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The Lazarus’ raising: a case of catalepsy?

“In Jesus’s time, people shared a deep fear of being buried alive and therefore made very specific arrangements to ensure that this could never happen. Bells and small cymbals sometimes appear in tombs, but only from the Byzantine period onwards. Indeed, the visits made to the tomb of Lazarus by Mary, on the one hand, and to the tomb of Jesus by a number of women, on the other, was definitely not a matter of chance. They were there to check on the situation of the deceased after three days or more.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote about this in his story The Premature Burial adding: “The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins.

Jesus, with his healing skills and knowledge of comatose conditions, might have been able to facilitate this phenomenon for his own purposes and thus draw people to him. This may explain why Jesus describes to his disciples Lazarus’ condition simply as “our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I go, that I may awaken him out of sleep” (John 11:11), perhaps suspecting that Lazarus suffered from some form of disease such as epilepsy [ … ]

Martha fears that Lazarus’ body may have begun to decay, and Jesus orders that the stone blocking the entrance to the cave can be removed. The fact that Lazarus’ body was not rotting after having been in the tomb for four days suggests he must have been in a trance or state of catalepsy.

Jesus shouts out Lazarus’ name, perhaps hoping to rouse him from his comatose trance. Lazarus eventually emerges “Bound hand and foot with strips of cloth, and his face … bound about with a cloth” (John 11:44). This description brings to mind scenes from grisly old Egyptian mummy movies, quite horrifying and shocking, but amusing at the same time”(From Shimon Gibson, The final days of Jesus, Oxford 2009, pp. 28.30-31).

Simone Venturini


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