While on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for an unnamed feast (John 5:1), Jesus encountered an invalid who had been incapacitated for 38 years (John 5:1-5). After confirming that the man wanted to be well, Jesus consented and restored him (John 5:6-9). As the healing was performed on the Sabbath, “the Jews” protested (John 5:10-18). This story, unique to John’s gospel, represents the first vestiges of the hostility motif in John, a theme that will lead to Jesus’ death (John 19:17-37).
The incident occurred at a spring-fed pool with five porches that might be called an asclepion or healing sanctuary (John 5:2).
Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. (John 5:2 NASB)It has been speculated that the five colonnades may have been erected by Herod the Great (73 BCE-4 CE). This feature made the site an open structure with roofs which allowed its sick proprietors to lie down while being provided partial protection from the elements.
The location is referenced only here in Scripture and there is debate regarding both the name of the pool and its etymology as the text states that the word is Hebrew (John 5:2) but uses Aramaic to define it. In various manuscripts, the site is called Bethesda (“house of mercy”), Bethzatha (“house of olive oil”) and Bethsaida (“house of fishermen”). While most translations opt for “Bethesda” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT) some use “Bethzatha” (CEV, NRSV, RSV).
Leon Morris (1914-2006) analyzes:
“In Hebrew” is usually understood to mean, “in the language spoken by the Jews,” that is “in Aramaic”... This is probably the way to understand it, but the matter is not simple. “Bethsaida,” “Bethzatha,” and “Besthesda” are all well attested, and “Belzetha” is also found. The textual problem is a complicated one, and none of these variants can be ruled out as impossible. However, the copper scroll found at Qumran reads “Beth Eshdatain,” which makes “Bethesda” almost certainly correct. (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 266-67)This correlation with the findings of the Dead Sea Scrolls is the reason most translators prefer Bethesda. All of the options are very Semitic and regardless of which one is chosen, the theological meaning of the text and the sign that Jesus performed remain the same.
The site and its five porticoes were long thought to be unhistorical but as Craig L Blomberg (b. 1955) pronounces, “John 5:2 was dramatically corroborated by archaeological discoveries in the 1890s (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues & Commentary, 109).”
After Napoleon III (1808-1873) acquired the rights to the site for France, a twin pool north of the Temple area was discovered at St. Anne’s Church in 1856. When repairs were made to the church in 1888, a large reservoir was found and Conrad Schick (1822-1901) was consulted. Schick organized an expedition, dug to the Roman level just after the time of Christ and uncovered two large pools with five porches.
Colin G. Kruse (b. 1938) describes the site:
It was a double pool...Each pool was trapezoidal in shape, and the overall length of the two pools (north to south) was about 318 feet. The smaller pool to the north was about 197 feet wide on its northern side and the larger southern pool was about 250 feet wide on its southern side. The five colonnades were located one on each of the four sides of the double pool and one across the centre dividing the two pools. (Kruse, John (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 146)In short, the archaeological discoveries and the Bible are in agreement.
Bethesda was not entirely unique. Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) writes, “Such places were not uncommon in antiquity, and once a site was identified as a sanctuary of healing, the tradition was impossible to stop (Burge, John: The NIV Application Commentary).”
There is no record of how Bethesda acquired its reputation. John does document a legend associated with the pool:
[for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.] (John 5:4 NASB)Raymond E. Brown (1928-1998) is representative of most commentators when he writes, “John 5:3b-4, concerning an angel stirring the water, are missing from the best manuscripts and reflect popular tradition (Brown, The Gospel and Epistles of John: A Concise Commentary, 40).
Did Bethesda have healing attributes? Why did the invalids meet there? Was it solely due to the possibility of healing? Did religious officials endorse this site?
Bethesda is replete with superstition. This is evidenced by the fact that after the second Judean revolt in 135 CE, emperor Hadrian (76-135) co-opted it into a healing sanctuary dedicated to the god Serapis. Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) speculates that “official Judaism almost certainly did not approve of the superstition associated with the alleged healing powers of the pool of Bethesda. After all, healing shrines were characteristic of pagan cults. Apparently, however, the authorities looked the other way, tolerating this expression of popular religion.” (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 179).
The unnamed invalid did receive healing at Bethesda, not from any supernatural water but from Jesus. And he encountered Jesus because Jesus chose to enter the city via the gate where the sick congregated. Jesus did not wait for the sick to come to him or his church. He went to them.
Why did Jesus choose an entry point that led him through Bethesda? Do you go where help is most needed?
“Healing is a matter of time, but it is sometimes also a matter of opportunity.” - Hippocrates (460-370 BCE), often referred to as the “father of Western medicine”