|Virgin, Myrrhbearer, Wonder Worker of Southern Gaul|
|Born||probably Palaestina (modern-day Israel or West Bank)|
|Died||traditionally Larnaca, Cyprus or Tarascon, Gaul (modern-day France)|
|Venerated in||Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Christianity, Anglican Communion, Lutheran Church|
|Feast||July 29 (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran), June 4 (Orthodox)|
|Attributes||broom; keys; ladle|
|Patronage||butlers; cooks; dietitians; domestic servants; homemakers; hotel-keepers; housemaids; housewives; innkeepers; laundry workers; maids; manservants; servants; servers; single laywomen; travellers; Villajoyosa, Spain |
Martha of Bethany (Judæo-Aramaic מַרְתָּא Martâ) is a biblical figure described in the Gospels of Luke and John. Together with her siblings Lazarus and Mary, she is described as living in the village of Bethany near Jerusalem. She was witness to Jesus' resurrection of her brother.
The name Martha is a Latin transliteration of the Koine Greek Μαρθα, itself a translation of the Judæo-Aramaic מַרְתָּא Martâ, "The mistress" or "the lady", from מרה "mistress", feminine of מר "master". The Aramaic form occurs in a Nabatean inscription found at Puteoli, and now in the Naples Museum; it is dated AD. 5 (Corpus Inscr. Semit., 158); also in a Palmyrene inscription, where the Greek translation has the form Marthein, AD. 179.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus visits the home of two sisters named Mary and Martha. The two sisters are contrasted: Martha was "cumbered about many things" while Jesus was their guest, while Mary had chosen "the better part," that of listening to the master's discourse. The name of their village is not recorded, nor any mention of whether Jesus was near Jerusalem:
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
- (Luke 10:38-42, New International Version)
In the Gospel of John, Martha and Mary appear in connection two incidents: the raising from the dead of her brother Lazarus (John 11) and the anointing of Jesus at the home of Simon the Leper (John 12:3).
In the account of the raising of Lazarus, Jesus meets with the sisters in turn: Martha followed by Mary. Martha goes immediately to meet Jesus as he arrives, while Mary waits until she is called. As one commentator notes, "Martha, the more aggressive sister, went to meet Jesus, while quiet and contemplative Mary stayed home. This portrayal of the sisters agrees with that found in Luke 10:38-42." In speaking with Jesus, both sisters lament that he did not arrive in time to prevent their brother's death: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died" (John 11:21,32). But where Jesus' response to Mary is more emotional, his response to Martha is one of teaching calling her to hope and faith:
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. "Lord," Martha said to Jesus, "if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask."
Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
Martha answered, "I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day."
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
"Yes, Lord," she told him, "I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world."
- (John 11:20-27, New International Version)
As the narrative continues, Martha calls her sister Mary to see Jesus. Jesus has Mary bring him to Lazarus' tomb where he commands the stone to be removed from its entrance. Martha here objects, "But, Lord, by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days," to which Jesus replies, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" (John 11:39-40). They then take away the stone and Jesus prays and calls Lazarus forth alive from the tomb.
Martha appears again in John 12:1-8, where she serves at a meal held in Jesus' honor at which her brother is also a guest. The narrator only mentions that the meal takes place in Bethany, while the apparently parallel accounts in the Gospels of Matthew (Matthew 26:6-13) and Mark (Mark 14:3-9) specify that it takes place at the home of one Simon the Leper. As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, "We are surely justified in arguing that, since Matthew and Mark place the scene in the house of Simon, St. John must be understood to say the same; it remains to be proved that Martha could not 'serve' in Simon's house." It is at this meal that a woman (Martha's sister Mary, according to John) anoints Jesus with expensive perfume.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are represented by St. John as living at Bethania, but St. Luke would seem to imply that they were, at least at one time, living in Galilee; he does not mention the name of the town, but it may have been Magdala, and we should thus, supposing Mary of Bethania and Mary Magdalene to be the same person, understand the appellative "Magdalene". The words of St. John (11:1) seem to imply a change of residence for the family. It is possible, too, that St. Luke has displaced the incident referred to in Chapter 10. The likeness between the pictures of Martha presented by Luke and John is very remarkable. The familiar intercourse between the Saviour of the world and the humble family which St. Luke depicts is dwelt on by St. John when he tells us that "Jesus loved Martha, and her sister Mary, and Lazarus" (11:5). Again the picture of Martha's anxiety (John 11:20-21, 39) accords with the picture of her who was "busy about much serving" (Luke 10:40); so also in John 12:2: "They made him a supper there: and Martha served." But St. John has given us a glimpse of the other and deeper side of her character when he depicts her growing faith in Christ's Divinity (11:20-27), a faith which was the occasion of the words: "I am the resurrection and the life." The Evangelist has beautifully indicated the change that came over Martha after that interview: "When she had said these things, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying: The Master is come, and calleth for thee."
According to legend, St Martha left Judea after Jesus's death, around AD 48, and went to Provence with her sister Mary (conflated with Mary Magdalene) and her brother Lazarus. With them, Martha first settled in Avignon (now in France). The Golden Legend, compiled in the 13th century, records the Provençal tradition:
Saint Martha, hostess of our Lord Jesu Christ, was born of a royal kindred. Her father was named Syro and her mother Encharia. The father of her was duke of Syria and places maritime, and Martha with her sister possessed by the heritage of their mother three places, that was, the castle Magdalen, and Bethany and a part of Jerusalem. It is nowhere read that Martha had ever any husband ne fellowship of man, but she as a noble hostess ministered and served our Lord, and would also that her sister should serve him and help her, for she thought that all the world was not sufficient to serve such a guest.
After the ascension of our Lord, when the disciples were departed, she with her brother Lazarus and her sister Mary, also Saint Maximin [actually a 3rd-century figure] which baptized them, and to whom they were committed of the Holy Ghost, and many others, were put into a ship without sail, oars, or rudder governail, of the paynims, which by the conduct of our Lord they came all to Marseilles, and after came to the territory of Aquense or Aix, and there converted the people to the faith. Martha was right facound of speech, and courteous and gracious to the sight of the people.
The Golden Legend also records the grand lifestyle imagined for Martha and her siblings in its entry on Mary Magdalene:
Mary Magdalene had her surname of Magdalo, a castle, and was born of right noble lineage and parents, which were descended of the lineage of kings. And her father was named Cyrus, and her mother Eucharis. She with her brother Lazarus, and her sister Martha, possessed the castle of Magdalo, which is two miles from Nazareth, and Bethany, the castle which is nigh to Jerusalem, and also a great part of Jerusalem, which, all these things they departed among them. In such wise that Mary had the castle Magdalo, whereof she had her name Magdalene. And Lazarus had the part of the city of Jerusalem, and Martha had to her part Bethany. And when Mary gave herself to all delights of the body, and Lazarus entended all to knighthood, Martha, which was wise, governed nobly her brother's part and also her sister's, and also her own, and administered to knights, and her servants, and to poor men, such necessities as they needed. Nevertheless, after the ascension of our Lord, they sold all these things.
A further legend relates that Martha then went to Tarascon, where a monster, the Tarasque, was a constant threat to the population. Martha managed to tame the monster and eventually died in Tarascon, where she was buried. Her tomb is located in the crypt of the local Collegiate Church. Again, the Golden Legend provides the details:
There was that time upon the river of Rhone, in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon, a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side, and could not be beaten with cast of stones ne with other armour, and was as strong as twelve lions or bears; which dragon lay hiding and lurking in the river, and perished them that passed by and drowned ships. He came thither by sea from Galicia, and was engendered of Leviathan, which is a serpent of the water and is much wood, and of a beast called Bonacho, that is engendered in Galicia. And when he is pursued he casts out of his belly behind, his ordure, the space of an acre of land on them that follow him, and it is bright as glass, and what it toucheth it burneth as fire. To whom Martha, at the prayer of the people, came into the wood, and found him eating a man. And she cast on him holy water, and showed to him the cross, which anon was overcome, and standing still as a sheep, she bound him with her own girdle, and then was slain with spears and glaives of the people. The dragon was called of them that dwelled in the country Tarasconus, whereof, in remembrance of him that place is called Tarasconus, which tofore was called Nerluc, and the Black Lake, because there be woods shadowous and black. And there the blessed Martha, by licence of Maximin her master, and of her sister, dwelled and abode in the same place after, and daily occupied in prayers and in fastings, and thereafter assembled and were gathered together a great convent of sisters, and builded a fair church at the honour of the blessed Mary virgin, where she led a hard and a sharp life. She eschewed flesh and all fat meat, eggs, cheese and wine; she ate but once a day. An hundred times a day and an hundred times a night she kneeled down and bowed her knees.
The dedication of the Collegiate Church at Tarascon to St. Martha is believed to date from the 9th century or earlier. Relics found in the church during a reconstruction in 1187 were identified as hers, and reburied in a new shrine at that time. In the Collegiate Church crypt is a late 15th century cenotaph, also known as the Gothic Tomb of Saint Martha. It is the work of Francesco Laurana, a Croatian sculptor of the Italian School, commissioned by King René. At its base are two openings through which the relics could be touched. It bears three low reliefs separated by fluted pilasters representing : on the left, Saint Martha and the Tarasque; in the center, Saint Mary Magdalene born aloft by the angels; on the right, Lazarus as Bishop of Marseille with his mitre and staff. There are two figures on either side: on the left, Saint Front, Bishop of Perrigueux, present at the funeral of Saint Martha, and on the right, Saint Marcelle, Martha’s servant.
The town of Villajoyosa, Spain honors St. Martha as its patron saint and celebrates The Festival of Moors and Christians annually in her honor. The 250-year old festival commemorates the attack on Villajoyosa by Berber pirates led by Zalé-Arraez in 1538, when, according to legend, St. Martha came to the rescue of the townsfolk by causing a flash flood which wiped out the enemy fleet, thus preventing the corsairs from reaching the coast.
In Orthodox Church tradition, though not specifically named as such in the gospels, Martha and Mary were among the Myrrh-bearing Women. These faithful followers of Jesus stood at Golgotha during the Crucifixion of Jesus and later came to his tomb early on the morning following the Sabbath with myrrh (expensive oil), according to the Jewish tradition, to anoint their Lord's body. The Myrrhbearers became the first witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus, finding the empty tomb and hearing the joyful news from an angel.
Orthodox tradition also relates that Martha's brother Lazarus was cast out of Jerusalem in the persecution against the Jerusalem Church following the martyrdom of St. Stephen. His sisters Mary and Martha fled Judea with him, assisting him in the proclaiming of the Gospel in various lands. The three later moved to Cyprus, where Lazarus became the first Bishop of Kition (modern Larnaca). All three died in Cyprus.
Martha appears in the sacred gnostic text Pistis Sophia. She is instructed by the risen Christ on several of the repentances that must be made in order to have salvation. She also makes several prophetic interpretations of different Psalms.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, her feast day is celebrated July 29. Her celebration, classified as a "Semi-Double" in the Tridentine Calendar, became a "Simple" in the General Roman Calendar of Pope Pius XII, a "Third-Class Feast" in the General Roman Calendar of 1962, and an obligatory "Memorial" in the Roman Catholic Calendar of Saints.
In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic traditions, Martha and her sister Mary are commemorated on June 4. They are also commemorated collectively among the Myrrh-bearing Women on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers (the Third Sunday of Pascha—i.e., the second Sunday after Easter). She also figures in the commemorations of Lazarus Saturday (the day before Palm Sunday).
Martha is commemorated on July 29 in the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church (together with her siblings Mary and Lazarus) and in the Calendar of saints of the Episcopal Church and the Church of England (together with her sister Mary).
A number of churches are dedicated to St. Martha including:
|Type||Oil on canvas|
|Dimensions||63 cm × 103.5 cm (25 in × 41 in)|
|Location||National Gallery, London|