Saturday, November 24, 2012

Jesus wept?

I've been slowly working my way through (the Librivox audio recording of) "The Life of Jesus Critically Examined" by D.F. Strauss. Its a classic work of biblical criticism from the 19th Century. There's been much to think about so far, and plenty of scope for future blog posts. But anyway, I've just made it through the bit where he discusses the raising of Lazarus.

Seen through Strauss's take on the events, the story of Lazarus simply doesn't stand up to scrutiny whichever way you slice it. The events as described in John 11, are basically these:
  1. Lazarus is sick and word is sent to Jesus to tell him this.
  2. Jesus waits two days before setting out.
  3. Jesus says that Lazarus is sleeping but he is going to wake him up.
  4. The dumb discilpes don't get the inference.
  5. Jesus says that Lazarus is dead and that he was glad he was not there when Lazarus died for the sake of the disciples.
  6. Jesus arrives in Bethany, by which time Lazarus has been dead for four days.
  7. Jesus has a conversation with Martha about resurrection.
  8. Jesus meets Mary and they talk briefly (she says the same as Martha did).
  9. Jesus wept.
  10. Jesus commands that the tomb be opened. It is.
  11. Jesus commands Lazarus to come out. He does.
  12. Lazarus vanishes from the story.
The two oddest details in there are the two days delay and Jesus crying. Why are either of them there?

The story presents Jesus as having supernatural knowledge. He knows that Lazarus has died even though he is many miles away. It is unclear whether he knew anything before the word came that Lazarus was ill, but somehow he knew that this was not merely an illness, it was fatal.

Knowing this, Jesus does nothing for two days. Then sets out for Bethany, presumably a few days journey. When he gets there Lazarus has been dead for four days. I guess if he set out straight away, Lazarus would only have been dead for two days when he got there. Although, armed with supernatural knowledge, we can only assume that he could have known when to set out in time to get there and stop Lazarus from dying, or at the very least raise him instantly.

So it is clear that it was Jesus's own choice to let Lazarus be dead for four days before he raised him. Presumably he could have raised him earlier or later if he had wished. I've heard it said that there was some belief about the soul departing the body after three days, or some such, but that's largely irrelevant to my point here.

So Jesus allowed a man to die and allowed his sisters to go through four days of grieving so he could use them as an object lesson for his disciples. The text makes this plain (verse 15).

Hang on, let me state that again in a blunt manner. Here Jesus is depicted as manipulating the lives and feelings of people as an object lesson for his disciples. 

Is there any other way to read this passage? He basically says 'if I'd have been there I'd have healed him, but I'm glad I wasn't, so that you (the disciples) can see my power more clearly.' This is not the 'Son of Man' speaking, this is the voice of a God who plays with the destinies of people, much like the Greek gods were often portrayed as doing.

So it is clear from the story that Jesus goes to Bethany with the intention of restoring Lazarus to life, and is confident of his ability to do it. Yet when he gets there he cries. Why? It is entirely his inaction which has caused the death, and his actions are about to bring joy, so why does he cry? Out of sympathy for Mary? He could have prevented her pain. Because Lazarus is dead? Why is that a reason to cry if you are certain that the deceased is about to come back to life? Death is only a cause for mourning because we fundamentally do not know if we will ever see the deceased again, we may have hope, we may have belief, but we do not know. If you knew, with absolute certainty, that you would see the deceased in a few minutes time, alive and well, then there is no reason to cry.

It seems to me that the only reason Jesus is described as crying here is that the author (or a later redactor) of the story wants Jesus to appear to be at least partially human. For the rest of the story he walks as a God among men, and this appears to be an attempt to ground him and make him one of us.

The final odd thing about the story is that once Lazarus has been raised, Jesus does not interact with him at all. Doesn't touch him, doesn't talk to him, only instructs others to do things for him.

However, the problems with this story don't actually end there, there are at least two others.

One is the conversation between Jesus and Martha. Reading the implications in what Martha says, the conversation really seems to go like this:

M: If you had been here he wouldn't have died, but even now I believe you can restore his life.
J: He will be resurrected.
M: I know he will be resurrected at the end of time like everyone else, but he's dead now.
J: Silly woman, I mean I can do anything, I can resurrect him now.
M: Yes, I know that. You are the Son of God, Messiah.

The odd thing about this interchange is how Martha's second statement contradicts the first and third ones. The second statement is implicitly skeptical, while the other two seem to imply she believes Jesus can do anything, literally anything, including raising the dead to life. Real conversations don't work like this. This comes across as being fictional. Especially as Jesus starts having the exact same conversation with Mary just a couple of verses later.

The final issue I want to raise with this story is the prayer Jesus says in verses 41 and 42. This is a non-prayer. Jesus basically says 'I don't need to pray to God, but I am doing it only because people are listening and they do need to pray to God, so I'm setting a good example.'

Nobody prays like that. You can be sure that Jesus never uttered such a prayer. These are words put fictively into his mouth.

So it seems that a critical look at this story shows its fictional nature. These events could not have happened as described. Not because we presuppose that supernatural healings or resurrections can't happen, but because the characters in the story don't behave in any realistic ways. The story appears to have started out as a simple story of a demi-God walking amongst men and playing with their destinies, but it also appears to have been softened and humanised by a rewrite.

The final questions are these, if Jesus could raise the dead, why did he hardly ever do it? And if this story is true, why do the other gospel writers know nothing of it? (Except possibly a parable about a dead man called Lazarus whom someone requests to be resurrected...)


Anonymous said...


Excuse me if I ramble

A person, reading a 1 century account from the 21st century, is hard pressed to make such an absolute statement as "no one would do this", "this would never happen", unless they have expert knowledge on the societal customs of that time (and not of the Broad empire, as local customs can and sometimes do contradict the social views and customs of a larger State).

Secondly, what you have here is hardly as you call it a manipulation of emotions. Jesus simply lets what was going to happen, happen anyway. It's no different than letting a troublesome child learn the error of their ways, or letting someone learn the hard way about a lesson.

Taking Mary's contradictory thoughts into count is easy when you consider the situation-she's mourning the death of her brother. She never denied that Jesus could resurrect her brother (as her first statement indicates). She just simply believed that Jesus was referencing the popular view of Resurrection at the time with his comment. Not blatant skepticism, but grief and ignorance.

Now, regarding the prayer, it says in full:

"So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me."
John 11:41-42 NIV84

So Jesus, in referencing the Father hearing him, is not referring to this prayer, but to God hearing him in Resurrection Lazarus. Jesus makes this public declaration so that the people will know it is God who is raising Lazarus from the dead and believe Jesus is the Messiah. I don't see your implication that he says he "doesn't need God", it's not implied in his words. Maybe the translation you read words it differently?

Last, but definitely not least, is the always enigmatic "Jesus Wept". To spare you the alternative views, I'll just give you my opinion.

While most agree Jesus wept for Lazarus, he could also have been weeping for Mary and Martha, having to go through and experience death of a loved one. He is showing empathy, a human emotion. Remember, even if he was raising Lazarus, all of the people mentioned in the story, would eventually die again someday. Jesus is said that death is reigning over the world.

What he does about that, is too much for me to post now. I've said too much already!

Ricky Carvel said...

Please feel free to ramble. I do it all the time! ;o)

OK. I accept that saying 'this would never happen' is probably too strong, but however you present the story it doesn't ring true. Put any other character in the centre of this story and it reads as fiction, why should it be otherwise with Jesus at the centre?

Edwardtbabinski said...

More difficulties for the Lazarus tale, based on the fabricated "anointing" episode related to it:

Also note how the tales about Jesus commanding people to come back to life grew from earlier to later Gospels: