Study One: The Beloved Disciple's Name and Story (Continued)

The Name of the Beloved Disciple

The preceding discussion was meant to establish the great unlikelihood that the Beloved Disciple could be John-Z. Yet haps even more significant is the fact that the Fourth Gospel itself contains not the slightest hint that John-Z is its man. If all we had was the Fourth Gospel, "John-Z" (whose name we couldn't even know) would be nothing but a wild guess--with either "Andrew," "Philip," "Thomas," or even "Nathanael" having better chances of being right. However, if we take the approach that the Fourth Gospel has to provide its own answer, then there is only one person who comes close to qualifying as the Beloved Disciple. Either the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus—or else we don't have a ghost of a clue as to who is.

If "Lazarus" is the given answer, the case is subtle--which is just what we'd expect from this Writer, whose presentation is subtle in all respects, theologically and otherwise. All the Gospel's mentioning of Lazarus (at least under the name "Lazarus") occurs from 11:1 through l2:19--and this will turn out also to be the pivotal passage of the Writer's finely constructed Gospel. Let's see just how much this passage can tell us.

Jesus is already in Judea, in the environs of Jerusalem--in fact, "across the Jordan at the place where John been baptizing earlier" (Jn. 10:40)--presumably the very spot where Lazarus (now) originally became Jesus' disciple ... if he is indeed that other follower of John the Baptist who subsequently became Jesus' Beloved Disciple. And recall that, in that earlier scene (Jn. 1:19, 24), the account has Jewish bigwigs hanging around--just as will be the case in this next one.

"Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany" (Jn. 11:1). And when his sisters decide to inform Jesus, the message they send "Lord, he whom you love is ill" (Jn. 11:3). That subtle line, recall, given us by the same subtle Writer who will from this point forward keep us subtly reminded of "the disciple whom Jesus loved." And it is only these two people (or one person), Lazarus and the Beloved Disciple, regarding whom the Writer ever uses this language. The only other recipient of comparable love-talk is Peter at the seashore--though there it is "Peter, do you love me?" not "Lazarus, you are the one I love!"

But if perchance you missed the significance of verse 3, the Writer will run it past you several more times. "Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus" (Jn. 11:5). In verse 11 Jesus says to the Galilean Twelve, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep." (From the pen of the long-after-the-fact Writer, this could be a way of saying, "Hear this, you mainline apostolic eschatologists: Jesus identified this Jerusalemite egghead deviationist as 'our friend.'") "Jesus began to weep" (Jn. 11:35). "So the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!'" (v.36). This last notice is of particular importance.

As we will proceed to discover, Lazarus performs a function in the Fourth Gospel for which the Synoptics simply have no equivalent--namely, he is the point of contact between Jesus and the Jewish dignitaries (official high-class Judaism). The Galilean Twelve of the Synoptic tradition just do not have the wherewithal for bringing the gospel to--or expressing it for--that intellectual community. And here in verse Jn. 11:36, intellectual Judaism confirms the fact that Jesus did indeed love his disciple Lazarus. Yes, the Writer has to do it subtly, but what else could he be saying except that Lazarus is indeed the disciple whom Jesus loved?

Now, based on the fact that, in the Fourth Gospel, Lazarus is the only named disciple of whom it is also said that Jesus loved him, we have set up the hypothesis that Lazarus is indeed the Beloved Disciple. So, assuming that identity, we will proceed to test the hypothesis by seeing how well Lazarus fits the role (the very move Sherlock would make at this point).

Lazaris and the Jewish Intelligentsia

If both Paul himself and his Writer (Luke in the book of Acts) saw him as "Apostle to the Gentiles," there is the same possibility that Lazarus, the Beloved Disciple, and his Writer (Elder John) saw him as "Apostle to the Jewish Intelligentsia." The Fourth Gospel (I propose) presents Nicodemus, Lazarus, and Joseph of Arimathea as being pretty much of a kind. All three are essentially Fourth Gospel figures; only one of them, Joseph, is as much as mentioned in the Synoptics. They represent a type the Synoptics simply do not know--namely, truly devout yet open-minded Jewish leaders of the educated, cultured upper-class.

Jn. 1:19-28 makes it clear that people of this sort were, interested in John the Baptist and were around when he deferred to Jesus as the one who outranked him. And still very early on, John 3 has Nicodemus--just such a Jewish leader--seeking out Jesus. In this context, then (quite different from the Synoptic one), it is not incredible that Lazarus could have been a similar teacher who had become a convinced follower of the Baptist and who later (along with Andrew) had followed the Baptist's cue in switching to Jesus. The fact that the event happened near Jerusalem (and thus Bethany), the fact that Jewish leaders were on hand, the fact that Lazarus later appears as Jesus' old and dear friend--everything fits.

In this regard, notice another point at which Lazarus makes a much better candidate for author of the Fourth Gospel than does John-Z. In the Fourth Gospel (yet only in the Fourth Gospel) there is the story of the Jewish head rabbi Nicodemus (Jesus calls him "the teacher of Israel"): how he initiated an interview by coming to Jesus by night (Jn. 3:1-15); how, during a session of the Sanhedrin, he made at least a bit of an effort to speak up on Jesus' behalf (Jn. 7:50-52); how he made a gesture of support in bringing spices for Jesus' burial (Jn. 19:39-40).

Now, if the teller of the story is himself a close colleague of Nicodemus--namely, a second Jerusalem rabbi named Lazarus--then it could well have been Lazarus--friend of both Jesus and Nicodemus--who set up the interview (and might actually have been present for it). He himself could have heard what Nicodemus said in the Sanhedrin meeting. It might well have been Lazarus who superintended the burial of Jesus, arranged the use of Arimathea's tomb, and received the spices from Nicodemus. On the other hand, if the author were John-Z, the Galilean fisherman disciple, it is hard to imagine how he would ever have come to know the inside story of Nicodemus.

Let us follow, then, this theme of the "Jewish intelligentsia" through the explicit Lazarus scenes. Bethany is just two miles from Jerusalem (Jn. 11:18). Upon the death of Lazarus, "many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them" (Jn. 11:19). These Jewish leaders apparently still considered Lazarus "one of them"--even though he was, at the same time, a close friend and follower of Jesus. "The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her" (Jn. 11:31). With great care and deliberation, the Writer is getting these Jews in place to be eyewitnesses of the raising of Lazarus (which is at the same time a type and analog of Jesus' own coming resurrection). The Writer is intent on showing that Jesus' love for, identification with, and action toward one of their own number is the crisis of faith that will split this Jewish community. Their obligatory choice now will be either to join Jesus or to crucify him--either to accept "the raiser of Lazarus" as himself the Resurrection and the Life or to excommunicate both Lazarus and his raiser. How they now treat their respected colleague Lazarus will be how they treat Jesus (and vice versa). And Lazarus himself is the sign that it is possible to be a follower of Jesus without renouncing the whole of Jewish intellectual culture.

"So the Jews said, 'See how he loved him! '" (Jn. 11:36). The issue is being sharpened: these Jews know that Lazarus is one of them, but at the same time they must admit that he has an especially close relationship to Jesus. Jesus declares what he is about to do and then says, "I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me" (Jn. 11:42). More than just an act of love for Lazarus, the raising is a challenging of Jewish intellectuals to faith (which is what the whole Fourth Gospel also is). "Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done" (vv. 45-46). The raising of Lazarus precludes neutrality; any Jewish intellectual must now become either a "follower" or a "crucifier" (which, again, is probably the very choice the Gospel itself is meant to present). The Gospel's last words with Lazarus on the scene come just days later, at a supper given in Jesus' honor: "When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and believing in Jesus" (Jn. 12:9-11).

Lazarus is close enough to Jesus that he becomes something of a "type" of Jesus himself--and thus a "type" of true discipleship. (In Synoptic-Pauline terms it would be put, "You are my body.") The threat that faces Jesus catches Lazarus. The death and raising of Lazarus is a sign of Jesus' own death and resurrection. To let oneself be loved by Jesus inevitably entails one's being caught up in the rejection that comes to him. Yet, at the same time, "on account of Lazarus" many of his Jewish colleagues came to believe in Jesus. Lazarus of Bethany, Apostle to the Jewish intelligentsia.

The Gospel's next scene is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and "Lazarus" enables the Writer to make a theological point completely impossible for the Synoptic writers. Where did this welcoming crowd of Jerusalem believers and disciples come from? The Synoptics would be hard put to explain it. But the Fourth Gospel? "The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him" (Jn. 12:17-18). The person of Lazarus (in his unique dual membership both with the Jewish intelligentsia and with Jesus) and Jesus' action toward him--these actually served to trigger the polar responses of Passion Week: both the Jewish rejection represented by the crucifiers and, equally, the Jewish welcome represented by the triumphal entry believers.

Allow me to make something of a footnote interruption and show how identifying the author of the Fourth Gospel as Lazarus has the effect of blunting a serious charge against and removing a great embarrassment to the Fourth Gospel. From time immemorial, scholars have noted this Gospel's frequent (and almost incessant) use of the phrase "the Jews"--and that delivered quite often in a most negative, accusatory, and even condemnatory way. Those who have wanted to accuse the New Testament of anti-Semitism have focused upon the Fourth Gospel, and those who have tried to defend the New Testament against the charge have almost had to make an exception of the Fourth Gospel.

Yet we now have proposed the Gospel's author to be a renowned and respected Jewish rabbi-theologian-intellectual named Lazarus. It can hardly be that such an individual would have been anti-Semitic or that he would have intended his term "the Jews" as a broadside against the whole of the Jewish people. No, if the speaker is Lazarus, it follows that he is using "the Jews" in a very specialized, circumscribed sense. He would have known just who he had in mind--and, had the occasion called for him to do so, he could have "fingered" them, singling out each by name. His use of the term would be anything but a "broadside."

"The Jews" he condemns would be colleagues from his own intellectual and official circles--and by no means all of them. The story of the raising itself (Jn. 11:45-46) tells us that "many" of the witnessing Jews believed but that "some" ran to the authorities. A few days later, at the supper honoring Jesus, the account states that a "great crowd of the Jews" were on hand because of their interest not only in Jesus but also in Lazarus. Conversely, it is only "the chief priests" who are said to respond by plotting to kill Lazarus as well as Jesus. And finally, at the triumphal entry the next day, it is again the "great crowd" of Jews that greets Jesus in friendship by implication, only a small clique of "the Jews" being out to get him. Clearly, Lazarus has well protected himself against the charge of anti-Semitic condemnation of the entire Jewish people.

The only "Jews" who give Lazarus trouble are those of his colleagues who have always been on his back. Undoubtedly they razzed him as they had razzed Nicodemus about being a follower of Jesus: "Surely you have not been deceived too, have you? Has any one of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him?" (Jn. 7:47-48). "Surely, you are not also from Galilee, are you?" (Jn. 7:52). They had probably given him a hard time about his originally joining John the Baptist, only to jump horses to Jesus (which is why he spends so much of his first chapter denying that interpretation of the matter). And the crowning insult, of course, was their being actual eyewitnesses to Jesus' ultimate revelation in raising Lazarus himself from the dead, yet their closing their eyes even to that, using it rather as an excuse to wreak their vengeance on colleague Lazarus as well as the outsider Jesus. I submit that Lazarus knew precisely who he meant by "the Jews"--and that he had excellent cause for saying what he did about them.

Of course, such accusation carries no implications regarding the Jewish people as a whole, but, given the historical evidence, I find it incredible for anyone to try to deny that there actually was a faction of Jewish authorities who were determined to get Jesus. Lazarus, the Beloved Disciple, was there--and knew what (and who) he was talking about. The effort to shift all of the blame to the Romans and deny any Jewish complicity--that just doesn't square with the facts. Neither in the Fourth Gospel nor in the Synoptics do I find any of this business of trying to finger one and only one party as GUILTY. No, the guilt is very well distributed: there was a contingent of Jewish authorities who wanted Jesus dead, there was a contingent of Roman officials who were happy to cooperate, and there was a contingent of Jesus' own followers who betrayed, denied, and deserted him. Jews, Gentiles, or Christians--there was no particular party of villains and no particular party of saints, either. And that's how I read Lazarus: ready to call a spade a spade when it was one, but doing so quite impartially (whether it be a Jewish dignitary, a Roman governor, or the disciple Judas--or Peter). Yet there are certainly no grounds for branding the Beloved Disciple "anti-Semitic."

Lazarus and Fourth Gospel Theology

Apart from this thematic of "Jewish faith crisis," the Lazarus scenes have some other things to tell us:

  1. Notice the entirely crucial placement of the Lazarus story within the overall movement of the Gospel. Both as a "type" of Jesus' own death and resurrection and as a trigger of the polar responses of Jewish acceptance/rejection of Jesus, the story serves as a bridge between Jesus' public ministry and his culminating work of Passion Week. Lazarus stands as the disciple-pivot around whom the Gospel is organized; not even Peter has that sort of honor in this particular Gospel.
  2. One little exchange in the midst of the Lazarus story well typifies the nature of the relationship between the Synoptic theology of historical eschatology and the Fourth Gospel theology of divine communication: "Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' Martha said to him, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.' Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life; Those who believes in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die'" (11:23-26).

When Martha refers to Lazarus's rising at the last day--as part of the general, cosmic resurrection of the world at the end of history (a new heaven and a new earth)--this clearly puts her in the thought world of historical eschatology. The response of the Fourth Gospel Jesus (speaking in a way the Synoptic Jesus never does) just as clearly puts him in the thought world of divine communication: Jesus is immediately the resurrection and the life for whoever chooses to believe at whatever moment--without regard to world history, the time-scale of its destiny, or the believer's place and role within that development.

Here, as at a number of other points in the Fourth Gospel, the Writer says enough to show that he is aware of and understands the eschatological way of thinking. He understands it, but he isn't ready to buy into it; yet neither does he show any desire to deny, rebut, or combat it. Rather, as here, he simply passes it over in favor of his own way of doing theology.

The issue is not the simple distinction between a future oriented faith and a present-oriented one; the issue, rather, is how the present benefits of Christ are to be understood and interpreted. Mainline biblical eschatology

  1. wants to keep even the benefits of present experience rooted historically, as public effects manifest in the life of the Christian community (or even the larger society) and in the lives of individuals precisely as they participate in historical community; and
  2. wants always to interpret present benefits in light of that future consummation by seeing them as foretastes, premonitions, promises, and guarantees of the ultimate benefits of the yet-to-come kingdom of God. In short, historical eschatology sees "present benefits" always as pointing beyond themselves, while divine communication sees them as ends in themselves.

On the other hand, the answer that the Fourth Gospel Jesus gives to Martha is a beautiful specimen of the theology of divine communication. World history and its course aren't even in the picture. Rather, we have what technically would be called "realized eschatology." At whatever point in time since Christ's death and resurrection, any and all of his benefits already have been communicated and are as immediately available to the believer as they ever have been or ever will be. There is no reason to refer anything to the future, because all the gifts and benefits of eschatological promise have already been "realized" in Christ.

And notice that the recipient of this divine communication is himself inevitably "de-historicized" and "de-communitized" as the subject of private, individualized blessing. "Those who believe in me" (namely, whatever individuals choose to believe at whatever time), "those" (and only those) shall have communicated "to them" eternal life--"even though they die, will live."

My own opinion is that divine communication is great stuff--if it is supplemented with strong doses of historical eschatology (the New Testament's own proportioning, of course, in three parts Synotpics to one part Fourth Gospel). Yet, if it be taken as standing alone, I'm not sure it is adequate as a Christian theology--nor can it be said to be fully biblica1.

And for our present purposes, the point of our exegeting John 11:23-26 is this: If (as surely is the case) the Beloved Disciple is the source not only of the Fourth Gospel memories of Jesus but of the Fourth Gospel theology as well, then (both because of his connections with Jewish intellectualism and for the fact that the theology of divine communication is written right into his story) Lazarus certainly qualifies as a better candidate for the Beloved Disciple than John-Z ever could.

Do "Lazarus and Sister Mary" Equal "Beloved Disciple and Mary Magdalene"?

We are now ready to try Lazarus as the Beloved Disciple outside the specific Lazarus scenes. The accompanying chart graphically lays out the data; the remainder of our study will involve little more than following it through. We can use the chart now as something of an overview and outline. Once our study is complete, the chart may be even more valuable for purposes of summary and review.

Read John vertically to get his picture; then read horizontally to see what sort of support he gets from the Synoptics
THE CALL 1:35-42
Andrew & another disciple of J.B. leave him to follow Jesus.
Simon, Andrew, james, & John called as Galilean fishermen.
Same as Mark.
Story of miraculous catch. Fails to name Andrew among first four.
RAISING 10:40-11:55
Lazarus raised about a week before Passover at Bethany.
Mary-L active in the story.     10:38-42
Much earlier than in John, Jesus visits Mary & Martha.
Lazarus named as present six days before Passover at bethany.
Mary-L anoints Jesus. 14:3-9
"A woman" anoints Jesus at Bethany, in the house of Simon, before Passover.
Same as Mark.
Early in Jesus' career at Simon's house, no town named. Story greatly changed. Woman is "a sinner." Mary M., her 7 demons, named immediately following.
Lazarus named as involved.
No Lazarus.
No Lazarus.
No Lazarus.
DISCOURSE 12:20-50  
Bel. Disc. closer to Jesus than Peter is.
Names no disciples.
Names only Judas.
Names no disciples.
JESUS'S TRIAL 18:15-18
Another disciple gets Peter in.
Peter is by himself.
Peter is by himself.
Peter is by himself.
AT THE CROSS 19:25-27
Bel. Disc. called "son of Jesus' mother."
Mary Magdalene present. 15:40-41
Mary M. and other women "looking on from afar."
Mary M. but different "others."
Unnamed acquaintances & women"
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus involved.
No women. 15:42-47
Joseph A., Mary M., and one other woman.
Same as Mark.
Joseph A. and unnamed women
"The other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved" & Peter get the word.
Mary Magdalene (solo) brings that word. 16:1-8
Mary M. and other women instructed to go tell his disciples and Peter.
Mary M. with different list of Women.
Mary M. with still different list of women.
Bel. Disc. outruns Peter to the tomb.
Mary M. comes behind. 16:9-10 (long ending)
Mary M., from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, was first to whom he appeared and the one who did tell disciples.
After Bel. Disc. & Peter have gone home.
mary M. has intimate scene with Jesus.
Bel. Disc. tells Peter that the stranger is Jesus.
Jesus tells Peter not to concern himself with fate of Bel. Disc.
Lazarus=Another Disciple = Beloved Disciple. Mary-L (sister of Marth and Lazarus) = Mary Magdalene.

The Fourth Gospel gives us two (and only two) unique great disciple figures: Lazarus and the Beloved Disciple (with whom, out of the Synoptic tradition, only Peter would begin to compare). The Fourth Gospel duo do not ovelap--thank heavens! If they did--if they were to appear side by side in a single scene--that would completely blow our theory. However, it is amazing how close they come to linking up. Let's get them properly located.

As we have seen, the Writer of the Fourth Gospel must have found it all-important to get his Beloved Disciple's induction into discipleship written into the opening of the book. Yet it is evident that he had no desire to introduce either the Beloved Disciple or Lazarus into the action of that phase. Consequently, it is not surprising that neither of them appears before the midpoint. That first half of the Gospel covers predominantly Jesus' Galilean ministry (the milieu of the Twelve), there is no likelihood that Lazarus (or the Beloved Disciple) was even around. So it is only with chapter 11, precisely the Writer's move into the Jerusalem half of his book, precisely with Jesus entering his Passion, that LAZARUS is introduced to play what we have seen is a most crucial and significant role. Though named only in this single, two-chapter passage, Lazarus is not simply a passing character but a structural element of the Gospel.

He has the featured role, of course, in the account of Jesus' raising him. He then is named as present at the supper where his sister Mary anoints Jesus for burial. In the account of the triumphal entry of the next day, Lazarus is named as making the event possible, though not necessarily as being present. With this, in the middle of chapter 12, all mention of Lazarus ceases The latter half of chapter 12, then, is almost totally discourse with no real action involved. Chapter 13 opens with the Last Supper in the upper room--and here, for the very first time, big as life, lying upon the breast of Jesus, is the BELOVED DISCIPLE. And from this point on he appears in almost every major scene to the end of the book. There is no overlap or (perhaps) any explicit link between Lazarus and the Beloved Disciple, yet these two figures together effectively cover, give continuity to, and tie together the entire Jerusalem/Passion Week half of the Gospel.

And there would be a very nice and very convincing link if it could be shown that the Writer considers Lazarus's sister Mary (hereafter Mary-L) and Mary Magdalene to be the same woman. But that's a tough one to settle either way. However, if they that meant to be the same woman, then the Fourth Gospel has Mary (with her sister Martha) at the raising of brother Lazarus. Next, still in the company of her brother and sister, she anoints Jesus for his burial. Next (now called Mary Magdalene) she is at the cross, still with her brother (if he be the Beloved Disciple). And finally, she is the discoverer of the empty tomb who runs to tell her brother (if he be the Beloved Disciple) and Peter. If Mary-L and Mary Magdalene are one person, then her story does move directly from Lazarus to the Beloved Disciple and proves that they are one person, too.

The problem: Mary-L is found only in the Fourth Gospel and in Luke. Lk. 10:38-42 names Mary and her Sister Martha, though without naming their "village." This much is certainly a confirmation of Mary-L's historicity, but because Luke shows no knowledge of a brother Lazarus, he can't provide much in the way of hard evidence.

All four Gospels have the account of a woman anointing Jesus with precious ointment and agree on enough detail and language to suggest that they are all telling the same story. However, in this case it is Luke (rather than the Fourth Gospel) that is the maverick, making the whole matter problematic again. With the exception of Luke, all the Gospels locate the incident at Bethany on the eve of, or during, Passion Week, and make the anointing propheptic of the burial of Jesus. Only the Fourth Gospel names the woman--and that as Mary-L. But if that evangelist was himself present in the person of Lazarus and is talking about his own sister, he, of course, is the one in the best position to say who she was. The concurrence of Mark and Matthew regarding other details of the account put them in support of her identification as Mary-L.

Luke does know of Mary-L (and her sister Martha) but tells the anointing story in a way that puts it entirely at odds with the three other accounts. He places the story much earlier in Jesus' career (Lk. 7:36-50), drops the Bethany location and the reference to Jesus' burial, and changes the story to give it an entirely different point. Our first impulse might be to say that it isn't even the same story--though we will find enough clues to indicate that Luke knew it was.

  1. Luke's phrase "an alabaster jar of ointment" (Lk. 7:37) is identical, word for word, with what he would have found in Mark 14:3.
  2. Mark says the anointing took place in the Bethany house of "Simon the leper," and Luke has Jesus addressing his host as "Simon" (a remarkable coincidence indeed, if two different anointings both involved "an alabaster jar of ointment" and happened in the houses of two different men named "Simon").
  3. Although Luke's account coincides in these ways with the Synoptic Mark-Matthew account, it also coincides in one amazing way with the Fourth Gospel version of the story. Mark and Matthew agree that the woman anointed Jesus' head. Yet Luke deliberately disregards his Markan source on that point in order to agree instead with the Beloved Disciple that she anointed his feet and then dried them with her hair. Luke apparently knows both versions of the story and combines them.
  4. I find evidence that Luke himself did not think there had been two different anointings. When it moves into its account of Passion Week, the Gospel of Mark speaks of the plotting against Jesus in Mk. 14:1-2, and here Luke follows Mark very closely, as Lk. 22:1-2 shows. Mark 14:3 launches into the anointing story (vv. 3-9), and when it is completed, with verse 10, he begins his account of Judas's betrayal. And lo and behold, Lk. 22:3-4 are almost identical to Mk. 14:10. What Luke has done is to follow Mark right up through the verse immediately preceding mention of the anointing, skip the anointing, and then pick up again with Mark's first verse after his recounting of the anointing. Now why would Luke do that--unless be knew he had already used that anointing story and so ought not to duplicate it here? If he considered them to be two entirely different events, he would have no good reason for skipping Mark's account of the second one. I think it is clear that Luke's anointing story is the same story found in the other three Gospels--a story that Luke moved and adapted for his own purposes of theological teaching (understanding those purposes as taking priority over the preservation of precise historical detail).

Yet, although it is different, Luke's anointing story may preserve some valuable information. He does not name the woman (any more than the other Synoptics do), but he does make the unique specification that she was "a woman in the city, who was a sinner" (which we ought not to read automatically as meaning "prostitute," there being any number of other possibilities). Then, immediately following the anointing story, in the unique passage of Lk. 8:1-3, Luke names some women who traveled with Jesus--including "Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out" (which, by the way, would well qualify her as "a woman in the city, who was a sinner"--good people certainly not finding themselves cursed with demon possession). Is Luke hinting that Mary Magdalene was the sinful woman who had done the anointing?

That is a distinct possibility, because--in this case too--Luke is busy shifting things around. Here he says nothing about Mary Magdalene that he couldn't have derived from Mark. Where Lk. 8:2 reads "Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out," Mk. 16:9 has "Mary Magdalene, from whom he [Jesus] had cast out seven demons." The difference is that Mark (along with the other Gospel writers except Luke) introduces Mary Magdalene only at the cross. The bit about her demon possession comes even later, in Mark's long ending of 16:9-20. So Luke's information on Mary Magdalene--as well as his anointing story--involved major displacements of his Markan material. Can it be sheer accident that the two "moved pieces" (i.e., the account of the woman anointing Jesus and the information about Mary Magdalene) landed in the same place, one hard up against the other?

The Writer of the Fourth Gospel explicitly names Lazarus's sister Mary-L as the anointing woman. Luke already has shown himself to know at least something of Fourth Gospel tradition and of the existence of Mary-L (which is not the case with the other Synoptists)--and he comes close to agreeing that the anointing woman was named "Mary" (though "Mary Magdalene" in his case). However, if Mary-L and Mary Magdalene are the same person, both Luke and the Fourth Gospel could be right.

The further treatment of Mary Magdalene is remarkably consistent in all four Gospels. In different ways, all four of the Gospels designate women as present, first at the cross and then the garden tomb. But of all the women named, Mary Magdalene is the only one on which there is unanimous agreement. Otherwise, it is pretty much a case of each writer's women being different from everyone else's. Mary Magdalene is the only one of whom we can speak with certainty. And the Fourth Gospel's account is the only one making a claim to be that of an eyewitness. It is the only account that has a man (a male) present--the Beloved Disciple, of course (with 19:35 insisting that he is the eyewitness who has told the truth of the matter).

Mark next has Mary Magdalene among the women at the entombment of Jesus. Matthew again agrees. Luke again has women there but does not name them. The Fourth Gospel entombment scene names only Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and doesn't involve women.

Mark finally has Mary Magdalene among the women at the tomb on Easter morning, and the longer ending of that Gospel gives her some priority as a witness of the Resurrection. Matthew follows Mark in having her there, but does not give her any particular priority. Luke agrees that Magdalene was present, but on this occasion names more women than the other Gospel writers, though without giving particular priority to Mary. The Fourth Gospel also has Mary Magdalene present, yet in a role different enough to call for special consideration.

Here, Mary plays the tomb scene solo: there is no hint that any other women are present. She discovers the empty tomb and runs to tell Peter and the Beloved Disciple. The two race back to the tomb, and she apparently comes along behind. Presumably while the two men are in the tomb (or after they have left the place), she has a most special and intimate conversation with the risen Lord, whom she mistakes for the gardener. This scene is such that it is quite reminiscent of the earlier accounts in the Fourth Gospel and in Luke of the intimacy between Jesus and Mary-L. And finally, it is Mary Magdalene's privilege to carry the news of the Resurrection to the "disciples" (which, in the Fourth Gospel, might designate either the Galilean Twelve or a larger, mixed group).

When we put it all together, obviously there is nothing that adds up to a positive identification of Mary-L as Mary Magdalene. But on the other hand, neither is anything said that would in any way prohibit, or even discourage, the identification. For instance, if Jesus sometime earlier had cast seven demons out of Mary-L, that would serve only to explain and accentuate the intimacy of their friendship.

So, I find four subtle hints that Mary-L and Mary Magdalene are to be considered the same person:

  1. The anointing woman that the Fourth Gospel positively identifies as "Mary-L" Luke may know as "Mary Magdalene."
  2. Mary-L would fit very naturally into every scene the Fourth Gospel gives Mary Magdalene--particularly if, at the cross, it is the case that Lazarus and his sister Mary are offering Jesus' mother a home in Bethany. (This makes more sense than reading the scene as if the Fourth Gospel, of all books, is having John-Z--who likely wasn't even there--take her off to Galilee.)
  3. The scene with Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the garden as much as asks to be read in continuity with the scene of Jesus and Mary-L at Bethany (and the other Jesus/Mary scene in Luke).
  4. Perhaps the strongest clue of all is the situation the chart makes graphic--namely, that the Fourth Gospel has carefully paired a Mary (Mary-L) with its LAZARUS in certain episodes and thereafter paired a Mary (Mary Magdalene) with its BELOVED DISCIPLE in certain episodes. This pattern could hardly be coincidental; it must be an effort to tell us something.

Lazarus in the Beloved Disciple Role

With "Mary" on file, then, as supporting evidence, let's see how "Lazarus" works as an identity for the disciple whom Jesus loved:

  • At the Last Supper (Jn. 13): If it is John-Z who is lying on Jesus' breast and with whom even Peter must confer to get to us, this suggests favoritism that could produce jealousy among the Twelve and could cause trouble among those who have just inadmissibly been fighting for power among themselves. However, if that disciple is the man who, just a matter of days earlier, Jesus had raised from the dead, and if he were no one who ever had or ever would live and travel with the Twelve in any case, then my guess is that everyone present would have been eager to have him in the place of special honor, perhaps even willing to address him as "the disciple whom Jesus loves."
  • In the courtyard of the high priest (Jn. 18:12-27): Considering the high level of Jewish connections that this Gospel attributes to Lazarus, it is not surprising that he knew the high priest and could walk right into the court where Jesus was being tried--and had enough influence to get Peter in, too. However, it is a little hard to believe that the Galilean fisherman John-Z could have pulled this off.
  • At the cross (Jn. 19:23-37): It is plausible to read this scene as showing Lazarus and his sister Mary--in the company of Jerusalem women--offering Jesus' mother a home in Bethany, with Jesus naming this very special individual (rather than any one member out of his Galilean group) as the son of his mother. This makes much better sense--particularly in the Fourth Gospel--than having John-Z in the role, especially when the Synoptics indicate that the Galilean Twelve had all fled.
  • At the empty tomb (Jn. 20:1-18): That Mary should run to tell her brother Lazarus and Peter about Jesus, and that the two of them should race each other to the tomb--such a scenario fits the Fourth Gospel pattern of "Jerusalem discipleship and Galilean discipleship" to a T. If, however, the scene is read such that Mary tells John-Z and Peter about Christ, and they race to the tomb, the scene carries no symbolic significance at all, since those two men represent the same thing.
  • With the risen Christ on the seashore (Jn. 21): Recall that this chapter is the special appendix that seems to have been added to follow the Gospel's original conclusion. That means this scene is already somewhat set apart from the others. And, in terms of historical plausibility, I admit that it isn't easy to fit Lazarus into this scene--into a fishing boat on the Sea of Galilee. John-Z would be much more of a natural for this one. However, if this chapter is read as a theological construction, its latter half becomes the strongest pointer to Lazarus that could be found. And because the Writer's primary interest throughout the Gospel has been theological construction, here we should probably go with a "Lazarus reading" and handle the historical plausibility as best we can.

In the "feed my sheep" dialogue (Jn. 21:15-19), Jesus commissions Peter--and through him, the Galilean Twelve--to the great apostolate that subsequently proceeded from them. Yet when, in verses 20ff., Peter turns to ask, "Lord, what about him [Lazarus]? " Jesus in effect responds, "That's no business of yours, Peter. You have your assignment, and I will do with Lazarus and his 'apostoiate to the Jerusalem intelligentsia' as I choose."

But consider those named in the whole of Gospel tradition; would there be any reason for a "saying" about "not dying" to attach itself to any of them except Lazarus? Only he is both the disciple about whom it is explicitly said that Jesus loved him and the one whose very existence was owed to Jesus' miraculous communication of a special quality of life people might easily assume could have no end. And when the Writer takes such pains to get the saying understood correctly, does this not imply that, by the time of the writing of this Gospel (the writing of at least this last, added chapter), Lazarus actually had died? And would not the Writer then need to assure people that Lazarus's death did not invalidate the fact that he nevertheless was "the disciple whom Jesus loved"? Jesus never said that this living miracle, having already died once, would never have to die again; that was a misunderstanding. So, what sense would verses 23-24 make if that disciple were actually John-Z (Or, for that matter, anyone other than the singular Lazarus)?

I am not claiming here to have proved that Lazarus of Bethany was the Beloved Disciple. But I will say again that, if it is not Lazarus, then we have not been given a ghost of an idea about who it might have been. Lazarus fits better than any other possible candidate.

NOTE: I'm sorry. I realize that this theory only adds to the burden of "liberal" scholars who already have their hands full trying to get around the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Here, now, we have a Writer solemnly averring that he got his account of the raising of Lazarus not via an extended oral church tradition but directly from the mouth of the person who claimed to be not simply an eyewitness but the very subject of the raising itself. "This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true."

Copyright (c) 1987