I have always loved this story about the raising of Lazarus. There are so many things to explore in it. And, as I have mentioned before, Elizabeth (Libbie) Schrader has discovered more to ponder.
In three different early manuscripts [Papyrus 66 from around 200 A.D., Codex Alexandrinus, and Codex Colbertinus] there is no Martha in this story and only one sister. Libbie postulates that THIS Mary is Mary of Bethany but also Mary Magdala or Mary the Tower. And the Martha and Mary mentioned in Luke are two other women from a completely different area.
From these early manuscripts this is the reading of John 11:1-6-“Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So Mary sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Lazarus and his sister, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, Jesus stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” In Papyrus 66, Mary is crossed out and Martha is inserted in her place. Someone physically altered the text.
Jesus is out in the country with his close disciples when he gets word of Lazarus’ illness and he stays there for two more days. Now, I don’t claim to understand Jesus’ nature but I believe he was fully God and fully man and as such, I suspect he knew by the time the messenger had arrived Lazarus had already died. So, he waited to return. He knew he would not be able to get back in time for the funeral and burial so he stayed where he was.
As we learn from Thomas, they all knew it would be dangerous to return to Jerusalem and Bethany is right on the doorstep of the Holy City. Lazarus’ home he shared with his sister was likely a favorite spot for Jesus to stay when he went to Jerusalem. No matter what Jesus did on this trip, there would be trouble.
Mary and Lazarus knew the powers Jesus could use to heal. I’m sure they were aware that Lazarus could have been healed by Jesus-that his death could have been avoided. We don’t have any idea what killed him except that he was ill. We don’t know if it was a sudden illness or something that was ongoing. We don’t know if the man and his sister were reluctant to ask Jesus to come because they knew it would be dangerous-not just for Jesus but for them, too.
And Jesus did come-too late. Lazarus had been dead four days when Jesus arrived and Mary was still observing shiva-the week of mourning following the death of a loved one. People would have been sitting with her to assure she had what she needed.
With no Martha, it is Mary who ran out to greet Jesus and told him if he had been there, Lazarus would not have died. But, she was comforted in knowing Lazarus would be raised again at the end of time.
And Jesus tells her she does not have to wait, that because he, Jesus, is the resurrection and the life-Lazarus can be raised right now. And, then Mary does something really brave and remarkable. She acts on her faith in this man, Jesus, and she asks for the stone to be rolled away from Lazarus’ tomb. She is sure the smell will be horrific and the thought of disturbing her brother’s body opens anew the wounds of grief but she says, “Roll away the stone.”
And Lazarus is alive again-bound in his burial shroud but alive again. Lazarus hears Jesus’ voice and comes out of the grave.
Jesus took a moment for his own grief over losing his friend, perhaps that he wasn’t there to help him when he was ill. Maybe Jesus is weeping for all of us at that moment-and maybe for himself, too. All of us must die. Lazarus eventually died again. Jesus died.
So, in the story, if there is no Martha it is Mary who makes the Christological confession: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Considering this and that this Mary is the one who anointed Jesus for burial before his death, and that she is most likely ALSO Mary the Tower (Magdala) who was the first to see the resurrected Christ-one can understand how splitting Mary into three people: Mary Magdala, Mary of Bethany and Martha would reduce her authority as an apostle, her commission from Christ to preach about the resurrection. And, by the time the Christian Scriptures were canonized, it is possible the only way John’s gospel could be included was to reduce Mary The Tower’s role and authority. The light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not understand it.
Libbie also notes that Magdala means “tower” while gdala means “make great”-a verb and adding the “ma” converts it to a noun to become tower. Perhaps this Magdala isn’t a place but a title given to Mary of Bethany as a recognition of her faith and actions around Jesus’ true nature, his death and his resurrection. And, her commission and authority to preach the good news from the freshly resurrected Jesus himself. Simon’s name was changed from Simon to Peter The Rock and Mary became Mary The Tower.
It is time for the Christian world to look again at our old manuscripts with magnifying glasses and consider what we might have been missing the last 2000 years. We can love all the original apostles, male and female. During Lent we always have this opportunity to spend time at the tomb-to recognize we are mortal that nothing we do here in the physical world in our physical bodies is permanent. But we have this promise, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And I hope this promise from Jesus can help us do brave and outrageous things in Jesus’ name-just as Mary The Tower and Peter The Rock did. I hope we can all hear the master’s voice when he says, “My child, come forth!”