Two Pools in Jerusalem – Bethesda and Siloam

At the 2010 meeting of the Near Eastern Archaeological Society, James Charlesworth gave a brief report on the two pools mentioned in the gospel of John, the pool of Bethesda (Bethzatha, John 5:2) and the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7). Because these two pools were unknown until recently, scholarship has occasionally dismissed John’s Gospel as non-historical.  For example, since  Bethesda was said to have five “roofed colonnades,” medieval commentaries took this as an allegory for the five books of the Law.  In fact, there were two connected pools with a shared colonnade between them, hence five in all.  Siloam was thought to be the pool at the end of Hezekiah’s tunnel, but it is now virtually certain that a nearby pool was the pool of Siloam.

Charlesworth cited Ronny Reich as claiming that both pools were mikvoth, pools used for ceremonial cleansing before going up to the Temple.  In both cases there are stairs leading to a platform, which is consistent with other mikvoth around Jerusalem.  What is missing is the divider found on most of these pools.  Charlesworth indicated that there were other mikvoth which did not have the divider, even though it is a common feature. Charlesworth speculated that the pool was a reservoir which was re-configured during the Herodian period to serve as a mikveh.

If these identifications are correct, then the pool of Siloam was a massive mikvoth at the southern approach to the Temple mount.  The pool is fed by the Gihon spring (providing living water) and could have serviced the thousands of pilgrims which came to Jerusalem during the feast days.  That Jesus would heal a man and send him to a mikvah is significant.  The blind man is healed, ritually cleansed, and then he goes up to the Temple to worship.

The pool of Bethesda was likely another water reserve re-configured as a mikvah. The pool may have been built by Simeon, a high priest who lived about 200 B.C. (Sirach 50:3). Charlesworth showed several snake figures excavated at the pool, indicating that the area also housed an Asclepeion, a pool dedicated to the healing god Asclepius.  It is possible then that the blind, lame, and paralyzed were not waiting for the God of Israel to heal them, but rather the god Asclepius.  If this is true, then there is a tension in the story: who are you going to believe can heal you, the god Asclepius, or the God, Jesus?

In both cases, the identity of these pools help to illuminate the stories as they appear in John.  The writer of John is not simply familiar with major features of Jerusalem, these locations are critically important to the point of these healings.

19 thoughts on “Two Pools in Jerusalem – Bethesda and Siloam

  1. Interesting. My pastor preached on the Bethesda text last week, and made a case for that same tension – although he didn’t mention the god, only that it was a superstitious faith in the spirits/gods/pool rather than a true faith in God.

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  2. I think the god-angle was the main contribution of Charlesworth in that paper. I am not sure that the presence of an Asclepion is well know, or published yet.

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  3. First of all I am excited to hear about things in the Bible being proven, such as the sites mentioned in books and things of that sort. Secondly, it seems that this pool of Bethesda seems to have indications that it was “dedicated to the healing god Asclepius” and that this could bring tension in the way of who the healing would be attributed to. This makes sense, but I wonder if this was done on purpose by Jesus for the express fact that it was a pool dedicated to another god. By doing the healing here, could he have been showing his superiority and validity where the “healing god” was powerless? Could this be another example of God proving him self to be the one and only, the all powerful?

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    • That is probably the point, the tension in the story would be “who is really going to heal you, a god or The God?” The real problem (as cool as that would be), is that John’s gospel never really makes anything out of the pagan god angle. There is nothing in the text that mentions that people were waiting to jump in a pool at an Asclepeon.

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  4. I am with you Britalia it is interesting when new discoveries are being found, and we can have a clearier understanding of the tensions that were so prevelant during the times of the bible. But what I liked most about this blog posting was this statement the P.Long had in there, ” It is possible then that the blind, lame, and paralyzed were not waiting for the God of Israel to heal them, but rather the god Asclepius. If this is true, then there is a tension in the story: who are you going to believe can heal you, the god Asclepius, or the God, Jesus?”

    I think in general this is a tension that still lives on today, and we can take in different context too and ask the same question of, “Who are you going to trust, you, or God, Jesus?” We often in our struggles or in life situations rely predominatly on ourselves and neglect God, and when we do this we are saying that we are the God’s of our domain, not the God of creation.

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  5. I believe that this is a great thing that has happened. It has helped to prove to people that things in the Bible are true and that the authors of the gospels did not make their information up. This also proves that the Bible is not being made to be an allegory. So the this helps to prove the truth and authenticness of the Bible.

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  6. This was clearly an example of Jesus’ healing power. People had been coming to these pools for years to receive healing. John 5:5, “One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.” Apparently this “god” wasn’t doing anything good for this guy. Within a few words: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk (John 5:8)”, Jesus heals this man. I agree with Britalia, Jesus was displaying His superiority to other gods by healing this man. Going off what P. Long and Jed said about people seeking other gods for healing, this still amazes me. Jesus spent so much time displaying His authority and His possession as Messiah, but still was not accepted. Traditions and preconceived biases are very hard to be broken. Personally I have been a huge skeptic on Spiritual things and activities. I take the time to explore these things and discern what is true.

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  7. “In both cases, the identity of these pools help to illuminate the stories as they appear in John.”

    The conclusion leaves me a bit unsatisfied. Yes, in both cases, the identity really helps in understanding the impact of Jesus decision to heal at this particular place. But it seems to me that either of these cases, though similar, represent two different facets of Jesus. With the Asclepeion, we have the power and authority of Jesus’ confronting a major cultural icon of healing. With the mikvoth, a display of Jesus’ divinity at a place that provided the proper cleanliness for the Temple – the ultimate of Jewish divinity. One highlights the cultural subversiveness of Jesus, and the other major Christological implications in regards to the Temple – both of which play extremely important roles in the Gospels.

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  8. I am with You on this one Kyle. It is definitely incredible that this sort of thing happened. Like Kyle, it has helped me to prove that that what is in the Bible is all 100% true. I have been able to give good answers to those who have questions about the stuff in the Bible. A lot of people claim that the gospels are a bunch of made up junk. I go back to the passage in 2 Timothy that talks about the inspiration of scripture.

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    • proving the Bible is pointless. Persuasive arguments and intellect is not what saves. It is the work of the Holy Spirit within the individual that matters. You can argue and debate until you are blue in the face but at the end of the day, knowledge is useless unless the conscious is impacted by God. Intellect and debate could be a tool used to bring a person to that point but it is a flimsy method at best.

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  9. Gotta love Archaeology! I find it mind blowing that despite the historical and archaeological accuracy of the Bible, it’s generally discredited and cast aside in favor of faulty and unreliable texts that have less support and are much more inaccurate. Just a rant of mine.

    My question is that if this pool was in fact a pool dedicated to a Gentile god, was this man a Gentile or a fully Hellenized Jew? It is very interesting that this story is found following two other Gentile healing stories so it could very well be a gentile at a gentile god’s pool.

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    • That is a good question, I think that the point was either one part was a healing pool dedicated to Asclepiles and the other was a mikveh for pilgrims, or possible a pool to water sheep as they were brought in to the city for sacrifice. That he was waiting for a healing at a pagan installation may not tell us anything about his ethnicity, that he ends up in the Temple means he was a Jew.

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  10. Do not forget the snake (God instructed Moses to make) in the wilderness which was used for healing. Could these snake figures have been a reference to this?

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    • Possibly, although I am not sure there is any connection between Asclepius (the Greco-Roman god of healing associated with snakes) and the story in Numbers. That story is explicitly referred to in John 3, however (the lifting up of the Son of Man).

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  11. I opened one bible this morn.to the pool of siloam.I opened aother bible to the pool of Bethesda.I felt humbled and wondered if they were the same.

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    • Probably not, since the pool is nearly dry. I have seen some water in the Roman cisterns in May, but not much. Siloam is also dry now, and mostly still buried (only one section has been excavated, although there has been some work on the stairs up the hill toward the Dung Gate).

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