The Pool of Bethesda is mentioned in the fifth chapter of the gospel of John as being located in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate. John stated that it had five roofed colonnades where multitudes of invalids waited to be able to get into the pool to be healed. Jesus stops at the site and has a conversation with a man who had been sick for 38 years and had not been able to make it into the pool. The tradition tells that an angel would stir the waters and the first person to get in would be the one to be healed. When I read this account, I wondered if this healing pool was a Christian tradition or a pagan one.
According to http://www.wikipedia.com, the name of the pool is said to be derived from the Hebrew language and/or Aramaic language, beth hesda (בית חסד/חסדא), meaning either house of mercy or house of grace. In both Hebrew and Aramaic the word could also mean ‘shame, disgrace’. This dual meaning may have been thought appropriate since the location was seen as a place of disgrace due to the presence of invalids, and a place of grace, due to the granting of healing. This was a natural spring of thermal waters that were believed to have healing powers. Were the healing powers from the Jewish God or were they associated with the Greek influence of the time?
In his article, Who will heal You? A Greek or a Jewish god? (John 5.2-5), Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, states that some archaeologists who worked with this discovery for many years, found and excavated several snake figures at that pool; indicating that the area may have housed a Jerusalem branch of Asclepius cult. Asclepius was the god of medicine and healing in ancient Greek religion. 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 of course were a key attribute of Asclepius’s cult of health and healing. Up until today one of the key symbols of modern medicine is a stick with a snake around it.
I found Kenneth Humphreys’ website www.jesusneverexisted.com very informative when researching this topic. In his article, A Healing at Bethesda? Pagan sanctuary gets a Christian makeover!, states that amusingly, the “stirred waters” bit troubled some early Christians (a natural manifestation of the water flow but seemingly the action of non-Christian spirits). So some copies of John’s gospel added in an acceptable explanation: the water was stirred by an angel of the Lord! Healing was the prize of a cruel race:
“For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.” – John 5.4.
But if there was already Christian magic at work, what need was there for Jesus to intervene? So later versions of John removed the angel! He later states that the priestly purpose of the “healing miracle” of Bethesda was to have Jesus neutralise the ancient magic of Asclepius. I surprisingly agree with Humphreys in this; even though, he is a man who believes that Jesus never existed. It seemed that Jesus stepped in to make his mark in this pagan practice to show his power to heal this man.
I have come to the conclusion that the Pool of Bethesda was a type of shrine for the Greek god Asclepius, the god of healing, where people believed in the healing powers to make them well. This site was not a Christian tradition, but a pagan one. Jesus definitely interferes in this pagan practice. Jesus shows that he is able to instantly heal a man who does not know who he is; therefore, has no faith in him to heal. Not just that, but, he heals a man who has not been able to experience the healing powers of Asclepius. Perhaps in this account John is telling the reader that the power of Jesus is greater than the power of Asclepius. This story is a demonstration of power by two opposing forces.