Understanding Ancient Copyists Of Scriptures (john 5.6-9)

6When 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?” 7The 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.” 8Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” 9And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

As was discussed in the previous section, the pool of Bethesda was most likely one of the Greek healing sites in Jerusalem and was believed to be under the patronage of the Greek deity Asclepius – the god of health and medicine. (Make sure to read the previous section commentary here.) As we saw from the previous study Bethesda pool was not a water ceremonial pool associated with the Jewish temple as was the pool of Siloam where Jesus commanded people to go and wash themselves after his healings.

The sick who were often seen on the porches of the pool of Bethesda were two types of people. They were those who a) came to try their luck as part of their quest for healing and as one of many options they were exploring, and b) those who had 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)

There is a number of plausible explanations for the stirring up of the waters mentioned in the text. It was likely happening when the attendants, perhaps, even priests of the Asclepius cult, would open the connecting pipe between the higher and lower portions of the pool of Bethesda. The water in the upper reservoir would then flow into the lower one creating the stir. Other natural explanations are also possible: the reservoirs may have been fed by a water spring that at certain point had a stronger current than at other times. Among possible explanations would be one of the hot water springs that are prolific in that area. Romans built their famous bathhouses around such hot water springs.

Verse 7 is the very verse that caused Christian scribes/copyists of the sacred texts to add explanatory words to verse 4, words that were not in original text “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.” Contrary to popular opinion, ancient scribes were not always accurate and careful to preserve every jot and tittle of the text they were copying. They did not embellish things, but they were certainly not afraid to clarify issues, when they thought something was missing. Because of this fact, we must not be afraid to make use of what is called textual and tradition criticism method of Bible Interpretation. If, used properly, it will only sure up our conviction that the texts we are reading and following are indeed trustworthy.

The oldest and most reliable manuscripts of the Gospel of John do not have this verse. This means that this verse was most likely added later as an attempt to clarify the text for the reader. The new character, the angel of Israel’s god, was introduced by a well-meaning, but unfortunately misguided copyist. You see the copyist, unlike the author of John’s Gospel, was not aware of the Greek religious identity of Bethesda. Quite simply, the scribe was mistaken.

However, this must not discourage anyone. Once we get back to the original text, thanks to the science of textual and tradition criticism that is used in most modern versions of the Bible, we are on the right path again.

This is indeed a powerful story. Sickness – the symbol of human chaos, was called into order by the power of Jesus’ word; just like pre-creation chaos was once called into the order of creation by Israel’s Heavenly King in exactly the same way. Now the Royal Son of Israel’s god has come to the pagan abode (Asclepius’ pool) and healed a Jewish man who had lost all hope. (Incidentally, Asclepius himself was a son of another powerful Greek god – an Olympic deity known as Apollo.)

Notice that Jesus healed him simply by telling him to get up and walk! In other words, the Gospel recasts Jesus’ action connecting it to the way Israel’s God once created the world – simply by the power of His spoken word.

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. kat hobaugh

    interesting I see concepts, not words so much when I read. I have wondered if this is why we see words like evil in the OT and sin in the NT that seem to have the same meaning.

  2. Rosy

    As an “unlearned” reader I’m interested in What the Creator is saying to us in our present situation and how our relationship with Him will impact the next generation. The LORD our God in one LORD. He speaks to every generation. What is the universal message to all?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      He reigns.

  3. ruth hirt

    I believe in The wonder-working G_d. Though, should this incident was not chronicled anywhere in the Holy Writ, the divine attempt of a merciful G_d to reach down to mankind for redemptive purposes is all too real, it wholly meets primary need of man.

  4. Nubia Janeth Cepeda

    I consider that the focus of the text is not to measure and compare the power of two gods, is not about who is the best
    The context of this event is the Jewish holiday and Sabbath
    The people who is in Bethesda has a common need : all of them need healing, everyone seems to have hope in that place, maybe by tradition, or because they seeking the answer there.
    But the text show us that Jesus knows his need and have mercy upon him. Is Jesus who come and approaches to him and asking if he wants to be healthy.
    Jesus challenged him in his faith and is healed by the word of God
    Maybe you can see the relation between John 3: 14, 15 and Numbers 21:9
    Jack up the serpent in the wilderness and raise the son of man John 3 is related to the death and resurrection of Jesus which provides the salvation of man.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Nubia, thank you for your comment. Make sure to review interection in the http://iibsblogs.wpengine.com/2013/02/john-5-2-5-who-will-heal-you-a-greek-or-a-jewish-god/ it has a very interesting interection of other commentetors.

  5. Kim Ballard

    Shalom and Todah Dr.Eli, I am so encouraged by your blog. I teach a class called Jewish Connection (Messianic Jews and gentile believers)and have told everyone to visit. I just taught on John 5 as it relates to Purim, which was Sunday the 24th of Feb. as I believe that is the back drop of this exchange any way to the reference of 38yrs. To a Jewish reader the connection would be to the wanderings of Israel in the desert and Joshua (salvation -Yeshua)disobedience(sin), according to vs 14, and redemption. Your thoughts

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Kim, so sorry for delay with responding to you. Please read charefully http://iibsblogs.wpengine.com/2013/01/redating-the-schism-between-the-judeans-and-the-samaritans-alan-d-crown-university-of-sidney/ (if you cannot download the article, let me know, please and I will send it to you via email). Are you connecting 38 years with the 40 years wonderings? If so, then I think you are mistaken. I think 38 it shows how attending Gospel of John is to detail. It was not 35 or 40, but 38. You get this in John a lot, in opposition to synoptics John seems to know a lot more details and tell them too. For example, how Jesus was burried it. You should read http://iibsblogs.wpengine.com/2012/12/dry-bones-and-heavenly-bliss-tombs-post-mortal-existence-and-life-after-death-in-ancient-judaism/

      Now is it possible that in the head of the sick, such a connection of 38 and 40 was brewing? Sure. Hope this helps. All success to you in your Jewish Connection Class!

  6. Ilya Gromov

    Dr. Eli,

    Can you speculate about why this man was waiting for healing from a Greek god at a Greek healing pool instead of seeking healing from his own God at the temple?

    He’s been there a long time with no results but with hope to get in when the water is stirred. Was he there because he lost hope to be healed from Jewish God?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Ilya, thank you for your question. The general idea I think is similar to going to the family doctor with no results for cure, and then going to a specialist doctor. The God of Israel was a god of all and everything, while Asclepeus “specialized” in granting his worshipers health. But as you rightly termed it. It is a speculation. There are so many other things that need to be taken into account here.

  7. Michelle

    Dr. Eli,

    I looked up John 5 on Bible Gateway (www.biblegateway.com) and checked through a lot of the different Bibles to see how this passage was handled. I found the following:

    What I find interesting is that the older versions of the Bible – Darby, Douay-Rheims 1899, Geneva 1599, and the King James – include the end of verse 3 and all of verse 4 with no note saying that some manuscripts do not include this verse. Also interesting is that the Complete Jewish Bible does not include the verse, but the Orthodox Jewish Bible does include it, although in brackets.

    American Standard Version – includes the verse with no note
    Amplified Bible – includes the verse with a note that some manuscripts don’t include it
    Complete Jewish Bible – does not include the verse
    Darby translation – includes the verse with no note
    Douay-Rheims 1899 version – includes the verse with no note
    English Standard version – does not include the verse with a note saying that some manuscripts include the verse
    1599 Geneva Bible – includes the verse with no note
    Holman Christian Standard Bible – includes the verse with a note that some manuscripts do not include it
    King James Version – includes the verse with no note
    Knox Bible – includes the verse with a note
    Mounce Reverse-Interlinear New Testament – does not include the verse
    New American Standard Bible – includes the verse with a note
    New International Version – does not include the verse with a note saying that some manuscripts add it
    New King James Version – includes the verse with a note, and calls Bethesda “Bethzatha” in a separate note
    New Revised Standard Version – does not include the verse with a note
    Orthodox Jewish Bible – includes the verse, but in brackets to indicate it is added text
    Revised Standard Version – does not include the verse with a note
    Wycliffe Bible – includes the verse with no note
    Young’s Literal Translation – includes the verse with no note

    Yes, the list is long, but I didn’t even check all the versions available on Bible Gateway! Yet look at the variance. Wow.

    Thank you for this very interesting discussion. Of course, I still have questions! However, I will table those for now. 🙂

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Older Bible did not use textual criticism. They did not largely differentiated between older and not so old manuscripts. This important studies really developed in the past hundred years or so. At the time of Jesus there were already same problems. For example Qumran collection boasted two versions of Scroll of Isaiah. Scribes did not copy word by word. They did think of themselves as preservers of the Holy Writ, but in a sense that some what differs from how we perception today.

      1. Mª Ruth Gomez

        Just for curiosity I’ve been looking up about this text in several Spanish Bibles: In the Casiodoro de Reina 1862 & Reina Valera 1960 there’s a mention of an angel remouving the wáter; the Comentary of Moody, the Comentary of Thompson, the New Bible Interconfessional 2006 do’nt and even in the Catholic edition 1960 in Catalonian do not coment at all that an angel came down.
        So, Dr Eli, I agree whith you.
        Thanks for your explanations, and …by the way… coud I share a glas of wine whith you and RamonAntonio ?(March 4 2013) but a spanis wine of course !!!
        Out of joke… may the Lord bless you.

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Dear Ruth, thank you for your comments. I am happy to share a good wine with friends like you and Ramon!!!! Ten years from now, we should plan a conference for Jewish Studies for Christians followers, which by then may number in tens of thousands. 🙂 We will toast to this humble beginning so far! 🙂 It took me a while to understand your glass of wine comment, until I reread Ramon’s comment. He is good. Isn’t he. Always very good comments.

    2. RamonAntonio

      One trusted authority in the transmission of old texts is Frederic G Kenyon published in 1898. A lot of others are more recent. However, the old Grand Master inquired very deeply in the transmission of documents and sustains the theory that Jewish copyist were strictly photocopiers we may say because of their training and the process of copying. That is, a variant of the text was indeed very rare. (Our Bible and Ancient manuscripts…) A must read for all of us even if to develop our own rebuke, if we can…

      However,Frank Moore Cross, a towering figure in Jewish biblical studies has made a significant stride in the textual evolution. He has proposed the existence of recessions or “families of textual renditions”. And this aspect is of paramount importance for it posits that variant readings may have been well and alive and coexisting in ancient times and then gradually evolving to the present “textus receptus” which would have been to be understood as the one which we received among the many preexistent. Cross suggestions reveal a very active and almost war scenario of textual variants. Positions, strategies, tactics, etc. would be terms that may apply to the evolution of the text.

      And this scenario is the evolution of the Jewish textual variants. Another wars would be then, the evolution of the translations to other languages which grossly can be traced to the translations to Greek (Septuagint) to Latin (a lot of them and then the Vulgata) to German, to French, to Spanish and to English in an approximate order. Then also we must take into account the most recent textual war, the fracture of Protestantism from Catholicism and the variant readings and composition of the Bible.

      Then here we are accompanying Dr. Eli in his and ours exciting Quixotic Quest from ancient religion texts to the reality of our lives…
      To deal with written texts of originally oral traditions that go almost 4000 years back and have come to almost 2000 years from the closing of the Catholic Christian Bible with John, almost 1300 years from the closing of the Jewish text by the Masorettes, and almost 400 years from the Protestant schism trying to understand what was written, when, by whom, to whom and with what purpose.

      We need the Holy Spirit…
      a lot of prayer…
      a glass of wine… (maybe another)
      or a martini…
      well… you get the idea!
      But the outcome of this quest will surely be the ride of our lives, fuller lives, richer lives… for such is the life in Jesus Christ! The complete and total life…

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        You know that I looooooooooooooooooooooooooove your comments, Ramon. I would stop at one glass of wine (that is my personal limit). Other then at Purim :-).

  8. Dionisio

    What I had read and understand about copyst of the sacred text is that they were extremely carefull to write the content and the form of the text, keeping the same measurements between lines for example, not copy anything from memory and so on.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      From memory – no. But that all of the scribes were as “careful” on our modern terms of the word as the best of them is probably an overstatement. We literally have 5 times more small, insignificant (not affecting anything important) variants of Bible manuscripts (in OT and NT) available today than the words in the NT as a whole! Good news is most of the variants are just that, but than there others that are more complicated. Watch Daniel Boyarin’s talk Jesus Kept Kosher and what probably happened to Mark 7th turning this verse from pro-Koshrut to anti-koshrut statement. Listen to his arguments and be the judge yourself.

  9. Steven Mayle

    Powerful and honest handling of the Biblical story.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, Steven.

  10. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

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