Dem bones…whose bones are in the Gospel?: Lent 5

Dem bones…whose bones are in the Gospel?: Lent 5

Year A, The fifth Sunday in Lent
March 26, 2023

Year A: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11;John 11:1-45

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Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones 

Now hear the word of the Lord – 


Can these bones live? The Hebrew Scripture of the valley of the dry bones coming together and living, and the Gospel story of the rising of Lazarus from death to life, is a preview of coming attractions. It prefigures the death and resurrection of Jesus. Death does not have the final answer. 

In this Gospel story of the rising of Lazarus, Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and Jesus are the central characters. What if I tell you that this scripture is corrupted, that Martha is a character that was added to this story in the second century? The altering of this text is my focus today – a bit different from my usual sermons. It may seem more like a seminary New Testament class lecture. You may ask, does it really matter? I think so. It should matter to all of us, but particularly to women for the addition of Martha takes away from the previous priority place of Mary. It dismisses who she is as a woman and follower of Jesus. This has been the story of women for centuries and here it is in our Holy Scriptures. 

 A week ago Thursday I participated in a Zoom meeting conversation between Diana Butler Bass and Elizabeth Schrader. Both of these women are Episcopalians. Diana lives in northern Virginia and, incidentally, will be the keynote speaker at Fall Camp held at Shrine Mont in October. She is a historian and a published author as well as sought out conference leader and preacher. Elizabeth Schrader is a doctoral candidate at Duke. She is a biblical scholar and will be going to Villanova as an associate professor.    

 Elizabeth Schrader has been researching Mary Magdalene for her doctoral dissertation and Mary’s place in the Gospel of John. Duke’s library just happens to have a copy of a second-century manuscript of John’s Gospel known as Papyrus 66. It is thought to be the oldest near-complete manuscript of John’s Gospel. Schraeder noticed that the word Maria, which is Mary, had been altered – changed to the name Martha. All it takes in the Greek is to add one letter to the word for Mary and it becomes Martha.  

 Elizabeth Schrader from her study of textual changes has reconstructed the first five verses of chapter 11 of the Gospel of John. As I read her reconstruction you might want to compare it with the translation you have before you. 

 There was a certain sick Man, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary his sister. Now, this was the Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. Therefore, Mary sent to him, saying, “Lord, behold, the one you love is sick.” But when Jesus heard, he said to her, “The sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, so that the Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Lazarus and his sister. 

 It is interesting to note in the Gospel we have today that both Martha and Mary when they encounter Jesus say the same exact words – ”Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In addition, it is in Martha’s mouth that comes forth the Christological Confession of Jesus – “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”  However, in 208 CE Tertullian wrote that it was Mary who uttered this confession, not Martha. I wonder what copy of John’s Gospel he had. 

 None of the early manuscripts of the gospels totally agree. Scribes, when copying, would often write comments in the margins. Later scribes would often incorporate some of those glosses and often add their own to the margins or text. In the early manuscripts of John’s Gospel, Martha’s name is missing. From the margins, she is added and given preeminence over Mary. Remember that it was human beings, hopefully, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that wrote and copied the various books of the Bible. They were not written by the hand of God. 

One in five early Greek manuscripts and one in three early Latin manuscripts have changed within them. None of the “original manuscripts” are word for word the same.  

 It is thought that Martha may have been added to this story of the rising of Lazarus because Luke’s Gospel in chapter 10 is a story set in Bethany about two sisters Martha and Mary. Lazarus is not mentioned in that story. But he and Mary are mentioned in John’s Gospel. Could it be that scribes thought this story of the rising of Lazarus was a story of the same family in Luke’s Gospel with Martha having just been left out? Probably not – Mary and Martha were common names of women found in scripture. 

 Elizabeth Schrader and other scholars believe that the Mary of this story of the rising of Lazarus and in John’s Gospel is Mary Magdalene.  

 I always called Mary Magdalene – Mary of Magdala. In the past 10 days, I have come to learn that she was never from Magdal. There is no town of Magdal on the Sea of Galilee in spite of all the tour guides who when they pass by the ruins of a particular town tell you that this is Magdal where Mary Magdalene came from, and on the Sabbath, she went to the synagogue with her family.  Archaeological digs however have not uncovered a town named Magdal. (The town that has been called Magdal is really Tarichaea.) 

 So where does the addition of Magdalene to Mary’s name come from? Magdalene- probable from the Aramaic – means tower or magnified one– Mary the toweress – Mary the tall one – Mary the magnified one – Mary the one who has risen to the top – a close disciple of Jesus – who financially supported his ministry – who is at the crucifixion, burial and the first to witness that Jesus was not in the tomb but had been resurrected, who encounters Jesus in the garden and is told by him to go and tell. Magdalene was a reward – maybe it’s a nickname – given to her for her faith and action that really can’t be defined according to Elizabeth Schrader and Joan Taylor, of King’s College, in an article they wrote together. For me, Mary will now be known as Mary, the Magdalene.   

 The Western church tried to discredit Mary, the Magdalene.  Pope Gregory the Great, who was pope from 590 to 605 identified her as a prostitute, the sinful woman in the 7th chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Some churches still teach that today. It is not true. It was an attempt by the Patriarchal Western Church to put Mary in her place and keep her there.  In a patriarchal church with Peter as primate – as POPE – no woman can be greater than Peter. No woman could be higher than the pope. There could be no competition between Peter and Mary with Mary claiming the higher honor.  However in the Eastern Church – the orthodox church, they don’t have a pope – Mary has been known in the Orthodox Church as the Apostle to the Apostles. She towers above Peter and all the others. 

 In the days of the early church, ministry was shared equally by men and women. But as the church becomes more organized folks remember that Jesus did tell Peter that he would have the authority. He was told to feed the sheep and tend the lambs. But Jesus also told Mary to go and tell what she was witness to. And Jesus also had women followers Mary the Magdalene was only one. They were the ones at the cross, except for John and they were there to help bury Jesus, and Mary was the one who came to the tomb on Sunday. 

 The church as it became institutionalized became male dominated with Peter the first pope and only men clergy. Women’s role diminished. Not only in the church but in society at large. The Gospel text is altered to support Peter as primary and for centuries that’s how it has been and in some churches still is today. 

 Today we have moved beyond this with the discovery of the alternation of this text, and we are now in a position to own it – we by the power of the Holy Spirit are, in this day and age, ready to bring this text back and claim it‘s probable originality. We as an Episcopal Church have changed over the centuries – we have women serving as lay leaders of congregations – as senior wardens – women serve as representatives from their dioceses to general convention – women are ordained deacons, priests, and bishops and we even had a woman as presiding bishop. 

 It is Episcopalians who are leading the way with this probable discovery of Mary Magdalene and her place in scripture and the life of the Church. In the life of the early church, Mary’s power and authority may have been too much for the church to deal with and so Martha is added to scripture to take away some of Mary’s power and authority. Elizabeth Schrader says this text had to lay down – to lower itself – to be wounded in the word, as women were wounded until, at a later time in history, light would shine on it and it would come forth afresh. Now the light is shining on this text and we are ready to hear it as originally written. The Holy Spirit has been working over time. We are ready to hear this text anew and claim it without corruption. 

 Elizabeth Schrader reminded us of the words of Isaiah in chapter 55: verses 8-11. 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not thither but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth, it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it.’

It appears these words are coming true.  AMEN.