Fictionalized representations of biblical characters often miss the mark. Nevertheless, the Bible serves as a vast treasury of plots and characters, including intriguing hints of narratives read between the lines. One of the most fascinating but little-known characters in the New Testament is Lazarus of Bethany—The Friend of the Lord.
The scriptures do not tell us how Jesus of Nazareth became a friend of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha, and Mary who lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Ann McIntyre’s novel offers an imaginative but scripturally consistent backstory that links Jesus and Lazarus from their teen years through the passion and death of Jesus and beyond. The author builds on the scriptural foundation with material gathered outside of the scriptures that support the notion that Lazarus, although at first reluctant, served as an apostle of Christianity.
The author explains:
Outside the Gospels, there are stories that Lazarus lived in Kiton [now Laranca] Cyprus, and that he was named its first Bishop by St. Paul and St. Barnabas. The Church of St. Lazarus is there and is said to house his second grave. Other stories have the Bethany siblings living their mission in southern France. They miraculously arrived there after a forced journey by boat. There are a number of churches built there in their honor, including another burial site for Lazarus. The Gospel does not tell us what happened to Lazarus after Jesus brought him back to life. We have no idea how the miracle affected Lazarus. He remains a silent witness to his friend who loved him. This story is a fictional offering about Lazarus of Bethany and his relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. It is a story about two boys who lived in an occupied state, in a troubled land, and grew into manhood together. It is a story of two men, two deaths, two resurrections, and the enemies of the truth who sought to destroy them both. It is a story of doubt, and the journey to faith, of fear, and the journey to courage, of bitterness and the journey to forgiveness.
The author addresses other poorly explained issues in the Gospels such as the relationship between Jesus and his brothers and sisters, the family connection to Zebedee the fisherman and his sons James and John, and the unusual link between the early Christian community and Pontius Pilate.
Although a compelling work of historical fiction, Lazarus of Bethany offers an inspirational message. It shows Lazarus, Martha, and Mary as close personal friends to Jesus. Lazarus, a priest in the Temple of Jerusalem, experiences conflict as Jesus gradually reveals that God is his father. Lazarus, of all people, had an early exposure to Jesus as a dear friend and extraordinary person, but Lazarus resisted Jesus and only reluctantly became a disciple. Martha and Mary knew that Jesus had the power to heal and raise the dead. When Lazarus died, they blamed Jesus. Their reaction resembles that of so many who lose a close relative or friend, especially when prayers had been offered to save that person’s life. Mary’s passionate washing of the feet of Jesus represents the fervent love that many devoted Christians offer to God.
On two counts, the cleverness of the novel and the spiritual benefits of the Lazarus story make Lazarus of Bethany a rewarding read, especially during Lent and the Easter season.
Louis Everly reminds us in Joy: Meditations on the Joyful Heritage of Christianity, his inspirational book on the Easter season that Catholics dutifully sacrifice throughout the fifty days of Lent but forget to celebrate the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost. They pray the Stations of the Cross but neglect the Stations of Joy. There’s no better guide to both the Lenten and Easter events than Lazarus of Bethany, a childhood friend of Jesus.