Friday, January 27, 2012

Healing at Bethesda (John 5:2)

What pool did people believe to have healing powers? A pool by the Sheep Gate called Bethzatha [Bethesda] (John 5:2)

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”

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Tangling with Ms. Wrong (Proverbs 5:22)

In what is the wicked trapped or ensnared according to Proverbs 5:22? His sins and iniquities

The importance of the marriage covenant is a recurring theme in Proverbs. The book’s fifth chapter is a poem that speaks against adultery. This passage marks the first of three sets of instructions from a father to a son regarding proper sexual relationships (Proverbs 5:1-23, 6:20-35, 7:1-27). Perhaps because adultery is a selfish act, the sage does not discuss infidelity’s affects upon a wife or child but instead focuses on the negative consequences to the adulterer himself. After discussing the merits of the right and wrong woman at length (Proverbs 5:1-20), the sage moves to the larger picture of sin in general (Proverbs 5:21-23). He affirms that sin comes with consequences (Proverbs 5:22).

His own iniquities will capture the wicked, And he will be held with the cords of his sin. (Proverbs 5:22 NASB)
Tremper Longman III (b. 1952) interprets:
the father has saved his most powerful argument for last. Thus far he has warned concerning quite human dangers...But the ultimate motivation for not entering into an illicit relationship is because...God is watching, and so the punishments of Proverbs 5:22-23 (ultimately death) are not a matter of chance, but certainty; the implication is that no matter what particular form the punishment might take, God will assure that it will happen. The sin of the adulterers will come back and harm them (Proverbs 5:22). (Longman, Proverbs (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms), 162-63)
The sage personifies sin by painting a picture of a weaver getting caught in his own web. While the Seductress may seem to entrap the man, the real predator is Sin. To commit a sin is to eventually be caught in one’s own trap. Leonard S. Kravitz (b. 1928) and Kerry M. Olitzky (b. 1954) explain, “The writer presents a more prudential approach. Whether or not the sinner is aware of it, the consequences of sin remain with the sinner. Just as a trap catches and holds the unwary animal, so sin will catch and hold the sinner (Kravitz and Olitzky, Mishlei: A Modern Commentary on Proverbs, 54).”

Ironically, the sinner thinks that he is exercising freedom while in reality the transgressor is actually ensnaring himself. In referencing this verse, Joshua Harris (b. 1974) writes, “We can either be captives of righteousness or captives of sin...The man and woman who embraced the immediate pleasure of sex outside of marriage may think that they are experiencing freedom, but the opposite is true—the tentacles of sin are reaching up, binding them, and dragging them toward death (Harris, Boy Meets Girl: Say Hello to Courtship, 145).”

Leo G. Perdue (b. 1946) explains:

a saying forming a couplet brings the instruction to its culmination (Proverbs 5:22-23). The proverb affirms, first of all, that a wicked person is requited by means of the very iniquity that she or he causes (Proverbs 5:22), and second, that those who practice evil die because they lack instruction and are entrapped by folly (Proverbs 5:23).” (Perdue, Proverbs (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 122)
As Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) wrote in his poem “Tomlinson”, “For the sin ye do by two and two ye must pay for one by one!”

How important is the stability of the marriage covenant to a society’s success? Has its significance decreased since Proverbs was written? Are there always earthly consequences to sin?

The sage’s explanation for the consequences of sin is two-fold. Richard J. Clifford (b. 1934) explains that Proverbs 5:10-21 states “that clandestine affairs cannot be hidden from God, who will take action. Retribution is expressed in the poem in two ways: through the direct action of God (Proverbs 5:21), and through the inherent self-correcting action of the universe (Proverbs 5:22). The Bible often affirms both agencies without attempting to bring them into theoretical unity. (Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 72)

Daniel J. Treier (b. 1972) conjectures that God designed the universe in such a way that there would be natural consequences for sin:

As Proverbs 5:21-23 makes clear, this teaching is not safely cordoned off as ethical—it is theological too. Wisdom and righteousness, wickedness and folly, strongly correlate and overlap. In God’s providence the usual form of punishment for infidelity can transpire by natural means during this earthly life...Yet these means are not solely natural...God...superintends the historical course of the cosmos so as to promote the integrity of covenant relationships, whereby we manifest the faithful character of our Creator. (Treier, Proverbs & Ecclesiastes (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 36)
Are actions designated as sin because certain deeds were arbitrarily selected or are sinful acts appropriated as such because God set boundaries around behavior that has negative ramifications for humanity? Which treatise better fits a world shaped by a loving God?

“All human sin seems so much worse in its consequences than in its intentions.” - Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

Monday, January 23, 2012

Luke: Beloved Physician (Colossians 4:14)

Which early disciple was a doctor? Luke

Colossians is one of five letters that Paul wrote while imprisoned. Like most of the apostle’s correspondence, the epistle concludes with a series of personal greetings (Colossians 4:7-18). Colossians features three clusters of salutations. These acknowledgments were the ancient version of the “shout out”.

The last two associates that Paul mentions are two Gentiles, Luke and Demas (Colossians 4:14). This same duo is grouped again in Philemon (Philemon 1:24). While Demas receives no description, Luke is given the epithet “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14 NASB).
Luke, the beloved physician, sends you his greetings, and also Demas. (Colossians 4:14 NASB)
Given his familiarity to the church at Colossae, Eric Porterfield (b. 1967) wonders how much influence Luke had on the Colossians. He writes, “It is likely that ‘the Colossians have heard Luke-shaped stories of Jesus’ (Walsh/Keesmaat, 71) and that the word of Christ they were to let dwell in them (Colossians 3:16) comes from what eventually became Luke’s Gospel (Porterfield, Sessions with Colossians & Philemon: On the Move with God , 92).”

Though the word for physician, iatros, is used seven times (Matthew 9:12; Mark 2:17, 5:26; Luke 4:23, 5:31, 8:43; Colossians 4:14), Luke is the only doctor named in the New Testament. Iatros is translated as both “physician” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, MSG, NASB, NKJV, NRSV, RSV) and “doctor” (CEV, NIV, NLT).

This label is the only biographical detail the New Testament provides regarding Luke. The name “Luke” actually only appears three times in Scripture and always in conjunction with Pauline greetings (Colossians 4:14; II Timothy 4:11; Philemon 1:24). Luke stays with Paul through thick and thin and he alone is said to be with the apostle at the time of his last correspondence (II Timothy 4:11).

Though Luke is traditionally accepted as the author of Luke-Acts, the Bible itself does not explicitly state this. In commenting on Colossians 4:14, N.T. Wright (b. 1948) reminds, “It is only in this passage that we learn of Luke’s profession, and only by inference, and later tradition that we know him as the author of the great two-volume work which comprises the Gospel named after him and the Acts of the Apostles (Wright, Colossians and Philemon (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 158).”

Why does Paul include the unnecessary epithet in describing Luke? What do you associate with doctors? Do you the words “doctor” and “physician” have different connotations? How important is a person’s profession to your assessment of her? What did Luke’s profession say of him?

Marianne Meye Thompson (b. 1954) reminds, “Ancient medicine differed vastly form its modern counterpart. Physicians could treat wounds and employed various remedies to try to treat symptoms of diseases, but they could not halt or cure those diseases. In any case, the study of medicine was not nearly so formalized as today, although Luke’s status will indicate that he was an educated man (Thompson, Colossians and Philemon (Two Horizons New Testament Commentary) , 106).”

Jerry L. Sumney (b. 1955) relays, “The occupation either locates Luke among persons of some wealth or indicates that he was a slave who had been educated to be someone’s personal physician (Sumney, Colossians: A Commentary (New Testament Library), 276).” In his study of Christian doctors, Dan Graves (b. 1950) speculates that it was the latter. Graves writes, “Luke probably was born the son of slaves. Tradition says so, and his single, short name supports the tradition (Graves, Doctors Who Followed Christ: 32 Biographies of Historic Physicians and Their Christian Faith, 20).”

In describing the ancient “physician”, James D.G. Dunn (b. 1939) writes:
That indicates a man of some learning and training (though at this time medicine was just becoming a subject of systematic instruction...) And since the title has a favorable ring here (contrast the typical criticism of doctors elsewhere in biblical tradition: II Chronicles 16:12; Job 13:4; Jeremiah 46:11; Mark 5:26) we may assume that he was no charlatan but respected for genuine medical knowledge and healing skills. Beyond that we know nothing firm about Luke. (Dunn, The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 283)
F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) notes, “At one time it was argued that the vocabulary of Luke–Acts showed the author to have been a physician. The lexical evidence adduced lacks demonstrative force, but it retains considerable illustrative value (Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 181-82).”

We know for certain only that Luke was Paul’s doctor friend. Some have even speculated that Luke was Paul’s personal physician, and given his numerous trials (II Corinthians 11:23-29), the apostle likely needed one. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) documents that there were allowances for prisoners with medical needs:
Prisoners often had friends to assist them during their confinement. For example, John the Baptist’s disciples tended to him in prison (Matthew 11:2). Pliny notes that a person of respectable position was allowed a few slaves to wait on him when he was in prison (Ep. 3.16). Philostratus reports that Damis went to prison with the philosopher (Vit. Apoll. 7.15). Paul was supposedly granted the privilege of being attended by his friends (Acts 24:23). Ignatius says Polycarp visited him in Smyrna (Trall. 1.2) and the Ephesian deacon Burrhus was sent to him (Eph. 2.1). The Ignatian correspondence shows how letters could be sent from imprisonment with the assistance of helpers. (Talbert, Ephesians and Colossians (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 241)
Do you have any beloved friends in the medical fields? Do you appreciate how blessed you are to live at a time when medicine is so advanced? When you are ill, who do you most want to tend to your needs?

“The good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease.” - William Osler (1849-1919), one of the “Big Four” founding professors at Johns Hopkins Hospital