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Did Jesus Really Raise Lazarus from the Dead?

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A Test Case for Harmonization
Between the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel1

T. E. Pollard writes, “St. John’s narrative of the raising of Lazarus raises in an acute form some of the most perplexing problems of his gospel, both internally and externally in relation to the synoptics.”3 The problem presented by the raising of Lazarus is two fold: first, it is staggeringly supernatural; second, the raising of Lazarus appears to be the trigger-event for the crucifixion in John’s narrative. The absence of the raising of Lazarus from the Synoptics has resulted in doubts and denials of its historicity. As John A. T. Robinson says, “If the Synoptic sequence of events is the true one, then the Lazarus incident, or at any rate the key role which it occupies in John, cannot, it is held, be historical.… For the Lazarus incident and its attendant publicity are in John the trigger which sets the legal process in motion.”4

The difficulty of reconciling the Johannine account with the Synoptic narrative is in some respects more formidable than the fact that a supernatural occurrence is recorded. This problem, for many, is the crucial issue in this discussion, for as Professor C. K. Barrett states, “If a priori opinions, whether negative or positive, be set aside, the chief argument against the historicity of the incident appears to be that there is no place for it in the Synoptic tradition.”5 Because of time and space limitations, this article will set aside a priori opinions and concern itself with the perception that there is no place for the raising of Lazarus in the Synoptic tradition.

Many scholars have noted the parallels between the miracle story in John 11:1-44 and the parable in Luke 16:19-31.6 Some have proposed that the account of the raising of Lazarus in John is a “conflation of various material in Luke, particularly the parable of Luke 16:19-31 and the Martha and Mary story of Luke 10:38-42, along with the stories of the raising of Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:40-56…) and the son of the widow of Nain (7:11-17),” or “that there is a common tradition behind the Lazarus story in John and the various other NT accounts of raisings from the dead.”7

As stated above, the line of reasoning is apparently that if an event this significant had happened, the Synoptics would have included it. The Synoptics do not include the raising of Lazarus, and there appears to be no place for it in their narratives; therefore it could not have happened as John records it. This is not the best approach to history, and we classify such unnecessary exclusions as false dichotomies. We are helped at this point by the admonition of historian David Hackett Fischer. In his book, Historical Fallacies, he says,

What can a student do, in the face of a false dichotomy? He can try several stratagems. First, he might attempt to show that the dichotomous terms can coexist. Second, he might demonstrate a third possibility. Third, he might repudiate one or the other or both alternatives. All of these devices will work, in a limited way. But all of them will have the effect of shackling the student’s answer to the fallacious conceptualization he is attempting to correct…In this question, as in so many others, one can only endorse the sensible observation of Reuben Abel: “The continuum in which we live is not the kind of place in which middles can be unambiguously excluded.”8

I hope to show that these “dichotomous terms” can coexist, that there are several third possibilities, and that one or other or both alternatives can be repudiated. The two possible trigger events given are: (1) either the raising of Lazarus; (2) or the temple cleansing. One, not the other and not both, must be the true catalyst for the crucifixion. This appears to be strikingly simplistic, but it seems to merely push this strand of the argument against the historicity of the raising of Lazarus to its logical ends.

I begin with an attempt to repudiate the possibilities as overly simplistic options. It appears that by stating the argument in these terms, those who suggest that one of these two events is the catalyst of the crucifixion are forcing us to make a false choice. In all four gospels the Jewish religious leaders are characterized as jealously seeking to snuff out Jesus so that their own authority will not be threatened. This characterization is one which each evangelist makes explicit early in his respective narrative. In Mark 3:6 the reader is told, “The Pharisees went out and counseled together with the Herodians as to how they might destroy him.” In Matthew a very similar statement is made at 12:14. The first episode of the preaching of Jesus that Luke relates results in the crowd rising up against him, casting him out of the synagogue, and leading him to the brow of the hill in order to throw him down the cliff (Luke 4:29). In John, the reader is told as early as 5:18 that in response to the words of Jesus “the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him.”

These statements all come very early in the respective narratives. There are nearly twelve chapters between Mark’s first statement that the Pharisees and the Herodians are plotting to destroy Jesus and the account of when they actually arrest Jesus. Likewise in Matthew and Luke there is a great deal of material between the first time the reader is notified that Jesus’ life is imperiled and the actual arrest, trial, and crucifixion. Rather than showing confusion on the part of the evangelist, this is a deliberate technique whereby the reader is alerted to the fact that throughout his ministry Jesus experienced opposition from the Jewish religious leaders.

In their accounts of the trial, Matthew and Mark both relate that the Jews were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might have grounds to execute him (Matt. 26:59; Mark 14:56). This seems to indicate that the Jews are intent on killing Jesus. The gospels do not present this resolution on the part of the Jews as stemming from one event but from an extended period of conflict. The point is that when dealing with history, it is dangerous to speak of any one event as the “catalyst” of another. We must bear in mind that no account of history can be exhaustive, and, as Leo Tolstoy says,

The combination of causes of phenomena is beyond the grasp of human intellect. But the impulse to seek causes is innate in the soul of man. And the human intellect, with no inkling of the immense variety and complexity of circumstances conditioning a phenomenon, any one of which may be separately conceived of as the cause of it, snatches at the first and most easily understood approximation, and says here is the cause… Causes of historical events—there are not and cannot be, save the one cause of all causes.9

There is a sense in which the issues in a discussion of events that cause other events are far too complex for us to ever delineate them all; this is Tolstoy’s point and it is well taken. No account of history can begin to account for all the fluctuation and variety in the ebb and flow of humanity (which is one of the main thrusts of what may be the greatest historical novel ever written, Tolstoy’s War and Peace).

In the Gospel of John the Jews are presented as clearly catalyzed against Jesus very early in his ministry, and they are ready to act against him with violence on numerous occasions. Aside from 5:16, we see the Jews seeking to kill Jesus in 7:1, later they pick up stones to stone him in 8:59, and again in 10:31 they pick up stones to stone him. It seems fundamentally inaccurate, therefore, to speak of an event—be it the temple cleansing or the raising of Lazarus—which ignites the Jews against Jesus. All four gospels may be understood to be presenting them as ignited all along. What is being argued here is that exclusionistic “catalyst” language does not adequately deal with the evidence in the text. R. Dunkerley cautions us in our understanding of the raising of Lazarus, saying,

It is spoken of as one of ‘many miracles’ which greatly disturbed the council (xi. 47), and on several occasions attempts were made to destroy him (vii. 32; viii. 40, 59; x. 31, 39). We must not speak as though Jesus would not have been in peril if he had not done this thing; the authorities may have regarded it as the last straw, but they still had to wait for the right opportunity, and this came of course with the Entry and the purging of the Temple.10

With this, it must be understood that the argument of the Gospel of John is not that the Jews, after the raising of Lazarus, begin to seek the death of Jesus, but that after the raising of Lazarus Jesus’ time has come. The Fourth Gospel presents the situation as one wherein the Jews, though they would very much like to terminate Jesus, are unable to do so because his hour has not yet come.11 As John presents the matter, it is not the Jews who are in control, but Jesus. Raymond Brown says that the failed attempt on Jesus’ life recorded in John 7:30 “betrays Jesus’ sovereign power.” Further, “Even when his hour has come, John will still show that no one can lay a hand on Jesus until he permits it (xviii 6-8).”12 In this vein, John tells his readers that Jesus said, “No one has taken my life from me, I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:18).

Evidence such as this makes questionable any statement regarding the Fourth Gospel’s presentation of the catalyst for the crucifixion which does not amount to: The Gospel of John presents a Jesus who will not be crucified until his hour has come—and when his hour has come—he is in absolute control of the situation. One may believe that this is not the way that the events were played out in history, but based on the narrative presented in the Fourth Gospel, one is hard-pressed to argue that this is not the way that John presents the situation. In John, the reader is presented with a Jesus who has come as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29) by laying down his life for the sheep (10:11). John presents a Jesus who has come to die. Along the way, John gives his readers plenty of evidence that the Jews will gladly kill Jesus as soon as he will allow them to do so.

The conclusion that these considerations lead us to is that to claim that the Gospel of John presents the raising of Lazarus as the catalyst of the crucifixion is a statement that is acceptable so long as it is not made to be exhaustive. We must not speak as though this is the ultimate cause of the crucifixion—for there is evidence in John’s Gospel that something else is the ultimate catalyst of the crucifixion—more on this shortly.

We now turn our attention to the coexistence of these “dichotomous terms” and to the several “third possibilities” which have been proposed. For this, we should consider the possible explanations as to why Matthew, Mark, and Luke do not to record this miracle, which is “for the glory of God” (John 11:4). The reason for this synoptic omission would appear to fall under one of two headings. Either the event did not happen, and is in some measure a Johannine creation (the raising of the dead man being either wholly fictional/mythical or an imaginative conflation of various details recorded in the Synoptic Gospels), or the event did happen and the Synoptic Gospels do not include it for some other reason.

Some have proposed that John has performed a bit of creative midrash on the parable of Lazarus and the rich man recorded in Luke 16:19-31 and placed this “historicized parable” in chapter eleven of his gospel.13 This position offers an explanation for the absence of the account in John 11 from the Synoptics, but the evidence points us away from categorizing the gospels as midrashic. That evidence (the difficulty in finding midrashic literary activity that clearly took place prior to the fourth century, the consonance of the Johannine and Synoptic miracles, the diversity of Jewish approaches to historiography, the Christian emphasis on history—eyewitness testimony witnessing to truth, and the evidence that those who got their history wrong were indicted and refuted) all indicates that it is unlikely that the fourth evangelist is offering midrash to his readers.

Placing John 11 in the category of midrash is an explanation laden with difficulty. Therefore, we must ask ourselves if it is indeed possible that the raising of Lazarus did happen and might its absence from the Synoptics be explained in some other way? Among those who allow for the possibility that the event happened there seem to be two basic approaches to reconciling the historicity of the account with its absence from the Synoptics. One way to handle this perceived difficulty is to propose, as Brown does, that “A miracle story that was once transmitted without fixed context or chronological sequence has been used in one of the later stages in Johannine editing as an ending to the public ministry of Jesus.”14 This seems to be an attempt to maintain the historicity of the event and at the same time affirm that it is not necessary to hold that the events happened in the sequence related in the Fourth Gospel. Such suggestions require the belief that many of the details recorded in John are merely literary touches provided by the fourth evangelist in an effort to make the event do what he needs it to do in his narrative. As Lesslie Newbigin says, “It is reasonable to think that the traditions regarding the ministry of Jesus included other cases of the raising of the dead besides the two recorded in the synoptics, that one of these concerned a man named Lazarus, and that John has placed this incident at such a point in his account of the ministry and told it in such a way as to bring to a climax his treatment of Jesus’ ‘sings’ [sic]”15

The second way to reconcile the event’s absence from the Synoptics is to somehow harmonize the Johannine and Synoptic accounts. Some offer a reconstruction whereby Peter might not have been personally present when Jesus raised Lazarus;16 others point to the chronological and geographical restrictions of the Synoptic narratives and note that in the Synoptic account Jesus’ ministry is collapsed into a year and he does not go to the environs of Jerusalem until the final week of his life. For them to have included the account of the raising of Lazarus would have compromised their assumed intention of creating a geographical climax as they finally bring Jesus to Jerusalem for the passion week.17 Yet another way to harmonize John with the Synoptics is to surmise that the Synoptics were written while Lazarus was alive. We have no evidence as to when Lazarus might have died, but this view suggests that the first three evangelists were sensitive to the safety of the one whom Jesus loved, thus they do not publicize the restoration of Lazarus to life and the hostile reaction from the Jews. This view is plausible if one holds (or if evidence somehow comes to light) that the Fourth Gospel was written after Lazarus died.18

Suggestions such as the one offered by Brown—that the story had no fixed context and that at some stage the evangelist adapted this element of the tradition to his purposes—are difficult for those who reject the authenticity of the narrative to refute because there is such little hard evidence regarding what the tradition was like before the evangelists shaped it. We do have the rudiments of the Petrine proclamation in Acts 10:34-43 where Peter declares “the gospel” to Cornelius’ household. These rudiments generally give the outline of the Synoptic Gospels: beginning with John the Baptist and starting in Galilee (10:37); then recounting that Jesus was anointed and went healing and delivering (10:38); that his actions were witnessed both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem, and that he was put to death on a cross (10:39); then, that he was raised and fellowshipped with his followers (10:40-41); and finally that he commissioned his followers to declare the good news (10:42). Beyond this sermon, and possibly others like it, we are left to speculate on the contents of the tradition.

For this reason, we will accept Brown’s suggestion as plausible, and turn to the other suggested explanations of the Synoptic omission of the raising of Lazarus. The remainder of this study will concern itself with whether or not the chronologies as they stand in the Synoptic and Johannine narratives can be harmonized. The question that we turn to is whether or not the account as it stands has integrity—are the chronologies in the Synoptics and the Fourth Gospel reconcilable at this point?

From what is found in the Gospel of John, it does seem possible that there would be time for both the Synoptic accounts and the account of the Fourth Gospel to have taken place. As Jesus sets off for Bethany with the disciples, they say to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” (John 11:8).19 The “just now” is apparently a reference to the events of chapter 10 (cf. v. 31, “The Jews took up stones again to stone him”),20 which was set at the Feast of Dedication (10:22). Leon Morris writes,

This was the 25th of Chisleu [sic] (November-December). Thus the events of ch. 11 took place close to the Feast of Dedication (even allowing for the stay in Perea, 10:40), and hence at some distance from Passover. It accords with this that John says, ‘from that day on they plotted to take his life’ (v. 53). This does not appear to mean that the Passion followed within a few days. It suggests rather that there was plotting over a period.21

In this way, the raising of Lazarus would have taken place sometime in the winter, perhaps three months or more before the final entry into Jerusalem at the feast of Passover when Jesus was arrested and crucified. Certainly in those intervening days there is room for all the events recorded both in John and the Synoptics. This understanding allows Jesus time to withdraw to a region near the desert, to Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples, as described in John 11:54.22 A significant period of time has passed when the next chronological marker is given in John 11:55. Then, as the Passover (14 Nisan—March/April) drew near, Jesus returned to Judea and Jerusalem. This final trip to the sacred city is the one recorded by the Synoptics.

This understanding of the chronology also serves (with the considerations above regarding the readiness of the Jewish leaders and Jesus’ control of his own destiny) to guard us against giving the raising of Lazarus a too prominent position in the precipitation of the crucifixion. Dunkerley writes,

The fact that their [the Jewish leaders] discussion about the matter and their decision that the time had come for action against Jesus follows immediately on the story (xi. 47-53) may easily mislead us into forgetting this interval and into allowing the miracle too large a place in the events which led to the arrest of Jesus and his death. He continued some time at Ephraim, then went on to Jericho, and presently to Bethany again; it is impossible to say what time was involved in this but it may have been weeks or even months.

Now the importance of this point lies here, that it helps to explain the silence of the Synoptics about the raising of Lazarus.23

Within the chronological framework given in the Fourth Gospel there would certainly appear to be time for all the events recorded in both John and the Synoptics to have taken place.

Not only does the chronology allow for reconciliation of the accounts, the possibility of Peter’s absence on this occasion would possibly explain the absence of the event from the Synoptics. Leon Morris fills in the details of this view, saying,

If the traditional view that the reminiscences of Peter lie behind the Second Gospel is true, the silence of the Synoptists may be explicable. Peter is not mentioned in John between 6:68 and 13:6, and there is a similar, though not so pronounced a gap in Matthew (19:27 and 26:33) and Luke (18:28 and 22:8). The gap in Mark is between 10:28 and 11:21, but there is nothing in that Gospel against the view that Peter remained (in Galilee?) when the others went up to Jerusalem, and that he came up to the capital city only for the week prior to Passover. If so, the reason he said nothing about the raising of Lazarus was that he did not see it. It did not belong to his personal reminiscences. All the more is this possible in that it does not seem that this miracle took place immediately before the events leading to the Passion. One small piece of evidence supporting the view that Peter is absent is the fact that Thomas is the spokesman for the Twelve in verse 16. Normally we would expect Peter to fill that role. Since Matthew seems dependent on Mark at this stage in his narrative, the absence of the story from the First Gospel follows from its absence from the Second…We must also remember that the miracles in Jerusalem form no part of the Synoptic tradition. Not only this one, but those concerning the lame man at Bethesda and the blind man at Siloam are not mentioned in the Synoptists. For whatever reason they deal only with the last week at Jerusalem and omit all that goes before. Since this miracle must apparently be dated an appreciable time before that week, they naturally do not mention it.24

Thus, it is at least possible to harmonize the events recorded in the Gospel of John with the events recorded in the Synoptics.

Whether Peter was present or not, we must recognize that the Gospels are not—and cannot be—comprehensive records of the life of Jesus (John 21:25). Even if the life and activities being described were not those of a figure as peerless as Jesus of Nazareth, a complete account of the life of a human being is impossible. Some things must be omitted. Further, what should surprise us about the Gospels is not that they are significantly different in content from one another, but that four men of varied background and complex personality could compose four accounts which are so similar and open to even the possibility of reconciliation. One might even say that this in itself is supernatural.

We may fairly anticipate the objection that the raising of Lazarus is of such significance for John, that had it happened the Synoptists would not have failed to include it in their narratives. But, as suggested above, the significance of the raising of Lazarus in relation to the crucifixion may be exaggerated. This is not to say that it is insignificant—no miracle of this magnitude could be insignificant—and it has a major role as John’s seventh and climactic sign.25 But, the Synoptics do record other raisings,26 and there is the possibility of as much as three months time between the raising of Lazarus and the final trip to Jerusalem. Thus, while the account related in John 11:1-44 makes a significant statement in John’s Gospel—it is my conviction that for the fourth evangelist, the real catalyst of the crucifixion is not the raising of Lazarus.

While the Jewish religious leaders do react vehemently to this event (when in the Gospels do they not react vehemently to Jesus?), and while we could perhaps understand them to at this time begin a more concentrated effort to kill Jesus (John 11:53), we have seen that this was not the only time they were ready to kill Jesus (cf. John 5:18; 7:1; 8:59; 10:31), nor was it the only time they began to plot his death (John 7:1, 32, 45; Mark 3:6). The seeming inability of the Jews, in spite of their readiness and regular vehemence, leads us to suspect that the argument of the Fourth Gospel is not that a certain event serves as the proverbial “last straw” that spurs the Jews to action.

It should not be thought that the notation in John 11:53, “from that day on the Jews planned together to kill him,” signals a significant difference because the previous statements of their readiness to kill Jesus were spontaneous reactions to something he said (cf. 8:59; 10:31), whereas now they deliberately resolutely begin to prosecute their desires.27 We must note that John 7 clearly portrays the Jews as having counseled together and attempted to carry out their designs on Jesus’ life. That they are planning his death is even plain to Jesus, and so “he was unwilling to walk in Judea” (7:1). They even send soldiers to arrest him at the feast (7:30), and are angry that the mission fails (7:45). This is clearly not spontaneous. This is not a few Pharisees reacting violently and picking up stones. It is, rather, a premeditated plan that has been sanctioned by the authorities. They could not take him, according to John, because “his time had not yet come” (7:30).

The unfolding of events at the end of John 11 is remarkably similar to what is described in John 7. In John 7, Jesus is walking in Galilee, “for he was unwilling to walk in Judea” (7:1). In the same way, after we are given the episode of the Jewish leaders counseling together to kill Jesus, John 11:54 reads, “Jesus therefore no longer continued to walk publicly among the Jews, but went away from there to the country near the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim; and there he stayed with the disciples.” If the reader of the Gospel of John is looking for patterns, the echo of John 7:1 in John 11:54 might indicate that the evangelist is about to again tell his readers, as he had done in 7:30, that Jesus’ time had not yet come. Instead, the pattern is reversed, and the next time Jesus enters Jerusalem (as he had done in 7:10), the fourth evangelist records Jesus himself announcing, “The hour has come” (12:23).

The question now becomes, If the raising of Lazarus is not the trigger-event of the crucifixion in the Fourth Gospel, what is? The answer to this question is found in the oft noted theology of the fourth evangelist. John tells us that Jesus is God (e.g. 1:1; 10:30), and that as God, Jesus possesses and exercises sovereign control over his own death. John records Jesus saying, “I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). In the Gospel of John, when the time comes for Jesus to lay down his own life, John quotes the high priest Caiaphas saying, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50). John then makes it explicitly clear that the declaration made by the high priest does not come from the high priest himself. John tells his readers, “Now this he did not say on his own initiative; but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation” (John 11:51). This key statement is immediately followed by the words, “So from that day on they planned together to kill him” (John 11:53).

In the Gospel of John, the catalyst of the crucifixion is the Triune God that John proclaims. It is Jesus who is God, and yet He is with God and thus John is not a modalist (John 1:1, “the Word was with God and what God was, the Word was” [NEB]). It is Jesus who has authority to lay down and take up his own life (John 10:18). It is God who has established when Jesus will die (thus the many notations to his “time”). It is God who causes Caiaphas to prophesy that Jesus is to die (John 11:51). When John records the arrest of Jesus, he portrays Jesus as being in control. John tells his readers that a Roman cohort (usually consisting of 400 to 600 men) comes to arrest Jesus. Jesus declares his identity, and John says, “When he said to them, ‘I am,’ they drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6). And when all is accomplished and it is time for Jesus to die, John does not present Jesus as a pitifully crucified wretch whose life has been taken. Rather, John tells his readers, “He said, ‘It is finished!’ And he bowed his head, and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). In the Gospel of John, the life of Jesus is not taken. In the Gospel of John, Jesus lays down his life. In the Gospel of John, it is God, not a particular event that the Synoptics choose not to record, which serves as “The Catalyst of the Crucifixion in the Gospel of John.”

The purpose of this study has been to honor the all important God—who exists eternally as three persons, one in substance, equal in power and beauty—by seeking to determine whether the account recorded in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John can be read as an occurrence that took place in time-space history. To this end, I have sought to seriously address the question. Not wanting to merely dismiss the questions raised by the perceived incongruity between the Johannine and Synoptic catalysts for the crucifixion, this study has intended to explore evidence that seemed both overlooked and pertinent. This has not been done in an effort to prove a presupposition that the event did take place exactly as it is recorded in the Fourth Gospel. It has, however, been an attempt to discern whether the evidence available makes that position plausible.

It was observed that all four gospels introduce tension between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders very early in their accounts. We suggested that the argument of the Fourth Gospel is not that after the raising of Lazarus the Jews began to seek his death, any more than the argument of Matthew is that after the sayings of Jesus recorded in chapters 23-25 the Jews began to seek his death—even though Matthew 26:3-4 says, “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together… and they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth and kill him.” A more plausible suggestion would be that each gospel presents the crucifixion as the culmination of an extended period of antagonization, in which Jesus demonstrates greater wit, wisdom, popularity, and power than the Jewish religious leaders. Further, the gospels seem to indicate that Jesus is the Messiah of God and that the Jewish religious leaders are going to kill him because God has not given them ears to hear the message proclaimed by Jesus (see, e.g., Matt. 11:25-27; John 6:44, 65). At any rate, it seems clear that the Fourth Gospel does offer sufficient cause for the effect of the crucifixion, part of which is the raising of Lazarus.

We suggested that what we know of the literary milieu in which John was written, coupled with what he seems to say about what he is doing, would point us away from explaining John 11 as a midrashic creation—such as a historicization of the parable recorded in Luke 16:19-31. We did not prove that John 11 is not midrash, but the evidence does not seem to lead us in that direction. It was further observed that the suggestion that the raising of Lazarus was an event that came to John in the tradition which he then gave the setting it enjoys in his eleventh chapter is feasible, though difficult to either confirm or refute.

We then turned our attention to the possibilities of harmonizing the Synoptic and Johannine material, and found that reconciliation is possible. This does not mean that the explanation offered as to how the chronology might have fit together is the way that the events played themselves out, but it is a possible way to reconcile the material. It was suggested that too much emphasis should not be placed on the raising of Lazarus, seeing that the reader of the Fourth Gospel would not be surprised by the crucifixion even if he or she were not given chapter eleven.

With these considerations before us it appears to be at least possible that the raising of Lazarus is historical and took place in just the way John has recorded it. From what has been examined in this study, the historicity of the event is by no means conclusively proven, but neither has it been shown that the event is irreconcilable with the Synoptic narratives. What has been established in this study is that should one choose to regard the raising of Lazarus recorded in John 11 as an event which actually happened in time-space history, the testimony of the fourth evangelist, the literary milieu, and the Synoptic narratives all allow that choice as an acceptable, perhaps even likely, option. We are by no means obligated to reject the historicity of the raising of Lazarus as recorded in John 11 because the event is not recorded in the Synoptic Gospels.


1 This is a revision of a paper read at the Southwest Regional Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Ft. Worth, Texas on April 7, 2000, and a summary of the findings of my Th.M. thesis, “The Catalyst of the Crucifixion in the Gospel of John,” accepted by the faculty of the Department of New Testament Studies of Dallas Theological Seminary, April, 2000. Thanks are due to Daniel B. Wallace and W. Hall Harris III for carefully reading this material and making many helpful suggestions.

3 T. E. Pollard, “The Raising of Lazarus (John xi),” SE 6 (1973): 434.

4 John A. T. Robinson, The Priority of John, ed. J. F. Coakley (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1985), 222-23.

5 C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St. John. 2d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978), 388.

6 Luke 16:19-31 is the only one of Jesus’ parables in which a character bears a proper name. That name, of course, is Lazarus. In Luke 16 the rich man asks that someone be raised from the dead to warn his brothers. In John 11 Lazarus is raised from the dead. In Luke 16 Abraham declares that even if someone were to rise from the dead the rich man's brothers would not believe. In John 11 Lazarus is raised from the dead and the Jewish religious leaders do not believe.

7 Raymond F. Collins, “Lazarus,” ABD, IV: 265. See also Keith Pearce, “The Lucan Origins of the Raising of Lazarus,” ExpTim 96 (1985): 359. Speaking of the way that John has produced a “synthesis of prior units,” he writes,

I am convinced that the pivotal eleventh chapter [of John] is such a composite, and that it operates on a metaphorical level rather than on a circumstantial and historical one. John knew and used the Gospel of Luke as a major source of inspiration both here and more extensively in his Passion Narrative.… The Lucan strands which lie behind this extended parable in no way operate as a blueprint for John, and his use of them cannot be regarded as pastiche or plagiarism, but rather he derives certain circumstantial details and ideas from them.

8 David Hackett Fischer, Historical Fallacies (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 11-12.

9 Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (New York: The Modern Library, 1994; orig. published 1869), 1123.

10 R. Dunkerley, “Lazarus,” NTS 5 (1958/9): 326. Note that Dunkerley seems to harmonize these two purportedly ‘dichotomous’ elements.

11 Cf. John 7:30, “and no one laid hands on him because his hour had not yet come;” 8:20, “no one seized him because his hour had not yet come;” and 12:23, “the hour has come that the Son of Man might be glorified.”

12 Brown, The Gospel According to John, 1:318.

13 Cf. Keith Pearce, “The Lucan Origins of the Raising of Lazarus,” ExpTim 96 (1985): 359-61. This view is expressed by Robert H. Gundry, in an email to James M. Hamilton Jr. dated 11 January 2000. C. K. Barrett, listing a flurry of possible explanations, suggestively asks if John 11 might not have grown out of Luke 16 (The Gospel according to St. John, 2d. ed. [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978], 389). E. C. Hoskyns acknowledges that this view is a possible explanation of the story, but refuses to come to a definitive conclusion (The Fourth Gospel, ed. F. N. Davey [London: Faber and Faber, 1947] 396-97).

14 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, AB, 2vols (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 1:430. For an attempt to "Unfold in a systematic way Bultmann's many-faceted theses regarding the composition and order of John in order to make clear the issues raised and to draw some conclusions which [it is hoped] will be helpful for further research," see D. Moody Smith, The Composition and Order of the Fourth Gospel (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965, [quotation from the preface, vii]).

15 Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 139.

16 Cf. Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, Revised ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 475-76.

17 This was first suggested to me in a stimulating conversation with professor Daniel B. Wallace. It seems that any interpreter who understands the Synoptics to be bringing their readers to a geographical climax could subscribe to this view.

18 Cf. Philip W. Comfort and Wendell C. Hawley, Opening the Gospel of John, 179-180. It should be noted that this suggestion does not necessitate that the Fourth Gospel was written in A.D. 85, but that it was written after the death of Lazarus. If the last of the Synoptics was completed in, say, 62, and John is written in 65 it is entirely plausible that Lazarus could have died in the intervening years.

19 Raymond E. Brown suggests, “These verses in xi, expecially 7-8, were added as part of an editorial attempt to make the Lazarus story fit into its present sequence” (1:432). But after evaluating the hypothesis that a written tradition lies behind the narrative, Brian H. Henneberry writes, “Any attempts to uphold a distinction between a written tradition and the redaction of the evangelist on that tradition seem doomed to end in failure. At most, if there was a written tradition behind the story, it would have to have been one which was read earlier by the evangelist and was used so completely in his composition of the story that it is now impossible to identify it or even to be certain of its existence” (“The Raising of Lazarus [John 11:1-44]: An Evaluation of the Hypothesis that a Written Tradition Lies Behind the Narrative,” [Ph.D. diss., University of Louvain, 1983], 208). In light of Heneberry's study, suggestions as to which portions of the Gospel were original and which were added later are at best dubious.

20 Heneberry writes, “The use of nu'n points to a stoning which has happened very recently, and is a classical usage. It is probably intended to draw the reader's attention primarily to the most recent attempts of the Jews to stone Jesus at the Feast of Dedication (10:31-39)” (“The Raising of Lazarus”, 92).

21 Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John, 475 n. 6.

22 Morris is not alone in seeing this possibility. R. Dunkerley writes, "I see no reason to doubt this statement of John (xi. 54) which sounds like a very true reminiscence. And it has a real significance for the story… For it means that a considerable time must have elapsed after the raising and before the clash with the authorities developed" (“Lazarus,” NTS 5 [1958/9]: 326).

23 Dunkerley, “Lazarus,” 326.

24 Morris, The Gospel according to John, 475-76.

25 Cf. Andreas J. Kstenberger, "The Seventh Johannine Sign: A Study in John's Christology" BBR 5 (1995): 87-103.

26 See the raising of the widow's son at Nain (Luke 7:11-17), and the raising of Jairus' daughter (Matt. 9:1-18; Mark 5:21-33; Luke 8:40-56).

27 The use of the conjunction ou at the beginning of verse 53 should probably not be taken to be communicating a strongly inferential or causal connection. John uses ou some 201 times in his gospel, 19 times in the eleventh chapter. If the Gospel were a textbook on logic we might expect 19 logical conclusions introduced by ou in a chapter that is 57 verses long, but because the Gospel is a narrative, we should probably understand John to be using ou in senses other than as a uniformly inferential conjunction. The fourth evangelist apparently uses ou as both an inferential conjunction and as a connective which signals development. As stated by BAGD, ou is used, “to indicate a transition to something new. So especially in the Fourth Gospel now, then” (BAGD, 593).

The options seem to be that we can take ou in 11:53 inferentially, resulting in a translation such as, “Therefore, from that day they counseled together in order to destroy him.” But no major translation that I surveyed translates ou in verse 53 with therefore. KJV, NKJV, and Phillips use then, while NAS, NET, NIV, NLT, and NRSV, use so. That those who translate ou here as so mean it in the sense of, subsequently, is witnessed to by the way that they translate the usage of ou in the very next verse. The ou in verse 54 is translated therefore by KJV, NAS, NIV, NKJV, and NRSV; As a result by NLT; and Thus by NET. This would seem to indicate that while these translators are taking the ou to be strongly inferential in verse 54, they are taking it to be perhaps less inferential and more sequential or developmentary in verse 53.

If we take ou in 11:53 to be signaling development or sequentiality, the resulting translation is something like, “So from that day (or, then from that day) they planned together to kill him.” This sequential understanding recognizes a qualitative difference between the use of ou in verses 53 and 54. This view is corroborated by the recognition that there is an inferential use of ou in the Fourth Gospel where it is communicated that on account of the doings of Jesus, therefore, the Jews were seeking to kill him. This inferential usage is found at 5:18, diaV tou'to ou ma'llon ejzhvtoun aujtoVn oiJ jIoudai'oi ajpoktei'nai (On account of this, therefore, the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him). In this statement (5:18), the ou sets the context for a logical conclusion. By contrast, in 11:53, the context is temporal, not logical (ajp j ejkeivnh" ou th'" hJmevra" then from that day).

Related Topics: Miracles