The Pool of Bethesda is just north of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In his Gospel account, John describes Jesus going to such a pool, surrounded by five covered colonnades.
Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. (John 5:1-3)
Before we jump into the Gospel story, here’s the cultural context of the Pool of Bethesda. The Greeks had created a cult around Asklepius, the pagan god of healing. During the Hellenistic period, the Greeks built “Asklepions” – or ancient healing centers, all across the Greek Empire. The ill and disabled would congregate at these regional healing centers. They would drink and bathe in the waters of the Asklepion and then sleep within the temple’s walls. They slept on mats laid out in a section of the inner sanctum of the temple called the “abaton.” The abaton was supposed to be the place of divine dreams, where Asklepius or his serpents might appear to give the sick clues about their healing.
In simple terms, the Greeks attributed the healing powers of natural springs to spirits. This belief made its way into the cult of Asklepius. His temples were typically built near sacred springs with shallow pools and baths. Participants would wait by the water, praying, fasting, chanting, etc., until Asklepius or his helpful “serpent spirits” churned the water. This was the best time for a healing miracle – when bubbles or ripples made their way from the spring to the pool.
The association between divine healing and sacred water activity was a mainstay at every Asklepion. It was a cultural staple throughout the Hellenized world. Now, with that as background, let’s return to the Pool of Bethesda:
One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”
Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. (John 5:5-9)
So, in context, this wasn’t just another miraculous healing. Jesus had walked into another pagan territory and confronted a longstanding cultural myth. He wanted his Hellenized Jewish audience to gain a new understanding. As in his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus was making the claim that he was the true source of healing – He was the source of “living water.”
Interestingly, until the 19th century, there was really no archaeological evidence for the Pool of Bethesda, so skeptics used this as a proof that John’s account was written by some later zealot who didn’t have eyewitness knowledge of Jerusalem or an actual pool called Bethesda.
Today, most scholars believe that this is the location for the Pool of Bethesda from the Gospel accounts. These same colonnades were visible to John at the time of Jesus. This same five-portico design was described by him is Chapter 5 of his Gospel