Lazarus of Bethany is the subject of a prominent sign of Jesus in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus restores him to life four days after his death. In the context of the seven signs in the Gospel of John, the raising of Lazarus at Bethany – today the town of Al-Eizariya, which translates to “the place of Lazarus” – is the climactic narrative: exemplifying the power of Jesus “over the last and most irresistible enemy of humanity: death. For this reason, it is given a prominent place in the gospel.”
A figure named Lazarus (Latinised ultimately from the Aramaic and Hebrew Eleazar which means “God helped”) is also mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. The two biblical characters named “Lazarus” have sometimes been conflated historically. But are generally understood to be two separate people.
Raising of Lazarus
The raising of Lazarus is a miracle of Jesus recounted only in the Gospel of John (John 11:1–44) in the New Testament in which Jesus raises Lazarus of Bethany from the dead four days after his entombment. The event is said to have taken place at Bethany – today the Palestinian town of Al-Eizariya, which translates to “the place of Lazarus”. In John, this is the last of the miracles that Jesus performs before the passion, crucifixion and his own resurrection.
The Biblical Account
The biblical narrative of the raising of Lazarus is found in chapter 11 of the Gospel of John. A certain Eleazer (whence Lazarus) is introduced as a follower of Jesus who lives in the town of Bethany near Jerusalem. He is identified as the brother of the sisters Mary and Martha. The sisters send word to Jesus that Lazarus, “he whom thou lovest,” is ill.
Jesus tells his followers: “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Instead of immediately traveling to Bethany, according to the narrator, Jesus intentionally remains where he is for two more days before beginning the journey. The disciples are afraid of returning to Judea, but Jesus says: “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” When the apostles misunderstand, he clarifies, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake, I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he finds that Lazarus is dead and has already been in his tomb for four days. He meets first with Martha and Mary in turn. Martha laments that Jesus did not arrive soon enough to heal her brother (“if you had been here, my brother would not have died”) and Jesus replies with the well-known statement, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die”. Martha affirms that she does truly believe and states, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who has to come into the world.” Later the narrator here gives the famous simple phrase, “Jesus wept”.
In the presence of a crowd of Jewish mourners, Jesus comes to the tomb. Jesus asks for the stone of the tomb to be removed, but Martha interjects that there will be a smell. Jesus responds, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Over the objections of Martha, Jesus has them roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb and says a prayer.
They take the stone away then Jesus looks up and says: “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.” He then calls Lazarus to come out (“Come forth”) and Lazarus does so, still wrapped in his shrouds. Jesus then calls for someone to remove the shrouds, and let him go.
The narrative ends with the statement that many of the witnesses to this event “believed in him.” Others are said to report the events to the religious authorities in Jerusalem.
The Gospel of John mentions Lazarus again in chapter 12. Six days before the Passover on which Jesus is crucified, Jesus returns to Bethany and Lazarus attends a supper that Martha, his sister, serves. Jesus and Lazarus together attract the attention of many Jews and the narrator states that the chief priests consider having Lazarus put to death because so many people are believing in Jesus on account of this miracle.
The miracle of the raising of Lazarus, the longest coherent narrative in John aside from the Passion, is the culmination of John’s “signs”. It explains the crowds seeking Jesus on Palm Sunday and leads directly to the decision of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin to kill Jesus.
The Theological Interpatation
The miracle of the raising of Lazarus is the climax of John’s “signs”. It explains the crowds seeking Jesus on Palm Sunday and leads directly to the decision of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin to plan to kill Jesus. Theologians Moloney and Harrington view the raising of Lazarus as a “pivotal miracle” that starts the chain of events that leads to the Crucifixion of Jesus. They consider it as a “resurrection that will lead to death”, in that the raising of Lazarus will lead to the death of Jesus, the Son of God, in Jerusalem which will reveal the Glory of God.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that the miracle performed by Jesus returned Lazarus to ordinary earthly life as with the son of the widow of Nain and Jairus’ daughter and that Lazarus and the others who were raised from the dead would later die again. The Russian Orthodox Church’s Catechism of St. Philaret writes that among the miracles performed by Jesus was the raising of Lazarus from the dead on the fourth day after Lazarus’ death.
The Tomb of Lazarus
The reputed first tomb of Lazarus is in the Leitrim (generally believed to be the biblical Bethany) and continues to be a place of pilgrimage to this day. Several Christian churches have existed at the site over the centuries. Since the 16th century, the site of the tomb has been occupied by the al-Uzair Mosque. The adjacent Roman Catholic Church of Saint Lazarus, designed by Antonio Barluzzi and built between 1952 and 1955 under the auspices of the Franciscan Order, stands upon the site of several much older ones. In 1965, a Greek Orthodox church was built just west of the tomb.
The entrance to the tomb today is via a flight of uneven rock-cut steps from the street. As it was described in 1896, there were twenty-four steps from the then-modern street level, leading to a square chamber serving as a place of prayer, from which more steps led to a lower chamber believed to be the tomb of Lazarus. The same description applies today.
First Mentions of the Church at Bethany
The first mention of a church at Bethany is in the late 4th century, but both the historian Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 330) and the Bordeaux pilgrim do mention the tomb of Lazarus. In 390 Jerome mentions a church dedicated to Saint Lazarus, called the Lazarium. This is confirmed by the pilgrim Egeria in about the year 410. Therefore, the church is thought to have been built between 333 and 390.
The present-day gardens contain the remnants of a mosaic floor from the 4th-century church. The Lazarium was destroyed by an earthquake in the 6th century and was replaced by a larger church. This church survived intact until the Crusader era.
In 1143 the existing structure and lands were purchased by King Fulk and Queen Melisende of Jerusalem and a large Benedictine convent dedicated to Mary and Martha was built near the tomb of Lazarus. After the fall of Jerusalem in 1187, the convent was deserted and fell into ruin with only the tomb and barrel vaulting surviving. By 1384, a simple mosque had been built on the site. In the 16th century, the Ottomans built the larger al-Uzair Mosque to serve the town’s (now Muslim) inhabitants and named it in honor of the town’s patron saint, Lazarus of Bethany.