Did the Apostle John Make Up the Story of Lazarus?

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Many historians, and even some Bible scholars, would say, “Yes.” And, they would offer some pretty compelling evidence to support their claim.

To understand their case, imagine this moment. You and I are at a coffee shop, enjoying conversation, coffee, and caffeine. Suddenly, I kick the can. 

Keel over. Dead. Doornail dead.

But, as you are scrambling to clean up the coffee I spilled, in walks an itinerant Jewish rabbi with long hair, dusty sandals, and a long flowing robe. Before anyone really understands what is happening, He says, “Geoff, come forth!” Immediately, I get up and start checking on a refill for my coffee. I was dead. Now, I’m alive. And, it all happened at your coffee table.

So, here’s the question. When you get home and are sitting with your family around the dinner table, what is the first story you’re going to tell? Sure, you would probably jump into the whole “Geoff Brown was dead and then he was not dead” storyline. How could you not? That question – “How could you not?” – is the question that skeptical scholars would confront Christ-followers with. 

Three Out of Four

Of the four gospels, the first to be written by all accounts was the Gospel of Mark. Mark is also known as the “action gospel” – of the 11,304 words in Mark, few focus on Jesus’ teachings. Rather, this gospel account focuses on the things that Jesus did. The death and resurrection of Lazarus would be the perfect centerpiece for the Gospel of Mark – just like you at your dinner table, it was probably the very first story he told. Except, it wasn’t. He didn’t even mention it.

Matthew wrote his gospel with a keen sense of his Jewish audience. In sixty-eight separate references, he cites old testament prophecy and variations on the word “fulfill” appear over a dozen times. Where each of the gospels record frequent mention of “the Kingdom of God,” Matthew only does four times. Instead, preference is given on thirty-one occasions to the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven”. Why? Because Matthew knew his Jewish audience had intense reverence for the name of God and he therefore used it sparingly. What better story to proclaim the Kingship of Jesus than the story of the resurrection of Lazarus? Except, here again, Matthew doesn’t even mention Lazarus.

But, surely Luke did, right? As we know, Luke was a physician and therefore someone for whom victory over sickness and death would be especially memorable and meaningful.  Further, as Luke kicks off his gospel, he aspires for better recollection than other Gospel writers: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” But, apparently, for Luke, the story of Lazarus wasn’t that memorable and despite his aspiration to write “an orderly account,” no mention of Lazarus is made.

Bonus Story?

Biblical historians tell us that the Gospel of John was likely the last of the four gospels to be written. Likely between four and seven decades after the earthly life of Christ. It is almost a whole lifetime later that the life, death, and then life again of Lazarus is mentioned by the Apostle John for the very first time. Why would only John tell this story? How could the others ignore such compelling evidence that Jesus was who He said He is?

Because John made it up. Maybe because he was late to the gospel-writing party and He felt He needed something that would really jump off the page and snare the reader’s attention?  Maybe this little bonus story would sell more copies of his particular gospel? That’s exactly what secular historians and non-Christian Bible scholars (seriously, that’s a thing) are writing, reporting, and teaching. But, is it true? Did John make the whole thing up?


Of course not. John 12 is the last record we have of Lazarus and it gives us a clue as to why Gospel writers remained silent for years after Lazarus’ resurrection: “When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” We realize here that a live Lazarus was a threat to the system of religious authority and hierarchy of power espoused by the Pharisees. A living dead guy drew a crowd and that was inconvenient. Matthew, Mark, and Luke understood this and their silence protected Lazarus from danger. It’s estimated that Matthew and Luke were written around 85 – 90 AD and John around 90 – 110 AD. It’s possible that by the time John wrote his account, Lazarus was dead or safe from persecution. 

It’s easy to imagine a young Christian in college, listening to a professor dismantle his faith with the “evidence” against the story of Lazarus. Without apologetics, that student would probably have a crisis of faith and forsake everything he believes. That’s why it’s essential for students to have answers, for them to study every response to accusations, to know their bible’s history and cultural context. We hope to equip them through Frameworks apologetics courses and more. 

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