Today, we’ll take a look at what happened at the pool of Bethesda. This post is a blast to write, because what happened here happens to be one of my favorite stories in the Bible.
The pool of Bethesda is the setting of one of Jesus’ most interesting miracles, the healing of a paralyzed man in John 5. The pool (it’s dot #2 on this map) is located in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, north of the Temple Mount and St. Anne’s Church, near St. Stephen’s gate and the Sheep Gate. John 5:2 describes the pool as having five covered porches, and its name, Bethesda, means “house of grace.” The pool was part of a reservoir system that included two spring-fed pools that were in active use in the first century BCE and the first century CE. Here you can see a good model of what the reservoirs may have looked like at the time of Christ.
For centuries, there was little archaeological evidence supporting the existence of the pool of Bethesda. Like other sites in Jerusalem, churches were built over the top of the old pools: first a 4th century church (complete with a crypt), then St. Anne’s Church. While St. Anne’s was being repaired in 1888, people discovered the 4th century church in ruins and, below it, the remains of a five-arch portico — complete with faded frescoes of Christ healing the paralyzed man! When I was a kid, one of the many things I wanted to be was an archaeologist. Stories like this one explain why!
There are other claims that the actual pools where the healing in John 5 occurred were smaller bathing pools, not the larger reservoir pools themselves. There are more tenuous — but fascinating — arguments that these bathing pools were pagan pools dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine and healing waters. In Jesus’ time, sick people came to the pools seeking healing, believing that angels would stir up (or “trouble”) the waters. The person who got into these troubled waters first would be healed. If this tradition was connected to Asclepius (who was worshiped as a savior), it creates some riveting new possibilities for interpreting John 5.
If this Asclepius theory is true, could it be that Jesus was making a bigger statement when he healed at the pool of Bethesda? The miracle in John 5 isn’t just any old miracle (even by biblical standards!). The old man had been paralyzed for 38 years — in other words, a truly hopeless case. And he was waiting for healing at a precise location — a place only a stone’s throw from the Temple and possibly connected with a competing god. And Jesus heals the old man at this particular spot on the Sabbath — a day of rest, a day when (according to the Pharisees) healing wasn’t supposed to happen. To sum it up, if any deity was supposed to show up at this particular place and do a miracle, it was Asclepius, not Jehovah.
Might Jesus have been challenging — and beating — Asclepius on his own turf? Reading John 5 this way, it’s almost as if Jesus was saying, “You people here at the pool are waiting for a god who isn’t going to show! I’m here now, today, willing to heal you immediately — and you don’t even have to get in the water!”
I’m no archaeologist. I don’t know if the pool of Bethesda is really connected with Asclepius or not. But just knowing that the Asclepius theory is a possibility adds a whole new dimension to this familiar story in John 5. It also reminds me that Jerusalem was just as religiously diverse in Christ’s time as it is today. And, somehow, I find that comforting. If Jesus could hack it, so can we.