Monday, November 13, 2006

The Rich Man and Lazarus

March 04, 2007
Luke 16.19-31

Luke's story of the rich man and Lazarus has sparked much debate regarding issues of the afterlife. Some argue over whether or not the story is a parable. (If so, this is the only one in which Jesus names a player.) This study hopes to look beyond such debates, to find the kernel of Jesus' presentation based on the given textual data.

As has been asserted throughout this study, Luke wrote to the high priest of 37-41 A.D., named Theophilus. Theophilus was one of five brothers, all of whom served as high priest in the first century. Their father was Annas, the high priest of 6-15 A.D. (see Luke 3.2; Acts 4.6). Theophilus' brother-in-law was the high priest during the time of Jesus' ministry and crucifixion, Caiaphas (again, Luke 3.2; Acts 4.6; and also Matthew 26.3; John 11.49). What relationship could there be between Theophlius' family and Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus?

There are several details in Jesus' story which implicate the priesthood as a corrupt enterprise, and a specific individual of that enterprise:

1. The rich man is said to be "clothed in purple and fine linen" (Luke 16.19). This is a description of the high priestly garments, according to Exodus 39.27-29: "The also make the coats, woven of fine linen, for Aaron and his sons, and the turban of fine linen, and the caps of fine linen, and the linen breeches of fine twined linen, and the girdle of fine twined linen and of blue and purple and scarlet stuff, embroidered with needlework; as the Lord had commanded Moses" (see also Leviticus 16.4). The apocryphal book of Sirach says likewise: "[The Lord] clothed [Aaron] in perfect splendor...with the sacred vestment, of gold and violet and purple, the work of an embroiderer" (45.8-11). Josephus notes the same: "[In Alexander's presence] The priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high priest in purple scarlet clothing..." (Antiquities 11.8.5 [331, Whiston]). So, Jesus' description of this rich man matches that of the high priest.

2. In Jesus' story, Lazarus laid "at his [the rich man's] gate" (Luke 16.20). This might very well refer to the gate which guarded the temple. Luke, in Acts 3.2, 10, mentions another beggar at the temple gate, there called Beautiful.

3. Jesus' story may have some close ties to the story told in John 11, in which Jesus raises his friend Lazarus from the dead. If so, Jesus' story in Luke turns John's history into an ironic presentation. First, note the aftermath of the miracle in John 11.47-53. Caiaphas the high priest sought to retaliate against Jesus' raising of Lazarus (11.49ff.). Second, note that Caiaphas was a member of the Sadducees (Acts 5.17). Some of the priests were Sadducees, some were Pharisees (see Acts 23.6). The Sadducees denied the resurrection of the dead, angels, and the spirit (Acts 23.8). Jesus' story in Luke 16 includes all three of these elements: allusion to Lazarus' resurrection, angels carrying Lazarus' body away, and several conscious figures after death. Jesus used this data to create an ironic story to show the priesthood's corruption, which shall be detailed below.

4. The rich man in Jesus' story is said to have five brothers (Luke 16.27-28). As mentioned before and above, Theophilus the high priest of 37-41 A.D. had four brothers, one brother-in-law, and a father who each served as high priest in the first century (see Wm. Whiston's editorial note in his transl. of Josephus, War n.635). If Jesus was exposing the priesthood in his story, which is an ironic presentation of the raising of Lazarus (as told in John 11), then Caiaphas would have been the rich man in Luke 16. He had five brothers[-in-law].

So, Jesus used all of these details to present an ironic story to the high priest Theophilus, implicating the priesthood and his family. The irony: Caiaphas the Sadducean high priest, who denied the resurrection from the dead, angels, and the spirit, begged father Abraham to raise Lazarus from the dead and send him as a witness to his family, to warn them of the coming judgment. Abraham's reply: "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets [which they surely knew well], neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead [my emphasis added]." Perhaps the greater irony: Jesus DID raise Lazarus from the dead! It was that fact that Caiaphas scoffed (John 11.49ff.).


One small note:

The rich man appeals to father Abraham, an appeal against which John had preached previously (Luke 3.8). (For more in Luke on Abraham as father, see 1.73; 13.16; 16.24; 19.9.)

Regarding the high priestly garments:

James VanderKam, scholar of Hebrew scriptures, writes: “During the period when the Romans assumed control of Judea, the governor took over [the high priestly garments] and permitted the high priest to have them only during festivals” (An Introduction to Early Judaism, 180). After Herod died, the garments were in the custody of Tiberius (14-37 A.D.). Then, as a favor, Vitellius (governor of Syria) gave the people back the garments. They remained in Jewish control until the death of Agrippa 1 in 44 A.D.. When Rome tried to reclaim the garments, the Jewish people sent a delegation to Rome and were apparently granted custody.

VanderKam concludes, “The garment was thought to convey such a powerful impression that the authorities worried about the political and social effect it might have” (181). The apocryphal Sirach 45.6-13 and chapter 50 indicate that the garments bestowed great splendor upon the high priest, Simon at the time (50.11; see also Wisdom of Solomon 18.24). Philo suggests that the garments had cosmic symbolism (Life of Moses, 2.109-126, esp. 2.117ff.). Josephus also gives an elaborate description of the garments (War, 5.6.7 [231-36, Whiston]). Indeed, he says the high priest was the "captain of [Israel's] salvation" (War, 4.5.2 [318, Whiston]).

If it is true that these garments bestowed such glory and (political) power upon the high priest, perhaps their absence helps explain why temple-defiant groups emerged. Theophilus, high priest of 37-41 A.D., would have been the first in some time to have enjoyed the priestly glory of old. (His father, Annas, high priest of 8-15 A.D., would have been the last to wear the garments before Theophilus.)


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