Eagle of St John - stained glass

Studying John 11 17-27, 38-44

Jesus discusses resurrection with Martha – or so we’ve always thought – and furiously raises Lazarus from the dead. We are studying John 11:17-27 and 38-44 for Sunday, July 24. John chapter 11 is a “load bearing wall” in the gospel of John. It draws together threads from earlier in the gospel, and it points forward to the end of the gospel and Jesus’ victory over death. Here are just a few notes on this well-known text – longer and later than usual, minimal as they are:

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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are on the third of our series of four lessons from John’s gospel, which we’re asked to consider in light of God’s new creation and our own partnership in that.

We are keeping in mind the attributes of John’s gospel:

  • its peculiarities, vis-à-vis the synoptics, especially its unique contents;
  • its recurrent symbolism – light/dark, sight/blindness, truth/lies, life/death, etc.
  • Jesus’ “I AM” speeches – one of which occurs in this text
  • its “high Christology” and references to all the persons of the Trinity, sometimes all at once
  • its depiction of Jesus as a professor of philosophical theology, including transcripts of his lectures
  • its troubling treatment of “the Jews” [certainly in our own post-Holocaust context]

I’ve recently learned that there’s a set of textual issues specifically affecting this chapter, related to the depiction of “Mary and Martha” right here, in the verses we’re reading. [More on that below.] That seems like something to keep in mind, with attention to whether it would make a difference for us as readers.

[From a literary standpoint, however, there’s a lot of foreshadowing going on in the undisputed part of this text, pointing towards John 20, the account of Easter morning, the empty tomb, and Jesus’ resurrection appearances. If Mary (Magdalene) had been here in chapter 11, it would add to that foreshadowing in an interesting way. It would also make a nice chiasm out of the appearances of Mary Magdalene and Thomas in John 11 (see John 11:7-16) and John 20 (see John 20:24-29). That seems like something this author would do on purpose.]

Our text comes part-way through the chapter, after the announcement of Lazarus’ illness, and its deathly consequences, and the account of Jesus’ delay in heading to Bethany – in Judea, where it’s clear death awaits Jesus, too. It wraps the dialogue between Jesus and Martha [or whoever], about resurrection and belief and the identity of Jesus, in a narrative that culminates with Jesus’ decisive command to Lazarus, and Lazarus’ emergence alive – but still unfree, bound foot, hand, and eyes by the trappings of death.

The narrative continues with the part of the chapter we’d never know was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. Maybe we’d be better off. It’s the story about the Pharisees in a panic and Caiaphas saying “it is better for you to have one man die for the people” and them all hatching plans to arrest and kill Jesus and Jesus going into hiding in “Ephraim.”

All of our text, however, is in the lectionary, for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (A). The last part is also read on All Saints Day (B).

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CLOSER READING: Verses 17-27 work like setting a scene – getting Jesus onstage, then getting his conversation partner – let’s call her “Martha” – onstage, and situating all the other characters: Lazarus in the tomb (for four days), Mary in the house, “the Jews” who’ve come to console the women, we guess from Jerusalem, there with her.

Once the scene is set, a remarkable dialog unfolds in verses 21-27. It’s all about Jesus being here, which means the difference between life and death, and specifically about resurrection. Forms of the resurrection word are repeated four times in verses 23-25.

The dialog is structured by an elegant use of two different Greek verbs for “saying,” so that

  • “Martha” starts things off by saying1 to Jesus “if you had been here, my brother had not died;”
  • Jesus answers by saying2 “he will rise again;”
  • she answers by saying2 “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day;”
  • he answers by saying1I am the resurrection and the life – the one believing/having faith in me, even if he [subjunctively] died, will live, and all living and believing/having faith in me never shall die – the effect of the grammar at the end seems to be a kind of pure and definite, without condition, assertion of the verb;
  • and finishes this off with a question: do you believe this?
  • which she answers by saying1 “I have believed/had faith that you are the Christ (or, Messiah), the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” (Compare John 1:9!)

Here’s what I see: the exchanges of saying2 articulate an existing notion of resurrection. These are wrapped in the exchanges of saying1, which affirm Jesus’ identity with God, his power of life, and the way his arriving presence constitutes the difference between life and death [for the whole world].

[I invite you to notice, really notice, how elegant and economical and theological and expansive that exchange is, and then marvel at the expressive literary genius of the author of the gospel of John.]

If we skip to verse 38, Jesus literally snorts in anger within himself. In any event, the text registers a response of indignant anger, in other contexts rendered “sternly warned” or “scolded.” This word lies behind the “greatly disturbed” of the NRSV.

The tomb with its stone we will meet again, in John 20, when we first learn of Jesus’ resurrection. Foreshadowing, I think.

Lazarus is described here as the one who had finished – it’s a common expression to mean “the dead,” but compare John 19:30, in which Jesus uses a related word. More foreshadowing?

There are several more echoes; once Jesus arrives, with his indignation, and tells “them” to take away the stone, and has his exchange about the odor of mortality vs. the sight of glory with “Martha,” in v41, “they” lift the stone and Jesus lifts his eyes and prays eucharistically to the Father.

In particular, giving thanks to the Father that the Father always hears Jesus, which Jesus mentions mentioning so that the surrounding crowd will be able to believe that “you [Father] sent me.” Jesus positions himself here as distinctly apostolic.

In v43, Jesus cries out. What he says to Lazarus sounds a lot like “Out here, now!!”

In v44, Lazarus, now described as the one having been dead, comes out. We see he’s been bound feet and hands with strips of linen, and has a towel wrapped around his visage – it’s an odd word, not the usual one for “face,” so it might remind us of something Jesus said about judging by appearances back in John 7:24.

[The word is also used to describe the face of the Son of Man in Revelation 1:16, which may or may not be relevant. If it is relevant, there’s more than one way to think about how. Maybe the author of Revelation wants to remind us that the Son of Man is the risen one. Then again, maybe it’s just a coincidence.]

The graveclothes feel like more foreshadowing of John 20: they’re the same kind the disciples find in the empty tomb, neatly folded and set aside. Lazarus couldn’t do that for himself. What are we supposed to think about Jesus?

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THE TEXT ISSUES: Elizabeth Schrader, a graduate student at Duke, has proposed that “Martha” in this chapter may be a scribal-editorial modification of the even earlier text of the gospel of John to which we don’t have direct access. Her proposal, based on her examination of the earliest available papyri, is that “Martha” in John 11 was originally “Maria,” and referred to Mary Magdalene.

A fair amount of Schrader’s work is available online. [Links to her published articles are at her website; one of the many video presentations of her work on Mary and Martha is here; summaries of the potential impact of her work at Religion News Service have been picked up more widely by other news outlets, like National Catholic Reporter and Presbyterian Outlook.]

Her proposition about the meaning of the name “Magdalene” – she argues “the Tower” – is somewhat less controversial, and evidently less novel. (See, for instance, Marg Mowczko on Mary Magdalene, 2014.) It’s still a big departure from what most Christians have been taking as “what we all know” about Mary Magdalene for centuries.

[Thanks a lot, Pope Gregory I, or so “everyone” says. There’s some urban-legendish flavor to all this. Here’s most of the infamous homily 33 – minus the argument about the identity of “the sinful woman.” Here’s some of that preliminary discussion, in English, for art historians. That art history site links to the Latin text of the homily. It turns out to be really difficult to track this stuff to its source.]

What we should think about all that I don’t know. We have the text we have. We have it by way of a tradition. That tradition, we know from everything we know about humans and their history, includes politics.

Politics is precisely what the people who are arguing that Mary Magdalene’s stock was sold short are alleging: that for some reason or reasons unspecified, the memory of Mary Magdalene’s importance in the early church was … modified in Christian texts, notably the text of the gospel of John.

If we were closer to the community in which that happened, or didn’t, or was thought by some people to have happened, this would probably all make more sense to us. We would probably have more than one opinion about it, too.

[Like we have more than one opinion now about this story.  Like James Snapp, Jr.’s on Schrader’s text criticism – definitely dismissive. Or Diana Butler Bass’s in “All the Marys” – definitely deeply interested. I don’t even know how to weigh these well enough to know whether what I just said was “both-sides-ism.” My eyes glaze over when I read more than two sentences of text criticism. But I used to write comments in the margins when my students wrote things like “what would our world look like if history had been different?” Since it wasn’t, and knowing how way leads on to way, I doubt we can ever get back to anything like a solid basis for answering a question like that. Nevertheless, Bass’s different question – would you read “Martha’s” confession differently than you would read “Mary the Tower’s” confession? And why do you suppose that is? – seems like an instructive one.]

We aren’t closer to that world, as we know. We have the church we have, for better and for worse. All we can do is go on from where we are.

The questions for me, from the perspective of thinking about the Bible and how we are to be hearing “the Word of God for the people of God” in it, all seem to have to do with our relationship to this text. What do we think this text “is,” or “is supposed to be”? Given what we think, how does this recent story about the text affect us? Do we have a preference for how it “will turn out”? Why? Does that tell us anything about ourselves, and way we read the Bible, and what we are looking to the Bible for? What does it tell us? What do we think is at stake for our faith in all this? Why do we think that?

Those are questions about us. But they may not be any less questions about God’s Word or The Truth for being that.

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I feel safe saying this: The key thing in this story – the story in chapter 11, and the one in the gospel of John – is that Jesus makes all the difference between death and life. Believing that is vital.

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Images: “Eagle of John,” Nheyob, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Resurrection of Lazarus” Matthias Gerung, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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2 responses to “Studying John 11 17-27, 38-44”

  1. Awesome. Thanx for this. I was just writing a few days ago an initial draft of my own devotional study of John 11 as part of a project I am writing for my wife. I have your attention now to help my mind have a broader conversation about it. A blessing I hadn’t expected.

    Liked by 1 person

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