Martha from the margins : an examination of early Christian traditions about Martha

Ernst, Allie M. (Allie Almuth Maria) (2007). Martha from the margins : an examination of early Christian traditions about Martha PhD Thesis, School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics, University of Queensland.

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Author Ernst, Allie M. (Allie Almuth Maria)
Thesis Title Martha from the margins : an examination of early Christian traditions about Martha
School, Centre or Institute School of History, Philosophy, Religion, and Classics
Institution University of Queensland
Publication date 2007
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Dr Richard Strelan
Dr Dorothy Lee
Total pages 471
Language eng
Subjects 220401 Christian Studies (incl. Biblical Studies and Church History)
Formatted abstract

This thesis investigates Martha in the New Testament and early Christian tradition. It is situated primarily in the areas of feminist biblical studies and in women's studies in early Christianity. Both biblical and non-biblical references to Martha are gathered and analysed using literary and rhetorical methods. The interest of the thesis is not in any historical Martha that might have given rise to the traditions, but in the way in which the figure of Martha appears in the texts and in the rhetorical purposes which she serves. The thesis includes not only literary texts but also images and it considers not only narrative texts but also patristic interpretations of the biblical texts and liturgical texts such as hymns.      

Beginning with an analysis of Martha in the Gospel of John, the thesis argues that Martha appears as the carrier of J ohannine theology and the figure that expresses Johannine faith most completely. A survey of patristic commentary on the text demonstrates that she is interpreted both as faithful witness (a 'second Peter') and as faithless, to the point of being depicted as an Arian heretic, while early Christian iconography focuses on her role as intercessor for her brother.     

Next the thesis examines a number of texts which name Martha as one of the women who went to the tomb of Jesus. Included here are the Epistula Apostolorum, the Commentary on the Song of' Songs of Hippolytus, an early Christian hymn, the Ambrosian Missal, the Syrian Catholic F enqitho and numerous images. In all of these texts and images Martha replaces, rather than being added to, the women known from the canonical texts. The analysis suggests that this tradition of Martha as myrrhophore and apostle is as ancient as the canonical Gospels, widespread and persistent. it also demonstrates that Martha is not simply an adjunct to Mary in these texts, for she typically takes the leading role. There is some evidence to suggest that the tradition of Martha as myrrhophore might have been known to the author of the Gospel of John and that this tradition had its Sitz im Leben in the liturgical celebrations of Easter, including the Easter celebrations in Jerusalem.      

The thesis then turns to a number of texts that link Martha with 'serving' (diakonein), Luke 10:38-42, John 12:1-3, the Apostolic Church Order and the Acts of Philip. It is argued that Martha's 'serving' could be interpreted Eucharistically and that this connection was at times used polemically in the struggle over women's authority and participation at the Eucharist.      

Finally the thesis examines a number of texts in which Martha appears in lists of Jesus' women disciples. These include Origen's Contra Celsus, Pistis Sophia, the Manichean Psalmbook, the First Apocal_vpse of James, the Ethiopic Didascalia Aposto!orum, the Apostolic Constitutions, the Testamentum Domini and the Acts of Pilate (Gospel of Nicodemus). The thesis contends that Martha served as an apostolic authority for some groups. She is depicted as a key female disciple and mediator of divine knowledge in some texts. In some cases she is used to undermine women's authority, while other texts cite her to support the authority of women.      

The analysis of early Christian texts and images offered here reveals that Martha held a more significant place in early Christian tradition than has been recognised heretofore. It also illustrates the value of attending to liturgy and iconography for the study of women in early Christianity as important non-literary avenues into the tradition. The way in which some Martha stories are used in early Christian rhetoric about women's authority and leadership in the church offers an important point of comparison for scholarship carried out on the figure of Mary Magdalene in relation to women's authority. In shifting Martha "from the margins" to the centre of the investigation and gathering as broad a range of texts and images as possible the thesis sheds new light and offers a richer context for interpreting Martha within early Christian tradition. 

Keyword Martha, Saint, b. 428
Bible -- Criticism, interpretation, etc
Feminism -- Religious aspects -- Christianity
Women in Christianity -- History -- Early church, ca. 30-600

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Created: Fri, 21 Nov 2008, 15:38:32 EST