In his earliest known painting, Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, Jan Vermeer recasts the biblical sisters of Lazarus as two sturdy young Dutch women. Good Martha, all bustle and industry, is just setting down a woven basket containing a perfect round loaf of golden bread in front of Jesus.
Sitting at Jesus's feet, sister Mary is a picture of repose, one hand propping up her head in a traditional thinker's pose, taking in Jesus's teachings. Above her, Martha and Jesus are locked in a gaze. One can imagine that Martha, hot from the kitchen and exhausted from cooking and cleaning—what must it take to host the Son of God?—has just finished delivering perhaps the most famous sibling whine of all time. "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
Jesus responds, maybe a bit sharply, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed." And here comes the zinger: "Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her."
Painted sometime in the 1650s, Vermeer's version of events reflects what New Testament scholars believed about Mary and Martha for centuries: two sisters in a deep rivalry—one self-righteously busy with women's work and the other in calm discipleship with the Lord. The tale has often been interpreted as a model for two kinds of Christian devotion—a quiet solitary life of contemplation, in the tradition of monkhood, or a life of active secular engagement, as a member of the clergy. As two of the few named women in the New Testament, Mary and Martha have also been beloved by women readers. Even if Jesus might appear to denigrate Martha's domestic work, he also praises Mary for her discipleship—affirming the importance of women taking active personal roles in devotion.
However, new scholarship points toward entirely different layers of meaning hidden within the tired bickering of Mary and Martha. Scholars are questioning just who these sisters were, why Jesus came to their home, and not the house next door, whether they were sisters at all, and why, for two millenniums, Martha has been forever stuck in the kitchen, while Mary sits at Jesus's feet.
"The story has often been read in a very domesticated way," says Warren Carter, professor at the St. Paul School of Theology. "People have often thought that Martha is serving dinner. She's distracted by her many tasks, but these are not the tasks of what vegetables to cook." In fact, Martha's "tasks," translated from the Greek diakonia, related to the verb diakonein, are used throughout the New Testament to refer to both domestic service and Christian ministry—the word deacon is derived from the same noun. Patriarchal association of women with the domestic meant that scholars routinely missed this important detail. This double meaning opens up a new vantage point where readers can view Mary and Martha.
"It seems likely to me these were two women who were famous among early Christians, perhaps as missionaries, but certainly as leaders," says Mary Rose D'Angelo, associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. In Luke 10:38, Jesus and his disciples "came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him." The language suggests that Martha owned the house—not unlikely as women did own property in ancient times. D'Angelo takes the interpretation a step further: "Early Christians didn't have churches; most seem to have gathered in private houses, and perhaps Martha was the host of a house church."