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Book review: Come Forth: The raising of Lazarus and the promise of Jesus’s greatest miracle by James Martin

29 September 2023

Henry Wansbrough considers reflections of a cult US author

THIS wide-ranging book is not so much a biblical investigation into the raising of Lazarus as a meditation on Christian life. As the generous credits show, the author is a cult figure in the United States. The “promise” element in the title refers to the reflections on new life in Christ to which the story gives rise. There are many stories of encounters that have resulted in spiritual renewal, often ending — for example, after a sympathetic account of the treatment of a priest dying of cancer — with a reflection such as “a change in perspective can bring a person new life.”

It is a distinctly Roman Catholic book, turning willingly to a couple of pages of introduction to Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, why the religious congregation of Lazarists (and the Paris Gare S. Lazare) got their name, or a sketch of monastic life or the hazards of arranging a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for seniors and the dangers of slipping on “slick tiles”, as well as a few pages of reflection on the value of the support of friends when the author was undergoing medical treatment. There are plenty of crisp black-and-white illustrations of Lazarus scenes from a wide variety of sources.

The book begins with a steady, well-explained little reflection on the methods used by biblical scholars to establish the historicity of facts narrated in the Gospel. The author is careful not to overstate his case, though, personally, he has no hesitation in building castles in the air, often assisted by the treatment of his subject in novels (the stiff and slightly grumpy emergence of Lazarus from the tomb into the arms of Jesus). He has consulted widely among reputable biblical scholars (mostly Catholic).

His own preference is to build on hints and scraps of evidence, and to plump for maximal historicity, but he has no hesitation in quoting scholars who courteously disagree with him. After dwelling repeatedly and at length on the possibility that Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple, he quotes Frank Moloney: “There is no clear response to this question. The question of how and when the Beloved Disciple died is complicated by the fact that we do not know for sure who the BD was.” This is backed up by Ben Witherington’s equally courteous disagreement that the evidence is “opaque and piecemeal”.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a former member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.

Come Forth: The raising of Lazarus and the promise of Jesus’s greatest miracle
James Martin
HarperCollins £22
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

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