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John 11 tells the remarkable story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead:

43 When [Jesus] had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” [ESV]

John portrays the event as quite public, and a key factor in the decision of the Jewish leaders to plan to arrest and kill him:

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, 46 but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. [...] 53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

Yet despite the importance of this miracle in John's narrative, none of the other Gospel writers (Matthew, Mark, or Luke) mention Lazarus being raised. Critics thus often challenge the historicity of this account specifically, as Richard Bauckham writes:

The raising of Lazarus has always been major evidence for the view that John invents characters and events, not simply because the Synoptics say nothing about this miracle but also because it is so important in John's account of the events that led to Jesus' execution, that it is hard to believe that the Synoptic evangelists did not know of it or, knowing of it, omitted it. (source)

How do those who hold to the literal, historical truth of the account – that a man named Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, was physically raised from the dead by Jesus – explain why the other Gospel writers failed to mention it? What is an overview of their arguments?

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Commentators give a number of explanations for the silence of the Synoptists on the raising of Lazarus:

  • To protect Lazarus from persecution
  • Differing source material
  • Distinct criteria for what to include
    • The Synoptics narrate other miracles, and saw no need to include this one as well
    • The geographical and narrative focus of the Synoptics differs from that of John

Protection from persecution

Perhaps the oldest and most common explanation (particularly prior to the 20th century) is that recording the story during Lazarus's life would have exposed him to persecution from the Jews. The Gospel of John, being written later than the Synoptics, includes the story presumably because Lazarus by that time had already died. This approach is the primary one mentioned by Adam Clarke (following Hugo Grotius):

[Grotius] thinks that the other three evangelists wrote their histories during the life of Lazarus; and that they did not mention him for fear of exciting the malice of the Jews against him. And indeed we find, from John 12:10, that they sought to put Lazarus to death also, that our Lord might not have one monument of his power and goodness remaining in the land. Probably both Lazarus and his sisters were dead before St. John wrote.

Different sources

For some, possible explanations of the silence of the Synoptics can be found in the source material for the gospels. For example, a few have argued that the author of the gospel traditionally attributed to John is actually Lazarus himself. Most conservative scholars reject this idea, and though it would explain the inclusion of the story in the fourth gospel, it does not directly address why the Synoptists failed to mention it.

Perhaps more plausible is that the story of Lazarus was excluded from Mark's gospel due to the absenteeism of his primary source. If Peter, as tradition holds, assisted Mark in this way, then perhaps the sections in John (6:68–13:6) and other gospels in which Peter is not mentioned indicate that he was not then present. Leon Morris explains:

There is nothing in [the Gospel of Mark] against the view that Peter remained behind (in Galilee?) when the others went up to Jerusalem, and that he came up to the capital city only for the week prior to Passover. If so, the reason he said nothing about the raising of Lazarus was that he did not see it. It did not belong to his personal reminiscences.

Distinct criteria

Many commentators, particularly more recent ones, argue that the various Gospel writers had unique criteria for what would be included in their respective works. Coffman presents a general argument:

The inspired writers were not governed by ordinary rules and were unaffected by considerations which uninspired men would have honored; and this is nowhere more evident, than in the selection of materials for their writings. It is a marvel that the inspired men would have recorded the martyrdom of the apostle James with only seven words (in the Greek) and devoted nine verses to the undisturbed grave-clothes. The Gospels defy the arrogance of men who seek to understand them apart from their inspired origin.

The following are some of the significant attempts to identify these criteria.

Other miracles related instead

Though the raising of Lazarus is not mentioned in the Synoptics, other significant miracles are, including raisings from the dead. Leon Morris writes:

It must be borne in mind that the Synoptists do speak of Jesus as claiming to raise the dead (Matt. 11:5; Luke 7:22), and they give two specific examples, the daughter of Jairus (Matt. 9:18ff.; Mark 5:22ff.; Luke 8:41ff.) and the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:1ff.). It is possible that they saw no need to add to these.

Daniel Whedon suggests that the Synoptists may not have seen the raising of Lazarus as spectacularly noteworthy as modern readers do:

It does not, in fact, seem that the other Evangelists viewed the raising of the dead as so pre-eminent a miracle as it is esteemed by modern thinkers or by the Jewish populace. The raising of the widow’s son of Nain is narrated by Luke alone, and in as brief and ordinary a way as any other miracle. And pictorially as John spreads out this narrative, it fills no wider space than that of the restoration of the blind-born in chap. 9. The Evangelists, doubtless, presuppose that either of these miracles require a whole omnipotence, and neither requires more.

Different geographical and narrative focus

Commentators frequently note the distinct approach taken in John, compared to the Synoptics, with respect to geography. Leon Morris explains:

We must also remember that the miracles in Jerusalem form no part of the Synoptic tradition. Not only this one, but those concerning the lame man at Bethesda and the blind man at Siloam are not mentioned in the Synoptists. For whatever reason they deal only with the last week at Jerusalem and omit all that goes before.

Craig L. Blomberg argues that "a major emphasis for John is to present Jesus as the true fulfilment of the meaning of the major Jewish festivals and institutions," whereas Matthew and Mark "follow primarily topical outlines" prior to Christ's passion, and Luke uses a "geographical progression" to structure his gospel. So, unlike the Synoptics, only John relates multiple trips to Jerusalem and the accompanying miracles:

Thus the resurrection of Lazarus does not appear in the Synoptics because it takes place in Judea prior to the last of Christ's trips to Jerusalem, of which the Synoptics wish to record only one.

Conclusion

Commentators holding that a man named Lazarus was physically raised from the dead by Jesus have argued that Matthew, Mark, and Luke had good reason to not include it – to protect Lazarus; because they limited themselves to particular sources; or because it did not fit into their narratives for theological or literary reasons. These arguments, alongside the internal evidence of the John narrative, defend its historicity. But ultimately, as D. A. Carson summarizes, presuppositions will play a major role in the evaluation of the evidence:

For those who think that supernatural intervention by a personal/transcendent God is impossible, profitable discussion must begin elsewhere than at this narrative. Those (like the present writer) who believe in the incarnation (an invasion of the personal/transcendent Word into history) and resurrection of Jesus find it rather useless to swallow a camel and strain out a gnat.


References:

  • Barnes, Albert, Notes
  • Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel, 55.
  • Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John, III.A.
  • Clarke, Adam, Commentary
  • Coffman, James Burton. Commentary
  • Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John, III.R.
  • Whedon, Daniel. Commentary
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    "…presumably because Lazarus by that time had already died". Well, died a second time ;-) – Thunderforge Jan 1 '17 at 3:26
  • "Protection from persecution" -- another distinguishing feature of John vs. the Synoptics is that he alone names the disciple who cut off the ear of the high priest's servant. Similar reasons have been raised to explain this: i.e. by the time John was writing, Peter had already been martyred and had nothing more to fear. – JDM-GBG Aug 21 '18 at 3:13
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I believe it is simply because when Matthew, Mark and Luke wrote their respective Gospels, Lazarus was still a living testimony to Christ having raised him to life. They had no need to mention the miracle because it was so well known and could easily be confirmed by Lazarus himself. John wrote his gospel much later and by this time Lazarus had once more gone to the grave, so it was necessary for John to give an account of this particular miracle.

This was a concise answer to a similar question I found some time ago at Catholic Answers.

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