The Pool of Bethesda as Greek Asclepion

In Jewish Jesus by Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

 Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. 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.

 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 recent discovery of the pool with five-roofed colonnades near the Sheep Gate (everyone was looking for a pentagon shaped pool at first), many did not consider the Gospel of John to be historically reliable. It 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 was wholly unfamiliar with Jerusalem’s geography and topography). However, both pools mentioned in the Gospel of John have now been identified – the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) and the Pool of Siloam. (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, just as the Gospel describes.

It is possible, though unlikely, that the pool of Bethesda was a ceremonial water cleansing facility, a mikvah, associated with the Jerusalem Temple. But today’s archeological discovery shows, if indeed it was separate at all, it was adjacent to the Jerusalem Asclepion. Archeologists date the recently discovered Asclepion to several centuries after Jesus, but it is built upon the foundation of an earlier Asclepion.

There are many good reasons to believe that this structure was situated within walking distance of the walls of the city of Jerusalem and that it was part of a healing center dedicated to the Greco-Roman god of well-being and health – Asclepius. Devotion to Asclepius was widespread throughout the lands dominated by the Roman Empire. There were more than 400 Asclepions (Asclepius-related facilities) throughout empire, functioning as healing centers and dispensers of the god’s grace and mercy towards those in need. The god’s mythical daughters, for example, 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 were a key characteristic of Asclepius’s cult of health and healing. Even today, one of the key symbols of modern medicine is a pole with a snake around it.

Now stop and think for a moment. 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. Before you begin to think that the above reconstruction is far-fetched, please consider the following:

The second century Christian apologist Justin Martyr mentions a popular obsession with Asclepius among his contemporaries, saying: “When the Devil brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ?” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, the Jew, 69) And in a statement attributed to the second century Jewish sage, Rabbi Akiva, we read: “Once Akiva was asked to explain why persons afflicted with disease sometimes returned cured from a pilgrimage to the shrine of an idol, though it was surely powerless.” (Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 55a)

The Pool of Bethesda/Asclepion was probably part of the Hellenization of Jerusalem, along with several other important projects such as a Roman theater and a Roman bathhouse. It is probably referring to such Hellenization of Jerusalem that Qumranite devotees, authoring their commentary on the Prophet Nahum, wrote:

Where is the lion’s den, the cave of the young lions? (Nah. 2:12b) The interpretation of this concerns Jerusalem, which had become a dwelling for the wicked ones of the Gentiles… (4QpNah)

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. 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 (of Bethesda), while in the story of the healing of the blind man, he did issue a direct command to go and wash at the pool of Siloam. (Jn. 9:6-7) It therefore appears that, while the pool of Bethesda was a pagan place (an Asclepion), the pool of Siloam was indeed connected with the Jerusalem Temple. Of course, Jerusalem was the center for the Ioudaioi in Jesus’ days, but it was also the center for Hellenized ideals in Judea and was under strict Roman control.

[… waiting for the moving of the waters; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.]

 While some modern Bibles still include the above text in brackets (3b-4), it is not contained in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts available to us today and therefore should not be treated as authentic. It seems that the Christian copyist, unfamiliar with cult of Asclepius and the Pool of Bethesda’s affiliation with it, added the explanation about the Angel of the Lord stirring up the waters, in an attempt to clarify things for his readers. In reality, he ended up sending all the following generations of readers in the wrong interpretive direction, missing the whole point of the story.

Contrary to popular opinion, ancient scribes were not always accurate in preserving every jot and tittle of the text they were copying. They did not embellish things, but certainly were not afraid to “clarify issues” when they thought something was missing. Hence, the new character in this story, the angel of Israel’s God, was added by a well-meaning, but misguided copyist. The copyist, unlike the author of John’s Gospel, was not aware of the Greek religious identity of Bethesda.  It sounded to him, from the text he had before him and without any evidence of the contemporary culture, like the “house of mercy” of the God of Israel. He was simply mistaken.

One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When 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?” The 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.”Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.

 Two types of people were often seen on the porches of the pool of Bethesda – those who came to try their luck as part of the quest for healing on the way, as it were, to another promising healing solution; and those who had already 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) The stirring up of the water was likely happening when the priests of the Asclepius cult opened the connecting pipes between the higher and the lower portions of the pool. The water in the upper reservoir would then flow into the lower portion of the pool.

As the Gospel tells us, the “institutionalized” man had been for a long time in the context of a deeply religious, albeit Greek religious, environment. He was a man with a significant personal need and he was without hope. In Greek mythology, Asclepius was known, not only for his healing and life-giving powers, but also for an attitude of benevolence to the people. This made him one of the most popular divinities in the Greco-Roman world. Later in the story, in Israel’s Temple, Jesus would meet the man he had healed, and would warn him not to continue his life of sin. This fits well with the idea that the Pool of Bethesda was an Asclepion.

This is a powerful story. Sickness – the symbol of human chaos – was called into order by the power of Jesus’ word; in the same way that pre-creation chaos was once called into the order of creation by Israel’s Heavenly King. Now, the royal Son of Israel’s God (Jesus) came into the pagan abode (Asclepion) and healed a Judean man without any magical formulas and spells. Jesus did so simply by telling the man to get up and walk. In other words, Jesus healed the man in the same way Israel’s God once created the world – simply by the power of His spoken word.

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