Posts Tagged ‘John 11’

There’s Something about Mary

Posted on: August 16th, 2022 by Wayne Fraser No Comments

Sermon delivered on Aug. 14, 2022 in Fort Erie, Canada, on the Gospel reading: John 11: 1-7, 17-27.

John 11, the story of the raising of Lazarus, is appointed for Lent 5 in year A, but I simply can’t wait until next March, Lent 5, to share some exciting research that has been done on this passage. Diana Butler Bass, noted church historian, has summarized in a recent sermon the biblical research of her friend, Elizabeth Schrader, and it will blow your mind, for it changes so much of our understanding of Jesus, Mary, the gospel writers, church history—everything changes as a result of this biblical research. Butler-Bass’s sermon lasted 40 minutes, but I’ve got only 13 this morning. Here goes:

Elizabeth (Libbie) Schrader is currently a PhD student in New Testament Studies at Duke University, but when she was a Masters student at General Theological Seminary in New York City, she examined the oldest known version of John’s gospel, called Papyrus 66, created around the year 200, and she discovered something that no one else had ever noticed. She found that the text of John 11 and 12 had been edited, altered, changed utterly. To put it simply, in the original Greek version of John 11 and 12, there is no character named Martha. Martha has been added, inserted into the story.

Our text of John 11 begins “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister, Martha.” We all assume we know this family, right? We read about them just last month in Luke 10 when busy Martha complains to Jesus that Mary isn’t helping serve the guests. Well, our assumption may be wrong. The original Greek text of the oldest known version of the gospel of John says, “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, at the village of Mary and his sister, Mary.” In the original text of John 11, this Lazarus has only one sister, and her name is Mary. We have two stories about two different families.

Someone edited John 11 in Papyrus 66 and removed a Mary and created a Martha, actually changed the spelling of Maria to spell Martha. I studied enough Greek to know that it would be pretty easy to make the Greek iota into a theta, the “i” into a “th.” And where the original text refers to “his sister, Mary,” the scribe altered it to read “her sister, Martha.” Butler-Bass summarizes the moment this way: “Schrader sat in the library with all of this, and it came thundering at her, the realization that sometime in the fourth century, someone had altered the oldest text of the Gospel of John and split the character Mary into two. Mary became Mary and Martha. She went through the whole manuscript of John 11 and John 12, and lo and behold, that editor had gone in [and] at every single place and . . . moment that you read Martha in English, it originally said, ‘Mary.’ The editor changed it all… Every pronoun is changed. Every singular “sister” is changed to the plural “sisters”. So that the story becomes a charming story about Lazarus and the resurrection and his two lovely sisters, Mary and Martha.”

But John 11 is not about them at all, it’s about a different Lazarus and his sister Mary. Lazarus is never mentioned in Luke 10; Martha welcomes Jesus “to her home.” Martha and Mary of Luke 10 live “in a certain village”; the two siblings of John 11 live in Bethany—“Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary.” There’s something about Mary. Who is this Mary? She is familiar enough to the early disciples or the gospel writer that they can refer to “the village of Mary,” not the village of Lazarus, but of Mary. It has long been speculated that this Mary is Mary Magdalene; in John 12 a woman named Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with rich perfume and dries his feet with her hair. We have long assumed that Mary was Mary Magdalene, haven’t we? Well, could very well be, and the one woman in John 11 & 12, the sister of Lazarus, indeed could be Mary Magdalene. Why was her identity altered by introducing “her sister Martha” into the narrative, obscuring the passage with an allusion to Luke 10?

The answer is suggested by the final verse of the portion of the gospel passage we heard this morning, verse 27: “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” Our English versions say that Martha said this; the original Greek text says it was Mary. Why is that change important? First, it is the only Christological confession in the gospel of John, a very significant assertion of Jesus as Messiah, as ‘Son of God.’ Secondly, who says something similar in the other gospels? Right! In all other three gospels, “Peter and Jesus have a conversation. And Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Who am I?” And Peter actually says, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” And Jesus turns around and says to him words that are familiar to all of us, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” That’s St. Peter, first bishop of Rome, the first Pope, from whom we get St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the Roman Catholic Church. Pretty important guy! And in Roman Catholicism, only men can be Pope, or Bishops, or priests, because Jesus chose only male disciples. Or did he? In our version of John’s gospel the great confession is from the mouth of a minor character, Martha, about whom we hear nothing more. But she wasn’t there in the original John 11. Mary Magdalene was. Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the Apostles, present at the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, the first witness to the empty tomb and the resurrection, the one who informed Peter and the others, “I have seen the Lord.”

Oh, you’re going to say, it’s not that Mary, she was from the town of Magdala, this Mary is from Bethany. Well, THE Mary was from Bethany, because in Jesus’ time, there was no town called Magdala. The term Magdalene is a title. In Hebrew, the word means ‘Tower.’ Mary the Tower—the tower of strength, the tower of faith. Mary the Tower vs Peter the Rock. Rock, paper, scissors. Rock always wins. Or does it? Paper beats rock. This research of a piece of Papyrus leads to speculation about the power struggle happening in the early church and later, about the place of women in leadership roles. The Peter faction vs the Mary faction. Mary Magdalene was there at crucial moments of Jesus’ life and ministry. She was in the garden, at the cross, at the resurrection. She’s called the Apostle to the Apostles. So, in whose interest is it that she be removed from John 11 with its powerful Christological confession and be replaced by a relative unknown woman named Martha? Mary was downgraded here. Why?

I leave you to speculate further, but I venture to share that if Mary the Tower had been acknowledged and celebrated equally as much as Peter the Rock, the institution of the church and its history would have been vastly different and our understanding of Christ’s message and ministry would be highly enriched by feminine wisdom and spirituality. Can you imagine? The mind boggles with possibilities. An all-male clergy? A patriarchal institution? Elaine Craig’s comment in the Globe Aug. 10 can easily be applied to the church: “We know that having women involved at the highest levels of organizations can help change leadership and result in better decision-making. Yet the [church’s] governance remains overwhelmingly male-dominated.” There were nearly 100 female bishops at Lambeth this year; twenty years ago there were less than 10. The times they are achangin’. The game’s afoot. There is much to contemplate, much to study further. We have not heard the last of this research and it will stimulate much discussion which I pray is respectful and fruitful. The Holy Spirit is let loose upon the world. Hear what her Spirit is saying to God’s people.