Matthew 21:17; 26:6; Mark 11:1,11,12; 14:3; Luke 10:38-42; 19:29;24:50; John 11:1,18; 12:1
Bethany (probably from “house of the poor or afflicted”) was a village was on the Mount of Olives about two miles southeast of Jerusalem on the way to Jericho. The village was re-settled by those of the tribe of Benjamin after the exile (Neh. 11:32). Bethany was located due east of Bethphage (also Bethpage) where church historians believe Jesus began His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Bethany also was noted as the hometown of the friends of Jesus – Mary, Martha and Lazarus (whom he had raised from the dead – John 11:1). Because Jesus stayed in Bethany when He was in Judea, the gospel writers sometimes refer to the village as His base when going in and out of Jerusalem (Matthew 21:17; Mark 11:11,12,19).
Four specific events are recalled in the Gospels, set in the village of Bethany. First, It was the setting for the “priority teaching” of Jesus, as Mary chose to sit as His feet and listen to Jesus, rather than busy herself with the preparations for guests. Jesus used this as an opportunity to set priorities on the most important things in the life of Martha her sister (Lk. 10). Second, it was also the home of Simon the Leper where a dinner in honor of Jesus was hosted. At that dinner a woman anointed Jesus with expensive perfume (Mt. 26). Third, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and offered His saying: “I Am the Resurrection and the Life!” (Jn. 10) Fourth, Jesus spent time with his dear friends before the Passion Week (Jn. 12).
This town still exists today, settled by Arabs and called el-Azariyeh in honor of Lazarus (called “Lazarion” – the place of Lazarus – by Eusebius in 330 and again by the Nun Aetheria in 385 CE). The original area of the ancient village was on the hill above the site of “Lazarus’ tomb”. Site surveys reveal the area was likely occupied between the C7 BCE and the C14 CE, but has not been systematically excavated, and is partially covered with modern buildings. The now well-visited “Tomb of Lazarus” is located at the southeast edge of the ancient village ruins.
The text of John 11:38 recalls that the stone lay upon the grave. This term was uncommon, for many tombs of the period were closed with a rolling stone, not a flat stone placed on top. The tomb visited today was clearly designed to be sealed with a top stone. Ruins of a Byzantine church structure have been partially uncovered and some remains are exposed in the area of the Franciscan church east of the tomb. Eusebius’ Onomasticon appears to refer to a shrine in the place as early as 390 (Onom. 59). Jerome also validates the existence of the church. Numerous church citations are outlined in the Excavations at Bethany volume of S.J. Saller (director of the Franciscan excavations at the church property in 1957ff).
The fourth century church was eastern oriented and situated the tomb beneath the entry area of the structure, probably in the atrium vestibule. An earthquake apparently destroyed the structure in the fifth century, but it was swiftly re-erected. Due to some difficulty, the replacement church was moved to the east, and the overall site was enlarged. In the C12 CE, the site was again expanded, with a Benedictine convent (founded by Queen Melisande) erected to the south of the tomb and above the burial area. Some ancient references include the term “duplex ekklesia” (double church). Both churches were destroyed by the C14 CE, when the site was occupied by a mosque. Because the original entrance of the tomb was blocked by the mosque, the long staircase was cut (22 steps) by Franciscans in the mid C16 CE. At the bottom of the stairs, the original entrance was to the east and is walled shut today.
The inner chamber is seven by eight feet, and has some original features of the tomb, though it has been badly damaged over the centuries. The modern Franciscan church (1954) to the east of the site is a marvelous example of the late architect Barluzzi, an Italian that gave many years of his life to enhancing the pilgrimage sites. It is a unique structure, as the architect wanted to utilize the construction to aid in the understanding of the story of Jesus and Lazarus. The theme is carefully displayed, “I Am the Resurrection and the Life!” The inner church looks and feels like a crypt, virtually windowless and cold. The warmth of the colorful art contrasts with the sheer stone walls.