The Common Good
March-April 1997

Who Was Lazarus?

by Jim Douglass | March-April 1997

Overcoming death and the power of empire.

For months I have been turning the pages of Frederick W. Baltz’s Lazarus and the Fourth Gospel Community, pondering the questions it provokes. According to the fourth gospel, when Jesus raised Lazarus he knowingly sealed his own fate. The resurrecting of Lazarus becomes the immediate cause of the temple power structure’s plot to kill Jesus.

But why? Why does this one miracle, which goes unmentioned in all three of the synoptic gospels, bring on the cross in John?

In terms of theme, the answer is provided by the author. The fourth gospel has been written "so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (John 20:31). John’s is the gospel of life. The raising of Lazarus, causing Jesus’ crucifixion and prefiguring his resurrection, is the event that holds the plot together and embodies Jesus’ gift of his own life for ours.

But from a historical standpoint, why would this life-giving miracle be so threatening to the powers that be?

The most fundamental answer may be that the empire controls its subjects by death threats. A man with the power to restore life to his people is a radical counterthreat to the empire’s power of death, as wielded by its client rulers in Israel.

But again the answer works better as gospel theme than as history. Why is the raising of this particular man Lazarus a prefiguration of humanity’s resurrection in Jesus and the shattering of an empire? Why did the Judeans, Caiaphas, and the council all take the raising of Lazarus so very seriously?

Who was Lazarus?

THIS LAST, MOST critical question is what Baltz devotes 109 amazingly insightful pages to answering, thereby cracking open the larger questions. He argues a double equation. Lazarus = the Beloved Disciple = the former High Priest Eleazar, son of Boethus and founder of the fourth gospel community.

Eleazar son of Boethus was the High Priest of Israel from 4 B.C. to a time before 6 A.D. "Lazarus" is the Greek form of the Hebrew Eleazar. Like Lazarus, Eleazar had two well-known sisters, Miriam and Martha. Baltz uses texts from the Talmud and Midrashim to argue that these are the same Mary and Martha that we find in the gospels. Their brother and former High Priest Eleazar was the "Lazarus" whom Jesus raised from the dead, his Beloved Disciple.

No wonder Caiaphas and the council were so alarmed by Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus! A High Priest of Israel had not only accepted the radical call of Jesus, but by being raised from the dead had become Jesus’ Beloved Disciple and a transforming symbol of the whole people’s resurrection. The client rulers of Israel overseen by Rome recognized that Jesus and the resurrected Eleazar both had to be killed (John 11:53, 12:10-11) to prove that death, not life, was still in power in the empire.

What makes Baltz’s little scripture study so beautifully challenging is that while not assuming old conservative answers that don’t work—such as John, son of Zebedee, being the Beloved Disciple—Baltz also refuses to read the gospel through the skeptical glasses of the liberal. Baltz takes seriously the fourth gospel’s claim that it takes history seriously. Contrary to a scholarly prejudice, this gospel’s theology is profoundly intertwined with the history of Jesus, as its author claims at the end. Jesus’ "signs" as drawn from that history are so astounding that faith is necessary to accept them. By risking the faith to accept Jesus’ raising of Lazarus as a truth of history, Baltz has freed himself to explore fundamental questions that modern scholarship has been afraid to touch.

The price of Lazarus and the Fourth Gospel Community, $59.95, also represents a challenge. (You might ask your local library to purchase the book.) We can hope that a paperback edition is in the works, but in the meantime it is worth the effort of accessing the book; Frederick W. Baltz has opened a new door in the gospel we call John.

JIM DOUGLASS is a Gandhian Catholic who lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author, most recently, of The Nonviolent Coming of God (Orbis Books).

Lazarus and the Fourth Gospel Community. By Frederick W. Baltz. Mellen Biblical Press, 1996.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)