The little village of Bethany, on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives about 3km from Jerusalem, was a favourite place of rest and refuge for Jesus.
Here he knew the intimacy and friendship of his friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus. And here, in the cemetery just below the village, he raised Lazarus from the dead.
When Lazarus was dying, as John’s Gospel (11:1-44) recounts, his sisters sent for Jesus. But Jesus delayed his arrival until four days after Lazarus had been buried, “so that the Son of God may be glorified”.
Arriving at the tomb, Jesus called: “Lazarus, come out!” To the amazement of mourners who had witnessed the burial, the dead man walked out. This miracle confirmed the determination of the religious leaders in Jerusalem to have Jesus put to death.
Bethany (not to be confused with Bethany Beyond the Jordan, where Christ was baptised) is also associated with two other events:
• While Christ was visiting his friends’ home, Martha complained that her sister Mary, sitting at the Lord’s feet and listening to him, had left all the work to her. Christ replied: “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her”. (Luke 10:38-42)
• At dinner in the house of Simon the Leper, a week before the crucifixion, Mary took a jar of expensive ointment and poured it over Christ’s feet — an act he saw as the anointing of his body for burial. (John 12:1-8).
Pilgrims since early centuries
The present Arab village, on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, is called Al-Azariyeh, an Arabic version of Lazarus. The original village was probably higher up the hill to the west of the tomb of Lazarus.
The Franciscan Albert Storme says the reason why pilgrims have been drawn to this place is not based on “some ‘casual’ wonder. In their eyes, Lazarus’ resurrection prefigured that of Christ, and heralded their own return from the grave.”
Christian churches have been built here since the early centuries. In AD 333, the Anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux reported seeing “the crypt where Lazarus had been laid to rest”.
By the 14th century the churches were in ruins and the original entrance to the tomb had been turned into a mosque. In the 16th century the Franciscans cut through the soft rock to create the present entrance.
27 steps to burial chamber
Today’s pilgrims enter from the street down a flight of 24 well-worn and uneven steps to a vestibule. Three more steps lead to the burial chamber, little more than 2 metres long. Tradition says Jesus stood in the vestibule to call Lazarus from the grave.
The present Catholic church, with mosaics depicting the events that occurred here, was built in 1954. Architect Antonio Barluzzi contrasted the sadness of death with the joy of resurrection by designing a crypt-like, windowless church, into which light floods from the large oculus in its dome.
A Greek Orthodox church, dedicated to Simon the Leper, is to the west of the tomb.
Since 2005 Bethany, in the West Bank, has been cut off from Jerusalem by Israel’s separation wall. The wall actually cuts across the main street, making a serious impact on the live of residents and on the town’s economy.
What used to be a 10-minute drive from the Mount of Olives to Bethany now requires a lengthy detour, so the Tomb of Lazarus has become isolated from the normal pilgrim and tourist route.
Jesus raises Lazarus to life: John 11:1-44
Jesus visits Martha and Mary: Luke 10:38-42
The anointing at Bethany: John 12:1-8
Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land
Open: Apr-Sep 8-11.25am, 2-6pm, Oct-Mar 8-11.25am, 2-5pm
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)
Storme, Albert: “Bethany”, Holy Land, Winter 2000 and Summer 2003