Luke and Egyptian Folklore

17 Dec
Rich Man and Lazarus - 2

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It might be interesting to discuss the possible literary genre of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Some scholars believe its theme has been borrowed from Egyptian folklore. The problem with this idea is that Jesus would have no reason to use pagan literature to speak to the Jews, especially his disciples. Moreover, since there are obvious doctrinal issues with the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, why would Jesus use gentile literature to teach anything about the Kingdom of God. On the other hand, if the Jewish authorities were already using this story, which **they** borrowed from Egyptian folklore in order to support their own worldviews (Titus 1:14; cf. 2Timothy 4:4), then Jesus would have good reason to use it, if he wanted to expose error in the doctrines of the Jewish authorities of his day.

The original story, if, indeed, it was borrowed from Egyptian myth, concerns a young man, Si-Osiris and his father Setme.[1] The two witnessed two funerals: one of a rich man, which had great pomp, and the other of a poor man, who was laid to rest unceremoniously. Setme expressed a desire to have a funeral like the rich man. Si-Osiris disagreed, and he was actually a reincarnated being, born to Setme, his father, who had in this manner returned to the land of the living from Hades (or Amenti in Egyptian folklore). To show Setme the “truth” behind it all, Si-Osiris took his father on a tour of Hades. There they were able to witness the fates of both the rich man and the poor one. The rich man was tormented, but the poor man was given the rich man’s expensive clothing, and he was given a place of honor next to Osiris, the god of the underworld. The moral, according to Si-Osiris was that the rich man was rewarded in the land of the living for the one good deed he had done. However, the poor man had done many good deeds, far outnumbering his bad deeds, so he was rewarded in Hades and given a position of honor.[2]

According to Howard Marshall, “The general motif of this story found its way into Jewish lore, and it is attested in some seven versions, the earliest of which concerns a poor scholar and the rich publican, Bar Ma’jan.”[3] Alexandrian Jews could have brought the story with them to Jerusalem on one of their annual pilgrimages, during the Passover or one of the other Jewish holy days. If this is so, then Jesus could have picked and chose whichever version he wanted to use against the worldviews of the Pharisees and Sadducees. At the same time Jesus would have inserted his own words in key places that supported the Gospel. In this manner he would have used the words of the Jewish authorities against them. It is difficult to argue against one’s own words.

Although the Pharisees, who believed in a resurrection, would have reworded the Egyptian folklore in a manner that supported their worldview against the Sadducees, who denied a resurrection, the Sadducees would have reworded the same source from Egypt to support their worldview against the Pharisees.

Since both the Sadducees and the Pharisees denied the scriptures in order to support their own worldviews, Jesus used the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, no doubt repeated in a similar form by rabbis of both schools, to show the folly of rejecting the word of God as the foundation of truth. Experience is not the best foundation for truth. People will interpret experiences in different ways, so which interpretation is true? The rich man thought the experience of meeting a resurrected Lazarus would change his brethren, but Jesus showed that the word of God is the best evidence of truth. All reality, including the universe, has been brought into existence by the word of God, so it logically stands that it would be easier for what was brought into existence by a certain power (viz. the word of God) to pass away, than for that which brought those things into existence to pass away (Luke 16:17). Thus, Jesus’ argument stands, namely the word of God is the foundation for all truth, and must not be made ineffectual by the word or experiences of men.


[1] The first person to question the origin of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus was Hugo Gressmann in1918; see Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Gabriele Boccaccini; “Enoch and the Synoptic Gospels: Reminiscences, Allusions, Intertextuality”; pages 147-148

[2] Loren T. Stuckenbruck, Gabriele Boccaccini; “Enoch and the Synoptic Gospels: Reminiscences, Allusions, Intertextuality”; pages 147-150

[3] I. Howard Marshall, “The New International Greek Testament Commentary – Commentary on Luke” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI); see reference HERE.

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Posted by on December 17, 2017 in Gospel of Luke


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