(This is a continuation of my post last week, about the Muslim story of “the prophet Jesus and the skull.”)
“I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all.”
–T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Eliot got the story a little bit wrong. More profoundly, I think, he got it right.
The Gospels know of two Lazaruses. One of them did come back from the dead, but didn’t tell anybody anything. The other was asked to come back, precisely in order “to tell you all.” As far we know, he stayed dead.
Are these two men somehow the same?
Let’s start with the Lazarus of Luke. He doesn’t actually exist, it seems, but is a generic figure, appearing in a story (parable?) told by Jesus. “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table …” (Luke 16:19-21).
The two men die. The rich man is in Hell; the poor man Lazarus in “Abraham’s bosom.” The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to bring him some relief from his torment. In vain. This request having failed, he makes another one:
“Then I beg you, father, to send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.”
Again Abraham refuses–rather coldly, one can’t help feeling. “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.”
“No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
To which Abraham responds: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.” End of discussion.
Two generic figures: the rich man and the poor man. We normally assume the rich man is wicked and the poor man virtuous, but the story doesn’t say that, and indeed hints the rich man is capable of some generosity. Rather like the speaking skull in the Muslim story I blogged about last week, who while he lived “was generous among his people, and gave many alms, and fed many, and loved the poor and needy, and honored his guests.”
But if they’re purely generic figures, why does one of them have a name and the other not? (Sometimes we speak of the rich man as “Dives,” but that’s not a name–just the Latin word for “rich man.”)
It sounds very much as if behind this story is another one, of a man named Lazarus who did come back from the dead to warn of the punishments waiting for the sinful, just as the skull does in the Muslim story. The story in Luke “corrects” the earlier one: his return from the dead was requested, but it never really happened.
In the Gospel of John, there’s also a Lazarus. This Lazarus does come back from the dead, at Jesus’s bidding–like the skull in the Muslim story. “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go'” (John 11:44).
Understandably, this Lazarus becomes a sensation in the Jerusalem region. So much so, that “the chief priests planned to put Lazarus also to death, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus” (John 12:11). But then he vanishes from the Gospel–although some people think that the mysterious “disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23-25, 19:26-27, 20:2, 21:7, 20-23), was Lazarus, of whom we’re told several times that Jesus loved him (John 11:3, 5, 36).
So to repeat the question: are they the same Lazarus?
You can get a sample of opinions on the subject by Googling “lazarus luke john.” The evidence cuts both ways. On the one hand, they’re the only people (person?) of that name mentioned in the New Testament. On the other hand, “Lazarus” was a common name among the ancient Jews, a variant of the Old Testament “Eleazar.”
On the one hand, the Lazarus of John, unlike the one in Luke, is no pauper. Which points to their being different.
On the other hand, they’re both connected with a return from the dead–affirmed in John, denied in Luke. Which to me is decisive.
They both stem from the same tradition, at a stage before these traditions were put into the form in which we have them in the Gospels. This particular tradition branches off in one direction in Luke, in the other in John. Originally, it was a story of how Jesus brought a man back from the dead, so that he could describe, from first-hand experience, what awaits in the next world.
The same story that T.S. Eliot intuited from the Gospels. The same story that survived as an oral tradition in popular Islam, down to the 20th century, in the form of “the prophet Jesus and the skull.”
One detail missing: the skull.
by David Halperin
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