the climax confession before the Resurrection!

  • Valerie Terpstra Van Kooten says:

    This might shake up a lot of the “Martha Society”s that are prevalent in the Reformed Church! 🙂

  • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

    Laura’s good work today also serves as an invitation to our readers to occasionally check the “Around the Web” portion of the Reformed Journal website. We posted the link to Diana Butler Bass’ “Mary the Tower” there a couple days ago. It’s simply one example of the things we point you toward. We try to keep Around the Web updated with interesting reading we’ve found around the web. So check it out. Usually, the same links and stories that appear on Around the Web also appear on the RJ Facebook page.

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