Published: 12 July 2021

Were The Rich Man And Lazarus Real People?, Part 1

The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is one of the best-known narratives in the New Testament. This is a passage many Christians read for insight into the afterlife. In the popular imagination, it gives a glimpse into the realm of the dead. Contrary to popular opinion Jesus’s point in telling this story was not to reveal information about the hereafter. The point of the story of the rich man and Lazarus was to overturn a misconception. It illustrates that possessing wealth and honor are not indications that one is in good standing with God.

The popular belief that this passage offers insight into life after death is very prevalent. Therefore, we must examine the idea to test its validity. If Jesus was speaking of a real historical event involving Lazarus and the rich man, then one could argue with greater confidence that Jesus’s point was to impart knowledge about the realm of the dead. On the other hand, if these characters were not real then Jesus’s intended message must have been something else.

Were the rich man and Lazarus real people?

The opinion that the rich man and Lazarus were real people is not a new belief; Tertullian (born 160 AD) interpreted the story as a real historical event.[1]Martin O’Kane, “‘The Bosom of Abraham’ (Luke 16:22): Father Abraham in the Visual Imagination,” Biblical Interpretation 15 (2007): 495. Modern readers have also opined that Jesus had real and specific individuals in mind. They argue this because He referred to a certain rich man (Lk 16:19 KJV). In addition, Jesus calls a character (Lazarus) by name which He did in no other parable. For these reasons, some Bible students conclude this is not a parable.

A casual reading of the preceding chapters of Luke reveals that Jesus used the word certain to refer to characters in stories that are indisputably parables. Jesus starts off the three prior parables using the words “a certain man” (Lk 14:16; 15:11) and “a certain rich man” (Lk 16:1). Therefore, the word certain does not necessarily denote a real person, but a representative person. The stories are true to life, but not history.[2]Duane Warden, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: Poverty, Wealth and Human Worth,” Stone-Campbell Journal 6 (2003): 84.

History, parable, or something else?

Why would Jesus give the poor man a name if He was not making a statement of his historicity? There are two reasons, both of which convey important information about the characters in the story.  

First, the naming of Lazarus underscores the selfishness of the rich man. He was acquainted with the poor man well enough to know his name. Despite this, he did not help him even though he lay outside his estate. Thus, the naming of the poor man is significant; it is an element in the story hinting at the self-centeredness of the rich man. Conversely, the name of the rich man is irrelevant since it would contribute nothing to Jesus’s point.[3]W. Hall Harris, ed., NET Bible Full Notes Edition (Thomas Nelson, 2019), 1962.

Second, the poor man’s name may convey information about his condition. Lazarus is the Greek rendering of Eliezer which is a Hebrew name meaning “my God helps.”[4] Joshua Marshall Strahan, “How in Hades Do We Teach Genesis 1-3?,” Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith 71 (2019): 120. Warden astutely observes, “While many have taken the name to suggest the piety of the poor man, it might just as well be a statement of his destitution, something on the order of “may God help him.””[5]Duane Warden, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: Poverty, Wealth and Human Worth,” Stone-Campbell Journal 6 (2003): 89. Rather than suggesting historicity, the name assigned to the poor man is an essential component of the story; an element which concisely communicates important information about both characters.

Jewish folktale

Furthermore, there is historical-cultural evidence suggesting that Jesus’s story is an adaptation of a well-known Jewish folktale. The Jerusalem Talmud contains a story with striking similarities to the story of Luke 16:19-31. It tells of a poor Torah scholar and a rich tax collector named Bar Maayan. Both men died and experienced a reversal of their circumstances in the afterlife just like the characters in Jesus’s story. The poor man was in a lush garden paradise with fountains of water. The rich tax collector was tormented with thirst, evidenced by his tongue hanging out, while adjacent to a river that he could not reach (see footnote for the Talmud passage).[6]Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:2 [V.A] He who says Simeon b. Shatah was patriarch finds support in the following incident about Ashqelon. [B] There were two holy men in Ashqelon, who would eat together, … Continue reading

Although its editors compiled the Jerusalem Talmud well after Jesus’s time, it was based on Jewish oral traditions that were much older. Bauckham notes there are several Jewish variations of this narrative which may be derived from the Egyptian story of Setme and Si-Osiris. This Egyptian tale also chronicles a rich man and a poor man and their reversal of fortunes after death. The Egyptian version likely predates the first century AD.[7]Richard Bauckham, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels,” New Testament Studies 37 (1991): 225–227.

Conclusion

Similar fables exist in our day. Consider the popular image of Peter at the pearly gates. We envision Peter either granting or denying entrance to Heaven to the recently deceased. While a fictional story, one could envision Jesus using it as a teaching aid if His earthly ministry were taking place today. Likewise, it is probable that Jesus adapted a well-known Jewish folktale to make His point. Based on all the aforementioned information, it is doubtful that Lazarus and the rich man were real historical figures. Therefore, we may reasonably eliminate from consideration the possibility that Jesus’s story was meant to serve as a glimpse into the afterlife. 

In the next blog post, we’ll examine the context of the story of the rich man and Lazarus and determine what message Jesus meant to convey.

References

References
1 Martin O’Kane, “‘The Bosom of Abraham’ (Luke 16:22): Father Abraham in the Visual Imagination,” Biblical Interpretation 15 (2007): 495.
2 Duane Warden, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: Poverty, Wealth and Human Worth,” Stone-Campbell Journal 6 (2003): 84.
3 W. Hall Harris, ed., NET Bible Full Notes Edition (Thomas Nelson, 2019), 1962.
4 Joshua Marshall Strahan, “How in Hades Do We Teach Genesis 1-3?,” Perspectives on Science & Christian Faith 71 (2019): 120.
5 Duane Warden, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: Poverty, Wealth and Human Worth,” Stone-Campbell Journal 6 (2003): 89.
6 Yerushalmi Hagigah 2:2

[V.A] He who says Simeon b. Shatah was patriarch finds support in the following incident about Ashqelon.

[B] There were two holy men in Ashqelon, who would eat together, drink together, and study Torah together. One of them died, and he was not properly mourned.

[C] But when Bar Maayan, the village tax collector, died, the whole town took time off to mourn him.

[D] The surviving holy man began to weep saying, “Woe, for the enemies of Israel [a euphemism for Israel itself] will have no merit.”

[E] [The deceased holy man] appeared to him in a dream, and said to him, “Do not despise the sons of your Lord. This one did one sin, and the other one did one good deed, and it went well for [the latter on earth, so while on earth I was punished for my one sin, he was rewarded for his one good deed].”

[F] Now what was the culpable act that the holy man had done?

[G] Heaven forfend! He committed no culpable act in his entire life. But one time he put on the phylactery of the head before that of the hand [which was an error].

[H] Now what was the meritorious deed that Bar Maayan, the village tax collector, had done?

[I] Heaven forefend! He never did a meritorious deed in his life. But one time he made a banquet for the councillors of his town, but they did not come. He said, “Let the poor come and eat the food, so that it not go to waste.

[J] There are those who say that he was traveling along the road with a loaf of bread under his arm, and it fell. A poor man went and took it, and the tax collector said nothing to him so as not to embarrass him

[K] After a few days the holy man saw his fellow [in a dream] walking among gardens, orchards, and fountains of water. He saw Bar Maayan the village tax collector with his tongue hanging out, by a river. He wanted to reach the river but could not reach it.

[L] R. Eliezer bar Yose said that he saw Miriam, the daughter of `LY BSLYM [Jastrow-the leeklike sprouts of onions], hanging by the nipples of her breasts. R. Yosé b. Hanina said, “The pin of the gate of Gehenna was fastened to her ear.”

[M] He said to him, “Why are things this way?”

[N] He said to him, “Because she fasted and told people about it.”

[O] And some say that she fasted one day and had blood drawn on two.

[P] He said to him, “And how long will it be this way for her?”

[Q] They said to him, “Until Simeon b. Shatah will come, and we shall remove it from her ear and set it in his ear!”

[R] He said to him, “And what is his crime?”

[S] They said to him, “Because he vowed, ‘If I am made patriarch, I shall kill off all the witches, and lo, he has been made patriarch, but he has not killed off the witches. Lo, there are eighty witches in a cave of Ashqelon, doing destruction to the world, so go and tell him.”

[T] He said to them, “I am afraid, for he is the patriarch, and he will not believe me.”

[U] He said to him, “If he will believe you, good. Now if he does not believe you, do this as your sign before him: Put your hand in your eye and remove [your eye], and hold it in your hand.” He took out his eye and put it in his hand. They said to put it back, and he put it back.

[V] He went and reported the incident to him. He wanted to do the sign for him, but he would not allow him to do so.

[W] [Simcon] said to him, “I know you are a holy man. Furthermore, I did not say publicly [that I would uproot witchcraft], but I only thought about it [so I know that your knowledge comes from Heaven]” Forthwith Simeon b. Shatah arose.

[X] Now that day it was raining. Simeon b. Shatah took with him eighty young men and dressed them in eighty clean cloaks. He took with them eighty new pots, with covers. He said to them, “When I whistle once, put on your garments. When I whistle a second time, all of you come out at once. When each one of you comes out, lift up one of the [witches], and hold her off the ground, because the witchcraft [of those women] does not work if their feet are not touching the ground.

Jacob Neusner, The Talmud of the land of Israel: A Preliminary Translation and Explanation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 57-58.

7 Richard Bauckham, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels,” New Testament Studies 37 (1991): 225–227.