Who Was Lazarus?

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?

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1997
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