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To extend this previous question, what about the text of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man indicates whether it should be considered a parable or an "actual" account?

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I would be interested in answering why it should not be considered a parable. –  Narnian Oct 29 '12 at 15:47
@Narnian - go for it :) ... as it reads, there is no introduction to it being a parable vs a "real" story –  warren Oct 29 '12 at 15:48
This isn't an answer, but a huge majority of Christian commentators consider this a parable: google.ca/… –  DJClayworth Oct 29 '12 at 16:05
I agree with Narian. This story reads like a parable, and it's in the middle of a whole sequence of parables. Why would it not be a parable? –  DJClayworth Oct 29 '12 at 16:15
Possible duplicate of christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/11384/…. –  Michael Perrenoud Oct 29 '12 at 18:28

3 Answers 3

up vote 5 down vote accepted

One thing that seems to distinguish parables from accounts of actual events is the absence of specific names for the people in the parables. In the parables we read, "A sower" (Luke 8), "A rich man" (Luke 12, 15), "A man" (Luke 13, 14), "A Samaritan" (Luke 10).

However, in the account of the Rich Man and the Beggar, we are actually given the name of the beggar. This is quite a distinction from all the other parables. In addition, Jesus tells us that the rich man saw another specific man--the patriarch Abraham.

So, the fact that the rich man's name is withheld does support the idea of this being a parable. Yet, the fact that two other specific people are identified by name seems to be stronger evidence to support the idea that this was an actual historical event with actual people.

The significance of this story comes in the reference to someone rising from the dead, as Jesus states that even if someone rises from the dead, some will not believe. This is fulfilled in the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, and even the chief priests of the day continued in their refusal to believe in Him.

For reference:

19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side.The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’” Luke 16:19-31 ESV

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To add to the answer @Narnian gave, the one thing that stands out to me is that it doesn't preface it as a parable like it does in the following citations for example: Matthew 13:18 Luke 6:39 Luke 12:16 Luke 15:3 Luke 18:1 Luke 18:9 Luke 19:11 So, you of course have to decide, but if The Bible stated the aforementioned as parable's, wouldn't it have here as well? –  Michael Perrenoud Oct 30 '12 at 3:18
I don't think Abraham's name counts, actually. –  TRiG Oct 30 '12 at 9:38
@TRiG Abraham is a myth? Such a statement would need to be supported with a very substantial amount of evidence, given the evidence of the historicity of Abraham. If he were a myth, then what would be his purpose here? Makes no sense. –  Narnian Oct 30 '12 at 14:42
@TRiG You are welcome to your opinion, but should it not be stated as such instead of as an indisputable fact? –  Narnian Oct 30 '12 at 14:50
Lazarus' name could have been left out of the story without making any substantial change, so the inclusion of his name was a choice, and therefore relevant. Abraham's name could not similarly have been omitted. Because Abraham has a function in this story as Abraham, the character from Jewish history/mythology. (And if you think the character of Abraham hasn't been mythologised, you're wrong. He has been. The figure of Abraham in the minds of those to whom the story was addressed was a figure larger than life. Whether or not the Biblical narratives are myth, myths exist.) –  TRiG Oct 30 '12 at 15:04

Narnian's answer covers well the argument for this story being real and not a parable. I will attempt to cover the argument that it is a parable.

The first thing to note is the parable's location among other parables and teachings. Luke 16, where the parable is found, is surrounded by other parables and teachings. It is not part of the historic sections of Luke. It also sounds like a parable. There's a point to the story that has very little to do with the actual story. This alone is evidence enough for me to call it a parable, but there is more.

The only argument I have seen that this is a real story and not a parable is based on the fact that specific names are mentioned. I personally do not find that convincing.

Yes, it is odd that there are specific names in this parable. The appearance of Abraham is easy to explain. He is a character of necessity because of the place where Lazarus is. Many translations call it "Abraham's side" or "Abraham's bosom".

The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.

This is the name of a place, not a person. Abraham has become a necessary part of the story. He is the voice that will deliver the message of the parable. There is little significance that it is Abraham rather than someone else.

Lazarus, on the other had, doesn't seem to be needed in the story, so the name was mentioned for a reason.1

One cannot read the parable of Lazarus and the Rich man and not be reminded of the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11. When examining that story, we see some similarities, especially in the message that can be gleaned from it compared to the message given in the parable.

At the end of the raising of Lazarus we do not see all the people falling to worship Jesus. Instead we see a few are convinced then a plot to kill him quickly develops.

Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin [then plotted to kill him].
John 11:45-47 (NIV)

But beyond all this is that parables are meant to make a point. They are meant to illustrate a Truth, a bit of wisdom, that can easily be separated from the story. It is plainly clear what the point of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is:

If they [unbelievers] do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.
Luke 16:31

In light of

If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?
John 5:46-47 (NIV)

which sounds oddly like the message of the parable, it seems plausible that Jesus developed this parable based off of the reactions of the pharisees after Jesus really did raise Lazarus. Compare this to Who are the 5 Brothers Mentioned at Luke 16:28 - Rich Man and Lazarus, where my answer discusses the argument that they are the brothers of Caiaphas. This makes for a pretty good argument that Jesus made this parable drawing from real events, and the mention of Lazarus and 'five brothers' was a subtle way to name the Pharisees as those who would not believe "even if the dead returned."

  1. I've always wondered if there is evidence of this being a scribal insert. I'm looking into this now: Is there evidence that the name “Lazarus” in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a later addition?

An illuminating Source - Lazarus in John and Luke - Crisis Magazine - MARK P. SHEA

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This is a real story. Jesus started out by saying, "A certain man". And he gave a name, Lazarus. Parables don't have names, it's mostly servant, or vine dresser etc. and a timeline, "they have Moses and the prophets". And why didn't the rich man had a name? Jesus said ..."depart from Me, I never knew you".

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Welcome to Christianity.SE, Anthony! While I appreciate your answer, as it stands right now, it adds nothing to the existing (and accepted) answer on this question. Please consider how you can improve this answer to add to the site, rather than merely leaving a [poor] summary of the previous answer. Stack Exchange sites are different from other places, and taking the time to learn how we're different will benefit not only yourself, but the community. –  warren Jan 7 at 14:50
Sorry, my first time on this site. I thought this was just an open forum site. I realize now that this is a more in depth researched, well presented study and presentation. And that's good, it'll make me to go deeper into topics with well written presentations. And thanks for welcoming an evangelist onto this Christian website. –  Anthony Valle Jan 8 at 16:57
it's also important to realize that while there are many "Christians" on this site, it is not a "Christian website" please see this meta post for more information :). –  warren Jan 8 at 19:18

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