Last Sunday in church, our pastor preached from John chapter 11, the Raising of Lazarus. It brought back memories of my old atheistic resistance to this story and reminded me of John Shelby Spong’s recent comment challenging the historicity of this event. Spong believes the Gospel writer (someone other than the apostle John, by the way) exaggerated the fictional narrative “to counter any attempt to read it literally.” Spong argues the author intentionally exaggerated the story so the reader would recognize it’s fictional status (“Jesus does not just raise a person from the dead, he raises one who has been dead and even buried for four days, one who is still bound in grave clothes and one who, according to the King James translation ‘already stinketh’ with the odor of decaying flesh!”) Like Spong, I also resisted the idea that Jesus performed this miracle, although for a different reason. The biggest problem for me was its absence from the other gospel accounts. Why is John the only person to mention something this dramatic and allegedly well-known? Doesn’t the absence of Lazarus’ story from all the other accounts cast doubt on its authenticity?
Why Is It Missing from The Other Accounts?
While the absence of this miracle in the synoptic gospels initially seemed to pose a problem, the more I investigated it, the smaller the problem became. Part of my suspicion rested in the extravagant nature of the miracle itself. Jesus raised someone from the dead, for crying out loud! How could the other gospel writers forget about that? This objection rests, however, on the presumption that a miracle of this nature was extravagant or exceedingly unusual in the ministry of Jesus, and I think this presumption is false. Lazarus wasn’t the only person Jesus raised from the dead. Jesus also brought Jairus’ daughter back to life (Matthew 9:23-26, Mark 5:35-43, and Luke 8:40-56), as well as the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:12-15). John doesn’t mention either of these miracles and Mathew and Mark fail to mention the widow’s son. There is good reason to believe Jesus raised even more people from the dead, given John’s clear statement, “There are many other things that Jesus did; if all were written down, the world itself, I suppose, would not hold all the books that would have to be written” (John 21: 25).
There may be a good reason Mark, Matthew and Luke failed to mention Lazarus’ resurrection, even though they described similar miracles. When Jesus arrived at the tomb of Lazarus, “many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary, to console them concerning their brother” (John 11:18). Martha even went out to meet Jesus prior to his arrival, seemingly aware of the disciple’s concern that “these Jews were just now seeking to stone [Jesus]” (John 11:8). Jesus performed the miracle in the presence of these Jewish witnesses and “many of the Jews who came to Mary, and saw what He had done, believed in Him” (John 11:45). As a result, the chief priests and Pharisees convened a council and “from that day on they planned together to kill [Jesus]” (John 11:53). The raising of Lazarus had an impact on the Jewish opposition that was unique amongst those who had been raised by Jesus. Early chroniclers may simply have wanted to minimize Lazarus’ presence in the gospel accounts to protect him and his sisters earlier in the first century. By the time John penned his version of the ministry of Jesus (much later than Mark, Matthew or Luke), this concern may have rightfully waned.
Does It Include An Intentional Exaggeration?
But let’s return to the issue of hyperbolic exaggeration. John Shelby Spong interprets the inclusion of the four day delay as an intentional tactic used by John “to counter any attempt to read it literally.” But is that necessarily the case? Are there really no other good reasons why Jesus may have waited this long to perform the miracle? How about the reasons Jesus offered? Jesus told the disciples that he waited “so that [they] may believe” (John 11:15), and He told Martha that he waited so she could learn trust Him as “the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26). Jesus had a goal in mind and this goal required Him to delay His arrival. But why four days? Is this simply an effort on the author’s part to make it clear he was speaking allegorically (as Spong proposes)? No. It was more likely the presence of the Jews that caused Jesus to delay. Ancient Jewish texts reveal an important belief held by the Jews who were waiting at the tomb of Lazarus. The Jews of this time period believed, “until three days [after death] the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back [into the body]; but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured, it departs and abandons it [the body]” (refer to Genesis Rabbah 100:7, Leviticus Rabbah 18:1, and Ecclesiastes Rabbah 12:6). Jesus waited until all hope was lost for those waiting for death’s confirmation. Only then did Jesus raise Lazarus, and the result was stunning amongst those Jews who held these primary beliefs about death and the soul. They became believers.
One of the reasons we typically struggle with passages like the raising of Lazarus is our desire to read it through the lens of our modern understanding or our base desires. But when we take the time to examine the account from the perspective of the original events and the authors who recorded them, reasonable explanations emerge. It just takes some effort to think like a detective and investigate the past.