"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."
Far from being bickering sisters, Mary and Martha were a pair of missionary leaders. This theory gained support with the advent of the women's movement, when the role of women in church leadership and the question of ordination became important to the changing church. "The church has a very bad history in terms of treatment of women, and I imagine this story has continued to be very significant in our own time because it's a rediscovery of a part of the heritage," says Carter.
In fact, the New Testament points toward extensive female leadership in the early Christian movement. For instance, in the last chapter of Romans, Paul commends 27 people for their missionary tasks—one third of these are women, including the female pair Tryphena and Tryphosa. Missionaries tended to be named in pairs, and male-female pairs are assumed to be married couples. This assumption has led to some speculation on the nature of Mary and Martha's relationship. In translation, they are called sisters, but in the original Greek, the language is less exact—sisters could mean sisters in Christ, siblings, or possibly even a same-sex erotic partnership. The idea of a same-sex relationship has been bandied about in recent scholarship, but the text lacks support.
Whatever the exact nature of their relationship, the story of Mary and Martha does not end in the book of Luke. The sisters reappear once more in the Gospel of John. Here, they have a brother that the writer of Luke doesn't mention—the famous Lazarus. When Jesus comes to the town of Bethany, Lazarus has already been dead for four days, and Mary and Martha are in deep mourning. Mary stays home, and Martha, again the more active sister, greets Jesus in town and makes the astonishing statement in John 11:27: "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."