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The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 February 2009


The interpretation of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16. 19–31) shows both how misleading extra-biblical parallels to biblical motifs can be when misused, and also how enlightening they can be when correctly used. The parable makes use of two major narrative motifs which can be paralleled in other ancient literature: (1) a reversal of fortunes experienced by a rich man and a poor man after death; (2) a dead person's return from the dead with a message for the living. Since Gressmann's monograph drew attention to one important example of (1) – the Egyptian story of Setme and Si-Osiris (together with later Jewish stories derived from it) – much discussion of the parable has been dominated by this one parallel. Both the way in which this parallel has been used in the interpretation of the parable and the restriction of interest to this one parallel have had unfortunate consequences.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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1 Gressmann, H., Vom reichen Mann und armen Lazarus: eine literargeschichtliche Studie (Abhandlungen der königlich preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften: Philosophisch-historische Klasse, 1918 no. 7; Berlin:Verlag der königlich Akademie der Wissenschaft, 1918).Google Scholar

2 For a survey and critique of scholarship on the parable since Gressmann, see Hock, R. F., ‘Lazarus and Micyllus: Greco-Roman Backgrounds to Luke 16:19–31’, JBL 106 (1987) 448–55Google Scholar. References to recent literature can be found in Hock's notes and in Tanghe, V., ‘Abraham, son Fils et son Envoyé (Luc 16,19–31)’, RB 91 (1984) 564–5 nn. 1416.Google Scholar

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4 Gressmann, , Vom reichen Mann und armen Lazarus, 7086Google Scholar (texts A-G). On these stories see also Gaster, M., The Exempla of the Rabbis (London/Leipzig: Asia Publishing Company, 1924) 119–20 (no. 332), 243Google Scholar; Lieberman, S., ‘On Sins and their Punishments’, in Texts and Studies (New York: Ktav, 1974) 3348Google Scholar; Himmelfarb, M., Tours of Hell: An Apocalyptic Form in Jewish and Christian Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983) 2931, 78–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rosenstiehl, J.-M., ‘Les révélations d'Élie: Élie et les tourments des damnés’Google Scholar, in Caquot, al., La Littérature Intertestamentaire: Colloque de Strasbourg (17–19 october 1983) (Bibliothèque des Centres d'Études Supérieures Spécialisées; Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1985) 103–7.Google Scholar

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6 The first and third points are pointed out by Bultmann, R., The History of the Synoptic Tradition, trans. Marsh, J. (Oxford: Blackwell, 2 1968) 204.Google Scholar

7 In a Jewish context it is not likely that even the body of a beggar would go unburied, but the burial would be unceremonious. A rich man's burial would be a much more notable feature of the end of his earthly life.

8 Listed in Hock, , ‘Lazarus and Micyllus’, 449 n. 7.Google Scholar

9 Jeremias, J., The Parables of Jesus, trans. Hooke, S. H. (London: SCM Press, 2 1972) 178–9, 183Google Scholar, thought that Jesus must have known the Jewish version in the Palestinian Talmud because the Parable of the Great Supper (Matt 22. 1–10; Luke 14. 15–24) also shares a narrative motif with it. But again, this is a question precisely of a narrative motif which could occur in more than one story.

10 Gressmann, , Vom reichen Mann und armen Lazarus, 54–9Google Scholar; Jeremias, , The Parables of Jesus, 186.Google Scholar

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14 For a semiotic analysis of the reversal of fortunes in the parable, see Vogels, W., ‘Having or Longing: A Semiotic Analysis of Luke 16:1931Google Scholar’, Église et Théologie 20 (1989) 43–5Google Scholar: the rich man moves from having to not having and longing, while Lazarus moves from not having and longing to not longing and having.

15 Cf. Tanghe, , ‘Abraham’, 565–7.Google Scholar

16 Grobel, E.g. K., ‘… Whose Name was Neves’, NTS 10 (19631964) 374.Google Scholar

17 Plummer, E.g. A., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to S. Luke (ICC; Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1901) 390Google Scholar; Fitzmyer, J. A., The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV) (AB 28B; Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1985) 1132Google Scholar. Oesterley, W. O. E., The Gospel Parables in the Light of their Jewish Background (London: SPCK, 1936) 208Google Scholar, argues that, if he feasted every day, the rich man could not have obeyed the commandment to work six days a week.

18 Derrett, E.g. J. D. M., Law in the New Testament (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1970) 90.Google Scholar

19 Plummer, E.g., Luke, 392Google Scholar; Fitzmyer, , Luke, 1128.Google Scholar

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22 Hock, , ‘Lazarus and Micyllus’.Google Scholar

23 Hock, , ‘Lazarus and Micyllus’, 456.Google Scholar

24 He calls the rationale for the reversal of fortunes ‘opaque’: ‘Lazarus and Micyllus’, 452–3, 455.Google Scholar

25 Hock, , ‘Lazarus and Micyllus’, 462.Google Scholar

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29 Lévi, I., ‘Un receuil de contes juifs inédits’, REJ 35 (1897) 7681 (story XI)Google Scholar; cf. Gaster, , The Exempla of the Rabbis, 122 (no. 338), 245 (list of parallels).Google Scholar

30 Moody, R. A. Jr, Life After Life (New York: Bantam, 1975)Google Scholar; Hampe, J. C., To Die is Gain: The Experience of One's Own Death, trans. Kohl, M. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1979)Google Scholar; and a large literature listed in Zalesky, C., Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987) 257–66Google Scholar. Zalesky's book summarizes the critical discussion so far, and makes a valuable contribution to it from the perspective of comparison with medieval visions of the same type.

31 Like Er, he is called ‘the son of Harmonius, the Pamphylian’; cf. also Arnobius, , Adv. Gent. 1.52.Google Scholar

32 Bidez, J.and Cumont, F., Les mages hellénisés, vol. 1 (Paris: Société d'Éditions ‘Les Belles Lettres’, 1938) 112–13Google Scholar; but cf. Bolton, J. D. P., Aristeas of Proconnesus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1962) 159, 203 n. 26.Google Scholar

33 Probably the Coptic Apocalypse of Zephaniah should also be understood as belonging to this literary tradition: see my forthcoming article, ‘The Apocalypse of Zephaniah as a Near-Death Experience’.

34 The theme of mistaken identity continues in later Christian stories: Augustine, De cura pro mortuis gerenda 15; Gregory the Great, Dial. 4.36. Even modern instances are reported from India: Zalesky, Otherworld Journeys, 239 n. 45.Google Scholar

35 For this kind of necromancy (reviving a corpse), see also Apuleius, , Met. 2.2829Google Scholar; Cumont, F., Lux Perpetua (Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1949) 101–2.Google Scholar

36 Arabic translated in Lewis, A. S., The Mythological Acts of the Apostles (Horae Semiticae 4; London: C. J. Clay, 1904) 78Google Scholar; Ethiopic translated in Budge, E. A. W., The Contendings of the Apostles (Oxford: University Press, 1935) 147–8.Google Scholar

37 Budge, , The Contendings of the Apostles, 552–4Google Scholar. Cf. also an incident in the History of John, : Lewis, , The Mythological Acts of the Apostles, 161–4Google Scholar; Wright, W., Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, vol. 2 (London: Williams & Norgate, 1871) 1925.Google Scholar

38 See Collison-Morley, L., Greek and Roman Ghost Stories (Oxford: Blackwell, 1912)Google Scholar; Cumont, , Lux Perpetua, 78108Google Scholar. Rabbinic examples are in Strack-Billerbeck 1.148–49, 225; 4.1142.Google Scholar

39 On necromancy, see Oesterley, W. O. E., Immortality and the Unseen World: A Study in Old Testament Religion (London: SPCK, 1921) 124–40Google Scholar; Cumont, , Lux Perpetua, 97108Google Scholar; Garland, R., The Greek Way of Death (London: Duckworth, 1985) 23, 133Google Scholar; Collison-Morley, , Greek and Roman Ghost Stories, 3344.Google Scholar

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41 Pliny, , Ep. 5.5; Valerius Maximus 1.7.6.Google Scholar

42 1 Sam 28.7–25; Herodotus 5.92.

43 Apuleius, , Met. 8.4; Aelian, fragment 82Google Scholar; Cicero, , De divin. 1.27.57Google Scholar; Gaster, , The Exempla of the Rabbis, 130–1Google Scholar (no. 353). This is motif no. E231 in Stith Thompson, Motif-Index.

44 Plutarch, , Cimon 6Google Scholar; Suetonius, , Nero 34.Google Scholar

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46 Herodotus 5.92; Lucian, , Philops. 27Google Scholar; cf. b. Ber. 18b.Google Scholar

47 Sumerian text translated in Gadd, C. J., ‘Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet XII’, Revue d'Assyriologie 30 (1933) 127–43Google Scholar; Akkadian version (which forms tablet 12 of the Gilgamesh epic) translated in Heidel, A., The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels (Chicago: University Press, 2 1949) 93101.Google Scholar

48 Cumont, , Lux Perpetua, 93.Google Scholar

49 The Latin fragment, the Vienna papyrus fragments and the Chester Beatty papyrus fragments are translated by Pietersma, A. and Lutz, T. R. in Charlesworth, J. H. ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2 (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1985) 437–42Google Scholar, but the text of the Chester Beatty fragments has not yet been published. According to Charlesworth, J. H., The Pseudepigrapha and Modern Research with a Supplement (SBLSCS 75; Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1981) 134, further fragments from the Rainer collection still await publication.Google Scholar

50 The possible indications of a Christian origin which Pietersma and Lutz, , in Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2.433, point out are not at all conclusive.Google Scholar

51 Pietersma, and Lutz, in Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2.432.Google Scholar

52 Latin fragment translated by Pietersma, and Lutz, in Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2.440–1Google Scholar; cf. James, M. R., The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament (London: SPCK, 1920) 32–3.Google Scholar

53 Numbers refer to the Chester Beatty fragments, as translated in Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2.441–2Google Scholar. These numbers, as Pietersma, and Lutz, point out (p. 432), are provisional.Google Scholar

54 Pietersma, and Lutz, in Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, 2.435.Google Scholar

55 Oepke, A. in TDNT 1.369–71.Google Scholar

56 Cf. Evans, C. F., Resurrection and the New Testament (SBT 2/12; London: SCM Press, 1970) 22–5.Google Scholar

57 Tanghe, , ‘Abraham’.Google Scholar

58 Contra Jeremias, , The Parables of Jesus, 186.Google Scholar

59 Contra, e.g., Mealand, , Poverty and Expectation in the Gospels, 48.Google Scholar

60 Contra Jeremias, , The Parables of Jesus, 186Google Scholar; Bultmann, , The History of the Synoptic Tradition, 196 and n. 1.Google Scholar

61 Other examples are Lucian, Cataplus, which has no pretension to be anything but a satirical fiction, and Eccles. Rab. 1.15.1, which tells a parabolic story in which two men go to differing fates after death and the wicked man, seeing the other, asks about the difference in their fates. In this latter case, the lack of a name for either man shows there is no intention of referring to historical individuals.