The Pool of Bethesda

An angel used to stir the waters of the Pool of Bethesda. What else do we know about this mysterious pool?

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "Pool of Bethesda". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

While in Jerusalem for a festival, our Master visited the pool of Bethesda which John describes as a pool surrounded by five covered colonnades. The pool sat just off the northeast corner of the Temple Mount.

The pool of Bethesda was near the Sheep Gate, a gate that most reconstructions of Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period place on the north wall of the platform surrounding the Temple Mount. The kings of Judah originally created the Bethesda water reservoir by installing a dam in the eighth century bce. Isaiah probably refers to the same reservoir as the “upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field” (2 Kings 18:17; Isaiah 7:3, 36:2). A second dam in the days of Simon the Righteous (second century bce) created a second reservoir, i.e., a second pool. Until Herod engineered the Pool of Israel during his Temple Mount renovations, the double pools of Bethesda provided the main water supply for the Temple and upper Jerusalem.

An archaeological dig in 1956 revealed the remains of a rectangular pool surrounded by four colonnaded porticoes with a fifth portico dividing the pool into two separate pools. The archaeological remains verified John’s description of the location. Visitors to Jerusalem can now see the remains of the two pools near the Church of Saint Anne. The pools are deep, more than forty feet deep in the northeast corner of the southern pool, but nearby are several small grottos and baths where the invalids apparently used to lie and wait for the waters to be troubled.

Some manuscripts of John contain an extra verse which explains how the pools came to be regarded as a place for miraculous healing: “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” (John 5:4). The earliest manuscripts of John omit this explanation. It may have entered the text from a scribe’s marginal note or explanatory gloss, but it probably reflects a local tradition about the pool. The occasional turbulence in the water, caused perhaps by an intermittent spring or some phenomena in the watercourse, was thought to have healing power; and this may well have been attributed in the popular imagination to supernatural powers.

Although the explanation does not appear in all manuscripts, the entire story is inexplicable without it. Rabbinic literature preserve traditions about the healing quality of certain springs and pools, and the biblical text tells the story of Naaman’s healing dip in the Jordan.

The Greek name Bethesda, which appears in different manuscripts with a variety of spellings, transliterates a Hebrew or Aramaic name, but until recently, no one knew the underlying original. It can be difficult to determine the original Hebrew or Aramaic behind a transliteration. Scholars often interpreted Bethesda as a transliteration for Beit-Chasda which roughly translates into English as “House of Mercy.” The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls finally cracked the riddle. One of the scrolls refers to a pool in Jerusalem called Beit Eshdatayin which means “House of Two Springs” or “Two Pools.”

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