Lazarus: The Beloved Disciple?
At first glance it would appear that Lazarus, despite the startling context in which we encounter him, only plays a very small part in the Gospels. Of the four canonical Gospels, he only appears in the Fourth in a handful of small sections. In fact, a careful examination of the texts suggests that Lazarus may well have had a much bigger role in events than is generally supposed. The following overview examines his shadowy network of power and suggests lines of further enquiry.
Nothing in here is particularly original ? merely conveniently packaged to allow a quick appraisal of the key arguments.
1. Lazarus is raised from the dead
In the Fourth Gospel (John 11:1-44), which I will reference using the standard ?John? notation although I will have more to say on this later, we first encounter Lazarus in the story of Jesus raising him from the dead ? a pretty dramatic occasion if taken at face value. Although most people know this passage well, I’ll reproduce the entire text as it is extremely important for the arguments that follow:
11.1 Now a certain man was ill, Laz’arus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 11.2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Laz’arus was ill. 11.3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 11.4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.” 11.5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Laz’arus. 11.6 So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 11.7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go into Judea again.” 11.8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 11.9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any one walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 11.10 But if any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11.11 Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, “Our friend Laz’arus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” 11.12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 11.13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 11.14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Laz’arus is dead; 11.15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 11.16 Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
11.17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Laz’arus had already been in the tomb four days. 11.18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 11.19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 11.20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. 11.21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 11.22 And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 11.23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 11.24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 11.25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 11.26 and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 11.27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” 11.28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying quietly, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 11.29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 11.30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 11.31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 11.32 Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
11.33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled; 11.34 and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 11.35 Jesus wept. 11.36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 11.37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 11.38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb; it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it. 11.39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 11.40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” 11.41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. 11.42 I knew that thou hearest me always, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that thou didst send me.” 11.43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Laz’arus, come out.” 11.44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
There are plenty of interesting angles to this story but for our purposes the salient points that we are told are: (1) Jesus loved Lazarus (repeated three times just to make sure we understand); (2) Lazarus was the brother of Martha and Mary of Bethany (who appear elsewhere and in different guises); (3) a curious (to us) use of the phrase ?Jew? ? here meaning somebody specifically from Judea as opposed to the Galileans from Galilee; (4) the fact that many Jews had come to help mourn indicated the prominence of the family.
2. The Anointing at Bethany
Immediately after the story of raising Lazarus (John 11:45), we are told that the Jews who had been brought to the town by Mary were split between those who began believing in Jesus and those who went back and warned the chief priest (Caiaphas) and Pharisees that trouble was brewing. Then (John 12:1-8) we have the anointing of Jesus’ feet by Mary of Bethany.
12.1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Laz’arus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 12.2 There they made him a supper; Martha served, and Laz’arus was one of those at table with him. 12.3 Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the ointment. 12.4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was to betray him), said, 12.5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 12.6 This he said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it. 12.7 Jesus said, “Let her alone, let her keep it for the day of my burial. 12.8 The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
Interesting this links directly to passages in the three synoptic Gospels (Matt 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; Luke 7:36-50) and although Mary is not named in any of these, the parallels are so striking that most commentators agree that the same incident is being described. Luke’s version is the most different and he makes two interesting points (1) that the action takes place in the house of a Pharisee; and (2) that the woman doing the anointing (Mary of Bethany) is a sinner. Lastly Luke later on refers to a Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42) who appear to be the same sisters, corroborating the information in John.
3. The plot to kill Lazarus
In the next chapter of John’s Gospel (John 12:9-11) we are briefly told a startling thing ? that the chief priests were planning to kill Lazarus. Apparently this was because he was responsible for converting a large number of Jews to Jesus? teachings. Now maybe this is because raising somebody from the dead is such an amazing thing that people would be converted by it. However, this reading appears incorrect as (1) Jesus specifically says that people wouldn?t be converted by having a dead person coming back (Luke 16:19); and (2) Jesus had already raised people from the dead (e.g. Luke 7:11-17) and they weren?t being targeted for assassination. Therefore, the implication would appear to be that Lazarus was a particular problem because when he ?went over? to Jesus he took many with him due to his position in society. This ties in with the number of people brought by Mary to his “funeral” and will be examined more closely later.
Curiously, the passage in Luke that I quote above (which relates to whether a dead person coming back to life would be believed) occurs in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man ? the only other time somebody called Lazarus appears in the Gospels.
Evidently the chief priests had no qualms about attempting to kill somebody who had already been raised from the dead but the question of whether Lazarus would die twice has occupied theologians who finally developed a distinction between resuscitation (Lazarus) and resurrection (Jesus).
4. The entry to Jerusalem
The last mention of Lazarus is in relation to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (John 12:17) which (for the third time) reinforces the fact that many of the crowd were there because of Lazarus.
The Strange Case of the Secret Gospel.
So apart from those four mentions there is nothing more about Lazarus. As all four of these occur in a single Gospel, his overall importance might be considered marginal.
But this is not the end of the story and there is, in fact, more. As recently as 1958 a document claiming (and now believed to genuinely be) a letter from Clement of Alexandria was uncovered. In this letter Clement refers to a ?secret? Gospel of Mark and quotes parts of it. One part (at the end of the letter) is a re-telling of the Lazarus story although with some twists. It reads as follows:
To you, therefore, I shall not hesitate to answer the questions you have asked, refuting the falsifications by the very words of the Gospel. For example, after “And they were in the road going up to Jerusalem” and what follows, until “After three days he shall arise”, the secret Gospel brings the following material word for word:
“And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, “son of David, have mercy on me”. But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered , went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus thaught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.”
And these words follow the text, “And James and John come to him” and all that section. But “naked man with naked man” and the other things about which you wrote, are not found.
And after the words,“And he comes into Jericho,” the secret Gospel adds only, “And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them.” But many other things about which you wrote both seem to be and are falsifications.
This time we learn that Lazarus is (it is generally accepted that this is indeed Lazarus as, although he is not named directly, Bethany is) : (1) young; (2) rich; (3) given to wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. These points will be important later on. As an aside, there is more than a whiff of the ?initiation? in this narrative, leading many to speculate that Lazarus was not physically dead only spiritually dead. After his initiation by Jesus he has been awoken to his new life. This rings true with me and although not specifically relevant to the current overview does have resonances elsewhere.
The Beloved Disciple ? Who was he?
The author of the Fourth Gospel is never mentioned. A figure referred to as ?the disciple whom Jesus loved? or the Beloved Disciple appears a number of times and it is this disciple who is explicitly identified as the eyewitness to the events recorded. After mentioning ?the disciple whom Jesus loved?, the concluding passage of the Fourth Gospel contains these lines: ?This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.? However, the Beloved Disciple is never named, so while tradition holds that it is John, son of Zebedee, much controversy and speculation still surrounds this question.
Let me start by attacking the proposition that John, Son of Zebedee is the Beloved Disciple. The reason this tradition exists is because of the say-so of Irenaeus. However, several facts argue against this. I won?t go into them all (books have been filled) but the most convincing to me is that in the Fourth Gospel (unlike the others) there is a clear distinction between the Galilean disciples (led by Peter) and the Jerusalem-based disciples, who apparently include the Beloved Disciple. (Remember the usage of ?Jews? in the Lazarus passage). On several occasions, Peter is made out to be the thicko of the pack (indeed, one commentator has persuasively suggested the ?rock?/Peter part of Simon Peter should be rendered as ?Rocky? ? thus he should really be ?Simon also known as Rocky?) while the Beloved Disciple is the one who gets things right. As John, Son of Zebedee, was one of Peter?s gang, it is highly unlikely that he is the Beloved Disciple. Other issues described below will also suggest that none of the Galileans could be the Beloved Disciple.
Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple
Of course, you know where I?m going with this. In the absence of the traditional competition, step forward Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple. As I mentioned, many have suggested this before but let me summarise the evidence:
Jesus loved Lazarus. As mentioned above, the Beloved Disciple is referred to as the ?disciple whom Jesus loved?. In the Lazarus passage we saw how he is specifically mentioned as being loved by Jesus (three times). In verse 5 the exact same Greek word (hgapa) is used to describe Jesus? love for Lazarus as is used in the verses relating to the Beloved Disciple (e.g. John 13:23).
Timing. Interestingly the Beloved Disciple appears only after Lazarus is brought back from the dead (spiritually awakened?). If the Beloved Disciple had been mentioned earlier in the piece or alongside Lazarus, this would be a blow to the theory but as the Gospels stand Lazarus is first introduced to us and then, after he has been ?raised?, he disappears and the Beloved Disciple suddenly appears. Rumours of immortality. The clincher for me, though, is a passage I had never read before (or at least read and failed to process). It is part of that concluding appendix to Lazarus? Gospel which commentators agree was added after the body of the Gospel. The specific part is John 21:23, ?Because of this, the rumour spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?? Clearly what we have here is a bizarre climb-down. This community (or others) had said that their man wouldn?t die but obviously by the time the appendix was written, he had (oops). So they are saying: “No we never said he wouldn’t die. We said that if Jesus didn?t want him to die then he wouldn?t”. Now unless they are simply mad (possible but unlikely) this makes no sense at all. However, if the person in question were Lazarus then this would have been a burning issue. If they believed that Jesus had raised him from the dead, was he going to die again? It only makes sense if Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple.
Lazarus was a Big Cheese
I think everything so far has a thread of logic running through it. My next suggestion is a little more tenuous but makes thematic sense. All the synoptic Gospels tell a story of a ?rich young Man? who wants to know how he can get everlasting life. He has acted well all his life but wants to know what else he must do. Jesus tells him that he must sell all his possessions, an answer that causes him some dismay (being rich he has many). Jesus then uses this to utter his ?eye of a needle? speech. I contend that this is actually Lazarus prior to his spiritual awakening. Firstly, the passage in Mark says that Jesus loved him (?hgaphsen? in the original Greek; I believe that this is the same root as ?hgapa? above but am open to correction on this). Secondly we have the theme of richness, which we saw in the ?raising from the dead? passages early on. Thirdly we have the positioning of the story. The first fragment of Secret Mark (raising Lazarus) is supposed to be inserted between 10:34 and 10:35. The story of the rich man comes just before this ? 10:17-31. Obviously he is intending to make the ?raising? story a continuation of the ?rich, young man? story. In fact, if it were left on its own, the ?rich, young man? story would be something of a downer, which is unusual in the Gospels (no Good News there!).
Luke, in his telling of the story, specifies a ?rich young ruler? (the Greek word used is ?archon? giving a nice Gnostic flavour). The only time this word is used elsewhere in the Gospels in this context is about Nicodemus (John 3:1) who is specifically a member of the Sanhedrin. Both this and the points I will raise below point to the fact that this rich, young, ruler ? Lazarus – was actually one of the 71 members of the Jewish supreme council.
With this in mind let?s turn briefly back to the plot to kill Lazarus. Remember we said that this only made sense if the reason they wanted to kill Lazarus was because of his position in society. This interpretation is backed up by a point earlier in the Forth Gospel where the chief priests and the Pharisees send a heavy squad to arrest Jesus, but when the officers hear him speak they leave him alone and come back empty-handed. The response of the Pharisees is enlightening (John 7:47-48): “Are you led astray, you also? Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him?? At this stage the answer is ?no? but if Lazarus later publicly supports Jesus you can see how this would undermine the position of the chief priests and Pharisees. By the way Nicodemus himself appears to become the second member of the Sanhedrin to follow Jesus. He stands up for Jesus in the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-52) and gets accused of being a Galilean for his trouble. By John 19:39, he appears to have switched completely. Joseph of Arimathea is the third member of the Sanhedrin and (secret) disciple of Jesus (e.g. John 19:38) who breaks his cover to come forward for the body of Jesus. So despite the best efforts of the priests, some of their own definitely did believe in Jesus? teachings.
Lazarus had Access to the High Priest
Following on from the above, it makes sense to identify the unnamed disciple mentioned in John 18:13-27 as Lazarus. In this passage Peter and Lazarus try to follow Jesus as he is taken away to Annas to be examined. Peter is stopped at the door and must wait but the other disciple ?is known to the high priest ? (repeated twice) and is allowed through (this example of point scoring against Peter, already referred to above, suggests strongly that this is the Beloved Disciple). Here again is proof that Lazarus must have friends in high places!
In fact, Annas at the time was no longer the high priest, having been booted out of office by the Romans in c. AD 15, but was acknowledged as still being the power behind the position. The Jewish historian Josephus refers to Annas as ?a most fortunate man? (Jewish Antiquities, xx.198) because five of his sons, his son-in-law and his grandson also held the position of high priest and this had never happened before.
This examination of Jesus by Annas is only recorded in the Fourth Gospel, supporting once again the position that Lazarus, as fourth Gospel author, was an eyewitness to these particular events.
This Gospel has long been known for showing the most knowledge about the Jews but also being the most anti-Jewish. This apparent contradiction makes sense if it was written by Lazarus, a former member of the Sanhedrin and later convert to Jesus.
For the sake of completeness, it has also been argued that the unnamed youth who wears nothing but a linen cloth over his body in Mark 14:51-52 is also the Beloved Disciple. As this is exactly the description we have of Lazarus from Secret Mark, it is certainly likely. If this is indeed the case, however, he must have found some clothes quickly before making his appearance at Annas? house.
The Historical Annas
As is hinted at in the section above, Annas is a well-documented historical figure. There are a few extra morsels of information about him that may be relevant to this examination of Lazarus. Firstly, it appears that the wealth of the high priests was significantly dependant on the money changing and purchase of compulsory offerings in the temple. Alfred Edersheim in “The Life & Times of Jesus the Messiah” (1971 edition, pp. 369-370) claimed that some rabbinic writings of the 1st century a.d. tied the ‘temple bazaar’ to the sons of Annas the High Priest. Specifically he says that it is likely that there was collusion between the owners of the temple bazaar and the inspectors, so that many of the animals purchased outside of the temple were rejected as unfit. When all was said and done, it was easier, if not cheaper, to purchase animals at the temple bazaar which were assured to have been already inspected and found acceptable for sacrificial offerings. It would appear that these animals were sold at an inflated price, the profits being divided between its high priestly owners and the market proprietors.
Therefore when Jesus cleared the temple (a scene which appears in all the synoptic Gospels ? e.g. Mark 11:15-19) he was not only making a religious statement, he was directly attacking the high priest and compromising his ability to generate income. (Possibly Jesus did this twice: firstly John 2:14-22 and secondly Mark 11:15-19). No wonder that Annas and Caiaphas are keen to get rid of him. It appears that Jesus was not the only one to take exception to these mercenary practices. It is generally accepted that the common populace reviled the high priests in the years before the fall of Jerusalem for their greedy and ungodly practices. In the Babylonian Talmud and the Tosefta there is a list of woes caused by high-priestly families. One of these is: “Woe unto me because of the house of Hanin, woe unto me for their calumnies” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 57a; Tosefta, Menahot 13:21). Here the house of Hanin is a reference to Annas and his family.
Note that although Jesus made plenty of criticism of the Pharisees, they appear to have had little or no role in the actual arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. The high priest and his family were all Sadducees. Most of the conflict between the Christians and the Pharisees happened after Jesus? death when the Christians were becoming a force to be reckoned with. Although even here when the Sanhedrin wanted to put Jesus’ disciples to death, the disciples’ lives were saved by a Pharisee called Gamaliel, “a teacher of the Torah held in high regard by all the people” (Acts 5:34).
Now we get into slightly murkier waters.
We know from Josephus? Jewish Antiquities (XVIII, iv, 3; v, 3; XIX, vi, 4; XX, ix, I) that Annas?s five sons Eleazar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Matthias, and the younger Annas were all high priests after him. In addition, Caiaphas, the high priest at the time of Jesus? trial, was his son-in-law. Some of these names crop up later in the Acts of the Apostles still opposing the budding Christian movement (Acts 4:6). Matthias his grandson was high priest in about 65 AD. What is interesting about this list is that Lazarus is a Greek rendering of the original Hebrew name Eleazar. It is tempting to think that the High Priest Eleazar could be the same as our Lazarus. Looking at the dates closely though, this is not likely as the high priest Eleazar was in office about 15-17 AD. Let?s say that you could become a high priest at 18, the youngest that would make this Eleazar at the time of Jesus? ministry would be 33. Not impossible but not convincing ? certainly if we think that Lazarus we have been following is referred to as a youth. As against this, let?s revisit the Lazarus and the rich man parable. Here Jesus speaks of a man, dressed in purple (signifying a ruler) who begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to his father?s house where he has five brothers. Given everything that has gone before, this is just too coincidental for my liking. I feel that there must be some connection to our Lazarus theme.
So taking all of the above in account, the most reasonable storyline that I can draw is as follows:
Lazarus is a younger member of the extended Hanin family ? possibly a son of the Eleazar who had been high priest. He is young rich and privileged. He falls in with Jesus, first appearing as the young man eager to learn the secret of eternal life from Jesus, then going away despondent because he must give up his vast wealth. However, he finally takes the plunge and after his spiritual awakening becomes one of Jesus? best disciples. His family have an axe to grind with Jesus anyway for trying to rock their money-making boat and when they hear that young Lazarus has decided to join his cause are outraged possibly sparking a family row (Jesus? teachings have a strong suggestion that one must break away from your family so this would all be in keeping). If one of their own is now a follower they cannot claim to be above such nonsense. So they decide that he must be disposed of before he can become an embarrassment.
Meanwhile, Jesus stirs things further by holding up Lazarus as a paradigm of worthiness and contrasting him favourably against Caiaphas (the rich man in the parable) and his five brothers-in-law. Lazarus evidently escaped their clutches long enough (or has some immunity due to his status) to pass his memories of what happened to someone who wrote them down. Possibly the community that sprang up around him claimed that he was never going to die and then did some hasty backtracking when, eventually, he did. Version 1.2 28th September 2004