After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed(waiting for the stirring of the water; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.)
One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 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 making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. [NRSV]
While preparing a sermon on John 5:1-13, I had an “a-ha” moment that connected this story to an ancient pagan “asclepeion” or healing temple. My journey began in the margin notes of an NRSV Bible which said that “some ancient authorities add, wholly, or in part…” the verses you see in parenthesis in the translation above. Applying literary criticism to the text, the story makes more sense with these verses added so I believe they are a part of the original story.
With the magical stirring of the waters in place, I suspected that this site probably began as an ancient pagan holy well or sacred spring upon which a Jewish mikveh (ritual purification bath) was constructed. I did some research and here’s my theory:
Ancient Greeks and Romans constructed “asclepeions,” healing temples that contained ritual baths which were dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek God of medicine. People would flock to these temples for both physical and spiritual healing. Asclepeions were typically built over or near water sources such as underground springs. The cult of Asclepius became very popular from the fifth century BCE onward.
It is possible that Bethesda was the site of an asclepeion. According to Urban C. von Wahlde’s “The Puzzling Pool of Bethesda,” Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2011, “This story about Jesus’ miracle suggests a long history of healing at the site. Roman medicinal baths constructed at the Bethesda Pool only a century or two later reflect this continued tradition. When Christians controlled Jerusalem in the Byzantine and Crusader periods, they liked to mark the sites of Jesus’ miracles and other important events in his life, so they added a chapel and churches that now cover the Bethesda Pool complex.”
So it would appear that the Pool of Bethesda did a magical dance starting as a Pagan holy site that morphed into a Jewish holy site. Then it went back to being a Pagan site after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE until finally, a Christian church was built on top of it during the Byzantine era. There are two ways we can look at this. The first is that it’s a case of one religion trying to suppress another by “conquering” their sacred sites. There is an ugly truth to this practice that can be seen throughout history and it cannot be denied. However, the second way we can look at this is that sites such as the Pool of Bethesda [and the Brigid well in Kildare] were places of spiritual and energetic power from the get go. Pagans recognized this first but then others claimed these sites later and added their own intention and energy to them. One of my favorite places on earth where this is also the case is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, especially the Western Wall. This is also an early Pagan site that was claimed later by Jews and now the Muslims. The energy I felt there is off the charts and I believe this is due to the countless millions of pilgrims who have come to this site to pray and to worship.
The reason why I bring this subject up is that instead of focusing on conquering and suppressing one another’s spiritual paths, perhaps we can learn to appreciate what we have in common. There are some places on our planet we all recognize as “holy” or “spiritual” and can tap into the energy there. Maybe this can be one of the ties that binds us together instead of pulling us apart.
Copyright ©2016 by David Taliesin, http://www.sabbatsandsabbaths.com