John’s Gospel tells the unforgettable story of a family who lived at Bethany: Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, while his sister Mary anointed Jesus, and washed his feet with her hair. As I have discussed in earlier columns, John’s story has many similarities to versions in other gospels, but also differs substantially in detail. The accounts in Mark and Matthew, for instance, describe an anointing by an unnamed woman, but say nothing about her drying his feet with her hair. Here, I want to explore some of the implications of those differences, which tell us much about the process by which the gospels were composed.
Outside John, the foot-washing theme occurs only in Luke’s gospel, and that overlap is important. Let me begin by offering a standard account of the sources of the materials in the different gospels. (Please note that many highly qualified scholars dispute this version, but let me pass over those complex debates here). The three gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke are closely related, and are called the Synoptics, because they can be combined into a synopsis. According to the common interpretation, Mark wrote first, and was subsequently used by Matthew and Luke. Over and above Mark, Matthew and Luke also used another common source, called Q, which is now lost. Mark and Q combined give us a major portion of what now survives as Matthew and Luke. Over and above those sources, though, Matthew used some material distinctive to him, which is called M, while Luke had his own special materials, called L.
That does not mean that there ever existed a single book called “L”, as these Lukan materials were very diverse. They include, for example, the major portions about the Virgin Mary, which supply most of what the Bible says about that figure. They also include several shorter passages that have odd and surprising connections with the Johannine tradition. Nobody suggests that Luke sat down and invented those L materials himself: rather, they would have circulated independently as free-standing stories before they were attached to what became Luke’s gospel.
I make no claim to systematic research on this point, but I am struck how often L materials focus on women, from the Virgin Mary and Mary of Bethany to various unnamed female characters. I have no immediate explanation for this fact. Might it say something about the work’s original audience or patron?
That brings us to the foot-washing passage, which as I say occurs in a passage in Luke 7, and then recurs in John 12. John introduces his characters oddly, mentioning their names as if his readers are meant to know them already, although it is their first appearance in this particular text: “It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.” Probably, John is assuming that his readers already know the foot-washing episode from Luke, or else, more likely, from a free floating story that at the time might even have been attached to some other now lost gospel.
But there is another echo here. John tells the well-known story of Lazarus as a straightforward narrative: Jesus did this, he says, and this happened, it was the ultimate miracle. But as many readers have pointed out through the centuries, there are curious resonances between this story and a mysterious parable. The name Lazarus occurs in another related setting in the New Testament, in a L passage found only in Luke 16: 19-31. In this story, Lazarus is a poor man despised by a rich neighbor. When they both die, Lazarus goes to eternal rest in Abraham’s bosom, while the rich man ends up in something like the later vision of Hell. Despite his pleading, the rich man cannot obtain help from Lazarus. Alarmed by his dreadful situation, the rich man wants to warn his relatives about the dreadful fate awaiting them, so they can repent. Couldn’t Abraham send Lazarus to warn them personally? No, says Abraham, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
Lazarus, in this story, is not depicted as an actual historical character, but he makes a curious figure in a parable. This is the only one of Jesus’s many parables in which a character is actually given a personal name, rather than being “a certain rich man,” “a leper,” or “a householder.”
It is also the only parable in which one of the Old Testament patriarchs not only appears as a named character, but actually has a speaking role.
Although usually cited as a parable, it really is not. In terms of genre, the story’s closest relatives in literature are found in what we call the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, or apocryphal literature, which proliferated between about 200 BC and 200 AD. These works offered fictional or legendary reworkings of Old Testament stories, usually focused on such major characters as Moses, Enoch or Isaiah, and even the surviving texts constitute a vast corpus. (A great many more have been lost through the centuries). Often, the stories used otherworldly or heavenly locations, and apocalyptic themes were common. The narratives made much use of angels, and the Luke story records how angels bore Lazarus’s soul to Abraham. Abraham was a standard character in the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, and an Apocalypse of Abraham was composed probably in the late first century AD.
As an intellectual exercise, we might imagine that the Lazarus parable had not been included in the gospels, but survived separately and was rediscovered in our own time. For multiple reasons, modern scholars would have no hesitation in categorizing it as a standard fragment of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.
The resemblances between the Lazarus parable and the story found in John are quite abundant. The Lazarus of the parable is after all a man who died, and the whole question is whether he will return from the dead, to take messages to the living.
As I noted earlier, L materials often recall John, and that is especially true in their treatment of Abraham. If you care to count, the name of Abraham occurs thirty times in the four gospels combined, including passing references in genealogies. The densest concentration of such references is a sequence of nine citations in John 8, all concerned with the question of defining who can legitimately claim to be Abraham’s children. That same question dominates Luke’s Lazarus passage, with its six Abraham mentions. Luke’s Lazarus lies in Abraham’s bosom, like a son with a loving father, while the rich man appeals to the mercy of “Father Abraham.” The fundamental question inspired by the story is deciding who is the true son of Abraham?
So what is the relationship between the Lazarus of John, and the figure in the “parable”? It is possible that Jesus on one occasion told a story about a poor man called Lazarus, and on another day, by remarkable coincidence, he actually raised a man of the same name from the dead. But other interpretations offer themselves.
i. History has become parable
Perhaps Jesus told a story, which depended on his audience likely knowing the story of an earlier miracle in which a man of that name had been raised from the dead. The story would this be an unspoken but essential background to the parable. This would also explain why the parable as it stands is so sparse, and leaves so much unsaid. Or else Jesus’s historical raising of Lazarus was well known in the early church, and writers used that as the basis for a not-quite-parable that they retroactively placed into Jesus’s mouth. The fact that it was drawn from an actual event with named characters accounts for the odd quality of the story. In either case, history has become parable.
As it stands, John’s Lazarus story raises many questions, but one surely must be why the event is not reported by any other gospel, or any other part of the New Testament, if indeed it occurred as reported. Unlike some other actions attributed to Jesus, this did not occur in a private setting, nor were those present sworn to secrecy. According to John, in fact, it created a public scandal, to the point of persuading the Pharisees that the Jesus phenomenon could not be restrained or ignored. John further implies that this sensitized Jesus’s enemies to the danger he posed, and prepared the way for the final confrontation in Jerusalem. Did the Synoptics really ignore such a tremendous and consequential historical event?
We just don’t know why a story unknown to some evangelists seems so critical to John, but perhaps this might reflect the often noted geographical emphases of the different works. John, generally, is much more interested in affairs in Judaea and Jerusalem, while the other evangelists are chiefly concerned with Galilee.
One final point. The story includes so many curious features, not least the suggestion of Jesus’s special love for Lazarus. He is “the one you love” (John 11.3). The other reference to such a relationship is to the disciple whom Jesus loved, the Beloved Disciple, mentioned on several occasions in John’s Gospel. You actually could make a case for the beloved disciple being Lazarus rather than one of the other candidates such as John, James, or Thomas. Notably, the first references to this “beloved disciple” in John’s Gospel follow closely on from the mentions of Lazarus. (James Charlesworth offered a clear analysis of the various candidates in his 1995 book The Beloved Disciple).
ii. Parable has become history.
Another interpretation is that there was a story of a fictional man called Lazarus, which Jesus either composed or perhaps quoted, and that story is found in the L source. John knew that story, and transformed the fictional character into a real person whom he incorporated into his narrative.
John gave Lazarus a historical context as the brother of the two sisters Mary and Martha, who are otherwise only known in a L source, in Luke 10. (This is the story in which Mary listens to Jesus’s words, while Martha complains about doing the housework). Although all four gospels tell the story of Jesus’s anointing by a woman, only John associates that event with the named woman, Mary.
By integrating the stories thus, John was able to combine two powerful stories of death and resurrection. As I have discussed, he did this partly by contrasting images of smell – by the stink from Lazarus’s tomb, and the glorious odor of the perfume that Mary used to anoint Jesus, even though she was doing this to forecast his own imminent death and burial.
John’s Bethany story therefore integrates at least three strands that otherwise are found only in L materials, although in Luke they have absolutely no connection with each other: these are the foot-washing episode, the role of Mary and Martha, and the Lazarus parable. The diversity of these materials, and the way in which they were available to be brought together into a single story, tells us a great deal about the form in which gospel stories circulated in the late first century, and how writers and editors could bring them together.
More on Lazarus next time, and another Biblical passage in which he may or may not appear.