In addition to the translation we use and the pictures we’ve seen, our assumptions about a biblical text are shaped by the traditions we are part of and the interpretations we’ve heard.
It doesn’t seem too surprising that many people equate Luke’s Martha and Mary with John’s stories of the sisters of Lazarus living in Bethany, even though Lazarus doesn’t make an appearance in Luke and the village is not named. I was more surprised to learn that Catholic tradition links Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene.
Back in 591 AD Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon where he linked John’s story of Mary anointing Jesus to Luke’s story of an unnamed woman anointing Jesus. Gregory then went on to link Luke’s unnamed woman, who is forgiven for her many sins, with Mary Magdalene who Luke names in 8:2 as freed from seven demons. Gregory says these seven demons represent the seven vices, and so Mary Magdalene must have been the unnamed woman, who was a sinner and a prostitute, and as the woman doing the anointing in John is Mary of Bethany, Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene are one and the same, a prostitute saved from sin by Jesus.
This interpretation proved popular and strengthened through the following centuries. This is the understanding we encounter in the 14th century Middle English classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, for example.
In contrast, the early church and the subsequent eastern Orthodox church saw the two Marys as distinct from each other and from the unnamed woman. Mary Magdalene and Mary and Martha of Bethany are all holy myrrh-bearers, part of the women who watched as Jesus was laid in the tomb and then went home and prepared spices and ointments for his body, returning on the first day of the week to discover that body was gone.
Each gospel has a slightly different version of who went and what happened. Some are named: Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Joanna, Salome, Susanna. Others are unnamed. In Orthodox tradition, the sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary of Bethany, were among the myrrh-bearers, as in the icon above.
Like Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna, named in Luke 8:2-3 as women who provided for Jesus and his disciples, Orthodox tradition considers Mary and Martha to be wealthy women – but neither Mary Magdalene nor Mary of Bethany is seen as a reformed prostitute.
Nor does Protestant tradition see Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany as one and the same. Given the centuries of Catholic thought on this, I don't know when the two got untangled. Perhaps it was as scholars began going back to the original manuscripts and translating the Bible into contemporary languages. Certainly some of the English commentaries mention early church commentaries, and both of these take on what we might name a "Martha Stewart" perspective. Martha is troubled and anxious because hospitality is a big deal and she is trying to put on a big, beautiful banquet, and she thinks Mary should be helping. We're back at the dishes again.
Sharing tesserae from a sustained lectio divina with Luke 10:38-42
Tesserae: small cube-shaped tiles of ceramic, glass or precious stone used to make a mosaic, or in this case, brief essays on some element of lectio divina with Luke 10:38-42.