Bethany is famously remembered as the home of the siblings Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Today, Bethany is known by the Arabic name Al-Eizariya, meaning “place of Lazarus” and is the second-largest Palestinian city in the Jerusalem Governorate on the West Bank with a population of 17,606 inhabitants. The city is located approximately 1.5 miles from Jerusalem and sits on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives. Here, a tomb reputed to be the place where Lazarus was resurrected, draws thousands of tourists. An ancient house, thought to be 2000 years old, claims to be the House of Mary and Martha, which also draws the attention of visitors and pilgrims.
The raising of Lazarus can be found in the Gospel of John. “Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.” (John 11:1) When news of Lazarus’ illness reached Jesus, he reassured everyone that the sickness would not end in death and remained where he was for a couple more days. After this, Jesus announced he was returning to Judea, where the city of Bethany was located.
“Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.” (John 11:18-20) On arriving in Bethany, Jesus discovered Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Most will know what happened next – i.e. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead – but the reading also contains two of the most well-known verses in the Bible.
The area in which the reputed Lazarus Tomb can be found was used as a cemetery during the 1stcentury AD. Since the 4th century, Christians and Muslims alike have identified it as the tomb mentioned in the gospel. Whether or not this is the case can never be proved, however, the belief is so strong that several churches dedicated to Lazarus have existed throughout time in the area. Today, there are three structures around the site of the tomb. Between 1952 and 1955, the Catholic Church of Saint Lazarus was built 25-metres from the entrance to the tomb by the Franciscans. A decade later, the Greek Orthodox Church built their Church of Saint Lazarus to the west of the tomb. The oldest remaining construction, however, is the Mosque of al-Uzair, which began as a small building in 1384 and was completed in the 16th century by the Ottomans. The mosque honours the town’s patron saint, Lazarus.
Lazarus’ death and subsequent resurrection was not the only time Jesus visited the siblings. Despite not being named, Jesus “came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him,” in Luke 10:38. This features just after the Parable of the Good Samaritan, however, is equally important in the teachings of Jesus. Martha was rushing around making preparations, whilst her sister sat at the feet of Jesus, listening to what he had to say. Martha expressed her exasperation about this; however, Jesus replied “Martha, Martha… you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)
It has been inferred that Bethany was the site of an almshouse for the poor and sick. Lazarus was not the only sick person recorded in the Bible from Bethany. In the Gospel of Mark, we are told that the house of Simon the Leper was in Bethany. “While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.” (Mark 14:3) Mark is writing about the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, which took place two days before the Festival of Unleavened Bread, or the Last Supper. Although the witnesses rebuked the woman for wasting perfume, Jesus stuck up for her saying she had done a “beautiful” thing and “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.” (Mark 14:8)
Very little is known about Simon the Leper, however, his presence in Bethany ties-up with the Temple Scroll – one of the Dead Sea Scrolls – that states there were three places for the sick, including lepers, to the east of Jerusalem. The town of Bethany, based on information from the Gospel of John, fell into the places mentioned in the scroll. Some suggest that Jesus’ remark in Mark 14:7 after the complaints about the waste of perfume that “The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want,” is a reference to the almshouse.
The word Bethany appears eleven times in the New Testament. Whilst Lazarus and family are the most famous connection to the town, it was also an important place in the lead up to Jesus’ crucifixion. In Mark 11 and Luke 19, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem as “king” is recorded, which is what we now celebrate annually on Palm Sunday. “After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here.” (Luke 19:28-29) It is not certain that “the village” was Bethany, Bethphage or an unnamed place, however, it is certain that the disciples found the colt nearby.
The day after Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, he and the disciples were “leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’” (Mark 11:12-14) Following this, Jesus entered the temple courts in Jerusalem and drove out those who were buying and selling there.
The Gospel of Matthew tells these two events in reverse, saying that after Jesus had cleared the temple courts “he left them and went out of the city to Bethany, where he spent the night.” (Matthew 21:17) Verse 18 begins the story of Jesus cursing the fig tree.
The final time Bethany is mentioned in the Bible chronologically is in Luke 24. This chapter describes the Ascension of Jesus, which occurred after “he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany”. (Luke 24:50) The word “vicinity” implies it was not in Bethany itself that Jesus was taken up into heaven, but somewhere nearby. Nonetheless, the reference to the town gives it some importance in the life of Jesus Christ.
There is some discrepancy about the mention of Bethany in John 1:28, which states “This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.” The fact that this Bethany was on the other side of the Jordan tells us it is not the same place as the town in which Lazarus lived. If you read the King James Version of the Bible instead, the issue is almost cleared up by the use of the word Bethabara in place of Bethany. Unfortunately, as the KJV is the only version to make this distinction, it is not 100% reliable.
Al-Eizariya, as Bethany became, has been continuously inhabited since the 6thcentury BC. In 1138, King Fulk and Queen Melisende of Jerusalem owned the village where the latter set up a Benedictine convent dedicated to St Mary and St Martha. The queen’s sister Ioveta was the first abbess and her granddaughter Sibylla was raised in the convent. The convent was abandoned in 1187 after the Siege of Jerusalem during the Third Crusade.
By the 1480s, the village was once again well populated, this time with Arabs and Muslims. During the 1500s, it became part of the Ottoman Empire and by the 20th century, it had at least 400 inhabitants. Later, the 1922 census of Palestine revealed there were 506 Muslims and 9 Christians (2 Orthodox, 7 Roman Catholic) living in the village, however, a decade later, this had risen to 715 and 11 respectively. By 1945, the Christian population had risen to 20, which was vastly outnumbered by the 1040 Muslims.
Between 1948 and 1967, Jordan controlled al-Eizariya. Nonetheless, the population continued to rise, reaching 3000 by the beginning of the 1960s. Since 1967, the land has been occupied by Israel and has become an overcrowded town due to lack of planning. The town has since continued to grow, both residentially and commercially, and now boats a population of over 16,000.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon