Whatever happened to Lazarus?
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A discussion on Goodreads recently raised the rather interesting question: why does the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead appear only in the gospel of John? After all, on the face of it, this was Jesus’ greatest-ever miracle: so if it did really happen, how come the other gospel writers make no mention of it?
Beware the ‘Hollywood Effect’
My most lasting visual image of this story is from one of those classic films that showed virtually the entire village of Bethany looking on from a distance in awe and wonderment as the white-clad figure of Lazarus emerged from the tomb. It was a climactic moment in the film; and great cinema: but it was also a significant distortion of the facts.
John tells us that Lazarus had been in the tomb for 4 days when Jesus arrived. This means that Mary and Martha were still within the traditional 7-day mourning period (known as ‘shiva‘), when friends and relatives would visit to offer their condolences and spend time mourning with them. So, yes, there would still have been a significant crowd of people with them in the house 4 days after the funeral: but not the whole village.
Nor was the resurrection a public spectacle. Martha first met Jesus privately, then called Mary secretly to come and join her. Those from the house who chose to follow her did not know of Jesus’ arrival; they thought she was going to weep at the tomb. And even after seeing Jesus, their only thought was that he had come too late. Thus, it would have been, at most, the disciples plus a houseful of close friends who actually saw what happened.
The other factual misconception encouraged by the film-makers is the telescoping of time. Typically, this event, if featured in the plot, is immediately followed by the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But although John’s account also skips almost immediately to the Passover week, he qualifies this by saying:
‘So from that day forward they took counsel that they might put him to death. Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Jews, but departed from there into the country near the wilderness, to a city called Ephraim. He stayed there with his disciples’ (John 11:53-4).
Far from heading directly to the final showdown, Jesus actually leaves the area to spend time in Ephraim, some 15 miles (20km) north of Jerusalem. So, although this incident marks the point at which the high priest took an ‘executive decision’ that Jesus would have to die, it actually takes place some time before Jesus’ final visit to Jerusalem. And, without the benefit of both hindsight and inside knowledge of the high priest’s deliberations, it is unlikely that its pivotal nature would have been so readily apparent.
The Selectivity of the Gospel accounts
We need to understand that all the gospel accounts are highly selective in their choice of incidents described. As the final verse of John’s gospel observes, “There are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they would all be written, I suppose that even the world itself wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written.”
The relatively high correlation between the choice of incidents in Matthew, Mark and Luke (the Synoptic gospels) is very probably down to them having used existing written collections (see Luke 1:1) as an aid to memory. At the outset, therefore, we should note that, apart from the final week of Jesus’ life, the events described in the synoptic gospels are focussed on Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and the regions away from Jerusalem. This isn’t as strange as we might at first think. Writing materials weren’t very portable in those days: so it is not really all that surprising if Jesus’ early chroniclers were based in Galilee, where his support was strongest.
But John’s gospel is quite unlike the others. He makes no apparent reference to these earlier accounts, or the other gospels; preferring to rely on Jesus’ promise that the Holy Spirit would “remind you of all that I said to you” (John 14:26). Nor does he attempt to give a full account of all Jesus’ travels and miracles. Rather, he focusses on a very limited choice of incidents that provide special insight into the purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry.
It should also be noted that John was in a unique position with regard to his access to the high priest’s household. His father appears to have been a fish merchant (Mk 1:20), his mother a social climber (Mt 20:20-21) and he was able to gain access even on the night of Jesus’ arrest (Jn 18:15). Thus, he was better placed than others to know the impact this miracle had on the high priest’s thinking.
So in asking why the story of Lazarus appears only in John, we must ask ourselves how many similar miracles the gospel writers had to choose from, and what considerations might influence their choice?
The available choices
The gospels describe four miracles performed by Jesus demonstrating his power over death (though, given what the gospel writers say about the sheer number of miracles Jesus performed, we cannot rule out the possibility there were others). These are:
- The Widow’s Son, Related only in Luke 7:11-15, this was the first of the recorded resurrection miracles. Jesus interrupts a funeral procession to raise a widow’s son to life. Based on Jewish customs of the time, the young man would have been dead for several hours: but not more than a day.
- Jairus’ daughter, This incident, involving a girl who had just died, took place in Galilee and appears in all 3 synoptic gospels.
- Lazarus, who had been dead and buried for 4 days.
- Jesus, raised from the dead on the third day, having been in the grave for a little over 36 hours.
Apart from Jesus’ own resurrection the most favoured account is Jairus’ daughter, despite it being the least spectacular in terms of length of time dead. The most obvious reason for this choice must be that it is the best documented. Evidently it was amongst the miracles recorded by the early Galilean chroniclers. This, plus the detail and pathos of the story (with the panic-stricken father forced to wait while Jesus deals with a seemingly less urgent case) makes it a natural choice.
Jesus’ own resurrection, whilst taking place over a shorter timescale than the raising of Lazarus, trumps that one in that it was the miracle-worker himself who was now dead and who is supernaturally raised without human intervention from a sealed and guarded tomb.
Thus we have all four gospels recounting at least 2 resurrection miracles and Luke adding a third (Jesus’ first, at Nain) for good measure.
Do they really need any more? Arguably not. So the question now is, what factors would persuade Matthew, Mark and Luke to either include or exclude the story of Lazarus?
Reasons for Inclusion
- It’s the most dramatic in terms of length of time dead. True, assuming he really was dead. But Jesus’ crucifixion provides much more convincing proof of death.
- Its pivotal role in the events leading to Jesus’ own death. True: but this was not apparent from the actual timing of events. It required insider knowledge, which John had access to. But did the others? Nor was this by any means the only factor influencing the authorities’ decision.
- The story, like that of Jairus, contains a lot of detail and pathos. True: but Jesus’ response to this situation is much harder to understand (see below).
Reasons for Exclusion
- Coming, as it does, towards the end of Jesus’ ministry, this account of a resurrection after four days in the grave might have been seen by some as detracting from the natural climax of the gospels, Jesus’ own resurrection.
- There is a credibility issue here. People were no less disinclined to believe resurrection stories then than they are today (see Acts 17:32). Why stretch their credulity in advance of the much better-documented account of Jesus’ own resurrection?
- Despite its dramatic nature, the impact of this miracle seems to have been limited to the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem. By travelling just 15 miles north, Jesus appears to have been able to avoid its repercussions. As already noted, the actual number of witnesses was much smaller than we commonly suppose. And we also know that there was considerable hostility amongst the Jewish authorities, making testifying about Jesus a risky business around Jerusalem (cf. John 9:22 & 11:57). Thus there was a lack of general corroborative testimony – unlike the Galilean miracles, which had been widely reported.
- Many people struggle to understand why Jesus delayed going to Lazarus’ aid when he first heard of his sickness. John is seeking to give his readers an eternal perspective on our short-term tragedies: whereas the other gospel writers are primarily relating events. For them, these secondary questions would be a distraction from the main account.
- Whatever happened to Lazarus? The feature of any resurrection story that makes it most convincing is the ability to meet the prime witness – in this case, Lazarus. John tells us that when Jesus returned at the beginning of the passover week, ‘A large crowd therefore of the Jews learned that he was there, and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead‘ (John 12:9). One might, therefore, have expected that, even after Jesus’ resurrection, Lazarus would have achieved some notoriety as a living proof of Jesus’ resurrection power. But we never hear of him again; and, ominously, John comments, ‘But the chief priests conspired to put Lazarus to death also, because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus‘ (John 12:11-12). Did someone kill him? Or, being an older man, did he just get ill again and die? We don’t know. But the absence of the chief witness undoubtedly detracts from the story.
None of the arguments raised above give us good grounds for denying the truth of John’s testimony concerning Lazarus. Those who deny it do so primarily on the basis of their own unbelief, arising from our natural human experience of the finality of death.
As far as Matthew, Mark and Luke are concerned, it can be seen that they would have had good reason for not including this particular incident in their accounts. But, from John’s standpoint we can equally understand why, despite any arguments to the contrary, he would consider this particular incident worth singling out for special mention.