The Raising of Lazarus From the Dead


"Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up" (John 10:11).

Two days after hearing of Lazarus' illness, Jesus said to his disciples, "Let us go back to Judea" (John 11:7). His disciples, however, expressed fear that Jesus' enemies would stone him if he returned to Jerusalem. Only Jesus' popularity with the common people had saved his life on a previous visit. But Jesus told his disciples that he must go to his friend Lazarus and they all set out for Bethany, a small village on the edge of the Judean desert, on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. John's gospel locates it "less than two miles from Jerusalem."

In the footsteps of Jesus...

From the Lions/St. Stephen's Gate in the east wall of the Old City, we descend the steep road into the Kidron Valley. Heading south, we pass along the right-hand side of the enclosure surrounding the traditional "Garden of Gethsemane," with the Church of All Nations immediately to the south. We are on the Jericho road leading to Bethany. Skirting along the foot of the Mount of Olives, it winds around the tomb-covered southern slope about 100 feet below the summit, and crosses a depression between it and the Mount of Offense, where Solomon "built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites" (1 Kings 11:7) to appease his many foreign wives. The road curves left, passing the head of a gorge, climbs again along the slope of a southeastern spur of the Mount of Olives, winds around the spur's eastern side. On our left is the traditional site of Bethany, now identified with the modern Arab village of al-Azariyeh (below), a form of the Greek Lazarion ("place of Lazarus").

(Above) Commemorative buildings at al-Azariyeh, the traditional site of Bethany. Left to right: Franciscan Church of St. Lazarus; minaret of 16th century AD al-Ozir mosque; Greek Orthodox church; remains a Crusader tower that was part of a 12th century AD convent.


Al-Azariyeh, a town of about 2,000, spreads along both sides of Road 417, the feeder road to Route 1, the main highway east to Jericho. At the eastern end is a bus parking area, from where we walk down the narrow street past the cruciform-shaped Franciscan church (below left) to the supposed tomb of Lazarus, marked by an orange sign (below right). Just beyond Lazarus' tomb is the Greek Orthodox church.

(Above left) interior of the Franciscan Church of Lazarus; (Above right) another view of al-Azariyeh.

Bethany enters the pages of history only at the end of Jesus' public ministry. In 1923-1924, archaeologist W.F. Albright identified it with "Ananyah," one of the localities inhabited by the tribe of Benjamin after the return from the Babylonian Exile

"The descendants of the Benjamites from Geba lived in Michmash, Aija, Bethel and its settlements, in Anathoth, Nob and Ananiah..." (Nehemiah 11:31-32).

Albright's identification is now accepted by most experts, and according to him the name means simply "house of Ananiah," or in Hebrew Beth Ananyah, which simply evolved into "Bethany." Other meanings according to commentaries and other sources, but now seen as incorrect: "house of obedience" (Origen), "house of dates" or "house of misery.

Location of Bethany

The evangelist Luke (19:28-29) places Bethany "at the hill called the Mount of Olives," while John (11:18) gives the location as "less than two miles from Jerusalem." Difficulties start when we try to pin-point the site.

The real site of Bethany?

Excavations have shown that the site of al-Azariyeh really was a burial site in ancient times, and thus unclean according to Jewish law. Therefore the village of Jesus' time could not have been located there. Where, then, was the village of gospel times actually situated? It is the diggings directed by Fr. Sylvester Saller of the Franciscans from 1949 to1953 that answer this problem.

In an olive grove belonging to the Franciscans, on a hill west of the traditional 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 coincides with the return from the Babylonian Exile and it is this period when the place was settled by the Benjaminites. Objects dating from the time of the Gospels found there include oil lamps in use in the1st-centuries BC and AD. Also discovered were pieces of pottery like those at Qumran, dating back to the 1st-century of the Christian era, before the First Jewish Revolt (66-70 AD). There were also jars belonging to the Herodian era, such as those found at Jericho.

The raising of Lazarus

When Jesus and the disciples reached Bethany, mourners had gathered to comfort, Mary and Martha, the grieving sisters of Lazarus (a name meaning "whom God helps;" a form of the Hebrew Eleazar"). Martha came to greet Jesus but Mary was so distraught she had to be encouraged to come outside the house. Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days:

"'Lord, Martha said to Jesus, 'if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.' Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' Martha answered, 'I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.' Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?' 'Yes, Lord,' she told him, 'I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.'" (John 11:21-27)

The tomb entrance had been blocked with a large stone and those gathered outside cried, as did Jesus ("Jesus wept"--John 11:35, the shortest verse in the Bible). They must have astonished when Jesus ordered, "Take away the stone," he said. "But, Lord," Martha protested, "by this time there is a bad odor." According to traditional practice, the body had been washed in scented oils and wrapped in fine linen (but not embalmed). But Jesus insisted and, after praying, he shouted, "Lazarus, come out!" Still wrapped in his grave clothes, the man stumbled out of his tomb into the light. Because of what Jesus did, many Jews "put their faith in him."

(Above left) entrance to the traditional tomb of Lazarus.

A flight of stone steps leads down to the tomb entrance hall (right) and the actual burial chamber (lower right).

In a pre-Easter sermon our pastor, a tour participant, told us of his own visit to the tomb a couple years earlier:

"I'll never forget it," he said, "the guide invited some of us to look into the cave. I went down into Lazarus' tomb. It was not very large and the entrance to it was maybe 5 and 1/2 feet off the ground. Men were a lot shorter in Jesus' day than now. I looked around and thought to myself, 'hmm, nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live here.' I took a couple of photos, then I turned and walked quickly out of the tomb, but I forgot to duck, and I cracked my head on the entrance stone."

I smiled and carefully lowered my six-foot frame, avoiding a similar mishap. A week earlier I had whacked my skull on the low entrance of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and didn't want another sore spot. I took the 24 steps down into the tomb's entrance hall. From there three more steps lead to an inner chamber, a little more than 6 feet in size. It contained, we were told, three burial niches, but they are mostly hidden by a facing of stonework. One tradition places the tomb of Lazarus to the right of the entrance which was formerly closed by a horizontal stone. Quarried out of the soft rock, it was most likely faced with stone or marble-work during the Byzantine period. In its present state, however, the tomb shows traces of changes and additions made during the Middle Ages.

How authentic is the tomb of Lazarus?

Its authenticity rests mainly on the fact that it has been identified as Lazarus' tomb since the 2nd century AD. As for the town itself: the first great Christian historian, Eusebius of Caesarea (265-340 AD), stated in his Onomasticon (simply meaning the naming of places topographically) that in the 2nd century AD the village was no longer called Bethany but was known as the "place of Lazarus." Already at this early date the name had been changed and this wouldn't have happened if something significant hadn't taken place there.

Following the raising of Lazarus

According to John, after the raising of Lazarus, Jesus and the disciples went "to a region near the desert, to a village called Ephraim" because he could no longer move about publically  (see John 11:54).


Ephraim was one of the cities allotted to the tribe of Benjamin (see Joshua 18:23). Located at the boundary between Samaria and Judea, it was a high city, about 2,800 feet above sea-level (300 feet higher than Jerusalem and some 4,000 feet above the Jordan River valley), and could be quite cold in the winter months. The name means "double ash-heap: I shall be doubly fruitful."

The ancient site Ephraim is now occupied by the Palestinian town of Taybeh (Arabic "good"), about 18 miles north-northeast of Jerusalem. Taybeh has an all Christian population of approximately 1,400, belonging to three denominations: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Melkite (Greek Catholic) churches. It is considered the only 100% Christian village in Palestine. Taybeh is home to the only micro brewery in Palestine and distributes Taybeh Beer to Palestine and Europe. "They don't have their own state, but they have their own beerTaybeh" (Reuters); "The best microbrewery in the Middle East." (Newsweek). The village holds an annual two-day Oktoberfest to celebrate its most famous product.

(Top row, left) View of the surrounding hills from the Christian cemetery at Taybeh (ancient Ephraim). (Top row, right) Modern village of Taybeh.
(Bottom row, left)
Catholic church at Teybeh, one of the village's three churches; (Bottom row, right) remains of the 4th century AD church of St. George, originally built by the emperor Constantine.

John further tells us that the raising of Lazarus set off an explosion of anger in the Sanhedrin, the 71 member Jewish governing body. Such miracles, it was feared, could incite the people to follow this latest Messiah claimant into yet another rebellion, provoking Roman intervention. The high priest, Joseph Caiaphas, summed it up:

"You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (John 11:50).

From that day on the chief priests and Pharisees plotted to take his life. An arrest warrant was issued "that if anyone found out where Jesus was, he should report it so that they might arrest him" (John 11:57).

We may, in fact, have some idea of the actual wording of the arrest warrant. A rabbinic tradition recorded in the Talmud specifies the indictment against one Yeshu Hannosri ("Jesus of Nazareth" in Hebrew). The warrant can be reconstructed:

Wanted: Yeshu Hannosri

He will be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf. Anyone who knows where his is, let him declare it to the great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.

Legal custom dictated that the warrant be announced publicly or posted in the larger towns of Judea some forty days prior to any trial. With Passover approaching there was some debate among the Sanhedrin members:

"What do you think? Isn't he coming to the Feast at all?" (John 11:56b).

Jesus' Life Home n "Let us go up to Jerusalem"