John 11 – Four Days in the Grave

Bethany Bible Church   -  

During my study of John 11 this week, there were a few tidbits and issues that came up that I knew I wouldn’t be able to fully work out in the sermon (especially one as long as this sermon!). Strangely enough, each area that caught my attention centered around the same topic: Lazarus being in the grave for four days.
#1 – The significance of four days
Martha makes a big deal of Lazarus being in the grave for four days (11:39; cf. 11:17). She connects this with the odor that was likely to be associated with a corpse buried for that length of time.
But there may have been some added significance to the fourth day. Jewish tradition shortly after the time of Christ (which likely reflects beliefs during the time of Christ) teaches that the dead body is not truly and finally dead until the fourth day. In the Talmud (a source of Jewish tradition), it says, “The whole strength of the mourning is not till the third day; for three days long the soul returns to the grave, thinking that it will return (into the body); when however it sees that the color of its face has changed then it goes away and leaves it” (Gen. Rab. 100 [64a]; quoted in Beasley-Murray’s John, pg. 189-190).
In other words, the soul hovers around the body for three days after death, hoping for re-entrance. But once the body starts to decompose and the corpse changes color, the soul knows there is no going back and depart once and for all.
We must keep in mind that this is extra-biblical Jewish tradition. Scripture nowhere teaches this. But if it reflects the popular opinion or teaching of many Jews back then, it may give added significance to the emphasis on Lazarus being in the grave for four days.
To put it bluntly: the man was dead. There was no question about it. Had Jesus resurrected him on day two or three, it could have been cause for some to wonder whether it was merely a resuscitation of some sort instead of a true resurrection.
#2 – Where is Jesus’ Bethany?
There are two Bethany’s in John 11, though only one is mentioned by name. Mary, Martha and Lazarus live in Bethany that is about 2 miles from Jerusalem (11:18). The unmentioned Bethany is the one that is the topic of this question.
John 10:40-42 sees Jesus fleeing from Jerusalem and going “across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing at first” (ESV). Of course this leads us to ask, “Where was John baptizing at first?” Going back to John 1, we first see John baptizing “in Bethany across the Jordan” (1:28; later on John is found baptizing at Aenon near Salim – 3:23).
But just where is this Bethany?
The short answer is, we’re just not sure. But there are some educated guesses!
Many options have been suggested, but two tend to stand out among the opinions of scholars. D. A. Carson argues that John was referring to Batanea (Bashan in the OT), an area in the north-east, ruled by Herod’s relative Philip. John chooses to use the different spelling “Bethany” for Batanea in order to highlight the fact that Jesus began and ended His ministry in Bethany. Kostenberger, in his commentary on John, notes that this option is strengthened since 1:43 has Jesus leaving from Bethany to Galilee, which only takes a day. This would not be possible if John the Baptist’s Bethany was only 20 miles from Jerusalem (pg. 65; Galilee is up in the northern part of Israel).
If Carson/Kostenberger are correct, then Jesus had to travel almost 100 miles from Bethany/Batanea to Bethany near Jerusalem. Travelling at 20-30 miles/day, it would have taken about 4 days for Jesus and the disciples to reach their destination.
The other option is a place called “Bethabara,” which is located about 20 miles away from Jerusalem on the east of the Jordan. Origen was probably the first to argue for this, after travelling to the location and noting that there was no town called Bethany in that region. He suggested Bethabara as an alternate spelling, and many scholars picked this up (e.g., Merrill Tenney, Gary M. Burge, etc.).
In the end, it seems that Kostenberger’s reasoning should be favored, since it is difficult to argue how Jesus could have travelled 50+ miles in a single day if Bethany were located in the south-eastern part of Israel.
Because of the complicated nature of this issue and the uncertainty of the final answer, I thought it best to leave it to the discussion of the commentaries (and the blog!), not the sermon.
#3 – How do we count to four?
Sometimes John’s chronology is difficult to figure out. In John 11, by verse 39 we know Lazarus has been buried for four days. But how do we get to this number?
11:3 has a messenger telling Jesus that Lazarus “is ill.” Meaning, whenever the messenger was sent out, Lazarus was not dead, but dying.
11:6 has Jesus responding to this messenger by staying put for two more days.
11:11 takes place after these two days (cf. 11:7). Jesus says that Lazarus “has fallen asleep,” which indicates that Lazarus is at that time dead.
11:17 brings Jesus to the tomb where Lazarus has been buried for four days.
If Mary/Martha’s Bethany was only a day’s journey from Jesus’ Bethany (see Option #2 above), then this would necessitate that Lazarus died almost immediately after the messenger left to deliver the news of his illness (assuming Jesus didn’t take longer than a day to travel to Bethany). So the chronology would look like this:
Day 1 – Messenger sets out from Bethany; Lazarus dies as the messenger is on route (without the messenger knowing it) and is buried the same day.
Days 2-3 – Jesus hears the news and stays put two days (he could’ve also heard the news on Day 1, depending on when the messenger arrived).
Day 4 – Jesus travels to Bethany, finding Lazarus buried for four days.
(Keep in mind, Jewish reckoning usually counts a partial day as full.)
If Mary/Martha’s Bethany was four days’ journey from Jesus’ Bethany (see Option #1 above), then this would mean that Lazarus died right before Jesus set out to make the journey, not necessarily when the messenger gave the news. Jesus’ delay still did not cost Lazarus his life, since if He set out immediately, Lazarus still would’ve been dead and buried for two days.
It’s important to note that either scheme amounts to the same thing: Lazarus is in the tomb for four days when Jesus arrives. And either way, even if Jesus didn’t delay, Lazarus still would’ve been dead by the time Jesus reached Bethany.
Because neither of these chronological schemes made any real significance on the meaning and application of the text, I chose not to bog down the sermon and bring it up.
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