The Pool Of Bethesda As A Healing Center Of Asclepius

The Pool of Bethesda as a healing center of Greek-god Asclepius (John 5)

Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, which has five roofed colonnades. 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; 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.][1]

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.

image002Contrary 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.

One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 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?” 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.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” 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.

[1] NASB.

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  1. Ronny Gaytant

    Shalom, Dr.Eli,

    We are very pleased to have found this. It was a blessing, some have found more information about this event. For us it is an answer to prayer, yet, to find a good explanation for our home town and our site. We continue to pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and that the Lord may bless you!

    Wij zijn heel verheugd dat wij dit hebben gevonden. Het was een zegen, nog wat meer uitleg te hebben gevonden over deze gebeurtenis. Voor ons is het een gebedsverhoring, om toch goede uitleg te vinden voor onze huisgemeente en onze site. Wij bidden verder voor de vrede van Jeruzalem, en dat de Here u zegenen mag!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Welcome to the forum! Please, in the future write only in English. We don’t yet have a version of this site in German! Blessings and much peace, Dr. Eli

  2. noel fernando sales da silva

    Shalom, Dr Eli .
    It is a good message . Be sure it really helped me .

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, Noel for your kind words!

      1. noel fernando sales da silva

        Thank you so much . I’ like to know what do you think about POSSIBLE CONNECTION BETWEEN EXODUS 7:22 AND JOHN5 . SHALOM .

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          What do you have in mind. I looked it up and your point was not obvious to me. Sorry. Can you explain?

          1. noel fernando sales da silva

            Shalom. .
            Sorry I will try explain better . The point is : Was the same “kind” of power working on the healing at the pool by the moving of Waters and the power working at Exodus 7:22 – ( secret arts of Egyptian magicians) ? What do you think about it ?

          2. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            I don’t know what power worked in Egyptian magicians, but I think I explain in the article what I think actually stirred the water in the Pool of Bethesda.

  3. Prof. Henrietta van Winsen

    What we must never forget is the Muslim heritage, because they did destroy a lot of the remnants of Hellenization. Even so, architecturally the Greek styles seems to have been favoured all over the world for many, many centuries. When we talk about the snake in the desert it is best to look at the Egyptian heritage and the veneration of the cobra in Egyptology.

  4. Maria

    Shalom Dr. Eli,
    Your explanation makes me wondering about ‘Nehustan’, the snake God told Moses to put on a stick, which Jechizkiah destroyed because of the pagan cult the people made around it.
    The Grecians in later ages took ‘Nehustan’, to turn it into their idol ‘Aesclepius’, didn’t they?
    And didn’t Judas the Maccabee destroy all Grecian/hellenistic idols and sites that were connected to them? Certainly he did this to those in and around Jerusalem, for he was full of zeal to cleanse the Temple, Jerusalem, the land and the people from all idolatry. God gave His laws to keep the land and the people of Israel ‘kosher’ at mount Sinai, during those 38 years in the wilderness and afterwards!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Shalom, Maria. Thank you for your thoughtful feedback and questions.

      1) I don’t think that Greeks got the snake from Moses :-). Theirs is an independent source.

      2) The Maccabees rededicated the Temple, yes, but in between the Maccabees and architectural projects of Herod the Great who was committed to the Hellenization a lot of time has passed. It is very difficult to argue with archaeology about what was found in Jerusalem and in Judea. Lots of buildings look Greek.

  5. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    I c. I must admit the 38 years connection you pointed out is indeed intriguing!

  6. Margalit

    In the p’shat, there is a literal lame man… and very insightful all you shared! In the remez , more is revealed. The lame man gave excuses why he did not enter in, and lay there 38 years. Israel is the man, who came to the promised land, 10 spies gave excuses why they could not enter in, and Deut 2:14 says they stayed 38 years in the wilderness. Yeshuah says to the man, “get up” (aliyah) and “walk”; Isaiah 2:3. I saw this picture recently when listening to a minister preach on this passage, giving a wonderful drash-sermon application.
    Appreciate so much your teachings….

  7. Woka

    I’m sure that many times I am much too simplistic-and my knowledge is often based on experience rather than research – which can work both ways, I suppose. When I read Jesus looking at the man and saying, “Sin no more…..” – immediately what comes to mind is a very personal, private communication.
    There are times when, surrounded with people, a friend can look at a friend, maybe saying a word or two or saying nothing at all and the message is completely understood. I have had just that experience with Holy Spirit…at just the right moment….that small touch comes to my heart and I change directions.

    1. Kat

      Woka, what you said makes sense to me. I started following Christ because an evangelist said “sin no more” (in words I understood from a form of Judaism background to a Western Christian 🙂 ). It has made it difficult to communicate with other people and read my Bible.

  8. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

    Kat, no sure what you mean. Or I could just be too tired :-).

    1. Kat

      Your article has brought up a very important error in my LANGUAGE that made the transition between Judaism and Christianity hard. The minute I overcame (walked into the light with a horrible wrong done to me) the words “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you” implied that Jesus would do horrible things to me if I didn’t perform perfectly. (This deception often spins into the teaching of unrelated consequences (ie your mother died because you got a poor grade in school) . I believe you are correct when you says “human chaos was called into order by the power of Jesus’ word”. This would tie into Matthew 6:33?, not worshiping false Gods.

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        I personally don’t think there was a ever a transition between what we call know Judaism (Rabbinic Judaism) and Christianity (non-Jewish Christ-following movement). I don’t think they ever met historically, both however have roots in Ancient Israelite faith. I recommend this article for your attention –

  9. Kat

    Taking into consideration that Jesus is High Priest and the power of His spoken word, I must reconsider the possibility that Jesus was opening the man’s eyes when He said, “ Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” I see this as a possibility because there is evidence in Romans 7 that Paul’s eyes were opened by God (pointing to Christ – Romans 7:22) and then again by the High Priest (Romans 7:25) Whether the man was healed or not (sin no more) I cannot say, but I can see Jesus healing powers connecting the Torah to believing in Jesus.
    Psalm 119:18, Mark 4:12
    Gen 3:7, John 5:19 – 21, Acts 26:18

  10. Margalit

    The lame man beside the “house of mercy” or another suggested “house of olive tree” (both appropriate) is a picture of Israel, who gave excuses why they could not enter in the land, so they remained 38-years in the wilderness (Deut 2:14). Yeshua says to the man-Israel, “get up/aliyah”… Come, and let us get up/go up to the mountain of YHVH. To the house of the Elohim of Jacob. He will teach us His ways, and we shall WALK in His paths. For out of Tsiyon shall go forth the torah, and the word of YHVH from Jerusalem.” Isaiah 2:3 We Praise You Father for your mercies through our Yeshua!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Margalit, I am not following your logic here. Can you please rephrase and guide me on how do you understand this again?