Bethany (Greek: ?) is recorded in the New Testament as the home of the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, as well as that of Simon the Leper. Jesus is reported to have lodged there after his entry into Jerusalem, and it could be from Bethany that he parted from his disciples at the Ascension.
Bethany has traditionally been identified with the present-day West Bank city of al-Eizariya (Arabic "place of Lazarus"), site of the reputed Tomb of Lazarus, about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the east of Jerusalem on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. The oldest house in present-day al-Eizariya, a 2,000-year-old dwelling reputed to have been (or which at least serves as a reminder of) the House of Martha and Mary, is also a popular pilgrimage site.
The tomb in al-Eizariya has been identified as the tomb of the gospel account since at least the 4th century AD. Both the historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 330) and the Itinerarium Burdigalense (c. 333) mention the Tomb of Lazarus in this location.
The root meaning and origin of the name Bethany has been the subject of much scholarship and debate. William Hepworth Dixon devotes a multi-page footnote to it in his The Holy Land (1866), largely devoted to debunking the meaning "house of dates", which is attributed to Joseph Barber Lightfoot by way of a series of careless interpretative mistakes. Dixon quotes at length a refutation of Lightfoot's thesis in the form of a letter by Emanuel Deutsch of the British Museum, who notes that neither the name Bethany, nor any of the roots suggested by Lightfoot, appear anywhere in the Talmud. Deutsch suggests a non-Hebrew root, a word transcribed in Syriac script whose meaning he gives as "House of Misery" or "Poor-house".
This theory as to Bethany's etymology, which was eventually also adopted by Gustaf Dalman in 1905, is not without challengers. For example, E. Nestle's Philologica Sacra (1896) suggests that Bethany is derived from the personal name Anaiah, while others have suggested it is a shortened version of Ananiah, a village of Bethel mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah (11:32). Since Greek can neither reproduce an /h/ sound nor the harsh /?/ sound (Hebrew ?et) in the middle of a word, a derivation from the personal name Chananya ("Yah has been gracious") is also possible.
Another suggestion, arising from the presence of nearby Bethphage ("house of unripe figs"), is that its name comes from beit hini (Aramaic ? / ?) , meaning "house of figs". The Talmud mentions a village called Beit Hino near the Mount of Olives. Some translations suggest it as Bethany.
Deutsch's thesis, however, seems to also be attested to by Jerome. In his version of Eusebius' Onomasticon, the meaning of Bethany is defined as domus adflictionis or "house of affliction". Brian J. Capper writes that this is a Latin derivation from the Hebrew beth 'ani or more likely the Aramaic beth 'anya, both of which mean "house of the poor" or "house of affliction/poverty", also semantically speaking "poor-house". Capper concludes, from historical sources as well as this linguistic evidence, that Bethany may have been the site of an almshouse.
According to Capper and Deutsch before him, there are also linguistic difficulties that arise when the Anaiah/Ananiah, "house of figs" or "house of dates" theses are compared against the bethania form used in Greek versions of the New Testament. Additionally, the Aramaic beit 'anya ( ?) is the form used for Bethany in Christian Palestinian and Syriac versions of the New Testament. Given this, and Jerome's familiarity with Semitic philology and the immediate region, Capper concludes that the "house of affliction" / "poor-house" meaning as documented by Jerome and in the Syriac New Testament usage is correct, and that this meaning relates to the use of the village as a centre for caring for the sick and aiding the destitute and pilgrims to Jerusalem.
It may be possible to combine the Ananiah (as a personal name) and "house of the poor" derivations, since the shortening of Ananiah ("Yah has intervened") to Anya is conceivable though unattested (cf. the common shortening of Yochanan [and perhaps also Chananyah?] to Choni), whence a typical semitic wordplay might arise between Anya as a shortening of the personal name within the name of the village and as Aramaic for "poor". Such a wordplay may have served the choice of the village as the location for an almshouse.
Capper and others have concluded that ancient Bethany was the site of an almshouse for the poor and a place of care for the sick. There is a hint of association between Bethany and care for the unwell in the Gospels: Mark tells of Simon the Leper's house there (Mark 14:3-10); Jesus receives urgent word of Lazarus' illness from Bethany (John 11:1-12:11).
According to the Temple Scroll from Qumran, three places for the care of the sick, including one for lepers, are to be east of Jerusalem. The passage also defines a (minimum) radius of three thousand cubits (circa 1,800 yards) around the city within which nothing unclean shall be seen (XLVI:13-18). Since Bethany was, according to John, fifteen stadia (about 1.72 miles) from the holy city, care for the sick there corresponded with the requirements of the Temple Scroll (the stadion being ideally 600 feet (180 m) or 400 cubits). Whereas Bethphage is probably to be identified with At-Tur, on the peak of the Mount of Olives with a magnificent view of Jerusalem, Bethany lay below to the southeast, out of view of the Temple Mount, which may have made its location suitable as a place for care of the sick, "out of view" of the Temple.
From this it is possible to deduce that the mention of Simon the Leper at Bethany in Mark's Gospel suggests that the Essenes, or pious patrons from Jerusalem who held to a closely similar view of ideal arrangements, settled lepers at Bethany. Such influence on the planning of Jerusalem and its environs (and even its Temple) may have been possible especially during the reign of Herod the Great (36-4 BC), whose favour towards the Essenes was noted by Josephus (Antiquities 15.10.5 [373-78]).
Reta Halteman Finger approves Capper's judgment that only in the context of an almshouse at Bethany, where the poor were received and assisted, could Jesus remark that "The poor you will always have with you" (Mark 14:7; Matthew 26:11) without sounding callous. Ling follows Capper's thesis concerning the connection between then place-name Bethany and the location there of an almshouse. Capper and Ling note that it is only in Bethany we find mention of the poor on the lips of the disciples, who object that the expensive perfumed oil poured over Jesus there might have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor (Mark 14:5; Matthew 26:8-9; John 12:4-6 [where the objection is made by Judas]); this objection may have been made in embarrassment and may also suggest a special connection between Bethany and care for the poor.
It has also been suggested, based on the names found carved on thousands of ossuaries at the site, that Bethany in the time of Jesus was settled by people from Galilee who had come to live by Jerusalem. This would explain why Jesus and the disciples, as Galileans, would find it convenient to stay here when visiting Jerusalem. As Capper writes,
Galilean pilgrims avoided potential conflict with Samaritans by travelling south on the eastern side of the Jordan. Bethany was the last station on their route to Jerusalem after crossing the river and taking the road through Jericho up into the highlands. A respectful distance from the city and Temple, and on the pilgrim route, Bethany was a most suitable location for a charitable institution. It is not surprising that an Essene hospice had been established at Bethany to intercept and care for pilgrims at the end of the long and potentially arduous journey from Galilee. The house combined this work with care for the sick and destitute of the Jerusalem area. Thus Bethany received its name because it was the Essene poorhouse par excellence, the poorhouse which alleviated poverty closest to the holy city.
The village of Bethany is referenced in relation to five incidents in the New Testament, in which the word Bethany appears 11 times:
In Luke 10:38-42, a visit of Jesus to the home of Mary and Martha is described, but the village of Bethany is not named (nor whether Jesus is even in the vicinity of Jerusalem).
A second place named Bethany is mentioned in the Gospel of John 1:28 as being on the east bank of the Jordan River. Its exact location is unclear; in fact, the only mention of this "Bethany" is to be found in that one verse. In the King James Version (following the Textus Receptus of the New Testament) the place where John the Baptist was baptizing in John 1:28 was not called Bethany, but Bethabara. The second place may also refer to the more northerly territory of Batanaea.
The King James Version is the only English version of the New Testament that refers to "Bethany on the east bank of the Jordan River", as "Bethabara". Most other English versions (including the Douay-Rheims, NIV, NASB, NLT, RSV, IBS, and Darby) call it "Bethany".