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Luke 16.19-31 January 17, 2010

Posted by Lee in i:16.19-31: Rich Man and Lazarus.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

[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 lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, [21] who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. [22] The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. 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 in his bosom. [24] And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon 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, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil 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 some one 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 some one should rise from the dead.'”

Luke’s story from Jesus of the rich man and Lazarus has sparked much debate regarding various issues ranging from theology to form. Some make theological arguments on the nature of the afterlife. Some speculate over whether or not the story belongs in the catalogue of parables. (If so, this is the only parable in which Jesus names a player.) Whatever the possible theological implications or form, it should be asked what interest Luke’s recipient Theophilus would have in such a story, and what Luke was doing in telling it.

Attempts to identifying these individuals with historical figures have been made, though none yet found convincing. Some have linked the five brothers to Herod’s household. Some have attempted to link Luke’s Lazarus with the Lazarus raised in John 11. Though risking a similar fate of its predecessors, what follows is a different effort to connect the players in this story with real, historical figures of the period – namely, the rich man with Caiaphas, the rich man’s father with Annas, the five brothers with Annas’ five sons, and Lazarus with the Lazarus of John 11. As such, the Lucan Jesus has related this story as an implication of the priesthood’s corruption. Several details reveal this.

First, the rich man is said to be “clothed in purple and fine linen” (2.19). This is a description of the high priestly garments, according to Exodus: “The also make the coats, woven of fine linen, for Aaron and his sons, and the turban of fine linen, and the caps of fine linen, and the linen breeches of fine twined linen, and the girdle of fine twined linen and of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, embroidered with needlework; as the Lord had commanded Moses” (39.27-29; cf. also Leviticus 16.4). Sirach reads likewise: “[The Lord] clothed [Aaron] in perfect splendor…with the sacred vestment, of gold and violet and purple, the work of an embroiderer” (45.8-11). Josephus notes the same: “[In Alexander’s presence] The priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high priest in purple scarlet clothing…” (Antiquities 11.8.5 [331]; cf. War 5.7 [231-36]). So, Jesus’ brief description of this rich man matches that of the high priest.

Second, Luke’s story shares some degree of parallel with John 11, in which Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. Most scholars have been hesitant to connect Luke’s Lazarus with John’s. In the words of J. A. Fitzmyer, “There is no hard evidence to establish a connection between this Lucan parable and the Johannine miracle-story” (Luke, 2.1129).  Yet, a brief analysis of the historical data indicates that such a connection is plausible, if not probable.

In John, we read that when Lazarus was raised, the chief priests and Pharisees plotted with Caiaphas to kill both Jesus (11.45-53) and Lazarus (12.9, 10). The teaching on resurrection (5.29; 11.24, 25) and the demonstration of such a teaching put Jesus at risk among the Sadducean leadership. As a result, a great interest was taken not only in Jesus, but also in Lazarus.

From a statistical standpoint, the likelihood that no other Lazarus than the Lazarus found in John 11 would appear in the NT by chance is roughly 1% (Richard Fellows, personal correspondences: 31 Aug 2008, 11 Jan 2010; see end note). Given the imminent danger surrounding Lazarus post-resurrection, it is highly unlikely that a Jesus-believer would have taken up or publicly retained the name. The need for protective anonymity (cf. Fellows’ article) was obvious. And, even if there were a number of individuals named Lazarus in Palestine, the likelihood that one sympathetic to the Jesus movement would have been included in a Jesus story is very low. The writers would have run the risks of confusion, as in cases of mistaken identity, and thus endangering the ‘other’ Lazarus(es).

In John 11.47, 48, we find that the chief priests were concerned about Rome’s perception of the incident: “‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.'” It is quite possible, though not stated, that a warrant for Lazarus’ arrest may have been issued. If so, the church would have been guilty of harboring a wanted criminal, in which case she would have been all the more interested in keeping Lazarus and his name out of the public eye. Such an interest would have precluded any reference to any Lazarus in formal, pro-Jesus documents, thus making Luke’s reference to a Lazarus all the more puzzling if it were not meant to represent the resurrected friend of Jesus.

Additionally, that John does not hesitate to include the historical details of Lazarus’ resurrection indicates that Lazarus had most probably died by the time John wrote. Conversely, that Luke offers a cryptic telling of Lazarus’ resurrection in parabolic form indicates that Lazarus was most probably still alive post-resurrection when he wrote. Further, that Lazarus was a close friend to Jesus and the Twelve (John 11.11ff.) at least implies a great interest in protecting Lazarus and his name.

All of this highly suggests that Luke’s Lazarus and John’s Lazarus are one and the same.

Third, this poor Lazarus is said to lay “at his [the rich man’s] gate” (16.20). This might very well refer to the gate which guarded the temple. Luke, in Acts 3.2, 10, mentions another beggar at the temple gate, there called “Beautiful”.

That Lazarus is portrayed as poor and infirm ought not deter one from concluding that he is the Lazarus who was raised by Jesus in John 11. Luke often employs a poor/rich dichotomy. Lazarus’ need for protection may have prompted Luke to further obscure his identity by depicting him as poor and infirm. And, given that Luke’s point is to expose the corruption of the priesthood, the emphasis is not on Lazarus’ poor state, but on the rich man’s wealth and his refusal to reach out to the poor and needy who were in his immediate vicinity (an indictment which also comes through in Jesus’ story of the good Samaritan, in which a priest and a Levite fail to help one in need). Such care for the poor and needy was a high priestly duty given by God.

Fourth, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to “my father’s house” and to his five brothers. Caiaphas was the son-in-law to Annas ben Seth, the high priest of 6-15CE. Annas had five sons: Eleazar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Matthias and Ananus (all of whom eventually served as high priests after Caiaphas, though only Eleazar and Jonathan preceded Theophilus). Caiaphas, as the rich man, is referring to either the house of Annas or the temple, in accordance with Luke’s use of the phrase “my father’s house” elsewhere (Luke 2.49; cf. 19.46), or both.

Fifth, Caiaphas was a Sadducee. Sadducees denied angels, the afterlife and resurrection. This story in Luke 16 expressly includes these elements. Lazarus is conspicuously said to have been carried away by angels upon death. The rich man, while he is in torment post-death, begs Abraham to resurrect Lazarus and send him to his Sadducean family members, as though such an event would have meant something to them. The irony is that Caiaphas and his Sadducean family members did not find Lazarus’ resurrection meaningful or convincing. As Jim Hamilton notes, “In Luke 16 Abraham declares that even if someone were to rise from the dead the rich man’s brothers would not believe. In John 11 Lazarus is raised from the dead and the Jewish religious leaders do not believe” (“Did Jesus Really Raise Lazarus…?”, n. 6).

Considering that Caiaphas was directly interested in Jesus’ raising of Lazarus (as told in John 11), that he was son-in-law to Annas and had five brothers-in-law, that he was a Sadducee, that he would have regularly and occupationally worn purple and fine linen, that the temple had a distinguishing gate at which the beggars and infirm laid in hopes to gain food or alms, it is quite plausible, if not probable, that Luke’s “rich man” is meant to refer to Caiaphas.

As noted above, there is tremendous irony in this story. Caiaphas the rich Sadducean high priest who denied angels, the afterlife and resurrection begs father Abraham from the grave to raise Lazarus from the dead in the hopes of convincing his Sadducean family members of the legitimacy of the Jesus movement. Theophilus ben Annas, brother-in-law to Caiaphas and high priest of 37-41CE, would have found this story most interesting, and possibly even irritating. But Luke’s irenic, cryptic presentation of his indictment on the priesthood should be considered as an effort to gain a hearing from Theophilus.


Richard Fellows’ statistical analysis on the likelihood that no other Lazarus would appear in the NT by chance:

“Tal Ilan’s Lexicon of Jewish name has 177 men called Eleazar [of which Lazarus is the shortened form] out of 3193 people.  The chances that someone is not called Eleazar is therefore approximately (1-177/3193) = 0.945. I say approximately because it may be appropriate to distinguish between the historical and the fictitious people in the database. Also, Ilan admits that the frequency of common names is over-stated by the statistics because where a common name appears more than once she assumes that different people are referred to, whereas when a rare name appears more than one in the same archealogical site she assumes that the same person is referred to, and counts them only once.

“If there are 80 [named individuals of Palestinian extraction in the NT other than Lazarus] then the probability that none of them will be called Lazarus is then 0.945^80, where ^ means ‘to the power of’. 0.945^80 = 0.01, which is 1%.”



1. Richard Fellows - January 20, 2010

Lee. Nice article. I think you make a strong cumulative case that there is some kind of connection between the two Lazaruses.

Perhaps Bethany can be said to be at the gate of the high priest’s house (the temple), or is that a stretch?

You could make the point that Luke and John share much material from passion week. Luke has some material from Passion week that is not in Matthew or Mark. Perhaps, then, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is such material. Perhaps Jesus told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus during passion week as a coded criticism of the high priests following their rejection of Lazarus. This would require that Luke displaced the parable to earlier in his narrative, but he does this with the story of Mary and the ointment (perhaps for protective reasons).

I continue to like the idea that the church protected Lazarus from arrest by the chief priests and/or the Romans, and that the synoptic writers (or their sources) drew a veil over Lazarus to protect him and/or to protect the church from gaining the reputation for harboring a wanted man.

If the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death (John 12:10) and if they did not have the right to carry out a death sentence (John 18:31), then they would have had to report Lazarus to the Romans. It is not surprising that John makes no explicit mention of the involvement of the Romans since Luke too tends to omit mention of the involvement of civil authorities in attempts (successful or otherwise) to arrest Paul. You make a good point from John 11:48 that it might not have been difficult to persuade the Romans that Lazarus was a security threat. I don’t know how long it would have taken for them to make their plan and then get the Romans on side, but it is possible that it was more than a week before Lazarus got news of the danger. In that case he might not have been in hiding during passion week, and he could then be the beloved disciple and author of John’s gospel. The term “beloved disciple” would then be his way of protecting his identity (from Roman informants). “John” would then be his alias. The absence of both the beloved disciple and Lazarus from the synoptics is then explicable. A while ago Ben Witherington had an interesting blog post equating Lazarus and the beloved disciple a while ago. There is quite a strong case. The beloved disciple (presumably) seems to have had contacts in the high priests household (John 18:15-16) and maybe it is through those contacts that he got wind of the plot against him. Hmm… the beloved disciple was known to the high priest, just as Lazarus in the parable was known to the rich man. This is a further link between the two Lazaruses if the Lazarus=beloved disciple theory is viable.

I am not, however, convinced that it adds much weight to your Theophilus hypothesis.

Lee - January 24, 2010


I thank you for your comments. You bring up some interesting questions, though I don’t think I have any good answers at this point. I do not know if it is possible to determine whether or not RM&L initially came about during the Passion week. And such an assertion needs plausibility, I think. I really like the idea, but will have to sit with it for a while.

As to whether or not my reading adds any weight to the Theophilus proposal, you are probably correct. However, if Theophilus the HP is Luke’s intended initial reader, then this story is personal to some degree, in that Luke’s recipient is one specific referent for one of the players in the parable. So, while it does not offer any substantial evidence in favor of the proposal, it promotes a continuity that otherwise is not there. If Luke is implicating the priesthood, and if Theophilus is not the HP, then Luke’s cryptic telling runs a serious risk of misunderstanding, evidenced in the centuries of interpretations exploiting the eschatological/theological implications of the tale. On the other hand, if Theophilus is the HP, then Luke’s cryptic implication would have been directly appreciated, and such a risk of misinterpretation is avoided. Put differently, the cryptic nature of the implication of the priesthood is somewhat more appreciated and understood if Luke’s recipient is the HP in question.

Thanks again.


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