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The Resurrection of Lazarus, Questions Galore

The Resurrection of Lazarus

The Anointing Stories in the Synoptic Gospels Raise Questions Concerning the Historicity of the Raising of Lazarus Story in the Fourth Gospel

According to the Gospels Jesus was anointed with (or received) perfume numerous times in his life. Are all the tales true? Are any of them symbolic, legendary? At his birth Jesus allegedly received a visit from an unknown number of wealthy star gazers (was it two? three? more than three? Matthew does not say) who traveled far to deliver gifts of “frankincense and myrrh” (not to mention an unknown quantity of “gold”), at least thatʼs what the Gospel of Matthew states, none of the other Gospels happen to mention such a tale.

During his adulthood Jesus encountered expensive perfume again when women began anointing him with it. There is one story of the anointing of the adult Jesus in each Gospel. One was sufficient for the purposes of each Gospel author. To try and combine the anointing stories of all four Gospels into a single “life of Jesus” is to ignore the differences between each, and would add up to three separate tales: One found in Mark and Matthew which are in substantial agreement, another in Luke that disagrees with Mark/Matthew, and a third tale in John that features elements of the tales in Mark and Luke but also disagrees with them, giving us a total of three separate anointing stories. So was Jesus anointed three times? Or did the story change over time?

The failure of attempts to harmonize such stories reminds me of similar attempts made by conservative Christians to harmonize stories of “Peterʼs three denials of Jesus” that are found in all four Gospels (a total of twelve denials). The circumstances of each denial disagree as to where, when, and, in response to whom. Some of the individual denials are easier to harmonize with those in other Gospels, some less easy to harmonize. But disagreements between denials were so blatant in some cases that one conservative Christian insisted Peter must have denied Jesus as many times as there are unharmonizable incidents in all four Gospels. That Christian had convinced himself that Peter may have denied Jesus more than three times, maybe six or more times, so long as he could find a way to retain the historical truth of every divinely inspired detail in his Bible and read the Gospels like a single story—instead of four separate stories, including some that changed over time. He continued to argue that his solution of multiplying the total number of denials was the most reasonable, regardless of the fact that each Gospel by itself agrees with the others that Jesus only mentioned three denials by Peter.

Below are the tales of the anointings of Jesus. The tales in Mark and Matthew are probably the earliest and they parallel each other so closely as to suggest a common literary source. They also agree that perfume was poured on Jesusʼ head:

Mark 14:3,8 (NIV) ‘While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head…to prepare for my burial.’

Matthew 26:6-7,12 (NIV) ‘While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table…to prepare me for burial.‘

By the time Lukeʼs Gospel was composed the story seems to have changed. It is no longer Jesusʼ head that is anointed with expensive perfume but his feet, by a female sinner who first washes them with her tears and wipes them with her hair, and Luke places the anointing in an early chapter of Jesusʼ ministry, so early that Jesus is shown dining with a Pharisee:

Luke 7:36-38 (NIV) ‘When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Phariseeʼs house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Phariseeʼs house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.’

In all three of the earliest Gospels the woman who anoints Jesusʼ head or feet is not named. But by the time the Gospel of John was composed a name had been allocated to the “anointress” (if I may coin a term), “Mary.” The author even says this was the same “Mary” whom Luke had mentioned in his separate tale of the “two sisters,” one of whom “sat” at Jesusʼ feet listening to him (Luke 10:38-42). But in the Gospel of John this Mary is no longer the one in Luke who merely “sat” at Jesusʼ feet and drew sighs from her sister who wished to scold her for sitting inertly on the floor and leaving her sister with all the kitchen work. Instead, the “Mary” in the Gospel of John is active, dramatically so, for she is depicted as anointing Jesusʼ feet and wiping them with her hair, resembling Lukeʼs anointing story about the unnamed female sinner in the home of the Pharisee. The Gospel of John adds that the whole house was filled with the aroma after about a “pint” of perfume was poured on Jesusʼ feet, so I guess there was no skimping on the perfume per John—nor does John skimp on the perfume in yet another anointing episode found only in that Gospel, but before proceeding to that episode here is the story of Johnʼs “Mary”:

John 12:1-3 (NIV) ‘Six days before the Passover [Note: Jesus dies five days later in this Gospel, on the day before Passover], Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesusʼ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard [Note: “pure nard” is an unusual and precise phrase that appears in Markʼs earlier version and some commentators suggest that the author of the Gospel of John was acquainted with the tales in both Mark and Luke, combining elements of both to form a third tale], an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesusʼ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. [Note how this resembles the tale in Luke, but the order in which the perfume is applied and the feet wiped is reversed. In Luke Jesusʼ feet are washed (with tears, something John does not mention) and wiped with hair, and only then is the perfume applied. But in John the perfume is applied and the feet are wiped with hair. So in John, Maryʼs hair is full of perfume, but in Luke the womanʼs hair smelled only of the dirt on Jesusʼ feet. The tale in John differs in this and other respects from earlier anointing tales but also demonstrates some knowledge of the story in Mark and Luke.] And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’

Also, in the Gospel of John not only did the feet of Jesus receive about a pint of perfume, but five days later the same Gospel says Jesusʼ lifeless body was wrapped with “seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes.”

But wait, thereʼs another perfume story I have not mentioned, but we must return to the earliest Gospel, Mark, to find it. That Gospel says that after Jesus died some women “saw” where Jesus had been laid and they returned to the tomb a day and a half later carrying “spice” with which they planned to anoint the body. Probably not “seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes” as in John, and which was not said to have come from those ladies. But comparing Mark with John and attempting to combine the two stories one might wonder how the ladies who saw where Jesus had been laid also failed to note the odor of seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe, an odor that probably followed Jesusʼ body into the tomb or filled the air around it. I would have thought women had better senses of smell, or if they saw Jesusʼ body being hoisted into the tomb they might have at least seen how Jesusʼ body gained 75 pounds of bulky wrappings after he died and that men were straining to maneuver it into the tomb, even on a stretcher, or if the body was not anointed until after it was laid flat in the tomb then perhaps the woman might have seen large jars of spice and wrappings being carried into the tomb. Instead, the early tale in Mark of the hastily buried (and unanointed) body of Jesus, and the tale in John of the heavily anointed body of Jesus simply pass in the night, each going in their own direction without connecting at all.

Of course the differences between the story of Mark and John pose little difficulty once one accepts that the story in Mark is a completely different tale from Johnʼs. Mark imagined Jesus being buried hastily leaving no time for anointing. While John has Jesus laid out in style, seventy five pounds worth of style. The Gospel of Matthew introduces another take on the tale in Mark because in Matthew there is no mention of the women having “spice” and a desire to anoint Jesusʼ body, instead they come to “see” the tomb. Why does Matthew alter the reason why the woman arrive Sunday morning? Because in Matthew the tomb is sealed and guarded (a story found only in Matthew and no where else). So the women would have had no chance of getting near Jesusʼ body let alone “spice” it up, so Matthew says the woman only came to “see” the tomb. Itʼs obvious at this point that different Gospel writers told different stories and changed them to fit with whatever else they wrote.

Returning to the depiction in the Gospel of John, of Jesus having about a pint of perfume poured on his feet by Mary such that the whole house smelled of it, and five days later Jesusʼ body being wrapped with seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe, one might wonder if there is any mention in John of the resurrected Jesus smelling of perfume after having arisen a day and a half later and shown himself to a woman and to the apostles. But there is none.

Nor is there mention of the resurrected Jesus smelling of perfume in any of the earlier Gospels. Of course Mark and Matthew, presumably the earliest two Gospels, feature no “seventy-five pound” anointing of “myrrh and aloes” of Jesusʼ body as in John, and they agree that an announcement was made at the empty tomb that Jesus had gone before the apostles to Galilee (“There you will see him”), so, it would take a while to reach Galilee before the apostles would even be near Jesus. Itʼs only in later Gospels (Luke and John) that there is no long delay before the apostles get to see the resurrected Jesus, for neither of those Gospels mention Jesus going ahead to Galilee to be seen there, but instead they have Jesus appearing in Jerusalem on the same day heʼs allegedly resurrected. So Jesus gets to meet the apostles sooner in Luke and John than in the earlier Gospels, Mark and Matthew. But no mention of the resurrected Jesus smelling of perfume in either Luke or John.

You can also see how the tale of Jesusʼs burial became more aggrandized over time from Mark to Matt, Lk, John:

“When you look at Mark, Matthew, Luke and John, the story of the burial of Jesus, knowing that Mark is the basis for Matthew and Luke and that possibly (this is debated in scholarship) they may be the source for John, you watch the bodyʼs burial get steadily better. Itʼs a hasty hurried burial in Mark. By the time Matthew and Luke read Mark and develop the story itʼs a burial in a tomb in which nobody else has been laid and theyʼre explaining to you why Joseph of Arimathea was able to be a counselor for Jesus but not against him on Thursday night as it were. The story is developing, and by the time you get to Johnʼs account the burial of Jesus is – I wouldnʼt even say royal – itʼs transcendental, thereʼs so many spices used they would have filled almost the entire tomb, itʼs a magnificent burial, itʼs the burial of the son of God when you get to John. What happens is that as a historian when I retroject that trajectory of a burial that keeps getting better and better, and ask what was there in the beginning, it doesnʼt look very good. It looks like all they might have had in the beginning was a hope that maybe some pious non-Christian, a Jew, out of respect for the Jewish law of Deuteronomy, would have buried Jesusʼ body (instead of letting the Romans do what they usually did with the people they crucified, which was to toss the bodies in a common grave). But if a Jew asked Pilate for the body and gave it a burial that immediately raises the issue that the writers of the Gospels also must have seen, namely wouldnʼt Joseph also have buried the two robbers, presumably fellow Jews, who were with Jesus? And wouldnʼt there at least be three in the tomb? Would it be a public tomb for criminals? Then how would we know which was Jesusʼ body? And so you can see the Gospel writers, I think, grappling with the difficulties of trying to have Jesus rescued from a common grave — a story whose original I donʼt think is historical and which grew in the telling over time. I think it is their fervent hope, their best hope, that somebody took care of the body of Jesus.”
— John Dominic Crossan as heard on “Jesus and Crucifixion, a Historical View,” Fresh Air from WHYY, Mar. 20, 2008 (with some edits)

Related to the Anointing Story is the Story of the Resurrection of Lazarus

Letʼs look at the story of Lazarus beginning with the story of Lazarusʼs alleged sisters, ‘Mary and Martha,’ and how ‘Mary sat at Jesusʼs feet,’ ‘anointed them’ with perfume, and ‘wiped them with her hair’ in the town of ‘Bethany.’ (John 12) Stories similar to that anointing story are found in the earlier three Gospels:

Mark 14:3 — An unnamed woman anointed Jesusʼs head in Bethany at the house of Simon the Leper.

Luke 7:37-38 — An unnamed sinner anointed Jesusʼs feet and wiped them with her hair in Nain at the house of a Pharisee.

Luke 10:38-39 — Mary, the sister of Martha, listened at Jesusʼs feet in an unnamed town at her house.

Now consider this: Did you ever get confused about similar events like those listed above? Say, in a Sunday School discussion, you mixed up the name of the town where the woman anointed Jesusʼs ‘head’ with the name of the town where the woman anointed Jesusʼs ‘feet.’ Was it Nain or Bethany? Or you confused the woman who ‘listened’ at Jesusʼs feet with the woman who ‘anointed’ Jesusʼs feet? The unnamed sinner lady in Nain, became, until you looked it up, Mary, sister of Martha? Well, something like that appears to have happened in the minds of Christians before the Gospel of John was composed, the last written of the four Gospels. By that time, similar persons and events from the earlier Gospels had become amalgamated in peopleʼs minds. In John 12:3, Mary, the woman who simply ‘listened’ at Jesusʼs feet is now also anointing them and wiping them with her hair. Thus the unnamed woman of the town of Nain became amalgamated in peopleʼs minds with ‘Mary, Marthaʼs sister.’ And the unnamed town where Mary lived became amalgamated with the town where the woman who anointed Jesusʼs ‘head’ lived, ‘Bethany.’ And Mary used expensive ‘spikenard ointment’ on them, as the lady in Mark (and possibly Luke) did. Only this time is it not at Simon the Leperʼs house, nor at the house of a Pharisee, but at ‘Maryʼs house.’

What does the above discussion have to do with the ‘resurrection of Lazarus’ story? Well, it shows how the Gospel of John amalgamates things from earlier Gospels. And only the Gospel of John depicts Lazarus as a real person. Luke mentions a real Mary and Martha, but says nothing about them having a brother, nor in which town they lived. So the author(s) of the Gospel of John appear to have amalgamated Mary and Martha, the town of Bethany, and the ‘Lazarus’ from a parable in the Gospel of Luke — a parable in which a poor beggar named ‘Lazarus’ dies and goes to ‘Abrahamʼs bosom,’ while a rich man suffering in nearby ‘Hades’ sees Lazarus and pleads with Abraham to ‘send Lazarus to my Fatherʼs house, to warn my brothers, so they may repent [and avoid going to Hades],’ to which the answer was, “nor will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”

Think about it. A ‘Lazarus’ who dies and someone who hopes Lazarus will be ‘raised from the dead’ to ‘persuade others’ ‘to repent.’ But such persuasion is predicted not to work. Where does that appear outside of Luke?

Why in John. Johnʼs ‘Lazarus’ is now a concrete person, the ‘brother’ of Mary and Martha from Luke. (Nor is this Lazarus a poor ‘beggar,’ since heʼs rich enough to have his own tomb and live in a house with his ‘sisters.’) He is ‘raised from the dead’ — a parable come true. And, as predicted in the parable, such a miracle fails to persuade those who refuse to listen to Moses and the prophets, namely the Pharisees: “Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees, and told them the things which Jesus had done.” The Pharisees refuse to repent, and even decide, after hearing of this great miracle, to seize Jesus and have him executed. What a coincidence! Two ‘Lazaruses,’ one in Luke and one in John, both die, both illustrate that “even though he be raised from the dead, they will not be persuaded,” in fact, ‘Lazarusʼs resurrection’ in the Gospel of John elicits even a stronger negative response!

Not surprisingly, when you include a miracle found in none of the other Gospels, and make it the focal point for the Phariseesʼs decision to plot to take Jesusʼs life, you have to do something with the overturning of the tables episode which seemed so incendiary in all three synoptic Gospels, along with Jesusʼs subsequent public denunciations against the Pharisees in the temple. Instead, the author(s) of the Gospel of John have Jesus enter Jerusalem for the final time and donʼt mention him overturning tables or publicly preaching against the Pharisees in the temple prior to his arrest and execution, instead they have Jesus enter Jerusalem in chapter 12, and speak and pray with his at length prior to being arrested and executed. In the Gospel of John the table-turning episode appears at the beginning of Jesusʼs ministry rather than at its end, perhaps to emphasize the stunning resurrection of Lazarus miracle found only in John, and make that the incendiary catalyst.

The question remains, did the ‘raising of Lazarus’ actually take place or might the story have been a later invention, based on an amalgamation of information and names found in earlier Gospels? The moving of Jesusʼs ‘table-turning’ episode from the end of the earlier Gospels to the beginning of the Gospel of John adds to the force of such a question, since the author(s) of John seem heavily focused on making the raising of Lazarus (a miracle not found in any other Gospel), the primary reason why the Pharisees plotted to take Jesusʼs life:

John 11:45 ‘Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done…
48 “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
49 Then… Caiaphas… spoke up,…
50 “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”…
53 So from that day on they plotted to take his [Jesusʼ] life.’

Stories of Jesus Raising People from the Dead Grow more Public and More Impressive from Mark to Matthew and Luke, and Finally John with the Raising of Lazarus, Raised Publicly After Four Days of Being Buried and Stinking

In Mk Jesus is asked to HEAL someoneʼs daughter who is “at the point of dying,” he arrives and people are mourning, saying she has died and Jesus clears the room and raises her in the company of her immediate family and some disciples.

In Matthew the tale is repeated, though when Jesus is first asked to come he is told that the child has ALREADY “died,” not being merely “at the point of dying” as in Mark.

In Luke the tale is repeated, but Luke now adds a second resurrection miracle tale not seen in their Mark or Matthew. The tale of a child who was not merely “raised” inside a private home, such a miracle being seen by only a few, but in this new tale, Jesus raises a child who is on the way to the cemetery, and this child is raised publicly. So this new resurrection miracle is grander than any that appeared in Mk and Mt.

In the fourth Gospel, John, the grandest resurrection miracle is found, someone raised not privately in a house, and not on the way to being buried, but someone already buried, for a few days, and that resurrection is the most public of all, and becomes the reason the Pharisees seek Jesusʼ own death due to how people were reacting to this very public resurrection, which also was apparently near Jerusalem, nearer Jerusalem than the others in the earlier Gospels if I recall.

Note also that Jesusʼs miracles of raising children in Mark/Matthew/Luke, resemble reworked versions of miracles of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, sometimes even copying the exact Greek phrases and settings as one can read when one compares the miracle tales in the Greek O.T. (the Septuagint) with the Gospel miracle tales involving Jesus.

Reasons Scholars Doubt that Jesus Spoke the Lazarus Parable in the Gospel of Luke

Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) by Charles W. Hedrick, Professor Emeritus, Missouri State University

There is only one version of this parable: it comes from Lukeʼs special parables tradition. Joachim Jeremias, the distinguished German New Testament scholar, pointed out that of the ninety examples of the Greek historic present1 appearing in Markʼs gospel, Luke has only used one from their shared material (Luke 8:49).2 In Lukeʼs special parables tradition, however, he has used the historic present five times in narrating parables (13:8; 16:7; 19:22), two of which appear in Rich Man and Lazarus (16:23, 29). Jeremias argued from these observations that the contrast in the use of the historic present between Lukeʼs broader gospel narrative and his parables constitutes “clear evidence of an underlying pre-Lucan tradition.”

He further pointed out that the first part of this parable (Luke 16:19-26) reflects well-known folk material deriving from Egyptian traditions (The Journey of Si-Osiris to the Underworld), which was transported to Palestine as the story of the poor scholar and rich Publican, Bar Maʼjan.3 His view is that Jesus made use of the underlying folk narratives to compose his own story. The second part of the parable (Luke 16:27-31) is a new epilogue that Jesus added to the traditional folk material in the first part; hence the emphasis of Jesusʼ parable lies in the second part. Further, the parableʼs title should be the “Parable of the Six Brothers.”

The result of the discussions of this parable by members of the Jesus Seminar concluded that this parable did not originate with Jesus for several reasons: because folk tales about a rich man and a poor man whose fates were reversed in the next world were well known in the ancient Near East; in no other genuine parable of Jesus were characters given names; and that an interest in the plight of the poor is a special interest of the author Luke. The result of the combined vote of the Fellows was that the first part of the parable is questionable as a parable originating with Jesus. The second part, which described the six brothers, concerns the characteristic early Christian theme of the Judean lack of belief in the resurrection. For these reasons ninety percent of the fellows voted against the parable as originating with Jesus.4

Hence, on balance, there are enough questions about the pedigree of this parable to seriously question it as a parable composed by Jesus of Nazareth. Not all agree, however. For example, one critically trained scholar is aware of most of these challenges to the parable as a composition by Jesus, but nevertheless argues the following: “Although the parable in its present wording has clearly been transformed by Christian allegorization, it would seem that a nucleus of the parable can be attributed to Jesus.”5 And he even uses a 12th century painting of Lazarus at the rich manʼs gate on the dust jacket of his hard-back book, in a sense symbolizing all the parables.

Perhaps it is time that critical scholars formulated a history of religions rule for evaluating parables that states: “The more certain it is that a parable reflects themes, plots, values, and traditional religious views of antiquity, the less certain it is that the parable originated with Jesus of Nazareth.” The rationale for the rule is the following: because the parable makes extensive use of well-known traditional material it is far less certain that it might have originated with Jesus. The problem is not that one has thereby disproven its origin in the mind of Jesus, but that one cannot disprove that it originated with the gospel writer or elsewhere in antiquity. In attributing the parable to Jesus one runs the risk of attributing ideas to Jesus that were not his own. And for those reasons it should not be included in a database for determining the characteristic ideas of Jesus.

1 The Greek “historic present” is the use of a present tense where one would have expected a past tense. For example, in telling a story a narrator says: “and he says…” instead of the expected “and he said…” The historic present is a characteristic literary feature of Markʼs gospel, but not of the other two.

2 Jeremias, Parables of Jesus (6th edition), 182-86. See Hawkins, Horae Synopticae,149.

3 Jeremias, Parables, 183, 178-189.

4 Funk and Hoover, Five Gospels, 360-62.

5 Hultgren, Parables of Jesus (Eerdmans, 2000), 115.

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