Why did Jesus lie?

John 11:11-14 says,

(Jesus) said to (his disciples), “Our friend Lazarus is taking his rest [or, ‘has fallen asleep’: koimaō], but I go (to him) that I might awaken him [or, ‘bring him out of sleep’: ex-ypnizō, derived from hypnizō, which means ‘to put to sleep’ and is in turn derived from the word hypnos, meaning ‘sleep’].”  Therefore his disciples said to him, “Lord, if [ei] he is taking his rest [or, ‘has fallen asleep’: koimaō] [in other words, “If what you are telling us is in fact true”], he will be kept safe [or made safe, or saved, or rescued, or preserved: sōzō, related to the Greek word sōtér, meaning ‘savior’].”[1]  Now Jesus had spoken [ereō] about his death [thanatos], but it seemed [or appeared: dokeō, related to the word doxa, which can mean either “opinion” or “glory”][2] to them that he was speaking [or “meaning”: legō] about the rest [koimésis, derived from the word koimaō] of sleep [hypnos].  So then Jesus told them plainly [or openly, or forthrightly: parrésia], “Lazarus has died [apo-thnéskō, related to the word thanatos, meaning ‘death’].”

Carefully observe the Greek words being used, and notice how Jesus’s disciples initially took everything that he said at face value.[3]  The disciples’ supposedly incorrect “interpretation” of what Jesus said was essentially nothing other than a straightforward restatement of what Jesus had himself told them.  In other words, what Jesus “really meant” was something other than what he actually said.[4]

Furthermore, it can be assumed that Jesus was not simply using a generally understood euphemism in the same way that other persons of the time would have used it, since in that case his disciples would not have been confused by what he told them; and I think it can also be reasonably assumed that Jesus knew that his disciples did not already speak his “secret language”—since, after all, they were his disciples, who were studying under him precisely for the purpose of learning his “secret language.”

Based on that reasonable assumption, then by any standard definition of the word “lie,” Jesus brazenly told a lie to his trusting disciples (even though in this particular case he admitted his actual intended meaning immediately after he told the lie).  For a person to secretly have one meaning in mind, but then knowingly speak to other people in such a way that they would likely think that he had something else in mind, is nothing other than to mislead and lie to those people.  It could not be any more simple and obvious.  So the question naturally arises:  Why would the author of John 11:11-14 have wanted to portray Jesus as a liar?

I think part of the answer may be that this passage actually constitutes an attempt by the author—whether conscious or unconscious—to educate and warn the reader about the dangers of verbal ambiguity and the supposedly “harmless” use of elaborate undisclosed metaphors or private meanings that have the potential of evolving into full-blown “secret languages”; and also to alert the reader to the basic fact that the Bible was written in an esoteric manner.  So I think one of its purposes may have been to lead readers to be far more wary about the way in which words are used in esotericist communications (think: schizophrenic communications) than readers were probably already accustomed to being, and to encourage them to start asking more questions about the meanings of the words that they found being used in such writings.

In fact, it may have been just this—that a “disciple” was willing to ask these sorts of questions about meanings—that was deemed to distinguish a “disciple” from other persons.[5]  And if so, then perhaps it can be inferred that if “Jesus” had been speaking to “non-disciples” or “non-initiates,” he would not have bothered to clarify himself (that is, speak “plainly,” or “forthrightly,” or “openly”: parrésia) in the way that he did for his “disciples.”[6]



[1] Consider the use in the quoted passage of the Greek word ei, meaning “if,” and how it might suggest that the idea of “being saved” (or “being rescued”: sōzō), and that of “finding rest” (or “becoming calm,” or “finding stillness”: koimaō), may have been associated in the minds of the authors of the New Testament with the notion of arriving at an accord between expressed utterances (i.e., “appearances”) and intended meanings; and “death” (thanatos) may have been associated with the failure to arrive at such an accord.  There would thus be an association between the idea of “death” and that of meaninglessness (as well as the dishonesty or excessive self-involvement that produced the meaninglessness).

[2] Consider Matthew 25:31, in which Jesus, speaking of the Second Coming, says,

And when the Son of Man comes in his glory [doxa], and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his throne of glory [doxa].

Perhaps with the arrival of the “glory” (doxa) of the Second Coming, the outward “appearance” (doxa) of a person’s communication would finally coincide with that person’s genuine intentions, i.e., his or her “inner meanings”—unlike what we find in John 11:11-14, the passage quoted at the beginning of the post.

[3] The metaphor of the “face” as I am using the word here is, I believe, not unrelated to the “seeming” or “appearing” (dokeō) spoken of in the passage; and similarly, I think that there may also be a relation between the goal of seeing “the face of God” and that of seeing God’s “glory” (doxa).  In passages such as Psalm 10:11 and Psalm 27:9, the author speaks of the Lord “hiding [or concealing, or covering: Hebrew sathar] his face [Hebrew paneh]” from the worshiper.  I think what is being expressed in passages such as these may be the sense of a loss of meaningfulness—which I believe inevitably accompanies the esoteric form of religion.

The hope that this sense of meaninglessness might somehow be escaped may be what the apostle Paul meant to express in 2 Corinthians 4:6, in which he writes,

For (it was) God who commanded [or told, or spoke: legō, related to logos, which can mean “meaning”] light [phōs] to shine [lampō] out of darkness [skotos], (and) who shone [lampō] in our hearts [kardia], unto the illumination [or enlightenment: phōtismos] of the knowledge [gnōsis] of the glory [doxa] of God, in (the) face [prosōpon] of Jesus Christ.

A possible suggestion is that the “glorified” Jesus would show a new and different kind of “face”—that is, a face that is more “bright” and “radiant” and “illuminating,” and less “dark” or “hidden” or “concealed,” than was generally shown by the “non-glorified” Jesus prior to the Crucifixion and Resurrection (with the exception of the episode of the Transfiguration, which I think may have been meant to serve as a “prefiguring” of that final “glorification”).

The relation between the symbolic idea of the “concealing of the face” and the idea of the “meaninglessness” associated with cryptic and obscure esoteric discourse can be found illustrated in 1 Corinthians 13:12, in which Paul writes,

For now we look [or see: blepō] into [or through: dia] a mirror [or looking-glass, or glass: esoptron] by enigmas [or in obscurity, or by means of riddles, or darkly: en ainigmati], but then (it will be) face to face [prosōpon pros prosōpon].  Now I know [ginōskō] in part, but then I will fully understand [epi-ginōskō], just as I have also been fully understood [epi-ginōskō].

I believe that in this verse Paul is relating the existence of “enigmas” (or “puzzles,” or “dark sayings,” or “riddles,” or “obscure discourse”: ainigma) to the “hiding of God’s face”; and, whether or not he was fully consciously aware of it, I believe he is also telling the reader that the existence of these “enigmas” or “riddles” or “obscure discourse” is really just a product of the fact that human beings have chosen to hide or obscure their own “faces” (think: “true selves,” which would correspond to their “inner selves”) from public view.  In other words, the “hiding of God’s face” is nothing but a mirror-like reflection of the “hiding of man’s face.”  This reading receives support from Genesis 3:8-10 (keeping in mind that the Hebrew word paneh can mean either “face” or “presence”), which indicates that it was human beings who first hid themselves from the “face” of God before God ever hid his “face” from them.

[4] And it is not even clear that in the author’s use of the words “death” (thanatos) and “died” (apo-thnéskō), he was not still speaking metaphorically—just at a different “level” of metaphor.  If he did it once, there is no reason to think he would not do it again—especially since he had just given “warning” to the reader that that is the sort of thing one ought to expect that he might do again.

[5] Cf. Mark 7:14-23.

[6] I think the author may also have intended (consciously or unconsciously) to portray Jesus as a liar simply so that it would be understood that the “Jesus” that was “crucified” or “pierced” signified the deceptive aspect of “prophecy”; and this was to be distinguished from another “Jesus”:  the one that would ultimately be “raised,” which would signify that same body of “prophecy” once it had been “made true” by the assigning of different meanings—the “correct” meanings—to the words and other verbal symbols being used.  However, this would be, in essence, really just a restatement of what I wrote in the main text, since I think a primary reason why the New Testament was written esoterically was so that it could serve as a kind of “education” for the reader who was open to receiving it; and this “educational material,” precisely to the extent that it succeeded in educating the reader, would have been expected to result in its own “crucifixion” or “piercing,” so to speak, precisely because of the deceptiveness contained in that very material.