1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
The story begins with introducing to us Lazarus (in Hebrew Eliezer, which means God will help) who resides in Bethany (in Hebrew Beit Aniah, which means the House of the Poor). These Hebrew names are not coincidental.
Bethany was not far from Jerusalem (there was also a Bethany across the Jordan river). There are many reasons to think it was a very special village. It is likely that this village served as one of the Jewish Essene diaconal centers. These centers were spread throughout the ancient Jewish world. Essenes (a Jewish sect) were known for their commitment to serve the poor and sick. Incidentally, there seems to be a strong connection between sections of the Essene community and the early Jewish believers in Jesus movement, but this is a topic for another time.
2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.
It is interesting and somewhat surprising that John makes this comment so early. The reason is because the incident of Mary anointing Jesus, is not recorded until next chapter. This means either John wrote his Gospel after the other Gospels, expecting people to be familiar with the story, or more likely that the story had already circulated orally and John assumed that the hearers were familiar with it.
3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
There are remarkable parallels here with between the raising of Lazarus and the healing of the man who was blind from birth. In one case light is given and in the other case, life. Interestingly enough both themes are the major themes alluded to in John 1:4: “4 In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Also, the reason for both Lazarus’ death and the man’s blindness was for God’s glory (John 9:2-3 and John 11:4).
5 (Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.) 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”
If we read vss. 5-6 they make little sense (since Jesus loved them, why didn’t he come immediately). If we read the text carefully, we will quickly realize that verse 5 is a parenthetical comment inserted between vss. 4 and 6. This means verse 6 (“So when he heard…”) continues as the end of vs.4 (“it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it”.) So no one would think Jesus did not truly love the family, the parenthetical comment was added – “Now (you must know) Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”.
8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
If we attempt to understand the Jews here as being the Jewish people, the sentence would sound completely ridiculous. Clearly, the Jerusalemite authorities who were seeking Jesus’ life are in view here. We must continue to remember John’s statement in the prologue that summed up Jesus life, death and resurrection: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5) Jesus is referring to the light that illuminates the world. Remember, in John the world does not always mean humanity at large, sometimes it means Judea and its inhabitants.(John 7:3).
11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
Jesus clarifies for his disciples that his close friend Lazarus had died. What is important in vs.17 is John’s statement that when Jesus arrived in Bethany it was already the fourth day. This explains why after hearing the news that Lazarus was very sick “he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” (John 11:6) Jesus knew how long it would take to travel to Bethany. He was determined to arrive, not only after Lazarus’ death, but when, according to popular Jewish belief, resurrection was no longer possible – on the fourth day!
18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.
Lazarus, who may have been an Essene, and his family were given fully to the service of the poor and sick in Bethany. He was highly respected by the hoi Ioudaioi. Many, hoping to bring them much needed comfort, came to mourn together with Martha and Mary. It is in this story that Jesus makes his final strike against the stronghold of unbelief within the Jerusalem priestly elite. He was about to resurrect a respected member of the Jerusalemite religious society in plain view of members of the hoi Ioudaioi. This would necessitate a response of faith in Him. Mary and Martha were being comforted by their own people from among the Jerusalemite ruling establishment.
20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
Martha told Jesus that if he would have come within the three days when resurrection was possible, he could have resurrected her brother. Her faith went even further and she said “even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you!”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”
Martha is careful, seeking not to raise her own hopes too high. She probably thought to herself: “Jesus seems to be saying that my brother will be resurrected, but he could be referring to some distant future.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.
Jesus’ point was simple. Martha must stop thinking of him as the one who can ask God for resurrection and receive a favorable answer from on high. She must understand instead that Jesus is the Logos of God, the God who gives life. In Jesus’ own words – “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
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Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” 28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him.
Apparently Jesus remained outside the village for a time since enough time lapsed for meetings and conversations to occur. Vs. 30 is another parenthetical comment in which the author is clarifying the meaning of his story as it unfolds.
31 When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
What is important here is that the author highlights the fact that when Jesus spoke with Mary outside the village, some of the hoi Iouidaioi who had come to comfort the family followed her. This indicated that they witnessed this exchange. The Hoi Ioudaioi who followed Jesus outside of the village both saw what happened and heard most of the interchange between Jesus and Mary.
32 Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Mary repeats Martha’s regret (John 11:21). We can imagine that this had been discussed in their family circle.
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.
Here we see Jesus enter the suffering of humanity and his connection with hoi Ioudaioi as never before in this Gospel. Jesus saw Mary and members of the hoi Ioudaioi grieve passionately over the passing of Lazarus. He was deeply troubled.
How burials occur within a particular culture tell us a much about the people’s worldview. Christian culture is always solemn, but festive when it comes to the burial of a righteous man. Grief is always mixed with hope and celebration. In Jewish culture, while the resurrection of the righteous is also affirmed, there is a strong belief that when a righteous man dies the world suffers loss.
The balance of good and evil is tipped, at least at that moment, towards evil. While the righteous man is taken away from the world’s evil, those who remain have lost significantly and in a sense, are left to fend for themselves.
34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
A brief excursion into Jewish burial practices of the first century will be helpful here. Jews of the first century in the Land of Israel buried people twice. When someone died. the body was first wrapped in a cloth and placed in a cave for a prolonged period of time. After the body decayed and only bones remained, they were collected into a special box called an ossuary. The ossuary was then placed together with other ossuaries of family members, and put into a family tomb. Jesus, realizing that the first burial had already taken place, asked where they had laid the body. They responded “Sir, come and see”. The word Lord, used here in Greek, is not a confession of faith that Jesus is the incarnate God, but simply a respectful term of address.
35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
No other section of the Scriptures shows Jesus so deeply full of emotion. His full divinity and full humanity meet here in the expression of his grief. He did not just cry. He wept. His reaction (even though he knew he was about to resurrect Lazarus) was fully compatible with the Jewish practice of grieving and wailing. The Hoi Ioudaioi who witnessed this exchange concluded that Jesus indeed loved the same person they appreciated so much for his service to the community of the poor and suffering.
37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
One can see that the crisis of the hoi Ioudaioi’s opposition to Jesus was deepening. Now it was not only those from Jewish Galilee and a few members of the system that began to take interest in Jesus. Many who came to comfort the Lazarus’ family were moving toward a positive view of Jesus. Their regret was “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” Remember, they were not talking about resurrection. Their reasoning is therefore very logical. If Jesus could give sight to the man born blind who had never seen light, surely he could have given healing to a man who was sick. One action was much greater than the other. However, none of them realized what Jesus was about to do.
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.”
Martha told Jesus to stay away from the entrance of the tomb since the smell of a decaying body would be overwhelming. She once again pointed out that Lazarus had been dead for 4 days. You will recall that Jesus’ arrival was perfectly timed for the resurrection to take place on the 4th day, when it was believed that resurrection was no longer possible.
40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”
Earlier, Jesus had told Martha that arriving on the fourth day would not limit him. Resurrection was not something he would do with his Father’s help. Resurrection and Life are both the essence of what Jesus is. He is indeed the Word/Logos/Memra of Israel’s God, and he was destined to show the world his Father’s Glory.
43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”
Some tombs were extremely deep and they literally included a tunnel to get to the actual place where the bodies were deposited. So it is not surprising that when the stone that functioned as a door would be rolled away, Jesus would call Lazarus in a loud voice. This was not to make this event more dramatic, but was that the resurrected Lazarus could physically hear the voice of his Life-giver from afar.
44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
John (or whoever wrote this Gospel that was later attributed to John) was an eyewitness who was concerned with detail. He mentions something that no other Gospel says. Lazarus, when he came out of the tomb, was not covered with one piece of cloth but with two. His face had a cloth that was separate from the body shroud. Today, when ancient Jewish burials have been discovered, this description is confirmed. Jews indeed buried the way John described. John was a local. He was an insider. He was an eyewitness.
Join the conversation (87 comments)
Is Bethany situated to the West of Jerusalem? We have a similar story in India. Bhagat Kabir Ji left Kanshi to stay with the poor that the Brahmins hated. They were in a colony west of Kanshi so that even their shadows do not be between Brahmin and East.
I have made a Youtube Video on Lazarus explaining Resurrection.
No, it is East of Jerusalem, but it does not matter. I think the practice is general and would not be confined to just one people group. It is natural for people to take their sick out of the main population area.
Thanks, eye opening exposition of scriptures!..has left me feeling there is surely a lot more to the scriptures when we read them in their true time and cultural context…admire your fascinating knowledge of the context here!
Let us continue our studies together! Dr. Eli
THIS IS VERY EXCITING AS IT REVEALS THE SALIENT POITS YOU DONT FIND IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE. THE REVELATION I HAVE RECEIVED FROM READING THIS ARTICLE IS AMAIZING.
Michael, welcome our group I hope you will find the studies and discussions of help. Dr. Eli
Eli, can you tell us a bit more about the jewish belief in possible resurrection within 3 days? I think the question was asked already and I was wondering as well.
Let me just say that this belief seems to go all the way back and survive up until today. When Menachem Shneerson (a leader of Habad Lubavitch hassids, whom many believed to be the Messiah) died after being paralyzed for several years (this happened around 20 years ago or so). His disciples interpreted Is.53 as the prophecy about him. They camped out for 3 days near his cemetery in Crown Hights, NY. This is public knowledge. The fourth day they packed their things and left. There are number of references to the three days being the cut off point. I do not have them off hand, but I have seen them before.
Perhaps: ~God will not suffer his holy one to see corruption~?
I’m curious as to whether there is a midrash on these verses perhaps being where the Rabbis got it from:
Hos 6:1 “Come, let us return to the LORD;
for he has torn us, but he will heal us;
he has struck us down, but he will bind us up.
2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
It’s also interesting that a verse in the Revelation goes like this:
Rev 11:11 And after three days and an half the Spirit of life from God entered into them, and they stood upon their feet; and great fear fell upon them which saw them.
They were dead for an extra half a day which puts their resurrection as occurring on the fourth day.
Thank you sir
You are welcome Keziah. Glad you are part of our study group! Blessings, Dr. Eli
Thank you, Dr. Eli, it just seems obvious to me, solves, maybe, all the niggles re periscopes, form-crit, source-crit or maybe make us lift our gaze and widen our view from such narrow focus. I’m thinking of the Church as, sorrowing, it has to separate, pro tem, from the Synagogue and let the Holy Ghost unfold its heritage, its habits and way of life.
well put. Dr. Eli
This was so fascinating! Thank you so much for such spiritual and intellectual insight. One question I have is that I do not have understanding of a term that you use and ask that you explain it. I’ve tried to look it up in the dictionary and the website but to no avail even though I know that I have seen this term before. Could you please explain the meaning of “hoi loudaioi”? Thank you so very much.
Sure :-). Here it is http://iibsblogs.wpengine.com/2012/11/who-are-the-jews-in-the-gospel-of-john/ It was my fault! Dr. Eli
I’ve had the same question. I held back asking because I thought that either Dr Eli would eventually link to it, or that someone would eventually ask.
”It is interesting and somewhat surprising that John makes this comment so early. The reason is because the incident of Mary anointing Jesus, is not recorded until next chapter. This means either John wrote his Gospel after the other Gospels, expecting people to be familiar with the story, or more likely that the story had already circulated orally and John assumed that the hearers were familiar with it.”
More and more I am coming to think that the Gospels as we have them in written form are the record of liturgical lections readings which would be proclaimed and form the core of the preaching.
This would follow the model of Synagogue reading of the Torah and the Prophets.
I should very much welcome discussion of my doubtlessly poorly expressed idea – which could be developped, honed and elaborated
Peter, hi. Perhaps, you can start us off on this. Do you care to unpack this a bit? What is the thesis here? Why do you think so? Dr. Eli
Beautiful! Thank you Dr. Eli.
Thank you, Richard! I think it is too. I was overcome by this myself when I wrestled with the Holy text. Dr. Eli
Fascinating article. Have you expanded anywhere about both th Essene diaconal centres and the popular belief in potential resurrection within four days? Thanks.
Check Capper’s thesis about Essene poorhouses (I think it was in Jesus and archeology (Charlesworth (ed)). This is from WIKI:
The root meaning and origin of the name Bethany has been the subject of much scholarship and debate. William Hepworth Dixon devotes a multi-page footnote to it in his The Holy Land (1866), largely devoted to debunking the meaning “house of dates,” which is attributed to Joseph Barber Lightfoot by way of a series of careless interpretative mistakes. Dixon quotes at length a refutation of Lightfoot’s thesis in the form of a letter by Emanuel Deutsch of the British Museum, who notes that neither the name Bethany, nor any of the roots suggested by Lightfoot, appear anywhere in the Talmud. Deutsch suggests a non-Hebrew root, a word transcribed in Syriac script whose meaning he gives as “House of Misery” or “Poor-house.”
This theory as to Bethany’s etymology, which was eventually also adopted by Gustav Dalman in 1905, is not without challengers. For example, E. Nestle’s Philologica Sacra (1896) suggests that Bethany is derived from the personal name Anaiah, while others have suggested it is a shortened version of Ananiah, a village of Bethel mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah (11:32). Since Greek can neither reproduce an ‘h’ sound nor the Hebrew harsh ‘ch’ sound (cheth) in the middle of a word, a derivation from the personal name Chananya (“Yah has been gracious”) is also possible. Another suggestion, arising from the presence of nearby Bethphage (“house of unripe figs”), is that its name comes from beit hini, meaning “house of figs”.
Deutsch’s thesis, however, seems to also be attested to by Jerome. In his version of Eusebius’ Onomasticon, the meaning of Bethany is defined as domus adflictionis or “house of affliction.” Brian J. Capper writes that this is a Latin derivation from the Hebrew beth ‘ani or more likely the Aramaic beth ‘anya, both of which mean “house of the poor” or “house of affliction/poverty,” also semantically speaking “poor-house.” Capper concludes, from historical sources as well as this linguistic evidence, that Bethany may have been the site of an almshouse.
According to Capper and Deutsch before him, there are also linguistic difficulties that arise when the Anaiah/Ananiah, “house of figs” or “house of dates” theses are compared against the bethania form used in Greek versions of the New Testament. Additionally, the Aramaic beit ‘anya is the form used for Bethany in Christian Palestinian and Syriac versions of the New Testament. Given this, and Jerome’s familiarity with Semitic philology and the immediate region, Capper concludes that the “house of affliction” / “poor-house” meaning as documented by Jerome and in the Syriac New Testament usage is correct, and that this meaning relates to the use of the village as a centre for caring for the sick and aiding the destitute and pilgrims to Jerusalem.
It may be possible to combine the Ananiah (as a personal name) and “house of the poor” derivations, since the shortening of Ananiah (“Yah has intervened”) to Anya is conceivable though unattested (cf. the common shortening of Yochanan [and perhaps also Chananyah?] to Choni), whence a typical semitic wordplay might arise between Anya as a shortening of the personal name within the name of the village and as Aramaic for “poor”. Such a wordplay may have served the choice of the village as the location for an almshouse.
Bethany and care of the poor and sick
Capper and others have concluded that ancient Bethany was the site of an almshouse for the poor and a place of care for the sick. There is a hint of association between Bethany and care for the unwell in the Gospels: Mark tells of Simon the Leper’s house there (Mark 14:3-10); Jesus receives urgent word of Lazarus’ illness from Bethany (John 11:1-12:11).
According to the Temple Scroll from Qumran, three places for the care of the sick, including one for lepers, are to be located to the east of Jerusalem. The passage also defines a (minimum) radius of three thousand cubits (circa 1,800 yards) around the city within which nothing unclean shall be seen (XLVI:13-18). Since Bethany was, according to John, fifteen stadia (about 1.72 miles) from the holy city, care for the sick there corresponded with the requirements of the Temple Scroll (the stadion being ideally 600 feet (180 m) or 400 cubits). Whereas Bethphage is probably to be identified with At-Tur, located on the peak of the Mount of Olives with a magnificent view of Jerusalem, Bethany lay below to the southeast, out of view of the Temple Mount, which may have made its location suitable as a place for care of the sick, “out of view” of the Temple.
From this it is possible to deduce that the mention of Simon the Leper at Bethany in Mark’s Gospel suggests that the Essenes, or pious patrons from Jerusalem who held to a closely similar view of ideal arrangements, settled lepers at Bethany. Such influence on the planning of Jerusalem and its environs (and even its Temple) may have been possible especially during the reign of Herod the Great (36-4 B.C.), whose favour towards the Essenes was noted by Josephus (Antiquities 15.10.5 [373-8]).
Reta Halteman Finger approves Capper’s judgment that only in the context of an almshouse at Bethany, where the poor were received and assisted, could Jesus remark that “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7; Matthew 26:11) without sounding callous. Ling follows Capper’s thesis concerning the connection between then place-name Bethany and the location there of an almshouse. Capper and Ling note that it is only in Bethany we find mention of the poor on the lips of the disciples, who object that the expensive perfumed oil poured over Jesus there might have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor (Mark 14:5; Matthew 26:8-9; John 12:4-6 [where the objection is made by Judas]); this objection may have been made in embarrassment and may also suggest a special connection between Bethany and care for the poor
It has also been suggested, based on the names found carved on thousands of ossuaries at the site, that Bethany in the time of Jesus was settled by people from Galilee who had come to live by Jerusalem. This would explain why Jesus and the disciples, as Galileans, would find it convenient to stay here when visiting Jerusalem. As Capper writes,
Galilean pilgrims avoided potential conflict with Samaritans by travelling south on the eastern side of the Jordan. Bethany was the last station on their route to Jerusalem after crossing the river and taking the road through Jericho up into the highlands. A respectful distance from the city and Temple, and on the pilgrim route, Bethany was a most suitable location for a charitable institution. It is not surprising that an Essene hospice had been established at Bethany to intercept and care for pilgrims at the end of the long and potentially arduous journey from Galilee. The house combined this work with care for the sick and destitute of the Jerusalem area. Thus Bethany received its name because it was the Essene poorhouse par excellence, the poorhouse which alleviated poverty closest to the holy city.
Thank you, Victoria. Let us keep on thinking together. Blessings, Dr. Eli
Dear Dr Eli,
On another topic, are Christians commanded to keep the 7 feasts of the Old Testament? Will you kindly provide me with reading material that explains the prophetic significance of each of these feasts and their fulfillment in the New Testament, if at all?
I don’t know of a really good reading material on this. There are a lot of things out there from which many good things can be gleaned from. Commanded? Yes, but let me clarify… yes, but only through the lance Christ’s coming, teaching, person and work.
@ND Motsoane: First Fruits of Zion ffoz.org has such material. They publish 6 huge volumes called Torah Club (http://ffoz.org/torahclub/) The topic you are looking for should be on volume 1 or volume 2. You could ask them for advice.