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Lazarus, Martha, and Mary of Bethany in The Chosen (Adapting Biblical Characters)

Updated: 4 days ago

What would it be like to grow up with Jesus and then witness the culmination of his ministry? In today's post, we'll see how The Chosen uses Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, to explore this interesting question. We'll also take a look at how these three friends of Jesus are developed in the New Testament and what we can expect in Season 4 of The Chosen.


Demetrios Troy as Lazarus in The Chosen Season 4
Demetrios Troy as Lazarus in The Chosen Season 4

Lazarus, Martha, and Mary of Bethany in the Bible

If I ever heard someone call the Bible a completely patriarchal and misogynistic text, one counterexample I’d point them to is the account of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. According to Scripture, the three siblings were all loved by Jesus. In a more thoroughly patriarchal text, you would expect Lazarus, the male, to receive much more of the attention and for Mary and Martha to have smaller, supporting roles (that is, if they were mentioned at all). What we actually find in Scripture is the exact opposite.


Mary and Martha show up in three biblical narratives; Lazarus only shows up in two narratives. Mary and Martha each play an active role in these stories; Lazarus is almost completely passive. Mary Mary and Martha have their distinct personalities represented on the page; Lazarus is a cipher (I'm even tempted to call him a MacGuffin). Mary and Martha both receive important teaching from Jesus; we're never told if Lazarus receives teaching. Mary is praised for her sacrificial love of Jesus and her dedication to learning from him; Martha has her dedicated hospitality highlighted (even if it is also corrected); Lazarus receives neither praise nor correction. 


Today, Lazarus may have more name recognition than his sisters, but that's not because his role in Scripture is more important than theirs. Honestly, I suspect it's largely because his name sounds cooler/more unique and is often used in popular culture for things related to resurrection (e.g. the Lazarus Pit in Batman). Also, in American culture, the name Martha has not been considered trendy for a few decades. On the other hand, Mary - the most important of the three siblings - is often confused or conflated with Mary Magdalene.


Lazarus in Scripture

With all of that in mind, let’s begin by looking at the relatively scant characterization of Lazarus in Scripture before proceeding to the more fully-developed portrayal of his sisters. The biblical accounts make no mention of Lazarus before the story of his death and resurrection (John 11), but we are told that Jesus loved him and his sisters (John 11:5) and considered him a friend (John 11:11).  Although he isn’t explicitly mentioned in the story of Mary and Martha (8), based on what we learn in the account, we can safely conclude that Lazarus hosted Jesus in his home on at least one occasion prior to the events of John 11. 


In the biblical account, by the time Lazarus falls ill, Jesus’ conflict with the elite Jewish leaders of Judea has already reached a boiling point. When news of Lazarus’ illness comes, the disciples are afraid of venturing into Judea (John 11:7-8). Jesus’ decision to do so in order to mourn Lazarus is seen as an almost suicidal act of friendship (John 11:16). This serves to underscore the special nature of the relationship between Jesus, Lazarus, and his sisters. The special nature of Jesus’ affection is then further underscored by how he publicly mourns outside of Lazarus’ tomb, even though he knows that his friend will soon be resurrected (John 11:35-36).


We’re given several hints that Lazarus was a relatively wealthy man. He has a personal family tomb (John 11:38) - a luxury that not everyone could afford. Later, after his resurrection, he hosts a feast for Jesus and his disciples (John 12:1-8). At the dinner, Mary, who almost certainly would have been economically dependent on Lazarus, honors Jesus by anointing his feet with a pound of ointment made from pure nard - an act that costs over 300 denarii (a denarius being the standard wage for an entire day of labor). The fact that Lazarus’ family has such an expensive object lying around suggests that they are not merely getting by - which suggests that they were better off than the typical family in occupied Judea.


As I noted above, Lazarus is an almost entirely passive character. The only important action he takes is to respond to Jesus’ miraculous command to “come out” of the grave (John 11:43). And yet there are hints that he eventually played a more significant role in the budding Jesus movement. We are told that, after his resurrection, the Judean elite planned to kill him because crowds were gathering to see him and hear about his resurrection (John 12:9-11). Richard Bauckam has argued that the earliest Gospel, Mark, conceals the identity of Lazarus and Mary of Bethany in his account of the anointing of Jesus (Mark 14:3-9) because they served as important witnesses in the early church and he wants to protect them from persecution by keeping them anonymous. The Gospel of John, which scholars unanimously agree is a much later text, could “out” Lazarus and Mary because they had likely died by the time it was written.


Sophia Blum as Martha of Bethany in The Chosen
Sophia Blum as Martha of Bethany in The Chosen

Martha and Mary of Bethany in Scripture

Martha and Mary are perhaps best known among Christians today for their role in a small narrative found in the Gospel of Luke:

 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house.  And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42, ESV)

It’s a popular story because it’s quite easy to preach: working hard and providing hospitality are important but we must not let them get in the way of the one thing that is most important - sitting at the feet of Jesus. There’s not a lot of Old Testament context or strange details to explain - making it a favored text for a number of occasions like Mother’s Day and Sabbath Retreats.


The story presents the two sisters as foils for one another. Although Martha is the “bad” example within the context of Luke’s narrative, her hospitality and focus on serving would be considered exemplary according to the values and expectations for women in 1st century Judea. Mary, on the other hand, is praised by Jesus for choosing to sit and listen to his teaching, even though she would have been considered strange - even deviant - by the broader culture. 


Indeed, I suspect that many of the original readers would have resonated with Martha’s complaint and been completely caught off guard when Jesus rebukes her and not Mary. Martha is most likely the older sister [notice how Luke gives her sole credit for welcoming Jesus (Luke 10:38) and how she is the first sister to approach Jesus in John (11:20)]. As the eldest, managing her younger sister would be considered both her right and her responsibility.


This is the main point of the narrative - to illustrate the upside down nature of Jesus’ approach to women (and younger siblings). Now that we live in a culture that values the education of women, the counter-cultural edge of this narrative doesn’t cut quite as sharply. But it still cuts. In many churches - even some fairly egalitarian churches - men have the luxury of sitting in service or in Bible studies, while women are expected to take care of hospitality, childcare, and other matters first before they get to receive Jesus' teaching. And there are certainly still many older siblings who might find themselves grumbling in the face of a similar situation.


The Mary/Martha story is unique to the Gospel of Luke and not found in any of the other Gospels. But the Gospel of John does characterize the sisters in similar terms:


Like Luke, John portrays Martha as:

  • Dedicated to hospitality and service (John 12:2; c.f. Luke 10:40). 

  • Being more vocal and willing to make demands of Jesus (John 11:20-27, c.f. John 11:32-33). 

  • A more conventional thinker - which is why, when Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, she immediately filters the statement through the traditional Jewish expectation of the resurrection and Jesus needs to expand her understanding (John 11:24-25).


Catherine Lidstone as Mary of Bethany in The Chosen
Catherine Lidstone as Mary of Bethany in The Chosen

John also mirrors Luke’s portrayal of Mary as:

  • An unconventional figure and prone to surprising acts of devotion to Jesus that are deemed imprudent by others (John 12:3-5; c.f. Luke 10:39-40). 

  • Having a greater degree of intimacy with and understanding of Jesus. This may be why Mary is able to move Jesus to act - not by making demands (like her sister) but simply by weeping in his presence (John 11:33-35).


The anointing of Jesus (John 12:1-8; c.f. Mark 14:3-9, Matthew 26:6-13) deserves some special attention. What strikes modern Christians most about John’s version of the narrative is the fact that Mary wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Focus on this detail also leads many to confuse it with a similar (but clearly distinct) episode in which a sinful woman uses her hair to clean (but not anoint) Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50). Mary’s use of her hair certainly is an important detail from the perspective of characterization - it reveals Mary’s absolute devotion to Jesus and her deep humility. But that isn’t the only - or even the most important - dimension of the story.


It’s easy to forget that the word “Christ” literally means “anointed one.” When Mary anoints Jesus, she isn’t just trying to make him smell better. She is engaging in a political/prophetic act, designating Jesus as God’s Messianic King, akin to how Samuel anointed Saul (1 Samuel 10:1-8) and David (1 Samuel 13:1-13) as king. 


The anointing of Jesus is also an act of faith. In both the story of Saul and David, the anointing functions like an invitation. After being anointed, the one designated as king is expected to prove himself through a great act of deliverance - an expectation that Saul initially fails to live up to (1 Samuel 10:9-15) but which David fulfills through his defeat of Goliath (1 Samuel 17). Mary is expecting Jesus to engage in an act of deliverance. And Jesus fulfills her expectation - but not in a way that anyone expected. This is why Jesus claims that Mary is preparing his body for burial (Matthew 26:12; Mark 14:8; John 12:7) - because the great act of deliverance that she is preparing him for is not a triumphant battle with a giant but rather his triumphant death on the cross. Mary probably didn’t understand the full significance of what she was doing any more than the disciples, but Jesus knows that if she can “keep” the memory, she eventually will (John 12:7).


Lazarus, Martha, and Mary of Bethany in The Messengers & The Chosen Season 3

Lazarus was first introduced in a brief cameo in Christmas with The Chosen: The Messengers. In that episode, we get a few important pieces of information about his portrayal. The first is that, in the world of the show, Lazarus is still alive several decades after the birth of the early church. The plot to have him executed alongside Jesus is not successful. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be in nearly as much danger as either Mother Mary or Mary Magdalene. The other important detail to notice is that Lazarus has been entrusted with the care of Mary. This was an easy detail to miss when The Messengers was first released, but it makes much more sense in light of what we learn about his relationship with Jesus in Season 3.


Speaking of which - Episode 3 of Season 3 is the first episode of the core series to include Lazarus. In the course of the episode, we learn that (in the world of The Chosen), Jesus and Lazarus grew up together and have continued to be friends, with a very familiar and teasing relationship. We see that Lazarus has a very successful business (which Jesus could have been a part of, if he hadn’t called into ministry) and apparently knows everyone and can influence religious leaders like the local rabbi - a sign of his high social status. When Lazarus encounters Jesus in episode 3, he has only heard rumors and stories about Jesus’ teaching and miracles - he himself has not yet witnessed anything miraculous or received secret insight, either in the course of Jesus’ adult ministry or earlier while they were growing up. Still, he is quick to advocate for his friend’s teaching - he’s the one who secures an opportunity for Jesus to teach in the synagogue of Nazareth and he’s also the only person to defend Jesus when he’s accused of being a false prophet and nearly stoned. 


The decision to make Lazarus a childhood friend of Jesus is artistically defensible, even if it isn't historically plausible. There's nothing in the biblical record that suggests that the relationship between Lazarus and Jesus goes back to before Jesus' ministry - on the contrary, the Mary and Martha story in Luke suggests that Martha welcomed Jesus into their home as an act of hospitality to a stranger (Luke 10:38). Still, if The Chosen wanted to provide us with the perspective of a character who had known Jesus since childhood, Lazarus was a sensible choice. There just aren't that many characters in the Gospels that have an ongoing, positive relationship with Jesus but who aren't disciples. The show could have invented a character, but for the purposes of screen economy it makes much more sense to give this job to an existing character, and so to maximize our recognition of and attachment to the existing characters.


Martha and Mary of Bethany watch Jesus teach in The Chosen Season 3
Martha and Mary of Bethany watch Jesus teach in The Chosen Season 3

So far, there's much less to say about the portrayal of Mary and Martha in The Chosen. Mary asks (or tries to ask) Jesus questions about his ministry and the rumors that he's the Messiah - foreshadowing her interest in Jesus' teaching and her role in anointing him Messiah. Even before Mary can finish her questions, however, Martha shuts her down. This seems to suggest that The Chosen is portraying Martha as a bossy older sister - or perhaps simply that she’s particularly concerned about public decorum.


So far, the only potential quibble I have with the portrayal of Martha and Mary is that it seems like Mary is being painted as more outgoing and vocal and Martha as being more reserved. Granted, we have very little evidence so far, so I may be over-reading what we got in Season 3 Episode 3. But in case the show does take this approach, I'd just like to point out that Martha says far more than Mary does in the biblical account. My impression of Martha, from both Luke and John is not of someone shy or reserved, but of someone who speaks her mind. My impression of Mary, on the other hand, is of someone who listens more than she speaks - preferring to speak through action. This is a quibble though. The biblical evidence is limited, and so I think there's wide latitude for artistic interpretation. Moreover, I realize it's easier for the show to communicate Mary's interest in Jesus' teaching through questions than through silence. I would just prefer a slightly different take.


Lazarus, Martha, and Mary of Bethany in Season 4 and Beyond

Between the Teaser, Official Trailer, and TV Promo, it's pretty clear that Season 4 of The Chosen will feature Lazarus, Martha, and Mary substantially. At the very least, it looks like we'll see the Mary/Martha Hospitality story and the death and resurrection of Lazarus story. It's less certain whether we will get the anointing of Jesus by Mary or whether this will be kept for the start of Season 5 (my bet is on the end of Season 4). Be sure to check back soon for updates and analysis of how Season 4 handles the big moments ahead for Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.


Lazarus, Martha, and Mary of Bethany in The Chosen and Scripture


Was Lazarus a childhood friend of Jesus?

There's nothing in Scripture that indicates that Lazarus and Jesus knew each other growing up. It's most likely that Jesus first became acquainted with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary when Martha welcomed him into their home while he was passing through Bethany.


In The Chosen, Jesus has been friends with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary since childhood. This element of the story was invented, presumably to add depth and dimension to the relationship.


Why is Lazarus important?

The first half of the Gospel of John is structured around a series of seven miraculous signs that Jesus performs. The climactic seventh sign is the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11). This miracle would have been considered particularly impressive because Jewish tradition held that resuscitation was no longer possible after three days, when the spirit left the body. Jesus performs the miracle four days after Lazarus' death and burial, which makes it a true resurrection.


Why is Mary of Bethany important?

Three of the four Gospels include the story of Mary anointing Jesus during a meal. In every account, Jesus predicts that she will be remembered for this act wherever the Gospel is preached (Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8).


Is Lazarus in a parable? 

There is a character in one of Jesus' parables that is named Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), but it is probably not Lazarus of Bethany. As I noted in my post above, Lazarus of Bethany appears to be fairly wealthy, whereas the Lazarus in Jesus' parable is a poor beggar. Although it is true that both Lazarus in the parable and Lazarus of Bethany die, Lazarus in the parable is not resurrected. Also, parables are typically fictional.


Which actors play Lazarus, Martha, and Mary in The Chosen?

In The Chosen, Lazarus is played by Demetrios Troy, Martha is played by Sophia Blum, and Mary is played by Catherine Lidstone.



 

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If you liked this post, you might want to check out some of my other posts on The Chosen and Bible adaptation. I have Bible studies/discussion guides for each episode of The Chosen Seasons 1-4, blogs exploring how The Chosen adapts key biblical figures, and articles exploring the controversial nature of adaptation. I hope you enjoy them!


The Chosen Season 4


The Chosen Season 3


Adapting Biblical Characters Series


Artist Interviews (The Bible Artist Podcast)


Exploring The Chosen with Youth or Small Group [Discussion Guides]

Season 4

Season 3

Season 2

Season 1

Specials


The Chosen Controversies Series


How to Discuss The Chosen - and Why


Themes & Theology of The Chosen [Exclusive for BMC Members]

Season 4


Season 1

Specials


Mailbag Q&R


The Chosen Thematic Viewing Guides


Beyond The Chosen


Other Bible Adaptations

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