The Gospels provide an interesting glimpse into the lives of supporting characters, and what’s truly remarkable is how their personalities shine through in subtle, casual and undesigned ways across multiple stories.
These character traits, which emerge incidentally in the narratives, are challenging to fabricate. Even in modern forms of storytelling like serialized TV shows, it’s a complex task to maintain such consistent character traits. I know this isn’t an apples for apples comparison here, but take for instance the transformation of Andy Dwyer in “Parks and Recreation,” for instance. He quickly changed from being a bumbling, lazy, and incredibly selfish boyfriend (poor Ann Perkins) to becoming remarkably a kind, selfless, and romantic husband to April. He was still a gigantic doofus, but he went from being a loathsome gigantic doofus to a lovable one.
For the Gospel authors, if they were not recounting truthful accounts, this task of maintaining unified characters would have been even more challenging. When we explore the characters of Mary and Martha, we find their portrayals to be consistent and authentic, avoiding any apparent exaggerations. It’s a testament to the genuine nature of the Gospel narratives.
Let’s dive into the intriguing similarities in how Luke and John depict the characters of Mary and Martha. Dr. Peter J. Williams, a scholar from Tyndale House, discusses this in his book, Can We Trust the Gospels?, as does Lydia McGrew in her book Testimonies to the Truth.
Mary and Martha in Luke
In Luke 10:38-42, we witness Jesus visiting the home of Mary and Martha. Martha is bustling with preparations, and her sister Mary is seated, attentively listening to Jesus. Martha becomes flustered and requests Jesus to ask Mary for help. Jesus, in response, emphasizes the significance of Mary’s choice to listen to Him.
Now it happened as they went that He entered a certain village; and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who also sat at Jesus’ feet and heard His word. But Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.”
And Jesus answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her.”Luke 10:38-42
Mary and Martha in John
In the Gospel of John, we learn that Mary and Martha were the sisters of Lazarus, who had passed away. Upon receiving the news of their brother’s death, Jesus intentionally delayed His visit for several days.
As soon as she heard that Jesus had arrived, Martha went straight to Him, but Mary stayed seated at home (John 11:20). Right away, we notice a coincidence in their reactions.
Now, let’s compare this to an incident reported solely in John, where Jesus goes to Bethany to raise Lazarus from the dead. After Martha’s initial conversation with Jesus, she secretly informs her sister Mary that the Teacher is calling for her. Mary promptly goes to Jesus and, just like in Luke, falls at His feet. (John 11:32)
In John 11:39, when Jesus instructs them to remove the stone from Lazarus’ tomb, Martha expresses concern about the odor due to Lazarus being dead for four days. This mirrors Martha’s practical nature.
In both Luke and John, even though they are distinct events, we notice a recurring pattern. Mary is portrayed as the listener while Martha takes on an active role, whether it’s serving food in Luke or worrying about practical details in John.
These parallels in character portrayals across the gospel accounts highlight a striking consistency in the personalities of these individuals, adding credibility to the narratives.
More on Mary and Martha
Another account involving Mary and Martha in the Gospel of John centers on a meal during which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet. Interestingly, this story appears to be the same as the one told in Mark 14:3-9 and Matthew 26:6-13. However, Mark and Matthew don’t mention Mary and Martha in this context.
In contrast, John not only provides the name of the woman who anoints Jesus (Mary) but also includes further details, including a mention of Martha. It’s Martha who serves at the meal in John 12:2, just as she does in Luke’s account. Matthew and Mark indicate that this event took place at the home of someone named Simon the leper.
The Synoptic Gospels, which include Matthew, Mark, and Luke, agree with John that the meal occurred in Bethany, which wasn’t a large city. This suggests that Martha could have been involved in serving the meal at Simon’s house.
In both Mark and John, it is Mary, consistent with her character, who generously pours expensive ointment on Jesus, on His head in Mark 14:3 and on His feet in John 12:3. John, known for his attention to sensory details, mentions that the fragrance filled the entire house (John 12:3).
Similar to the situation in Luke where Jesus had to defend Mary to her busy sister, here in John and possibly in Mark (Mark 14:4-5), Jesus defends Mary’s actions when Judas Iscariot and others criticize her for using the valuable perfume when it could have been sold to benefit the poor. Just as Jesus explained and supported Mary’s choice as the better one in Luke, in John, he relates her gift to His burial and points out that He won’t always be with them (John 12:7-8, Mark 14:6-9). (Side note: Have you ever noticed how frequently the complaint, “You could be spending that on the poor!” arises when churches invest in new building projects? One might wonder what percentage of their income these critics like Judas contribute to help the less fortunate!)
The Gospels appear to be authentic memoirs
These consistent and vivid personalities, demonstrated in various stories across different Gospels, make the characters of Mary, Martha, and Jesus feel authentic and relatable despite their limited appearances in the Gospel memoirs.
There’s no clear reason to think one author copied the other, but both narratives depict two characters consistently. This includes how Mary positions herself physically at Jesus’ feet and her deep devotion to Him, as well as Martha’s practical concerns in both accounts where she’s more active. This is all portrayed in a very artless and casual manner.
The simplest explanation is that both Luke and John are describing two distinct characters. The model that the Gospels are honest reportage offers a straightforward understanding. While other possibilities certainly exist, they don’t explain things as simply. This is not be a conclusive proof of the Gospel’s reliability, but it does provide some supporting evidence for the idea that they are based on reporting real events.
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith.