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© franciscan cyberspot


  * Introd.
  * Texts
  * Gospels
  * Byzan. 1
  * Byzan. 2
  * Byzan. 3
  * Pilgrims
  * Mid.Ages
  * Modern
  * Conclusion

Bethany in the Gospels

Remains of the village of Bethany (west of the shrine)
Bethany enters the pages of history only at the end of Jesus' public life. Nevertheless, the archaeologist, W.F. Albright, identifies this village with 'Ananyab, one of the localities inhabited by the tribe of Benjamin after the return from the Exile (Nehemiah 11:32). Put forward in 1923-1924, this identification is now accepted by most experts. Equating the settlement with the "house of 'Ananyah" (Beth 'Ananyah), Albright has solved the etymological problem and proven worthless such other explanations as "the house of obedience" (Origen) (PG 13,1432) and "the house of misery."

Funeral objects from the tombs of Bethany
from the Middle and Late Bronze period


Speaking of Bethany, the evangelists Luke and John add topographical details which would seem precise enough to allow us to fix the site with surety. Situated between Jericho and Jerusalem, close to the Mount of Olives (Luke 19:28-29), the village stood about 15 stadia from Jerusalem, that is, about 2,800 metres distant (John 11:18). Difficulties start when we try to pin-point it on a map. The present village spreads along the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, around the traditional tomb of Lazarus. However, excavations have shown that this was really a burial site. Where, then, was the village of Gospel times actually situated? It could not have been on a burial ground. It is the diggings directed by Fr. Saller which have given a definite answer to this problem.

In an olive grove belonging to the Custody, on a hill west of the tomb of Lazarus, archaeology has brought to light grottoes, cisterns, caves, rooms, a bakery and silos, containing an important collection of oil-lamps, jars, pitchers, coins, etc., all of which prove that the site was occupied from the 6-5th centuries BC to the 14th century AD The early period is of interest in that it coincides with the return from the Exile. This was the period when, according to Albright, the place was settled by the Benjaminites.

Amongst objects dating from the time of the Gospels there were found oil lamps called "Herodian" such as were in use in the first centuries, BC and AD Also discovered were pieces of pottery like those which the diggings at Qumran have brought to light, dating back to the first century of the Christian era, before the first Jewish rebellion (68-69). There are also jars, such as those found at Jericho and belonging to the Herodian time.


Pottery of the Persian period (5th-4th c. BC)
and of the Hellenistic period (2nd - 1st c. BC)

Two houses of Bethany are mentioned in the Gospels: that of Martha and Mary, that of Simon the Leper.

Nothing in the way of writing or of archaeological discovery warrants us to identify the two houses with rooms or grottoes found at Bethany. To be sure, reports of pilgrims speak of the house of Mary and Martha and of Simon, but these notices are late and give only a general siting within the village of Gospel times. Briefly, the first Christians were interested solely in the tomb of Lazarus, a witness of a resurrection that confirmed their faith in the divinity of Christ, and a pledge of their own eventual rising from the dead. Pilgrims to Bethany were animated by the same faith as is clear, for instance, in the 5th century when the Jerusalem Church read for them the passage of the First Epistle to the Thessalonians wherein Paul asserts his faith and hope relative to the resurrection of those who have fallen asleep in Christ. This special remembrance at Bethany was due to efface all other memories attached to the place.
Left: Jug handle of (Persian period) with seal in Hebrew: Ierushalaim
Right: A flask of the Roman period found in the excavation of the village

The meaning of Lazarus' resurrection from the dead is furnished by John when he describes a scene which took place beforehand, somewhere outside the village itself.

Thus, coming up from the Jordan valley, Jesus had not yet entered the settlement. The modern Jericho-Jerusalem road does not follow the ancient route. The last leg of the latter, which is of interest to us here, three kilometres from the so-called Inn of the Good Samaritan, was called the roman road and was built probably in the 2nd c. AD. It extended towards the Northwest, reaching the top of the Mount of Olives between the present Augusta Victoria Hospital and the hill called Viri Galilaei. In 570, coming from Jericho to Bethany, the Anonymous Pilgrim of Piacenza had to take a path "to the left" before coming to the Mount of Olives. That this was the road of Gospel times is rendered still more probable by the fact that it would have given easy access to ancient Bethany built, as we have seen, higher up the hill to the west of the tomb. Even granting that we are still in the domain of theory, it does seem likely that the meeting of Jesus with Lazarus sisters took place to the north-west of the village.

Left: a hellenistic lamp.
Right: lower part of a small jug with the seal from hellenistic period.

The tradition surrounding Lazarus tomb is age-old. Eusebius, writing about 330, tells us in his Onomasticon: "There the place of Lazarus is still shown," that is, his tomb. In 333, a guide pointed out to the Pilgrim of Bordeaux the "crypt" where Lazarus had been laid to rest. Before the coming of Christians of gentile stock, and the building of their shrines, this was the tradition handed down by the faithful of the Jerusalem Church.

In 390, St Jerome makes mention of a church built near the "place of Lazarus." Fr. Saller's excavations brought this very building to light, to the east of the tomb. The arrangement is of interest from the viewpoint of traditional siting. It was regularly to the east of the venerated spot that the Holy Sepulchre basilica and many other churches in Palestine, Egypt and Jordan were built.

In the time of Christ, the tomb of Lazarus must surely have been within the cemetery area. To the north, a funerary chamber has been found with eight graves dug straight into the walls. This type of interment, called kokim burial, was in use until about 135 AD. To the south-east, the excavation of a medieval abbey brought to light an ossuary, together with coins dating from the Hasmonean and Roman times. In this latter site, the rock has been deeply quarried. It is possible that the work meant the destruction of Jewish tombs there. The presence of this burial ground proves that the place called the "tomb of Lazarus" must have been well outside the boundaries of the Bethany of the Gospels. Thus, the tomb has not only led, in later times, to a false siting of the village; it has also given it its very name. Bethany became Lazarion or Lazarium for people of Byzantine times, and el-'Azariye for the Arabs.


A tomb from the first century AD

© franciscan cyberspot - text written by Albert Storme

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