Bethany and Bethphage
by Brent J MacDonald

Hebrew place names commonly have identifiable meanings.  A common part of location names in Bible times was "Beth," as both Bethany and Bethphage begin.  There are forty-eight place names in Scriptures that include this Hebrew word, with all but four of those using Beth as the start of the name.  

Beth comes from the Hebrew word "bayit," which means "house, tent, room or enclosure - a place of habitat."  Used by itself, it's pronounced with two syllables "bay" and "it," yet as part of a name it becomes one syllable "beth" or "bay."   

Bethphage is the Hebrew name Beth-pagga transliterated into Greek.  The Hebrew form of this name is not found in Scriptures.  Pagga or Pag are late or green figs, or not-yet-ripe figs.  Jews had a different name for the earlier ripened crop, "bikkurah," and primarily used "te'enim" as the generic word for the fruit from the trees of this first larger bikkurah crop.   Bethphage's name therefore means "house of unripe figs or place of young date figs," indicative of the major crop grown in this area of the Mount of Olives (between Bethany and Jerusalem proper).  

The meaning of nearby Bethany's name, or Bethania in Greek, is disputed. One popular meaning seems reasonable due to Bethany's geographical closeness and association with Bethphage.  In this understanding, the name is believed to be derived from the Hebrew "Beit-te'enah" or "Beth-ten'enah" meaning "house of (ripe) date figs."  Hebrew words incorporated into names are based on sounds, so this meaning is possible.  The juxtaposition of meaning of Bethany and Bethpage then becomes significant as the home of the ripe figs was where Jesus had many followers (believers) including Mary, Martha, Simon the Leper, and (of course) Lazarus (whose name is an abbreviation of Eleazar, meaning "God has helped").  Bethphage, which was associated with the boundaries of Jerusalem, in contrast, was associated with the unbelieving that would soon cry out "crucify Him!"

Another possible meaning of Bethany is highly different in meaning, again based on the sounds of the composing words.  Here the wording is "Beit-'ana" or "Beth-'anya," the second word meaning "misery," "affliction," or "humble."  This would make Bethany, the "house of misery" or the "house of affliction."  Associated with this humbling affliction is the concept of poverty, which also allows the name to translate as "poor-house."   Early church father's Jerome (lived circa 347-420 AD) and Eusebius (lived circa 260-340 AD) attest to this meaning.  Eusebius' Onomasticon (a book properly called "On the Place-Names in the Holy Scripture") calls Bethany, in Latin, "domus adflictionis" or "house of affliction."  Aramaic understanding, if not origin, of the second part of this name, is likely reflected in early Syriac translations of the New Testament (dating circa 4th century AD), which also utilize "beit-'anya" or "bayth anya (as another English transliteration provides it)" showing the "poor house" or "house of affliction" was a continued Aramaic understanding of the name.

I find the second possibility for the name meaning of Bethany to be more probable for its origin, but this doesn't exclude the possibility both understandings existed very early as a play on words, based on "sounds-like."

Considering the second meaning, it's very fitting that Jesus would spend time at a place known for affliction and/or poverty (consider Matthew 11:4-5; Luke 7:22; Luke 14:13).  Some scholars, such as Brian J. Capper, Reta Halteman Finger and Timothy J. M. Ling, feel that Bethany was the location of an almshouse for the poor and designated location for caring for the sick. The Bible perhaps hints at this by noting the presence of Simon the Leper's house at Bethany (Mark 14:3-10), plus Lazarus' illness at Bethany (John 11:1-4), plus each of Jesus' anointing's had people immediately "concerned" for the poor (Matthew 26:9; Mark 14:5; John 12:5).  In fact, Jesus, at Bethany, casually noted they would always have poor with them (Matthew 26:11; Mark 14:7; John 12:8).  This statement would take on extra meaning at a place where poor congregated.  Qumran's Temple Scroll notes there was to be three places designated for care of the sick, one specifically for lepers, located to the east of Jerusalem.  In that text it also defines a minimum radius of three thousand cubits (approximately 1,800 yards) around Jerusalem within which nothing unclean should be seen (46:13-18). Bethany would have met those requirements.  Herod the Great had viewed the Essenes favorably (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 15.10.5) so it's quite possible Bethany was so designated during his reign (circa 36-4 BC).  Being along a primary pilgrim route coming up from Jericho would have made Bethany a prime location for a waystation to intercept and care for ill pilgrims coming from Galilee - and quite likely an excellent Essene poorhouse closest to Jerusalem from which the village got its name "Bethany."

Al-Eizariya (an Arabic name meaning "Place of Lazarus") is the probable candidate for the location of Bethany.  A tomb at al-Eizariya has been identified as the tomb of Lazarus since at least the early fourth century (including by historian Eusebius of Caesarea, circa 330 AD, and the Bordeaux Pilgrim, circa 333 AD).  Archaeological evidence from ossuaries (burial bone boxes) in the area also suggests that Bethany was settled by Galileans who had come up to live by Jerusalem (for whatever reason). It's quite possible that many settled here due to an illness which first delayed them at this spot, perhaps till their death.  Since Jesus and His disciples were Galilean, Bethany would provide a convenient, and perhaps more friendly, place to stay while visiting Jerusalem.

(c) 2017 Brent MacDonald, LTM/DTI - Cottage Cove Urban Ministries