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“In churches observing the Byzantine Rite, Lazarus Saturday is a leading religious festival. Bright colours are used for vestments and the Holy Table, and uniquely in the Christian year, the standard order of service for a Sunday can be celebrated on a different day of the week.

For one Saturday every year, a week and a day before Easter, Lazarus is the equal of Jesus. In the Apolytikion for St. Lazarus they sing We cry out for you, O Vanquisher of Death! On Lazarus Saturday the Russians bring out the caviar. The Greeks make a spiced bread called Lazarakia, shaping the dough into a man bound for burial.

Catholics and Protestants are less enthusiastic: perhaps they’re inhibited by three of the four gospel writers who ignore Lazarus completely. In some ways they’d prefer him to disappear, but Lazarus keeps coming back. The memory of Lazarus is stubborn, and insists on his survival.

In Jerusalem on the Saturday after the execution of Jesus, one week after the resurrection of Lazarus, it is feasible that Lazarus Saturday will become the central day of a newly forged religion. Jesus will be secondary, because Lazarus has vanquished death. He is a survivor, and the only living pathway to god.”

In The Testament of Mary Colm Tóibín invents a humanistic version of the cruxification of Christ, retelling Jesus’ last days from the vantage point of his mother Mary. Richard Beard’s Lazarus is Dead is more inventive because Lazarus only appears in one of the four gospels, and John’s version is considered less reliable than Mark, Matthew or Luke.

In John11:1 there is a small reference. “A man named Lazarus, who lived in Bethany, was ill.” In John 11:1-2, “Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, who brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.” In John 11:3, obliquely there may be a reference to Lazarus: “So the sisters sent word to Jesus, ‘Lord the one you love is sick.'” “when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was for two more days.” (John 11:6). Jesus is rebuked for his delay by Mary and Martha, telling him that if he had been there Lazarus would not have died (John 11:21 and 32). Lazarus is the only friend of Jesus mentioned in the Bible. It is a harsh way to treat a friend. In John 12:10-11, after the resurrection “So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus too, because on his account many Jews were rejecting them and believing in Jesus.”

The seventh miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is not expressly found in the gospels. There is an indirect reference in John 12:9. “A large crowd for Jews found out that Jesus was there [in Bethany] and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus.”The marketing benefits of raising the dead is questioned by Jesus according to Luke: “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses the Prophet, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:29-31).

Lazarus is not the first to vanquish death, nor the first that Jesus has resurrected. He and Jesus are childhood friends in this novel. Lazarus is the leader, the risk taker. Jesus is the timid follower. He cannot save Lazarus’ brother Amos from drowning, nor can he resurrect him. They go there separate ways, Lazarus becoming successful in Bethany by selling sheep for sacrifice to the rabbis. He chisels them, but as he is ambitious he seeks the chief rabbi’s daughter in marriage, because she has physical problems and has not found a more suitable match. He maintains a mistress prostitute who he loves. His illnesses are like the seven plagues compounded. With each new miracle performed by Jesus, his condition worsens. The healer that he hires, who is in the pocket of Cassius, the Roman administrator, cannot cure him. Cassius prefers to have Lazarus to be the messiah because he is more manageable than Jesus.

The Lazarus story has many variations in literature and art. The novel reviews them while maintaining the story line. Aside from these interesting critiques, the novel can be funny. “The disciples were practically strangers to Jesus. Also they were incredibly slow. They needed every story repeated, every lesson explained with exemplary images from their simple peasant lives. ‘Fishermen, Lazarus said. ‘They carry around that smell.  Rotting fish. In the web between their fingers.'”

In 890 CE a tomb was discovered with the inscription “Lazarus, Bishop of Larnaca. Four days dead. Friend of Jesus.” The bones of this Lazarus are kept beneath Agios Lazarus Orthodox Church. Lazarus is an indestructible icon that the Church could not erase.

The many Lazarus stories in literature and art could make an interesting series of readings and discussions for book clubs that have an interest in religion. I would recommend this book in any case.

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