This article was first published in the Winter 1989 issue of Archaeology and Biblical Research.
How well I remember the traumatic experience of composing my first book report in third grade. The teacher instructed us to list the title and author of the book, and then describe the main theme, or purpose of the book. I must confess my reading skills were not well-developed yet, so I struggled even with the help of my parents on that first book report. The most difficult part of the report was defining the theme. Why did the author write the book? What was the purpose? Since then, I have always appreciated an author who explains why the book was written!
The Apostle John, in the gospel which bears his name, does state the purpose for writing his book: 'And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book: but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name' (John 20:30, 31 NKJV). In keeping with his purpose, John selects seven signs to present the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of God (His deity) and as a result of that, one can believe on (trust in) Him for eternal salvation.
This article addresses itself to the background of the third miracle or sign, the incident which took place at Bethesda (John 5). When did the event take place? Where did it take place? How do the archaeological discoveries shed light on this passage? And what are the practical and theological implications of this event?
The Textual Problems
There are several textual problems within the first four verses of the chapter. Without going into detail, a suggested translation of these verses is given below. The italic words indicate the variant readings that are followed in this article.
'1) After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2) Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep pool, a (place) which is called in the Hebrew tongue, Bethesda, having five porches. 3) In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. 4) For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water; whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had' (Hodges 1979:28-39).
Scholars have debated the identification of the feast mentioned in John 5. Almost every major and minor Jewish feast has been suggested. It should be kept in mind that John's, as well as Mark's Gospel, is arranged chronologically. Within the Gospel of John, we have some chronological indicators as to which feast was mentioned in John 5:1.
The encounter with the Samaritan woman (John 4) took place during the Samaritan feast of Zimmuth Pesah (Preparation for Passover). This, in turn, takes place sixty days before the Samaritan Passover to commemorate Moses meeting Aaron, after the burning bush experience, to redeem the people of Israel from Egypt. John 4:35 states that there were four months before the grain harvest. The wheat harvest begins around the time of Shavuot (Pentecost). John 6:4 states that the Passover was near at hand. The only feast of the Jews which falls between Zimmuth Pesah and the Jewish Passover is the feast of Purim, connected with the events recorded in the Book of Esther (Bowman 1971; 1975). In the year AD 28, the feast of Purim fell on Shabbat (Faulstich 1986; cf. John 5:9, 15, 18).
Verse 1 of John 5 says, 'a feast,' thus it might have been one of the minor feasts. Some have objected to this identification. Would the Lord Jesus be going up to Jerusalem for a minor feast, when only the major ones are required (Deut. 16:16)? However, later in the gospel, He appears at the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), another minor feast (Bowman 1971: 43-56; 1975: 111-132). In John's Gospel, this is the first time that the Lord Jesus publicly declared Himself to be God (5:18). Earlier in the gospel, when He was in Jerusalem for the Passover (2:23-3:21), He did not publicly present Himself (2:23-25).
When Did the Event Take Place?
Verse two states that there is 'by the sheep pool, a (place) which is called in the Hebrew tongue, Bethesda.' The sheep pool has been identified by most Biblical and archaeological scholars as the twin pools in the area of St. Anne's Church just north of the Temple Mount. These reservoirs are 13 meters (42 feet) deep and were constructed about 200 BC by the Hasmoneans to collect water for washing the sheep that were to be used for sacrifice.
But, it is probable that the incident of John 5 did not take place in these pools. When filled with water, one could drown if he entered them before being healed. Furthermore, the evidence seems to indicate that the pools were not even in use during the time of Christ. Herod the Great built another pool to the south next to the Temple Mount, called the 'Pool of Israel.' This was more likely the pool in use for washing sheep during the time of Christ.
If the miracle did not take place in the pools at St. Anne's Church, where did it take place? The verse says it was in a place called 'Bethesda.' This word is made up of two Hebrew words, 'beth' (house) and 'hesed' (mercy). This means that 'Bethesda,' the 'House of Mercy,' was some building or structure near the Sheep Pool (Wilkinson 1978: 95-97).
Can Archaeology Shed Light on This Passage?
Excavations have been conducted in the area of St. Anne's Church and the archaeologist's spade has shed light on the passage. In the area of the pools there was a large Byzantine Church built at the beginning of the 5th century AD. The church is east-oriented with the entrance from the west. Such an orientation is typical of almost all the churches built in the Holy Land during this period. The altar area, which is over the place being venerated, is at the east end of the church and not over the pools. This was the place being venerated in connection with John 5 by the early church. Under this area was found four occupation levels, two from the Jewish period (Hasmonean and Herodian, 2nd century BC to AD 70), and two from the Late Roman Period (2nd to 4th centuries AD).
It is known that there was a healing shrine in the area during the Late Roman period. This shrine, connected to the healing cult, was in rock hewn caves, with three or four steps leading down to them. A clay votive foot, thanking the god for healing, and a stature of a human head with the body of a snake, probably Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, were discovered in the excavations. Other finds also indicate the existence of a healing shrine. The question then is: Was there a healing shrine in the area during the time of Christ? There seems to be evidence that there was. Caves with water in them were connected with the healing cult of Asclepius. How the water was used in the ritual is not certain. This seems to be the background to the events of John 5 (Benoit 1968: 48-57; Jeremias 1968).
What was the identity of the healing god at the shrine? Archaeological data suggests that it was Asclepius during the Late Roman period (second century AD and onward). During the New Testament period, however, this deity may still have been called by the name of Eshmun, the Semitic healing god. If so, the Lord Jesus entered the healing shrine 'Bethesda' (House of mercy) of the pagan Semitic healing god, Eshmun. He found a man who had an infirmity for 38 years and asked him, 'Do you want to be made well?' The man responded that he had no one to help him into the pool (the small healing cubicles in the shrine) when it was stirred up by the angel. His answer makes much more sense if it occurred in a healing shrine of rock hewn caves having only three or four steps leading down to them than it does to think of putting him in the large and deep Sheep Pool.
Some might object to a pagan healing shrine being so close to the Temple of the Lord. It should be kept in mind, however, that this shrine was outside the city wall of the second Temple, or New Testament, Jerusalem. Also, the pools for washing sheep for the Temple sacrifices were out of use at this time. Finally, it was also situated close to the Roman garrison stationed at Antonio's Fortress.
The Theological Implications
When the Lord Jesus walked into 'Bethesda,' He brought about a confrontation between Himself and the pagan healing deity. With just His words, the man took up his bed and walked away without even having to dip his little finger into the water, and without the angel of the pagan deity stirring up the water in the pool.
Jesus won the confrontation. He truly was and is the Great Physician, because He is the only true God. The others, be they Asclepius or Eshmun, are not gods at all (Isaiah 45:20-22; 44:9). This event fulfilled the first part of the theme of John's gospel, to show that 'Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.'
The second part was fulfilled in the man with the infirmity. He had a choice: stay on his bed and not be healed, or believe the command of the Lord Jesus, take up his bed and walk and this receive 'life.' The man responded positively (5:9) and was made well. He then worshipped the Lord in the Temple (5:14).
The issue at stake in this showdown was: Who really is the Great Physician? And more important: Who really is God? (1) The Lord Jesus did not depend on any shrine, or ritual, or even an angel. He simply commanded the man to take up his bed and walk. This was something Eshmun or Asclepius could not do. The pagan deity's 'healing power' issued forth at a 'certain season,' whereas the Lord Jesus was able to heal anytime, anywhere. The man responded positively and was healed instantly.
The Practical Application
John basically wrote a gospel tract. He was and is seeking a positive response to the Lord Jesus and his message. What is your response? Do you believe that He is God? Only God manifest in human flesh could die and pay for all your sins. If you trust Him, the word of God promises eternal life, the forgiveness of sins and the righteousness of God because of the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 3:16; Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8, 9; Tit. 3:4-7; I John 5:13). If you have not trusted Him, will you do so now?
1. A few manuscripts read 'Angel of the Lord' (5:4). In my opinion, the proper rendering of the text should be simply 'angel.' That being the case, the angel would have to be a fallen angel, a demon. There are several reasons for this. First, it would not be logical for God to use a good angel in a pagan healing shrine. Second, the word 'angel' is used of both good and fallen angels (Matt. 25:41; II Cor. 11:14). The context must determine which it is. Finally, Satan can perform pseudo-healings to deceive people (II Cor. 11:13-15; Rev. 19:20).
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