Was St. Mary of Bethany Cognitively Disabled?

I would like to share with you the most interesting Scripture interpretation that I have come across in some time. This theory proposes that St. Mary of Bethany, the beloved sister of Martha and Lazarus, had some form of cognitive disability, perhaps from a genetic disorder. While we cannot prove this speculation (short of DNA testing her first-class relics) this theory fits with the Gospels and illuminates familiar stories and figures.

Martha’s Toil & Mary’s Rest (Luke 10)

Johannes (Jan) Vermeer - Christ in the House of Martha and Mary, c. 1658-1661Jesus and his disciples journeyed to Bethany where a woman named Martha welcomed him. Martha’s sister, Mary, lived with her because (as per this theory) Mary was unmarried and could not live on her own. While Martha was burdened with much serving, Mary sat beside Jesus at his feet, listening to him speak. Mary was oblivious to the social expectation that she should not assume the place of a disciple like a man, yet Jesus showed no signs of disapproval.

Martha, frustrated and knowing that Mary would not heed a quiet cue, called upon Jesus to redirect her, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Jesus said to her in reply, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” Mary was not accustomed to her decisions being praised. She smiled broadly as she got to remain close to Jesus.

The Mourning of Lazarus (John 11)

Jesus loved Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus, and they each believed in him. So the sisters were heartbroken when Jesus did not come in time to save Lazarus on his deathbed. When Martha heard that Jesus had finally arrived she went to meet him outside the village while Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” The two spoke for a time and then Martha went to secretly call her sister. Martha was so discrete because the village of Bethany was just two miles from Jerusalem and she knew that Jesus’ enemies were out to get him.

Carl Heinrich Bloch - The Raising of Lazarus, 1875Martha went into the house and whispered to Mary, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” As soon as Mary heard this, she rose quickly (without caution or subtlety) and went single-mindedly to Jesus. Many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother, so when the Jews who were with Mary in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. (They had not previously followed Martha out, but they felt it prudent to accompany Mary and make sure that she would be safe and alright.)

When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and tearfully repeated the same lament that she had heard her sister saying over the past four days: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (These are the only words of St. Mary of Bethany recorded in the Gospels.) Imagine her unrestrained joy when she soon saw her brother Lazarus alive once again.

Mary’s Anointing of Jesus (John 12, Matthew 26, Mark 14)

[Although these three persons have sometimes been conflated, we assume here that that Mary of Bethany is neither Mary of Magdala (also known as Mary Magdalene) nor the penitent woman who anoints Jesus in Luke’s Gospel.]

Jesus’ Passion was near and he came with his disciples to a supper in Bethany. Lazarus was there, reclining at table with Jesus, while Martha served. Mary was also present, holding a stone, alabaster flask containing a liter of very expensive ointment. (It was made from genuine aromatic nard, an oil derived from a plant in the Himalayas.)  Perhaps Mary borrowed the perfume from her sister, or perhaps she had inherited it when their mother died. Regardless, although Mary treasured this perfume and loved to smell it from time to time, she was resolved to make a gift of it to Jesus. She approached him, anointed his head and feet, and dried his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.

Mary loved Jesus very much and was delighted to do something extra special for him. But the other guests at table became indignant: “Why was this ointment wasted? Why was it not sold for three hundred days wages and given to the poor?” Mary began to cry, but Jesus defended her. “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing for me. For you will always have the poor with you… but you will not always have me. … In pouring this ointment on my body she has done it prepare me for burial. And truly, I say to you wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Indeed, Jesus’ prophesy is fulfilled in your sight.)

Nicolas Poussin - Anointing of Jesus at a Pharisee's Home

Mary of Bethany, One of Jesus’ Simple & Beloved Little Ones

Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18:3-5)

In a world with little welcome or regard for the mentally or physically flawed, the acceptance and love that Jesus showed St. Mary of Bethany are an important and powerful statement. Her openness, generosity, and childlike devotion to Jesus made her truly great. She is now celebrated in Heaven and throughout the whole world, wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, and perhaps we know her better now than we ever have before.

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One Response to “Was St. Mary of Bethany Cognitively Disabled?”

  1. marilynrodrigues Says:

    An intriguing and quite a lovely idea!

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