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The Historical Reliability of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (John 11:1-44)

Introduction

T

his exegesis paper will concentrate on John 11:1-44 (the Raising of Lazarus) and will offer a particular focus the historical aspect of the passage in regards to the historical reliability concerning the family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  It is noteworthy that this is the only extensive narrative about a family in the entire Gospel of John, and is also the lone narrative in any of the Gospels about a family of siblings without an explicitly mentioned parentage.  Luke is unique in that it is the singular Synoptic Gospel that mentions this entire family by name.  Yet, with the exception of base commonalities in narrative about Jesus having His feet anointed by a woman, which all of the Gospels share,[1] Luke seems to draw from a different oral tradition and/or sources as John concerning Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

What do we know about this family and why did the two, arguably, latest Gospel narratives make it a point to insert narratives about them?

 

A General Outline of the Fourth Gospel

As with the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Gospel according to John is essential a biography of Jesus of Nazareth, which is rooted in the Jewish expectation of a Messiah to come from the seed of David.  In that regard, this Gospel contains an origin story, first miracle/sign, other key ministerial events, a passion narrative, a resurrection event, and a commissioning of Jesus inner circle of disciples/Apostles.  It can be principally divided into four sections: (1) the Prologue (1:1-18); (2) the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50); (3) the Book of Glory (13:1020:31); and (4) the Epilogue: the Resurrection Appearance in Galilee (21:1-25).

Altogether, the Gospel of John broadly shares sixteen narratives with Synoptic Gospels: (1) John the Baptist precedes the coming of the Messiah (Christ); (2) Jesus of Nazareth begins His preaching, teaching, healing, and miracle ministry; (3) Jesus feeds at least five thousand men, with only five loaves and two fish; (4) Simon Peter makes a confession about who Jesus is to Him; (5) Jesus has His feet anointed by a woman; (6) Jesus enters Jerusalem as King, cleanses the Temple, and is questioned by the authorities; (7) Simon Peter and the Apostles promise to never abandon the Messiah Jesus; (8) Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before His arrest; (9) Jesus shares the Seder Passover meal with His disciples, and Judas fails to discern the Bread and Wine as the actual Body and Blood of Christ Jesus; (10) Jesus of Nazareth is arrested; (11) Simon Peter denies knowing Jesus and/or knowing what his questioners are asking him about; (12) Jesus stands trial and is sentenced, mocked, and tortured; (13) Jesus goes the Way of the Cross, is crucified, and suffers temporal death; (14) Jesus is laid in the tomb; (15) Jesus rises from the dead and appears to the women; and (16) Jesus appears to the Apostles (as a group) and commissions them.

The Fourth Gospel, while sharing some common features and narratives with the Synoptics that the author may have known about, due to the habit of the early Church communities to propagate texts and letters, it is also very unique in comparison. The geography of Jesus’ ministry is centered in Judea; particularly near the time of Jewish religious festivals, and there is also careful attention paid to the location of places; perhaps a clue that author either anticipated wide dissemination and the author wanted his readers, some of whom might have been unfamiliar with Judea, to know where these places were.  In addition to explaining the geography in detail, the author has a penchant for expounding upon the meaning of Jesus’ words and actions; primarily through the tool of long discourses and responses to either the rejection or confusion about His teachings.  The author of John also prefers to use the word ‘sign’ rather than the word ‘miracle’ as found in the Synoptics.  Perhaps the most significant feature of the Fourth Gospel is the careful development of words and themes through repetition and further explaining.  This last feature is what makes the John a self-interpreting style of a text; that is, if you want to know what the author means with a word or theme, just keep reading and he’ll tell you.

While the Fourth Gospel has been traditionally relegated to the category of being a ‘spiritual’ Gospel, but more recent academic research has found trace clues that make the case for it being as historically valid as the Synoptics, or even more so.

 

The Literary Setting of John 11:1-44

The narrative about the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus begins at 11:1-5, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead is last sign in the ‘Book of Signs’.  The named signs which precede this final one are (1) the sign of turning water into wine;[2] (2) the cleansing of the Temple (not a miracle sign, but the Jewish interlocutors considered it to be a sign);[3] (3) the curing of the royal official’s son (named the second sign at verse 54);[4] (4) curing a paralyzed man;[5] (5) miracle of loaves and fishes;[6] (6) walking on water;[7] and (7) curing of a man born blind.[8]  Of the miracle signs, the raising of Lazarus is the seventh and final sign prior to Jesus’ final Passover Feast and entry into Jerusalem.  It is also a type of turning point and pre-climax event in the Fourth Gospel.

For the author of John, the raising of Mary and Martha’s brother from the dead is the final piece of evidence needed for the Pharisees’ case of capital punishment against Jesus.

 

The Presence of Important Repetitions

A keyword repeated in the narrative about the Lazarus and his sisters is love, which is mentioned three times in verses 3, 5, and 36: “So the sisters sent word to him, saying, “Master, the one you love [phileo] is ill . . . Now Jesus loved [agapeo] Martha and her sister and Lazarus . . . So the Jews said, “See how he loved [phileo] him.”  Most interesting is the usage of the word ‘love’ in the Greek.  The instant narrative takes on a similar course in the distinction between agape and phileo as Jesus’ final discourse with Peter, in that the love that the author says Jesus has for the all of the siblings is agapeo, while the love discerned by the observers of Him towards Lazarus is phileo, which is the same type of love that the sisters of Lazarus believe that Jesus has for their brother.

This nuance between agape/agapeo (32 occurrences in John) and phileo (10 occurrences in John) is unapparent in the single English rendering as ‘love’, but the intent of the author here is to distinguish between phileo, which he seems to consistently use in the positive as a phrase to mean ‘sacrifice of one’s life for other’, and agape, which he seems to consistently use in the positive as a phrase to mean ‘sacrifice of one’s life for God.’  Similarly, in the negative, phileo and agapeo are used in reference to slavery/bondage to the world,[9] which stands opposition to the freedom that comes from sacrificial love.

According to the manner by which the author of John develops his words and phrases, it is necessary to take careful note of the initial time that that word or phrase is used.  With agapeo, its first occurrence comes in John 3:16, “For God loved [agapeo] the world in this way, He gave His One and Only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” For phileo, its first usage is found in John 5:20-21, “For the father loves [phileo] his Son and shows him everything that he himself does, and he will show him greater works than these, so that you may be amazed.  For just as the Father raises the dead and gives life, so also does the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.”  In both of these first usages of agape and phileo is implied the idea of sacrifice and resurrection that are found in the sign of Lazarus and in the Passion of Christ Jesus.  John will continue to develop the meaning of love throughout his Gospel as being synonymous with sacrifice, and that there is no greater sacrifice of one’s life for God (agapeo), than a sacrifice of one’s life for other’ (phileo);[10] for, in this way, we fulfill the new commandment by loving one another as God loved us.[11]  This benchmark of this form of true love is pointed to in the sign of Lazarus and perfected in the Passion on the Cross.

Another key word that is repeated in this narrative is sozo, which will be discussed in the section immediately following.

 

The Structure of John 11:1-44

The longest continuous narrative in the Fourth Gospel, outside of the Passion narrative, John 11:1-5 serves as its introduction about the sign of raising of Lazarus from the dead.  This is our first time hearing about Lazarus in John, but he appears to be someone who the disciples know well, based upon Jesus telling them that “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”  This is also John’s first introduction of Mary and Martha, although verse 2 implies that we have already encountered Mary, even though her anointing of Jesus’ feet seems to occur on another day while Jesus and His disciples are still in Bethany.[12]

Versus 6 through 16 is the persuasion of Jesus of His disciples to sacrifice their life for a friend.  The text does not tell us why Jesus waited for two days after hearing that His friend had taken ill, to even begin persuading His disciples as to why they should make the journey to Bethany, which the author of John writes, “was near Jerusalem only about two miles away.”  The implication of the text is that Bethany was near enough for Jesus to have made it there before Lazarus had died.  Neither does the text inform us how Jesus knew/learned that Lazarus had died in verse 11.  In response to Jesus saying that He intends to go awaken Lazarus, the disciples said to him, ‘Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.’”  Here, the disciples express a belief in sozo (Gk. for heal, preserve, save), which is a word that the author of John begins developing in 3:17 (“. . . that the world might be sozo) to associate with the mission of Christ on earth.  While the text doesn’t tell us why Jesus had waited for two days before beginning to persuade His disciples, in verse 15 He states that He is glad that He was not there (with Lazarus), so that His disciples will now have an opportunity to believe.  It is ironic that the raising of Lazarus foreshadows the resurrection Christ Jesus, but also foreshadows the pessimism of Thomas.  The same doubts that Thomas has about the raising of Lazarus in verse 16, he has about the raising of the Lord.[13]

Versus 17 through 34 concerns Jesus’ relationship with Mary and Martha.  More will be said about later about how consistent this section is with the non-Biblical tradition about these sisters, but suffice it for now to make note of three noteworthy items.  First, the image of Martha leaving her home upon hearing that “Jesus was coming,” so that she might tell Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” seems to belong to the same tradition that Luke received[14] about Mary being anxious and always ready to tell others what they should or could be doing.

Second, “the turning point in Johannine scholarship,” says Richard Bauckham was “the increasing emphasis on the Jewishness of the Gospel,”[15] which was the result of a scholarly review of the major text from the Dead Sea Scrolls.  In his Jewish New Testament Commentary, David H. Stern remarks about this section of narrative echoes this idea about the Jewishness of John.  He writes that Mary and Martha were simply following the Jewish custom of sitting “in mourning for seven days following the death of a deceased parent, spouse, sibling, or child.”[16]  The posture of this mourning was siting unshod on the floor or on a low stool “in the home of the deceased or his near relative and abstaining for all ordinary work and diversions, and even from required synagogue prayers,”[17] while friends visit to comfort and pray with the mourner.  Martha is the one who breaks from this Jewish tradition to leave the house to meet Jesus.

Lastly, continuing this line of exegesis about the Jewishness of John, verse 19 is significant in regards to research about the family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.  That “many of the Jews had come to Marsha and Mary to comfort them about their brother” is a key indicator concerning the social status of this family.  In their Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohbaugh writes:

It was important to have as many mourners as possible at the time of death, for a large group was an indication of family honor.  Mourning usually included loud wailing and beating of the breast (normally a female gesture, but sometimes practiced by men at the time of death).  The sexes walked separately in the funeral process to the grave.  Afterward, the women returned home alone to begin the thirty-day period of ritual mourning.  During this time women usually sat on the floor.[18]

Scholarship like this in the field of study that researches the Jewish traditions and history and John is helpful to both the laity and academics to help us all to grow in understanding how the first readers of John mighty have understood it, which helps us better understand its rich treasures of culture and history that are interwoven into its biography on the risen Lord Jesus.

Verses 35 through 44 belong to John’s catalog of narratives about Jesus clearing up the perceived misunderstanding of His mission by demonstrating a sign of His authority.  Yet, this final sign of saving a life would cost Him His life.  The three instances of Lazarus mentioned in chapter 12 are the final occurrences of his name being mentioned explicitly in John.  Yet, the ending seems to beg for more conclusion; “Untie him and let him go.”  Where did he go?

 

The Meaning of the Passage

There several things that can be said about the meaning of the sign of raising Lazarus from the dead.  For the purposes of this exegesis, I will point out what seem to be the three key ones.  The first is the development of the meaning of the words agape/agapeo, phileo, and sozo.  Agape is sacrificial and is the way God loves the world, and that there is no greater sacrifice of one’s life for God (agapeo), than a sacrifice of one’s life for other’ (phileo);[19] for, in this way, we fulfill the new commandment by loving one another as God loved us.[20]  This benchmark of this form of true love is pointed to in the sign of Lazarus and perfected in the Passion on the Cross.

The second thing that is clearly going on here is a demonstration of the authority of Jesus to raise the dead.  According to Martha, Lazarus was in the tomb for a significant amount of time; “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”  This is more of a significant sign for Jesus being that so many days had passed.  To this, He attests saying, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  Heretofore in John, the previous six signs of Jesus were dealing with food or sickness/physical condition of the living.  This last sign is related to the greatest sign – His resurrection from the dead.  Not only can He raise other from the tomb, but even the tomb cannot contain God.

Finally, it cannot be overlooked that outside of the Passion Narrative, the longest continuous narrative in the Fourth Gospel is about a family that is only Luke also deigns to mention.  Who is this family, and why did the early Christians find their story worthy of passing on?  In light of a better reading of the patristic texts, rabbinical literature, and Bauckham’s insertion of M. J. J. Menken’s doctoral dissertation Numerical Literary Techniques in John in his book The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple,[21] Frederick W. Baltz, in his The Mystery of the Beloved Disciple, amends his previously held position that Lazarus, the Beloved Disciple, and the author of John, are the same person, but he remains steadfast in this contention that “nothing in the Fourth Gospel happens as an accident.”[22]  Therefore, verse 5 is not to be casually taken, that “. . . Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” who Baltz calls the “beloved family of Bethany.”[23]  His point in this phraseology is that Jesus loved (phileo) not just Lazarus, but loved (agape) the whole family.

 

The Historical Aspect of 11:1-44

This brief second on the historical reliability of John 11:1-44 will not deal with the resurrection of Lazarus itself, but, rather, will treat the three propositions that I believe the author sets forth in this narrative about the beloved family of Bethany: (1) The persons Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were real/living persons in history; (2) They were a noteworthy family who lived near Jerusalem in a city named Bethany; and (3) The early Christian oral tradition intentionally sought to pass on their story. Setting aside the strength of the argument itself that John is equal to, if not greater in historical reliability as the Synoptics, there is significant data outside of the Fourth Gospel to support the historical reliability of this narrative about Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, both in Scripture and Tradition.

All of the Gospels contain a narrative about a woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with an expensive jar of ointment,[24] while He was the invited guest in the home a man.  Only John’s narrative gives the name ‘Mary’ to this women woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, and only Luke departs from both Matthew and Mark in their naming the location as Bethany and calling the host Simon the Leper, who like calls a Pharisee.  Luke is also the only Gospel that doesn’t place the anointing immediately preceding the Passion narrative.  John does not explicitly name whose home it was, but it is implied that it was at the home of the beloved family of Bethany or a relative of theirs, being that Martha was there serving.

Perhaps, there is a better explanation of the apparent contradictions between these four accounts, not to mention the problems of devout Jews eating at the home of a Leper and being around a ‘sinful woman’.  Baltz proposes that Simon the (healed) Leper was actually Simon son of the High Priest Boethus, who, himself, became a High Priest; succeeding Jesus, son of Fabus.   According to Josephus, he was also known by the name of Simon Cantheras.[25]  Adding to the idea that Simon belonged to the family who Jesus loved, Baltz uses the unusual expression in Mark that Jesus “looking at him, loved [agapao] him . . .” to speculate that Simon Cantheras may have been the rich young man who could not leave everything behind the follow Jesus.[26]  This latter speculation by Baltz contributes to the evidence that supports Mary, Martha, and Lazarus being the type of affluent Jewish family that could afford such expensive ointment.  The same would also explain how such a sinful woman could have entered the home of Simon, if she were a family member of the priestly aristocracy.  Baltz also connects Lazarus (Greek form the Hebrew Eleazar) with Eleazar, son of Boethus, who Josephus says was once a High Priest.[27]   Speculation aside, the central point being made here is that if all of these narratives are connected, the beloved family of Bethany is included in all four Gospels.

In his Gospel narrative, Luke includes a short story about Mary and Martha, and a sobering parable about Lazarus, which is not a far departure from John’s raising Lazarus from the dead sign.  Luke’s response by Abraham, that “if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead,” is the reality that John’s risen Lazarus presents.  Jesus brings a man back to life in the presence of many, but rather than believe that He is who He says He is, they plot to kill Him.  Again, here we find in Luke, which could have been written earlier than John, an established tradition about Lazarus and his sisters.

More evidence of an early intentional witness about the beloved family of Bethany is found in Mark where Jesus prophesizes of Mary after her anointing, “Amen, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”[28]

If Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are a wealthy family and somehow related to someone in the high priestly class, as some of the Scriptures might imply, then the rabbinical literature which speaks of a Martha and Eleazar is invaluable in our research.  Yoma 18a calls Martha the daughter of Boethus, who gave to King Janni a tarkabful of denars to nominate Joshua Ben-Gamal as one of the High Priests.[29]  This Joshua Ben-Gamal was her second husband after her first had made her widow.[30]  This Martha also had a son who was a priest.  It is written in the Talmud that he was so strong that he could carry up to the altar two sides of a huge ox without any lack of decorum.[31]

Baltz suggests that Martha’s son may have carried the name John (although there is no way of knowing for certain, being that the Sukkoh curiously only refers to him by the name of his mother, rather than by his name or his father’s name – perhaps as a mark of shame that he was Christian),[32] and it is this John who St. Polycarp says is the John “who leant back on the Lord’s breast, and who became a sacrificing priest wearing the mitre/petalon/diadem [a plate of pure gold worn by High Priest on the linen turban on which were engraved the world “Holiness to the Lord”],[33] a martyr and a teacher; he too sleeps in Ephesus.”[34]  Bauckham uses this same evidence, along with the testimony from Epiphanius that James, the Lord’s brother, also wore the petalon on his head, to conclude that there is no way to explain this data with certainty – it is either to be taken literal or metaphorical, and either way is riddled with problems.[35]  Baltz’s conclusion is that this John was actually son of Martha, the Beloved Disciple, and source or author of the Fourth Gospel, seems to be a marriage between what Bauckham summarizes as the being the positions held by both R. Eisler in The Enigma of the Fourth Gospel and by H K H Delff in several of his works,[36] but by tracing John to someone other than the Apostle cleverly resolves Bauckham’s dilemma.  Eisler identified Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple, but not as the author of the Fourth Gospel; rather the author was the High Priest Theophilus the son of Annas, whose Greek name meant the equivalent of Yohanan (John).[37]  Baltz calls Eisler’s theory problematic based upon troubling source data that he abuses;[38] to which Bauckham agrees.[39]

There are additional stories in the Talmud about a wealthy and influential woman named Martha;[40] none of which are positive portrayals of her.  We can only speculate as to why the rabbinical literature would intentionally look to shame her.  Nevertheless, if this Martha, daughter of Boethus, is our Martha from the beloved family of Bethany, and if Eleazar, son of Boethus, is our Lazarus, then their presence in texts outside of Scripture only bolsters our case for the historicity of the Gospels.

 

References

[1] Cf. Lk. 7:36-50; Jn. 12:1-1. See also Mk. 14:3-9 and Mt. 26:6-13. Only John’s narrative gives the name ‘Mary’ as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany.

[2] Cf. Jn. 2:1-12.

[3] Cf. Jn. 2:13-25.

[4] Cf. Jn. 4:46-54.

[5] Cf. Jn. 5:1-18.

[6] Cf. Jn. 6:1-15.

[7] Cf. Jn. 6:16-21.

[8] Cf. Jn. 9:1-41.

[9] Cf. 3:19, 5:42, 12:43, 14:24, 15:19.

[10] Cf. Jn. 15:13.

[11] Cf. Jn. 13:34.

[12] Cf. Jn. 12:3.

[13] Cf. Jn. 20:24-29.

[14] Cf. Lk. 10:38-42.

[15] Bauckham, Richard. The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, Michigan 2007. 37-23. Print.

[16] Stern, David H. Jewish New Testament Commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc.: Clarksville, Maryland. 190. Print.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Malina, Bruce, Rohbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Fortress Press:  Minneapolis, MN. 1998. 199. Print.

[19] Cf. Jn. 15:13.

[20] Cf. Jn. 13:34.

[21] Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. 275-276.

[22] Baltz, Fredrick W. The Mystery of the Beloved Disciple. New Evidence. Complete Answer. Infinity Publishing: West Conshohocken, PA. 2011.  114. Print.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Cf. Mt. 26:6-13; Mk. 14:3-9; Lk. 7:36-50; Jn. 12:1-1.

[25] Josephus, Antiquities xix.vi.§ 2.

[26] Baltz, The Mystery of the Beloved Disciple. New Evidence. Complete Answer. 103-106.

[27] Baltz, The Mystery of the Beloved Disciple. New Evidence. Complete Answer. 88.

[28] Mk. 14:9.

[29] Talmud Yoma 18a.

[30] Mishnah Yevamot 6:4; Talmud Yevamot 61a.

[31] Talmud Sukkah 52b.

[32] Baltz, The Mystery of the Beloved Disciple. New Evidence. Complete Answer. 121-122.

[33] Cf. Exo. 39:30.

[34] Eusebius III, xxi, 3, and V, xxiv, 2f.

[35] Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. 37-50.

[36] Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. 48.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Baltz, The Mystery of the Beloved Disciple. New Evidence. Complete Answer. 86.

[39] Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple. 48.

[40] Cf. Talmud Gittin 56a.

Author Profile

David L. Gray, M.A.T.
Mr. David L. Gray is an American Catholic Theologian and a Historian on Black Fraternal History. He holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration (BS) from Central State University (Ohio) and a Masters of Arts in Catholic Theology (M.A.T.) from Ohio Dominican University. David is a convert to Catholicism by the way of Agnosticism and Protestantism. He currently resides in the Saint Louis, Missouri area with his wife and daughters, and is the President and Publisher of Saint Dominic's Media Inc. To learn more about Mr. Gray visit davidlgray.info

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