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. RamonAntonio

    Maybe I can contribute some talking points to this interesting quest.
    First, faith, as a matter of definition , is a very complex issue. IF you are going to address it there are many vantage points to consider such as, on a personal base: personal faith, act of faith, adherence to faith, etc. Then there’s faith on a community base such as a church which is an assembly of the faithful. Here you have to consider a set of common beliefs, shared, structure, accorded principles, etc. Then finally there would the be the realm of religious faith that would correspond to a confessional belief that unites a bundle of the faithful that transcends a church and becomes a people’s faith which may be akin to a bigger church but can be expressed in associations, conventions, national religions, etc. So there’s more to the word than the word itself. And this is only a proposition I suggest.
    Second, faith, as you ask within the JEws is an evolving concept through their story. I would suggest to take a look to some of the initial courses on history available through Dr. Eli’s offerings but also the excellent Ancient Israel book by BAR. A somewhat global look may be this: First there is the faith of a single individual, Abram who abandons his place and his faith in many gods to follow a call from a single God who makes a promise to him. Then Abram’s faith becomes Abraham’s fulfilment of the promise through his son born almost as an act of God for their age. Abraham’s faith becomes then the faith in the promise through Isaac’s sustenance which then becomes faith in the God of Israel who is the one who struggles with Jacob, renames him as Israel and blesses him. The people who maintain that faith are the people who travel to Egipt and are miraculously sustained by the God of Israel protection of Joseph and it is through that faith that they sustain slavery under Egipt. Then comes the faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel who reveals Himself to Moses and delivers the people from Egypt and slavery to a promised land that originally was promised to Abraham. Then the faith becomes an adherence to the Law that Yahweh gave to Moses for His people. Then comes Jesus who claims that HE Himself is Yahweh, the Son of God and faith is to be in Him directly as Son of God. THis last faith is the one JEsus found in the centurion for he didn’t had faith in the Law, nor in Yahwe but in Him, Jesus as the Son of God. That’s why the centurion confesses (and this is critical) his faith in JEsus who can by a single order heal his servant (son?) without needing to enter the house of an impure assassin, which he was for that was a requirement of his position. He knew that to ask Jesus to enter his house would be an offense to his position as Jewish rabbi but he also knew and confessed publicly that this man Jesus had the power to heal by command such as he had the power to kill by command.
    And that is the ultimate faith, a football pass from one end of the field to the other that achieved the ultimate touchdown in history by being received by Jesus Himself in the line.

    1. Alessandro Almeida

      Thank you. Pass The football was a good illustration … After all, we should cast our trust in the one who is able to give us the victory, even if it seems the end of the game!

  2. Alessandro Almeida

    I have a curiosity, and I wonder if you can me help …
    I need to know about the Jew understands the FAITH. Not faith as religious conviction based on those 13 principles of faith Jewish (Maimonides), but faith which produces the expectation of something desired for the person, such as healing, prosperity, the recovery of relative and etc … For example: The faith of a person who seeks a cure for a disease and that by this faith Adonay attends. How the Jew sees this?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Alessandro, shalom. Thank you for your question. Perhaps, this question should will take few times to clarify. You see there is no “Jewish way” to understand :-). There are many ways to understand it. Your question as it is stated know could be asked of a Christian or about a Christian and the same answer would be given: There is no Christian way, their are many Christian faith responses to this. Let’s keep on thinking.

      I hope you are not offending by me saying that your question is a wrong one :-), a lot of times asking right questions is half of the right answer. Framing a question incorrectly, will often lead to fruitless conversations. Perhaps, you can clarify or give me context in which and why is it that you are asking this question. Blessings, Dr. Eli

      1. Alessandro Almeida

        Dr. Eli, thank you for the honest answer, maybe I really was not my goal in question. A situation that may well illustrate my question is the case of the centurion who wanted his servant stay healed as reports Matthew 8:5-10. In the end Jesus says: “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” It is this faith that I speak. Faith in Hebrews 11:1 that talks about a faith in what is expected of God at a time of your life.
        The reason for my question is well seimples, is part of a series of studies I’m doing on faith “that moves mountains.” As you can see I’m using google translator. kkkkkkkk

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          OK… I c. Once again it is not possible to say that the Jews back then or even now will have such or such response. Jews were never the same and their never believed the same thing about anything :-). Let’s keep on thinking together. Dr. Eli (good translate does get 75% of the message over correctly) 🙂

  3. Michael Strauss

    As one without extensive scholarly background, but as a Bible student for many years, my perception has always been that Jesus chose to heal the paralytic on the Sabbath as a controversial means to draw attention to his professed connection to God; and always giving the Sanhedrin members opportunities to become born again by following him. He did this again when he gave sight to the blind man later in John on the Sabbath also. These healings always attest to his powers, which he always states clearly have come from his Father, the God of Israel.

    I am always impressed much more by the spiritual content of the Bible, for a better understanding of our Father, the God of Israel, and his Son’s teachings, who came to us as a Jew, than the other microscopic analyses from the silence.

    Dr. Eli’s work is focused there, and helps me to understand.
    Thanks, Dr. Eli.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, Michael for your encouragement.

  4. […] as the healing sanctuary of Asclepius, the Greek god of Medicine and health (read about it here). This happened during the previous trip of Jesus to Jerusalem. You may recall that the healed man, […]

  5. Aaron

    This brought to mind the plague of serpents that took place during Israel’s desert sojourn, when the pole with the bronze serpent was erected for every snake bite victim to approach and be healed. It makes sense that, later on in the history of the world, a hurting, misled, oppressed, and largely illiterate Hellenized empire would later embrace this same story of hope in their own way. Maybe there was something that felt right about it to a Greek person of that time (like Cornelius for example) – or even an illiterate Jewish person for that matter. It can be hard when you’re doing the everything you know to do and fearing that even what you know to be true and good is far from His ways, but you truly don’t know what else to do. What a long arm He has to reach out to us with. What a knowing eye and a hearing ear.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thanks, Aaron for your comment.

  6. jefferis peterson

    Why would Jesus tell a fellow Jew to ‘take up his cot’ knowing it would get him into trouble with the authorities, and would it be a violation of the Sabbath, not to heal, but to carry something? The man had to be Jewish or the authorities wouldn’t have said anything to Gentile about the Sabbath. I am not convinced however that the pool was dedicated to the Greek gods. Possible, but the Syriac and latter explanatory additions of an angel stirring the water may have had an historical component. However, I’ve been to Pergamum, where “medicine” got started. They way the cult worked however was that physicians would oversee the seekers down a long tunnel filled with incense and speak to them about their being healed. There doesn’t seem to be any of the cultic practice mentioned in the Gospel, just every man for himself when the water bubbles.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      I did not say he was not Jewish. That was the point! He was Jewish, but decided to seek healing in a wrong place.Your first sentence is not clear to me, since Jesus as part of his polemic made it his point to confront and clearly declare his authority. so I am not sure what problem do you see here.

      I am not convinced also, we are dealing with reconstructing history here. It is never 100%. If it is we don’t understand history as a subject :-).

      Please, help me to see how you rule out practice in Hellenized Jerusalem by evidenced by practice of some unclear what Greek cultist practice in Pergamum? (it is a very weak logic at that, since that too is a historical reconstruction, weakened by distance, history and cultural/religious differences!)

      1. jefferis peterson

        I am not ruling it out so much as drawing an inconsistency between Greek cultic practice and an “unsupervised” attraction to a pool in Jerusalem. Normally, a medical center today as it did then would have practitioners facilitating the treatment. Here you have no indication of any attachment to this stirring of the waters to cultic practice or any officials of the treatment center. You would think that if John were writing to the diaspora, who would not know the significance of local geography, and he was making a theological point about Jesus in contrast to the Greek gods, he might have done more to explain the circumstance…?

        1. jefferis peterson

          From the wikipedia:
          In honor of Asclepius, a particular type of non-venomous snake was often used in healing rituals, and these snakes — the Aesculapian Snakes — slithered around freely on the floor in dormitories where the sick and injured slept. These snakes were introduced at the founding of each new temple of Asclepius throughout the classical world. From about 300 BC onwards, the cult of Asclepius grew very popular and pilgrims flocked to his healing temples (Asclepieia) to be cured of their ills. Ritual purification would be followed by offerings or sacrifices to the god (according to means), and the supplicant would then spend the night in the holiest part of the sanctuary – the abaton (or adyton). Any dreams or visions would be reported to a priest who would prescribe the appropriate therapy by a process of interpretation.[19] Some healing temples also used sacred dogs to lick the wounds of sick petitioners.[20]

        2. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          I do not think that he was writing to the diaspora. You must read my intro before we progress with our friendly debates any further. Go to the main page and read all the intro. Read what I am saying carefully.

          By the way no mention of supervised activities, does not preclude it. Yours is an argument out of silence.

          1. jefferis peterson

            I’m reading it. None of the snakes are dated to the 1st C. in archeology, but to the time of Hadrian which would have been more realistic after the destruction of 70 AD. But that bolsters the idea that it wasn’t part of the cult at the time of Jesus because there are no indications of the Asclepius cult from that era. That would make your argument a conjecture 🙂 but also one from silence 🙂 What I was recounting above is the common practices at the cultic sites, which are not mentioned or noted in the dialog. Also, not sure the Samaritans would have been that familiar with Jerusalem, since it was not their center of worship either… just saying

        3. RamonAntonio

          When we study history and engage in exchanging views, it is crucial that we involve ourselves to the maximum extent possible in the context of the era and prevent ourselves to project present understandings and practices into the past. That is a tendency that pervades all ancient studies for centuries and has been painstakingly signaled, analyzed and surgically removed from history interpretation.
          There were no HIPPA laws in ancient Greece, nor practicing medicine students as we now define, nor “practitioners” whatever that may mean today or 2,000 years ago. Ther was just a crippled guy that nobody cared for and that is indeed Judaism Law at its best in that era. If no one cared for you of your relatives, you were nonexistent. To that nonexistent crippled no one who wanted to be cured for years but nobody cared Jesus responded to the desire of his heart. And the proof is that Jesus asked him (a non existent crippled) and the non entity acquiesced to Him. That by itself is a miracle.

  7. jefferis peterson

    It seems that the man at the pool, who was one of the only ones who was healed in the Gospels without seeking Jesus, also seems to have “turned him in” to the authorities when asked. He gave no defense of Jesus, contrasted to the blind man in Chp. 9.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Very interesting. If my reconstruction is correct (there is always if in humanities) :-), then what you pointed out would help it a lot actually. Jesus got this Jewish pagan pretty upset with his healing and speech to repent and never come back to worship of Asclepeus. Intriguing.

      1. RamonAntonio

        Very interesting exchange. The carefully worded note by Mr. Peterson is very precisely taken into consideration by Dr. Eli.
        Indeed, the scene is intriguing as Spock (Star Trek) would famously say.
        Someone who is just lying aside the pool of Asclepius longing, by being there for years, to be cured, but abandoned by Israel by the fact that no one cared for getting him into the pool, (probably because he would presumably die drowned and the “helper =good samaritan whanabe, be accused of murder) is attended in his desire by Jesus. This is an important fact. The infirm never rejected the help from Jesus and in fact attested that no one had offered ever to help him to get to the pool to be healed. So this person wanted to be cured. Is that faith?
        He then receives not a launch to the pool but an order to stand up and walk. And he complies. Is that faith?
        And he is instantly cured. Is that faith?
        But then, being cured without being immersed in the water, he is procured by the authorities who accuse him to explain how in… whatever… he got cured in front of everyone and not by immersion in the pool of Asclepius where he had been for years. HE really doesn’t know what to tell but the truth: someone whom he didn’t know ordered him to walk and he did it. Is that turning him in?
        So Dr. Eli is right, this guy was upset:
        1. He was noticed by someone among hundreds who had ignored him for years maybe decades.
        2. That someone asked if he wanted to be cured after years of no one speaking to him and procuring his wishes
        3. That someone whom he didn’t know who was, told him to stand up and walk and he did it probably on autopilot
        4. He was healed instantly
        5. the same person who cured him encounters him in the Temple and instructs him not to sin anymore so no mayor harm will occur to him again, clearly indicating that HE knew the cause of his ailment, probably a sin of the flesh (do you really need more details?)
        6. And now he is accused of improper healing.

        Indeed this guy is upset. He may end up transgressing the Law for being cured in the wrong way in the wrong place, by the wrong person, at the wrong time, in front of everybody and by someone who he didn’t know who knew the cause of his illness and even knowing that cured him.

        This single miracle is a pretty summary of all the Gospels.

  8. […] has long been thought that John was either inaccurate or unconcerned about issues of chronology, geography and details in general; but was rather concerned with the larger theological view of Christ-related events. Since we have […]

  9. James DeFrancisco, PhD

    This is a very interesting discussion. Some texts (including Syriac Peshitta) have in verse 4 “an angel went down from time to time and moved the water” but this is missing from many Greek texts. The word angel (Ara. – Malacha – “messenger”) has a range of meanings that can denote anything that provides a message. The water stirring can be a message denoting healing power (as in a whirlpool bath or mineral spring). As has already been stated, healing was represented by the Greeks through Asclepius, the god of medicine and his mythical daughters, the goddesses Hygeia and Panacea. These symbols have lasted for thousands of years and are still represented within the vocabulary used health and medicine today. The Greeks used hydrotherapy in their healing practices which can be traced back to Hippocrates. Putting the above ideas together and you have a combination of physical medicine, superstition, and religious faith.

    It is also interesting that people in Jerusalem were congregating around this healing place, Bethesda (Hbr. and Ara. – House of Mercy)on the Sabbath and that Jesus healed the man without the use of the water. Religious Jews would be unlikely to seek physical healing on the Sabbath which would also lend credibility to this place being Greek. Although Jesus did not break the Sabbath, his association with this healing on the Sabbath resulted in accusations by the Judeans.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Dr. DeFrancisco, thank you for your input here. Syriac/Aramaic Peshitta is an important textual witness and must be taken into account here as well.