Lazarus & The Fourth Gospel: Did John Write John?

Blogs exist not merely to proclaim truth (for that we have the pulpit), nor do they exist strictly for academic discovery (as in journals and monographs).  The Blogosphere is...

Blogs exist not merely to proclaim truth (for that we have the pulpit), nor do they exist strictly for academic discovery (as in journals and monographs).  The Blogosphere is a happy dimension where ideas can be tested or even just simply suggested.  It is the tentative nature of Blogs that allow me the opportunity to be a bit more risky and provocative than I would normally prefer.  Naturally, this post will see opposition, but consider my thoughts for a moment.  I’d like to suggest that Lazarus wrote the Gospel of John.

At first, I should note that my arguments for this are strictly literary.  I will not address the Church tradition regarding Apostolic authorship, nor the historical issues regarding John the Elder (see Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses).  I should also note that I have never read Ben Witherington’s arguments in favor of a similar position (as I’ve been told).  What proceeds here is strictly literary, and as I’ve said before, if I only have the Fourth Gospel and nothing else, these arguments are fairly compelling (at least to me).

Another preliminary comment, one should not consider this view either liberal or heretical.  For one, the Gospel of John is anonymous (like the rest of the Gospels and the Letter to the Hebrews).  Speculation regarding authorship of these writings is not the same as speculation on the authorship of epistles attributed to an author in the text itself (such as the epistles of Paul, Peter, etc).  Secondly, the suggestion being made here is that a dead man wrote the Fourth Gospel.  In case you’re ready to cry foul, nothing is more conservative than to suggest that a dead man wrote a book!

Now, I have three arguments that compel me to at least re-think the authorship of the Fourth Gospel on internal grounds.  I will address them in the order of what I consider to be least speculative to most speculative.

The most compelling argument for me is based on the literary character of the Beloved Disciple.  Since the narrative does not tell us explicitly who this person is, the question of his (her?) identity is open for discussion.  Thus, if we follow the narrative we will notice some interesting things.  Most intriguing is the fact that the character of the Beloved Disciple is not introduced until after the Lazarus narrative in John 11.  When one looks closely at that chapter it is clear that Jesus exudes the most amount of emotion and pathos in the entire Gospel.  Jesus is told of Lazarus’ demise by Mary and Martha with the statement, “the one whom you love is sick” (Jn 11.3).  The narrator then quickly reminds the reader that Jesus loved Mary, her sister, and Lazarus (Jn 11.5).  Jesus refers to Lazarus as “our friend” (Jn 11.5).  When Jesus saw Lazarus’ sisters and the surrounding Jews weeping he was deeply disturbed (Jn 11.33) and then wept (Jn 11.35).  While weeping the crowd exclaimed, “See how he loved him” (Jn 11.36).  Before raising Lazarus from the dead, the text notes again that Jesus was ‘deeply moved’ (Jn 11.38).  Now after this scene in the narrative we find the first reference to the Beloved Disciple in Jn 13.23.  From a narratival standpoint, does it make more sense to use a title like “the Beloved Disciple” as a circumlocution for a character already introduced into the narrative or to a brand new character?  Chapter 11 presents us with a disciple whom Jesus loved, and it makes good sense that as the designation “the Beloved Disciple” is a reference to a character that the reader has already found Jesus to love dearly: Lazarus.

The second argument relates to the epilogue of the Gospel.  After Peter was told how he was to die (Jn 21.18-19), he then pointed the finger at the Beloved Disciple and asked, “What about him?”  Jesus essentially replied that his death was not important for Peter since his concern was to follow the Lord.  Then the text tells us that a rumor spread that the Beloved Disciple would not taste death (Jn 21.23).  Think about this for a moment.  Why would a rumor like this spread?  To my mind, it would make more sense if this rumor spread about someone who had already died.  Certainly the disciples would have been confused about the differences between resuscitation and resurrection.  Since Lazarus has already died will he die again?  This would have naturally led to the kind of rumor we see here at the end of the narrative.

The third argument (and admittedly the most speculative) relates to the description of Peter and the Beloved Disciple racing to the tomb on Resurrection Sunday.  We are told that the Beloved Disciple reached the tomb first, but did not enter the tomb right away.  Peter entered first, and then the Beloved Disciple entered.  My question about this scene is: why the details about racing and stopping and entering?  Suggestions have been made (though equally speculative) that this scene shows us that the Beloved Disciple was younger than Peter (hence faster), or that Peter held authority (really? one needs authority to enter the tomb?).  Yet, I want to suggest that the Beloved Disciple hesitated in entering because he did not want to go back into a tomb.  Call me fanciful, but why else narrate this scene as such?

Of course, stepping away from tradition is difficult.  Thus, I only suggest this tentatively.  The best argument I’ve received against this position (over a delicious lunch of all you can eat Chinese food with Darrell Bock) is that the Synoptic tradition records that only the twelve disciples were present in the upper room.  That’s a good argument, but again, my concern is with the internal narrative of the Fourth Gospel so it does not ultimately persuade me (although it probably should).  It is also tough to consider that the Apostle John, one of the three pillars of the early church (Gal 2.9), would not have contributed to a Gospel in some way.  Some suggest on the basis of anonymity that John must be the author (since the other Apostles are named).  However, reference is made to the ‘sons of Zebedee’ in Jn 21.2 so there isn’t true anonymity if John wrote it (and this argument couldn’t rule out James!).  Furthermore, it is curious why John the Baptist is referred to simply as ‘John’ in this Gospel and never as ‘John the Baptist’ (Jn 1.6, 15, 19, 26, 32, 35, 40; 3.23, 24, 25, 26, 27).  This is all the more striking if the author of this Gospel was also named John.  One might expect a title like ‘the Baptist’ for the sake of clarity (not to mention the Gospel tradition).  What’s more, where are the key events from the Synoptics that the Apostle John experienced, like the Transfiguration?  Wouldn’t such an event fit the author’s emphasis on the glory of Christ quite nicely?  Perhaps the author of this Gospel was not present at that event?  Perhaps Lazarus’ authorship might be the key to many of the divergences between the Fourth Gospel and the Synoptics?

By way of ending this discussion, I’d like to suggest ways to move forward with this issue.  It is possible, that although the Beloved Disciple could be Lazarus, the Gospel may have been written by someone else.  The epilogue of the Gospel appears to connect the author and the Beloved Disciple (Jn 21.24), yet the first person plurals in this verse suggest the presence of a community or other influences behind the author.  Perhaps the situation is much like the Gospel of Mark.  Peter himself did not write the Gospel, but tradition suggests that he oversaw Mark’s composition.  Considering the parallels of language between the Fourth Gospel and the epistles of John (which are attributed to a figure named John), perhaps the Apostle John helped to oversee Lazarus’ composition of the Fourth Gospel?

These are my thoughts on this issue. Now tell me why I’m wrong! : )

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Biblical Studies
John Anthony Dunne

John is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of St Andrews working under Prof. NT Wright.
30 Comments on this post.

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  • ben Witherington
    27 September 2011 at 7:03 pm

    O.K… I’ve read your argument, it’s now time for you to read mine in What Have They Done With Jesus.

    BW3

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    • John Anthony Dunne
      John Anthony Dunne
      28 September 2011 at 4:29 am

      Prof. Witherington, thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts. I’ll definitely look over what you’ve argued before me on this issue. I’ve postponed reading your work so that I think my own thoughts first, but since I don’t foresee publishing anything on this its probably about time. Thanks again!

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  • Sean Thomas
    27 September 2011 at 7:31 pm

    John,

    I’m not sure the origin of the tradition of John’s authorship, but wouldn’t this be some what of a credibility issue if the 4th Gospel was possibly authored by someone other than John. The Synoptics do not indicate their author’s, but tradition has always been definitive as to who authored these books. Hebrews it seems has always been a toss up (is it Paul, is it Clement, etc.). I’m being speculative too, but I would expect tradition to say that the authorship of the 4th Gospel is also a toss up. It seems that tradition has been more definitive on this issue though. Also, tradition (as you already stated) dictates that Peter oversaw the writing of Mark’s Gospel, but authorship is attributed to Mark and not Peter. I would expect a similar outcome if John oversaw the writing of the 4th Gospel and therefore not have authorship attributed to him, but to Lazarus. This post is very insightful and has given me a lot to ponder.

    P.S. the amazon link to Bauckham’s book has the symbol for the British Pound, which I thought was awesome!

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    • John Anthony Dunne
      John Anthony Dunne
      28 September 2011 at 4:31 am

      Thanks Sean, tradition is a difficult issue, but I’m interested in the evidence present in the text itself. Its hard to ignore the connection between the Beloved Disciple and Lazarus. Of course, tradition is why I’m hesitant to suggest something absolutely.

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  • Brad
    28 September 2011 at 12:31 am

    Interesting read. My concern with attributing the authorship to Lazarus is that it seems he lacks the plausible authority among the disciples to do so. As you mentioned, John was a pillar in the church. He was also one of Jesus’ “inner three” who witnessed the transfiguration and prayed with Jesus apart from the others at Gethsemane. Whoever wrote the 4th gospel presented a high Christology so extreme it’s difficult to imagine anyone doing so who was not a recognized early church authority. While we can see some evidence of John’s leadership role in the first century, I can’t think of any attributed to Lazarus. I suppose it’s possible for a secondary figure to pen such an important book and perhaps Luke could be considered as an example. It still seems to me Luke’s writings are more theologically dependent on his “eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:1-4) and perhaps mostly on Paul. While the author of the 4th gospel has a prologue that is so audacious and bold with no reference to any other authority. It’s hard to imagine Lazarus writing such a work.

    Secondly, Bauckham makes a lot of the subtle rivalry between Peter and the author. He believes the author intentionally constructed his book around an inclusio involving himself and Peter. It seems odd that Lazarus would do such a thing when there is little evidence they knew each other well. While there is obviously a lot of evidence Peter and John spent time together.

    Finally, as I sit here thinking about it, doesn’t this theory also force Lazarus to be a fisherman (John 21:7)? This is something else that seems improbable since Bethany wasn’t near the Sea of Galilee.

    Just some questions. I like the out of the box thinking though John. I love the literary criticism you brought out. I think is so cool to see how much Jesus loved the author of the 4th gospel and how loved this author must have still felt when he wrote it all those years after the event.

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    • John Anthony Dunne
      John Anthony Dunne
      28 September 2011 at 4:34 am

      Brad, thanks for your comments! I especially appreciated your second and third point. The rivalry between Peter and the BD is worth delving deeper into, and the fisherman point is worth thinking through a bit.

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  • Edward Klink
    28 September 2011 at 12:31 am

    John,

    I appreciated your insights. Your second and third points are barely literary, unlike your claim, and most more historical reconstructions sprouting from the text. Your first is a much more literary, but without doing justice to the “literary character” (your words) of the BD on its own terms, without digging merely for a historical referent. I wonder if it is possible (or beneficial) to make this argument from a literary perspective alone.

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    • John Anthony Dunne
      John Anthony Dunne
      28 September 2011 at 4:38 am

      Dr. Klink, thanks for making this distinction more key. Admittedly, the second and third points are more speculative. I guess I subsumed them all under the category of “literary” since I am interested in the textual evidence alone (as opposed to the historical arguments). I should familiarize myself more with proper literary approaches to John’s Gospel. Any suggestions?

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  • Matt Wilcoxen
    Matt Wilcoxen
    28 September 2011 at 1:43 am

    Frankly, while this is a bit interesting, it seems to me to be a rather strange undertaking (no pun intended). How would something as remarkable as this not have some support in the tradition? You have to posit some sort of conspiracy theory about why Lazarus’ authorship (or inspiration) has remained hidden within the text for all these centuries.

    Also, to some of your points:

    1. Your first point says that the character of the Beloved disciple does not show up until after the quasi-resurrection of Lazarus in chapter 11. This is true, but everything after chapter 11 telescopes down to a very short period of time in relation to the first half of the gospel. The fact that chapters 12-21 are so much less compressed in relation to chapters 1-10 allows room for characters to emerge. There is not much about any of the disciples–even Peter–between the prologue and chapter 13. In sum: we have no way of knowing whether the advent of the ‘beloved disciple’ is due to the fact that he’s Lazarus, or a literary shift that is undoubtedly occurring around chapter 11.

    2. You speculate that the rumor about the beloved disciple not dying was due to the fact that everyone knew he had been raised from the dead. The text itself says that the rumor was caused by Jesus’ words: “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” It seems like you have to dismiss this literary cause and posit your own historical cause behind what is explicit in the text. Seems dubious to me.

    3. Your third point is an interesting idea, but it assumes that the text is speaking about the ‘beloved disciple.’ Why assume this? If we are going to be so strict about the word “love” identifying the beloved disciple (as you argue that it does in chapter 11), then you ought to take note of the rather conspicuous absence of the word in 20:3-4,8 (and 18:15 too, perhaps). Literarily speaking, this could refer to yet another character in the gospel. It is not certain that “the other” disciple is also the “beloved disciple” is it?

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    • Matt Wilcoxen
      Matt Wilcoxen
      28 September 2011 at 2:06 am

      I say quasi-resurrection because I assume that most would have understood that what happened to Lazarus was manifestly NOT the resurrection they were all hoping for (i.e., the Daniel 12:1-3 resurrection).

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    • John Anthony Dunne
      John Anthony Dunne
      28 September 2011 at 4:44 am

      Matt, thanks for your sharp critique. As the tone of my post no doubt conveyed, I’m not at all sold on this idea. I have certain hang-ups that lead me to rethink the authorship. You’re right, tradition is strong and the lack of historical evidence for the authorship of Lazarus could be a downright conspiracy theory. I also appreciate your comment about the shrinking scope of 1-11 vs. 12-21, although I remain privy to the idea that the BD is a circumlocution for a character that the narrative has already introduced. Anyways, thanks for bringing the wood!

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    • John Anthony Dunne
      John Anthony Dunne
      28 September 2011 at 5:05 am

      Oh and I forgot to mention that I completely appreciated the undertaking pun!

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      • Matt Wilcoxen
        Matt Wilcoxen
        28 September 2011 at 9:52 am

        I didn’t mean it to be too sharp. BTW, we miss you over here. Hope you’ve located some good beer in St. Andrews.

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  • Andrew Faris
    28 September 2011 at 2:14 pm

    JD,

    What about the literary relationship between the Epistles of John and the Fourth Gospel? Isn’t there enough stylistic and thematic overlap between the Epistles and at least 1 John that we should have to think pretty seriously about them having the same authors?

    And this really is a question, by the way. I have spent relatively little time with 1 John.

    Andrew Faris
    Someone Tell Me the Story

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    • John Anthony Dunne
      John Anthony Dunne
      28 September 2011 at 3:20 pm

      Faris, this is something that I’ve definitely thought a lot about. Truth is I’ve read 1 John many many times since I often use it as a warm up for my Greek on occasion. Its a suggestion like this that makes me wonder if the BD is different from the author of the Gospel. This is why I suggested that perhaps John was associated with the Gospel in a strong way (such as oversight). Obviously there are many holes to the Lazarus suggestion and I’ve never been fully convinced. I posted this more as a way to get better objections to the Lazarus view because at the moment I remain undecided on the authorship of the Gospel. But I just can’t shake some of the evidence I’ve listed here. And don’t forget that we’re all allowed one stupid view, remember?!

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      • Matt Wilcoxen
        Matt Wilcoxen
        28 September 2011 at 4:13 pm

        Hey, I am curious as to the social context of your new view on the authorship of the FG. Have you been in correspondence with one Barty Lovebucket? He is known to have strong effects on unsuspecting minds.

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  • J.F. Arnold
    3 October 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Hey John,

    This is an interesting piece. I find your first point more convincing than your latter two, but I think I’ve got the same hesitations you do (tradition, for instance).

    The question I have (and which I think I will address a bit over at Evangelical Outpost) is this: is there a benefit to this sort of speculation, totally over-and-against the traditional belief of the church? I stand as a pretty resolute Protestant, but bucking against tradition for the sake of it in itself doesn’t seem terribly helpful.

    On the other hand, this is an interesting project. It forces me to think, consider evidence, and see if I can or should accept the beliefs of the early church. Those beliefs have weight to their argument, I think, partially by their age and partially by their wide agreement, but now I must align myself actively rather than passively, having been presented with a possible alternative.

    Thoughts?

    -James

    P.S. The RSA desk doesn’t feel the same without you. Although your brother is doing a good job.

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  • John Anthony Dunne
    John Anthony Dunne
    3 October 2011 at 2:27 pm

    James, thanks for this thoughtful note. I’m glad you found the first point compelling. The 3 points are not simply arranged in order of persuasiveness, but also in chronological order of when I thought them through in my inductive study of the Fourth Gospel. So that was the first shred of evidence that really jumped out at me and caught my attention. The other two were merely observations (if Lazarus wrote it, is there anything else in the narrative that might provide a hint at this?). In regards to your question about tradition, I should say that I had no original intention of going against the tradition! I personally don’t like the idea of challenging traditions, but I have felt it necessary to at least question the tradition in light of some of the evidence I came across. So as to whether or not it is helpful, I would say that these observations may lead to a better and more thorough presentation of the traditional view of authorship. So in proper Hegelian fashion an antithesis emerges which leads to synthesis and a new thesis. Perhaps this is how questioning tradition is helpful? I guess for me the thought was, is the evidence worth noting or could it simply be dismissed? I personally couldn’t ignore the evidence when I first noticed it in Dr. Klink’s John class in Spring 2009 and still haven’t come to terms with who I think actually wrote it. So I posted this largely to get good feedback and to hear new and better arguments for the traditional view (because deep down I still hold on to it). Does that help?

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    • J.F. Arnold
      4 October 2011 at 12:15 am

      Hey John,

      I didn’t think you were pushing tradition for the sake of it, for the record.

      I’m a big proponent of weighing evidence and determining if it should be dismissed or brought into further consideration, and I think what you have done here is bring up that question rather aptly: do I listen to these pieces of evidence that are haunting me, or do I dismiss them in light of the traditional position?

      All in all, I think I’m a fan of projects like these, within reason.

      -James

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  • Did John Write the Fourth Gospel? (Or, Should We Ask These Questions?) — Evangelical Outpost
    6 October 2011 at 6:34 am

    […] at The Two Cities, John Dunne has written an interesting little article on whether or not John wrote the fourth gospel (the one we now call “John”). He posits, […]

    Leave a Reply
  • Bible student
    20 October 2011 at 12:50 pm

    John,

    You note “the Beloved Disciple could be Lazarus…” and that idea is certainly the best fit with the facts that are explicitly recorded in the text by this anonymous author and by the other gospel writers. But the eye-opening moment about this insight should come when one realizes the biblical evidence can prove whoever the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” was he could not have been John – because that man-made tradition actually forces the scripture to contradict itself.

    Since the Bible is the primary source for information of biblical issues, it makes sense to look first and foremost to the scriptures for information on this or any Bible question, rather than simply relying on this-or-that non-Bible source (hearsay, the writings of some organization, the opinions of preacher ‘x’, pope ‘y’, or personality ‘z’ from the second or early third century, etc.). This issue presents us with a case of the Bible vs. Tradition, and the authority one attaches to either will effect their belief.

    TheDiscipleWhomJesusLoved.com has a free eBook you may want to check out. It contrasts the facts recorded in scripture about John with the facts about the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved”. It covers some of the items noted in your post as well as other points you may not have considered yet. Like your post, it challenges people to subject the John idea to biblical scrutiny. But it also shows how being deceived by a false tradition reveals the need to improve our method of assessing truth.

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    • John Anthony Dunne
      John Anthony Dunne
      20 October 2011 at 1:07 pm

      Hello Bible Student,

      Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ll definitely check this out. Can I ask though, how does the traditional view cause scripture to contradict itself?

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      • Matt Wilcoxen
        The Bible
        20 October 2011 at 2:27 pm

        Hi John, I thought I might weigh in. The apostle John wrote the Fourth Gospel, just for the record.

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      • Bible student
        20 October 2011 at 10:09 pm

        As you will see in the study, scripture records facts about the unnamed “other disciple, whom Jesus loved” are mutually exclusive with facts that are recorded about John. So, besides the fact that there is not a single verse that would justify teaching the John idea (that is why those who cling to that tradition have to change the subject or cite their preferred non-Bible source), forcing the unbiblical John idea on scripture puts the Bible in contradiction with itself. Of course, the text of scripture as it is written is not the problem, rather, the problem of mutually exclusive facts is caused by trying to make the beloved disciple John because non-Bible sources have repeated that idea for a long time.

        But a fallacy does not get true with age, and no one has ever cited a single verse that would justify teaching the John idea – not those who originated that false inference and not those who repeat their error to this day. Scripture says, “Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar.” (Pr. 30:5-6) So why would one object to the John idea, or any other ‘tradition’, being subjected to biblical scrutiny?

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      • Bible student
        13 February 2012 at 11:01 am

        John, You wrote,”Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I’ll definitely check this out.”

        So, I was wondering what your verdict is after weighing the biblical evidence TheDiscipleWhomJesusLoved.com has set forth. Did you concluded the bibilcal evidence presented proved “beyond a reasonable doubt” that John was not the author of the fourth gospel?

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        • John Anthony Dunne
          John Anthony Dunne
          13 February 2012 at 11:19 am

          Thanks for your persistence. Not going to lie, I’m very busy at the moment. I’ve already presented my case in this blog post and you can tell I lean in favor of Lazarus (which means I find the traditional view suspect). Is that good enough for now? Eventually, when I get some time, I’ll read the material. Its a bit longer than I originally anticipated.

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  • Matt Wilcoxen
    The Church Tradition
    20 October 2011 at 2:27 pm

    Yeah, we agree with the Bible on this one.

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  • Harry Potter & Pagan Issues | The Two Cities
    25 October 2011 at 5:45 am

    […] of John’s Gospel is quite apparent.  …Or, should I say, the Helper of Lazarus’ Gospel? : […]

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  • Michael
    22 March 2012 at 9:54 pm

    Lazarus’ name was John, so even with oversight, the Book could still be so named.

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  • What Happened After Easter? | The Two Cities
    9 April 2012 at 10:21 am

    […] death. Jesus then gives a final word concerning the disciple whom he loves (presumably John, but check out John Dunne’s post for another opinion). The gospel ends with a word about the countless other untold tales of Jesus’ […]

    Leave a Reply
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