Artless Similarities: More Evidence for Gospel Reliability

While reading the gospels, you’ll notice similarities between the characters portrayed across the different stories. Parallels between the gospels concerning character depictions are unlikely to be the result of mere chance. And these correspondences seem so casual and subtle that it’s unlikely they were designed that way. Philosopher Tim McGrew calls these ‘artless similarities.’

In an earlier video, we saw this kind of unity of character with Jesus between John and the Synoptics. But let me give another example with two somewhat lesser-known characters in the gospels — Mary and Martha. We find their stories in both Luke and John. For this evidence, I’m drawing from Peter J. Williams’ excellent book Can We Trust the Gospels?.

Mary and Martha in Luke

As we read Luke 10 and John 11, we see that the two stories are very different. The majority of John 11 is about Jesus raising Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead. With no obvious link to John, Luke gives the following story:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

(Luke 10:38–42) 

If John and Luke knew each other’s gospels, clearly they could’ve simply copied the names, but they obviously didn’t copy their completely different stories. Both gospels give us a glimpse of two characters who are in stark contrast: Martha is a hard worker and stressed out about practical matters. Mary sits and listens to Jesus’s teaching while ignoring her sister’s worries over entertaining their guests. Both sisters have different personality types: one is proactive and practical, while the other is introspective and thoughtful.

Mary and Martha in John

The same two women are seen in John’s gospel after their brother has died. Jesus visits them in Bethany, their hometown. Martha went straight to Jesus as soon as she heard he got there, while Mary remained seated at home (John 11:20). Right off the bat, we see a coincidence in the kinds of responses. Both Luke and John describe Mary as sitting while Martha is in action. In both accounts, Martha is the welcoming committee. She isn’t afraid to get a little fussy with Jesus for not coming sooner, just as she got upset when she wanted Jesus to rebuke her sister for not helping with the meal preparation in Luke. (John 11:21) 

The fidgety Martha then tells her sister that Jesus is calling her after meeting Jesus. (John 11:28) Mary gets up and rushes to Jesus. Those with her think she’s going to the tomb to weep. (John 11:31) Unlike Martha, Mary “fell at his feet.” (John 11:32) Remember that she was at Jesus’ feet in Luke. Jesus sees her weeping (John 11:33), we don’t have a record of where Martha weeps. 

Mary also seems to be perplexed with Jesus for not coming earlier, but Jesus doesn’t even talk to her. Jesus gets deeply emotional when he sees Mary crying with the others and asks where Lazarus is buried. Jesus seems to be especially moved by Mary’s tears. At the tomb, Jesus himself weeps and commands the stone to be moved. At this point, the ever-practical Martha blurts out, “Lord, by this time there will be a bad odor, for he has been dead there four days.” (John 11:39) She obviously fails to realize that Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the dead. 

Then in chapter 12, Martha is once again seen as serving. (Jn 12:2) Mary pours costly perfume on Jesus’ feet. (Jn 12:3) She’s once again at Jesus’ feet. As Jesus had to defend Mary to Martha for her right priorities, he also had to defend her to Judas and the rest of the disciples. Judas (and perhaps the other disciples) said the ointment should’ve been sold and given to the poor instead of being wasted on Jesus’ feet.

The same Mary and Martha

Although these two stories are completely different, they both describe the two women in complementary ways. The physical matter of Mary “sitting” and placing herself at Jesus’ feet and Martha’s practical concern illustrates this. Likewise, Martha appears to be more active in both stories. It seems clear from this that both Luke and John are talking about actual people, showing that the Gospel accounts are shaped by eyewitness testimony. 

Additionally, there are some practical insights here for the believer. In both accounts, Jesus shows love for his friends. He’s direct when they’re out of line, but commends them when they do what’s right. Jesus also jumps to his friends’ defense when they’re being misunderstood. He weeps with them when they weep and is willing to put himself in harm’s way to help them. As you may recall, the high priest plotted to kill Jesus after Jesus raised their brother from the dead. (John 11:53) 

Lydia McGrew sums these points up well in her book The Eye of the Beholder:

“Jesus’ interactions are always with specific people, never abstractions…His friendships in all four Gospels show us something more than a gifted, focused communicator; they show us a man who felt human affection for specific people, as we do ourselves.” 

p. 398
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