This healing takes place sometime after Jesus’ return to Galilee, likely during the feast of Tabernacles. If this is true, then it is late October. Assuming a three year ministry, this is the only event from the second year of Jesus’s ministry. John gives the location precisely, the Sheep Gate near the pool of Bethesda. The Pool of Bethesda has been identified near St. Stephen’s Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem, next to St. Anne’s Church. Until the mid 1960’s, it was thought that John either did not know the city of Jerusalem very well, or that the Pool and Gate were metaphors.
The Pool is near the Sheep Gate on the north end of the Temple Mount. The Gate is mentioned in Nehemiah and may have been used for sheep being brought to the Temple for sacrifice. The Pool would therefore be used to wash the sheep before they were brought into the temple for sacrifice. This means that the pool was not the sort of place were “classy” people went to wash before entering the temple. The fact that a number of invalids are waiting for the water to stir to be healed means that the Pool was a gathering for lower class people, the sick and injured.
The site was also likely the location a shrine dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek and Roman god of healing. This is certainly the site of Hadrian’s Shrine to Asclepius and Serapis, and it appears that a pool dedicated to these gods was first built in the first century B.C. James Charlesworth thinks there was, based on his paper at the 2010 ETS meeting. If the “Five Porticos” describes the unusual building housing the pools, then it is possible that one area was dedicated to Asclepius, and another was used to wash sacrificial animals.
If it is true that the site was used to worship Asclepius, then this helps explain the superstition that the waters might heal the sick. John 5:4 does not appear in the NIV or ESV. It is probable that this verse was a marginal comment by a Bible reader explaining the tradition of healing at the pool. This comment was inadvertently included in the text at some point. Virtually no scholar or modern translation includes the verse, conservative or liberal!
Since the pool was fed by an underground spring, ever once in a while the waters did naturally stir. It is easy enough to explain this as an action of a god, if you were Roman it is Asclepius, if you were a Jew, it is an angel of God.
Could the waters actually heal? There is nothing in the text to suggest they might, but there are many illnesses which are psychosomatic. In addition, it is possible that the springs gave some mineral content to the waters, which might have some health benefit. But if one believes that Asclepius is going to heal then, then perhaps healing did happen. Like the results of many modern sham-faith healers, that healing might not last since it was not a real healing.
This background also helps to explain the relevance of this miracle to John’s audience in Ephesus of the A.D. 90’s. The cult of Asclepius was popular and offered something of an alternative to the biblical idea of God as the ultimate healer. This background sets the scene for Jesus’ miracle. Who will be the one to provide healing for this man, the god or Jesus?
Who is really the giver of life?