Philip Esler and Ronald Piper’s new book raises intriguing questions about the role of gospel heroes and their relevance in the modern age. The heroes in question are Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, whom we are to understand as prototypes for Christian believers in John’s gospel. Against scholars who insist that the raising of Lazarus primarily prefigures Jesus’ own resurrection, the authors favor soteriology over Christology. It’s not always easy to separate the two, but the former wins out by a long shot in the case of Jn 11:1-12:11. As the authors put it:
“In the context of the Lazarus narrative the phrasing ‘I am the resurrection and the life‘ is not just saying something about Jesus. Its main point is to say something remarkably specific relating to the fears about believers who have died.” (p 125)
Confirmation of this comes from Roman catacomb frescoes and sarcophagi dating to the third century. These artistic representations of Jesus are valuable, say the authors, because they represent a common point of view more than that of elites and theologians. By this time the Christian tradition had become suffused with pagan elements, the most notable one being Jesus depicted as using a wand to raise Lazarus. Whether Jesus had become assimilated into a magician or god, the salient point is that he was understood primarily as one who raised other people (with a wand) — something that has nothing to do with his own resurrection through the agency of God (see pp 131-145).
The book’s major contribution lies in its use of social identity theory to understand prototypes (Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, in this case) and the manipulation of collective memory. Too often in honor-shame cultures the past becomes a battleground as religious sects compete and claim ownership of heroes (whether real or fictional) for support of their vision. Just as Paul used Abraham to redefine what it meant to be an heir to salvation, so John uses three characters — Lazarus, Mary, and Martha — to redefine what it means to be true followers of Christ, over against other (synoptic) understandings.
In the authors’ view, “it is difficult to understate the significance of John taking the tradition of a woman, whose very name was unknown, who anointed Jesus shortly before his death (Mk 14:3-9/Mt 26:6-13; cf. Lk 7:36-50), and identifying this woman with Mary” (p 56). Indeed, Jn 11:2 represents “an audacious attempt by the evangelist to rework the collective memory of the Christ-movement” (ibid). John evidently saw the unnamed woman’s anointing of Jesus as a powerful tool that he could re-use for his purposes stressing devotion and care in grim domestic settings. Mary becomes as much a prototype (representing care and devotion) as Lazarus (representing the fate of believers).(1)
The book concludes by asking how the three heroes may continue to function as prototypes for modern believers — and by putting into practice the insightful theological strategy developed in Esler’s New Testament Theology regarding intercultural communion. Say the authors:
“We have departed from the long dominant model of New Testament theology that involves using historical analysis of the biblical texts to unearth ‘timeless’ truths that can then be fed into a treatise in systematic theology. Rather we are applying the different approach that sees the theological significance of historical investigation to lie precisely in bringing the specific meaning it carried in its original setting into creative and critical confrontation with our modern experience in an overarching framework of intercultural communication and communion.” (p 147)
So, for instance, Esler has argued that the original message behind Paul’s letter to the Romans is best applied to situations today involving inter-ethnic conflict and genocide. (Galatians, by contrast, is dangerous to use for such purposes — which underscores the need to be critical of original meaning even while doing justice to it.) The Lazarus account in John turns on the harsh reality of death which faces people today as much as ever before (p 147). The Johannine view insists that looking beyond death cannot be separated from the horror of death itself:
“The prospect of death, and the experience of beloved Christians dying, present a continuing point of natural anxiety… The reassurance lies not simply in the promise of future bliss. The story of Lazarus also addresses the reality of death. Could not God have prevented bad things (such as premature death) happening to those who he loves? One gets no general explanation for such tragedies, but one is faced with the fact that a divine deliberation is involved. The mystery is not lessened, but a kind of reaffirmation is offered.” (p 156)
Esler and Piper see the raising of Lazarus more a sign of divine love than victory over death (p 153), offering the reassurance of care and support in present-day Christian households. John had little use for the new heaven-and-earth anticipated by Paul and the synoptic writers, thinking more in terms of a new “house” (Jn 14:2-3) — and that’s exactly what is prefigured in the account of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha (Jn 11:1-12:11) (p 154). “The imagined future stresses care and support (and in a domestic context) more than victory” (p 155). The authors even suggest that a revival of house churches may be in order (p 155), especially in a world where we have lost direct experience of death:
“The bodies of our relatives are taken straight off to mortuaries and later to the church or cemetery or crematorium. The older custom of keeping the body of the deceased family member at home for a few days prior to burial and thereby observing the gradual change in the appearance of the deceased as the process of decomposition begin has by now largely disappeared. But those who are familiar with this practice will be well aware of the awesome sense of the reality of death that it produces.” (pp 148-149)
(That’s an acute observation, especially when taken in conjunction with the irony that, on the other hand, we are continually bombarded with images of death on TV/video-screen — and death, in effect, becomes trivialized. (p 149) So western people have become both alienated from death and saturated with it, in completely different ways.)
I agree that something important is lost when the corpses of our friends/relatives are whisked away, right away. We become screened from the natural process of death. A “mystery” is dampened, just as it’s muted when we lose touch with silence and natural light (on which see Dale Allison’s The Luminous Dusk). But at the same time I should be honest: I’m rather comfortable being shielded this way in my modern lifestyle. Maybe that’s part of the problem.
Simply put: this is the best book to date dealing with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. There’s something about a Philip Esler book that makes it impossible to put down. I don’t know what his trick is, but he’s got some failsafe — you just have to keep turning the pages. Piper looks promising too.(2) For whatever my opinion is worth as an infidel, the way these authors bridge historical criticism and modern theology represents the best approach I’m aware of.
(1) And while for Mark and Matthew, the woman’s anointing prefigures the gospel being preached throughout the world (Mk 14:9/Mt 26:13), in John the “spread” of this event is only to the Lazarus-Mary-Martha household (p 67), serving the evangelist’s highly sectarian view of salvation. The authors rightly emphasize this, noting further that Christians are not encouraged to love outsiders/enemies as they are in the synoptics. “The ‘love’ commandment appears to be directed to insiders: love one another even as I have loved you (Jn 13:34).” (p 96)
(2) At one point the authors reference Piper’s upcoming publication, The Dark Side of John: “However much the Gospel of John may be Christologically oriented, and however much the symbols associated with Jesus focus on images such as ‘light’, ‘darkness’ or evil constitutes a reality that is essential to the understanding of the Gospel.” (p 94)