John 5 and the Bethesda Pool

The Pools of Bethesda were dual Roman baths (Figures 1 and 2) that are mentioned prominently in John 5. There is some confusion of place names there. Bezetha (Heb. Beitzata, probably meaning “house of olives”) is a mountain ridge trending southeast from above the top center of the map to just northeast of the Pools. The valley stream that feeds water to the Pools is also named Bezetha. That name was later applied to a broader area that became a suburban community also known as “the New City“, north of Biblical Jerusalem. The name Bethesda (Heb. BeitHisda, meaning “house of mercy”) appears in some manuscripts, and applies only to the Pools. Archaeologists, including Dan Bahat, author of this map, for long equated the Bethesda Pools with the “Sheep Pool“, where animals were washed prior to sacrifice, but I was skeptical of that from the day I first laid eyes on it, and in fact scholarship now equates the Sheep Pool with the Pool of Israel, just outside the Sheep Gate in the Northern wall of the Temple Mount. Why my skepticism? First, I couldn’t conceive of a possibility that the Romans would share their healing pool with Jewish livestock. Just as obvious to me was an observation that the Bethesda pools looked way too deep and steep-sided to dip and extract thousands of animals quickly enough, or even at all, on feast days (Figure 3). At the same time, the Pool of Israel, right outside the gate used for sacrificial animals, was ideally shaped for the purpose, with a shallow end and sloped bottom, and was clearly not suited for ritual cleansing of humans.

Figure 1: ©2007 Holman Bible Publishers. Problems with this map: Pool of Bethesda incorrectly identified also as Sheep’s Pool; Gordon’s Calvary (the Garden Tomb) incorrectly identified as Golgotha; Struthion Pool mislocated; pinnacle of the Temple mislocated; Upper Room mislocated.
Figure 2: Bethesda Pools, on Jerusalem model, Mt. Hertzl. Photo ©2008 Ron Thompson

Although Bethesda may have originally been a Jewish pool, by the 1st Century AD it was a thoroughly Roman facility. It was a two-pool bath house, either built or upgraded by Herod, for the use of soldiers stationed in the nearby Antonia Fortress (Figure 2). Almost certainly, it was an Asclepeion, a shrine to the Greek God of Medicine, Asclepius (Figure 4). Water flowing down the Bezetha Valley was collected in the upper pool and flowed across a weir into the lower pool, before spilling off into the Kidron Valley. Bathing in the pools would presumably bring healing.

Figure 3: Bethesda Pool excavation. Photo ©2008 Ron Thompson.
Figure 4: Asclepius, James Sands Elliott – Public Domain

John 5:1-9 (ESV)
The Healing at the Pool on the Sabbath
[5:1] After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
[2] Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Aramaic called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. [3] In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. [5] One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. [6] When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be healed?” [7] The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” [8] Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” [9] And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Now that day was the Sabbath.

Most translations do not include the famous verses 3b – 4 because this wording is not present in “the best” manuscripts. Encyclopedia Judaica calls it a later gloss, but states that excavations reveal that “a health rite took place there during the Roman period.”

John 5:3-4 (KJV)
[3] In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.
[4] For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

If these words are legitimate, it would help explain vs 7. Though the pools were intended for Roman use, this was during the days right before Passover, and it makes sense that Jews might have been given an annual privilege in its honor. It is inconceivable, though, that devout Jews would have expected a medical miracle at a pagan shrine dedicated to healing by a pagan deity! The story about an angel appearing in a pagan pool would have likewise been pure superstition, possibly explained by roiling of the water when attendants opened a sluice gate to move water from the stream, or from pool to pool.

To answer one more frequent question, based on verse 6, when Jesus asked the paralytic if he wanted to be healed: No, I don’t think He was really asking him if he wanted to have his sins forgiven. Nowhere in the chapter is it indicated that the paralytic had any interest in salvation. Jesus never explicitly offered him forgiveness, He just gave him a warning, after which he ratted Jesus out!

John 5:14-16 (ESV)
[14] Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” [15] The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. [16] And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath.

Figure 5: For comparison, a reproduction of a 1st century Roman bath, in Bath, UK. From the column bases down, it is original construction from AD 60 – 70. From an online tourism promotion.

Author: Ron Thompson

Retired President of R. L Thompson Engineering, Inc.

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