Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Is Martha Missing in the Oldest Surviving Text of John 11? 

Introduction

People have been asking me about Elizabeth Schrader’s hypothesis that Mary Magdalene (one woman), and not Mary and Martha of Bethany (two sisters), is the main female character in John 11 and 12. Dr Diana Butler Bass recently gave a sermon where she mentioned this idea and it has generated a lot of online discussions. You can listen to Diana’s sermon here, or read a transcript here.

In this blog post, I present my take on whether Mary Magdalene is the Mary in John 11-12 and whether Martha is missing in our oldest text of John. I won’t go into many of the details, or mention the numerous texts, behind Elizabeth’s idea. I will focus on Papyrus 66 because that’s the text Diana mentioned.

Elizabeth Schrader’s work on the Manuscript Evidence of John 11-12

Elizabeth Schrader is a PhD student at Duke University in the USA. I’ve been following her work for a few years and have had a couple of online conversations with her. I respect her and her work. She presents the material in her discussions fairly and explains things well.

I’m assuming you’re reading this because you’ve already heard her hypothesis and at least a basic explanation of it. But if you want more information,  I recommend this video produced by FutureChurch.org where Elizabeth presents her case in 40 minutes and then answers questions. It’s excellent!

Elizabeth’s paper “Was Martha of Bethany Added to the Fourth Gospel in the Second Century?” which was published in the Harvard Theological Review in 2017 is freely accessible online here.

This is the aim of Elizabeth’s paper.

My goal is to demonstrate that the initial circulating version of the Gospel of John may not have included Martha, and thus that P66 may provide a window into a late scribal interpolation that is now part of our received Gospel text. Using readings found in P66 and other ancient witnesses, I will then make a tentative attempt to reconstruct the opening verses of John 11 without Martha.[1]

Elizabeth’s research into the manuscript evidence of John 11-12 is being read and listened to by New Testament scholars at the highest echelons of academia. Note, however, that Elizabeth expresses a degree of caution with the idea there was an early story of Mary and Lazarus that didn’t include Martha (cf. John 11-12), and more caution with her proposal that Mary Magdalene is Mary of Bethany here. She uses words such as “may” and “if,” for example. She’s not adamant that the Mary in John 11-12 is Mary M. It’s a hypothesis, not an assertion.

I’ve tried to keep the information in the body of the article as short and as simple as possible, and I’ve avoided, as much as possible, using Greek. The Greek and Latin of variants of verses from John 11-12 are in Elizabeth’s journal article.

Note that none of this affects the story of Mary and Martha, who are mentioned without Lazarus, in Luke 10:38-42 which is a distinct story.

Mary and Martha in John 11:1 in Papyrus 66

Diana Butler Bass refers to Papyrus 66, also known as Bodmer II, in her sermon. This document was produced in around AD 200 and is the oldest and most complete surviving text of John’s Gospel. (John 11:1-6a in P66 can be viewed here.)

John 11:1 in P66 initially read that Lazarus was “from the village of Mary and Mary his sister” with Mary being named twice.[2] This is obviously an error and it was corrected by the same scribe who made the error, perhaps immediately. The name “Martha” is in John 11:1 in P66 as a correction. Elizabeth notes, “The correction of P66 in 11:1 does include Martha.”[3]

Elizabeth acknowledges that there are numerous scribal errors in P66.[4] Furthermore, dittography (repeating words) and haplography (omitting words)―we seem to have examples of both in John 11:1 in P66 before the correction―are common mistakes made by scribes. And the scribe of P66 was apparently careless in his work.[5] 

Mary and Martha in John 11:3 in Papyrus 66

There are other verses concerning Mary and Martha in P66 that Elizabeth discusses.[6] In her journal article and in the FutureChurch.org video, Elizabeth states that John 11:3 in P66 originally had a name (it’s hard to tell if it’s Mary or Martha) with a singular verb for “sent,” but this was corrected by the same scribe with the plural for “sisters” and the plural verb (as well as the correct plural participle) that we have in most Greek manuscripts.[7] The corrections make the page look messy, but the corrected form of 11:3 with the plural word for “sisters” is in P66.[8]

Some textual critics, such as Peter Head, suggest that the scribe of P66 was working from two exemplars, and that the better one was the source of his corrections.[9] James Snapp suggests the scribe was running ahead of himself, assuming words, and then fixed his own errors.[10] This is equally plausible.

The original scribe of P66 didn’t omit Martha. He made mistakes in John 11:1 and 3 which he corrected, perhaps as he was going along writing out John’s Gospel.

More Variants of Verses in John 11-12

There are also variants in other surviving Greek and Latin manuscripts of John 11-12. For example, the names (and other identifiers such as pronouns and the word “sister”) are given in various combinations in John 11:5 with Martha seemingly absent in some manuscripts. However, Martha is there in John 11:5 in P66 (page 70, line 15) and in the same order of people as we have in most English Bibles today: Martha, the sister, and Lazarus. The personal pronoun autēs (“of her,” in the phrase “the sister of her“) is missing in the body of the text in P66, but a later scribe placed the missing word autēs in the margin.

Martha’s name is also in John 11:19, 20, 21, and 24 in P66 (page 73, lines 1, 3, 6, 11), in John 11:30 (74, 12), and in John 11:39 (76, 7). A few manuscripts have Mary serving supper and anointing Jesus’s feet in John 12:2-3, with no mention of Martha, but Martha is serving in P66 (80, 13). After a messy start at the beginning of John 11, Martha is present and correct, and where we expect her name to be, in the remainder of John 11-12.

Still, Elizabeth notes that as many as 1 in 5 manuscripts of John 11 have some issue concerning Martha. This is a high percentage and it’s hard not to wonder what was going on to cause such confusion. Elizabeth is not the first scholar to suggest there was an early form of Mary and Lazarus story’s without Martha, and that Martha’s name was added to some manuscripts of John’s Gospel. Nevertheless, Martha’s name is never omitted altogether from John 11-12 in any early manuscript that still survives.

In this screenshot is Elizabeth Schrader’s proposed reconstruction of John 11:1-6 using a few Greek manuscripts and an 11th or 12th century Latin manuscript, Codex Colbertinus, which reflects the Vetus Latina (Old Latin) version of the Gospels. Many more Greek manuscripts, however, say what we have in our Bible today.

Elizabeth Schrader

This screenshot is taken from Elizabeth Schrader’s video presentation and is used with her permission.

Comparing the Resurrection Stories in John

As part of her argument supporting her hypothesis that Martha was not originally mentioned in John 11-12, and that Mary of Bethany is Mary Magdalene, Elizabeth highlights similar words and phrases between the account of Lazarus’s resurrection in John 11 and the account of Jesus’s resurrection in John 20.

Elizabeth believes similarities may indicate that Mary M was present in both scenes. The similarities between John 11 and 20 are noteworthy; however, the text plainly states that Mary Magdalene is present in John 20, whereas the word “Magdalene” does not occur at all in John 11-12 in P66 or any other manuscript.

The resurrection of Lazarus was witnessed by many people and was a foretaste of the major event, Jesus’s resurrection, and John does draw parallels between the two events.

Stories can be similar with repeated elements but still involve different people. By way of example, there are similar stories involving Rebekah, Rachel, and Sarah, but the women are distinct individuals.[11] John gives no indication that the Mary of Bethany (in John 11-12) is Mary Magdalene (who is mentioned in John 19-20) despite some similarities in the resurrection accounts.

Elizabeth Shrader

This screenshot is taken from Elizabeth Schrader’s video presentation and is used with her permission.

Comparing the Anointing Stories in John

Elizabeth also highlights Mary of Bethany’s anointing of Jesus in John 12, and Jesus’s statement, “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” Elizabeth connects this event with Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb in John 20. However, Mary B’s anointing is completed in John 12—she has pre-emptively anointed Jesus for burial—whereas Mary M doesn’t anoint Jesus in any Gospel account.

In John’s Gospel, it is men, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who anoint Jesus’s corpse, not women (John 19:38–42). The men anoint the body with spices before the entombment, not nard or perfume (cf. John 12:3).

In the Synoptic Gospels, women, including Mary M, come early on Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’s body, but he is already alive. In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is not associated at all with anointing Jesus.

Also, there’s no hint that Mary Magdalene is from Bethany or elsewhere in Judea (cf. John 11:1, 18; 12:1). Rather, according to the Synoptic Gospels, Mary M is from Galilee (Matt 27:55–56; Mark 15:40–41; Luke 23:55–24:10 cf. Luke 8:1-3).

Who Made the Christological Confession in John 11:27?

Elizabeth makes a strong point about the Christological confession at the centre of John’s Gospel: “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (John 11:27). Elizabeth believes that if Mary M had made this confession in John 11, it would increase her stature and significance further.[12]

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene is the first witness of the resurrected Jesus. If she was the one who also made the Christological confession, this would present her in an even stronger light. However, John doesn’t record that Mary Magdalene uttered these words.

Mary B and Mary M are often confused by early and later theologians. Elizabeth points out that Mary M, Mary B, and the anointing woman who was a repentant sinner (Luke 7) are distinct in the Greek-speaking Eastern Church; it’s in the Latin-speaking Western Church where all three women are confused and conflated and become a composite Mary. But this may have nothing to do with P66 or other texts.

Furthermore, I can’t see that Mary in John 11-12, who has a brother Lazarus, is Mary Magdalene. Mary M is plainly identified as “the Magdalene” later in John (John 19:25 20:1, 18), [13] as well as in other Gospel texts, and she is never mentioned with a brother

Conclusion

There’s no doubt that there are anomalies in several early and Byzantine, and even medieval, manuscripts of John 11, as well as in early quotations from John 11.[14] But I can’t see a significance behind these anomalies other than there was at least one corrupted(?) early version of John 11 that may have influenced other versions, and that some church fathers got a few of the women in the Gospels mixed up.

I’m still inclined to believe that Martha was originally part of John 11 and 12, along with her siblings.[15] But I’m keeping my mind open and I will keep watching to see what manuscript evidence Elizabeth Schrader turns up next. Elizabeth’s observation here is entirely reasonable: “The figure of Martha of Bethany shows significant instability in the Greek and Vetus Latina text transmission of the Fourth Gospel.”[16]


Footnotes

[1] Schrader, “Was Martha of Bethany Added?” 362.

[2] In the fifth-century Codex Alexandrinus, this phrase originally read that Lazarus was “from the village of Mary his sister.” It didn’t mention Martha but was corrected to include her.
In the earlier fourth-century Codices Vaticanus (1209) and Sinaiticus (80.8r), the phrase reads as, “from the village of Mary and of Martha the sister of her” which has been generally accepted as the correct rendering. And this is how P66, with the second Mary changed to Martha, also reads.

[3] Schrader, “Was Martha of Bethany Added?” 363.

[4] Schrader writes,

The scribe of this manuscript was notoriously unpredictable, having made about 450 corrections to the Gospel in total. Although the majority of the corrections throughout P66 are due to scribal error, P66 also reflects dozens of alternate readings of the text attested in important early witnesses such as א ,W, Θ, 579, and several church fathers. It appears that the scribe corrected the Gospel text against another exemplar.
“Was Martha of Bethany Added?” 361.

[5] Peter Head has an interesting chapter on Papyrus 66 which is available on Academia.edu: “Scribal Behaviour in P. Bodmer II (P66),” Textual Variation: Theological and Social Tendencies? H.A.G. Houghton and David C. Parker (eds) (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2008), 55–74.

In his chapter, Peter Head refers to the research of Ernest C. Colwell and James R. Royse on papyrus 66.

[Colwell] counted 482 singular readings, which he divided into 193 nonsense and 289 sensible readings. The latter include:
• 54 leaps forward (18 of which are due to haplography)
• 22 leaps backward
• 21 word order transpositions
• 43 editorial changes.

Head notes that Royse, using a different method, “counted 128 singular readings, of which 14 were orthographic, 5 nonsense, and 109 significant. The significant readings include 14 additions, 20 omissions and 18 transpositions.”
Despite the different figures, it’s clear that there are numerous anomalies in P66 with several occurring in John 11, and not only in verses where Martha/Mary is mentioned.

Furthermore, Head quotes this from Colwell:

Wildness in copying is the outstanding characteristic of P66. This makes it very difficult to decide whether particular readings are due to editorializing on the part of the scribe or rather are due to his general laxity and inefficiency.
E.C. Colwell, “Method in Evaluating Scribal Habits: A Study of P45, P66, P75,” Studies in Methodology in Textual Criticism of the New Testament (NTTS 9: Leiden: Brill, 1969), 106-124.

[6] Note that in Greek, the names Mary (Mariam or Maria) and Martha are almost identical with just one letter different in the genitive case which is the case in John 11:1: ΜΑΡΙΑΣ or μαριας and ΜΑΡΘΑΣ or μαρθας. This similarity may have tripped up a few tired or inattentive scribes who inadvertently omitted Martha in verses in John 11.
Mary of Bethany’s name is rendered Mariam, or sometimes Maria, in various texts of John 11-12 including critical editions. (Mariam as a Hebraic name doesn’t decline in all Greek cases.)
Mary Magdalene is mostly called Maria; however, she is called Mariam in a few texts of John 20 in critical editions.

[7] Schrader notes that “… P66 is the only extant witness that actually transcribes the name of a single sister …” before the correction to “sisters.” Schrader goes on to mention a few manuscripts that “reflect possible traces of only one Bethany sister’s presence” in John 11:3. “Was Martha of Bethany Added?” 370.

[8] In her paper, Elizabeth points out that, regarding John 11:3, “the 1526 Tyndale Bible, the 1591 Bishop’s Bible, and the first printing of the 1611 King James Bible all mention only one sister in this verse.”

[9] Head, “Scribal Behaviour in P. Bodmer II,” 60.

[10] James Snapp Jr, “Mary, Martha, and John 11,” The Text of the Gospels (website)

[11] The “betrothal” scenes at wells with Rebekah and Rachel, and Sarah and Rebekah pretending to be sisters of their husbands.

[12] Dorothy A. Lee comments on Luke 8:1-3 and the prominence of Mary Magdalene among Jesus’s disciples.

The context in Luke is Jesus proclaiming the good news of God’s reign in word and deed in the earlier parts of his ministry in Galilee (Luke 8:1). The implication is that those accompanying Jesus are also participants in that proclamation. His companions fall into two parallel groups: the Twelve and the Galilean women. There is an inner group of men and an inner group of women who continue to follow Jesus and engage in ministry with him throughout his career. And just as Peter is the leader of the men’s group, so Mary Magdalene is the leader of the women’s.
Lee, The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 47.

[13] I agree with Elizabeth that “the Magdalene” is most likely a nickname meaning “the Tower.” This is how Jerome understood it. I’ve written about this here.

[14] For example, Tertullian, writing in Latin, seems to have said that it was Mary who gave the Christological confession in John 11:27. Tertullian, Treatise against Praxeas 23.1 (ed. and trans. Ernest Evans; London: SPCK, 1948) 84, 117n.
Egeria writes about a church she visited that was (supposedly) built on the site of Lazarus and Mary’s home; Egeria doesn’t mention Martha (Egeria, Pilgrimage, 5 pp. 63-64)
These two examples were mentioned in Diana Butler Bass’s sermon.

[15] For a couple of reasons, I suspect that Lazarus was considerably younger than Martha and Mary, perhaps in his early teens. This would have made his death especially lamentable. I also wonder if he had a disability, an idea proposed by Jean Vanier. (See here.)

[16] Schrader, “Was Martha of Bethany Added?” 385.

© Margaret Mowczko 2022
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Explore more

Who was Mary the Magdalene?
Mary Magdalene and the Ascension
Mary and Martha of Bethany
Comparing the Anointing Stories
Jesus had many female followers—many!
Jesus, Women, and Theology: “Jesus said to her …”
Partnering Together: Jesus and Women

Further Reading

James Snapp Jr, “Mary, Martha, and John 11,” The Text of the Gospels (website)
Timothy N. Mitchell, “A Text Without Martha: Implications of an Earlier Textual Layer of John’s Gospel,” The Textual Mechanic (website)
Tommy Wasserman, “Is Martha an Interpolation into John’s Gospel?” Evangelical Textual Criticism (website)

18 thoughts on “Is Martha Missing in the Oldest Surviving Text of John 11? 

  1. Amazing timing. I’m preaching on John 11 this week and came across Elizabeth Schrader’s work and checked this morning to see if you had written anything on this but didn’t find anything. But then, lo and behold, at 2pm you shared your thoughts. Thanks for your insights here Marg. 🙂

    1. Glad to be of service, James. 🙂

  2. I saw a Twitter discussion this morning regarding Elizabeth Schrader’s work and then saw your article just now. Thank you so much for adding your voice to this discussion as I deeply trust what you have to say.
    No matter what the ultimate verdict is, as more research is done, many of us know that women have often wrongly been diminished and restrained in our common Christian life. Those who have done this have wrongly used the Bible as their justification. And precious Mary Magdalene has been so distorted. I remember serving as an associate pastor where one year at Easter, the senior pastor stepped out to say, “If Mary Magdalene had lived now, she would have had a mini-skirt and black fishnet stockings.” That Easter is still colored by his lack of interest in reflecting on her deeply.

    1. Poor Mary M. She really has been slandered and diminished. 🙁

      I just replied to someone else and said that there may have been an alternate story circulating—there were lots of stories about Bible characters circulating in the 2nd century—and this may have interfered somehow with the textual transmission of John 11, but Martha is there in P66 and other early and important manuscripts.

  3. There is a good discussion by a textual critic at Evangelical Textual Criticism, and that author (Tommy Wasserman) concludes for Martha, too, as more likely original. He challenges some of her textual criticism method, and that’s important here. I appreciate your writing this up in a responsible manner, Marg, as the only ones who should be weighing in on this are textual critics and those who understand textual criticism.

    1. Thanks, Scot. I just looked for it. http://evangelicaltextualcriticism.blogspot.com/2019/09/is-martha-interpolation-into-johns_7.html

      I’ll add the link to the bottom of the article too.

  4. Thank you so much for this. I had read the transcript from Diana Bass’ lecture and was intrigued. However, without linguistic or textual criticism training, I had not way to analyze as you have done. Your insights are very much appreciated.

    1. You’re welcome, Beverly.

  5. You have done a fine job, as usual, Marg! Bass’s sermon is full of errors and she needs to post corrections.

    I am undecided on whether Mary of Bethany was Mary the Magdalene. If she was, then John’s gospel uses two different ways of identifying the same person. However, the NT writers often did this kind of thing. Mary of Bethany seems to have been already known to the audience of John’s gospel (11:2), so the audience might not have been confused.

    1. Hi Richard, There’s definitely something going on with the text transmission of John 11. I wonder if there was a popular Mary and Lazarus story circulating, that wasn’t originally part of John 11-12, but still influenced how people in the early church read John 11-12.

      Whatever the case, I can’t see the possibility, at least not at this present time, that Mary of Bethany in John 11, who has a brother Lazarus, is Mary Magdalene who elsewhere is never mentioned with a brother (or a sister), is typically identified as “the Magdalene,” and who appears to be Galilean, not Judean.

    2. @Richard, I agree. The sermon makes many claims that not even Schrader makes herself.
      For example, Bass claims: “She went through the whole manuscript of John 11 and John 12, and lo and behold, that editor had gone in at every single place and changed every moment that you read Martha in English, it originally said, “Mary.” The editor changed it all.”

      This is untrue. Apart from 11:1, P66 has Martha in all the traditional places without corrections as Marg also notes above. At other places P66 names both women, even naming Martha first: μαρθαν και μαριαν. (Jn 11:19)

      Bass’ characterisation of the Nestlé-Aland Committee is also unfair. They are not all old, German, or stuffy.

      @Marg, thanks for your write up. It was an enjoyable read.

  6. Majoring on miners can destroy faith.

  7. I can’t tell you how uncomfortable I became reading the supposition about Martha not being present in John 11. The exchange between Jesus and Martha are so endearing to me. To have that missing would be difficult, to say the least. Then, to bring Mary M into the mix was even worse. My mission with her is to correct the assumption that she was a prostitute.
    I was happy to read your conclusion. Thank you.

    1. I love Martha too! I’m glad there are women like Mary M and Martha in the Gospels. There are a few wonderful conversations between Jesus and women in John’s Gospel: https://margmowczko.com/jesus-women-and-theology/

      Mary M’s place among the first Jesus-followers really has been downplayed. Many seem to think she was a penitent prostitute rather than a leading figure. I hope we can correct false assumptions about her.

  8. I’m quite surprised that your response fails to explicitly address Tertullian and Egeria’s mention of Mary? Those are important considerations that can’t just be glossed over as anomalies…

    1. Hi Shannon, this article focuses on P66, and I wrote it because my friends were talking about Dr Bass’s sermon where P66 is mentioned. Dr Bass also mentioned Tertullian and Egeria, so I have them in a footnote with links so that readers can see exactly what these two said.

      I’ve stated clearly what this article is about. Note the title also. My article is not intended to be an exhaustive study of the texts and early comments on John 11. People can read Elizabeth Schrader’s paper if they want more information.

    2. Shannon, Schrader points out that Tertullian seems to have Mary make the Christological confession, but I think she overstates the significance of this. I doubt that Tertullian would have taken care to get the names of women right. Also, the name Martha was a Semitic name, so would have been unfamiliar to many, and it differed from Mary by only one letter, so the two names were easily confused. Similar confusion is to be found in P46, which replaces the Latin name “Junia” with the more familiar Latin name “Julia” at Rom 16:7.

  9. Thanks for linking to my blog. I can also mention that I have written an article on the two sisters (Martha and Mary: ”Bringing Sisters Back Together: Another Look at Luke 10:41-42” in Journal of Biblical Literature 137, Iss. 2, (2018): 439-461. I can send it to you if you do not have access.

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