Lazarus of Bethany

The Tomb of Lazarus in Bethany. It was closed by means of a stone laid flat on the opening.

LAZARUS OF BETHANY lăz’ ə rus (Λάζαρος, G3276, abbreviated form of Heb. name אֶלְעָזָ֖ר, with Gr. termination; meaning God helps). Friend of Jesus, whom He raised from death; brother of Martha and Mary. Although the name was common among the Jews, he is the only historical personage in the NT bearing the name. He is mentioned only in John 11 and 12.


While the characters of Martha and Mary are distinctly drawn, nothing is known of the character and temper of Lazarus. Not a word from him is recorded. He appears in the Gospel story, not for any shining qualities of character, but solely because of Christ’s miracle restoring him to life and the impact that the restoration produced. His resuscitation after being dead four days caused many Jews to believe in Jesus (11:45), but caused the Sanhedrin to agree to put Jesus to death (11:47-53).

When Jesus returned to Bethany before the final Passover, His friends there gave Him a banquet; Lazarus was among those at table with Him (John 12:1-8; Mark 14:3). The enthusiastic testimony of eyewitnesses of Lazarus’ resurrection caused many from Jerusalem to flock to Bethany to see Lazarus as well as Jesus (John 12:9). Their witness also caused the ovation Jesus received at the triumphal entry (12:17, 18). The fact that Lazarus was a living witness to the power of Christ led the priests also to plot his death (12:10).

The narrative of the resurrection of Lazarus, longest Gospel account of a miracle (John 11), is vivid, restrained, and perfectly coherent. It is the climax of the signs in John’s gospel.

This miracle has been vigorously assailed. Varied rationalistic attempts have been made to break the obvious meaning of the Johannine record. It has been claimed that Lazarus was in a trance, that it was a deliberate fraud arranged by Martha and Mary, with the connivance of Jesus; that it was an embellishment as professed history of Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31. Such proposals are unconvincing and illustrate the credulity of unbelief.

Its historicity has been questioned because of the silence of the synoptics. This is an admitted difficulty. But the synoptics do not pretend to give all the deeds of Jesus; except for the final Passover, their story is Galilean. The enthusiasm at the triumphal entry in the synoptics is without explanation without some such event as the resurrection of Lazarus. The synoptics may have omitted the story to shield the members of the Bethany household.

Others admit that an actual event lies behind the account, but deny a literal resurrection. They see it as a symbolical portrayal of Christ’s power to raise people from spiritual death in a life of sin. But the simple scriptural account gives no hint that the story was intended as an allegory. From the reactions of Christ’s contemporaries, whether friend or foe, it is clear that they did not so demythologize the event.

The miracle was intended by Christ to strengthen the faith of His disciples, challenge the nation to accept or reject Him, and to foreshadow His own impending death and resurrection.

Bibliography

A. M. Fairbairn, Studies in the Life of Christ (1881), 201-218 discusses the attacks of Paulus, Strauss, Bauer, Renan; J. D. Jones, The Lord of Life and Death (n. d.); Daniel-Rops, Jesus and His Times (1954), 379-385; J. N. Sanders, “Those Whom Jesus Loved,” NTS, I (1954), 29-41; W. Barclay, And He Had Compassion On Them (1955), 211-229 allegorizes the resurrection; “Lazarus,” in F. L. Cross, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1957), p. 793, gives a brief account of later legends concerning Lazarus; C. K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John (1960); D. A. Redding, The Miracles of Christ (1964), 169-176.