In speaking of death Jesus uses a euphemism, as in the case of Lazarus: “She is sleeping.” In raising the child to life he uses only a gesture (“taking her hand”) and a command (“Arise”). Instead of looking for showy publicity, he imposes silence.
The evangelists, who are writing long after the event and are therefore not bound by any such command, nonetheless retain the simplicity. They are conscious that here more than elsewhere they are reporting something utterly extraordinary….
There is no doubt in the minds of the evangelists, the members of the ruler’s family, and Jesus himself that they are confronted with a real death.
- In Matthew the ruler says: “My daughter has just died” (Mt 9:18);
- in Mark the little girl, initially described as dying, is subsequently said by the messengers from the household to be “dead.”
- Luke describes the situation in the same way.
Death is so certain that by the time Jesus arrives the ceremonial of weeping and lamentation is already in full swing. And when Jesus, according to all three evangelists, uses the euphemism: “The child is not dead but sleeping,” he is greeted with mocking laughter (Mk 5:40; Lk 8:53; Mt 9:24). Jesus and this man who is a ruler of his fellows are convinced that they are dealing with a real death.
If Jesus had played out a comedy by exploiting the everyday occurrence of a seeming death for his own ends, he would have discredited himself, and the tradition would not have dared to retain the story. When, then, he says: “The child is not dead but sleeping,” he does so in order to put a preventive damper on messianic excitement. In the case of Lazarus, who is not only dead but already decomposing, he will likewise say: “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep” (Jn 1=1:11). But the evangelist immediately explains: “Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep” (John 11:13). The language is the same in both stories, and each time there is a reason for the euphemism…
Anyone who makes the unsupported claim that what we have here is a simple story of healing which has been transformed in the course of tradition into a resurrection story, and who goes on to say that it is a ﬁctive resurrection symbolizing the resurrection of Christ, must either be reading the Gospels backward or be ignoring the rudiments of historical criticism.
Bultmann claims that it is impossible for a modern mind to speak of the raising of the dead to life.
I, on the contrary, believe that if the Absolute breaks through into the history of the race in order to save it, it is completely intelligible that this extraordinary goodness should ﬁnd expression in unparalleled saving gestures such as healings, exorcisms, and raisings from the dead. Miracles are simply the good news of grace and salvation made visible: humanity made new, the world made new. That is how the apostles thought who were witnesses to Jesus.
The Miracles of Jesus and the Theology of Miracles, Rene Latourelle, Paulist Press, New York, p.126-7