Does birth order affect one’s personality? Does a first-born child develop different traits than a younger brother or sister? Can birth-order reasoning be applied to answer the question of which sister is the oldest—Mary or Martha?
The Bible does not say which of Jesus’ three close friends in Bethany was the oldest. Jesus was a regular guest in the home shared by Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Scripture records two occasions where He ate a meal prepared for Him in their house (Luke 10:38-41, John 12:2).
Commentators suggest that Martha was the oldest of the siblings. Martha presided as hostess in Luke’s account. She attended to serving the meal. She expressed a sense of disappointment that her sister had not been helpful enough in getting the meal together. “The narrative seems to suggest the home belonged to Martha and being older than Mary and Lazarus, she carried out the responsibility of all connected with household affairs….” (Herbert Lockyer, All the Women in the Bible, p. 87).
When Jesus came to Bethany after Lazarus died, Martha was the sister who went out to greet Him. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary states that Martha “being more aggressive“ went to meet Jesus before Mary. When Jesus told her that Lazarus would rise again and that those who believed in Him would live again, Martha confidently stated, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world” (John 11:27). At a later meal given in honor of Jesus, Martha did the serving (John 12:2). How do the few accounts of Martha in the Bible relate to whether she is older than Mary and Lazarus?
Some psychologists believe a person’s personality is influenced by his/her order of birth. Their studies suggest that first-born children tend to be more responsible and conscientious than siblings born later. First-born children tend to be socially dominant and perfectionists. Psychologists surmise that early in life, first-born children are given responsibility for younger siblings and they maintain favor with their parents by performing their duties.
Children born second, third, and onward tend to be more open to new ideas and more fun-loving. They may be less responsible and less concerned about making things run smoothly.
Studies on birth order are not conclusive. But the traits psychologists associate with birth order—responsibility, sense of duty, perfectionism, social dominance, and natural leadership—seem to describe Martha.
Why is the question even interesting? Because Martha has become a stereotype of someone who is “less spiritual” in comparison with her sister who is “more spiritual.” The remark Jesus made to Martha—that she was overly concerned about the details of serving a meal—has taken on a “life of its own.” Martha is stuck with a reputation of missing out on what’s important (Luke 10:41-42).
However, an individual’s personality changes through experience and God’s power. We don’t know the rest of the story on Martha and Mary. I like to think that because she loved Jesus, Martha considered His comment as a reality check. I like to think she accepted His words as a reminder to see things in a bigger perspective. I like to think of her smiling and saying, “Oh, yeah, You’re right.” ♦ Mary Hendren