I’ve come across an interesting theory recently and, I have to repeat, theory. Reading the New Testament makes interesting detective AND GUESSWORK and, 2000 years later, I realise relying on the latter can lead us up the garden path.
The point in question is this: who were Mary, Martha and Lazarus? (mentioned in all four gospels). We are told they were siblings; there is no mention of partners, no mention of parents. Jewish girls would be married by the age of 16. Were Mary and Martha 14-15 year olds? Were they widows?
One explanation is that all three belonged to the group of Essenes, a Jewish sect which flourished at this time and had a community (and library) at Qumran in the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. They stood aside from mainstream Judaism, were into studying and practised holiness and strict observance of the Law; they looked after the marginalized and established houses for the destitute: children and widows. Some of them also embraced a celibate lifestyle.
Bethany, near Jerusalem, where Martha and Mary and Lazarus lived, appears to have had an Essene colony. Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls (the library of the Qumran community) suggests they ran a hospice there. The name, Bethany, means “Poor House” or “House of Misery”. Perhaps this village was called after the hospice? Perhaps it helps us understand the words spoken in Bethany by Jesus: ‘You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’ (John 12:8)
If they were Essenes, perhaps, just perhaps, Martha, Mary and Lazarus were amongst the very first Christian celibates? An interesting thought! Whatever, Mary in particular shows an outstanding devotion to Jesus. Our first picture of her is sitting, captivated, at the feet of Jesus (the posture of a disciple) (Luke 10:38-42). Nothing distracts her. Later, we read of her anointing Jesus with expensive perfume, in preparation for His death. (John 12:1-11). As celibates, here is a woman to emulate – whether she was celibate or not.