Mark 5:39: Not Dead but Sleeping?

The statement that Jairus's twelve-year-old daughter was "not dead, but sleeping" appears in all three Synoptic narratives (see Mt 9:24; Lk 8:52 RSV). But what did Jesus mean when he said this? The girl's death had certainly been reported. As Jesus was on the way to the house where she lived, in response to her father's anguished plea to him to come and lay his healing hands on her, a messenger came to say that she had died; therefore, "why trouble the Teacher any further?" (RSV). But Jesus encouraged her father: "Do not fear; only believe" (RSV), and went on with him to the house. It was then that he rebuked the crowd for the noise they were making. Did he mean that she was not dead (as had been reported) but only sleeping in the literal sense of the word? The crowd took him to mean that, but it was perfectly evident to them that she was dead: "they laughed at him," say all three Evangelists; "knowing that she was dead," Luke adds (and the fact that he says "knowing" rather than "supposing" suggests that he believed that she had died). Or did Jesus mean that her state of death, though real, was not to be permanent--that it would prove to be nothing more than a temporary sleep? Did he, in other words, use the word sleep figuratively, as he did when he reported the death of Lazarus to his disciples by saying, "Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep" (Jn 11:11 RSV)? It is beside the point to say that two different Greek words for "sleep" are used--one in the story of Jairus's daughter and the other in the Lazarus narrative. Both of them can be used figuratively for death in appropriate contexts.

Which way, then, should our Lord's words be taken? We cannot be sure, in the absence of the confirmation which a medical certificate would supply. To the modern reader his words are ambiguous. To the child he used the kind of language which might be used by anyone waking a child up from sleep: Talitha cumi is the Aramaic for "Little girl, get up!" But the mere waking of a child from sleep is not the kind of action which would call for special commemoration: the fact that the Evangelists record the incident, coupled with the way in which they record it, implies their belief that she was really (if only temporarily) dead.