Lent 5A (6 April 2014)



  • Ezekiel 37:1-14 & Psalm 130
  • Romans 8:6-11
  • John 11:1-45

Life beyond Death: Questions and Assumptions

It is helpful to be clear in our own minds about what kinds of things we consider possible, credible or plausible. For many modern people, the very idea of a dead person being revived to life is implausible — unless the outcome is achieved through sophisticated high technology.

Part of the problem lies in the definition of “death” and there is a whole body of literature dealing with the ethical questions about that point. How dead does one have to be in order to be harvested as a source for organ transplants? Or to have one’s remains released for burial? Our precise technologies have not provided simple certainty in such human questions. They may even have exacerbated the dilemma since we now appreciate the subtle line between conscious life and death.

Another preliminary issue to consider concerns the allowance we make for our own religious texts but deny to other texts. It is not reasonable to exclude all non-Christian stories of resurrection, while affirming all biblical accounts. Other factors are at play in such decisions, and they need to be identified and validated.

We also need to be clear about what precisely are we considering in the case of stories of dead persons restored to life? What is at stake is not the philosophical and religious question of whether human existence continues beyound biological death, but rather whether any individuals have returned to this life after having actually died?

The question before us this week is historical rather than philosophical, although a negative view on the possibility of resurrection will naturally exclude the historical question even being asked.

John P. Meier limits the questions even further. He sets aside both the philosophical questions and the major historical question (Did Jesus raise dead persons back to life?) so that he can focus on a much more circumscribed question:

Whatever the actual explanation, all that a historical investigation like ours can hope to ask (and perhaps decide) is whether a particular story of Jesus’ raising a person from the dead is purely a creation of the early church or whether it goes back to some event — whatever that may have been — in the public ministry. If the story does go back in some way to Jesus’ ministry, then the possibility arises that a belief that Jesus raised the dead already existed among his disciples during his lifetime. That is the extent of what historical-critical research, operating at a distance of 1900 years from the creation of these Gospel stories, can hope to establish. [A Marginal Jew. II, 775]

In the ancient societies of biblical times, the capacity to raise even the dead back to life seems to have been a proverbial attribute of God. There are numerous texts that attribute this amazing power to God. If not the attribute beyond all others, it is at least on a par with such fundamental divine attributes as holiness and life-giver. It is God’s omnipotence which is at stake when the Bible describes God as the one who raises the dead to life.

Such an expression of divine goodness to the faithful dead was expected as a blessing of the messianic age. In 2 Maccabees 12:39-45 the new Jewish ruler, Judas Maccabeus, undertakes public rites of moruning for the dead because of his expectation that God will raise them at the last day:

On the next day, as had now become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in the sepulchres of their ancestors. Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.

An Inventory of Raised Persons?

The Bible actually has a very limited list of persons who are said to have been raised from the dead. Apart from Jesus, they are all presumed to have subsequently experienced another normal human death experience from which they did not return:

  • Elijah raises dead son of a widow at Zarepath (1 Kings 17:17-24)
  • Elisha raises dead son of pious woman from Shunem (2 Kings 4:18-37)
  • Accidental contact with the bones of the virtuous Elisha raise a dead man to life (2 Kings 13:20-21)
  • John the Baptist was falsely rumoured to have come back as Jesus (Mark 6:14)
  • Jesus raises the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:21-24,35-43 = Matt 9:18-19, 23-26 = Luke 8:40-42, 49-56)
  • Jesus raised dead son of a widow from Nain (Luke 7:11-17)
  • Jesus raised Lazarus at Bethany after he had been dead four days (John 11:1-45)
  • The faithful dead at time of Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:53)
  • Peter raises Tabitha from death (Acts 9:36-43)
  • Paul restores Eutychus to life after an accidental death (Acts 20:9-12)
  • Summary statement: Women received their dead by resurrection … (Hebrews 11:35)

The idea of a dead person being restored to life was also a common theme in pagan antiquity, although more educated cirlces tended to treat specific cases with suspicion. In the case of such a feared character as Nero, the belief that he had returned even from Hades to wreak further devastation on the world caused many Neronic pretenders to attract popular followings. The Nero redivivus myth played a significant part in the development of the early Antichrist myth.

The following extract from Richard Carrier, Was Christianity Too Improbable to be False? provides a convenient summary of the hold such ideas had in the Hellenistic world:

James Holding’s next argument is that pagans would not buy a physical resurrection of the flesh. “Indeed,” he says “among the pagans, resurrection was deemed impossible.” Of course, this would be no problem for the mission to the Jews, since a great many Jews (though not all of them) already expected such a thing. But it is false anyway: many pagans regarded resurrection as not only possible, but desirable. And those were probably the very pagans the Christians converted. Even to begin with, the Jews had gotten the idea of a resurrection of the flesh from pagans: it was Zoroastrian in origin, and throughout the Roman period Zoroastrianism was the common national religion in the Persian Empire (in practical terms, everything east of the Roman Empire up to about India). Theopompus and Eudemus of Rhodes, both Greek historians of the 4th century B.C., described this Persian belief. Theopompus wrote in particular that “according to the [Persian] Magi, men will be resurrected and become immortal, and what then exists will endure through their incantations.” So the idea of a physical resurrection would be readily accepted by enough Jews and Persians to present no difficulty for the Christian message.
But even a great many Greco-Roman pagans were ecstatic about the possibility of being raised from the dead. We have so many stories and claims of physical resurrection within the pagan tradition that there can be no doubt the Christian claim would face no more difficulty than these tales did in finding pagan believers. Herodotus records the Thracians believed in the physical resurrection of Zalmoxis, and formed a religion around it that promised heavenly paradise for believers, and later on certain Italians came to believe in the resurrection of Aristeas of Proconnesus. Lucian records that the pagan Antigonus had told him: “I know a man who came to life more than twenty days after his burial, having attended the fellow both before his death and after he came to life.” Celsus, though himself a doubter, attested to a widespread belief in resurrected men among pagans, rattling off a list of those whom pagans believed rose again:

Zalmoxis in Scythia, the slave of Pythagoras; and Pythagoras himself in Italy; and Rhampsinitus in Egypt, whom, they say, played at dice with Demeter in Hades, and returned to the upper world with a golden napkin which he had received from her as a gift; and also Orpheus among the Odrysians, and Protesilaus in Thessaly, and Hercules at Cape Taenarus, and Theseus.

Later on Celsus added to this list the aforementioned Aristeas of Proconnesus–as well as the deified Dioscuri, Asclepius (see below), and Dionysus. And we’ve already discussed the resurrections of Romulus, Osiris, Adonis and Inanna as well (in Chapter 1), and we could add several mortals who were resurrected in Greek myth besides the Dioscuri, such as Eurydice and Alcestis–and in legend, Theseus. So it is plainly false to claim that no pagans would believe in a resurrection of the body, especially for a deified or divine man. Even Hercules, whose “resurrection” is usually portrayed only as an ascent to heaven, nevertheless ascended in his divine body, after its mortal material was burned away on the pyre. In like fashion, Celsus reports that “a great many Greeks and Barbarians claim they have frequently seen, and still see, no mere phantom, but Asclepius himself.” And not only was Asclepius a resurrected and deified mortal, but he was the preeminent “resurrector of the dead,” and that was a prominent reason pagans held him in such esteem, prompting Justin to claim that, since he could not deny the fact, “the Devil” must have introduced “Asclepius as the raiser of the dead” in order to undermine the Christian message in advance.
It goes well beyond this. Lucian and Apuleius both report the common belief that resurrecting the dead (“calling moldy corpses to life,” as Lucian puts it) was one of the expected powers of a sorcerer, and sorcery was very popular among the majority of pagans. Hence Apuleius has his fictional sorcerer Zatchlas raise Telephron from the dead. But among historical claims, Apuleius relates a medical resurrection by Asclepiades. Apollonius of Tyana was believed to have risen a girl from the dead using a spell. In the 4th century B.C. Heraclides of Pontus recorded that through some mysterious art Empedocles “preserved the body of a lifeless woman without pulse or respiration for thirty days” and then “he sent away the dead woman alive.”
Pliny the Elder reports there were numerous such tales believed by many people, even without magic. He says Varro reported on two different occasions seeing “a person carried out on a bier to burial who returned home on foot,” besides witnessing the apparent resurrection of his uncle-in-law Corfidius. Pliny also reports that a sailor serving Julius Caesar had his throat cut “and almost severed” yet returned from the dead that evening, to report on his visit to Hades. Plato records a similar story related by Alcinous about Er the Pamphylian, who “was slain in battle” and ten days later his body was recovered and brought home, then “at the moment of his funeral, on the twelfth day, as he lay upon the pyre, he revived” and “after coming to life he related what he said he’d seen in the world beyond.” In a similar story, the Syrian commander Vouplagus rises from the dead on a body-strewn battlefield (despite having been stabbed ten times), as Roman soldiers were looting the bodies, and tells them about his trip to Hades. The Lady Philinnion returned to life to visit her lover. The villainous Aridaeus fell to his death but returned to life two days later to relate his trip to heaven, and was so transformed by what he learned there that he led a life of impeccable virtue thereafter. Timarchus spent two nights and a day in a sacred crypt, during which time he died, visited heaven, and returned. Ultimately, Pliny the Elder says he also knew of “cases of persons appearing after burial” but chose not to discuss them because his book was about “works of nature, not prodigies.” This nevertheless proves such tales were transmitted and believed by many people. Pliny himself doesn’t say what he believed, only that these stories weren’t the subject of his book. But he still records numerous returns from death, and as we have seen there are many, many more. The shear abundance of these tales reflects a widespread hope of returning to life within the pagan community.

The evidence is overwhelming: that one could return to life in the body that died, or in an even better body, was a commonplace belief among a great many pagans. It was not deemed “impossible,” except by a few skeptical elites (such as the Epicureans). The point here is not what the true events were behind all these stories of resurrected men and women, but that many people clearly believed these were genuine risings from the dead, or that such a thing could and did happen, or was something they could imagine happening. Nor does it matter how much any of these stories resemble that of Jesus, for the relevant underlying concept remains the same: a bodily returning to life. Therefore Holding cannot maintain there was any significant resistance to the Christian claim among those pagans who actually did convert. To the contrary, they would have found a large and ready audience eager to believe just such a thing.

Post-biblical Christian legends have many stories of the saints performing miracles that included raising the dead to life. Some evangelical and pentecostal Christian groups continue to make such claims even in our own time.

Jesus and the raising of the dead

Sayings Gospel Q: Go tell John …

In the Sayings Gospel Q we have a prophetic statement attributed to Jesus that includes the claim that the dead are being raised to life through his ministry:

The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'” Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

This early saying of Jesus comes from a source that otherwise shows very little interest in the miracles of Jesus or other narrative expressions of the tradition. It therefore adds to the multiple attestation across major independent sources (Mark, Luke and John) the additional support of attestation in multiple forms of the tradition.

It may be best to see this saying as a rhetorical flourish that affirms the proverbial blessings of God’s eschatological salvation are now being enjoyed by those in the circle of Jesus. Numerous classic “hard cases” thought to require divine power are cited, including the raising of the dead. Similar claims would be made by the “Pastor for Publicity” at any number of Pentecostal congregations around the world this week. If pressed for living examples of once blind but now clear-sighted persons, of clear-skinned lepers, of formerly deaf persons now enjoying excellent hearing, or of walking corpses, Jesus and his followers may have been hard-pressed to validate their press releases. We seem to be moving on the edges of enthusiasm (“in-God-ness”) where amazing things do happen and even more amazing things are claimed.
Within the Kingdom movement sins were forgiven, disease remitted and death itself made redundant. At least to the eyes of faith. Like the post-Easter presence of the Risen One himself, those looking without the benefit of such faith may not see the same realities as claimed by those on the inside of the experience.

The Daughter of Jairus

According to John P. Meier [A Marginal Jew: II,779] the underlying tradition as received by Mark from his older sources may have been as follows:

Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him … When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.

After a detailed discussion [A Marginal Jew: II,777-88] of various aspects of the story in Mark, Meier concludes as follows:

None of the considerations listed above establishes by itself that the Jairus story goes back to some event in the life of Jesus. Yet the convergenece of all the considerations in one miracle story — its lengthy tradition history, the unusual mentioning of a petitioner’s name and his status as a synagogue ruler, the implications of a Semitic substratum and especially the striking talitha koum, the absence of any christological title or affirmation, and the elements of embarrassment and discontinuity — incline me to the view that the Jairus story does reflect and stem from some event in Jesus’ public ministry. In other words, the story is not an invention of the early church pure and simple, however much it may have been expanded and reinterpreted by Christian faith.
But if some historical event lies behind the Jairus story, what was it? What did Jesus do that triggered this narrative? Here we reach the limits of the knowable, and pure speculation takes over. As I have already indicated, it is possible that the daughter of Jairus was actually the recipient of one of Jesus’ miracles of healing; but, since she was so close to death, the enthusiastic followers of Jesus early on, even during his own lifetime, transformed the event into a story of raising the dead. [A Marginal Jew: II,787]

The Widow’s Son at Nain

The second example of a resurrection being attributed to Jesus occurs in a tradition attested only in Luke:

Soon afterwards he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them; and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen among us!” and “God has looked favorably on his people!” This word about him spread throughout Judea and all the surrounding country. [Luke 7:11-17]

John P. Meier [A Marginal Jew: II,788-98] explores the various literary dimensions of this Lucan story. He notes that it seems to form a pair with the account of Jesus healing the centurion’s “boy” from a distance. The beneificary of that miracle, incidentally, could have been the child of the centurion, his servant, or his male lover. Both the text and the culture are open to all three interpretations, although the third possibility is rarely entertained by the dominant heterosexual tradition of the Church.

Together, the two miracles illustrate Luke’s distinctive and otherwise unattested interpretation of Jesus’ ministry as a visitation of Israel by God. The literary and theological interests of Luke seem to be at work in the creation and placement of this story. Meier is decidedly more sceptical about this story having been received by Luke, rather than created by him. In the end, Meier will argue that Luke extensively reshaped a simple story inherited as part of a “special L tradition,” but it is not clear whether that is anything more than a convenient device since the existence of “special L” materials is highly problematic. His final qualified judgment in favor of a story originating long before Luke himself set about the task of writing the gospel is greatly influenced by the occurence of the otherwise unattested village of Nain in the story:

… I can readily understand why some scholars prefer a judgement of non liquet or even Rochias’ judgment of unhistorical. Nevertheless, given the anchoring of Luke 7:11-17 in the otherwise unheard-of town of Nain plus the general tendency of the traditions of the Four Gospels, I incline (with some hesitation) to the view that the story goes back to some incident involving Jesus at Nain during his public ministry. [A Marginal Jew: II,798]

The Raising of Lazarus

Those two miracle stories of uncertain provenance and an isolated saying that may be little more than a rhetorical flourish provide the only material from the Jesus tradition to assist us as we now consider the much more developed story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead a full four days after his demise.

However, there is also the tantalising possibility that the tradition preserved (even if in a richly elaborated form) in John 11 was known to Mark but excised from the version of Mark which attained canonical status in the Scriptures. The so-called Secret Gospel of Mark appears to be a variant of Mark 10 that included a reference to the raising of Lazarus from Bethany. The text reportedly discovered by Morton Smith reads as follows:

Fragment 1: To be located between Mark 10:34 and 10:35.

And they come into Bethany, and this woman was there whose brother had died. She knelt down in front of Jesus and says to him,”Son of David, have mercy on me.” But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus got angry and went with her into the garden where the tomb was. Just then a loud voice was heard from inside the tomb. Then Jesus went up and rolled the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. He went right in where the young man was, stuck out his hand, grabbed him by the hand, and raised him up. The young man looked at Jesus, loved him, and began to beg him to be with him. Then they left the tomb and went into the young man’s house. (Incidentally, he was rich.) 10 Six days later Jesus gave him an order; and when evening had come, the young man went to him, dressed only in a linen cloth. He spent that night with him, because Jesus taught him the mystery of God’s domain. From there <Jesus> got up and returned to the other side of the Jordan. [Complete Gospels]
[Clement to Theodore, Folio 1, verso, line 23–Folio 2, recto, line 11]

Fragment 2: To be located between 10:46a (“Then they came to Jericho”) and 10;46b (“As he was leaving Jericho…”).

The sister of the young man whom Jesus loved was there, along with his mother and Salome, but Jesus refused to see them. [Complete Gospels]
[Clement to Theodore, Folio 2, recto, lines 14–16]

If those scholars who consider this story to be an earlier variant of the Lazarus story are correct, then the version known to us in John is considerably developed. In SecMark it seems much closer to the kind of story already seen in the case of Jairus’ daughter and the widow’s son at Nain. Indeed, in this form of the tradition, the buried man may not have been dead. After all, he attracts Jesus’ attention by calling out from within the tomb.

It is doubtful that we shall ever solve the historical puzzle of how the Johannine story of Lazarus reached the form known to us, but the function of the story in John’s Gospel is very clear. It sets the scene for both the death of Jesus (the authorities are afraid of him) and for his resurrection.

What may have once been a simple story of Jesus rescuing (again) a person near death has become a complex story of faith, elaborated in classic Johannine style so that it has become one of the great discourses on Christian faith. Without ever mentioning the controversial SecMark text, Meier offers something akin to independent verification of this possibility when he suggests deleting all materials related to Martha from the account, and outlines a hypothetical pre-Gospel version of the story as follows:

Once there was a sick man, Lazarus of Bethany, the town [in which] Mary his sister [also lived]. His sister sent [a message] to Jesus, saying, “Lord, behold he whom you love is sick.” When Jesus heard that he was sick, he then remained in the place where he was for two days. … When Jesus came [to Bethany], he found him already four days in the tomb. Many of the Jews had come to Mary to comfort her over her brother. [Mary was sitting at home.] When she heard [that Jesus had come], she arose quickly and came to him. [Jesus had not yet come into the town.] When the Jews who were with her in the house and were comforting her saw that Mary had qicky arsien and went out, they followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to the place where Jesus was, seeing him she fell at his feet, saying to him: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When he saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, Jesus groaned in spirit. And he said: “Where have you laid him?” They said to him: “Lord, come and see.” Jesus came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay over its entrance. Jesus said: “Take the stone away.” They therefore took the stone away. In a loud voice voice Jesus shouted: “Lazarus, come forth.” The dead man came forth, [with his feet and hands bound with burial cloths, and his face wrapped in a handkerchief]. Jesus said to them: “Untie him and let him go.” Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and had seen what he had done believed in him. [A Marginal Jew: II,818f]

Meier’s final conclusions on this episode may be worth citing at some length:

The upshot of this lengthy disquisition is that the Fourth Gospel’s story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is not a pure creation of John the Evangelist but rather goes back to a miracle story circulating in the Johannine tradition before the Gospel was written. … At the same time, one must be cautious about making historical claims; the tradition passed through many decades and many modifications before it came to the Evangelist.
In the end, I find myself adopting a position similar to the one I hold with regard to the Lucan story of the raising of the son of the widow of Nain. The signs of a lengthy tradition history and the anchoring of the event in a set place (plus in the Johannine tradition, the presence of the proper names of the principal actors, something contrary to the general tendency of the miracle traditions in all Four Gospels) incline me to think that the the Lazarus story ultimately reflects some incident in the life of the historical Jesus. As in all the other stories of raising the dead, the question of what actually happened cannot be resolved by us today. It is possible that a story about Jesus healing a mortally ill Lazarus grew into a story of raising the dead. However, there is no indication in the tradition histories suggested by most present-day scholars that the story of Lazarus ever existed as a story of healing rather than a story of restoring the dead to life. I think it likely that John 11:1-45 goes back ultimately to some event involving Lazarus, a disciple of jesus, and that this event was believed by Jesus’ disciples even during his lifetime to be a miracle of raising the dead. In other words, the basic idea that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead does not seem to have been simply created out of thin air by the early church.
A final observation on arguments about the historicity of the Lazarus story: Once we appreciate how a short and isolated story about Jesus raising Lazarus grew over decades into the huge theological masterpiece of John the Evangeist, we can understand why the silence of the other evangelists provides no solid proof that the raising of Lazarus cannot go back to an event in the life of Jesus. In the early tradition, the raising of Lazarus was not a major cause of Jesus’ arrest and passion; that connection is a creation of the Fourth Evangelist. Nor did the earliest form of the story in the tradition carry such impressive literary and theological weight; it was much more Synoptic-like in appearance. [A Marginal Jew: II,831f]

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