The Pool of Bethesda (“House of Mercy/Loving Kindness”), located in ancient Jerusalem, was the site of a famous healing miracle performed by Jesus during His public ministry (John 5:2-9). The narrative has been analyzed and discussed over the centuries from historical, theological, and textual perspectives. For example, the statement that “there is in Jerusalem” the Pool of Bethesda, in the present tense, has led many scholars to conclude that the Gospel of John could have been written before 70 AD when Jerusalem was destroyed and the pool was no longer in use (Wallace, “John 5:2 and the Date of the Fourth Gospel”). Most translations also render “sheep gate” when there is no word “gate” in the original Greek text of John, while sources from antiquity mention the pool or the sheep pool but not the Sheep Gate near the pool. Although Nehemiah does refer to a Sheep Gate being built in Jerusalem in the 5th century BC, and it may have even been in the area of the Pool of Bethesda, all evidence suggests that John was referring to a pool and not a gate. Eusebius in the 4th century actually mentioned the “sheep pool” not the sheep gate, and identified it as a place with twin pools (Eusebius, Onomasticon). The Bordeaux Pilgrim in the early 4th century AD called them the twin pools but mentioned no gate, while other writings of the 4th and 5th centuries also mention the site of the pool, demonstrating the ruins of the pool were known and visited during the Late Roman and Byzantine periods (Itinerarium Burdigalense; Cyril of Jerusalem; Jerome). Josephus mentions the area of Bethesda, and notes that the neighborhood was north of the Antonia Fortress with a small valley in between, in an area of Jerusalem that became walled at the time of Herod Agrippa around 41-44 AD (Josephus, Wars, 5.146-152). However, the location of the Pool of Bethesda appears to have been lost by the 7th century AD after the Arab conquest, and only rediscovered through archaeological investigation at the end of the 19th century (Masterman, “The Pool of Bethesda,” 95-98). Because the location had been lost for so many centuries, skeptics claimed that this pool and many other places in John were mythical, perhaps used to teach a theological lesson but not historical.
The text of John gives a few details about the pool which are useful in its identification, such as the name, location in Jerusalem, use in the 1st century AD, a relationship with sheep, a distinct architectural design of five porticoes or stoas, use as a pool for bathing or washing, and association with healing (John 5:2-7). Once identified and excavated at the site adjacent to St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem, the ruins of the pool also further demonstrated the historical accuracy of the account in John. Originally, the pool was constructed in the 8th century BC, probably during the reign of Hezekiah, and an upper pool seeming to be in the area of Bethesda is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kings 18:17; Isaiah 36:2). Around 200 BC, during the time of the Seleucid Empire, an extension of the original pool was built to the east, essentially making a pair of twin pools about 13 meters deep, or an upper and lower division of one large pool. The twin pools, or one pool with two sections, were laid out east-west with a north-south dividing wall. These may have been constructed in order to collect water for the washing of the sacrificial sheep, as the Temple was located just to the south of the pool. The association with the washing of the sacrificial sheep could be the origin of the “sheep pools” reference, although there was also a “sheep gate” in Jerusalem during the Persian period, which probably still existed in the Roman period. In the 1st century AD and the time of Jesus, the Pool of Bethesda was a system of two pools, with upper and lower sections. The Copper Scroll found at Qumran, dating to around 25-70 AD, seems to mention the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, calling it Beth Eshdathayin or “House of the Two Pools,” and indicates that people used the smaller section for ritual washing (McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament, 186-187). John refers to the pools of Bethesda and Siloam each as a kolumbethra, or a pool of water that could be used for bathing or washing (Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon, 974). Therefore, it seems to have been used for ritual washing and healing by the 1st century AD, rather than the older function of the washing of the sacrificial sheep. If the pool had formerly been used for washing of the sacrificial sheep, but by the time of Jesus was instead used for ritual washing, then the description in John of upon/on/over the sheep pool is another pool with five porticoes is understandable, as the new ritual washing pool would have been built over the older sheep pool. Archaeological investigation also clarified the odd description in the text of John describing a pool with five porticoes and demonstrated the historical accuracy of the text. Excavations revealed a rectangular shaped pool bounded by porticoes on all four sides, with the fifth portico forming the dividing line between the upper and lower sections of the pool. The 4th century Church leader in Jerusalem, Cyril, must have been aware of the architecture of the pool before a church was built on the site, as he correctly noted the arrangement of the five porticoes to be surrounding the pool on four sides, with the fifth portico forming a division between the upper and lower section.
While debate continues about the authenticity of verses 3b and 4 regarding the previous belief of healing at the pool due to the absence of those verses in several early copies of the Gospel of John, verses 6 and 7 demonstrate that there was some type of healing tradition associated with the pool. Though a few ancient copies of John from the Egyptian text type do omit verses 3b and 4, these verses are found in the vast majority of ancient Greek manuscripts and most of the earliest translations, including texts of 2nd century Church Fathers, suggesting that they were probably present in the original text of the Gospel of John (Hodges, “The Angel at Bethesda—John 5:4”). The section may have been purposely removed due to a perceived but incorrect pagan or heretical inference which is understandable in light of events in 2nd century AD Jerusalem. However, it is clear that memories of the healing miracle at the Pool of Bethesda persisted for decades after Jesus, because during the reign of Hadrian in the early 2nd century AD, the Emperor had a shrine or temple to Asclepius (the Greek god of healing and medicine) built at the southeast side of the pools as part of his campaign to defile or erase sites associated with Jesus and Christianity by building Roman temples on top of them, such as also happened at the location of the Nativity and the Tomb of Jesus. During archaeological excavations, a foot with a dedicatory inscription to Asclepius, as thanks for curing a disease, was discovered at the small temple built over part of the pool and dates to the reign of Hadrian (Masterman, “The Pool of Bethesda,” 98-99). By the time Christianity was legalized by Emperor Constantine in 313 AD with the Edict of Milan, Christians in Jerusalem had continued to pass down the memory of the location. In the 5th century during the time of Bishop Juvenal of Jerusalem, a Byzantine church was built at the pool to commemorate the healing miracle that Jesus performed. This church was also found on the Madaba Map of the middle of the 6th century AD, and the ruins can still be seen today alongside the remains of the Pool of Bethesda.