Why Don’t the Synoptic Gospels Recount the Raising of Lazarus?

Some critics have cast doubt on the veracity of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel because it is not recorded in the other three Gospels. John’s Gospel is believed to be the last Gospel written, so the critics allege that John invented the story to further his particular agenda. Andreas Köstenberger, in The Gospels and Acts (The Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible), argues against this viewpoint.

This critique is part of a larger argument against the historicity of John’s Gospel based on its omission of many events found in the Synoptics and its inclusion of material absent from the other Gospels. However, this critique is ultimately unconvincing. For no matter one’s theory as to how John composed his Gospel, it is apparent that he had a large amount of material from which to choose. If John was aware of the Synoptics as he was writing, which is probable (see Bauckham 1997a, esp. 147– 71; Köstenberger 2009, 553– 55), then he could reasonably be expected to assume much of the material they contain.

On the other hand, if John wrote without knowledge of the Synoptics, then it is likely that at least some of the differences can be attributed to the large amount of material from which he had to choose. This corresponds with what John later writes: ‘Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of His disciples that are not written in this book’ (20: 30). Craig Blomberg rightly notes, ‘Any two ancient historians’ accounts of a given person or period of history differ from each other at least as much as John does from the Synoptics, when they do not rely on common sources for their information’ (Blomberg 2007, 207).

In addition, it stands to reason that John had his own theological emphases and unique perception of the significance of the events surrounding Jesus, not to mention his own individuality, style, interests, and distinctive eyewitness recollection from which to draw.

If the raising of Lazarus really did occur, why would the other Gospel authors fail to include it in their biographies? Surely an event of this significance would necessitate inclusion, the critics argue.  Köstenberger disagrees:

Why does an event require multiple attestations in the Gospels to be considered historical? Throughout the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus performs a host of miracles, including raising people from the dead (an admittedly rare feature), so critics certainly cannot legitimately argue that Lazarus’ resurrection fails to comport with the general Synoptic portrait of Jesus. Although it is impossible to know for certain why a given author selects or omits particular material in his or her account, one possible reason for the omission of the story of Lazarus in the other Gospels is their focus on Galilee (the raising of Lazarus takes place in Judea). Also, in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Bauckham (2006, 184– 87) cites favorably G. Theissen’s theory of ‘protective anonymity,’ according to which the evangelists sought to shield individuals who were still living from persecution by not naming them. If Lazarus was still alive when the Synoptic Gospels were written, but died in the interim between their publication and the composition of John’s Gospel, this, likewise, may account for the Synoptic non-inclusion of the account and John’s inclusion of it. Lazarus’s death would have meant he no longer needed protection from persecution, so that John was free to include the account of his raising from the dead by Jesus.

  • Trevor

    This was good. The synoptic gospels each describe specific miracles, but does not give an exhaustive list of each miracle. There were other miracles not described there. John simply chose to describe one of those other miracles.