This is now the second guest post by Kyle Smith, scholar of early Christianity, on a hot topic related to his recently published book.
Kyle is Associate Professor and Director of the History of Religions Program at the University of Toronto. An award-winning teacher, he is the author or coauthor of five books about Christian saints and martyrs, including Cult of the Dead: A Brief History of Christianity (University of California Press, 2022). You can find him on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and the Peloton @kylesmithTO.
Few characterizations of Jesus’s life have spurred as much intrigue (and outrage) as the idea that he might’ve been married. In 2012, before it was discredited as a forgery, a scrap of papyrus inscribed with a few lines of Coptic set off a media furor when reports emerged that it quoted Jesus as saying, “My wife …” Conveniently, the rest was cut off.
Despite the abiding popularity of books like The Da Vinci Code, which might lead one to think otherwise, there is no scholarly debate over whether Jesus was married. There is no hard evidence to suggest that he was (or that he wasn’t), but it is reasonable to conclude that an itinerant preacher who attracted a following by prophesying the end of the world wouldn’t have bothered himself with domestic affairs.
And yet the Gospels do report that Jesus had quite a few interactions with women—many of them in domestic contexts. Consider, for instance, the story of Jesus’s visit to the house of Martha and Mary, as recorded by Luke:
Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” — Luke 10:38-42
Let’s focus on the gaps in this story with an eye to understanding how other biblical texts and centuries of interpretive tradition might lead us to unwittingly fill in what Luke leaves unsaid.
First, Luke tells us that Jesus “entered a certain village,” but he doesn’t say which. We know from John’s Gospel that Martha, Mary, and their brother Lazarus all lived in Bethany, a village that John specifically identifies as in Judea, near Jerusalem (John 11:7, 18). But for readers with no knowledge of what John has to say about Martha and Mary, the assumption would be that their village must be in the Galilee, as that’s where the immediately preceding events in Luke’s narrative take place, and as Jesus doesn’t travel down to Jerusalem until some chapters later in Luke.
Perhaps you’re willing to dismiss this as just a minor geographical oddity?
But here’s a second gap in the story: what are the “many tasks” that so distracted Martha?
Along with not saying which village we’re in, Luke doesn’t specify what sort of work Martha was doing that Mary was apparently shirking. But look at any painting of Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. For Vermeer, for Velázquez, for Vincenzo Campi, and for virtually anyone else who visually addressed Luke’s scene, we’re in a kitchen and we see Martha preparing food or schlepping bread, water, and kindling.
Why is it that everyone seems to be so clear on the work Martha was doing? Why is it, for that matter, that the cooks and the maids in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (and its later adaptation on Hulu) are all domestic servants called “Marthas”? Again, we can thank John: he is the one who mentions Martha serving a dinner to Jesus, not Luke (John 12:2).
But now we’ve come to the third and most notorious gap in Luke’s story that centuries of interpretation and intertextual reading have led us to fill.
Luke says that while Martha “was distracted by her many tasks,” Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” If this passage was all you knew about Mary, you might conclude that she was just an attentive student, eager to hear Jesus’s words. After all, Paul uses a similar turn of phrase about himself, explaining how he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). But if your reading of Luke is informed by John’s story of that dinner at Lazarus’s house, then your mind might drift elsewhere. In John’s account, Martha served dinner but Mary “took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’s feet, and wiped them with her hair” (John 12:3).
You see where this is going. Is Mary a student? Or is she a sinner?
John’s description of Mary using her hair as a towel to wipe the “costly perfume” from Jesus’s feet is not the same as a different episode in Mark—when Jesus is in Bethany, at the table of Simon the leper, and an unnamed woman pours “an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard” on his head (Mark 14:3)—nor is it the same as another that Luke himself describes earlier when Jesus is sitting at the table of a Pharisee and an unnamed woman, “who was a sinner … brought an alabaster jar of ointment … and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair” (Luke 7:36-38). And yet these are the connections (and conflations) that have been made for centuries.
So who was Mary?
Well, for some medieval Christians, she was the devoted bride of Christ locked in her bridal chamber. (Wait, was Jesus married?)
This understanding of Mary—or at least the narrative symbolism of Mary—comes from a medieval ritual that outlines the process for permanently enclosing a recluse. My account of it (below) leads off Chapter 5 “The Living Dead” in my new book Cult of the Dead: A Brief History of Christianity (University of California Press, 2022).
The ritual began with the novice recluse prostrate on the floor of the church, the seeping coldness of stone hard against her face. She was sinful and unworthy, dead in the sight of others, but submissive as a saint. Her senses must have been heightened during this spectacle, during these last moments that she would share with the living. Circling her three times, the bishop sprinkled the recluse with holy water and then enveloped her in a cloud of incense, the rising smoke from his swinging thurible a visual and olfactory reminder that this woman was a burnt offering to God—still alive but already dead. Ritually speaking, this was her funeral. Soon she would be led to her tomb, a barnacle held fast to the northern wall of the church. After the bishop bolted it shut, it would never be opened again.
The recluse would stay enclosed in her cell for years, decades perhaps, until her natural death pulled her into the earth. From inside her tiny necropolis—population: one—she would still be able see the candlelit altar where she had pledged her life to Christ, but her view through the oblique slit in the church’s wall, a splayed window called a squint, would be severely constricted: she could see nothing but the altar. This is what she would gaze upon for the rest of her life.
After the bishop blessed the recluse, two elders raised her from the ground, then each handed her a lit candle to hold. As the candles symbolized, the recluse herself was extinguished. Now her only light would come from the love of God and the love of neighbor. Everything in this ceremony was significant, every gesture meaningful, every prayer carefully chosen.
The liturgy’s first reading, from the Old Testament’s book of Isaiah (26:20–21), urged the recluse to enter her chamber and shut its door: “Hide yourselves,” warns the prophet, “until the wrath is past. For the Lord comes out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity.” The recluse’s cell was to be a refuge from wrath and all the sins of the world. For all its chill darkness, it was a locked garden and “pleasant vineyard,” as Isaiah puts it, into which only the Lord, its keeper, could enter. The cell was the recluse’s refuge, but it was also her citadel. Inevitably, her prayers would draw the arrows of the adversary.
The ritual’s second reading, from the Gospel of Luke, was more heartening. This passage tells the story of Jesus’s arrival at “a certain village,” presumably Bethany on the Mount of Olives, “where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home.” Luke is sparing with his narrative details, commenting only that Martha “was distracted by her many tasks,” but we can assume some things about the hospitality she must have provided: a basin for washing, a comfortable place to sit, the restoration of food and drink. Meanwhile, as Martha saw to the needs of her guest, her sister, Mary, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying.” Annoyed by her sister’s neglect of the necessary work of welcome, Martha turns to Jesus to complain: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” Martha expects Jesus to see things from her perspective, but instead of rebuking Mary he chides Martha, his gentle tone evident in the repetition of her name: “Martha, Martha,” we can hear him sigh, “you are worried and distracted by many things,” when only one thing is needed. In setting aside all but the word of the Lord, “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”
For the recluse who heard this passage, its meaning would have been clear: the “better part” ascribed to her was prayer, a single-minded focus on God, as the blinders imposed by her squint and her view of only the altar attest.