Finding Jesus Raising Lazarus: Climax or Prequel?

By Paul N. Anderson
George Fox University
Newberg, Oregon
March 2017

The second episode of CNN’s second season of its Finding Jesus series features what is undoubtedly the climax of Jesus’s ministry in the Fourth Gospel—the raising of Lazarus. Not only is this the last of the miracles performed by Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, but it is also his greatest sign—the seventh in the Gospel of John. Indeed, the declaration of the steward regarding the providing of wine by Jesus at the Cana wedding feast has come true (John 2:10). Jesus saves the best for last. However, this raises several questions, or riddles, about John’s story of Jesus. Some of them are well addressed in this episode, and others less so.

First, why is the raising of Lazarus—arguably the greatest of Jesus’s miracles—found only in the Gospel of John? If other Gospel writers would have known of this story, they certainly would have mentioned it. If it really happened in history, how could it not be known by several sources, not only John? Given that the story serves a climactic function in John’s narrative, skeptical scholars have sometimes assumed that the origin of story is theological rather than historical. And yet, it is implausible that any or all four of the canonical Gospels included all the things Jesus said and did, and John 21:25 claims as much. Therefore, John’s author might have been seeking to include memories of Jesus’s ministry not included in the other Gospels, especially as an augmentation of Mark. As Candida Moss puts it, on one hand there’s the question of historical memory versus narrated legend. On the other hand, John’s account of the Lazarus family is one of the most detailed narratives in any of the Gospels, so it is unlikely that the entire story is simply a fabrication.

While the CNN episode cannot solve the question of historicity conclusively, it does seek to account for the history of Lazarus in several ways. Robert Cargill shows a historic site connected with tomb of Lazarus (the Lazarium), identified by ancient sources since the 4th century CE. It reflects a historic site of pilgrimages before and after that century, and even Muslim traditions have noted the site as the tomb of Lazarus. As Mark Goodacre points out, given that Bethany was on the way into Jerusalem from the East, this would also have been a setting in which to make a statement regarding who Jesus was as people entered the city for the Passover festival.

Another site connected with Lazarus in history is Larnaca on the Island of Cyprus. According to tradition, given that Jewish leaders sought to kill Lazarus (as well as Jesus, John 12:9-11), he reportedly fled to a remote place, and a church dedicated to Saint Lazarus remains in Larnaca to this day. While Georges Kazan and Tom Higham of Oxford University tested some wood fragments from the Lazarus sarcophagus, the Carbon-14 test failed to reveal anything older than a couple of centuries. Whether the testing of ancient bone fragments would have yielded different results, of course, remains an unsolved riddle. Whatever the case, the traditional connecting of Lazarus with Larnaca goes back to the 8th century at least, so that may be the best we can do on that connection.

A second riddle addressed by this episode involves the identity of the anonymous author of the Fourth Gospel. While second-century tradition is unanimous in its identification of John the son of Zebedee as the author, his name never occurs in the narrative, even though the sons of Zebedee are referenced in John 21:2. And yet, the author is described as “the disciple Jesus loved” in several passages (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20-24), so the fact that Lazarus is described as someone Jesus loved in John 11:5 causes Ben Witherington and others to wonder if Lazarus might be the Beloved Disciple. If so, this could also account for why the Fourth Gospel is so different from the others, and why there is so much reporting of events in Jesus’s ministry happening in or near Jerusalem. Michael Peppard offers a meaningful conjecture as to why someone like Lazarus might have been the only male disciple present at the crucifixion of Jesus. If this person had overcome the sting of death and had experienced the power of the resurrection personally, he might have been emboldened to stand with Jesus and the women at the cross, knowing that death was not the end. While meaningful, though, such can only be a guess. Whoever the Beloved Disciple was, he was certainly close to and committed to Jesus, and that could have been John or Thomas, as well as Lazarus.

Like other theories on the identity of the Beloved Disciple, however, the Lazarus hypothesis suffers new sets of challenges. If Peter and the Beloved Disciple were indeed close to each other, Lazarus makes no appearances with Peter within other Gospels or in any other ancient writings—canonical or otherwise. Also, while Peter and the Beloved Disciple are juxtaposed in John, this does not mean that the Fourth Evangelist was anti-Petrine or against apostolic leadership. The Johannine challenge to hierarchy and male leadership might just as easily reflect a more primitive apostolic view emerging from within the Twelve rather than against them from without. In addition to Jesus loving Lazarus, he also is described as loving Martha and Mary in John 11:5. So, as Bob Fortna speculated several years go, two-to-one chances would suggest that if this verse were the key to identifying the Beloved Disciple, that person would be twice as likely to be a female as a male. Then again, when Jesus says “behold your son” to his mother with reference to this person in John 19:26, and given that unclad Peter was with the Beloved Disciple fishing together in the boat in John 21:7, it probably was not a female character. While the traditional view has been subjected to more extensive critique than almost any other subject in New Testament studies, no alternative view of John’s authorship is without its own set of new problem.

A third riddle addressed by this episode results from the fact that Jesus waits two days before traveling to Bethany after hearing that Lazarus was ill. The question is why? Does he do so in order to magnify the effect of the miracle? After all, explains Witherington, after three days, Jewish customs assumed there was no hope of coming back to life. Therefore, by the fourth day, this would be a resurrection, not merely a resuscitation. Or, did Jesus simply not care? With great sorrow and emotion, both Martha and Mary exclaim that if Jesus would have been there, Lazarus would not have died. Perhaps Jesus was wanting to demonstrate the fullness of his power in order to create a crisis in Jerusalem, leading to his own death. As noted by Obrey Henricks, this demonstration of power by Jesus would certainly expose the lack of power by the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Thus, the seventh sign of Jesus certainly brings his ministry to a climax, leading not only to his own death, but also to his resurrection.

Then again, perhaps it was an act of love rather than a demonstration of power (Nicola Denzey Lewis and James Martin, S.J.). When Jesus wept, did he do so because he was grieving people’s lack of faith, or was he grieving the loss of his beloved friend, Lazarus? Even in the contrast between the two sisters we see an emphasis not upon getting tasks done responsibly (Martha) but a heightening of relationships as the highest value (Mary). In my view, Luke 10:38-42 carries John’s insight further, spelling out this lesson even more explicitly. In that sense, as well as representing Jesus’s finest moment in raising someone from the dead, John 11 also sets the stage for the making of a theological point. As threatening as death can be, the power of the resurrection declares the final victory of God. That is a point worth noting.

So, does the raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John play the role of a climax to the ministry of Jesus, or is it a prequel the Christ Events: the death and resurrection of Jesus soon to follow? In this lucid and engaging presentation of these issues, the answer may be both. After all, as more than one of the scholars interviewed pointed out, texts often have more than one meaning, and no matter what one does with questions of history and memory, the central thrust of the narrative is clear. And that is love.

Comments (3)

There may be an allusion to the Lazarus-resurrection in Mark. We have a glimpse of the neaniskos, the young man in Mark 14:51f. who is wrapped in a sindōn, a burial sheet like Jesus' sindōn in Matt 27:59, and is part of the crowd attending Jesus at his arrest: Καὶ νεανίσκος τις συνηκολούθει αὐτῷ περιβεβλημένος σινδόνα ἐπὶ γυμνοῦ, καὶ κρατοῦσιν αὐτόν· ὁ δὲ καταλιπὼν τὴν σινδόνα γυμνὸς ἔφυγεν. This would probably be the resurrected Lazarus, still wearing burial clothes as testimony to, and advertisement for, Jesus' power, but Mark knows neither his name nor his story nor the motive for seizing him (see John 12:10). Those are for John alone to tell. In John 12:17, the crowd gathering for Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem is led by witnesses to the Lazarus-miracle; Mark, by contrast, is dimly aware of an important "Naked Youth with Sindōn" incident in the tradition, but knows no details. He includes it to be on the safe side (and it may appeal to his cinematic instincts!).

In our classical scholars' "blog" on John (, we were pretty much in agreement that the Passion in John begins not with Gethsemani, as in the Synoptics, but with Lazarus: the shock and tears begin with Lazarus' entombment, foreshadowing Jesus' entombment, and the resurrection of Lazarus, foreshadowing Jesus' resurrection, is the final outrage that motivates the decision to arrest and murder Jesus. The miraculous "signs" in John build up to the centrality of Lazarus, the actual resurrection of a human corpse so manifestly dead that "he stinketh." Such is the power of the only-begotten of the Father. And the exercise of this ultimate divine power triggers the Passion and seals the fate of the One who already knows (unlike the Synoptic Jesus) where he's from and where he's going.

#1 - Bill Berg - 03/13/2017 - 22:56

Thanks, Bill, some good thoughts, here. Not sure the man in Mark 14 is Lazarus; it is interesting that Luke 7:22 might be a reference to John 11, and Luke includes a parable of a dead man, Lazarus, who in the afterlife is juxtaposed to the rich man's plight (Lk. 16:19-31). Much appreciated!

#2 - Paul Anderson - 03/14/2017 - 04:23

In regard to the possible connection between Mark's naked youth and John's Lazarus episode, I'm pretty sure that the (alleged) Secret Mark excerpt, famously discovered by Morton Smith, contains farther evidence that the mysterious youth and Lazarus spawn from the same narrative source, and that Mark's gospel may originally--or additionally--have made reference to the episode in question, albeit before ultimately being cut from the version we have now. I remember the fact that the Secret Mark text seems to help clean up a couple of loose ends, which are left hanging in our version of the gospel, to be particularly intriguing evidence of its plausible authenticity. And, IMHO, the raw evidence concerning the entire Secret Mark-discovery ordeal, strongly(!) leans toward an ancient origin for the letter, and leaves the idea of it being a modern forgery completely debunked. I really feel it's worth a look in a lot of situations, and especially with regards to this investigation of the Lazarus narrative.

#3 - Aleph_One - 03/14/2017 - 20:30

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