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