John 5 – The Pool at Bethesda

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 of Bethesda

The Pool of Bethesda, May 2011

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.

Asklepios

Asklepios

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?

5 thoughts on “John 5 – The Pool at Bethesda

  1. The man that was laid aside the Bethesda pools was certainly under the impression that the spring waters could heal his disability. The disabled man knew of no other way to get his walking abilities back but to get in the pool everybody so claims has healing powers. The only thing the disabled man wanted from anybody was a helping hand to get in the pool (John 5:7) However, Jesus offered him another solution that did not require the helping hand of another individual to guide him into the pool. As Kostenberger states the man expected to be healed from the pool but Jesus gave him healing through his word of mouth (Kostenberger, 95). Jesus tells the man in John 5:8, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” illustrating a sense of authority over the waters of the pool. Through this healing, Jesus basically undermined the supposed healing powers of the pool and left a solid impression on the disabled man. A solid statement that displayed Jesus as the only one who can give life through his word of mouth. In other words, Jesus demonstrated that there is no need to get in the water in order to be healed but to just have faith in Him.

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  2. Jesus is the true giver of life. This is not the only time we see Jesus lean into the cultural norms to soon completely switch up what people predicted would happen. The water would not have been able to heal a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years. Even if it had been able to reverse the paralysis, water itself would not have the power to build the bone and muscle structure to walk immediately after. This would have required a higher force, which Christians know could only be God.

    I love the way that Jesus provides physical healing for people as He travels on His missionary journey. Not only does he provide a spiritual change for people, but also a physical change if we simply put our faith in Him. It is interesting to consider all of the other paralyzed and sick people that were present at that pool on the day Jesus performed this healing. I am sure that there were others who would have liked to experience the same healing. It makes me sad that Jesus did not physically heal them but I have to remember that God has individual plans for each of His children. We are told in scripture that there is a time for everything (Ecc. 3) and that God has plans to give us all hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).

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  3. The people of those days had to have believed the waters to be healing waters because they were willing to enter the water and bring their sheep offerings through the water, even though there were unclean people surrounding the waters. They had to have thought that the waters would clean them of their sins and ceremonial filth. However, I do not believe the waters had healing powers by themselves. I am sure the waters were quite filthy at times, considering all things. One question that I just thought of was: had the people actually seen a person dunk themselves in the water and be healed of their sickness or disability??? Or where they basing their beliefs on mere rumor or hearsay? I like that you mention the possibility that many of the illnesses ‘healed’ could have been psychosocial in nature meaning the person may have had a placebo effect and felt as if they were healed of their illness because they were first to dunk themselves in the Pool after an action had occurred. I do not believe that the man that was healed by Jesus was because of the waters but rather the healing powers that came from Jesus. Jesus is the true giver and healer of life.

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  4. It is interesting to me how the god Asclepius is stealing the glory from the Lord, that Yahweh is the true healer, but instead the focus is being placed on the god, Asclepius. Wether it is true or not that the an angel came and stirred the water and people were healed or if that did not happen, the heart of what John is trying to communicate is the same. The heart behind this verse, is that the Lord is the healer. His Spirit is the one that heals. He is the true healer. In Isaiah 42:8 it says, “I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols.” The Lord does not share His glory with another. Not to any idol like Asclepius.
    We need to be aware and careful when we see that a verse does not appear in the text. Aware that it is not in the other translations and that it might have been added later on and careful when we share our opinion. When we share our opinion, let it be wrapped in prayer and careful thought. When we share our thoughts, we should also be sharing God’s heart behind a verse.
    For instance, why would John or another disciple include this part? What is he trying to show us about the Lord?

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  5. For me all of this is very interesting, I recently having the privilege of visiting Israel, however what I find even more fascinating is the way in which Jesus healed the lame man he was Born a congenital defect of some form 38 years is a significant amount of time. His legs would’ve suffered from severe atrophy there were than serious nerve conduction issues not to mention a underdevelopment of the motor control part of the brain and yet all it took was for Jesus to say “rise, take up thy bed, and walk.”Not to say that God is a show off but clearly he here is shown through the complexity and magnitude of his miracle that he is supreme and sovereign over all god’s he will not be outdone. Another significant thought brought up by Köstenberger is the idea that rather than the ruling Jews to be upset or concerned with Jesus performing a miracle and healing this man there more upset about this man healing an invalid on the Sabbath and perhaps even this invalid now healed picking up his mat(his home) and walking with it on the Sabbath

    Köstenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Ed. Walter A. Elwell. Second Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013. Print. Encountering Biblical Studies.

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