Smash Your Avoidance

Church, there are things I avoid saying from the pulpit.

I am a final text preacher. Which means I am NOT into Textual Criticism. Textual Criticism is a branch of scholarship that tracks how the Bible came to us. It started with scholars in the 1800s trying  to find the original manuscripts of the gospels. The earlier the better. What they found is that the New Testament alone has been preserved in more than 5,800 Greek manuscripts, 10,000 Latin manuscripts and 9,300 manuscripts in various other ancient languages including Syriac, Slavic, Ethiopic and Armenian. There are approximately 300,000 textual variants among the manuscripts.[1] These facts are only a problem if you’re worshipping the Bible.

I avoid going down this path as it does not make for compelling sermons and usually angers folks. Preaching on these textual variants and inaccuracies is usually a roadblock to good folk of faith, so I avoid it. Instead, I just take the final text found in the New Revised Standard Version and go from there to preach. Today, I will smash my avoidance.

Textual Criticism shows that there are some bad faith actors who changed the meaning of the Biblical text. This has been proven by multiple scholars and is taught in any accredited seminary. Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus; The story behind who changed the Bible and why is a classic in textual criticism and can be found in our church library. Ehrman concludes that various early scribes altered the New Testament texts in order to de-emphasize the role of women in the early church, to unify and harmonize the different portrayals of Jesus in the four gospels, and to oppose certain heresies. I say all this to get to Diana Butler Bass and her sermon listed in your bulletin.[2] It is incredibly important for all people of faith to hear. There is hot debate surrounding John 11:17-27.

Mary and Martha appear in Luke 10:38-42. Martha is working, Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet where the disciples sit. And Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better part.” That is a good passage. There’s a lot to say about that passage, but that passage is not this passage.

John 11 starts with, “A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.” A simple sentence locating Lazarus and his sisters in a known town. Scholars and archaeologists alike agree that they know where Bethany is and was and can track all the references of Bethany Biblically. Yet one scholar notes how a whole chapter has been altered. A character has been added to the story.

There are a lot of Mary’s in the New Testament. We have Mary the Mother of Jesus. We have Mary Magdalene. We have Mary of the Mary and Martha duo. Mary the mother of James, and Mary of Rome among others. We can’t mix these characters up. We have many Kate and Katies here. Kate my wife, Katy Medley and Katey White who co-lead the Discipleship Education Leadership Team, Katie York mother of Adeline and Mary Grace, Katie Morgan in Chicago, Kait Stevenson, and more! Lord, help us if we ever mix up any of those Kate’s! Disaster! Thus, we also can’t afford to mix up our biblical characters. Each has their own story and voice and contribution to our lives and need to be honored as such.

Diana Butler Bass tells the story of Libbie Schrader. Libbie is a PhD candidate at Duke University and a New Testament scholar. She is a person of faith; a singer song-writer. She’s a life-long Episcopalian. Once she was in New York City and sought out a church garden to pray in and escape the city. While she was praying, a voice said, “Follow Mary Magdalene.”  She wrote a song about it, but something deep kept driving her.[3] She’s not used to hearing voices. She figured this was very important. She started researching Mary Magdalene.

It just so happened that Papyrus 66 had recently been digitized. Papyrus 66 is the oldest and most complete version of the Gospel of John found. It’s dated around 200 C.E. In the old days, it took a lot of time and money to travel to the certain library that housed it. Now, it seemed to come to Libbie. Libbie who had just learned the Biblical languages. Libbie, who at the time was just a master’s student.

The oldest Greek text starts John 11 with, “A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and his sister Mary.” It’s awkward wording, but it’s clear. No Martha. Libbie researched and found that Martha had been added. We’ve been telling this story wrong. The text had been clearly changed, and Libbie proved it.

Word got out about her paper. Harvard Divinity School ran an article in their journal. That’s high praise for a master’s student to get published by Harvard Divinity. From there it went to the Nestle-Aland Translation Committee of the Greek New Testament. This is THE group who oversees the translation of the New Testament from Greek. They are based in Germany and are about as stuffy as a group as you can imagine. The Nestle-Aland Translation Committee is the staunch defender and keeper of the Greek New Testament and they don’t move fast. They are very serious.

Punk is all about taking on the establishment. The little guys and gals can add their voice and be heard. Their voice matters. Even if what they have to say is said with a snarl and is not very nice or phrased all that well, that’s the core and essence of punk. The establishment doesn’t work for everyone. Our own history is founded on that thesis, both as a country and as a church. England is pretty great if you’re the king and happen to be head of the church at the same time. Our ancestors fled, established the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the congregational church. We had something to say, and it was to protest the establishment. Local control. Liturgy and the scripture printed in our language. No bishop or establishment telling us who to hire, who will pastor us, what creed we shall use, or what mission we will engage in.

Libbie’s story is punk. What she found in her paper goes against how this story has been portrayed going back to the first start of Christianity. And now here comes the establishment to weigh in. I’m reminded of the Clash’s song, “I fought the law and the law won.” Here comes the law and they look at Libbie’s paper and her findings and they… Agreed.

Now the Nestle-Aland Translation Committee is trying to decide whether to put a footnote in the Bible saying that the earliest text does not have Martha in it… or do they take Martha out altogether?

Now those who love Martha and identify with her in Luke… take heart! That Martha is alive and well. That Martha stays in Luke. But she does not belong in John. She has no business being there as that’s a different Mary with a sister. Not this Mary with a brother. Other scholars are finding all sorts of interesting things now. Two of note: Tertullian who is an early Christian apologist writing in the early 200s wrote a commentary on John and only mentions Mary. Tertullian praises the confession made by Mary about Jesus. In our version, Martha makes the confession. There is also a diary from a 4th century pilgrim who writes how their pilgrimage group reached the place where Mary ran out to meet the Lord. In our version, Martha runs out to meet Jesus.

The text then would read as such: “When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Mary to console her about her brother. When Mary heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him. Mary said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’”

Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Mary said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’”

Imagine what this means for the church. In the Synoptic Gospels, Peter confesses Jesus as the Messiah and gets the keys to heaven.[4] In John’s Gospel, Peter acknowledges Jesus to “have the words of eternal life”[5] Peter later denies Christ three times on Maundy Thursday. He is restored the same amount he denied in John 21:15-19 by the Risen Christ.

This Mary was with him the whole time. This Mary never faltered. Diana Butler Bass states that this Mary could be one in the same of Mary Magdalene could mean that she was from Magdala, a town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Yet this passage says Mary is from Bethany. Thanks to Libbie’s research, other scholars are leaning towards another translation of the word “Magdala.” In Aramaic, Magdala means “tower.” As in “Mary the Tower.” Mary the Great! Mary the Unmoving Tower of Faith who never doubts, never runs, never denies, who sticks by Jesus all the way through his torture and crucifixion. Mary who is there and the first to see the resurrected Christ on Easter.

Women are disciples. Jesus appears to the women first in every gospel. Mary makes the same confession Peter makes and never backs down from it. This makes me proud to be in the UCC where women are leaders at every level and are ordained.

The Congregationalists were the first to ordain a woman in 1853 with Antoinette Brown Blackwell. That was a punk move, very anti-establishment in its day and in other places currently. Had we the original verses unaltered, maybe the first woman ordained would be 853, or just from the start. We might have had women popes based on this text! Women bishops, priests, ministers, they should have been ordained from the start for they’ve preached the resurrection on EASTER.

Women have always been the backbone of the church. They are everywhere in the Gospels, especially Luke. They are all over Acts and the letters of Paul. As Jesus raises Lazarus, Peter raises Tabitha, also known as Dorcus (Acts 9:36-43) Pricilla and Aquila risk their lives to help Paul (Acts 18:26, Romans 16:3-4); Lydia the seller of purple cloth helps finance the early church after her conversion (Acts 16:11-15); and so many more.

In our own church, we had the Ladies Benevolent Society formed in 1846. They paid to recast our bell. They wove 150 yards of carpet for a fundraiser and in doing so, furnished the interior of our 1882 “new” church.[6] The Society also funded local missions and produced three cookbooks. There were all the women’s circles following World War II that provided so much to our church with their leadership: social gatherings, lunch for the Kiwanis, Sunday School oversight, and so much more.[7]

We can trace all this back to Mary the Tower. The church as an institution has long devalued and deemphasized the role of women. God came to a certain woman, a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph of the house of David; Mary of Nazareth. God worked through her, and through all the Marys. Including Mary the Tower, the woman who never left Jesus’ side.

Mary who anoints Jesus in John 12 and whose actions were doubted then as they are doubted now. The perfume was still on Jesus’ body when he was crucified.[8] It was a costly gift, but she gave it. She gave it not expecting any thanks, she gave it because it was the right thing. It’s how she chose to honor Jesus. Mary the Tower, Mary the Great, just like all the Marys who never avoid the hard places. They never seek praise. They are often questioned and doubted. Yet they never back down… all the way to the cross. And they are the first to see the resurrection! The first to point out how new life has broken forth among us.

May we no longer avoid their stories. The Good News of God’s grace can flow through the lives, witness, and confession of women. May we let their voices challenge us so that we say, “You know what… you’re right. Do we make a big footnote here or do we change how we’ve told this story?”

Thanks be to God for all the Marys, but especially Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene. Mary the Tower. Mary the Confessor of the Messiah. Today we hear her voice clearly: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” Let us give a loud AMEN to her words!

Works Cited

[1]  Retrieved 20 March 2023.


[3] Libbie’s song:

[4] See Mark 8:29, Matt 16:16, Luke 9:20

[5] John 6:66-69

[6] Bicentennial Tidbits page 59 and a conversation with Betty Zarney on 3/20/23

[7] Conversation with Betty Zarney on 3/20/23

[8] See the Rev Dennis Windling’s sermon from our Heavy Burden Series:

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