Recently I preached on Luke 10:38-42, the story of sisters Mary and Martha and their dinner with Jesus.
It’s a good story about family relationships and is one of the more interesting texts to preach on. The great American preacher Anna Carter Florence has a wonderful and quite funny exploration of the text in a sermon you can find on YouTube. I won’t inflict my sermon on you, however. It’s certainly not as good as Carter Florence.
But a recent discovery about the text of that story suggests that it’s also part of a larger narrative, involving a third woman in the Bible, Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene has been variously positioned in history as a woman who followed Jesus and who, in some circles may have been his wife. She was, however, the first person to witness the risen Jesus and testified that to the disciples, who did not believe her. Some scholars have portrayed her as a prostitute, although scripture never says she was.
Mary Magdalene, as the wife of Jesus, forms the core of the plot line in Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller, “The Da Vinci Code”.
But the truth may be stranger than Dan Brown’s fiction.
Two years ago, Elizabeth Schrader, a doctoral student in the graduate program in religion at Duke University, specializing early Christianity, challenged many historic assumptions about Mary Magdalene and raised important questions about her role in the early Christian faith.
Schrader’s central discovery, which she wrote about in a paper published by the Harvard Theological Review, is that Mary Magdalene’s role was deliberately downplayed by biblical scribes to minimize her importance.
Specifically, Schrader looked at the story of the raising of Lazarus told in the Gospel of John. In today’s Bibles, Lazarus has two sisters, Mary and Martha. They also appear in the Gospel of Luke. But poring over hundreds of hand-copied early Greek and Latin manuscripts of the Gospel, Schrader found the name Martha had been altered. The scribes scratched out one Greek letter and replaced it with another, thereby changing the original name “Mary” to read “Martha.” They then split one woman into two.
Schrader argues that the Mary of the original text in John is Mary Magdalene, not Martha or Martha’s sister, Mary. The two sisters only belong to another story, the one in the Gospel of Luke, that is not repeated in John’s Gospel.
The reason for the change, Schrader suggests, is that later scribes did not want to give Mary Magdalene too big a role in the events of Jesus’ life. Already Mary Magdalene was at the crucifixion and the empty tomb, and in the Gospel of Luke she was exorcized of seven demons and then traveled with Jesus and supplied him the funds needed for his ministry.
In particular, the scribes of early scripture may have wanted to avoid giving Mary Magdalene the confession of faith that follows the story of Lazarus. That confession – “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” – in today’s Bibles is said by Martha. Schrader argues it was meant to be said by Mary Magdalene.
Mark Goodacre, a New Testament scholar at Duke, said he was encouraged by all the new scholarship around women in early Christianity.
“There have been many men who have imagined the Christian movement as a thoroughly male-dominated, exclusively male setup,” Goodacre said. “We’re in the process of trying to reimagine Christian origins and put women back into where they originally were, having been written out by male interpreters over the years.”
Schrader’s work also shows us that two thousand years later there is always something new to be discovered. Our understanding scripture, like faith, can change with substantive exploration and reinterpretation. In this case, new discovery may bring about new understanding of the role of women in the early church and bring recognition of a more inclusive faith and practice today.
Rev. David Shearman is a retired United Church minister in Owen Sound.