Local legends have Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Lazarus living their last years in southern France. They may sound like mere fanciful tales at first glance, but the brutal massacres by Roman Catholic forces of the Cathars – a movement with a theology eerily like that in the restored original Gospel of John – lend considerable weight to the possibility that these legends are true. What follows is a addition to the commentary section of The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion. You will find ordering information here.
There is nothing in either the New Testament about the rest of Lazarus’s life, or in the writings of early Christian leaders. Many romantic legends developed in time, including one that I love which (with some variations) has Mary, Martha, and Lazarus put to sea in a boat without sails, oars, or helm by Jews hostile to the Christians, and managing by a miracle to land safely at Les-Saintes-Maries-de- la-Mer, which I have visited, a lovely seacoast village in the Camargues. Soon thereafter, they say in that region, he was made the first bishop of Marseilles.
Romantic, but possible. Val Wineyard notes that Sejanus, de facto emperor in Tiberius’s madness, and the father of Pontius Pilate’s wife Claudia Procula, owned an estate in the Corbières, near Narbonne, in Gaul (France). Wineyard quotes French scholar André Douzet as theorizing that Pilate advised Jesus to flee to this estate and restore his health in the curative baths at Rennes-les-Bains, as had Claudia’s grandfather, Emperor Augustus, another “son of god” (but in his case the “god” was Julius Cæsar). If Jesus’s father was indeed Pantera (see pages 306-07), I add that he may have been motivated to go there and meet the soldier, stationed at the time farther inland, in what is now Germany. Wineyard also refers to local legend as saying Jesus was buried in a hidden cave about a kilometer outside the current-day hamlet of Saint-Salvayre, close to Rennes-les-Bains. She refers to another local legend that says Sergius Paulus (Acts 13) came the Narbonne region in the 50s C.E. and preached the teachings of Jesus, and even married Mary after Jesus’s death. It is thus possible that what I myself heard in Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is right, and that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus disembarked there. (Curiously, according to Eusebius, Pontius Pilate himself was exiled to the same region, perhaps to the same estate of his father-in-law Sejanus, in around 37 C.E., and committed suicide in Vienne.)
Adding gravity to this possibility of early eyewitnesses to Jesus’s actual teachings, and perhaps even Jesus himself, is the fact of the Cathars. This movement had a theology and practice astonishingly similar to those of the Jerusalemite branch of the earliest followers of Jesus, those who (unlike the Pauline branch that ultimately became dominant) did not turn Jesus into a Roman-style deity. The Cathars avoided as un-Biblical any highly organized religious institution (unlike the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches then solidifying and strengthening their grip on power and wealth) and any dogma or creed as a “test of faith”, as a set of required beliefs; as a result, their own beliefs are rather diffuse. They seemed to be more or less Arian (believing that Jesus was fully human, and appointed by God as “Son of God”, rather than existing through all time as an intrinsic part of God) and Sabellian (that different aspects of the nature of God are more in the eye of the beholder, the believer, and thus are subjective and intuitive, not dogmatic fact). Zoé Oldenbourg has written that the Cathar views on reincarnation, attributed to Jesus, are virtually identical to that found in Buddhism (another curious connection between Jesus and Eastern philosophy). The Cathars abstained from killing, and thus often did not eat meat, and they tended to prefer celibacy.
What is particularly interesting in the current discussion is that, while the Cathars were also found in Germany, Italy, and elsewhere, they always had their strongest presence in the same region of southern France where legend has Jesus, Mary, Lazarus, Sergius Paulus, and others spending their last years, and that the faith of the Cathars was eerily similar to that found in this restored original gospel. The Albigensian Crusade and the Inquisition were both intended to root out this major threat to the monopolistic power held by the mafialike bosses of Roman Catholicism. In 1210, Crusaders slaughtered some seven thousand Cathar citizens and their Catholic allies at Béziers; their leader, asked how the soldiers could tell Catholics apart such that they might not be killed, said, chillingly, Caedite eos; novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius (“Kill them all; the Lord will recognize his own”). Inquisitional forces burned alive at the last Cathar redoubt, Monségur, about two hundred bonshommes (Cathars who had undergone their only sacrament, Consolamentum [Consolation], and were effectively free from sin), putting an effective end to the movement. Could this have been the final destruction, by those who claimed to venerate Jesus, of a movement actually founded on his original teachings? Scholars like my friend Bertran de la Farge have dedicated their lives to shoring up what little we know about the Cathars.
Credible too is the Eastern Orthodox Church tradition that Lazarus escaped various plots on his life by moving at Barnabas’s suggestion to the latter’s homeland of Cyprus; Barnabas, as noted above, mentored Lazarus’s half-brother John Mark. In Cyprus Laarus was appointed the first bishop of Kition, now called Larnaka. The Orthodox tradition says Lazarus never smiled during the thirty years he lived after his resurrection – perhaps an aftereffect of his death-and-resurrection, perhaps even an effect of the drugs he theoretically took to induce a near-death coma; see the essay on page 547. A tomb discovered in 890 C.E. in Larnaka bears the inscription “Lazarus the Friend of Christ”. The sarcophagus reportedly is still displayed, though Lazarus’s actual remains were brought to Constantinople in 898. But then Crusaders during the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople in 1204 and, it is said, took the precious relics to Marseilles; who knows, perhaps this was because he, his mother Mary, and Jesus had previously spent time there and the French considered him an adoptive son.