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The name Lazarus ("God has helped") was common among the Jews of Jesus' time. Two people named Lazarus appear in the Bible:

  • Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany, who was raised from the dead by Jesus (John 11)
  • Lazarus the beggar in a parable told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31)
  • It has been suggested that the former was a real person, since it was not Jesus' usual practice to name the characters in His parables, but this is questionable. Nothing is known of the latter outside of what is contained in John 11 and 12.

    Lazarus of Bethany

    The home of the Lazarus of Bethany mentioned in Joh 11:1 was Bethany. He was the brother of Martha and Mary (Joh 11:1,2; see also Lu 10:38-41). All three were especially beloved by Jesus (Joh 11:5), and at their home He more than once, and probably often, was entertained (Lu 10:38-41; Joh 11). As intimated by the number of condoling friends from the city, and perhaps from the costly ointment used by Mary, the family was probably well-to-do.

    This is all that the Bible reveals about Lazarus of Bethany. It is not known whether the priests accomplished his death, but it seems probable that, with the death of Jesus, they left Lazarus unharmed. Nothing is told of his experiences between death and resurrection, of his emotions upon coming out of the tomb, or of his subsequent life. His resurrection has been a favorite subject for various forms of Christian art, and according to an old tradition of Epiphanius he was 30 years old when he was raised from the dead, and lived 30 years thereafter.

    Purpose of the Miracle

    The purpose of Jesus' resurrection of Lazarus seems to have been:

  • to show Jesus as Lord of life and death shortly before He himself would be condemned to die
  • to strengthen the faith of His disciples
  • to convert many witnesses
  • to prompt his enemies into action in line with His prophesied fate (Plummer, HDB, III, 87)
  • The Silence of the Other Gospels

    The silence of Matthew, Mark, and Luke about Lazarus' resurrection presents some difficulty. One possible explanation is that, hoping to screen him from danger or unwanted attention, Lazarus' family kept the story from becoming current in the oral tradition from which the synoptic gospels drew their materials (though Matthew was probably an eyewitness). In any case, the synoptic gospels do not pretend to give all the deeds of Jesus, and in fact report little of Jesus' ministry outside Galilee. Each of the gospels has omits elements of interest which others preserve. For example, Luke alone recounts the raising of the widow’s son at Nain.

    Perhaps John, knowing that the others had omitted the story of Lazarus' resurrection, tells us what he had himself witnessed, since any danger to Lazarus' family had passed. The Lazarus story was of special interest to his account, and he had recorded no other case of resurrection. At any rate, the Gospel writers do not seem to regard a resurrection from the dead by the power of Jesus as so much more stupendous than other miracles, as they seem to modern scholars. It is also worth noting that the synoptics may unconsciously attest this miracle by describing a sudden outburst of popular excitement in favor of Jesus which can be accounted for only by some extraordinary event.

    The silence of the synoptic gospels regarding this event is thus explainable:

  • the miracle was outside their scope
  • it was not the leading accusation brought against Christ (cf. Matt.26.61-Matt.26.66)
  • it was indirectly confirmed by the “envy” they attribute to the Jews (Matt.27.18)
  • it did not fit their purpose for writing as it did John’s (John.20.31).
  • Its Non-use as an Accusation against Jesus

    This miracle is not brought up as an accusation against Jesus during his trial before Pontius Pilate, which may seem inconsistent. But bringing up a blatant miracle such as this in trial would be a self-convicting acknowledgment; it makes sense that the priests, dismayed at the miracle, kept silence about it.

    Critics have offered alternate, non-miraculous explanations for the Lazarus story. Theories include:

  • Lazarus was just recovering from a trance when Jesus arrived
  • the event was staged by the family and sanctioned by Jesus in order to impress or overwhelm His enemies
  • it was a fiction or parable translated into a fact and made up largely of synoptic materials, an allegorical illustration of the words, "I am the resurrection, and the life," a myth
  • There is, however, no evidence for any of these explanations. The narrative holds together consistently, the people who take part in it act realistically, and the picture of the sisters perfectly agrees with the sketch of them in Luke. Furthermore, the account makes no effort to satisfy the curiosity of the reader, which might be expected from a fictional story.

    Lazarus the Beggar

    In the parable in Lu 16:19-31, Lazarus is pictured as in abject poverty in this world, but highly rewarded and honored in the next. It is the only instance of a proper name used in a parable by Jesus. Some think that he was a well-known mendicant in Jerusalem, and have even attempted to define his disease. But it is much more likely that the name Lazarus was chosen because of its significance, suggesting the beggar’s faith in God and patient dependence upon Him. It was this faith and not his poverty which at last brought him into Abraham’s bosom.

    Lazarus does not speak in the parable, and this may also be suggestive of patient submission. He does not complain about his difficult circumstances, nor does he rail at the rich man or gloat over him after death. The parable is related to that of the Rich Fool (Lu 12:16-21). This parable of the rich fool conceals the fate of the worldly after death; the parable of Lazarus reveals it. This parable is also a counterpart of that of the Unjust Steward (Lu 16:1-13), that parable shows how wealth can be wisely used, while this parable shows the folly of misusing wealth. The great lesson is that our condition in the afterlife depends upon our conduct here, and that a person's eternal fate may be a complete reversal of fortune and popular judgments while alive. Thus, Lazarus represents the pious indigent who stood at the opposite extreme from the proud, covetous, and luxury-loving Pharisee.

    This parable made a deep impression on the mind of the church, so that the term "lazar," no longer a proper name, has passed into many languages, as in lazar house, lazaretto, and lazzarone, applied to the mendicants of Italian towns. There was even a half-military, half-monastic order called the Knights of Lazarus, whose special duty it was to minister to lepers.

    The Rich Man

    The rich man is often styled Dives, which is not strictly a proper name, but a Latin adjective meaning "rich," which occurs in this passage in the Vulgate (Jerome’s Latin Bible, 390-405 A.D.). But in English literature, as early as Chaucer in the "Sompnoure’s Tale" and in "Piers Plowman," it appears in popular use as the name of the Rich Man in this parable. In later theological literature it has become almost universally current. The name Nineuis given him by Euthymius never came into general use, though the Sahidic version has the addition, "whose name was Ninue." His sin was not in being rich, for Abraham was among the wealthiest of his day, but in his worldly unbelief in the spiritual and eternal, revealing itself in ostentatious luxury and hard-hearted contempt of the poor. Says Augustine, "Seems he (Jesus) not to have been reading from that book where he found the name of the poor man written, but found not the name of the rich, for that book is the book of life?"

    The Meaning of the Parable

    All this considered, the story of Lazarus the beggar illustrates these ideas:

  • destiny is settled at death
  • no purgatory awaits the righteous
  • the misuse of wealth and callousness toward the poor are serious sins
  • man has sufficient warning now
  • In Other Literature

    In the Septuagint and Josephus, the name appears in the forms Eleazar, and Eleazaros.

    Other Theories about Lazarus

    The hypothesis has been suggested by O. Cullmann and F.V. Filson that Lazarus is the author of the fourth gospel, or at least the one on whose testimony the narrative depends, because of the words of John 11:3, 36 (cf. 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20), but this view has not found widespread acceptance. Various traditions and legends, not considered credible, connect him with Cyprus, Constantinople, and Marseilles.