John shows the others how to tell a resurrection story

Giotto Raising of LazarusIn two previous posts, The Uncertaintist discussed why it appears that Mark may have intended his version of the story of Jairus’s daughter not to be a resurrection miracle (link). In Matthew’s telling, Jesus definitely restores a dead girl to life. Luke seems content to leave Jairus’s daughter ambiguous, but introduces a different and completely clear raising miracle, the widow’s son (link).

Regardless of what each author intended, some educated first century readers would have recognized the young adolescent girl’s condition as a possible case of a malady peculiar to women. According to the medical beliefs of the time, the affliction convincingly imitated death, but was easily and quickly curable. If that was the girl’s problem, then Jesus would have been telling the simple truth when he said in all three synoptic gospels that she wasn’t dead, but asleep

The youngest canonical gospel, John, replaces both Jairus’s daughter and the widow’s son with its own raising story, that of Lazarus of Bethany. The clear storyline of Lazarus’s return to life seems to have evolved organically from Mark and Matthew‘s versions of Jairus’s daughter, with Luke‘s raising of the widow’s son as an “intermediate form.”

John tells his story

The setting up, the miracle itself, and its aftermath take up almost the entire chapter 11 of John, plus a few verses of chapter 12.

(John 11:1-6) Jesus and his disciples have just fled from Judea to beyond the Jordan River, leaving behind an angry mob. Martha and Mary send word from Bethany in Judea that their brother Lazarus is ill. Jesus waits for two days.

(Verses 7-15) Jesus finally resolves to return to Judea. He tells his disciples, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going so that I may awake him out of sleep.” Both the narrator and Jesus himself clarify that by sleep Jesus meant death.

Unlike in the synoptics, at no point does Jesus say that his patient isn’t dead. Jesus also states a purpose for the upcoming miracle: “So you may believe.” Why Jesus would perform a resurrection miracle rather than simply prevent the death is repeatedly discussed in the verses to come, an issue addressed only in John.

(Verses 16-28) Jesus and the disciples set out for Bethany. When they arrive, Lazarus has been entombed for four days. Jesus tells Martha that Lazarus will rise again, although it isn’t clear to her that he means within the next several minutes. Martha remarks that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus’s death, and at least hints at a raising (“Even now,” she says, God will give Jesus whatever he asks).

(Verses 29-36) Mary is summoned to Jesus, and she, too, says that he could have saved her brother’s life. She takes Jesus to Lazarus’s tomb. When Jesus weeps, onlookers take up the theme that he could have prevented his friend’s death.

(Verses 37-44) Jesus performs the miracle itself. There are reminders that Lazarus has been entombed long enough to expect a smell when the tomb is opened. When Jesus prays, he mentions again the reason for performing a raising miracle, “that they may believe [God] sent me.” After prayer, Jesus commands Lazarus to leave the tomb. He does, wrapped in linen. Jesus orders Lazarus to be unbound.

(Verses 45-47 and 12:9-11) Many who came to mourn become believers in Jesus. Others report the incident to the religious authorities, who worry that too many people will now believe in Jesus. The Romans might take reprisals against the nation as a whole. Jesus makes at least one public appearance with Lazarus which draws a large crowd. The authorities resolve to kill Lazarus, too.

Issues in Mark are finally resolved in John

Compared with Mark, Matthew‘s account of Jairus’s daughter extinguishes two reservations about whether the girl has died. In Matthew, Jesus accepts the case from the outset as a call to restore the life of a girl who’s been dead for a while. Moreover, where Mark had said nothing about any public reaction to the girl’s revival, Matthew supplies at least part of the expected aftermath: word got around, and Jesus later cites having raised the dead among his accomplishments.

Luke goes beyond Matthew’s clarifications by introducing a new miracle. The raising of the widow’s son incorporates Matthew‘s alterations to Jairus’s daughter (being dead for a while, Jesus’s involvement from the outset is to raise the dead person, there is public reaction afterward, and Jesus later claims to have raised the dead). In addition, Jesus doesn’t say anything about the boy sleeping or not being dead. Jesus performs the feat in public (the mourners become witnesses, they are not shooed away). Luke also changes the gender of the patient, mooting his first audiences’ background knowledge about a death-like coma associated with women.

Like Luke, John tells its own unique raising story, but omits both Jairus’s daughter and the widow’s son. John retains some features of Luke’s miracle story, like the gender of the patient, and ramps up some of the differences between Luke and Mark. Dead for a while? Dead for four days. Public reaction? Jesus and Lazarus actively promote the miracle, leading some people to faith and others to hatching death plots against both Lazarus and Jesus.

One issue where John departs from the widow’s son is to reintroduce part of that difficult saying from Jairus’s daughter. Jesus affirms that his friend is sleeping, but never denies that his friend is dead. Both John‘s narrator and Jesus himself explain that the term “sleep” is figurative. The literal truth is that Lazarus is dead. No room for interpretation is left to the reader.

John also introduces an entirely new issue surrounding raising miracles: why didn’t Jesus simply heal Lazarus when he was still alive? In Matthew‘s Jairus’s daughter and Luke’s widow’s son, Jesus didn’t know about the patients when they were alive. He just happens upon a grieving parent and helps out.

In John, Jesus is a good friend of Lazarus and his family. They expected Jesus to come help when they sent him word of Lazarus’s peril. Indeed, John‘s Jesus wouldn’t have needed to come to them; he could heal at a distance (as established by remotely curing a nobleman’s deathly ill son, 4:46-54). However, Jesus has his own reasons to wait and perform this most extraordinary miracle to cap his ministry.

John is more realistic than Matthew or Luke about what havoc raising a dead person would probably inflict on the progress of the ministry. If Jesus tried to continue afterward, then he would be mobbed everywhere, not just by sick people seeking cures, but by survivors seeking the return of their lost loved ones. Matthew and Luke’s picture of Jesus carrying on with business as usual after raising a dead person is absurd.

In John, the raising of Lazarus is the consciously chosen end of the road for Jesus. He will actively publicize the miracle, so that some will come to believe in his connection with the divine, and it will be the death of him.

Comparison tableA recap of the evolution of a resurrection miracle

If Mark intended Jairus’s daughter to be a resurrection story, then he was by far the least clear among the canonical evangelists in depicting Jesus’s power to raise the dead. The accompanying chart displays the successive progress of the three later Gospels in boosting Jesus’s ministry with a clear resurrection miracle.

Among the tabulated aspects, one stands out: Jesus has no reason to remark that Lazarus is sleeping except as an opportunity for John to comment on Jesus having said that in the other gospels’ story of Jairus’s daughter. There can be little question that John knew at least this saying from the synoptics and the story surrounding it. Nor is there much question that John was showing his predecessors how to handle the figurative and potentially confusing expression properly, with masterly craftsmanship (or overkill by repetition of a simple point).

As far as clarity goes, however, Luke‘s approach of not having Jesus say anything about the widow’s son before reviving him is just as effective and surely elegant. Except for underestimating the likely effects of the miracle on his ministry, Luke‘s miracle story compares well with John‘s for narrative skill.

Did John know Luke? There’s no way to tell. However, the widow’s son can fairly be viewed as standing between Jairus’s daughter and Lazarus, sharing aspects of both stories. In the language of biological evolution, the widow’s son is an “intermediate form” between Matthew‘s resurrection story and John‘s.

A closing word about Mark’s probable intention

In facing up to the realistic impact and even danger of a resurrection miracle, John provides us one further reason to doubt that Mark intended Jairus’s daughter to have died. The consequences of raising somebody from the dead, both for Jesus himself and for the disciples he is about to send out on unsupervised missions of their own, are dire. The dead will have their resurrection (12:24-27), maybe soon (9:1). Here and now, Jesus has his hands full ministering to the living.

Practical crowd management was often on Mark‘s Jesus’s mind and by this point in the story Jesus knows that he has powerful enemies seeking to kill him. He might choose to perform a resurrection miracle anyway, but it would be odd to do so without reflection, and the aftermath could be expected to shape the rest of the gospel. In the text before us, no aftermath is ever even mentioned.

When Jesus instructed his disciples and the family not to discuss what happened in the girl’s sickroom, he must have known how futile that command was. Earlier calls for secrecy had been disobeyed. In this case, the girl herself will be seen alive after a house full of witnesses felt sure she was dead. Other people will talk, even if those in the room with Jesus do as he tells them.

Fortunately for Jesus and his mission, at least he had placed himself on the record that the girl hadn’t died, as clearly as natural language permitted anyone to do.


Image:  Giotto’s Raising of Lazarus, approximately 1305.

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