The Pool of Bethesda as a healing center of Greek-god Asclepius (John 5)
1 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 3 In these lay a multitude of invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.
When it comes to determining the level of the gospel’s historical reliability, the story that will end in the healing of a paralyzed man is one of the most fascinating textual units in the Gospel of John. Until the discovery of the pool with five-roofed colonnades near the Sheep Gate (although everyone was looking for a pentagon shaped pool at first), many did not consider the Gospel of John to be historically reliable. The gospel was thought to be either allegorical (truthful only in the sense similar to apocalyptic literature) or simply inaccurate (written by someone who was not from Judea and was wholly unfamiliar with Jerusalem’s geography and topography). However, both pools mentioned in the Gospel of John were identified – the Pool of Bethesda in John 5:2 and the Pool of Siloam in John 9:7. The pool mentioned in this chapter turned out to have five colonnades (as described in the Gospel), but it was not structured as a pentagon. There were four colonnades separated in the middle by another one, thus forming the five colonnades just as the Gospel described.
It is of possible that the pool of Bethesda was a Jewish religious ceremonial water cleansing facility, mikvah, associated with the Jerusalem Temple. But there are other interpretive options as well that to my mind make a lot more sense.
There are many good reasons to believe that this structure situated walking distance from the back then walls of the city of Jerusalem was a healing center dedicated to Greco-Roman god of well-being and health – Asclepius. Devotionl to Asclepius was well spread through the lands dominated by Roman Empire. There were more than 400 asclepeions (Asclepius-related facilities throughout empire), functioning as healing centers and dispensers of the god’s grace and mercy towards those in need).
Asclepius was the god of medicine and health in ancient Greek religion. The god’s mythical daughters, for example, included the goddesses Hygeia and Panacea. We can hear in their Greek names our modern words for “hygiene” and “panacea” – key concepts associated today with medicine and health. Snakes were a key attribute of Asclepius’s cult of health and healing. Even today, one of the key symbols of modern medicine is a stick with a snake around it.
Now stop and think for a moment. If this is correct, it may change our perception of the entire story described here. You see it is possible that the blind, lame, and paralyzed were not waiting for Israel’s God to heal them; but rather for the merciful healing act of Asclepius. Before you begin to think that the above reconstruction is farfetched, please, consider the following:
Second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr mentions popular obsession with Asclepius among his contemporaries saying: “When the Devil brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ? (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew, 69). In a statement attributed to the second century Jewish Sage Rabbi Akiva we read: “Once Akiva was asked to explain why persons afflicted with disease sometimes returned cured from a pilgrimage to the shrine of an idol, though it was surely powerless. (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 55a).”
Pool of Bethesda/Asclepion (Jerusalem branch) was, probably, a part of Hellenization of Jerusalem along with several other important projects such as Roman theater, Roman sports complex, Roman baths and Roman fortress Antonia (near the pool). It is probably referring to such Hellenization of Jerusalem that Qumranites devotees, authoring their commentary on Prophet Nahum wrote: “Where is the lion’s den, the cave of the young lions? (Nah.2:12b) The interpretation of this concerns Jerusalem, which had become a dwelling for the wicked ones of the Gentiles… (4QpNah).”
In that case, the pool of Bethesda (house of mercy in Hebrew) does not have to be a Jewish site at all, but rather a Greek Asclepion-affiliated facility. It is very important to notice that in this particular healing Jesus does not command the one he healed to wash himself in the pool (pool of Bethesda), while he does issue a direct command to go and wash at the pool of Siloam when it comes to the healing of the blind man (John 9:6-7). It therefore appears that while the pool of Bethesda was a pagan place (Asclepion), while the pool of Siloam was connected with Jerusalem Temple. Of course, Jerusalem was the center for religious Jews in Jesus’ days, but it was also a headquarters for Hellenized ideals in Judea which was under strict Roman control with the Antonia Fortress dominating the northwestern end of the Temple Mount.
[… waiting for the moving of the waters; 4 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.]
While in the brackets some modern Bibles still include the above text (3b-4) it is not contained in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts available to us today and, therefore, should not be treated as authentic. It seems that the Christian copyist unfamiliar with cult of Asclepius and the Pool of Bethesda’s affiliation with it, added on the explanation about the Angel of the Lord stirring up the waters, seeking to clarify things for his readers. In all reality he ended up sending all following generations of readers in the wrong interpretive direction, missing the whole point of the story.
Contrary to popular opinion, ancient scribes were not always accurate in preserving every jot and tittle of the text they were copying. They did not embellish things, but certainly were not afraid “to clarify issues,” when they thought “something was missing.” Hence the new character in this story, the angel of Israel’s God, was added by the well-meaning, but misguided copyist. The copyist, unlike the author of John’s Gospel, was not aware of the Greek religious identity of Bethesda, which sounded to him just from the text he had before him, without any evidence of contemporary material culture, as the house of mercy of Israel’s God. He was simply mistaken.
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.
The sick people who were often seen on the porches of the pool of Bethesda were made up of two types. Those who came in to try their luck here as part of the quest for healing on the way, as it were, to another promising healing solution and those who had already given up all hope for any kind of healing. In response to Jesus’ question about whether or not he wished to get well, we read an answer that was anything but hopeful. In the words of the sick man “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.” (vs. 7) The stirring up of the water was likely happening when the priests of the Asclepius cult, would open the connecting pipes between the higher and the lower portions of the pool of Bethesda. The water in the upper reservoir would then flow into the lower one.
The “institutionalized” man was there for a long time as the Gospel tells us in the context of a deeply religious albeit Greek religious environment. He was a man with a significant personal need and with all his hope gone. Asclepius in Greek methodology was also known not only for his healing and life-giving powers, but for this attitude of benevolence for the people, which made him of the most popular divinities in the Greco-Roman world. Later in the story Jesus would meet the man he healed in the Israel’s Temple and will warn him not to continue in his life of sin (something that fits perfectly with the idea that the Pool of Bethesda was Asclepion).
This is a powerful story. Sickness – the symbol of human chaos was called into order by the power of Jesus’ word, just like the pre-creation chaos was once called by Israel’s Heavenly King into the order of creation in exactly the same way. Now the royal son of Israel’s King came into the pagan abode (asclepeion) and healed the Jewish man without any magical formulas and spells. Jesus did so simply by telling the man to get up and walk. In other words, Jesus healed the man the same way Israel’s God once created the world – simply by the power of His spoken word.