Martha of Bethany vs. Nicodemus

Welcome to the Saintly Sixteen! From 32 saints we have narrowed the field to 16. For this round, rather than the basic biographical information we enter the realm of Quirks and Quotes. Our brilliant Celebrity Bloggers will provide unusual information or legends surrounding their saints along with quotes either by or about their saints.

Don’t forget, you can always go to the Bracket Tab, deftly managed by Bracket Czar Adam Thomas, to easily find previous battles if you need to refresh your basic knowledge on these saints. This is yet another free courtesy extended to you, the Lent Madness Global Public.

In yesterday's Santa vs. Rudolph Showdown, okay Beatdown, Nicholas of Myra trounced Rudolph of Gubbio by the historic margin of 92% to 8%. Yes, the bracketologists have diligently researched this topic and determined that this has indeed surpassed the previous largest margin of victory. That was just last year when Maria Skobtsova, the Russian Nazi-fighting nun, defeated Quiteria, the early Christian nonuplet warrior 91% to 9%

The Saintly Sixteen gets started with a Biblical battle between Martha of Bethany and Nicodemus. At stake? The very first spot in the Elate Eight. Let's get to it.

Martha of Bethany

Who was Martha of Bethany? Domestic busybody and foil for her enlightened sister or Daenerys-Targaryen-like tamer of dragons and symbol of female power? Perhaps the medieval biographer Pseudo-Marcilia said it best. In her life, “Martha chose to perform her own ministry, which pleased God greatly.”

Little is known of Martha beyond her portrayal in Luke as the counterpart to her sister. Thanks to early church fathers like Origen and Augustine, the sisters became symbols of classical dualism--Martha, with her earthly concerns as a hostess and Mary, the contemplative. However, she is also a theologian in the Biblical text, confessing her faith in Jesus as a savior in John the same way Peter does in the Synoptics. For this reason, contemporary Biblical scholars see Martha as one of the disciples in Jesus’ inner circle. She has this role in the gnostic gospel Pistis Sophia, where she and other female disciples receive knowledge of the highest mysteries from the resurrected Jesus.

Martha took on an increasingly important role in the middle ages when legend credits her with many fascinating miracles that range from the Christlike to the bizarre. Once a boy drowned in a river across which he was swimming in an attempt to hear her preach, and Martha brought him back to life. Like the perfect hostess she was, she is also credited with changing water into wine at a banquet in her honor. Another legend tells that Martha knew the date of her death and eight days before it arrived she had a vision of her sister Mary’s soul ascending to heaven, held aloft by choirs of angels. After she died, Bishop Fronto of Périgueux fell asleep during a mass at his church and was miraculously carried to Tarascón to officiate over Martha’s funeral.

Devotion to Martha through the middle ages led to an evolving view of her, one where her life of austerity and service reconciled the dualism the early church ascribed to her and Mary. She was seen as an exemplar of both actio and contemplio, two complementary ways of being, both dependent on the other. In this wholeness, Martha becomes a symbol of the church, where spiritual insight fuels worldly service to others.

For this reason, in the church dedicated to her in Tarascón, she is shown with a dragon at her feet. The symbolism is not merely of the miracle attributed to her--the salvation of the town from the Tirascurus, a huge half animal/half fish beast. Martha is shown as the Apocalyptic Woman (Revelation 12), a multi-faceted symbol of female power associated with the Church, and the Virgin Mary, women who confront evil serpents and become a new Eve to partner with Christ the new Adam, and through their active work and generative power help transform the earth into the new creation.

-Amber Belldene


Nicodemus appears three times in scripture. Once to hear Jesus’ teaching by night (John 3:1-21), then as a member of the Sanhedrin who suggests that the accused deserved a trial before judgment (John 7:5-51), and finally at the Crucifixion where he not only provides the spices for embalming the dead body of our Lord, but also to assist Joseph of Arimathea in burying his body (John 19:39-42). There is scant, canonical material that suggests he said much of anything at all.

So let’s get Apocryphal. Apocryphal. I wanna get Apocryphal!

He has an entire gospel attributed to him and perhaps some of the most interesting parts of the Gospel of Nicodemus are where he describes the Harrowing of Hell. Just before Jesus arrives at Hell’s Gates, Satan, the Prince of Death, has an argument with Beelzebul, the Prince of Hell, about just who Jesus is. They keep going back and forth, arguing about whether he’s actually powerful or not, until suddenly “there was a voice as of thunder and the rushing of winds, saying, Lift up your gates, O ye princes; and be ye lift up, O everlasting gates, and the King of Glory shall come in.” Jesus really knows how to make an entrance. The Prince of Hell then tells Satan to leave unless he is powerful enough to fight the “King of Glory” (Satan leaves), and then Beelzebul instructs his hellions to bar the gates.

Upon hearing the voice announcing the coming of Christ, the dead begin to revolt, yelling at the Prince of Hell “Open thy gates that the King of Glory may come in.” David, Isaiah, and other prophets and prominent Hebrew Bible figures begin reciting their prophecies of the coming Messiah. After again refusing to open the Gates of Hell, the Prince of Hell falls right into the trap of asking “who is this King of Glory?” King David responds with “the Lord strong and powerful, the Lord mighty in battle: he is the King of Glory” and just then Jesus “appeared in the form of a man, and enlightened those places which had ever before been in darkness, And broke asunder the fetters which before could not be broken; and with his invincible power visited those who sat in the deep darkness by iniquity, and the shadow of death by sin.” Jesus then proceeds to lay the holy smackdown in Hell and leaves with the souls of the righteous.

-Marcus Halley

Martha of Bethany vs. Nicodemus

  • Martha of Bethany (74%, 5,568 Votes)
  • Nicodemus (26%, 1,937 Votes)

Total Voters: 7,505

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Martha: Peters, D. E. (1997). The Life of Martha of Bethany by Pseudo-Marcilia. Theological Studies, 58(3), 441-460. doi:10.1177/004056399705800303


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124 comments on “Martha of Bethany vs. Nicodemus”

  1. Our musical tribute to Martha and Nicodemus and to commemorate entering the Saintly Sixteen can be sung to "Sixteen Going on Seventeen" from "The Sound of Music."

    Oh, Lent Madness friends, it’s a brand-new stage.
    The Round of 32’s done.
    The saints who have won will now re-engage
    In match-ups which are such fun.

    They’re such fun…

    Saintly Sixteen soon to drop to fifteen:
    Bethany represent!
    Mary went down so
    Martha was crowned, oh
    She made the grand assent.

    Saintly Sixteen soon drop to fifteen.
    James took the dive for Nic.
    Some says it awful:
    Beat an apostle.
    Has he moved up too quick?

    Time to reread your Scorecard book.
    Will you pick him or her?
    Are they the same? Let’s take a look…
    They both came bearing myrrh.

    You need some saint-centric fun facts to
    Guide you on what to do…
    I’ll help you to choose from Saintly Sixteen
    In this fun show tune review…

    They’re three siblings hailing from Bethany;
    Two – all their tasks they shirk.
    Lazarus dies and
    Mary just cries and
    Martha does all the work.

    Meanwhile, Nic lives life as a Pharisee:
    Questions from dusk ‘til dawn.
    Challenge extends. He
    Sometimes defends. We
    Aren’t sure whose side he’s on.

    Some say that Martha sailed to France
    And tamed a dreadful beast.
    Nic’s arguments were like a dance.
    Convert, to say the least.

    You now have enough information
    And so you have to choose…
    Saintly Sixteen soon will drop to fifteen
    Based on the saint who will lose.

    1. Oh hooray, hooray! "Sound of Music" at last! That was my first musical: at five I memorized the whole she-bang and did a fabulous-if-i-do-say-so-myself Julie Andrews, accent and all! Great job, Michael. I belly laughed at "Lazarus dies and/Mary just cries and/Martha does all the work"!

      1. I absolutely agree with everything Susan says - from singing almost the entire score as a child to loving the lines she quotes. As a Martha in personality and as a deacon who loved the notion of Martha representing both sides of the church - contemplative and active - I had to cast my vote for Martha.

      2. I do believe that “Lazarus dies and/Mary just cries and/Martha does all the work” is one of my favorite Forbidden Lent parody lyrics.

        So far...

    2. You top yourself each day! I am in awe - especially when they're from the older shows that I know, but impressed you include the newer ones too.

  2. When “Those who do what is true” says His voice
    This Sanhedrin makes a perilous choice.
    His heartfelt oblation:
    Our Lord’s preparation.
    Nicodemus: in his faith we rejoice.

  3. Martha, to me, represents the celebration of tradition gender patterns over Jesus's clear message that gender is not a barrier to equal apostleship. She was wealthy and had servants; she was not slaving away in the kitchen while Mary made her do all the work and sat at the feet of Jesus. Yet I voted for Martha for her faith in Jesus at the tomb of her brother. Nicodemus had faith in his own traditional way by spending money to anoint the body of Jesus, but his account of Jesus at the gates of hell (where Nicodemus could not have been) strikes me as quite polytheistic (Satan and Beelzebub, Princes of Death and Hell; why not Hades and Pluto?).

    1. “David, Isaiah, and other prophets and prominent Hebrew Bible figures begin reciting their prophecies of the coming Messiah.“

      This is why I voted for Martha: if we are to believe this Nicodemus story, how could David, Isaiah and other prophets and prominent Hebrew Bible figures STILL be in hell?

      1. Because it was Sheol, not hell. They all waited there until Jesus came to give judgement. Afterwards, the evil went to hell and the righteous went to heaven.

  4. Absolutely loved the stories about both saints. Martha today for me because of the dragon and the bishop who fell asleep at Mass.

    1. I think that would be interesting to know, too. It seems that the women generally do better in these rounds.

      1. Unless voters' email addresses indicate male or female, I think you're out of luck in finding out.

    2. Good question. This year seems to be heavily skewed to voting for the women just because. And I am one.

  5. While I find today's blog for Nicodemus interesting and I am inspired to find and read the Gospel of Nicodemus, it's still Martha for me. Perhaps because I can relate more to her. As Ms. Belldene said in her first blog about Martha "she is admired by pragmatics, doers, and practitioners of common sense". Also, she's the patron saint of cooks and dietitians.

    1. Wow I missed that yet in my head as I read and contemplated Martha I thought she was, pragmatic, a doer and posseser of common sense. I voted for her for these reasons indeed. That and because she is associated with dragons, of course.
      I wonder, were she and Mary twin sisters?

      1. That is a good question and I don't know if it has been discussed. I've always thought of Martha as being the older sister and Mary the younger. However, I'm probably biased since I'm an oldest child and felt that I did more work than my younger siblings. (They would likely have a different perception.) I wonder where Lazarus fit in in the birth order.

  6. Thanks to Marcus for the well written bit. I didn't know anything about the Nicodemus you described. It makes quite a visual of Hell. But I had to vote for Martha because she is more like me in the kitchen. It is always important to make a visitor welcome.

  7. Sticking with my girl Martha. I think Martha and Mary both must have been very influential women in the early church for there to be two completely different stories about them in two different gospels, later gospels though they may be. I'm with Marcia Tremmel (above)--love the dragon and the sleeping priest!

    1. I read the dragon story forty-some years ago and fell for Martha then. Maybe that’s behind my devotion to Daenerys? And as a preacher who has charmed a few youth in my own time, today’s write-up just gives me more reason to cast my vote for the saint they tried to turn into a drudge.

      1. Hola Willa! Good to see you here. I tried to post the following comment, but I had already inadvertently posted a previous draft, and they wouldn't let me! I wanted to share my "final " thoughts so I am posting as a reply to you! Plus, you may be the only person who reads it, although you might not have anyway. 🙂

        Nicodemus embodies the Way of the Small, as does Martha. The writers here focus on legend and apocryphal accounts, but I think more of the direct scripture. I love Martha, and the comments here helped me find a way to go beyond the dualism of Martha and Mary. Martha is inspiring, yet I relate more to Nicodemus, who exemplifies to me the path of Jesus that evolves from unknowing, to questioning, to experiencing a different view that runs counter to popular thinking, and then becoming more intimate with Jesus, as Nicodemus did by helping prepare God's body for burial. Christ died for Nicodemus, and for people like him, that they might come more fully to God. Nicodemus gives me strength and hope, an example that wherever I am and whoever I am that I can come closer to Christ in my own life. He shows what I need to know right now.

    1. I did! I love the fact that Nicodemus showed curiosity about the teachings of Jesus and that his mind was not closed. Nicodemus and Jesus at the gates of hell is a great story too.

  8. Martha for me, although I question the use of "busybody" to describe Martha. It seems that she was always busy; however, my understanding of "busybody" is a person who does not have enough to do, and spends time in gossip, judgmental conversation, and sticking a nose into other people's business. (Please note my non-gender-specific description.)

    Did you hear about the elderly bishop who dreamed that he was preaching, and when he awoke, he was?

    1. Here in the Pittsburgh area, we call a busybody a "nebnose." It is more descriptive, I think, although also probably redundant, since "neb" means "beak." I agree that Martha wasn't a busybody, and I voted for her, although her sister Mary got my vote the first time.

  9. I’ve also wondered about the gender make-up of theLent Madness participants. There no accurate way to know the answer to that question. But the female saints certainly seem to beat their male counterparts, over and over again. As a woman myself, I understand. Our culture is still male dominate, in subtle and not so subtle ways. But having long ago voted for Mary and then James, I’m now I think rigued by Nicodemus. And perhaps that’s the purpose of Lent Madness: to make us think, to stretch us beyond our comfort zone, to challenge our hearts and minds? Well done, Scott and Tim.

    1. Women were mostly written out of Christianity by the Church Fathers--I think of this as a kind of corrective action, because even if over the centuries they've been rendered invisible and largely deprived of power and agency, women really are the heart and soul of the Church, and they should be lifted up and recognized for once.

  10. Martha: "But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask." John 11:22
    Martha: "I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world." John 11:27
    I think I'll stick with that today.
    Although I love hearing Marcus Halley sing Handel's "Messiah" as I'm reading.
    I don't need the dragon.

  11. I can take on a dragon,
    Cook a treat in a pan,
    And never let you forget
    Jesus's plan--
    Because I'm Martha,
    (Say it again)
    Because I'm Martha,

        1. p.s. I had to vote from a smartphone today and there seemed to be a problem with the connection.

  12. #teamMartha

    The Sons of Martha
    Rudyard Kipling

    THE Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
    But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
    And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
    Her Sons must wait upon Mary's Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.
    It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
    It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.
    It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
    Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

    They say to mountains, " Be ye removèd" They say to the lesser floods " Be dry."
    Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd - they are not afraid of that which is high.
    Then do the hill tops shake to the summit - then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
    That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

    They finger death at their gloves' end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
    He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.
    Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
    And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

    To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
    They are concerned with matters hidden - under the earthline their altars are
    The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
    And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city's drouth.

    They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
    They do not teach that His Pity allows them to leave their job when they damn-well choose.
    As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
    Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren's days may be long in the land.

    Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
    Lo, it is black already with blood some Son of Martha spilled for that !
    Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
    But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

    And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd - they know the angels are on their side.
    They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
    They sit at the Feet - they hear the Word - they see how truly the Promise runs.
    They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and - the Lord He lays it on Martha's Sons !

  13. Nicodemus is a story about being a human and growing into sainthood. Over time Martha transformed into a comic book character.

  14. Voted for Nic today for he seems to be the underdog, and our bracket for this year was broken very early.

  15. I love the idea of Martha as a symbol of the church, where spiritual insight fuels worldly service to others. That will stick with me.

  16. I'm still sulking from the Mary/Martha split, so I've decided this Lenten season to stand with those who sit at the feet of Jesus. Yes, Martha did that, too, and lovingly implored Jesus as an act of profoundly honest prayer, but I'm voting for Nicodemus and his questions, even though I won't be the least bit frustrated at Martha's win. And that's the wonderful thing about these saints, they (or their tradition) annoy us and they teach us at the same time.

  17. One of the things I appreciate about Lent Madness is that women disciples like Martha are presented in all their complexity. As is pointed out in today’s reflection, Martha was far more than a complaining, critic of her sister and “hostess with the mostess”. She, like Peter, recognized Jesus as savior. She seldom gets any recognition as theologian and confessor of faith in Jesus. Perhaps women Saints receive more votes in LM because in order to be recognized as a disciple and/or heroic member of the church women are required to be more courageous and more heroic than men. Another example of the the dancing backwards and in high heels thing.

  18. As a Red Sox fan of the old school, I usually vote for the Underdogs (Rudolph of Gubbio). My streak continues with Nicodemus. "Still be believe."

  19. If the voting this year leaned toward men, would there have been a question about the distribution of the sex of the voters? I am a Mary, happily undomestic, but I love Martha for her confession of faith. Nicodemus is also one of my favorite individuals from the Bible. I could see myself seeking Jesus in the shadows of night to ask questions that his presence stirred in my heart. What to do?

      1. (I meant the first question. Nothing theoretical about the second; it’s the daily existential Lent Madness howl of despair.)