Was Jesus “deeply moved” or “furious” at the tomb of Lazarus?

Q. In Nancy Pearcey’s new book Love Thy Body, she states that though many English translations say that Jesus was “deeply moved and troubled” at the tomb of Lazarus, the original Greek actually means that he expressed “furious indignation.” Pearcey then quotes Os Guinness as saying that Jesus was outraged because “evil is not normal” and that the death of Lazarus was contrary to the good and beautiful world God had originally created. What are your thoughts on this?

I have not yet read Love Thy Body, and I also have not yet read The Dust of Death, which is the book by Os Guiness that she is quoting from, so nothing I say here should be taken as an informed comment on the overall argument of either of those books. I can, however, offer my thoughts about the translation of the Greek expression that’s used to describe Jesus’ reaction at the tomb of Lazarus.

First let me quote Pearcey more fully, relying on a citation I have found online: “Why did Jesus weep at the tomb of Lazarus even though he knew he was about to raise him from the dead? Because ‘the beautiful body was split apart.’ The text says twice that Jesus was ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’ (John 11:33, 38). In the original Greek, this phrase actually means furious indignation. It was used, for example, of war horses rearing up just before charging into battle. Os Guinness, formerly at L’Abri, explains that standing before the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus ‘is outraged. Why? Evil is not normal.’ The world was created good and beautiful, but now ‘he’d entered his Father’s world that had become ruined and broken. And his reaction? He was furious.’ Jesus wept at the pain and sorrow caused by the enemy invasion that had devastated his beautiful creation. Christians are never admonished to accept death as a natural part of creation.”

To assess these claims, let us explore the use of the Greek verb embrimáomai, which is the term that Pearcey says indicates “furious indignation.” It is true that it has a literal meaning of “snort”; it’s used in plays by Aeschylus and Lucian to describe the snorting of horses. However, we need to recognize that words have figurative as well as literal meanings. In linguistics it’s known as the “root fallacy” to hold that words carry their original, literal meanings with them everywhere they go. They don’t.

For example, this same verb is used in the two following accounts:

Two blind men call out to Jesus, “Have mercy on us, Son of David.” He touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you”; and their sight was restored. Jesus warned them sternly, “See that no one knows about this.” (Matthew 9:29–30)

A leper comes to Jesus and asks to be made clean. He reached out his hand and touched the man. … Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don’t tell this to anyone. (Mark 1:41–44)

Clearly the meaning in these two passages is not that Jesus was feeling furious indignation. Rather, he was “admonishing urgently,” which Lidell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon lists as another, figurative meaning of embrimáomai.

Another use of the verb in the gospels, however, does come closer to the meaning of anger:

A woman anoints Jesus with a jar of expensive perfume. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. (Mark 14:4–5)

So we see that the term can have the meaning of anger and indignation, but that this has to be determined from the context. So what about the context at the tomb of Lazarus? Two things there indicate that Jesus probably was not “furious,” but “deeply moved” (as many English versions put it; Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament lists this as a further meaning of the word). First, Jesus wept. And second, the text says that the strong emotion being reported was internal, “in his spirit.” One would expect “furious indignation” to have primarily an external expression instead.

So I think we need to conclude that embrimáomai is used figuratively in the gospels to indicate strong emotion, but that we need to determine from the context whether this is anger, urgency, or grief. One further observation is that even if Jesus actually was “furious” at the tomb of Lazarus (and the context suggests otherwise), the text itself would not be telling us why this was the case. Pearcey and Guiness would be supplying their own theological rationale for this, but many other explanations could also be offered. Nothing in the account intrinsically rules out death having a place in how God works in the world.

Personally I find that the following quotation, taken from a longer meditation that has been making the rounds recently on social media, captures very well what Jesus was actually doing at the tomb of Lazarus:

”He cried. He knew Lazarus was dead before he got the news, but still, he cried. He knew Lazarus would be alive again in moments, but still, he cried. … He wept because knowing the end of the story doesn’t mean you can’t cry at the sad parts.”

James Tissot, “Jesus Wept” (Brooklyn Museum)

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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