Only Luke tells the story of the widow of Nain, whose son Jesus revived even as his body was being taken to its burial (Luke 7:11–17). Placed after the healing of the centurion’s son and before the calming of the storm, this story may have been the first instance of Jesus’ raising someone from the dead (see “List of the Miracles of Jesus” in the Appendix). According to the Lucan account, Jesus approached the city of Nain in Galilee, accompanied by a large following of disciples and others. The site of ancient Nain, is now occupied by the Arab village of Na`in some four miles southeast of Nazareth. The town has a beautiful view of the Jezreel Valley, which might have given it its name, meaning “lovely” or “charming.” At the gate of this town Jesus met the funeral procession of the young man, described as “the only son (Greek, monogenēs huios) of his mother, and she was a widow” (Luke 7:12, emphasis added). Moved with compassion, Jesus told the bereft mother not to weep, reached out and touched the funeral bier, and called upon the young man, saying, “Young man, I say unto thee, Arise (Greek, egerthēti)” (Luke 7:14, emphasis added). Immediately the young man sat up alive and began to speak.
Of the three recorded instances of Jesus raising the dead, this story has the most in common with the Old Testament stories of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah had raised the son of the woman of Zarephath, who, as in this story, was also a widow. Elisha revived the only son of the Shunamite woman, whose home, Shunem, was probably at the site of the modern Arab village of Sulam less than two miles southwest of Nain. Yet while Jesus’ miracle at Nain might have been anticipated by these earlier Old Testament stories, there were significant differences. Jesus does not seem to have known the widow at Nain before, and he helped her without any request or expression of faith on her part. Elijah and Elisha, on the other hand, had been guests of the women whom they helped, and both mothers had begged the prophets to help their sons. Their sons were resuscitated privately in their own houses, whereas Jesus performed the miracle at Nain in public before much of the town. Finally, the Shunamite woman, whose son’s earlier conception had been a miracle itself, was not only married but also quite wealthy.
The emphasis on the widowhood of the woman at Nain, however, underscores her desperate plight: not only had she now lost her son, she had earlier lost a husband. The term used for the young man when Jesus calls upon him to arise is neaniske. Though this means “youth,” it can refer to any man until about the age of forty, making it possible that he had been a young adult and his widowed mother’s only source of support. His death was thus not only a devastating personal loss for her, it may also have represented an economic catastrophe. In Luke’s account, she neither speaks nor acts at any point in the story; she is, according to Barbara Reid, “a nameless, silent object of pity.” As a result, the miracle is portrayed as a pure act of kindheartedness on the part of Jesus, illustrating his interest in and concern for women, the poor, and the marginalized.
Jesus stopped the procession of the funeral cortege by touching the bier, an act that would have incurred ritual defilement according to strict interpretation of the law. As usual for Jesus, such considerations were not important in view of his healing ministry and his desire to help those who were suffering. Just as Jesus frequently healed people by “raising” them from their sick beds, here Jesus commanded the young man to “arise,” using a form of the same verb egeirō that is also used in connection with resurrection. Thus while this man’s resuscitation was only a return to mortal life, it nevertheless serves as anticipation with Jesus’ own permanent conquest of death. This connection might be underscored by Luke’s emphasizing that the young man was the widow’s only son (monogenēs huios), even as Christ is the Only Begotten (monogenēs) of the Father (John 1:18). While Mary had other children by Joseph (see Mark 6:3; Matthew 13:55), Joseph is never mentioned again as being alive after the stories of Jesus’ birth and boyhood. As a result, there is also a certain parallelism between the widow of Nain and Mary, a widow who also witnessed the death of her own beloved son.
After the young man arose, Jesus “delivered him to his mother” (Luke 7:15), even as Elijah had “delivered” the child of the widow of Zarephath back to her, saying “See, thy son liveth” (1 Kings 17:23). At Nain the crowd reacted with both fear and awe, giving glory to God and exclaiming “that a great prophet is risen up among us” and “God hath visited his people” (Luke 7:16). Given Nain’s proximity to Old Testament Shunem, the multitude may well have had Elisha in mind. Yet the public wonder and expressions of praise must have paled when compared to the heartfelt relief and overwhelming joy of the mother, which was not recorded. The miracle of Jesus’ raising the widow’s son was only the first of others he would perform, each of which looked forward to a much greater, everlasting restoration of life. This ultimate miracle will not only return one woman’s child to her but will restore all of our loved ones to us, with a promise of our never being separated again if we are true and faithful.
Knight, The Holy Land, 225–26.
Knight, The Holy Land, 226–27.
Meier, A Marginal Jew, 2.792–93.
Dabelstein, “Neaniskos,” Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 2.459.
Reid, Choosing the Better Part, 104.
Witherington, Women and the Genesis of Christianity, 85.
Some important manuscripts of John 1:18 actually read “only begotten god” (monogenēs theos), though the adjective “only begotten” here is the same. See Metzger, Textual Commentary, 169–70.