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?

John 5:9-15 – A Healing on the Sabbath

Since the man is carrying his mat on the Sabbath, some Jewish officials point out that he is breaking the Sabbath. This healing takes place during a feast of the Jews, on a Sabbath day. That Jesus would heal on the Sabbath is well known from synoptic. On the few occasions when Jesus takes the initiative in a healing, it is generally on the Sabbath (see also Mark 3: 1-6; Luke 13: 10-17; 14: 1-6).

Jesus heals at Bethesda

Jesus could have easily have waited to heal the man after the Sabbath was over – the fact that He does not suggests strongly that Jesus is making some sort of a declaration by healing on the Sabbath. One of the reasons John tells us the man was an invalid for 38 years is that Jesus could have waited a few hours until sundown and then healed the man.

We have no way of knowing where the man went, but since the Pool is in the on the  north end of the Temple Mount he likely came into the city where some of the Jews told him he was violating the Sabbath by carrying the mat.

The man does not know who Jesus was, but “blames” him for his breach of the Sabbath. The man may have assumed that Jesus was a religious authority since he healed him. There are other rabbis who were reputed to have been healers although nothing on the scale of Jesus. The man does not believe in Jesus as the official did in John 4. If he believed at all it was a very superficial and thin belief. He only knows that he has been healed and does not care how or why

The Jews, on the other hand, encounter a miraculous healing and are more interesting in the implications of what Jesus’ actions and words mean. Jesus is claiming to be far more than a healer in this action!

There were a number of things which were exempt from work on the Sabbath. In m.Sabb 18.3 and 19:2-3 there is a brief discussion of things various rabbis allowed as exceptions to the “no work” rule. In fact, most rabbis tried to make Sabbath rules which could be kept and permit the enjoyment of the day.

m.Sabb. 18:3 They do not deliver the young of cattle on the festival, but they help out. And they do deliver the young of a woman on the Sabbath. They call a midwife for her from a distant place, and they violate the Sabbath on her [the woman in childbirth’s] account. And they tie the umbilical cord. R. Yose says “Also: They cut it.” And all things required for circumcision do they perform on the Sabbath.

m.Sabb 19:2-3 They do prepare all that is needed for circumcision on the Sabbath: they (1) cut [the mark of circumcision], (2) tear, (3) suck [out of the wound]. And they put on it a poultice and cummin. If one did not pound it on the eve of the Sabbath, he chews it in his teeth and puts it on. If one did not mix wine and oil on the eve of the Sabbath, let this be put on by itself and that by itself. And they do not make a bandage in the first instance. But they wrap a rag around [the wound of the circumcision]. If one did not prepare [the necessary rag] on the eve of the Sabbath, he wraps [the rag] around his finger and brings it, and even from a different courtyard. 19:3 They wash off the infant, both before the circumcision and after the circumcision, and they sprinkle him, by hand but not with a utensil. R. Eleazar B. Azaraiah says, “They wash the infant on the third day after circumcision [even if it] coincides with the Sabbath, “since it says, And it came to pass on the third day when they were sore (Gen. 34:25).” [If the sexual traits of the infant are a matter of] doubt, of [if the infant] bears the sexual traits of both sexes, they do not violate the Sabbath on his account. And R. Judah permits in the care of an infant bearing the traits of both sexes.

It is possible the Jews who see the man carrying the mat think that Jesus has “made an exception” for him, in which case Jesus is setting himself up as an authority who can give rulings on how the Law ought to be kept.

Should we think of the healed man’s attitude is as strange? Rather than give credit to Jesus for healing him, he does not even know Jesus’ name and seems to shift the blame for breaking the Sabbath to Jesus. Is this man an example of “faith that is going nowhere” (Köstenberger, John, 182)? Or is the man afraid of what might happen to him if he opening breaks the Sabbath by carrying his mat? On the other hand, this is less about the faith of the healed man than Jesus’s relationship with the Pharisees and their traditions concerning the Sabbath.