Wednesday, September 05, 2012

from Was Lazarus Raised from the Dead?

by John Shelby Spong

Before leaving my brief analysis of the miracle stories of the New Testament, I want to look at what is probably the best known miraculous act attributed to Jesus in the entire gospel tradition. That is the raising of Lazarus from the dead. It is a narrative told only in the Fourth Gospel (John 11), which means it does not appear in the Christian tradition until near the very end of the first century, between the years 95-100.

Because it is in John’s gospel only, we need to be aware of the role it plays in that gospel. From chapters 2-12 there is in John what scholars now refer to as “The Book of Signs.” In this section John records seven signs around which he will tell his story of Jesus. The first one is the account of Jesus changing water into wine at Cana in Galilee and the last one is the story of the raising of Lazarus. By calling these otherwise apparently supernatural acts “signs” John was, I believe, indicating that they should not be viewed as miracle stories, but as narratives that point beyond themselves to something of great meaning and significance. That was John’s way of saying that these “signs” are not to be literalized.

When we turn to the actual narrative of the Lazarus story itself, there are many other things that look as if they are meant to be warnings that this story is not to be read literally. First, there is the biographical detail that Lazarus is introduced as the brother of Mary and Martha, who live in the village of Bethany. That is a strange detail because Mary and Martha are well known figures in the gospel tradition, but nowhere has it ever been suggested up until this moment that they had a brother named Lazarus.

The second detail in John’s story that causes questions to be raised is that Jesus is notified of Lazarus’ sickness and, we are told, he deliberately refuses to go to him until the report comes of his death. The death of Lazarus was, said Jesus, for the purpose of the “glory of God” that the son of man “might be glorified by means of it.” That is interpretive language, used in an attempt to make sense retrospectively of the meaning of the Jesus experience.

The third thing that is noteworthy in this story is that although no actual person named Lazarus has ever before been mentioned anywhere in the Christian tradition. When he appears here we are told that he was especially close to Jesus. Again and again in this narrative we are told that the relationship between Jesus and Lazarus is very, very close. Yet, none of the earlier gospels have ever heard of him.

To add to this mystery two chapters later this gospel introduces an enigmatic, but crucial figure around whom John will weave the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection. John calls this figure “the disciple whom Jesus loved” and he is known in biblical circles as the “beloved disciple.” Both the figure of the “beloved disciple” and the figure named Lazarus raised from the dead, appear in the mind of the author of this gospel to be deeply linked in Jesus’ affections. Both must, therefore, be seen as major, even pivotal figures in John’s attempt to proclaim a new understanding of God in the life of Jesus.

This leads us to the conclusion that in all probability neither of these figures was a person of history. A close reading of the Fourth Gospel raises the prospect that this author creates a whole string of literary characters through whom he seeks to tell the Jesus story. Many of them are, like Lazarus and “the beloved disciple,” characters about whom no one has ever heard before John writes. I think of such figures as Nathanial, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman by the well, the Gentile official whose child is healed, the man crippled for 38 years and the man born blind. It is the literal reading of John’s gospel that has led us over the centuries to think of these figures as people of history. To understand John’s gospel we must begin to see this ability to create memorable characters as a mark of his literary genius.

With the non-historical nature of Lazarus now before us we turn to John’s story and read it for the “high drama” it is. These are the details: Jesus arrives in Bethany well after the funeral of Lazarus has been completed. John informs us that the crowd of mourners is still there. This crowd includes some who are followers of Jesus, some who are his critics and some who are his sworn enemies. This “sign” is going to be performed in public with hostile witnesses present.

Jesus is then made by John to engage in a long conversation with Martha about life after death. In that conversation, John injects the last of his “I AM” sayings. “I AM” is the name God revealed to Moses at the burning bush in the book of Exodus. John takes this holy name and places it onto the lips of Jesus over and over again. Only in John’s gospel does Jesus say such things as “I AM the bread of Life,” “I AM the living Water,” “I AM the Good Shepherd.” “I AM the door,” “I AM the vine,” “I AM the Way” and in this episode Jesus is made to say: “I AM the Resurrection.” Even more enigmatically in other places in this gospel Jesus is quoted as having said, “Before Abraham was, I AM” and “when you see the son of man lifted up, you will know I AM.” So whatever else we do with this story we need to read it inside its Johannine context.

The final thing to notice is the heightened miraculous character of this story. Lazarus is not only dead, but he has been buried for four days. Martha warns Jesus that there will be an odor if the grave is opened. Jesus, nonetheless, accompanied by a great crowd goes to the tomb, rolls back the covering stone and calls to the dead man: “Lazarus, come forth.” To the amazement of the crowd, a mummy-like figure appears bound in burial cloths, struggling to get free. Jesus says: “Unbind him and let him go.”

There is a parable in the synoptic tradition, told only by Luke, in which there is a character named Lazarus. He is a beggar who dies and goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” a Jewish synonym for heaven. His adversary in this parable is a rich man, sometimes called Dives, who also dies and he goes to a place of torment. Once there, Dives asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with water. Abraham responds that one cannot get there from here. Dives then asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers lest they too come to this place of torment. To this Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them.” Dives counters this by saying if someone goes to them from the dead they will repent. To this Abraham speaks the key word that unlocks John’s story. “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets neither will they be convinced even if one should rise from the dead.”

John has taken this Lucan parable and has made its meaning come true as an event in history. Lazarus is raised and they are not convinced. Instead this story is the catalyst that leads to the crucifixion. John never intended this to be viewed as history. This is an interpretive story told in the midst of the tension between the followers of Jesus and the synagogue authorities over how Jesus is to be understood.


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