Bethany was a Jewish village, three kilometers east of Jerusalem according to John 11:18. In the Greco-Roman times it was also known by the names Beth-hini, and Beth-Ania. The name is perhaps derived from the Aramaic word Ania, which means ‘poor’, or the village may have been part of a plot belonging to a man named Ania.
But Bethany is known mostly by the event documented in John 11 – the site where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus was the brother of a certain Mary. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were all loved by Jesus, and when he heard of the death of Lazarus, Jesus came to Bethany, and as he approached the tomb of Lazarus he prayed, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (John 11:41-44)
In the following chapter we read that while staying in Bethany, Mary anointed Jesus with precious spikenard. The parallels in Matthew and Mark indicate the event took place in the house of “Simon the leper” (Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3). When the disciples, and especially Judas Iscariot, complained of the waste of money which could have been given to the poor, Jesus explained Mary’s act as a sign of his coming death. And indeed, from Bethany Jesus proceeded to Jerusalem where the final episodes of his life took place leading to the crucifixion.
The tomb of Lazarus in Bethany is mentioned by the earliest accounts of historians and pilgrims, such as Eusebius (c 330 CE) and the ‘Pilgrim from Bordeaux’ (333 CE). Egeria, and later St Jerome, record that in their days (the fifth century CE) a church was built over the tomb. This church complex was rebuilt in the Crusaders period (1138 CE), and again by the Franciscans in 1954.
In the 16th Century the Muslims built a mosque over the tomb of Lazarus which was dedicated to ‘El-Uzeir’. The construction of the mosque blocked the entrance to the tomb, and the Franciscans had to carve an alternative stairway into the tomb, which is in use to this day. Near the tomb complex, the remains of a monastery from the time of the Crusaders are also of interest. Built by Queen Melisende (1105-1161 CE), today these remains are identified as the remnants of the house of Mary and Martha. Nearby, the Greek-Orthodox erected a church and a small convent in 1883. Inside the church is the ‘Stone of Colloquoy’, marking the place where Jesus was met by Mary and Martha. The name “Bethany” is no longer used by the local Arab inhabitants of the area, but the Arabic name of the village, “El-Lazarieh”, preserves the local memory of the raising of Lazarus from the dead.