(This article takes 4 minutes to read). 

“Sometime 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” (John 5:1-4).

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 chapter five 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.

There are several good reasons to think that this structure (situated right outside of the old city but within walking distance from the Jerusalem Temple) was part of an Asclepion – 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 throughout empire functioning as healing centers and dispensers of the god’s grace and mercy towards those in need. 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 were a key component of Asclepius’s cult of health and healing. Even today, one of the key symbols of modern medicine is a pole with a snake wrapped around it.

Bethesda as Asclepion

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)  Likewise, 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 in Jerusalem branch) was probably part of the Hellenization of Jerusalem, along with several other important projects which included a Roman theater and a Roman bathhouse. It is probably in reference to such Hellenization of Jerusalem that Qumranite Jewish devotees (Essenes were the main opponents of the Pharisees), in their commentary on the Prophet Nahum, wrote: “Jerusalem… had become a dwelling for the wicked ones of the Gentiles…” (4QpNah)

In that case, the pool of Bethesda (“house of mercy” in Hebrew) may not have been a Jewish site at all, but may rather have been a Greek Asclepion-affiliated facility. It is very important to notice that in the healing recorded in chapter five of John’s Gospel, 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 in chapter nine, 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.

But what about the part of the text (included in some manuscripts) that mentions an angel of the Lord stirring the waters?

[… 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.]

It seems that some Christian copyist, unfamiliar with the cult of Asclepius and the Pool of Bethesda’s affiliation with it, added the explanation about an angel of the Lord stirring up the waters in an attempt to clarify things for his readers. All of our earliest manuscripts omit this verse. While trying to help his readers, the scribe, unfortunately, sent all subsequent generations of readers in the wrong interpretive direction, missing the whole point of the story. The stirring up of the water was part of a ceremony when the priests of the Asclepius temple opened the connecting pipes between the higher and the lower portions of the pool. Because one set of pipes was higher than the other, this caused a “stirring” of the water in the pool. The water in the upper reservoir would flow into the lower portion of the pool, but a 4-5 century Christian scribe would not know that. This is an excellent illustration of the importance of recapturing a first-century, Jewish perspective on the Scriptures, but truth be told this is just a tip of the iceberg.

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154 COMMENTS

  1. Your history and context has helped me to see vs 5:14 (so nothing worse may happen) as positive for the first time ever! This is a big deal to me because my negative interpretation was the result of replacement theology. Basically, I saw the Power (take your bed and walk), but didn’t understand what “My Father is working until now, and I am working” meant. I now think John 10:29 is a picture of the Father giving the man to Jesus. My confidence of how great the love of Christ is in this story has been restored. .
    • I am a Jew (and a follower and worshiper of Jesus), but one does not have to be a Jew to have a good grip on Jewish history, just like being a Jew does not guarantee that one does :-).

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  2. Thanks very much ! Your knowledge helps me often to understand the bible better. I wonder the translation of the word Bethesda; I heard that it also can be "House of shame" Is that correct? If it was an Aclepius-temple I could understand!
  3. Just thinking.This is not the first time that the symbol of the snake was used. The Lord used a bronze snake to heal people at Mount Sinai. When the people became disobedient, snakes came out and bit them. The Lord told Moses to make a bronze snake and mount it on a pole. Those that look upon the bronze snake would be heal and they were. There is more to the story, I am trying to keep this brief. it is interesting how this symbol has travel so far and for so long. Again, just think.

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    • The first mention of snakes and trees was in the Tree in the Garden of Eden. I have heard stories of it being a 7 headed serpent. A counterfeit of the Tree of Life which I believe is the Menorah. Do you have any teachings on the 2 trees in the midst of the garden? Thank you

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    • Interesting study.Anyone in the Ambulance service will know that the snake is their emblem & yet if we are following Yeshua you wouldn't want a snake anywhere near you.I know I wouldn't.
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