Who Will Heal You? A Greek Or A Jewish God? (john 5.2-5)

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.[1]   5One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years.
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,  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 wholly unfamiliar with Jerusalem’s geography). However, thanks to the tireless research of archeologists, both pools mentioned in the Gospel of John were identified – the Pool of Bethesda in John 5.2 (Image courtesy of Carta Jerusalem) 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.

It is possible that that these pools were religious ceremonial water cleansing facilities – mikvaot, associated with the Jerusalem Temple; or simply water reservoirs for general civic consumption (at least in some periods of their use). But there are other interpretive options as well.

Some archaeologists who worked with this discovery for many years, found and excavated several snake figures at that pool; indicating that the area may have housed a Jerusalem branch of Asclepius cult. While we must be careful not to asume that we can know these things with certainty (for example, none of the artfacts connected to Asclepeus that were found at the site were dated to the first century), some interesting ideas are still worth considering. So having given some space to disclaimers, who was Asclepius?

Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing in ancient Greek religion. The god’s mythical daughters 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 of course were a key attribute of Asclepius’s cult of health and healing (see circled area on the image of Aclepeus). Up until today one of the key symbols of modern medicine is a stick with a snake around it.

Now stop and think for a moment. Because, 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. 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. This of course would be consistent with a thoroughly Hellenized Jerusalem and Judea in the time of Jesus. We already know that this is the case from many historical and archeological studies.

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 Bethhesda), 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 Bethehesda was a pagan place, the pool of Siloam was not. Of course, Jerusalem was the center for religious Jews in Jesus’ days, but it was also a headquarters for Hellenized ideals in Judea that was under strict Roman control with the Antonia Fortress dominating the northwestern end of the Temple Mount.

Therefore, as the author of the Gospel continues to show Jesus as the incarnated divine Logos/Memra of Israel’s God, we see the real tension of the story: Who has the power to heal, the Greek god Asclepius, or the Judean god, through his royal son Jesus?[2]

We will see more of this interesting polemic as we continue our fascinating study.

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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[1] Some manuscripts insert, wholly or in part, “waiting for the moving of the water; 4for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred the water: whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was healed of whatever disease he had.”

[2] This is very similar to the kind of ancient cross-religious polemics described in the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5). In the minds of the ancients, rivers were conceived of as channels of blessings that came directly from the country’s particular gods. Will the rivers of Israel be better than the rivers of Aram? (2 Kings 5.12)  Will the God of Israel win the god of Aram?

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  1. Eric Rodríguez

    BS”D
    It’s necessary to remember that “Hebrew” here means really, “Aramaic” because there are many examples like Gulgalta’, Gabatà’ &c. In this case, Beyt Chisdá’/Beyt Jisdá’ (בית חסדא) “The house of the Kindness” Hebrew: (בית החסד Beyt Hachesed/Beyt Hajésed).
    Dr. Eli I was glad with this excelent commentary.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Eric, believe it or not, I do not think that it was necessary Aramaic. There is some serious evidence that Hebrew may have been used also in speech!!!! For example, bar Kohbah’s letters found in Qumran were written in Hebrew. Not only bar Kochbah or his assistant wrote in Hebrew (about common things in life), but they expected the other side to also understand and write back!!!! 🙂 So I think it was really in Hebrew… actually that is what it says in GREEK! But today’s scholars mistakenly thinking that no one knew Hebrew (and the Passion of Christ must be right!!!!) 🙂 as a spoken language changed it to Aramaic.

      1. Eric Rodríguez

        Shalom Dr. Eli
        I’m agree!! of Course! the scrolls of the Torah have been ever in Hebrew, and the ‘Am ha’aretz (עם הארץ)allowed speaking Hebrew, of course, indeed, using the ancient typewriting, Ktav livona’ah (כתב לבונאה)or Ktav Da’atz (כתב דעץ)
        I haven’t said that anyone of the writers ignored nor didn’t speak hebrew; I’m not a Pro-aramaic at all, only that in this case, like other, there are aramaic names of Places:
        גלגלתא gulgaltá’ hebrew:הגלגלת Hagulgólet “Golgotha”
        בר כוכבא Bar-Kochba’ is an aramaic name, Hebrew: בן הכוכב Ben Hakochav
        There is no problem with using both languages… Shalom!

  2. kostya

    What a vivid example of what archaeological evidence can do to our understanding of scripture! You have stirred up the waters of Bethesda!
    But there are many questions it raises for me. One is about the other many invalids and blind people there. Why did Jesus not heal them? Assuming they were Jews, would He not have said something to them? Especially if it was to show that He heals and not Ascelapius?
    Why is not something said about the pagan- ness (idolatry) of the place?
    Why did not the authorities say something about Him going there to heal but only objected to Him healing on the Sabbath?
    It is at the time of a feast (maybe Passover), would His presence at a pagan healing place not have caused a stir?
    Was it lawful to be there?
    Granting the Hellenisation of Jerusalem, would a Jewish gospel still not have mentioned such a blatantly pagan practice once Jesus had been associated with it?
    If Jesus’ act is a prophetic one of challenging the Greek god to heal,compared to the God of the Jews,would not He have said something about that to those seeking healing there? The Jewish prophets always challenged paganism and idolatry among the Jews. Jesus was prophet par excellence.
    I have always thought that the main reason that He healed the man was the compassion He had because the old man had waited so long and had no chance to be healed. It allowed me to think that the others were left there to catch the next wave, as it were.
    If Jesus chose this man and not the others, and it is an Ascelepius healing place, does not then Jesus become an accessory to idolatry by His selectivity and silence?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear kostya,

      as you well know reconstructing history deals not with certainties, but with likelihoods of probabilities. So can we be 100%? no. In my mind that i think this possibility stands at about 80-85% not more, but not less. As per your series ‘why” questions, those are arguments from silence. Although some things need to be pointed out. In my following post I will argue that the authorities used Sabbath accusation, but REALLY viewed his healing and claims as problematic. Hellenistic facilities were well mixed with Jewish ones, so a stir I am not sure about plus it looks like that not too many people knew how he looked like also. About Jewish gospel not mentioning blatantly pagan practice. Most things that went on were not mentioned in the Gospels. gospels like any other literature of this sort are very selective. Especially if it was written early (I think it is) then it did not feel that it needed to explain the things that were already known. As to your next points they are similar to the ones i just addressed. i think we need to continue to examine things and think together. Its just a beginning of this quest, not the end.

  3. ruth hirt

    The living Creator, the G_d of Israel, Who my G_d is is without any question The Healer.

    I appreciate your added researched informations. Thank you very much.

  4. Wayne Baxter

    Very insightful. Thanks.

  5. RamonAntonio

    The comment by Michelle has inspired me to look in my reference library. Indeed she is correct in tying John 5 and Numbers to the intent of God in possibly using an Egyptian symbol to instill curing of mortal bites by snakes. Well I think everything is tied.
    Moses was a learned prince of Egypt so the significance of the snake was obvious to him. In fact, he and Aaron had used their staffs by converting them to snakes and their snakes proved to be the Big Kahunas by eating the Egyptian snakes of the Egyptian sorcerers.
    But interestingly, John introduces the snake in Chapter 3 in relation to Jesus meeting with Nicodemus. Chapter 3 precedes the healing in Chapter 5 both in the writing and in time sequence, thus, Jesus actually spoke of snakes before the healing.
    The image of the snake as used by Jesus deserves a complete analysis by itself. I’ll only mention this, Jesus revealed to Nicodemus that by raising Him he would bring salvation but also that by looking to Him with faith healing would be achieved similar as when the nomad Israelite people “looked” at the raised bronze snake ordered by God to Moses as an act of faith in their only God. So the healing was attained in the dessert by looking with faith to the snake which was ordered to be created by God. So it was raised, to be looked upon.
    In John 5, the paralyzed one, a possible reference to his status as not part fully of the people of Israel who were travelers following God, is restored to full participation in the promise (ability to walk again among the people) by looking to Jesus and not down to the serpents in the pool or the moving water.
    A signal is then made to all there, and to Nicodemus who was also a learned leader of Israel. As thus, Nicodemus would be able to remember what Jesus said to him, “…even though the Spirit comes and goes from and to wherever it wants an no one is able to see it… the Son of man must be raised in order to be seen…” And the paralyzed man was healed by seeing Jesus while waiting to be healed by the water.
    This whole excursus of revelation by Jesus goes from Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman (I am, the one i front of you) to the paralyzed man to whom Jesus reveals to in the Temple as the one who cured him.
    See Beale and Carson, Commentary on the Use of Old Testament in the New…

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Perhaps, there is a lot more here that I realize at the moment.Thank you, Ramon.

    2. Eric Rodríguez

      Shalom!
      This episode (Jesus-Naqdimón/Nikódemos) has probably a hard conection with one of the more curious hermeneutic rules of Jewish interpretation: Gimatriyah.Notice this:
      נחש Nachash (snake) in Gimatriyah = 358
      300+8+50
      משיח Mashiach (Messiah)in Gimatriyah =
      8+10+300+40 = 358.
      בן האדם = Ben Ha’adam = the son of ‘Adam
      400+4+1+5 – 50+2 = 358
      Here: Nachash=Mashíach=Ben Ha’adam;
      Yehoshúa’, knowing these rules used by rabbis, He said:
      “So like was lifted the snake in the wilderness, so it’s necessary Ben Ha’adam (= Mashíach) to be lifted…

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        I am not a gematria guy. But this makes even doubter like myself give it a thought! For Gematria experts out there. How hard is it to fit other things in number 358?

        1. Eric Rodríguez

          Shalom!!
          Other connection in gimatriyah is:
          יבא שילה
          (5+30+10+300) + (1+2+10) = 358
          = Yavo’ Shiloh = That come Shiloh!
          אור העולם
          (40+30+6+70+5) +(200+6+1) = 358
          = ‘Or Ha’olam “The light of Universe/World

          1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            I am more skeptical here. Its several words and no presence of such in the texts at least not up to Chap.5.

            SNAKE/Nachash being one word and being 358, however, still has me thinking.

          2. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            Light of the world is all over john of course.

          3. Eric Rodríguez

            Bséder Dr. Eli, thanks!
            All these verses of John, speak about “The light of The World”, one of the names used by Mashiach in his first visit/stay:

            Jn 1:7, 3:19, 8:12 (I’m the light of the world) 12:46… So, because of ‘Or Ha’olam (the light of the world)= Mashíach = Nachash = Ben Ha’adam there is an interesting connection… 😀 SHalom!

          4. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            Brilliant comments by every one!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! WOW. I learned a lot.

      2. Drs. Charles van den Berg

        Gematria is a part of the Kaballa as is present in sources from outside of the Bible. Why should we use this in the interpretation of the Bible? What do we bring from outside into the Bible? The writers of the N.T. where interpreters from the TENACH. Did they use it? I think there is only one mention where it seems so: Rev. 13:18: This calls for wisdom… let him calculate the number of the beast ..666’ We go to test this in gematria .
        1) Ps. 118:20 is said with respect to The Lord , that He has become TO CORNERSTONE. The value of this is (5+50+80)+(300+1+200+30)=135+531=666 Conclusion can be: The Lord has become the beast.
        2) Rev. 13:18: ‘ and his number is 666 ‘. ( 20+1+10 ) + (70) + (1+100+10+9+40+70+200) + ( 1+400+300+70+400) + (600+60+6) = 31+70+430+1171+666= 2368. Ιησους Χριστος (= 10+8+200+70+400+200 (888)) + (600+100+10+200+300+70+200 (1480) = 2368. Conclusion can be :Jesus Christ is the beast.
        3) ‘And his number is 666 ‘ ( 2368) has in hebrew the value ‘2701’.The 28 letters of Gen 1:1 has the value of 2701. The Conclusion can be: The beast is the Creator of heaven and earth.
        4) The sentence ‘for it is man’s number , and his number is 666 ‘
        has the value 467+2701= 3168. It is the same as The Lord Jesus Christ, Κυριος Ιησους Χριστος, 800+888+1480= 3168. The conclusion can be: Our Lord Jesus Christ is the beast.

        5) Gen 3:24: ‘and a flaming sword ‘ ,215+44+407=666. Conclusion van be: the beast is bodyguard of the tree of life.
        CONCLUSION:
        Because this is conflicting with the complete revelation in the Bible it can not be a good way for interpretation. ‘ This calls for wisdom …..So I am not only sceptical, but the critic of gematria.
        Charles van den Berg

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Eric, I am about to close the comments on this page, so if you would like to respond do it and I will bring this discussion to its well deserved conclusion.

          Charles, thank you so much for your input. Very helpful.

        2. Eric Rodríguez

          BS”D

          As you can see, Guematriya’ is an art, can’t be in the hands of any person… It’s necessary to have the Holy Spirit to obtain a correct interpretation… You have to know to choose the better sense… according to whole Bible… so your conslusions are bad and wrong…

  6. Annelie

    Thank you so much for sharing that. It gives you something to really think about.

  7. Ilya Gromov

    I know I’m getting ahead but I’ve been thinking about this whole encounter and in verse 7, when Jesus asks the man if he wants to become well, his reply implies that water was not stirred all the time (as I imagine it would be if it was simply flowing from upper pool to the lower) – “I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up. While I am trying to get into the water, someone else goes down there before me”. I think that whoever added bit about angel stirring up water was probably influenced by this verse.
    Is it possible that some sort of supernatural stirring did occur?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Can the stirring be caused supernaturally???? Of course it could. However, there several “natural” explanations the one I already name in the article (is the first one) and the second one that this was a place of a natural hot spring common for these parts. Roman bathhouses were almost always build around those hot springs. The fact that ancient people considered that to be act of something supernatural, does not mean that we need to. But if they did and if for one reason or another it was really supernatural, no harm is done also. Because whether or not it was supernatural makes no difference.

      Disclaimer: The pool of Bethesda and its connection to the Aclepeus cult for me personally rules out the supernatural explanation 🙂 :-).

      1. Ilya Gromov

        In NET Bible there is a footnote that mentions that better translation of Bethesda would be “a house of flowing”, so I think that it all fits very well… Except for the verse 7 that implies that there’s a specific time slot for going into the water – “whoever get’s in first” sort of thing, that our man kept missing. What are your thoughts on that?
        Or will you address that in the next post? 🙂

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          House of flowing is not a better translation. However, it is a possible translation as another though less likely option. If that indeed was the translation, then this would point to hot springs (today it is also believed to have healing powers). People pay money to sit in the mineral rich water for few hours. It does wonders for your skin and bones, for examples. Let’s keep thinking together. Kak govoritsia in Russian “esli dolgo muchetsia…” 🙂

  8. Michelle

    Wow, Dr. Eli, this is fascinating! Once again you’ve shared a very important piece of information – the archaeological discovery of the snake figures at the pool, connecting it to Asclepius – which gives a much clearer picture of what is happening in this passage of Scripture.

    I can see translators (transcribers?) adding in the phrase about the angel stirring the waters, simply because they, too, supposed the pool was a Jewish pool and not something else.

    But now my curiosity is turned in another direction. You said that snakes were an important part of Asclepius’ cult, which was of the Greek religion. If this symbol was used for cults such as the cult of Asclepius, then is it possible that it was also used in ancient Egyptian religion for the same reason? If it were used in ancient Egypt as part of their religion, the children of Israel would have been aware of this during their time of captivity in Egypt, but they would have known it as a heathen practice.

    So, I now have a puzzling question on my hands: why would God want Moses to afix a bronze serpent to a staff for the people to gaze at when they had been bitten by snakes? (Numbers 21) Why would God want His people to practice something that was practiced by heathen cults, or that was associated with heathen cult beliefs?

    I know I’ve connected something in John 5 to something in Numbers 21, which really isn’t fair because they’re truly not related, but I would so appreciate your thoughts on this.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I wondered about the same connection whether it exists. I concluded that it does not otherwise at least in John there would not be a LONG break between Snakes in John 3 and snakes in John 5, but who knows?! 🙂

  9. Dionisio

    Thank You very much for your great help with the understanding of this Gospel. Regarding your comments about this passage How could you reconcile your interpretation with the quotation [1]?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Sure. Thank you for a good question. I will first quote another comment that one of the participants in this blog’s conversation already made (you can see her full comment above). Michelle wrote: “I can see translators (transcribers?) adding in the phrase about the angel stirring the waters, simply because they, too, supposed the pool was a Jewish pool and not something else.”

      In opposition to the popular belief copyists of sacred literature did edit their copied texts more liberally that our theological comfort zone allows. This was probably one of these cases. There was a steering of the water mentioned in the text itself. It is likely that it was “obvious” to the pious Christian scribe that a water must have been steered by an angelic visitation. Few scribes may have even discussed this and came to this conclusion together. But unlike the author of John there were not familiar with the structure of the pool of Bethesda. They could not have known that most-likely the water from the high reservoir was let into the lower thereby creating a steering in the pool and that piece of Aclepeus’ cult would be found there centuries later. (Perhaps, there is another explanation of all of this, but this is what comes to mind as highly likely scenario.)

  10. RamonAntonio

    The recent Catholic Bible of Navarra, by the Opus Dei scholars, states in detail that some Vulgate manuscripts include the narrative of the angel stirring the water as cause of the healings but notes that the Neo Vulgate translation omits the narrative in the text and makes reference to it as a note.

    Their explanation is very illuminating. The narrative of the angel does not appear in some very important Greek manuscripts and codices nor appears in important ancient documents. Thus, this reinforces the notion that in Greek tradition, there is no reference to the Hebrew angel acting whatsoever in connection with the healing because the Greek tradition ascribed the healings to Asclepius and Greek gods.

    Thus, I tend to concur with the idea that Jesus goes to a perfectly Greek setting where people asked for healing from Greek gods and delivered himself the healing without washing in the pool, as was supposed to be, to “signal” unequivocally that His power came from His God and not from any other god.

    I also concur with the notion that John is a perfectly historic recount of Jesus ministry although it has significant elements of exegesis that almost qualify the Gospel as a complete exegesis on the previous three sinoptic. That’s why it is so different from them for it aims to be what we could construe as a commentary to them.

    Great comment, Dr. Eli.

    Wish you and all a spiritually significant Lent. After all, we Catholics look forth to a new Pope thanks to beloved Benedict XVI’s unexpected “Nite Nite” waltz away…

    RamonAntonio

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Ramon, thank you very much for your thoughtful feedback! Most illuminating.