Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany

“Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:5).

Mary and Martha of Bethany are well-known Bible figures. The two sisters seem to have had different temperaments, and their characters are often polarised in the retelling of their story. These polarised characterisations are caricatures that can obscure the real picture of the women, their faith, and their situation. This article looks at some of the information we have on Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. My hope is that this information may give a more accurate picture of these friends of Jesus.

Mary and Martha’s Marital Status

Mary and Martha are mentioned in each of the four Gospels in various narratives.[1] There is no mention of fathers or husbands in any of these accounts. It was unusual for women to be unmarried in Bible times, so it is possible that the sisters were young orphaned women who had not yet married or were widows who had not remarried. Another possibility is that Mary and Martha belonged to an ascetic Jewish sect and had chosen singleness and celibacy.

It is believed that a colony of ascetics (perhaps Essenes) lived in Bethany.[2] One of the Dead Sea Scrolls suggests that these ascetics had a hospice in Bethany for the ritually unclean which included lepers (11QTemple 46:16-47:5).[3] The ascetics were known for their acts of charity and it is likely their hospice also helped and accommodated the poor and destitute. Jesus may have been in such a hospice when he announced, “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (Matt. 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8).

Mary and Martha’s Age

Jewish women were usually married by sixteen years of age. (It was not uncommon for Jewish girls to be legally betrothed before their twelfth birthday and married by their fourteenth.) Because we do not know about any husbands or children, it is difficult to estimate the ages of Mary and Martha and their brother.

Martha is often, but not always, mentioned first among her siblings, so she was probably the oldest (e.g., John 11:5). In comparison with his sisters, Lazarus plays a more passive role in the Gospel narratives, so he may have been considerably younger. His young age would have made his death especially lamentable.[4]

Mary and Martha’s Wealth

If we assume the narratives about Mary and Martha were not set in a hospice run by an ascetic community, then the women appear to have been wealthy with a home large enough to accommodate Jesus and his entourage. Moreover, Mary had in her possession very expensive perfume that was worth a year’s wages (John 12:3-8). Or had the perfume been a donation from a wealthy benefactor for the work of the poor? Did Mary use perfume to anoint Jesus that was meant to be sold to help the poor? (See Matt. 26:8-9, 11; Mark 14:4-5, 7; John 12:4-5, 8.)

Martha seems to have been regarded as the mistress of the home (Luke 10:38).[5] The name “Martha” is the feminine form of an Aramaic word meaning “lord” or “master.” Perhaps “Martha” was an Aramaic title (or term of respect) rather than a name, much like the Greek title or (term of respect) “Kyria” which is used in 2 John 1:1, 5 for a lady.

Several wealthy women in the New Testament appear to have been the mistresses of their own homes with no mention of a husband or father: Lydia, Nympha, Chloe, Mary of Jerusalem, the chosen lady. Other New Testament women are mentioned as being of independent means. Jesus’ ministry was sponsored by Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and many other women who accompanied Jesus and ministered to him out of their own personal resources (Luke 8:2-3). It was not rare for a woman to be independently wealthy and a householder in New Testament times.

Mary and Martha’s Faith

From the short biblical accounts of the sisters, it seems Martha was the more practical of the two (Luke 10:40; John 11:39; 12:2) and Mary the more emotional (John 11:32-33; 12:3). Mary also seems to have been more popular (John 11:45). She still seems to be more popular today.

Martha has been unfairly maligned by some because of just one incident (Luke 10:38-42). However, she made some astute statements of faith concerning Jesus’ identity and concerning eternal life. These statements are recorded in John chapter 11.

Martha answered, “I know he [her deceased brother Lazarus] will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”  John 11:24 (cf. Josephus, Wars, 2.8.11 (154))
“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” John 11:27

This second statement is very similar to Peter’s recorded in Matthew 16:15-17:

“But what about you?” he [Jesus] asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.”

We are told that Peter could not have known that Jesus was the Christ (or Messiah) and the Son of God unless God the Father had revealed it to him. Likewise, Martha’s faith statements were probably based on divine revelation.

Mary and Martha were both devoted disciples of Jesus. Sitting at someone’s feet was the usual posture of a disciple who was being taught, and in Luke 10:39 we see Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet. Perhaps some of the other men and women who travelled with Jesus were also sitting with Mary while Martha was busy preparing a meal.[6]

Being hospitable and serving a meal was an almost sacred duty in the culture of that time. Martha was doing a very good thing, the expected thing, but Mary had chosen the better option.[7] Mary had chosen the one thing that was really necessary: to be with Jesus and learn from him (Luke 10:42).[8] Jesus promises that Mary’s choice to be trained as one of his disciples will not be taken away from her.

Later, Mary would choose to do another fine thing when she lovingly anointed Jesus with her expensive perfume in preparation for his death (John 12:1-8; cf. Matt. 26:6-13; Mark 14: 3-9). Did Mary knowingly anoint Jesus as a prophetic act? (cf. John 12:7). Mary was misunderstood and criticised because of her extravagant act of ministry, but Jesus defended her actions. He told the men who were harassing her, “Leave her alone” (John 12:7: cf. Mark 14:6). And he prophesied, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matt. 26:13; Mark 14:9).[9]

Mary and Martha would continue to be devoted disciples and friends of Jesus. We learn nothing, though, about Lazarus’s faith or his character, but he does become a bit of a celebrity after Jesus raised him from death (John 12:1-2, 9). He then became the target of the chief priests’ plot to assassinate him (John 12:10-11). Ben Witherington III suggests Lazarus is the beloved disciple who is mentioned several times in John’s Gospel. If Witherington’s suggestion is correct, then we know quite a bit more about him (cf. John 11:3).[10]

Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany

Jesus at Bethany

The name Bethany (beth anya) means “Poor House” or “House of Misery”.[11] The village may have been named after the hospice for the sick and destitute, but Jesus did not experience poverty in Bethany. Instead, he experienced the warmth, love, and hospitality of dear friends.

Jesus spent a lot of time during the last weeks of his earthly ministry in Bethany. He began his ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday from Bethany (Mark 11:1; Luke 19:29), and he stayed in Bethany the following week (Matt. 21:17; 26:6; Mark 11:11-12; John 12:1ff). Jesus may have spent the last few days before his crucifixion in Martha’s home. Furthermore, according to Luke’s Gospel, after his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven from near Bethany (Luke 24:50-51).

Mary and Martha were both women of great faith, spiritual acuity, and devotion. The church needs Marys and Marthas, people who will be exuberant, pragmatic, and insightful in their devotion and service to the Lord Jesus, people who are always choosing the more necessary thing of spending time with Jesus and learning from him.

Footnotes

[1] Mary and Martha are mentioned only in Luke’s and John’s Gospels. In Luke 10:38-42, where Martha is serving and Mary is learning at Jesus’ feet, Lazarus and Bethany are not mentioned.
The following are the passages in John’s Gospel that mention Mary, Martha and/or Lazarus in John’s Gospel: Lazarus raised from the dead and Martha’s faith statements: John 11:1-45 here; Mary’s anointing of Jesus: John 12:1-11 here; cf. Matthew 26:6-13 here and Mark 14:3-9 here. (I believe the account in Luke 7:36-50 refers to a previous, unrelated anointing by an unknown woman that occurred earlier in Jesus’ ministry.)

[2] The name “Essenes” has been given to the community that collected and produced the writings we know as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars, however, are now debating if there really was a sect called the Essenes and if they produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Josephus provides a lot of information about an ascetic sect who he refers to (perhaps incorrectly) as the Essenes in The Wars of the Jews, Book 2, chapter 8, 2-13 (119-160). Josephus admired these people and their merciful, harmonious, and devout way of living. The ascetic sect associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls began in around 100 BC and vanished after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. (John the Baptist was also an ascetic.)

[3] The house of Simon the Leper was in Bethany. Simon the Leper (Shimon ha’tsarua) may be a mistranslation of his real Hebrew name “Simon the Devout” (Shimon ha’tsanua). Lepers were isolated from society. They usually didn’t hold dinner parties (cf. Matt. 26:6; Mark 14:3)! On the other hand, it seems that there were lepers in Bethany. Is it possible that a man with leprosy had guests for dinner? (See footnote 5.)

[4] Mary, Martha and Lazarus may not have been blood relations. Josephus writes that the Essenes chose other people’s children who were pliable and capable of learning and that they regarded these children as their own (Josephus, Wars 2.8.2 (120)).

[5] In Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, it is clear that the anointing occurred in Simon the Leper’s house (Mark 14:3; Matt 26:6). Mary, however, is not identified in these accounts. In John’s Gospel, the anointing of Jesus by Mary seems to have occurred in Martha’s house. Or perhaps Martha had been helping out at Simon’s home (John 12:2, cf. Luke 10:38, 40). The connection between Simon and Martha, Mary and Lazarus is unclear. Perhaps Simon was their deceased father and their house was stilled known as the house of Simon the Leper, or the house of Simon the Devout. (See footnote 3.) Perhaps Simon was a wealthy man, afflicted with leprosy, who had bequeathed his home to the community in Bethany. It is probable that all the Gospel references to a house in Bethany refer to the one communal home, or establishment, of ascetics, and that Martha was the mistress of that house (cf. Josephus, Wars 2.8.4 (125)). (We hear nothing about Simon the Leper/Devout in the New Testament, unless he is Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7:36-50. In this Gospel passage, there is an account of a previous anointing from an unnamed, unknown woman. I believe Simon the Leper/Devout and Simon the Pharisee are two different Simons.)

[6] It has been suggested by some that Martha was distracted by “much ministry” (pollēn diakonian) rather than by caring for her guests (Luke 10:40). I am keeping my mind open to this suggestion, but am not convinced of it. See Mary Stromer Hanson’s comments in the comments section below.

[7] NT Wright comments on the serious social ramifications of Mary’s act of sitting at Jesus’ feet here.

[8] There is a textual variant with the Greek text of Luke 10:42. That is, there is a longer and shorter version. Dorothy Lee writes about the NIV’s use of the longer reading and its rendering of Luke 10:42a: “but few things are needed—or indeed only one.” Dorothy believes this verse is about food and makes an interesting observation.

Here the interpretation shifts so that it is clearer that Jesus is speaking about food and its preparation: only a few dishes are needed, and indeed one dish is probably sufficient. It is more apparent now that the choice lies not between serving and listening to the word but rather between laboring with elaborate forms of hospitality and paying heed to Jesus’s teaching.

[Martha] is an example of how service can go awry if it moves away from simplicity of life through cultural demands and loses its focus on the word of Jesus. Mary is an example of an authentic disciple who knows where the center lies. Martha, too, is a disciple who shows exemplary faith in Jesus in her welcome of him, yet she needs to rediscover the same center and to live without anxiety for provisions.
Dorothy A. Lee, The Ministry of Women in the New Testament: Reclaiming the Biblical Vision for Church Leadership (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021), 52 and 53.

[9] Jenny Rae Armstrong has written a beautiful and powerful short piece on Mary’s anointing of Jesus here.

[10] Ben Witherington III writes about the possibility of Lazarus being the “beloved disciple” in his book What have they done with Jesus?: Beyond Strange Theories and Bad History—Why We Can Trust the BibleThe transcript of his lecture entitled The Historical Figure of the Beloved Disciple in the 4th Gospel can be read here.

[11] Others believe that Bethany may mean “House of dates” or “House of figs.” Bethany was a natural oasis and known for its trees which produced olives, figs, almonds, and carobs.

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Images

1. Relief of Mary and Martha with Jesus, by Karl Gundelach, over the entrance to the Gartenkirche St Marien, Hannover. (Source: Wikimedia)
2. Map of Israel in Jesus’ time showing the proximity of Bethany to Jerusalem. Bethany was only two miles from Jerusalem which made it a perfect location for a hospice for pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem who became ritually unclean and were unable to participate in the Jewish festivals. © Visual Bible Alive.


Further Reading

Bargil Pixner, Paths of the Messiah and Sites of the Early Church from Galilee to Jerusalem (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 227-330, here.
Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 2, see chapter 8, paragraphs 2-13 here.

Related Articles

Partnering Together: Jesus and Women
Jesus had many female followers – many!
Was Jesus Poor?
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
The Chosen Lady in 2 John
Rahab and Lydia: Two Faith-filled Bible Women
3 things wise disciples do to build unshakeable houses

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

25 thoughts on “Mary, Martha and Lazarus of Bethany

  1. ” Was Jesus thinking about this hospice when he said “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” (Mat 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8).

    Wow, what a thought!

  2. Yeah, I think a few elements in the narratives resonate with the idea that Martha and Mary were ascetics and associated with a hospice.

  3. Look at my new book which is the result of my MA thesis in NT Biblical Studies: The New Perspective on Mary and Martha. Wipf and Stock, 2013. The Luke 10:38-42 passage has many textual variants in the Greek which indicates controversy from the earliest copies (P45 and P75). There is no reason to think Martha was busy with the work of a hostess because diakonia can indicate many kinds of service. I don’t think Mary was in the house at all. Why doesn’t she speak? She is not there. Where is Mary? Jesus knows because Martha asks him, “Tell her therefore, that she may give me a hand.” Mary is out in the countryside evangelizing with Jesus. Martha’s worry is that Mary is gone, not with her. This new interpretation makes a much more meaningful story about forming new family and letting go of those most precious to us to follow their call.

  4. A Very Informative Subject indeed. Personally I Believe Martha Was The Oldest More So Because In Luke Chapter 10 Verse 38, ” Martha Opened Her Home For Him” NIV

    With This Statement Alone, Together With The Discussed Points, I Believe Martha Was The Oldest.

    GOD Bless You All

    1. I think Martha was the oldest too.

  5. Thanks for your thoughts, Randy. However, the Bible nowhere indicates that Mary of Bethany was a prostitute or even that she was considered an outcast by her neighbours. And I explain in the article another way Mary could have got her hands on the expensive perfume.

    Perhaps, the woman in Luke 7:36-50 was not a prostitute. In the biblical text she is called a “sinner” (hamartōlos) rather than a “prostitute” (pornē). The Greek word for prostitute occurs in Matthew 21:31-32, Luke 15:13, 1 Corinthians 6:15-16, and elsewhere in the New Testament, but not in Luke 7 and not in any passage about Mary of Bethany.

    The anointing story in Luke 7:36-50 (which happened early on in Jesus’ ministry) has a few similarities with the anointing story involving the woman/Mary of Bethany (which happened during the last week before Jesus’ crucifixion) and is recorded in Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, and John 12:1-8. But there are also considerable differences between the Lukan story and the other anointing stories.

    Mary of Bethany (or the woman of Bethany) offered Jesus an extravagant gift, and she used it to prophetically proclaim the Lord’s death by anointing his body for burial. Jesus accepted her gift and acknowledges, “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7 NIV).

    Mary’s practical proclamation occurred before the male disciples would accept Jesus’ own pronouncements of his death.

    Jesus’ female disciples are more closely associated with Jesus’ death, as well as his resurrection, than his male disciples. His female disciples, who had travelled with from Galilee and ministered to him, were witnesses of his death and burial (Matt. 27:55-56; Mark 14:40-41).

    Women were the first to proclaim Jesus’ death and the first to proclaim his resurrection. This is a beautiful truth!

    There is no doubt that Jesus made an enormous impact in Mary’s life. Jesus was her friend, as he was of Martha and Lazarus also. He restored life to her brother Lazarus. He taught her as he did his other disciples. He never chastised Mary, told her to calm down, or hindered her actions. But he told the disapproving men, “Leave her alone!”

    Anyway, if Mary was a prostitute, the Bible simply doesn’t state it.

  6. Hey, Marg.

    Can you provide some documentation for the part about “Simon the Leper (schimon ha-zanua) may be a mistranslation of his real Hebrew name “Simon the Devout” (schimon ha-zarua)” ? It appears that these are reversed (tsara’ is the root for ‘leprosy’; tsana’ would have to be the other root. Tsana’ seems to have to do with humility or modesty (the verb occurs only in Micah 6:8), which might be extended to the concept of devoutness..

    1. Hi Timothy,

      I put forward this idea as a speculation. I can’t find a credible source for the information, but I think a nun-resh confusion somewhere in the oral transmission of the story in Hebrew (or Aramaic?) sounds way more plausible than a leper holding a dinner party.

      I just checked what you wrote, and I’ve confused the nun and resh! Oh dear. Thanks for the correction. I’ve fixed it now.

      1. It seems possible. N and R are both liquid consonants, so there might be some interchange. Hebrew ben and Aramaic bar could be an example, as well as the variant spellings Nebuchadnezzar and Nebuchadrezzar.

        1. Really appreciate your input on this, and elsewhere. I don’t want to disseminate flawed, half-baked information. There’s enough of that already on the internet.

  7. Someone mentioned that Lazarus was about 14 years of age. Can you tell me where that comes from? I have looked at all sorts of Concordances, and other books over the years and I cannot ascertain where that information could have come from.

    1. Hi Pat,

      I haven’t heard anyone give Lazarus an age. So I don’t know where they came up with that number. I had a quick search of second and third-century Christian documents, but I couldn’t see that anyone had given him an age.

  8. I am an author who published just over a year ago a book based on Martha and her family, as a vehicle for describing the culture and background of the New Testament and the story of the gospels. It was interesting to see the ideas in this article, as I had to face all the sorts of questions mentioned and come to some “educated guesses” about them. I came to some of the same conclusions! I loved thinking about this wonderful family and seeing the coming of Jesus through their eyes. If anyone’s interested, it’s “Through Martha’s Eyes” – https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/historical/through-marthas-eyes/

    1. Hi Corinne,

      Your book looks fantastic! The blurb and recommendation by David Wenham are compelling.

      If you’d like to send me a copy (book or pdf), I could write about it and share it on Twitter and Facebook, and perhaps write a review on my website.

  9. Oh, yes please. That would be lovely! (I studied under David Wenham at theological college – I was delighted with the commendation that he gave the book, and, as a first time author, I’m sure it helped.)
    Given that you’re in Australia, it’s probably easiest (and a lot cheaper!) to email you a pdf, if you’re happy with that. You have my email address from this, I assume, so if you send me an email, I’ll reply and attach the pdf.
    And one other comment on what you wrote: I was particularly delighted that you picked up what many seem to overlook – the fact that, in the synoptics, it’s Peter who gives the great statement of faith about the identity of Jesus, but in John’s gospel it’s Martha! Too often Martha is remembered for the one thing she gets wrong and not for the one thing she gets spectacularly right!
    I look forward to hearing from you!

  10. Hello – I am wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing the resources you used that support the argument that Lazarus was the younger of the 3 siblings. i am working on a project where I am reading Lazarus as a child, which, I agree, would make his death more lamentable, but is also consistent with Jesus’ care and concern with children.

    1. Hello Shakeema,

      I didn’t use a resource other than the biblical text. Lazarus is mentioned after his sisters in John 11:5, and the sisters are given prominence in other verses. This indicates that sisters are older than Lazarus. Also, Lazarus is not actually called a “man” in the Greek text even though some translations use the word “man” in John 11:1. (The Greek word in John 11:1 is tis meaning ” a certain person.)

      I suspect Lazarus is a youth.

      I hope this helps
      Marg

  11. Witherington suggests that Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ dad was the Pharisee Simon the leper. If true, it would explain why the girls were unwed, why they had so much executive authority in the household, why young Lazarus was doing women’s work like carrying a water jar to signal the disciples where they could find an available young colt and why their house was available (in the Passover context) for the Last Supper.

    1. Hi Neil,

      I think their dad might have been Simon the Leper. But I also think he had passed or was living separately in quarantine, as lepers didn’t live with their healthy family members and they didn’t hold dinner parties. Then again “leper” may be the result of a spelling mistake. (Did you happen to see footnotes 3 and 5?)

      The person carrying the water jar and the master of the house in Mark 14:13-15//Luke 22:10-12 are two different people. I see no reason to assume the person carrying the water jar was Lazarus. But Witherington clearly suggests that Lazarus is the host of the Last Supper:

      “In Jn. 11 there was a reference to a beloved disciple named Lazarus. In Jn. 12 there was a mention of a meal at the house of Lazarus. If someone was hearing these tales in this order without access to the Synoptic Gospels it would be natural to conclude that the person reclining with Jesus in Jn. 13 was Lazarus. There is another good reason to do so as well. It was the custom in this sort of dining that the host would recline with or next to the chief guest. The story as we have it told in Jn. 13 likely implies that the Beloved Disciple is the host then.” (Source)

  12. I just stumbled across your site this week… I think you’d find the work of Mary Stromer Hanson in her book, “The New Perspective on Mary and Martha” interesting… She argues that Mary and Martha both “sit at Jesus’s feet” in that they were both disciples. Martha has received Jesus into her home and is actually engaging in ministry from her home (diakanos) and that there is no indication in grammar that Mary is actually there… perhaps that Mary has left to pursue ministry, sent by Jesus as the 72 were sent out earlier in the chapter. Martha wants Mary to come home… and Jesus offers comfort that Martha need not be troubled, because Mary has chosen a good thing.

    1. Hi Katie,

      Mary Stromer Hanson has left a comment above. She has left more comments in response to my article on the ministry of the Seven in Acts 6, here. John N. Collins, a world expert on diakon– words, is also part of that conversation.

      I’ve read a fair bit of Mary’s work but I’m unconvinced of her take of diakonia and diakonein in Luke 10:40 (cf. diēkonei in John 12:2), but her premise is worth considering and keeping in mind. And I do not think Martha was simply a housewife.

      I have studied, and continue to study, diakon– words in Greek, especially its usage in the New Testament and early Christian writings. (I have a chapter in Deacons and Diakonia in Early Christianity: The First Two Centuries, Bart J. Koet, Edwina Murphy and Esko Ryökäs (eds) (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2018). John N. Collins also contributed to this book.)

      I write about diakon– words and the ministry of women here.

  13. Hi Marg,

    Thanks for your post. You’re my go-to for both reading and recommending egalitarian readings of Scripture. I’ve learned so much from you!

    I came to this post wondering if there’s more to be said about the significance of Mary of Bethany’s anointing of Jesus. Was the significance that she was prophetic in preparing him for death, or priestly, because I think only priests could anoint other priests? I haven’t yet found anything deliberating on this. Additionally, what do you think we make of Jesus’ words after her actions: “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (Matt. 26:13; Mark 14:9)?

    1. Hi Alyssa,

      Mary’s anointing of Jesus was not a priestly or official anointing. The way I see it is that she prophetically proclaimed the Lord’s death by anointing his body for burial. Jesus accepted her gift and acknowledges, “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial” (John 12:7 NIV). Anointing a dead body was a role of women.

  14. Marg, I found so much to think about in this article. Thanks for sharing your scholarship. Could it be possible that Simon WAS a leper whom Jesus healed, maybe early in his ministry? That this astounding introduction to the family fueled their devotion and love for Jesus. That would make the celebration at his house especially sweet. Thoughts?

    1. Hi Patti, Perhaps. Because leprosy was such a dreaded disease that made people ritually unclean, however, I can’t imagine calling a cleansed person a leper. But who knows?

      In the footnotes I suggest, “Perhaps Simon was a wealthy man, afflicted with leprosy, who had bequeathed his home to the community in Bethany.

      It’s a mystery.

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