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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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Marsi Hill
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MARTHA (of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Mary).—The name (סָרְחָא ‘mistress’ or ‘lady’), though unique in the Scriptures, is common in the Talmud.* [Note: See Lightfoot on John 11:1.] She appears in the Gospel-story on three occasions: (1) when she entertained Jesus on His way to Jerusalem at the season of the Feast of Tabernacles (Luke 10:38-42); (2) when Lazarus died and was revived by Jesus (John 11:1-46); and (3) when Jesus, on His way to the Passover from His retreat at Ephraim (John 11:54), was honoured with a public entertainment at Bethany in the house of a leading man named Simon the Leper (John 12:1-11 = Matthew 26:6-13 = Mark 14:3-9). Being a notable housewife, Martha was entrusted with the management of the banquet. See Anointing, I. 2.

The idea that the scene of this entertainment was Martha’s house has given rise to the unfortunate surmise that Martha was a widow, Simon the Leper being her deceased husband. On the supposition that Κυρία in 2 John 1:1; 2 John 1:5 is a proper name, the Greek equivalent of Martha, ‘lady’ (Volmar), it has been surmised that St. John’s 2nd Epistle is addressed to our Martha. This is ingenious but untenable, since (1) ‘the elect Kyria’ would be, not ἐκλεκτῇ Κυρίᾳ (v. 1), but Κυρίᾳ τῇ ἐκλεκτῇ (cf. 3 John 1:1); (2) the Epistle is probably addressed metaphorically to a church and not to an individual.

Martha and Mary exhibit a peculiarity frequently observable in families. They were, like the brothers Jacob and Esau, utterly diverse in disposition and temperament. While Mary was impassioned and imaginative, Martha was unemotional and practical.† [Note: Zig. on Luke 10:42 δύο μερίδες πολιτείας ἐπαινεταί, ἡ μὲν πρακτικὴ ἡ δὲ θεωρητική.] When Jesus visited her house at the season of the Feast of Tabernacles, He found her busy preparing the festal cheer (see Mary, No. 3). His arrival redoubled her housewifely solicitude, and it angered her when she saw her sister seated at His feet and listening to His discourse, leaving to her unaided hands the offices of hospitality. And when Jesus came to Bethany in tardy response to the sisters’ appeal, ‘Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick,’ Mary was in the darkened home overwhelmed with grief, but Martha had repressed her emotion, and, when word was brought her that Jesus had been sighted making His toilsome approach by the Ascent of Blood, the steep and robber-haunted road up the eastern slope of Olivet, she went out and met Him ere He entered the village. She greeted Him calmly, not without upbraiding for His delay; and when He assured her that her brother would rise again, she took His words in her matter-of-fact way as a reference to the current doctrine of the resurrection of the righteous at the last day, seeing in them merely a commonplace of pious consolation. Very different was her sister’s behaviour. When Martha returned home and told her that the Master had arrived and was calling for her, she sprang up and ran to Him, and, in a passion of love and sorrow, flung herself at His feet.

It were, however, unjust to disparage Martha. She was of a practical turn, but she was very far from stupid. She was mistress of the house, and she was as a mother to her unworldly sister. There was evidently a close sympathy between them. During the dark days which succeeded their brother’s death, they had been each other’s comforters and had unbosomed their grief one to the other. Their constant plaint had been, ‘Had the Lord been here, our brother had not died’; and this was the cry of each in turn when they met Jesus (John 11:21; John 11:32). Martha was calm and self-possessed, but a great tenderness was concealed beneath her unemotional exterior. She wept less than Mary, but she mourned as deeply. Nor was she lacking in love and reverence for Jesus. Her impatience of Mary’s inactivity amid the bustle of preparing the meal was due less to resentment at being left alone to serve, than to anxiety that nothing should be wanting for the comfort of the dear Master. And she believed in His power to help even when Lazarus had been dead four days (John 11:22). She lacked some qualities which Mary possessed, but she had others of her own, and Jesus appreciated the excellence of her character. He loved Martha no less than her sister and Lazarus (John 11:5).

It is no slight attestation of the historicity of the Lukan and Johannine narratives of the family of Bethany that they faithfully accord in their delineations of the two sisters. On the pages of St. John each sustains the character which she exhibits in the little scene so exquisitely depicted by St. Luke. Here are no imaginary pictures, but portraitures of real personages.

St. John says that the village where Martha and her sister dwelt was Bethany; but St. Luke does not name it, and he has been charged with placing the incident of the meal in Martha’s house in Galilee. This idea, however, arises from a misconception of his literary method. Like the other Synoptists, St. Luke was not an original author but an editor of the Evangelic Tradition, and his aim was not chronological accuracy but the exhibition of Jesus. He sifted the ample material at his disposal, and arranged his selections topically rather than historically. Thus at Luke 9:49-50, recounting what befell in Galilee, he records the Lord’s rebuke of His disciples’ mistaken zeal; then, finding another incident which teaches a like lesson (Luke 9:51-56), he inserts it in this connexion, though it belongs to the last journey to Jerusalem (cf. Luke 9:51). Having begun this section of the Tradition, he continues it, giving various other incidents of the journey, down to the close of ch. 12. Then he returns to what befell in Galilee, resuming the narrative of the journey to Jerusalem at Luke 17:11.

David Smith.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Martha'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​m/martha.html. 1906-1918.
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