Lazarus’s tomb is in Bethany, a town now associated with al-Eizariya a mile outside of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives.
If you take the tour, you walk past gift shops and a house that probably isn’t really “The Home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary”. Higher up there is the narrow entrance to the tomb. Richard Beard points out there’s no wheelchair access.
In the western Christian tradition, the Lazarus story is surprisingly underplayed. That Jesus’s last great miracle before His own resurrection only appears in one of the gospels (John’s) is perplexing. And even then, there isn’t much more than the bare facts of the case: Lazarus dies; Jesus hears about it and, uniquely in the Christ story, He cries (“Jesus wept” John 11.35); Jesus calls Lazarus out from the tomb. That’s about it.
There are a few other sources: Apocrypha, Biblical scholars and historians, some Old Testament prefigurings. From such scant material Beard constructs a possible Lazarus, and an absorbing and revealing story.
What we end up with is an extraordinary hybrid: a scholarly reflection and a flesh-and-blood narrative. Precisely how Beard pulls this off will take several readings. However he does it, it works. The novel is seamless; as gripping as a thriller and endlessly thought-provoking. Not only does the novel ask central questions about belief and theology, it portrays a time which feels very real and very similar to our own.
Beard’s experimentalism doesn’t stop at grafting a fiction on to a biblical hypothesis. He fills in the missing spaces in his narrative with images from classical art and modern cinema, and the musings of other writers from ancient story cycles to Gore Vidal and Jose Saramago.
Beard is not himself a believer, but he enriches the dull, simplistic debate between bishops and imams and Dawkins and co: The science versus belief argument “has been largely a non-fiction debate, where reason applied to Bible stories makes them collapse. In fiction you can arrive at a different, more surprising result,” he says.
Surprising, spellbinding, witty and utterly original.
A Bible tale rises from the dead.