Martha: Busy Hostess or Dragon Slayer?
The summer before my senior year of high school, a new book came out called Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. This book articulated what I had heard around the halls of my church growing up. I remember women vocally identifying as either a “Martha” or a “Mary” with the ultimate goal of becoming more like the disciple Mary who sat at Jesus’ feet, while bemoaning our Martha-like overworking tendencies. (Ironically, the “Marthas” were the ones responsible for running most of the church programs.)
As medieval historian Beth Allison Barr points out in The Making of Biblical Womanhood, Martha continues to be used as a prototype of doers and homemakers in books written for women. And while this caricature of Martha is good for selling books on biblical womanhood, is it too simplistic?
The prevailing impression we have of Martha is shaped by a thin reading of Luke 10. It includes the episode near the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, where, while teaching, he exhorts Martha for being overly worried with housework: “Martha, Martha …”
While the meaning of this story is debated by scholars, it has dominated the North American church’s image of Martha. Too often the Martha described elsewhere in the Gospels has been forgotten. The result is a strawman of the real Martha.
In early church history and during the Reformation, Martha and her sister Mary were viewed as a yin-and-yang representation of action versus contemplation. They were “as two parts of the same life rather than as two opposed ways of life,” writes Episcopal priest and scholar Margaret Arnold.
During this period, Martha’s action was not separated from the life of the church but was viewed through the lens of discipleship, worship, and ministry. And particularly during the medieval period, John’s narrative of Martha and Jesus provided the biblical foundation for a legend that portrays Martha as a Spirit-filled heroine who slays a dragon, raises the dead, and preaches to kings.
We often dismiss or are suspicious of medieval legends. But over the past few decades, theologians and biblical scholars have begun to realize the importance of the effects of a biblical text in church history on the contemporary interpretation of that text. The German word for these effects is called Wirkungsgeschichte, an examination of the various interpretations that a passage has received throughout church history. This analysis can push us to reread that passage and perhaps learn something new from it.
The legend of Martha helps us see from Scripture that there is much more to Martha than a stressed-out hostess. In fact, it might better capture the biblical portrayal of Martha than our popular books and writings today.
The legend of Saint Martha
According to Diane Peters, who translated the story, the legend of Saint Martha arose in the latter part of the 12th century from a discovered text claimed to have been written by Martha’s maidservant Marcella but likely manufactured by the monks of Tarascon. The text was supposedly written in Hebrew but later translated into the extant Latin by Syntyche (of Philippians 4:2).
Martha’s legend diverges somewhat from other contemporary legends about female saints, such as Theodora, Margaret, Mary Magdalene, and Catherine. These narratives highlight the chastity of the women: their beauty, virginity, ability to overcome sexual advances, or penance for sexual sin. In contrast, Martha’s beauty and virginity are nothing more than a footnote in her hagiography, which instead emphasizes her courage, intellect, and pastoral ministry—qualities that were more commonly found in legends about male saints.
The legend begins with the claim that Martha and her siblings were of royal lineage, born of Syrus and Eucharia and inheriting from their mother three towns that they owned: Bethany, Magdala, and part of Jerusalem. Martha was well-educated, proficient in Hebrew, and a righteous woman according to the Law.
In the Marcella account, Martha is described as having “authority before all her relatives because she was more capable and had a greater abundance of intelligence and honesty.” Another Latin account describes her as having the “soul of a man in her female breast.”
Martha is described as a great and generous hostess of many, including Jesus, whom she served because of her love for him. Her actions in Luke 10 are compared to those of Abraham, Lot, and Joshua, whose hospitality pleased God.
Likewise, Jesus is depicted as loving Martha and preferring her house for his lodging. Marcella’s version celebrates Martha’s role as hostess, bestowing on her great dignity, noting, “She fed him who feeds all creatures … whom many prophets and kings wished to see and did not see, to hear and did not hear: she received and fed this Guest.”
The legend says that after Jesus’ death and resurrection, many of his followers were persecuted. Martha, Mary, Lazarus, Saint Maximinus—the man who supposedly baptized the siblings—and a group of believers were placed in a boat on the Mediterranean without oars or sails. They miraculously did not die at sea but landed on the shore of France at Marseille.
As they traveled north along the river Rhône, the siblings evangelized and converted people to faith in Jesus. Martha is specifically singled out as being “highly eloquent and clear in speech.” The siblings eventually came to the region of Aix, where they learned of a great dragon, half beast and half fish, living in the woods across the river between Avignon and Arles.
This dragon, which had horns and wings and would breathe fire, was born of two beasts, Leviathan (as found in Isaiah 27:1 and Job 41:1) and Bonasus (a mythical medieval animal). It hid in the river, drowning ships that passed by.
The people of Tarascon implored Martha to get rid of this beast, which no man had been able to defeat. Upon coming to the dragon eating a man, she threw holy water at it and held up a wooden cross, which froze the dragon in place. Martha then tied it with her belt and gave it over to the townspeople, who killed it with their spears and stones.
After defeating the dragon, Martha took residence in Tarascon, where she was “occupied in prayers and fastings”—praying a hundred times daily and eating only once a day—established a convent, and built a church in honor of the Virgin Mary. In the Marcella legend, she is like John the Baptist: walking around barefoot while wearing sheepskin, a turban of camelhair on her head and a belt of horsehair tied in knots around her waist.
Martha also ministered through preaching and healing—including raising back to life a young man who had drowned trying to cross the river to hear her preach—which gave her great fame, according to the legend. When Martha placed her hand on people, they received the Holy Spirit, it claimed, and when she placed her hand on the sick, they were healed. She also cast out demons and turned water into wine.
The Marcella legend noted that “her sermons were received by kings and nobles” and that list of the thousands of people “converted and baptized through her exhortations to faith in Christ is too long to describe in detail.”
The legend ends with a description of Martha’s death, burial, and the miracles that ensued at her tomb, where even King Clovis of France (who reigned 481–511) came and received healing. After her death, Marcella left for Sclavonia (now Slavonia, Croatia) and preached the gospel for 10 years until her death. Since the 15th century, Martha’s legend has been celebrated and remembered in Tarascon, France, with the annual summer Festival of the Tarasque.
But what should we make of this myth? Christian myths and legends of the medieval period were used as teaching and discipleship tools to inspire faith and good works. The Marcella version concludes similarly: “It may be an exemplum for pious imitation for the minds of the faithful.”
We might think of legends of Christian saints as dramatizations of what faithful Christian discipleship should look like. It is extraordinary that Martha was described in priestly language (throwing holy water, showing the sign of a cross, preaching, and leading a church) during a time in which women could not hold priestly office or be ordained. The legends unite the Martha of Luke 10 with the Martha of John 11 but focus more heavily on her role in the latter.
Martha, the beloved disciple
In John 11, we find one of the greatest miracle stories in the Gospels: the raising of Lazarus, a man who had been deceased for four days. While Lazarus is a passive character in the narrative, the longest conversation in the passage is between Jesus and Lazarus’s sister, Martha.
John’s portrait of Martha is of a beloved disciple of Jesus who engages in theological discussion with the Lord and who makes a great confession about him. The Martha of John 11 takes initiative, is outspoken, and engages with Jesus about the resurrection of the dead. Much like his encounter with the Samaritan woman in chapter 4, Jesus intentionally meets Martha on the outside of town, engages with her in theological discussion, and finally reveals his identity to her by giving one of the greatest statements in John’s gospel. Their conversation is the theological interpretative lens for the miracle that follows.
In John’s portrayal of Martha, we learn right away she is someone whom Jesus loved (11:5). As it is noted in the Marcella legend, it is rare to find in the Gospels a person identified by name as someone whom Jesus loved. Unlike the Samaritan woman, Martha (and Mary) is named.
John also shows Martha to be a true disciple of Christ. When she hears that Jesus is outside of town, Martha is the first sister to run out to meet him. She speaks first: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask” (vv. 21–22).
Martha’s two statements, “Lord, if you had been here” and “Yet even now I know,” correspond to what we find in many of the Psalms, which begin with a complaint about God’s seeming inaction but end with a confident statement of faith in God’s character (see Psalms 10 and 13).
The legend views Martha’s pleading not as insubordination but as confident faith:
And because St. Martha knew her holy Guest loved her, and did not doubt that it was possible for him to do anything, and because she had heard that he had raised the daughter of the synagogue ruler and the widow’s son, she complained bitterly to the Lord when he returned to Bethany about the death of her brother. … O the unwavering faith of this holy woman!
Jesus replies, “Your brother will rise again” (John 11:23). Martha then responds, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” The majority Jewish belief from the Second Temple period onward was that God would raise the dead at the end of the age. Thus, Martha’s response to Jesus was based on this limited understanding of the resurrection.
Jesus values Martha enough to teach her in the moment: “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is telling her not to view the resurrection as a futuristic event. Instead, his message is radical: I am the resurrection. I am the God who raises the dead. The eschaton is already here! New Testament scholar C. K. Barrett nicely puts it, “Where he is, resurrection and life must be.”
Jesus goes on to disciple Martha: “The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Jesus entrusts a deeply theological claim—a divine revelation—about himself to a woman. Just as he entrusted his identity to a Samaritan woman and the message of his resurrection to Mary Magdalene, Jesus entrusts this “I am” statement to Martha. Given the dialogue in Luke 10, we might expect Jesus to offer the revelation instead to her sister Mary, whom many consider to be the truer disciple.
Yet it is to Martha Jesus gives this statement. He invites her to believe that he can begin the resurrection of the dead even now, which would include raising her brother. In John 11:14–15, Jesus tells his disciples that Lazarus’s death (and thereby his raising) has happened so that they may believe.
In verse 42, Jesus’ prayer reveals that the miracle was to take place so that the crowd may believe. But Jesus asks Martha to believe before the sign. He tells her specifically that if she believes, she will see the glory of God (v. 40). Not only does Jesus want Martha to believe before the sign, but also he wants her to see with her own eyes the Messiah she confesses.
Later, when she calls her sister Mary, Martha tells her that “the Teacher” has arrived. Jesus relates to both Martha and Mary as their teacher or rabbi, and they are both his disciples.
Finally, John shows Martha to be a person of faith seeking understanding. She responds with one of the greatest christological belief statements we find in the Gospels, one that that is echoed in John’s later letters: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world” (v. 27).
The legend describes her confession in this way: “Martha proved herself to have much more in common with Peter, the chief of the apostles, with Job, with Abraham, and with the Holy Virgin.” Martha’s confession stands in line with the other confessions we find in John’s gospel: John the Baptist’s in 1:29–30, 34; Nathanael’s in 1:49; the Samaritan woman’s in 4:29; and Peter’s in 6:69. It also parallels Peter’s confession in Matthew 16:16: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
But Martha’s confession of faith is most identical to the editorial statement in John 20:31: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” What John wants to accomplish in his audience was already accomplished in Martha, one of the first believers. John wants us to see that Martha’s confession exemplifies the response Jesus desires for all his disciples.
Yet at her brother’s tomb, Martha’s faith is tested. She sees before her eyes the reality of the situation: Her brother has been dead for four days, and his body already smells. Like Peter, who after his great confession in the Gospel of Matthew rebuked Jesus in unbelief, Martha, with her eyes on the tomb, rebukes Jesus in unbelief. Jesus graciously chides her. “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”
With the stone rolled back, Jesus loudly commands, “Lazarus, come out!” And the dead man, Martha’s beloved brother, walks out alive.
Martha represents the conflicted Christian journey of faith. One minute we shout, “I believe!” And within the same day or week, we also plead, “Lord, help my unbelief!” In that sense, Martha is no different than other disciples in the life of faith, like Peter and Thomas. In the end, our faith is a gift from Jesus himself, so that no man or woman may boast (Eph. 2:8–9). He is always there helping us, and even sometimes chiding us, to believe.
Will the real Martha come forward?
While the story of Martha the dragon slayer is only a myth, examining it can help us reflect on the real Martha of John 11 and even on women’s roles in the church today.
First, medieval Christians viewed a woman as capable of defeating a dragon by the power of Jesus. In Martha’s legend, the dragon is a type of Satan and evil. Men and women both keep God’s commands, hold fast to the testimony of Jesus, are a witness to the gospel, and defeat the dragon.
Second, the legend shows us that at least some medieval churches had no problem attributing leadership roles to a female disciple. Even a minority report on what some Christians believed about women in the 12th century should temper any arguments claiming that the idea of women preaching is a contemporary invention.
Third, Martha, through her own example of faith, encourages us to believe in the face of death or impossibilities. Jesus chose to reveal his glory to her by enabling her to believe. Martha also reminds us of the loving gentleness and patience of Jesus, who helps us believe when our faith wavers. As the legend says: “She believed in her heart the faith of the prophets, and the confession of the apostles, and was occupied with good works, and truly, as a consort and participant with them, she shared in the kingdom of heaven.”
Last, Martha, through her service to Jesus, teaches us how to be his servants or deacons. After Martha’s brother is raised, John tells us in chapter 12 that she served Jesus and Lazarus a meal in Bethany. Martha’s faith and discipleship resulted in the kind of service Jesus emulates and commands his disciples to undertake (John 13; Luke 22).
This kind of service isn’t restricted to one gender, nor should it be viewed with disdain. Rather, to be a disciple of Jesus is to serve like Jesus and participate with him in his work in the world. In the words of the legend, “Martha proved herself an apostle among apostles and a disciple among disciples.”
The legend of Saint Martha colorfully dramatizes threads we find in John’s gospel about Martha—disciple, confessor, and person of faith. The church can find an equal yet different discipleship model in her as in her sister Mary. Martha’s Christ-imparted faith was so great that it legendarily conquered a dragon, raised a dead man to life, and gave her comfort at death. Jesus Christ, once Martha’s guest, ultimately welcomed her as his guest in death and will raise her to life in him.
Kristen Padilla is director of the Center for Women in Ministry at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School and author of Now That I’m Called: A Guide for Women Discerning a Call to Ministry.
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