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Authors: Richard Beard

Lazarus is Dead

BOOK: Lazarus is Dead
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Europa Editions
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New York NY 10001
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This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously.
Copyright © 2012 by Richard Beard
First publication 2012 by Europa Editions
Translation copyright © 2012 by Europa Editions
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Cover Art by Emanuele Ragnisco
ISBN 9781609458676

Richard Beard


‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep,
but I'm going to wake him up.'


Lazarus is dead.

There is no room for doubt. He died, he came back to life, but then he died again. If he were alive today, we would know. I think.

Other certainties are harder to come by. The earliest reference to Lazarus is found in the gospel according to John, whose reliability as a historian is questionable. Among the gospel writers Mark is considered the most factually accurate. Matthew and Luke base their accounts on Mark, while John is closer to the type of writing known today as creative nonfiction.

For structural reasons, John selects seven of the best Jesus miracles and uses them to shape his narrative. He starts with the water-into-wine. Then some healing miracles, the feeding of the five thousand, the walking on water, as each miracle builds towards the climactic seventh event, the death and resurrection of Lazarus.

This is the sign that announces the arrival of the messiah.


Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding in Cana, and the next morning Lazarus opens his eyes and stares at the whitewashed ceiling. It is grey, and he has a nagging sense, this morning, of something amiss.

The feeling fades. He has too much to do, an arrangement to speak with his chief Bedouin shepherd, another trip to the city.

He leaves the house without eating, and is halfway across the village square when he hears the name of Jesus. A young man with bright eyes is balancing on a halved barrel, answering shout-out questions from a small group of villagers.

Yes, god's truth, he survived in the desert with no food or water for forty days. The river? He stands waist deep in the water and forgives the sins of the people. He is a lamb, a shepherd, bread, blood.

‘Who was with him?'

The square falls silent. Lazarus is not like the rest of them. For an outsider, he isn't all bad, but no one expects him to stop what he's doing to listen to this kind of nonsense. He has his business interests, selling sheep to the Temple, and his powerful contacts in Jerusalem. His life is ordered, successful, unusual; he has no need of enlightenment.

The bringer of news smiles and opens out his arms. ‘Everyone is welcome at baptism.'

‘I mean, who's helping him? He'll have had someone with him.'

‘John the Baptist.' The messenger is confident again, now that he's safe with the facts. ‘John the Baptist and Jesus standing side by side in the river.'

‘Thought so. Someone else always has to go first.'

Lazarus sees his shepherd Faruq at the edge of the crowd. He takes the Bedouin by the elbow and leads him away, lowers his voice. ‘How was Jerusalem?'

Faruq looks back over his shoulder, but not for long. Lazarus pays the best prices, and always finds buyers. He has Faruq's future in his hands.

‘They've reduced the quota of animals again.'


Lazarus winces, rubs the back of his hand across his lips.

‘They still need sheep,' Faruq shrugs. ‘It could be worse.'

‘I'm thirsty, don't know why. Go and sort out the best of the lambs. It's time we took the initiative.'


Lazarus appears in only one of the four gospels, and at first John provides a minimal amount of biography:
‘A man named Lazarus, who lived in Bethany, was ill'
(John 11:1).

The village of Bethany survives to this day, about three miles from the city of Jerusalem. It spreads over the last of the high ground before the fall of desert to the salt Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. From Bethany on a clear day tour guides can point out, in the far distance, the leaden glint of heavy water.

Bedouin herders scrape a living from these downlands, their sheep grazing the
(poterium thorn) and sage plants that survive the slopes of rock and sand. The shepherds supplement their income selling camel rides to coach-class tourists at the service station midway between Jerusalem and the sea.

Before highways and petrol pumps, in the time of Lazarus, the Bedouin roamed this vast desert area. At Passover and other festivals they traded sheep at borderland villages like Bethany.

John does not identify the exact nature of Lazarus's illness.


Lazarus bangs open the gate. In the middle of the yard there is a bay tree with a circular bench around the trunk. His sister Martha is standing on the bench and picking dark green leaves for the pot. She is surprised to see him back so early. At last, she thinks, an opportunity to talk about money.

‘Not now.'

He goes inside the house, grabs a jug and plunges it into the urn of water against the north-facing wall. He upends the jug into his mouth, spills some, drinks some, shakes his head. He feels drowsy. He splashes water onto his face, blinks hard, searches for the centre of a vague headache.

Martha watches him from the doorway. She'll give him ‘not now'. If he wants to be ill he can set aside a day later in the year, in the summer. Passover is their busiest season, when honest believers decide how much they can spend sacrificing a sheep to absolve their sins. Lazarus will persuade them to spend slightly more.

‘Watch what you're doing!' Martha says. ‘You're spilling water over my floor.'

She's nearly forty, too old for a wife's work. Lazarus should be married by now.

Out in the courtyard the gate creaks.

‘We never get a minute.' Martha turns and wipes her hands on her apron. ‘Absalom, how good to see you. You're looking very well.'


Lazarus lives in Bethany, and he is ill.

John records no specific symptoms, nor any indication of how long the sickness lasts. This suggests that the details are unremarkable, and the most common and therefore least noteworthy illnesses in the ancient world are tuberculosis, eye diseases (glaucoma, trachoma, conjunctivitis), scabies, smallpox, shigellosis (dysentery) and malaria. There is also widespread malnutrition—xerophthalmia and other deficiency disorders.

Whatever Lazarus has, we know it was fatal. It is not, however, infectious. He lives with his two sisters:
‘Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair'
(John 11:1–2).

Their brother is falling ill, and towards the end of his illness the sisters will send for Jesus, and run to the gate when he arrives. Even when Lazarus is dying they will be healthy and able to make decisions. They are not sick at his deathbed, nor four days later when he comes back to life, nor in the brief time after his resurrection before Jesus leaves Bethany for Jerusalem.

Martha and Mary's evident vigour eliminates tuberculosis and smallpox, diseases that are highly infectious.


Lazarus gestures Absalom, the Rabbi and chief Elder of Bethany, to settle himself on a stool. ‘Our door is always open.'

Absalom has flyaway eyebrows that frighten children, but in the house of Lazarus he sits and squeezes his hands between his knees. He is no stranger here because Lazarus has a gift for friendship, and he makes Absalom welcome by despairing of the shocking weather—not a cloud in the sky—then bemoaning the price of sheep.

Lazarus is an incomer, but in his thirteen years in Bethany he has brought trade to the village and proved his loyalty by investing in a family tomb. Bethany is where he plans to die. ‘I'm sorry about your mother.'

Absalom's eyes moisten. ‘It was a blessing.' His eyebrows lower, hiding his grief. ‘Water, wine,' he says, then abruptly looks up. ‘You'll have heard about this wedding in Cana. What do you think?'

‘I think we have enough excitement of our own. The Temple priests are buying fewer lambs than they promised. We have to make sure that any lambs they do take are ours. That's why today we're going to see Isaiah.'


Malaria? Bethany is a village at the top of a hill. The wind blows, water is scarce and mosquitoes do not flourish. Lazarus owns his own tomb, so he is not poor, and therefore unlikely to suffer from malnutrition. Dysentery is caused by inadequate domestic hygiene, and Lazarus has his two sisters to cook and clean for him, with Martha famous down the ages for her commitment to housework.

Eye diseases are rarely fatal. As for scabies, it doesn't kill unless the victim is incredibly unfortunate.

Whereas Lazarus was born lucky. In another piece of vital information offered by the Gospel of John, Lazarus is the friend of Jesus.

Among all the people Jesus knows, and all the people Jesus meets, Lazarus is unique in the Christian New Testament. Not in coming back from the dead (there were others) but in being named as Jesus's friend. Jesus has disciples, some of whom he loves, but Lazarus is his only recorded friend.

And famously, unforgettably, in the shortest verse of the bible, Lazarus can make Jesus weep.




Friendships have to start somewhere; a definite place, a specific time. Lazarus and his sisters live in Bethany, in the south of Judaea near Jerusalem. Jesus grew up a hundred miles north in Nazareth. There is no biblical explanation of where or when Lazarus first became friends with Jesus.

There are, however, sources of information other than the gospels.

In the informal record Lazarus is everywhere. He appeals strongly to the imaginative mind, a recognisable figure on frescoes and marble reliefs throughout the ancient world. He and Jesus are the two characters most frequently depicted on the monuments of the Christian necropoli in Rome.

The story of Lazarus spreads by ripples and echoes: he appears in mosaics and sculptures, on ancient crockery and early Christian lamp covers. The iconographers of the early Church make him gleam with precious metals and, later, the painters of the Renaissance adore him.

In literature, as in the visual arts, Lazarus is remembered out of all proportion to his brief appearance in a single gospel, his name more familiar than any but the closest disciples'. In the course of two thousand years Lazarus has featured in medieval hagiographies, in mystery play cycles and illustrated manuscripts. He attracts the attention of French philosophy and the American stage, English poetry and the Russian novel.

These are the sources other than the bible that can enlighten the biography of Lazarus.


‘Fine,' Lazarus says. ‘Now. But make it quick. We're leaving for Jerusalem.'

Martha his sister is a local touchstone, instantly recognisable to writers native to the region: ‘Martha was the very embodiment of work,' says the Israeli writer Sholem Asch in
The Nazarene
(1939). ‘I can still see her standing in the yard, in the cool damp of a winter's day, washing clothes in a pail, or stooping over the open oven baking flat cakes, or else boiling lentils and greens in a great earthen pot: her squat, thick body wrapped in a sackcloth dress, her legs, red and swollen, showing beneath the skirt, which was too short . . . if she was not cooking, she was scouring vessels; if she was not washing clothes, she was in the garden tearing out weeds.'

She also takes care of the money, and is therefore the first to notice when trade falls off.

Lazarus is selling fewer sheep into the Jerusalem Temple. Martha has heard about his “distractions”, of course she has, just like everybody else, but this is more serious. His regular customers are leaving the city to get baptised in the River Jordan, where the atonements offered by Jesus are free. Sacri­ficial lambs on the other hand, like the ones sold by Lazarus, don”t come cheap. Nor do they cancel out sins to the apocalypse and beyond.

Even the sick, until recently a captive market, have started to look elsewhere. Instead of offering sacrifices at the Temple they gather outside the city walls, hoping to be first into the Bethesda pool when the surface of the water trembles.

Something out there is changing, something is wrong.

‘You have to make more of an effort, brother. You're not as young as you used to be.'

‘Martha, stop worrying. For as long as there's a god, sheep will be needed for sacrifices. That's how it's been since the time of Abraham. And anyway, I have a plan. I always have a plan, and if this works out we'll be settled for life. All three of us.'

‘We need Isaiah at the Temple to like you. Don't push your luck.'

‘I always push my luck,' Lazarus says. ‘And he's going to like me very much indeed.'


The question about when Lazarus befriended Jesus is partially answered in a book by the Portuguese novelist and Nobel prizewinner José Saramago. In
The Gospel According to Jesus Christ
(1991), Saramago identifies a moral flaw in the popular story of the nativity. Come and take a closer look at Bethlehem, Saramago says, where ‘the ashen shadows of twilight merge heaven and earth', and from where construction workers travel daily to the site of Herod's new Temple in Jerusalem.

Joseph, husband to Mary and father to Jesus, is cutting scaffold at the Temple when he overhears soldiers discussing an imminent massacre of children. He is horrified. Even more so when he learns where the slaughter will happen. Bethlehem, his own village, where he left his wife and child safe among other wives and children.

In the gospel according to Matthew, Joseph is forewarned by
‘an angel of the Lord'
(Matthew 2:13), who appears to him in a dream.

Either way, angels or soldiers, Joseph and Mary know in advance about the massacre. They need, urgently, to flee into Egypt so that one-year-old Jesus survives. It is his destiny.

Saramago dwells on the moral implications. Joseph and Mary escape into the desert. They knowingly leave the remaining Bethlehem children to die.

For Saramago, it is unthinkable that Joseph should save himself and his family at the expense of his neighbours' children. Joseph's moral cowardice benights his life from this point onward. He will not recover from the guilt of failing to alert the others, and is never again at peace.

BOOK: Lazarus is Dead
10.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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