The death, resurrection, and second death of Lazarus

The death, resurrection, and second death of Lazarus June 21, 2013

One of the recurring themes in the Gospel of John is that the people healed by Jesus faced ostracism and worse from some of their fellow Jews. You can see it in the story of the man who was born blind: after Jesus gave him sight, he was thrown out of the synagogue for refusing to deny that Jesus was the Messiah. And you can see it in the story of Lazarus: after Jesus raised him from the dead, he became such a celebrity that the chief priests plotted to have him killed.

This last detail is often forgotten in dramatic depictions of the raising of Lazarus — possibly because John’s gospel never tells us whether the plot succeeded — but a few films have acknowledged it one way or another. Three come to mind.

First, and most obviously, there is The Gospel of John (2003), a mostly word-for-word adaptation of the gospel which, naturally, has to incorporate this detail somehow.

The film is narrated by Christopher Plummer, and when he gets to the passage about Lazarus’s newfound fame, the film shows Lazarus getting up from his table and walking to the window, where he can hear the crowds calling his name.

As Plummer goes on to mention the plot against Lazarus’s life, Lazarus turns and looks back at Jesus with a troubled look on his face. And that’s about it.

Two other films have gone further than this and have shown people carrying out the plot — and in both cases, the man who actually murders Lazarus is none other than Saul, the persecutor of Christians who will one day convert to the faith and, under the name Paul, become the most prolific contributor to the New Testament.

In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Paul is a Zealot who kills Lazarus to destroy the evidence of Jesus’ greatest miracle. The murder is preceded by an odd bit of dialogue in which Lazarus, who doesn’t seem terribly happy to be alive, says he was surprised to find that there wasn’t much difference between death and life:

And then, there is Jesus, the Spirit of God (2007), an Iranian film which tells the story of Jesus from a Muslim point of view. In this film, Paul is hired by the chief priests to kill Lazarus — and he does so late at night, in the street:

Not surprisingly, both films take a rather dim view of Paul overall. Jesus, the Spirit of God limits its treatment of Paul to this one episode and casts a rather brutish-looking actor in the role, while The Last Temptation of Christ suggests that Paul went on to invent Christianity without any interest in whether it was true or not.

Some Christians might recoil at the suggestion that Paul himself took part in this plot. But given the biblical Paul’s connections to the priesthood, and given that he was involved with the martyrdom of Stephen and others before his conversion, it is not impossible that he would have been involved in the plot against Lazarus, too.

The more interesting point, for me, is that the resurrection of Lazarus was not entirely the happy, triumphant thing that many films make it out to be. Yes, it was an incredible example of Jesus’ miraculous power; and yes, it was a potent symbol of the more-permanent resurrection that awaited Jesus and, through him, awaits humanity as a whole. But the fact remains: Lazarus did die a second time. And according to John’s gospel, it might have happened sooner, rather than later.

April 2, 2015 update: The Lumo Project released their own version of The Gospel of John on Netflix last year, so of course they had to address this part of the story too — and they do this mainly by showing a couple shots of the chief priests talking to each other while the narrator describes how they made plans to kill Lazarus:


— The image at the top of this post is from the 2003 version of The Gospel of John.

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