Lazarus (Heb. Eleazar), who we find in John 11, is the only named person in Scripture that Jesus raised from the dead. We find in this chapter that Lazarus and his family were friends of Jesus (implied by John 11:3, 5) and well-known of Him. What makes this more interesting is a parable in Luke’s gospel in which Jesus uses this same name for his protagonist, Lazarus the beggar. Lazarus is both a man who died and was raised to life, and a man who died and went to Abraham’s bosom. Is this a coincidence, Jesus sharing a story with some factual details? Maybe, but let’s looks at some of the details.
Lazarus is the beggar at the rich man’s door (Luke 16:19) who is carried to Abraham’s bosom. His character isn’t described, but only that he sat at the rich man’s doorstep, dogs licked his sores, and he waited on crumbs from the man’s table. Obviously, this Lazarus had some illness that prevented him from working and caused these “sores” on his skin. He may have had leprosy, which was a grievous illness of the skin, but lepers in that day were required to stay away from other people, not camp out on their doorstep. Yet, this is a parable, and the details may be more symbolic than actual. Because of his skin disease, this Lazarus was no doubt relegated to the outside of society, while the rich man was at the heart of it. When both men died, their roles are reversed, the unclean man allowed within the best of Paradise, while the rich man is outside in an awful place. Because he is the only named character in any of Jesus’ parables, some are inclined to believe he may have been an actual person.
As for the Lazarus of John 11, we don’t know how he got sick, or much of what happened after his story. In fact, it is the fact that he dies is what makes him so notable. In another part of Luke (10:38-42), there is a short story involving Mary and Martha, but Lazarus is not mentioned. Vs. 38 implies that the home is Martha’s, not her brother’s. When Mary and Martha are mentioned, Lazarus is not always there. Only in John is Lazarus associated with his sisters. In Matthew 26:6 (Two days before the Passover), Jesus is in the house of “Simon the Leper” where takes place a similar event to Mary’s anointing of Jesus in John 12:3 (six days before the Passover). Is it possible that leprosy was a family illness? Could Simon, a formerly healthy man, been afflicted with leprosy, and so his house is run by his eldest daughter (Martha)? Note also earlier in Luke 7:36-38 that the house of Simon the Pharisee is the setting for the anointing of the woman. Even though Simon was a very common name in those days, it seems odd that these anointings take place under similar circumstances in the houses of men named Simon.
See note the similarity and differences between these events at:
Archaeologists have discovered a tomb outside of Bethany with the names of Simon, Martha, and Lazarus. A run-down of the story can be found here:
Of course, all three names are extremely common, and the chances that all three would be found in the same tomb shouldn’t be a surprise. However, it is possible that Simon was the father (the leper of Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3) who owned the house in Bethany and that Lazarus was the younger brother of Martha and Mary. It is not said that Simon was present at the dinner in John 12, or in Matthew 26, so it’s possible that Simon was not cured of his leprosy as many assume. Because Simon was known as “the leper” may tell us why these two women were still unmarried (as indicated by Mary anointing Jesus with her dowry), as leprosy was a disease which caused uncleanness. But those whom the world avoided, Jesus seems to embrace as his closest friends. Might Jesus have favored this family because of their disadvantage? It was perhaps passing through Bethany at one time that he saw this family and knew their story, and attached Himself to them, above all the families in Israel. The disgust of the disciples at Mary’s extravagant sacrifice is not dissimilar from us disgusted at the “poor” given money, only to spend it on drugs and alcohol. Just a thought.
At Jesus’ ascension in Luke 24:50, it seems unlikely that Lazarus and his sisters would have missed it since it was just outside of town. The New Testament is otherwise completely silent about what happened to them, unless the group of believers who gathered in Acts 1 included them. Tradition doesn’t tell us much about Lazarus and his family after the gospels, except that they went on to become evangelists in their own right.
It’s all historical guesswork and supposition, but it may help us piece together Jesus’ relationship with this family. I have to wonder if the parable of Lazarus is in some way connected the actual life experience of Lazarus of Bethany. If Lazarus’ father was a leper, that can’t have helped him much growing up. If his father had leprosy early, who would teach him a trade, or have a family business to work into? Maybe Lazarus took up begging from a young age, and sat outside the houses of the rich for morsels? And maybe it was Jesus who turned the fortunes of this house around, by giving them the good news of the kingdom. Maybe Lazarus turned his life around because he discovered a God who loved him, despite the harshness life had dealt him. Maybe Lazarus was so loved by Jesus because he was a lost soul who made something of himself as a disciple serving faithfully in Bethany.