Setting the record straight on Martha of Bethany

By  Eleonore Fournier-Tombs, Catholic Register Special
  • October 24, 2008
{mosimage}The Many Faces of Martha of Bethany by Diane E. Peters (Novalis, softcover, 230 pages, $26.95).

For someone who only receives a couple of short mentions in the Gospels, Martha has certainly caused quite a commotion over the past two millennia.

Most know her as the woman who was too busy in the kitchen to hear Jesus preach. There is a lot more to her than that — including her skills as a dragon-tamer, at which (some say) she was more impressive than St. George.
It is probably because there is very little known about her that Diane E. Peters was able to find so much contention surrounding Martha.

In her meticulous literature review, Peters examines much of what has been written about the controversial sister of Lazarus and Mary.

{sa 9782896460021}A common interpretation of Martha derives from her treatment in Luke 10:38-42 in which she frets in the kitchen while her sister, Mary, sits at Jesus’ feet. Luke’s narrative led to her being often represented as a woman too concerned with the temporal world and not enough with the spiritual world.

This type of view clearly is not espoused by Peters, who notes that many authors, from the first biblical commentators to current theologians, have failed to see that Martha was a leader and a deeply spiritual disciple of Jesus.

“Unfortunately,” she notes, “proponents of the position that women were not fit to occupy leadership roles in the church came to prevail.” While positioning Martha as a role model for those dedicated to service and domestic activities has provided inspiration to countless women, it may also have placed her in a stereotype that ignored her other dimensions.

Peters extensively quotes feminist theologians, among them Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. She comments that Schüssler Fiorenza “sees Martha as the leader of a house church and considers the relationship between Martha as host and Jesus as guest one of independent equals, while that between Jesus and Mary is one of master and subordinate student.”

In a rather refreshing section about non-Western theologians, Peters quotes the Sri-Lankan born Ranjini Rebera, who states that: “As the owner of her home despite the presence of a brother (Lazarus), Martha has the right to be viewed as a woman of authority who is also head of a household.”

Interestingly, the interpretation that is probably the most empowering for Martha developed in the Middle Ages and associates Martha with the dragon of Tarrascon.

Christian mythology can be a lot of fun, and those interested in the fantastic have a lot to look forward to with Martha. According to several medieval texts cited by Peters, after Jesus’ death Martha makes her way to France where “in the forest between Arles and Avignon towards the western region, a huge dragon, half land animal and half fish... had destroyed many passersby” and so on. Martha proceeds to tame it with holy water, then settles in Tarrascon (re-named after the dragon) and performs miracle upon miracle. The full text of Peters’ main source, the Vita Pseudo-Marcilia (pre-1480), is reprinted in an appendix.

Peters makes the significant point that this type of myth generally features fights between dragons and men, particularly bishops, rather than women.

“Martha had a reputation in the later Middle Ages which was based on achievements in spheres of activity generally considered ‘masculine,’ ” she writes.

These “masculine” activities would include leadership, spiritual oversight and protection.

Supported by an extensive bibliography — which along with the appendices and the footnotes, make up half of the book — Peters leads the reader to her own conclusions about Martha without explicitly stating them until the very last page. Although she withholds final judgment on the historical probability of the dragon, Peters nevertheless seems convinced that Martha is “a contemporary model of the faithful servant, of one who professes the Christian Gospel, of a leader who sets an example through her piety and social concern.”

Peters currently works for the Wilfrid Laurier University Library in Waterloo, Ont., and has also compiled two reference books on art and music. She has clearly spent long hours reading and assembling the sources for her book, and she presents a convincing case for her Martha. While several chapters may appear fairly dry, particularly to a reader not engaged in academic study of Martha, there are many sections that will appeal to the imagination — as well as several bursts of insight. In any case, it might be appropriate to give a few warnings to a potential reader: be prepared to think, wear your reading glasses and, this winter, don’t bring the book to après-ski — this is no Chicken Soup.

(Fournier-Tombs works in communications for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace in Montreal.)

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