Lazarus Comes Out. But How?
In this well-known story, given to us only by John as the final, most powerful miracle of Christ, Lazarus has been dead in the tomb for four days, long enough for the body to stink, and the entrance to the cave has been covered by a boulder of some sort to keep the stench inside.
Read all of chapter 11 in John and its account of Lazarus in its entirety.
Here’s the New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition translation of our verses of immediate interest:
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (NRSVCE)
Observe that Jesus and the others remain outside the cavern, while Lazarus remains inside and out of reach.
Jesus frequently heals by physical action of touching. He almost always heals while standing in close proximity to the recipient, but on occassion heals from a distance (Syrophonecian woman’s daughter, Centurian’s servant, Capernaum official’s son). He even heals without awareness and action of his own (woman with an issue of blood).
With Lazaurus, the text doesn’t explicitly tell us when Jesus heals Lazarus and restores him to life. Perhaps it was when Jesus says “Lazarus, come out,” but note that Christ may not have been speaking to Lazarus as he shouts this, but to the crowd.
On the face of it, a dead man could not have heard Jesus shout for him to come out. Perhaps he said some words not recorded. Perhaps our Lord first said, “Lazarus! Come back to life.” Perhaps Christ did the actual restoration act without words. Conceivably, it might have been prior to this day, while Jesus was still on the road to Bethany near Jerusalem, but this would be inconsistent with the important fact that Lazarus has been dead for four days. We assume that restoration of life comes just prior to Jesus commanding Lazarus to come out, while many take the shouted words as the active measure.
Note John 5:28, where Jesus declares: “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice…” (NASB))
In any event, Jesus is now there at the tomb of dead Lazarus, four days (or more?) too late. The sisters of Lazarus are there, a crowd of mourners is there (some friends, some professional), Lazarus is there inside the cave tomb, and we are pretty sure Lazarus is wrapped up tightly. Somebody moves (rolls?) the stone, and the crowd anticipates the bad smell. Jesus shouts.
Here is our Bible Bit: How does Lazarus “come out” if he is wrapped up tightly from head to foot? Did he walk? Did he hobble? Did he hop? Or did a miracle action of Jesus move an alive but still incapacitaed Lazarus through the dirt and rock and out into the daylight amongst the crowd?
Lazarus remains bound. The text says so. Only after Lazarus comes out, John tells us, do the members of the crowd unbind him and let him go. The old fashioned word is that they “loose” Lazarus. There may be symbolism in this easily missed action.
Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go. (KJV)
And further, we assume that Lazarus is not just bound, but he is tightly bound, and incapable of walking or even, perhaps, speaking. The now living man cannot walk or crawl or wave his hands. He may not be able to speak, with his jaw bound tightly. Perhaps he can wiggle, but that is it.
The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible picks up on our easily missed bit:
John’s audience presumably knew that Lazarus would be tightly wrapped in linen cloths to keep his members straight and his mouth closed. If so, they would understand that it would take a miracle for Lazarus not only to be raised but even to emerge from the tomb.
Bible Bits will take this coming out to be a second miracle. Lazarus comes out only by miraculous movement by Christ.
Is this a reasonable observation by Bible Bits? Is this in fact a second miracle? And if this is a miracle, is writer John simply pointing out yet another matter of fact miracle, or is John expecting us to extend this observation to something else in the gospels?
Or perhaps this is not a miracle. Perhaps our text is flawed, or our English translation. Perhaps something has been innocently dropped in the transmission of the account, which would resolve the seeming impossibility of tightly tied Lazarus floating out of the cave.
Or perhaps our assumption that Lazarus is tightly bound and incapable of squirming his way out of the tomb is mistaken.
The commentary in the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges takes this view, not accepting our opinion that Lazarus is tightly bound and unable to walk:
[came forth] It is safest not to regard this as an additional miracle. The winding-sheet may have been loosely tied round him, or each limb may have been swathed separately: in Egyptian mummies sometimes every finger is kept distinct.
Charles Ellicott, in his Commentary for English Readers quotes church father Basil in his astonishment, yet suggests there has been no second miracle:
(44) And he that was dead came forth. — “Wonder at a wonder within a wonder!” is Basil’s comment on these words; and many of the older expositors regard the power to move, when bound hand and foot, as itself a miracle. But this seems not to be necessary, and if not necessary, is not to be resorted to. (Comp. Note on John 6:21.) The grave-clothes may have been bound round the limbs separately, as in the Egyptian mummies, and this would not prevent motion; or (and this is more probable) the body may have been “wrapped in a linen cloth,” which encompassed the whole, except the head (Matthew 27:59), but still left motion possible. The word rendered “grave-clothes” is used nowhere in the New Testament except in this passage. It means properly the bands or straps by which the linen sheet was fastened to the body, and which kept the spice from falling out. (Comp. John 19:40.) We find it used elsewhere for straps and thongs generally. They were made of rushes, linen,, and other materials. The word is used once in the Greek of the Old Testament, where it means the belts by which beds are girded (Proverbs 7:16).
Exell and Spence-Jones’ Pulpit Commentary points to other analysts, and suggests an Egyptian method of wrapping where the legs are wrapped separately:
The early commentators and Stier saw in this emergence of the swathed Lazarus an additional miracle, just as they augmented the force of the supposition involved in the ὄζει, into the fact that our Lord raised from death a putrefying corpse. Both suppositions would be unnecessary adjuncts of the proof of the glory of God and power of Christ. Lucke and others refer to the habit of swathing separate limbs, but in such a way as not to impede motion if the person thus swathed desired it. Meyer and Godet see no necessity for the suggestion of the early writers. Kuinoel thinks that ἐξῆλθε was used of the mere struggle of the swathed body to escape. The above supposition is the most probable. So Westcott.
For what our opinion is worth, Bible Bits will instead argue the case of a second miracle. We suggest that if Lazarus is capable of stumbling out of the tomb, he is also able to use his hands and arms to unwrap himself. We do not know exactly how Lazarus is bound, but are skeptical of claims that he is wrapped in a more mobile Egyptian style, and prefer local, Jewish, middle-class methods which allow the possibility of large amounts of wrapping and strips of binding.
We also like the possibility that a second miracle brings with it further “a-ha” moments.
If our view is correct, we wonder if there is an accompanying Johanine message not explicitly stated? Might John expect us to compare the death and tomb and resurrection stories of Lazarus and Christ? Is there something to find down this path? Christ comes out of the tomb after his death, alive and in the flesh. Both Lazarus and Christ have stones rolled or otherwise moved out of the way. Christ does not need his stone rolled away to escape (see his later appearance in the locked Upper Room), even though it is in fact rolled away (so others can enter). Does Lazarus need his stone moved? We think not. But did he? We note that he also needs his bindings unwrapped. Unlike Lazarus, Jesus not only returns to life but also escapes his cloth bindings. Lazarus can neither restore himself to life nor remove his bindings. Did the crowd loosen Lazarus from bindings in the way Christ empowers his apostles (and all Christians?) to bind and loosen sinners in separation from and connection to the church? (See Matt 16:19 and 18:18) Is this what John expects us to see? Yes? No?
Back to the King James version:
John 11:44 And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go.
Matt 18:18 Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Matt 16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.
Is there a connection here, or are we inventing a message not given by John?
What does your commentary or study bible say?
The Reformation Study Bible comments on the possibility of a dead Lazarus hearing the voice of Christ:
11:43 Lazarus, come out. The dead cannot hear, but Jesus wanted those present to see that God’s voice can raise the dead (5:28, 29). This divine call that gives life to the dead vividly illustrates God’s call to the spiritually dead that raises them to spiritual life (Eph. 2:5).
The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the New Testament remarks:
Though the shaft of the cave could have been vertical or horizontal, from the way Lazarus came out as well as from archaeological evidence and mishnaic regulations, it would appear that the cave was horizontal.
We do not quite understand Zondervan here. Are the writers of this commentary suggesting that Lazarus somehow rolled his way out of a horizontal burial nook and central hallway?
Burial practices did in fact vary between Old and New Testament times, Greek and Roman times and regions, Egyptian and Judean places, Jewish and non-Jewish cultures, and rich and poor classes. We do not know with certainty the exact number and size and weights of sheets, cloth strips, and facial towel wrappings used for Lazarus. Even if we knew the socio-economic class of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, and also knew the burial customs of Jews of this class in 33 AD in Bethany of Judah, we still would not know the exact wrapping mechanisms and materials for Lazarus. Perhaps the women had only one small sheet because all the others were in the laundry on the day of death. This is minutia we cannot know.
About as close as we can get is that suggested by Zondervan Illustrated Backgrounds:
“The corpse was customarily laid on a sheet of linen, wide enough to envelop the body completely and more than twice the length of the corpse. The body was so placed on the sheet that the feet were at one end, and then the sheet was drawn over the head and back down to the feet. The feet were bound at the ankles, and the arms were tied to the body with linen strips… . Jesus’ body was apparently prepared for burial in the same way (cf. 19:40; 20:5, 7).” The custom of wrapping the hands and feet of a dead person in linen cloths is not attested elsewhere in Jewish texts. Frequently, deceased loved ones were dressed in flowing and valuable garments, a practice later abolished by Rabbi Gamaliel II. Yet contrary to pagan custom the Jews did not bind up their dead to prevent them from returning to life.
The word for “strips of linen” (keiriai) is used several times in fragments of medical papyri suggesting narrow strips tied around the body. “Fine linen” is frequently mentioned as an Egyptian export and is associated with the wealthy in the Old Testament. In rabbinic times, it was thought that at the final resurrection the dead would rise in their clothes. “R. Ḥiyya b. Joseph [c. a.d. 260] further stated: The just in the time to come will rise [apparelled] in their own clothes” (b. Ketub. 111b). “R. Eliezer [c. a.d. 90] said: All the dead will arise at the resurrection of the dead, dressed in their shrouds … and the people who descend into the earth dressed (with their garments), will they not rise up dressed (with their garments)? … Learn from Samuel, the prophet, who came up clothed with his robe … (1 Sam. 28:14)” (Pirqe R. El. 33).
And a cloth around his face (11:44).
The face was bound up with another cloth, called soudarion (a loan word from the Latin sudarium, “sweat-cloth”), which in life was often worn around the neck (cf. b. Mo’ed Qaṭ. 27a).
Our favorite John Gill, in his Exposition of the Entire Bible, takes the it-is-another-miracle view:
And he that was dead came forth,…. That is, he who had been dead, being now made alive, and raised up, and set on his feet, came out of the cave:
bound hand and foot with grave clothes; not that his hands were bound together, and much less his hands and feet together, with any bands or lists of cloth; but his whole body, as Nonnus expresses it, was bound with grave clothes from head to foot, according to the manner of the eastern countries, Jews, Egyptians, and others, who used to wrap up their dead in many folds of linen cloth, as infants are wrapped in swaddling bands: and their manner was to let down their arms and hands close by their sides, and wind up altogether from head to foot: so that there was another miracle besides that of raising him from the dead; that in such a situation, in which he could have no natural use of his hands and feet, he should rise up, stand on his feet, walk, and come forth thus bound, out of the cave:
and his face was bound about with a napkin; the use of which was not only to tie up the chin and jaws, but to hide the grim and ghastly looks of a dead corpse; and one of the same price and value was used by rich and poor…
Please read the Bible for yourself. And please learn from the many Godly analysts of scripture which have come before us. What does your commentary say on the matter of Lazarus’ means of emerging from the tomb?