Mystery of the Pool at Bethesda

CHRISTIANS HAVE BEEN STUDYING the Gospels since before they were written. Think about it. During the first decades after Christ’s resurrection the apostles reflected on their time with Christ and how to proclaim Him to all nations. Their belief in Him affected the way they told His story. When the evangelists collected their reminiscences and put them in writing they arranged them in ways that proclaimed their faith in Him.

The Fathers of the early Church also studied the Scriptures, some writing extensive commentaries. All these authors wrote as believers, seeking to illumine their faith with knowledge. In seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe a different approach developed. Scholars, many of them influenced by rationalist philosophy, rejected one or another aspect of the Gospel, particularly those who conflicted with this philosophy. There was no room for miracles or even the resurrection in the thought of many of these authors. It was not until the late twentieth century that this trend in biblical scholarship came to be replaced by more Scripture-friendly approaches.

Was There a Pool of Bethesda?

One of the approaches in the era of rationalist biblical scholarship was to deny the factual nature of anything in Scripture not corroborated by other contemporary evidence. If a person, place or event did not figure in other writings, it was deemed non-historical. The Gospel passage of Christ healing the paralytic at Bethesda (John 5:1-15) was cast into doubt because there was no evidence that this pool “having five porches” (John 5:1) ever existed. Some scholars concluded that the passage, if not the whole of John’s Gospel, was written by someone who had no knowledge of Jerusalem.

All this changed in the nineteenth century when German archeologist Conrad Schick discovered the remains of just such a pool. In the 1960s further excavations unearthed an adjacent Roman temple beneath the ruins of a Crusader era church and an even older Byzantine sanctuary.

Scholars now believe that the pool and the adjoining temple were established by the Roman garrison in honor of Asclepius, their god of medicine and health. During the Roman occupation of Jerusalem a number of Roman structures were built in and around the city, including an arena, baths and a theater. A pagan shrine, like these other signs of the Roman presence, would have been outside the city walls of Jerusalem and thus less offensive to the Jewish population. Today it is within the walls, in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Asclepius was one of the more popular gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Over 400 such shrines were reportedly functioning throughout the empire. Everyone, after all, wants good health and well-being, which were Asclepius’ “specialty.”

Was the Paralytic a Jew?

If the pool at Bethesda was a Roman shrine to a pagan god, was the paralytic a pagan rather than a Jew? The Gospel passage does not suggest it. By noting that “a great number of sick people” were there, the Gospel suggests that they were Jews. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud mentions that people were actually cured after visiting “the shrine of an idol.” The sick probably wouldn’t care who healed them if there was a chance that they could be cured.

Since the paralytic, once cured, was reproached by Jews for carrying his bed on a Sabbath it is safe to assume that the man was himself a Jew. The passage ends with the following: “Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.’ The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.” (John 5:14). If the man was not a Jew; this exchange would not have taken place.

Some commentators have suggested that, if the pool was attached to a pagan shrine, Jesus would not have gone there. Others have countered that He who ate with publicans and sinners would not hesitate to go among His people wherever they were.

What About the Angel?

There remains controversy regarding the following description of the pool: “In these [the porches] lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had” (John 5:3,4).

The reason for the controversy is this; a number of the oldest and best manuscripts of the Gospel simply do not have the end of verse 3 (“waiting for the moving of the water”) or verse 4. The earliest surviving manuscripts containing this verse are “Western” (from North Africa and Italy). The first Greek mention of John 5:4 is in a homily of St John Chrysostom. By the ninth century, however, almost all the Greek texts of the Gospel contain it. This has led most biblical scholars to consider these verses a “gloss” or commentary in the margin added by a scribe which eventually was copied directly into the text. 

On the other hand, without these verses Verse 7 begs for an explanation. It says, “The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.’” Who stirs up the water? – the only explanation put forth is the one in the contested verse (the angel). Perhaps this event was so well-known that the evangelist neglected to explain it and the explanation was added later. At this time we do not know with any certainty.

There is one other indication that verses 3 and 4 are a gloss. We read there that it was an angel (some versions even say “an angel of the Lord”) who stirred the water. Early Christians, however, saw any power in pagan religions as satanic. This “angel,” then, would have been a fallen angel. Thus the St Justin the Philosopher, writing in the early second century, noted that “the Devil brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases” (Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, 69). One hundred years later, Tertullian contrasted the angelic presence in the waters of baptism with the “unholy angel of the evil one [who] often does business with that same element [i.e. water], with a view to man’s perdition” (De Baptismo, 5).

Meaning of the Passage

Taking the above points into consideration we can see a deep meaning in this passage. The evangelist is contrasting the capricious, lottery-like application of the demon’s healing power at Asclepius’ pool with the loving, personal encounter which the paralytic had with Christ, the true Physician of souls and bodies. The regenerative power of Christ is open to all who seek union with Him. The Lord’s question to the paralytic at the pool, “Do you want to be made well?” is echoed by the priest’s question to the catechumen at the font, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” In each case, the desire is sufficient to evoke Christ’s healing power.

My soul has suffered cruelly for many years, O God of all goodness: do for me what You once did for the paralytic, that I may be able to walk in the ways where You invite those who love Your name.

From the Canon, Ode 3