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."
Margaret Guenther, associate rector at St. Columba Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and a former seminary professor, says that Martha's profession of faith is an underappreciated moment in the Bible. "It's a bold proclamation, and she made it before many of the men did," says Guenther. "We have a special day in January where we celebrate Peter's recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, but Martha doesn't quite make it into the book."
Far from their apparent rivalry in the Gospel of Luke, the Mary and Martha of the Gospel of John work in concert. After Lazarus is raised from the dead, Jesus again comes to their house for dinner. Here, Mary commits an act of great devotion and significance—she washes Jesus's feet with "a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume" that Judas says is worth a year of wages. With this poetic act wherein "the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume," Mary powerfully presages Jesus's death—the oil was saved for the day of his burial. She also provides a model of Christian service and devotion. Christ later echoes her act when he washes the feet of his disciples.
The appearance of Lazarus only in the Gospel of John might raise doubt that the Mary and Martha of Luke are the same as the pair in John. Scholars point out that there seemed to be relatively few personal names in biblical times, and the authors of the Gospels may have recycled the same names for different stories. If so, did these women exist at all? "That there were a significant pair of leaders called Mary and Martha who were well known, I don't see any reason to doubt," says Carter. And to a lay reader, Mary and Martha have always been the same sisters.
What becomes of these women? Popular folklore traces Martha's path from her house in Bethany to the South of France where she supposedly traveled as an evangelist. Some even say that she tamed a dragon along the way. And to this day, several churches in France claim to be the site of Martha's tomb. "It's folk piety," says Guenther. "People want to know more about these women, so somebody makes up these terrific stories, and they grow and grow."