Healing at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5: 1-15)
The pool of Bethesda is located outside of the wall around the Temple, just beyond the sheep gate. This area was not considered to be part of Jerusalem proper by the Jewish people, but was part of the expansion of Jerusalem by Herod which puts the pool inside the ‘third wall’ of Jerusalem. This is where the Fortress of Antonia, built by the Romans to guard Jerusalem also resides. Both are very close to the Temple, but ‘technically,’ likely so as not to upset the Jewish people, they are ‘outside’ the walls.
Archeological evidence has discovered that the pool has indications that it is not a Jewish place, but a healing temple to the god, Asclepius, whose symbol is a rod with a snake wrapped around it. (The Roman equivalent is Serapis and there is evidence that the pool morphed into a temple to Serapis after the destruction of Jerusalem when the Romans rebuilt the city.
There is also evidence that verses 3-4 that speak about an angel of the Lord stirring the waters of the pool are a scribal addition to explain why the man was there as they are not found in earlier texts. Likely the explanation began as a messenger, or worker of the god stirred the water, which became an angel as the term angel literally means ‘messenger.’
Temples to Asclepius are common during this time as they are places of healing and medicine. They always have pools for emersion. This pool has two levels. It is believed that the priests of Asclepius would open the gates of the upper section to place water into the lower section which would ‘stir’ the water. The fresh water was believed to bring healing.
Further evidence that this pool is not Jewish, but pagan is that the priests do not use it as this time for water. In the past this pool was likely used to wash the sheep before the entered Jerusalem, hence the name ‘sheep gate.’ During Jesus’ time the priests gathered water for the Temple from the Pool of Siloam. This pool is within the older boundaries of Jerusalem, but it is further from the Temple and is downhill, meaning the priests must walk uphill with the water to the Temple. Why would they do this if there was water closer? The Pool of Siloam is also fed by Hezekiah’s underground tunnel system to ensure Jerusalem better withstands a siege- FYI.
The pool also has a Greek name, ‘Bethesda.’ The original Hebrew name is not known, but may be a word that is similar and means ‘house (bet) of mercy.’
Having Jesus heal a Jewish man who is seeking help at a pagan shrine is a perfect example of the shepherd gathering up the lost sheep. Jesus then tells the man to pick up his mat and walk- indicating that he should leave this place. Unfortunately the man runs into the religious leaders of the time who decide not to rejoice over an idolatrous man returning to the Temple, or even to rejoice over his healing, but instead they decide to nit pick over the fact that he is carrying something on the Sabbath. (I wish I could say that we do not behave this way in the church today, but…. ) Jesus then finds the man and warns him not to return to his sin, or worse will happen in his life. The question has always been, ‘What was the man’s sin?’ If the pool at Bethesda was indeed a pagan temple, then his sin is idolatry, and he is not to go back to the pool for help, but to look to Jesus/ God. This would also explain the timing of this statement, as it is after the man speaks to the priests and they give him a less than friendly reception. Jesus is telling the man not to leave God, just because His supposed people are acting like imbeciles at the moment. (So we have two teachings here: Do not nit pick like the Pharisees and run newly saved people out of the church, but also don’t be so thin skinned that you allow the ‘Pharisees’ to turn you away from God- or you will suffer more than before!)
It is recorded in the Talmud that various Jewish rabbis were asked why there were healings occurring at the temples of idols. Rabbi Akiva answers that God sets the time for an illness to be over and sometimes one is at a pagan temple at this time. Rabbi Nehemiah answers that Moses’ rod brought both the plagues in Egypt as well as water from the rock, therefore God sometimes uses the same instrument for both punishment and blessing. My answer is different. I believe that God has mercy on us even when we are in sin, and sometimes gives is blessings, and the desires of our hearts even when we are far from Him and do not deserve it. Jesus follows this example and, like His Father, answers the lame man’s deepest request even when the man is going about requesting it in all the wrong ways. The man is a lost sheep, who is injured and desperately needs the shepherd to bind his wounds before he is able to come home.
(Another fun Jewish story associated with this is about a Rabbi who goes to a Roman bathhouse dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite to bathe. When asked why he does this he refers to the ashes of the red heifer, which make the priest unclean, but cleanses an unclean man. He reminds the people that the statue has no power over him and that the pool existed before the statue. He finishes by stating that the pool is there and I am dirty! -summing up that there is a simple, practical reason for using the pool.)