Did Lazarus write the Fourth Gospel?

Readers of Bruce Charlton’s Notions (and I think my readers are pretty much a subset of his) will be familiar with his rather unorthodox beliefs about some of the key figures in the Fourth Gospel (“John”). Briefly, Bruce maintains that the unnamed “beloved disciple” who wrote the Fourth Gospel is Lazarus of Bethany, whom Jesus raised from the dead, and that Lazarus’s sister Mary of Bethany is the same person as Mary Magdalene. He also believes that this Mary was Jesus’ wife, and that the marriage at Cana (at which Jesus turned water into wine) was in fact Jesus and Mary’s own wedding. Later they had a second, “mystical,” wedding, and Mary’s anointing of Jesus with spikenard ointment was part of this second ceremony. All the details are available in Bruce’s online mini-book Lazarus Writes.

In this post I will outline some of the textual evidence for and against Bruce’s theory. Of course Bruce himself would be the first to admit that he cannot prove his ideas, that it is rather a matter of making assumptions. My purpose in examining the evidence is to determine how plausible an assumption it is, and, supposing it is made, what special problems it raises that have to be dealt with.

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Lazarus as the beloved disciple

The first thing to establish is that Lazarus and the beloved disciple have never been seen in the same room together, so to speak, and could therefore conceivably be the same person. And as a matter of fact, we find Lazarus mentioned only in Chapters 11 and 12, while the beloved disciple appears in Chapters 13, 19, 20, and 21. In other words, the beloved disciple appears in the narrative only after Lazarus has been raised from the dead and the chief priests have begun plotting to put him to death. So far, so plausible.

Another point in favor of identifying Lazarus as the beloved disciple is that the Gospel makes a point of saying that Lazarus was particularly beloved of the Lord. When Lazarus falls ill, his sisters inform Jesus that “he whom thou lovest is sick” (John 11:3), and the Evangelist adds, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus” (John 11:5). When Jesus weeps at the death of Lazarus, the Jews say, “Behold how he loved him!” (John 11:36). Aside from Lazarus and his two sisters (and, of course, the anonymous beloved disciple), no other individual is singled out by the Gospels as being specially beloved of Jesus.

If the beloved disciple is Lazarus, light is also shed on the ending of the Fourth Gospel (John 21:19-23). Jesus has just spoken to Peter about his (Peter’s) future death.

This spake he, signifying by what death he should glorify God. And when he had spoken this, he saith unto him, Follow me.

Then Peter, turning about, seeth the disciple whom Jesus loved following; which also leaned on his breast at supper, and said, Lord, which is he that betrayeth thee?

Peter seeing him saith to Jesus, Lord, and what shall this man do?

Jesus saith unto him, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee? follow thou me.

Then went this saying abroad among the brethren, that that disciple should not die: yet Jesus said not unto him, He shall not die; but, If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?

If the beloved disciple had already died once and been restored to life, it makes perfect sense that Peter would ask what was going to happen to him. Would he die a second time, this time permanently? Would he live forever? Jesus’ answer (“If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?”) implies that the possibility of the beloved disciple’s living forever was something that had already occurred to Peter — which, again, makes sense if the beloved disciple was already known to be someone whose status with regard to death was unique and therefore uncertain. I find this point very convincing.

Bruce interprets the “Follow me” in this passage as meaning not “Be my disciple” (which Peter already was) but “Follow me through death into life eternal.” This makes sense coming right after the reference to Peter’s death, and it makes sense that Peter would reply with “And what shall this man do?” (Will he follow you through death as well?)

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that the disciple’s tarrying “till I come” — i.e., till the second coming of Christ — was interpreted as meaning that he would not die. This implies that even at this early date it was understood that the second coming was a long way off in the future, so long that no ordinary mortal could be expected to live to see it. If a prophet I trusted told me that I would live to see the second coming, I would naturally interpret it to mean that the second coming would be relatively soon, within my natural lifetime. That Peter and the other disciples did not so interpret Christ’s comment implies that they clearly understood that they did not live in the “last days.” This contradicts the Synoptic Gospels and the epistles of Paul, where early Christians (and sometimes Jesus himself) are portrayed as thinking of their own time as the last days and expecting Christ to return very soon. This is, in my judgment, a point against the authenticity of the Fourth Gospel and for the view of mainstream “scholars” that it is a late and unreliable work. It’s easy to imagine that early Christians originally expected Christ to return very soon and then, when he didn’t, revised their expectations and placed the second coming in the distant future, and that the author of the Fourth Gospel retroactively (and either ignorantly or dishonestly) attributed this revised expectation to Peter and the other original disciples. It’s much less plausible that the original disciples knew the second coming was a long way off but that this view was very quickly replaced with the expectation that he would return almost immediately.

Assuming the validity of the Fourth Gospel, one possible explanation is that Christ’s comment about the beloved disciple was itself what gave rise to the idea that the second coming would be soon. As the story was told and retold, the fact that it had to do with the resurrected Lazarus was forgotten, and it became a general rumor to the effect that “Jesus told some of his disciples that they would live to see him come again.” It would then be these rumors that made their way into the Synoptics in the form of Jesus’ alleged statement, “Verily I say unto you, That there be some of them that stand here, which shall not taste of death, till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power” (Mark 9:1; see also Matthew 16:28, Luke 9:27).

The main argument against Lazarus being the beloved disciple is that the Fourth Gospel seems to make a point of never mentioning the beloved disciple by name, but Lazarus is mentioned by name. In fact Lazarus, like the beloved disciple, is mentioned only in the Fourth Gospel. What we would more naturally expect would be that the beloved disciple would never be mentioned by name in his own gospel but might appear as a prominent disciple in the other gospels. The mainstream view that the beloved disciple is John the son of Zebedee fits this expectation. John and his brother James appear in the Synoptics as part of Jesus’ inner circle, but neither is mentioned by name in the Fourth Gospel (though there is one reference to unnamed “sons of Zebedee,” in John 21:2). James was executed by Herod Agrippa around AD 44, too early for him to have written the Fourth Gospel; therefore (so the conventional reasoning goes) the beloved disciple must be John.

The theory that John is the beloved disciple will be discussed in due course. Here I am concerned only with the expectation that something like that must be true — that the beloved disciple should be a prominent disciple of Jesus who (presumably out of modesty) is not mentioned by name in his own gospel. Supposing the beloved disciple is indeed Lazarus, is there any reason why he should be openly referred to by name in Chapters 11-12 and then suddenly become an anonymous “beloved disciple” thereafter? We know that after Lazarus was raised from the dead, “the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus” (John 12:10-11), so perhaps he had to go incognito after his resurrection for his own protection. We know that Jesus was not immediately recognizable after his resurrection, not even by his own disciples, so we can infer that Lazarus, too, looked somehow different after being raised from the dead. No disguise would have been necessary, nor would he have had to go into hiding. He simply stopped using the name Lazarus, and his true identity became a carefully guarded secret known only to Jesus’ inner circle.

If Lazarus is the beloved disciple — presented in the Fourth Gospel as Jesus’ closest friend and one of his most important disciples — why is he not mentioned at all outside that gospel? The epistles know nothing of him, and neither do the Synoptic Gospels. (Mary and Martha appear in Luke 10, but their brother is not mentioned.) It seems incredible that so central a figure could be completely omitted from the gospel narrative, and thus attempts have been made to solve this problem by identifying the beloved disciple with John the son of Zebedee.

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John as the beloved disciple

There are no very strong reasons for identifying the beloved disciple as John. It is assumed that he must be one of the Twelve, since he was present at the Last Supper, and John seems the most likely choice.

The biggest problem with the John identification is that John in the Synoptics is virtually inseparable from his elder brother James. (Someone has even made the case that the author of Mark patterned these two “Sons of Thunder” after Castor and Pollux!) Except for two passages in Luke (9:49 and 22:8), he is never mentioned without his brother. There is no indication in the Fourth Gospel that the beloved disciple even has a brother.

Could the beloved disciple be both Lazarus and John — having perhaps changed his name after his resurrection, for security reasons or because he was a “new man”? This seems highly unlikely, mainly because John worked as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee, while Lazarus lived in Bethany.

holy land

A map showing how far Bethany is from the Sea of Galilee (and from Magdala, as will be discussed below)

As the map above shows, Bethany is located just outside Jerusalem, a long way from the Sea of Galilee. The nearest body of water is the Dead Sea — so called because it has no fish or any other macroscopic life in it. It just doesn’t make any sense for a fisherman to live in Bethany.

If the beloved disciple was Lazarus, he was not John. If he was John, he was not Lazarus. All things considered, I find the Lazarus identification more compelling.

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An excursus for Mormons

Those who accept the revelations of Joseph Smith will want to take into account two passages in Mormon scripture that identify the beloved disciple as John. In 3 Nephi, Jesus promises three of his Nephite disciples the same thing that John was given:

And he said unto them: Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired the thing which John, my beloved, who was with me in my ministry, before that I was lifted up by the Jews, desired of me. Therefore, . . . ye shall never taste of death; but ye shall live to behold all the doings of the Father unto the children of men, even until all things shall be fulfilled according to the will of the Father, when I shall come in my glory with the powers of heaven (3 Nephi 28:6-7).

Besides identifying the beloved as John, this passage also implies that he will live until the second coming because he asked Christ for that specific gift, not because such immortality was natural to him as a resurrected being. This is confirmed in Doctrine & Covenants 7, which purports to be translation of a lost record written by John himself.

And the Lord said unto me: John, my beloved, what desirest thou? For if you shall ask what you will, it shall be granted unto you.

And I said unto him: Lord, give unto me power over death, that I may live and bring souls unto thee.

And the Lord said unto me: Verily, verily, I say unto thee, because thou desirest this thou shalt tarry until I come in my glory, and shalt prophesy before nations, kindreds, tongues and people (D&C 7:1-3).

The content of D&C 7, which was written before the Book of Mormon was published, closely parallels that of 3 Nephi 28, so much so that it invites the skeptical theory that the Three Nephites incident was based more on Smith’s recent speculations regarding the beloved disciple than on anything written on the golden plates. Be that as it may, those who take Smith seriously will have to deal with these passages before accepting the Lazarus theory.

The use of the name John does not necessarily mean that the beloved disciple was Zebedee’s son of that name. Perhaps the incognito Lazarus also used the name John, which was a common enough name in first-century Palestine, or perhaps Smith’s less-than-literal translations use the name John as shorthand for “the author of the book commonly known as the Gospel According to St. John” — much as we might use the name Homer, for example, to refer to whichever person or persons wrote the Homeric epics.

Still, though, Smith’s revelations would seem to weigh in the scale against the Lazarus theory. “Lord give me power over death, that I may live” is not the sort of request we would expect from a man who had been resurrected and thus already possessed the power in question. (Bruce’s position is that Lazarus was resurrected in the fullest sense, not merely restored to mortal life.) However, it is interesting to note that at least one of the Nephite disciples may also have been a resurrected being. The list of disciples in 3 Nephi 19:4 begins with “Nephi and his brother whom he had raised from the dead, whose name was Timothy.”

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Mary of Bethany as Mary Magdalene

The identity of Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalene is not an unusual theory. A 1910 article by Hugh Pope in the Catholic Encyclopedia, makes the case as follows.

But an examination of St. John’s Gospel makes it almost impossible to deny the identity of Mary of Bethany with Mary Magdalen. From St. John we learn the name of the “woman” who anointed Christ’s feet previous to the last supper. [. . .] At that supper, then, Mary received the glorious encomium, “she hath wrought a good work upon Me . . . in pouring this ointment upon My body she hath done it for My burial . . . wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached . . . that also which she hath done shall be told for a memory of her.” Is it credible, in view of all this, that this Mary should have no place at the foot of the cross, nor at the tomb of Christ? Yet it is Mary Magdalen who, according to all the Evangelists, stood at the foot of the cross and assisted at the entombment and was the first recorded witness of the Resurrection. And while St. John calls her “Mary Magdalen” in 19:25, 20:1, and 20:18, he calls her simply “Mary” in 20:11 and 20:16.

Against this identification we have the geographic incompatibility of the two titles. As can be seen on the map above, Magdala is on the Sea of Galilee, very far from Bethany. How, then, could Mary Magdalene (meaning “Mary of Magdala”) be the same person as Mary of Bethany?

But perhaps this is not a very serious objection. After all, we know that Helen of Sparta is the same person as Helen of Troy, despite the great distance between those two cities. If Mary originally came from Bethany (as seems to have been the case, since her brother and sister lived there) but later married someone from Magdala and moved there, it would be natural to refer to her as Mary Magdalene.

Of course, Bruce’s position is that the man Mary married was Jesus, which presumably should have made her Mary of Nazareth, since Jesus himself is never described as being from or living in Magdala. The purpose of the surname, though, would have been to distinguish her from other Marys in Jesus’ circle — including his mother, also from Nazareth. Could Jesus, though originally from Nazareth, have made his home in nearby Magdala after his marriage? It’s possible, though the Gospels suggest no such thing. Then again, the Gospels give no indication that Jesus was married at all, to Mary or to anyone else, which is the next issue to discuss.

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Mary as the wife of Jesus

There is no direct evidence that Jesus was married, so the case for Mary’s being his wife is a circumstantial one.

First, we have the episode in which Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with spikenard ointment and wipes them with her hair (John 12:3-8), suggesting a degree of intimacy appropriate only to a married couple. And while Judas objected to the waste of money, he didn’t say anything about the inappropriateness of a woman touching Jesus in that way.

Second, there is the scene during the crucifixion when Jesus tells his mother to consider the beloved disciple her son.

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home (John 19:26-27).

If the beloved disciple was Lazarus, Jesus’ brother-in-law, and thus already family, this would make more sense.

Third, there is Jesus’ appearance to Mary after his resurrection. She is the first person he appears to, and he says, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God” (John 20:17). Since just a few verses later he is inviting Thomas to touch his crucifixion wounds, we might infer that “Touch me not” refers to some more intimate form of touching, such as would be appropriate to husband and wife. Bruce also interprets “my Father, and your Father” as suggesting that God was Mary’s Father in a special sense — because, as Jesus’ wife, she was God’s daughter-in-law. This is not a tenable reading, though, since “your” is plural (as it always is in King James English) and thus refers to the “brethren” or disciples as a group, not specifically to Mary.

Against this, we have John 11:5, which reads, “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus.” This seems like a very strange way of wording things if Martha’s sister (Mary) was Jesus’ own wife!

Bruce also maintains that the marriage at Cana was Jesus and Mary’s own marriage. Here is how the Gospel introduces this event: “And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there: And both Jesus was called, and his disciples, to the marriage” (John 2:1-2). This is, it must be admitted, a very un-Gricean way of saying “Jesus got married,” if that is indeed what it means! However, when there is no wine, it is Jesus who is informed of the problem, and he tells the servants what to do, his mother telling them, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it” (John 2:5). Afterwards, “the governor of the feast called the bridegroom, And saith unto him, Every man at the beginning doth set forth good wine; and when men have well drunk, then that which is worse: but thou hast kept the good wine until now” (John 2:9-10). From this it appears that Mary had authority over the servants at the wedding, suggesting that it was hosted by her own family; and the governor of the feast assumes that it is the bridegroom who makes decisions regarding wine, when in fact this responsibility was given to Jesus. The early Mormon apostle Orson Hyde (who held that Jesus was married to both Mary and Martha, and perhaps others as well), considered these points conclusive:

Gentlemen, that is as plain as the translators, or different councils over this Scripture, dare allow it to go to the world, but the thing is there; it is told; Jesus was the bridegroom at the marriage of Cana of Galilee, and he told them what to do.

Now there was actually a marriage; and if Jesus was not the bridegroom on that occasion, please tell who was. If any man can show this, and prove that it was not the Savior of the world, then I will acknowledge I am in error. We say it was Jesus Christ who was married, to be brought into the relation whereby he could see his seed, before he was crucified (“The Marriage Relations,” Journal of Discourses 2:82).

(I’m sure the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would appreciate my noting that Orson Hyde’s opinions were his own and that the Church has never had any official position regarding the question of Jesus’ marital status.)

All I can say is that if this is indeed a record of Jesus’ own marriage, it must be a deliberately obscure one. Someone, whether the beloved disciple himself or (as Hyde implies) others through whose hands his book has passed on its way down to us, has tried to disguise the true character of this event, dropping only hints for those with ears to hear. Why this should have been thought necessary is unclear. No one thinks it scandalous or embarrassing that Abraham and Moses and St. Peter were married.

As for the spikenard ointment incident being a second, “mystical,” marriage, there is certainly nothing to suggest this in the scriptural account. Jesus’ own comment on the incident connects it with his coming burial, not his marriage.

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Conclusions

All in all, I find the Lazarus theory fairly compelling. If the beloved disciple is to be identified with any named biblical figure, Lazarus seems much the best candidate. However, I am also sympathetic to the theories that the beloved disciple is strictly anonymous (i.e., never named anywhere in the Bible and not to be identified with anyone who is) and that he is a fictional character. Only further engagement with the Gospel in question can resolve this issue for me.

Regarding the Magdalene-Bethany theory,  I see no very strong evidence on either side. Perhaps they were one woman, perhaps two. It partly depends on how we judge the evidence of her/their having been married to Jesus, since some of that evidence comes from Bethany passages and some from Magdalene ones — supposing we are not prepared to go as far as Orson Hyde and make Christ a polygamist.

I would tend to assume that Christ was married, barring any special evidence that he wasn’t. Most people do get married, including most religious founders, and Jesus apparently lived a normal life until the age of 30. And if he was married, and if his wife is one of the people mentioned by name in the Bible, then Mary (Magdalene, originally of Bethany) seems the likeliest possibility.

As for the wedding at Cana and the anointing incident, I am so far not at all convinced that they have anything to do with Jesus’ own marriage. He is clearly a guest at the wedding at Cana, invited along with others, and there is no indication that the anointing has anything to do with marriage at all. I am inclined to think that if Jesus was in fact married, to Mary or anyone else, the event itself is not recorded in the Bible.

I may of course end up revising some or all of these judgments after having spent more time reading and thinking about the Fourth Gospel.

One thought on “Did Lazarus write the Fourth Gospel?

  1. @William – Thanks for this consideration, and the fair representation of my own views.

    I won’t argue any of the points, since I’m not really concerned about trying to persuade anyone. But one point, or set of points, you made – opens the argument out for me in a different direction than you seem to assume they argument must go. I haven’t written about this yet, but it is implied by what I have already said – and I have thought it through.

    I mean the section from “The main argument against Lazarus being the beloved disciple is that the Fourth Gospel seems to make a point of never mentioning the beloved disciple by name”… to “It seems incredible that so central a figure could be completely omitted from the gospel narrative, and thus attempts have been made to solve this problem by identifying the beloved disciple with John the son of Zebedee”.

    I agree that there is, for such reasons, a crux – either we believe the Fourth Gospel and explain the reasons why the Synoptics and the Epistles are united in disagreement; or (as you argue here) we discard the Fourth Gospel for the same reason, whenever it is in a minority of one and incompatible.

    If, as I do, we decide that the Fourth Gospel is qualitatively the most valid source (overall – not that it is without any error) then this implies that Christianity took a wrong turn early in its history – but that wrong turn did Not include the author of the Fourth Gospel. So, where there is substantive disagreement the Fourth Gospel is correct, and all other parts of the Bible are wrong, even when they agree in their wrongness.

    That is indeed what I have come to believe. There is a hint of this in the relationship between Simon Peter and the beloved disciple in the Fourth Gospel – and indeed the whole account of Simon Peter – which can be interpreted as double-edged. And, on the other side, I regard this as the reason why Lazarus is never mentioned by anybody else.

    The Apostle Paul, for example, would probably have regarded the views of the Fourth Gospel, its account of the primary meaning of Jesus’s life, and the nature of his teachings, as fundamentally wrong; at any rate they contradict his own accounts.

    I am suggesting that Simon Peter, Paul and (presumably) the bulk of the disciples and followers made some important errors of interpretation, and diverged from the proper and intended line of development as described in the Fourth Gospel.

    On example is that the Fourth Gospel suggests that the followers of Jesus should be like a loving family, not an institution (Gemeinschaft not Gesellschaft); and implied that therefore there would not be any priests. But Simon Peter and Paul made a new church, a new priesthood, and a formal religious organisation.

    So, accepting the primary validity of the Fourth Gospel turns-out to be an extremely radical decision – since it requires are massive re-interpretation of the whole recorded history of Christianity.

    Liked by 1 person

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