JOHN 10 – 11: Lost Sheep Meet Lazarus

W. ROBERT CONNOR   2/27/14
I agree with Bill that chapter divides can be misleading but it is interesting how John modulates from episode to episode. The implicit questions in 9 are “Who is this Jesus?” and “How do we know?” Chapter 10 provides one answer to that question — you know the real shepherd because he doesn’t sneak around but goes right in through the door of the sheepfold. Then the metaphor gets upscale. The sheepfold is a swishy townhouse (aule), so it has a doorman (9:3) who, like any good doorman, knows who should be let in. That knowledge is implicit, but the story is explicit about the sheep. They recognize the shepherd’s voice, but not that of others.

Amen, amen (10:1) has done its usual job — introducing something that will not be understood. But we think we understand. If you are a real member of the flock, you will recognize Jesus’ voice. Simple enough. Got it.

Jesus the good shepherd, Roman catacombs, 3rdC

Jesus the good shepherd, Roman catacombs, 3rdC

Wrong! Jesus switches ground on us. Amen, amen a second time warns us we are going to hear something not easy to comprehend. Jesus may be the good shepherd, as we expect, but not until 10:11. He is himself the door (10.7-8). Through him enters and exits the flock. OK, that’s not too hard. But he’s the door twice, and the shepherd twice (10:11 and 10:14) The first time to contrast with thieves and frauds. The second time, to come back to the postponed theme of knowing. But now it’s not about sheep recognizing shepherds, but the father recognizing Jesus and vice versa. And the shepherd dying — not what should be necessary in an aule! One more modulation: Enter other  sheep — you don’t look Jewish to me — and they will be part of a single flock with a single shepherd.

Whew! What a workout. This is a parable on steroids. The reader needs them too.

Who is the audience for John? I thought for a while it was the un-churched, those who were curious about this Holy Man but not willing to take a step that might prove very dangerous.  But sometimes as in the sheepfold parable, it seems to me it’s for sheep inside the flock, who like the feeling of differentiating themselves from the wolves and false shepherds outside. Or is it for backsliders, those who need to be reminded of what got them started in the first place, and, yes, how hard and perplexing it is, but it’s worth it? Which?

bill berg photo crop 1WILLIAM BERG
Bob, as to audience, if we peek ahead at the first of John’s two endings (20:30f), we may catch a glimpse of the purpose and target of the entire composition: Now Jesus performed many other miracles in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this scroll; those described here have been written so that you may believe that it is Jesus who is the Messiah King, the son of God, and so that, having believed, you may have life in his name.

We might detect here a bit of a polemic, but against whom? Against the partisans of Baptizer John, or were there other Messianic candidates? Barely a century after the probable composition of John, Irenaeus (Adv. haeres. 3.11), and after him Tertullian, Epiphanius, and Jerome (see Alford), stated that John had been encouraged to write his gospel to counter the party of a certain Cerinthus, a gnostic Christian from Egypt. Cerinthus preached that Jesus was always a mere human, that “the Christos” had descended upon him at his baptism, and had left him upon his death on the cross.  Cerinthus required of his followers a strict adherence to Mosaic law. If this were true — if John were in significant part a polemic against the Cerinthians — then John’s constant harping on the identity of Jesus with God the Father, as well as his deliberate and consistent denigration of those who observed Mosaic law, would seem perfectly natural. Consider, too, the fact that the notion that John reflects a period of expulsion of Christians from the synagogues is an entirely modern construct, based entirely on a modern reading of John’s gospel itself.  We have no hard ancient evidence that Christians were ever expelled from synagogues.  So maybe John‘s anti-Judaic attitude is about something very different.

According to the consensus of antiquity (or an least the antiquity of the early Christian centuries), John’s audience were Christians who were in danger of being seduced away from orthodoxy by the tenets of the early Gnosis, or who had already been led astray in that direction.

One of the virtues of Ruprecht’s This Tragic Gospel is its illumination (largely through reference to the finds at Nag Hammadi) of the many, many “gospels” that circulated in competition with the four we know until the Nicene Council rigidified everything, reducing the “canonical” to our four. At the very least, I find myself tempted by the suggestion that awareness of that competition may afford new insights into the purpose and audience of the fourth gospel. It may, for example, give us a better understanding of the authenticity/authority theme dominating John 9-10 — and may even lend further poignancy to the “thieves and frauds” passage from Chapter 10 that you’ve spotlighted for us.

Galla Placidia mosaic, 5thC

Galla Placidia mosaic, 5thC

rick pacific crop 3RICHARD McKIM  2/28/14
Whatever the polemical context of the sheepfold “parable”, it’s remarkably clunky compared to those in Mark — barely more than a perfunctory metaphor, with none of the enigmatic haunting quality of, say, the parable of the sower or the tenants.

Most of all I’m put off by Jesus’ explication of its meaning (10:7-18). In Mark, the explications tended to be just as mysterious as the parables, as Bob pointed out with regard to the sower. That’s real Holy Man Speak in my book, layering mystery on mystery. Mark’s Jesus never (I think) explained his parables as being straightforwardly about himself. Here in John, by contrast, the explication is all me, me, me. I’m the door, I’m the true shepherd, the good sheep follow me, etc etc. The effect is flat and, frankly, dull — the “parable” as just another vehicle for the doctrinaire egotism that makes John’s Jesus such tedious company.

We can try to excuse John by saying he’s not trying to portray a real human being but rather to convey Jesus’ theological significance, so it’s not fair to judge his Jesus as we would if this were the biography of a person. But for me that doesn’t change the fact that making Jesus a self-obsessed mouthpiece for John’s theology is profoundly ill-conceived — not least because his all-knowingness robs him of the very humanity that’s supposed to be the whole point of the incarnation.

I’m feeling pervasively depressed by John’s combination of anti-Judaic screed and flat-footed, repetitive christologizing. I find myself not caring much how we can “understand” these tendencies by reference to historical circumstances — temple expulsion, Cerinthians, etc. What matters to me is the result in front of us now, how it reads today, how John so frequently flattens the ineffability of Jesus’ humanity and mission, insisting on a one-dimensional “meaning” that sucks the power out of the gospel story.

CONNOR   3/1/14
Can you help me with my newest set of bafflements? First off, why is this gospel arranged to a large extent around Jewish festivals? The learned Lightfoot points out that the whole narrative 7:10 – 10:21 all takes place at the Feast of the Tabernacles. Now, all of a sudden, it’s December and we are celebrating the Maccabees’ big victory of 165 BCE, and their renewal of Solomon’s temple.

But it’s not just arrangement of the narrative. A lot of what we were told in 7 ff is repeated here, esp. the charge that Jesus had a daimonion and was mad (John 10. 20, 8. 48 and 7.20). Why the repetition? Jesus’ response is not the same at the two festivals. Now they are asking for plain talk (parrhesia) and he gives it to them with the blasphemous assertion that he and the father are one. Was there an expectation that one way you would know the Messiah was that he would speak with parrhesia?

Another impasse. In 10.35 Jesus replies to the charge of blasphemy, “Is it not written in that law of yours (ὑμῶν sounds sarcastic to me), “I say, you are gods.”  But that is Psalm 82:6 (81:6 in LXX). There’s nothing like that in the Torah, is there?  So has Jesus, or John, forgotten where the passage came from? Or does “law” mean the whole tradition of the OT? Or is Jesus setting a trap (again!) for the Taliban?

David the psalmist, Westminster Psalter, circa 1200

David the psalmist, Westminster Psalter, circa 1200

And how does Jesus (according to John) read scripture? Does he pick out a proof text like any good fundamentalist, or does he think of the whole context? If the former he scores a point by decontextualizing the verse from the setting — “a gathering synagoge of gods” — in which our God tells them to get going: Give justice to the weak and fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. (Psalm 82.3).

I don’t push very hard to extract theology from this text. The psalm may be alluding to earthly kings who style themselves a god (Antiochus Epiphanes, for example) or using a literary device — borrowed from the Greeks? —, the council of the gods. But if so, it has no implication that any ordinary human being is a god, or “one with the father” — the real core of the blasphemy. But if Jesus is a contextualist he has in mind the whole psalm and its message of doing justice. Play out the scenario:

Taliban: It’s not in the Torah, stupid. Jesus responds: Really, where is it?
In the psalm to Asaph. And what does it say? Recite it to me.
“Give justice to the weak and fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.” Go thou and do likewise and only then worry about who’s a god and who isn’t.

Scandalous? Maybe, but when Christ is on the cross and calls out “My God, my God why hast Thou forsaken me?”, I believe he is again a contextualist — with the whole psalm in mind.

Alford on 10:35 writes, “Nomos [= Torah] here is in its widest acceptation — the whole OT”, citing 12:34 and 15:25 (where I stumbled across the 10:35 analogy) as further examples of this usage in John. Alford adds that “the Psalm (82) is directed against the injustice and tyranny of judges.” John definitely has Jesus recite from the Septuagint text; like you, Bob, I’m chary of interpreting just what situation the Psalm (as given in the LXX) depicts, but in any case Jesus has interpreted Θεοί ἐστε as being addressed to men, not gods, so that’s the interpretation we have to run with. Good call on the main point of the Psalm; if that allusion holds, it would be a rather Matthew-like intensification of the judgment-theme from chapter 8 — a movement from κρίσις (judgment) into δικαιωσύνη (compassion). Hope we see more of that later.


Raising of Lazarus, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 14thC

Raising of Lazarus, Duccio di Buoninsegna, 14thC

CONNOR   3/10/14
Chapter 11 on Lazarus is a messy narrative — hopeless, I think, if its readers were not well informed about the who’s who of Jesus’ family circle. That says to me that this gospel is for people who already know the favorite stories and don’t need to be led by the hand. So John may be trying to provide what they don’t quite have: the explanation of this Holy Man’s power.

The Lazarus episode puts to us more sharply than any other the question of how we should read this gospel. There’s wordplay about whether Lazarus is really dead or just a narcolept. That opens the door to modernist speculation. Let’s check the medical literature for cases of people thought dead who were really in a coma and would spontaneously awaken after some days. That could be it, removing all mystery. Even better, we readers can congratulate ourselves on being smarter and better informed than ignorant and gullible Judaean peasants.

That’s clearly not how John wants us to read the episode. It’s prefigurative at every turn – death, burial, Mary and Martha at the tomb, the stone, even the high priest, but above all resurrection. It happens. Lazarus staggering out of the tomb, all tangled in his funeral finery, prefigures Easter. OK we get it. But so what? Let’s be crass: If we put modernist interpretation on hold for a few minutes, what do we gain by reading prefiguratively? Isn’t everything John wants to tell us in the Easter story itself? If Lazarus dropped out of the text, would we be any the poorer?

Maybe word choice helps. Most if the passage is in pitifully limited Greek 101 vocabulary, but at one point Jesus “snorts,” like a horse, or maybe “roars” like a lion (ἐνεβριμήσατο 11:33). And if you didn’t catch it the first time, there’s that word again in 11:38 when Jesus goes into the tomb, doing what Mary and Martha do early on the first day of the week after Passover. But their entry into the place of Jesus’ death and memory is all sotta voce. Here the volume is on high. We hear the wailing, and Jesus’ snort/roar rising up from within him, and later the “great voice” (43) with which he orders Lazarus to come out of the tomb.  But amid the noise — we’re not prepared for this — the son of God, the anointed one, the mighty Messiah, wept (35).

Who’s who in this prefiguration? At his own resurrection three people went to the tomb; here there are two women. Jesus is the third. He doesn’t do anything except pray and then call to Lazarus. It’s God who does the resurrecting. And we, the readers, who are we? Outsiders, needing to be told, like the Pharisees in 11:46, left with the question what we should make of the story?

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, 6thC

Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, 6thC

BERG   3/11/14
Surely Bob points us in the right direction with ἐνεβριμήσατο and ἐμβριμώμενος. LSJ’s citation from Aeschylus (ἵππους ἐν ἀμπυκτῆρσιν ἐμβριμωμένας) shows that the verb in its original sense appropriately depicts the initial reaction of a horse to its bridle — a sharp, audible intake of breath, a “snort.”  Jesus, in other words, gasps and recoils inwardly (ἐνεβριμήσατο τῷ πνεύματι), then shudders (ἐτάραξεν ἑαυτόν) and finally bursts into tears (ἐδάκρυσεν) when directed to proceed to the tomb. Those sudden outbursts of emotion are not, I suggest, mere sympathetic reactions to the tears of the bereaved. Jesus’ reactions belie the most profound fear and loathing that only one who clearly foresees what lies ahead can experience.

The composer of John has drummed into us that his Jesus, unlike Mark’s Jesus, knows from the beginning exactly who he is, what he’ll do, and what’s going to happen to him because of it. Early in this chapter, Jesus announces that Lazarus’ illness is “not an illness that leads to death” — and here he, perhaps together with his commentator, steps up to the microphone — “It’s for the glory of God, so that through it God’s son may be glorified” (ὑπὲρ τῆς δόξης τοῦ θεοῦ, ἵνα δοξασθῇ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ δι᾽ αὐτῆς 11:4). In other words, this will be no ordinary illness leading to a cure, say, that will win new followers; this will be the illness that leads to Jesus’ own ultimate enthronement, his destiny to be raised like the serpent in the wilderness.

John’s Jesus knows, therefore, that the action he’s about to take — his final miracle, the raising of the dead — will have consequences. It will trip the lever, throw the switch that puts the Great Event in motion. Indeed, the machinery of his death is already grinding, for Jesus and potentially even for Lazarus, before the end of this chapter. Jesus gasps and recoils a second  time when the tomb — a cave, a rock — comes into view, requiring him to perform the action that is both benevolent and suicidal. So Lazarus’ resurrection does not only prefigure for us the resurrection of Jesus. It foreshadows, for Jesus, all the hideous pain and agony that will necessarily precede his own resurrection.

So much for what I think Jesus is experiencing in that moment. Meanwhile, our reporter takes another opportunity to show how little, as usual, the crowd understands: “That’s how much he loved him,” they say of his tears, some even wondering cruelly why Jesus couldn’t have done better by his own friend. Those tears of Jesus, that recoiling and shuddering with all-too-human emotion, may be the tears that Louis Ruprecht so sorely misses in the Garden of Gethsemane. He’ll find them here, I believe.

Bob has shown how readily the resurrection of Lazarus can be superimposed on the resurrection of Jesus.  And in both cases, there’s a neaniskos  wrapped in white inside the tomb. The same neaniskos who whirled out of his wrapping to escape from the Garden in Mark? How crazy would one have to be to suggest that all three are Lazarus, or the double of Jesus?

Bill, I especially like your reference to Jesus’ reaction as something that “only one who clearly foresees what lies ahead can experience,” a Jesus who “unlike Mark’s, knows from the beginning exactly who he is.” I’m not so sure about Mark, but the foreknowledge sure seems there in John.

Juan de Flandes, 16thC

Juan de Flandes, 16thC

McKIM   3/12/14
Boy, am I out of tune with you two on this one. My immediate reaction to the story was that Lazarus is missing from the other gospels because the other evangelists, unlike John, had the good taste to leave it out — as being (1) vulgar and (2) preposterous. Vulgar, because of its grand-guignol morbidity (the corpse would smell after four days, Lazarus emerging like Boris Karloff in The Mummy), and because of its sensationalistic overreach as a “miracle”. If raising a smelly corpse prefigures the Christian resurrection, then I say let us rest in peace.

It’s one thing to heal the sick and feed the hungry — that’s compassion — but quite another to resurrect a dead man in the most pedestrian physical sense, after you’ve deliberately let him die. Yes, Jesus lets him die, merely so that he can make a spectacle of raising him! Hearing that Lazarus is sick, he deliberately stays put for two days (11:6) rather than immediately rushing to his aid — clearly, to make sure that Lazarus is dead before he gets there. Oh, he loves Lazarus so much!

When I got to the bit about Jesus weeping and moaning and groaning (or whatever that Aeschylean word means), I considered two interpretations:

(1) Charitable to John: in keeping with Lattimore’s defensible translation (“he raged at his own spirit and harrowed himself”), Jesus is angry with himself for letting Lazarus die when he sees the suffering he has caused for Lazarus’ near and dear. After all, the text explicitly states that Jesus did that Aeschylean thing when he saw everybody else weeping & wailing (11:33) — not when he first learned that Lazarus was dead. On this reading, Jesus regrets causing so much anguish for the living. The downside is that Jesus seem rather … out of touch, in failing to consider this rather obvious consequence beforehand. (Though it’s perfectly in keeping with John’s portrait of Jesus that he should have no idea what it’s like to be human!)

(2) Uncharitable to John: I hypothesized that this story might have had an original synoptic-style form, where Jesus is genuinely sorrowful over Lazarus’ death. In that case, John’s insistence on a superhuman Jesus has made mincemeat out of it. First, Jesus lets Lazarus die so as to “glorify God” by resurrecting him. He waits two days, in his usual know-it-all style, until the victim is sure to be dead. Then John keeps the bit in the original story where Jesus feels genuine sorrow — only now it makes no sense because Jesus not only knew he would die but made sure he would die! John spoils things by grafting his know-it-all onto a story that might have been moving when, in its original form, Jesus didn’t know it all.

It never occurred to me until I read your exchange that (3) Jesus might be upset because Lazarus’ death puts him in mind of his own coming crucifixion. I have to admit that your interpretation is very consistent with John’s portrait of Jesus — concerned about nothing but himself. Still, I find it implausible, even for John. Bill, your comparison to the tears at Gethsemane just doesn’t compute for me. You don’t believe that Jesus’ tears are “mere sympathetic reactions to the tears of the bereaved”, but that’s what the text says they are, and I don’t see any textual support for imagining that he’s crying about himself. He’s going to resurrect the guy, for heaven’s sake! And presumably Lazarus’ pre-death suffering can’t hold a candle to the torments Jesus will suffer. So why on earth would he be put in mind of those, rather than of the glory of his own resurrection? If this is “prefiguration” of his suffering, it’s awfully clumsy. Jesus should be delighted by what it prefigures — after all, he deliberately made sure that L’s death and resurrection would all go according to plan, just as (he knows) his own will.

We all can empathize with Jesus’ agony over his fate at Gethsemane when it’s staring him immediately in the face, and when it’s appealingly all-too-human for him to pray to be let off the hook. But I find it hard to empathize — don’t you?? — with a guy whose only emotional reaction to the death of a friend is to start weeping about his own. I doubt even John would present Jesus that way, and I suspect that the reason his Jesus stays dry-eyed on the eve of Good Friday is that he’s not all that upset even then, knowing as he does that it will all end well for him.

Decani Monastery, Serbia, 14thC

Decani Monastery, Serbia, 14thC

“What is ‘vulgarity’?” says the jesting reader, and stays waiting for an answer. Seriously, I’m not bothered by this (or many other forms of) “vulgarity”. Dead bodies stink; maybe resurrected ones do, too. These people lived with unsanitized death and its assault on the senses. Would THEY think this vulgar?

BERG   3/14/14
I’m reading the text too, Rick — the entire chapter, not just the weeping scene. I’ve heard Jesus announce from the beginning that the Lazarus episode will be all about himself, not about Lazarus — ἵνα δοξασθῇ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ (11:4). He knows from the beginning exactly what he’ll do, what he’s getting into, what will happen. Sure, his tears well up when he sees the people weeping, but they aren’t tears of sympathy or remorse — though that’s how the ignorant bystanders interpret them. His spirit kicks against the traces that pull him on to his final, fully envisioned destiny. (Lattimore’s translation “defensible”? Tell me how.) How could he possibly weep for the bereaved? He knows with absolute certainty that their pain will be relieved in a few moments, and that his own pain will begin at the same time. His own resurrection? Fine, but his poor body is human, and look at the cost, the agony and humiliation coming suddenly into sharp focus with the view of the sepulcher.  His sacrifice for the father’s glory has just been set in motion, and everything human in him reacts.

CONNOR   3/15/14
It seems to me we have two ways of reading  this passage — straight historic narrative, more or less as Rick reads it, and prefiguratively — that is, Lazarus’ resurrection prefigures Jesus’. In the first way of reading Jesus reacts in a very human way. He weeps, and that’s that. We may or may not sympathize, but there it is. But there seem to me too many similarities to his own resurrection to leave it at that. In a prefigurative reading, however, we have the question, What do these tears prefigure? Jesus’ own tears at Gethsemane, or the unstated tears of disciples and other Christians contemplating his death?

Bob, I go back to the key questions you asked about the Lazarus episode: “What do we gain by reading prefiguratively? Isn’t everything John wants to tell us in the Easter story itself? If Lazarus dropped out of the text, would we be any the poorer?” I would answer nothing, yes, and no respectively. We can spot as many prefigurative elements in the Lazarus story as we like, but I still haven’t seen an answer to the question “So, what?” Is prefiguration some kind of virtue in itself? Is it profound by definition?

Roman catacombs fresco, 3rdC

Roman catacombs fresco, 3rdC

CONNOR   3/21/14
Prefiguration is one way of linking the past to the present, or the future. When a prefigurative mind-set (then, but maybe now, too) sees something intense or puzzling, its holder may think, Has this ever happened before? Will something like it happen in the future? No event is unique. They are all variations on a theme. Not a mind-set I particularly like or want to adopt, but it’s the way many people of this time seem to have read the OT — events that foreshadowed future events.

Sacred texts were not statements about what happened in the past, but were prophetic. So something might turn out to be “prophecy fulfilled,” so they think, when we do not even see prophecy at all. David prefigures a Messiah. His psalms and Isaiah let us know what to look for. It’s their way of maneuvering in time. That must come out of a kind of spirituality that reminds its holders that things are seldom only what they seem. So how do we see what things like birth and death, bread and wine really, i.e. fully, are? Scripture helps the prefigurative mind guess that something more may be going on behind the veil. Things may be semeia, signifiers of something beyond themselves. So if we chuck out prefigurative thought, we need some other form of time-realizing.

McKIM    3/22/14
Bob, you present an eloquent & evocative account of prefigurative thinking. And unlike you, I’m attracted to it! I believe the present is indeed layered over the past like a palimpsest. The past is there, alive in the present, and I like to think that every once in a while we catch a glimpse or echo of it here and now. Reading the OT as prefiguring the NT is a case in point — both valid and profound, in my view, in that it’s an imaginative way to express or evoke something real, the unity of Judaism and Christianity, the way each is alive in the other.

My skepticism isn’t about prefiguration as such but about this particular instance of it in this particular text. Your three questions capture the issue: What’s the point? What understanding do we gain? What difference would it make if this story didn’t exist?

Great on prefiguration, but suppose you were  John and saw the Lazarus business, whatever it was, and later thought, “Omigosh, that prefigured Jesus’ own resurrection. I get it! ” Wouldn’t you put the story, tears and all, in your gospel?

But, Bob, what exactly is the “it” in “I get it”?? If raising Lazarus is prefigurative, the best face I can put on it is this: It must prefigure Jesus’ power to resurrect us, not his own resurrection. That’s why the notion that he’s weeping about his own coming death makes no sense to me here. His own coming death is not the point. The point is, “I’m going to prove to you that I can do this, so you’ll have faith that I can do it for you too.”

Mt Sinai Monastery, Egypt, 13thC

Mt Sinai Monastery, Egypt, 13thC

BERG   3/23/14
Pardon me, guys, but the question as to whether or not we “need” the Lazarus episode (the “So, what?”) seems absurd. We’re dealing with an author here, a composer who has done an orderly job of collecting old narratives and stringing them together with a lot of rather ugly commentary in between, commentary consisting of the composer’s own pontificating mixed with diatribes attributed to Jesus himself. But he has an overall plot to deal with, and plots need endings. We’ve been made to witness and reflect on Jesus manipulating matter (water to wine, loaves & fishes), healing the sick, restoring agility to the cripple and sight to the blind, all building up to (gasp!) RAISING THE DEAD AND THAT’S JUST GOING TOO FAR. Prefiguration or not, John needs Lazarus as a last straw to orchestrate the final phase of the plot. For this author, without Lazarus there’s no crucifixion.  And I suspect that the Lazarus episode, preserved only in this gospel, was what justified its inclusion in the Nicaean canon. The raising of Lazarus serves to terrorize “the Jews” into reacting violently, conspiring to kill.  Contrast the resulting strength of John’s plot, wherein Jesus’ death is made inevitable, with the weaker plots of the synoptics, wherein the reader has to content himself with vague accusations of blasphemy and insurrection as motivation for the high priests’ and Pharisees’ blood lust.

By the way, on the issue of “vulgarity”: whether the ancients were more or less offended by talk of the smell of death, we have to bear the composer in mind once again. He needs this stink in order to authenticate Lazarus’ death, to differentiate it from a mere coma. Remember, this is no run-of-the-mill miracle;  this is a resurrection, ineffably superior to the performance of any other wonder. This miracle is the “killer” in more ways than one, the definitive point on which the plot’s final phase depends. Lazarus needs to be truly and definitively dead. Anyhow, who are we to be put off by what we perceive as vulgarity?  Nobody blanched when Jesus, earlier in John, having just proclaimed himself “the light of the world,” turned aside to spit on the ground, made a slurry out of his own mud, and smeared it into the eyes of a sightless stranger. Nobody gagged when Jesus described, in Mark, the relative harmlessness of what passes through the body, down the toilet, and into the sewer. The New Testament is full of as much vulgarity as the Old. Can Lazarus’ stink, which confirms the miracle of miracles, have been so hard for the Synoptics to stomach, had they known about it?

McKIM   3/25/14
Bill, I take your point about the plot function of the Lazarus episode. I try to follow through on our original mission statement — to comment as we go along, as if reading these things for the first time — a method whose shortcomings you’ve clearly exposed! I didn’t realize till I read on a bit that the Lazarus episode is cheek-by-jowl with the start of the Passion narrative. Now I think you’re right that John uses Lazarus to give the Iudaioi a specific motive for setting the crucifixion machinery in motion, whereas motive in Mark’s account remains comparatively vague.

Lippo Memmi, Duomo di San Gimignano, 14thC

Lippo Memmi, Duomo di San Gimignano, 14thC

However, I’m not sure this is an improvement, and I still don’t buy your interpretation of the tears. Your version of the story, Bill, is much more powerful than the one John wrote. When Jesus gnashes his teeth in angst (ἐνεβριμήσατο τῷ πνεύματι καὶ ἐτάραξεν ἑαυτόν), John doesn’t say that only the “ignorant” mob thought this to be a reaction to everyone else’s grief. He asserts that it was on his own authority as narrator (11:33). Lattimore’s “raged at his own spirit and harrowed himself” seems to me quite compelling — interpretive yes, but not importing nearly so much into the text as you do.

As for “vulgarity”, both of you gang up on me for this word, and I’d rather surrender than defend it (though I could!). But I stand by my point that, if Jesus’ tears aren’t shed for the grief he has caused, then they’re either (a) off-putting if they’re about Jesus’ own coming death, a self-centered reaction to the death of a friend, or (b) nonsensical if they’re genuine grief over Lazarus, because John’s know-it-all Jesus has orchestrated the whole thing, including letting Lazarus die without lifting a finger, so as to give himself a showcase for his superhuman powers.

At best it’s a tale clumsily told (characteristically of John, as I’ve argued before). If it prefigures anything, then surely it prefigures Jesus’ eventual resurrection of the rest of us, not his own resurrection. As such, for all the various reasons I gave, I still think it’s — what’s the word? — vulgar, and approve of any evangelist who left it out on purpose.

Rick says the tears are either (a) a self-centered reaction to the death of a friend, or (b) genuine grief over Lazarus. But could there be a (c) — sadness welling up from his self-condemnation for not having gone to cure Lazarus earlier? Going there was very risky, as we have been told, but failing to do so brings remorse?

McKIM   3/26/14
Your “c” is close to the interpretation I’m promoting, different from (a) and (b). Jesus is angry with himself, not for letting Lazarus die per se, but for causing so much grief among Lazarus’ near & dear. That’s what John flat-out says Jesus was upset about (in effect, “when he saw them all grieving he felt bad about what he’d done” 11:33), and that’s why I dismissed the other two possibilities so critically. This is in keeping with Lattimore’s translation “he raged at his own spirit and harrowed himself”. Bill doesn’t like that, but it fits with your “c” and with my take on the passage.

This self-castigation reading has the advantage of giving John’s Jesus a human motive for raising Lazarus — empathy for other people’s feelings — to complement his divine show-off motive and to warm up the rather cold-blooded way he lets Lazarus die. It does, however, make Jesus seem rather clueless, in his monophysite Johannine divinity. A real human being would have anticipated the grief of Lazarus’s loved ones and perhaps thought twice about the whole plan on that account. John’s Jesus, apparently, is surprised that he’s made everyone so sad!  R

I’m coming around to your view, but not necessarily to Lattimore’s phrasing.

Giotto 14thC

Giotto 14thC

BERG   3/28/14
To a disinterested, unaligned reader like myself, it still seems absurd to think that Jesus’ mind, throughout the Lazarus episode, could be on anything but his own destiny. That clarion announcement in John 11:4 — This is not a sickness to death; this is a sickness that’s for the glory of God, so that God’s son may be glorified through it — sets the tone for the entire episode. I still say it’s that prospect of his own “glorification,” and not any concern or remorse about others’ feelings, that causes him to recoil, shudder and weep. “Empathy,” “anger with himself,” “self-castigation,” “harrowing himself” — what could be more alien to the nature of John’s Jesus, if we look honestly at the text?

McKIM   3/30/14
No doubt, Bill, he lets Lazarus die “so that God’s son may be glorified”. I’ve emphasized that as Jesus’ motive — self-glorification. But to say that this “sets the tone for the entire episode” is to beg the question — which is why, given that motive, he suddenly feels bad when he sees everyone grieving over the death. You insist that Jesus weeps & gnashes at the prospect of his own soon-to-come suffering, but you haven’t explained why John’s text contradicts you: ἰησοῦς οὖν ὡς εἶδεν αὐτην κλαίουσαν καὶ τοὺς συνελθόντας … κλαίοντες, ἐνεβριμήσατο etc. In short, “When he saw everyone weeping, he felt terrible.” This seems to me a plain statement of cause and effect.

Yes, it’s out of character for John’s Jesus. I raised that issue too, suggesting that John is drawing on a synoptic-style story where it wasn’t out of character, and that his insistence on a know-it-all divine hero creates a clumsy incoherence with the human Jesus of the original version. That kind of clumsiness IS characteristic — of John.

BERG   3/31/14
Rick, you may stand on firmer ground here, but I wouldn’t want you to think that I’m not taking the text as seriously as you are. Sure, the sight of the weeping of Mary and her entourage are what spark Jesus’ reaction, but I’m suggesting that his emotion springs from seeing, in Bob’s “prefigurative” sense, beyond the current situation (which he knows beyond doubt he’s going to resolve). He sees, foreshadowed in the current situation, his own mourners, sees his own tomb, sees what must lead up to it because of this present moment.

GO TO JOHN page    1   2    3    4   5    7   8   9   10    NEXT

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s