People

Lazarus by John T. Fitzgerald

The name Lazarus is a transliteration of the Greek word Lazaros, which was derived from a shortened form of the Hebrew name Eleazar. Eleazar, which means “God has helped,” was a popular name in ancient Israel (see, for example, Num 20:25-28) and continued to be popular in early Judaism (Sir 50:27, 3Macc 6:1-15, 4Macc 5:1-23).

How many people in the New Testament are named Lazarus, and is there any connection between them?

Two New Testament individuals are called Lazarus. The first is a poor man in one of Jesus’ parables (Luke 16:19-31). The second is a friend of Jesus and the brother of Mary and Martha, who lived in Bethany, a village near Jerusalem (John 11:1-12:17). Each Lazarus is unique to the gospel in which he appears, and the two Lazaruses are not the same person.

The Lukan Lazarus is a character in a parable, whereas the Johannine Lazarus is a real person. Luke’s Lazarus is poor, whereas the fact that John’s Lazarus has a house (John 12:3) and that his sister Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume (John 12:3, John 12:5) implies that he is affluent. Yet there are some interesting connections. Neither man ever speaks, but is rather the subject of conversation within the biblical story. Both men die, and both narratives entertain the idea of returning from the dead. In Luke’s parable, the dead rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers about the torments of Hades (Luke 16:27-28). Abraham refuses, saying that people who disregard Moses and the prophets will not listen “even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31). The resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany, on the other hand, produces a mixed result—while many do believe, others seek to kill both Jesus and Lazarus as a consequence of the resurrection (John 11:45-53, John 12:9-11).

What are interesting aspects of the stories about each Lazarus?

The Lukan Lazarus: The parable involving Lazarus is the only one of Jesus’ New Testament parables in which a proper name is used for a character who does not appear in the Hebrew Bible. This fact, together with Abraham’s role in the parable, encouraged the creation of the name Dives for the rich man. Dives was based on the Vulgate’s rendering of the word “rich” as the Latin word dives.

The parable provides a vivid partial illustration of the eschatological reversal of roles contemplated in the Sermon on the Plain: the poor and the hungry exchange places with the rich and full, with the former receiving the consolation once enjoyed by the latter (Luke 6:20-21, Luke 6:24-25). On earth the poor man Lazarus is desperately hungry, longing for anything that will “fill” his belly, but in the afterlife he receives consolation in Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:21, Luke 16:25). Dives, like the rich fool (Luke 12:19), lives luxuriously and enjoys “good things,” but in Hades he suffers torment and agony (Luke 16:19-25). Excruciatingly thirsty, he begs for a drop of water to cool his tongue. Abraham denies his plea, doubtless because Dives had failed, day after day, to attend to Lazarus. Nor has Dives any excuse, because he actually knows Lazarus’ name (Luke 16:24). Even the dogs, whose saliva was considered in the Greco-Roman world to be therapeutic, had licked Lazarus’ sores, giving him the care that Dives had failed to render (Luke 16:21).

The Johannine Lazarus: The Fourth Gospel emphasizes the idea that Jesus’ disciples were his friends, whom he loved (John 15:12-15). Strikingly, in the Gospel of John, Lazarus is the first disciple whom Jesus is said to love (John 11:3, John 11:5). Some scholars think that the “Beloved Disciple” of John’s Gospel is Lazarus. Jesus shows his affection for Lazarus by shedding tears at his death (John 11:35). Unlike the Jesus of Matthew (Matt 26:37-38) and Mark (Mark 14:33-34), John’s Jesus is not distressed about his own death—it is his good friend Lazarus’ death that makes him cry. Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead leads to his own death (John 11:46-53), as he “lay[s] down [his] life for [his] friends” (John 15:13).

John T. Fitzgerald, "Lazarus", n.p. [cited 14 Dec 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/lazarus

Contributors

John T. Fitzgerald

John T. Fitzgerald
Professor, University of Notre Dame

John T. Fitzgerald is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.

While there are two different men named Lazarus in the New Testament—one in Luke and the other in John—their stories share some interesting parallels.

Did you know…?

    • The Lazarus of Jesus’ parable was regarded as a historical person as early as the time of Tertullian (On the Soul 7).
    • There is a debate about whether the Greek word (heilkōmenos) for the Lukan Lazarus’ ailment indicates “sores” or “wounds,” and that the latter idea is reflected in the Italian artist Leandro Bassano’s depiction of the scene, where Dives’ servant threatens to hit Lazarus with a stick.
    • During the Middle Ages, Lazarus’ “sores” were commonly interpreted as leprosy, and he was canonized as the patron saint of lepers.
    • Some scholars have suggested that the anonymous Beloved Disciple of the Fourth Gospel is none other than Lazarus of Bethany. That is probably not the case, but if it were, we would have the coincidence of the Lukan Lazarus lying in Abraham’s bosom at a banquet in the afterlife (Luke 16:23-24) and the Johannine Lazarus lying in Jesus’ bosom at the Last Supper (John 13:23).

The historical era of Judaism spanning the periods of Persian and Roman rule, from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century CE.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

Num 20:25-28

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Sir 50:27

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3Macc 6:1-15

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4Macc 5:1-23

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A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Luke 16:19-31

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John 11:1-12:17

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John 12:3

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John 12:3

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Luke 16:27-28

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Luke 16:31

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John 11:45-53

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John 12:9-11

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The Latin-language translation of the Christian Bible (mostly from Hebrew and Greek) created primarily by Jerome.

Luke 6:20-21

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Luke 6:24-25

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Luke 16:21

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Luke 16:25

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Luke 12:19

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Luke 16:19-25

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Luke 16:24

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Luke 16:21

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John 15:12-15

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John 11:3

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John 11:5

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John 11:35

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Matt 26:37-38

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Mark 14:33-34

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John 11:46-53

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John 15:13

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The historical period generally spanning from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. in Europe and characterized by decreases in populations and the degeneration of urban life.

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An early church father (160-220 C.E.) from Carthage (now Tunisia) who wrote in defense of practices such as martyrdom and radical forgiveness.

Luke 16:23-24

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John 13:23

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