Facts about Bethany

This post is from the early draft of God’s Favorite Place on Earth by Frank Viola.

  • Bethany was a tiny village a little less than two miles (three kilometers) east of Jerusalem. It was located on the southeastern slopes of the Mount of Olives.
  • Opposite of Bethany was the garden of Gethsemene. Gethsemene, which means “olive press,” was located on the western slopes of the Mount of Olives.
  • Bethany was full of palm trees, almond trees, olive trees, pomegranate trees, and fig trees. The shade of those trees offered a welcome retreat for tired and wearied travelers.
  • During the six days preceding His crucifixion, Jesus visited Jerusalem in the daytime and retreated to Bethany to spend the night. He spent the last six days of His earthly life in Bethany, where He found refuge, repose, safety, acceptance, and peace.
  • The precise meaning of Bethany is unclear. Some believe it means “house of the poor.” Others suggest it means “house of the afflicted.” Others say it means “house of dates.” Still others believe it means “house of figs.” In this book, we will use the last definition. You will understand why later on in the book.
  • Jesus especially loved three people in Bethany: Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Lazarus and his two sisters were dear to our Lord, likely drawing the warmest feelings from His heart.

So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one [Lazarus] you love is sick.”1 

Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.2 

“Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep …”3 

Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him [Lazarus]!”4

  • Some scholars suggest that Mary and Martha were the two most prominent women in Jesus’ life after His mother. This is probably accurate.
  • The Bethany family (Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and Simon) appears to have been well-off financially. The following features indicate their financial status: the size of Martha’s house (the house seated Jesus, His twelve disciples, and others); the type of tomb that was used for Lazarus (similar to the one that belonged to Joseph of Arimathaea5); the fact that Lazarus was wrapped in linen (the finest textile then used for shrouds); and the ultra-costly perfume that Mary poured upon Jesus’ head and feet.6 While the family was well-to-do, they didn’t appear to be rich. Martha cooked and served, and there is no mention of household servants.
  • It appears that Martha was the older sister (her name is often listed first), Mary was the younger sister, and Lazarus was the younger brother. John calls Bethany “the town of Mary,”7 indicating that Mary was the favored daughter of this well-to-do family. The family also had friends, and perhaps relatives, who lived in nearby Jerusalem.8
  • In the Gospels, Lazarus never speaks, Mary speaks once, and Martha speaks six times. This is probably reflective of their personalities.
  • Simon the leper also lived in Bethany.9 Most scholars believe that Simon was a relative of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Some have argued that the most reasonable conclusion is that Simon was the father of Lazarus and his two sisters. They point out that in Luke 10, the home Jesus visited in Bethany is said to belong to Martha. In Mark 14, the home is said to belong to Simon. If Simon was Martha’s father, then this would make perfect sense since they shared the same house. This would also allow us to easily reconcile the banquet mentioned in John 12 with the versions given in Matthew and Mark. In addition, it would explain why Simon was part of the family’s private affairs. So in this book, we will assume that Simon is the widowed father of the family.

Endnotes appear in the book.