Grumpy Jesus and a pagan swimming pool

John 5:1-15 tells the story of a paralyzed man healed by Jesus at a pool called Bethesda. It’s one of the most bizarre healing stories in the gospels, for a number of reasons.

First, the setting. The pool of Bethesda was located just north of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. People started coming here about 150 years before Jesus was born, convinced the waters of Bethesda possessed healing properties. The pool still drew a crowd in Jesus’ day:

Here a great number of disabled people used to lie — the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. (John 15:4)

What’s unusual about this miracle is that Bethesda was a place of healing. Most of Jesus’ miracles happen in far more ordinary places: houses, streets, synagogues, hillsides.

So why does Jesus come to a place of healing to do some healing of his own?

Second, the method of healing. Jesus doesn’t touch the man. He doesn’t use any water from the pool. Under most other circumstances, either would have been perfectly normal for Jesus. There are 16 other healing miracles in the gospels (not counting demon possessions); Jesus touches the person being healed in 12 of them. Twice he uses his own spit, and once he uses mud from the ground. So why does Jesus heal the man at Bethesda with nothing more than a word?

Third, the paralyzed man’s attitude. He doesn’t show any sign of faith in Jesus. He doesn’t seem to know who Jesus is.

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.” (John 15:6-7)

Later, John confirms for us that the man had “no idea” who Jesus was (John 15:13). It’s almost as if the paralyzed man can’t take his eyes off the pool long enough to have a proper conversation with Jesus.

Jesus often credits a person’s faith as having some part in their healing (Matthew 9:18-22, 27-30). There was even a place where Jesus was unable to do many miracles because of people’s lack of faith (Matthew 13:58).

So why is the paralyzed man’s faith — or lack of it — apparently not an issue at Bethesda?

Fourth, Jesus’ reaction following the miracle. After the man complains that he is unable to get into the pool, Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk. He does. A while later, Jesus bumps into him at the temple, and Jesus’ reaction is, well, weird:

“See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” (John 5:14)

Not exactly the usual uplifting words of blessing that follow one of Jesus’ miracles (see Matthew 9:22; Luke 17:19). So which of the disciples spit in Jesus’ breakfast that morning? What made him so cranky?

Just a few chapters later, Jesus rejects the idea that suffering is necessarily a sign of God’s displeasure (John 9:3). So why does he tell this guy, in effect, “Get your act together, or else you’re going to get it”?

Maybe there’s more to the pool of Bethesda than we realize.

Archaeologists from Yale Divinity School have excavated the site. Here’s what they discovered:

Between 150 BCE and 70 CE, a popular healing center was located in this area… The baths, grottos and a water cistern were arranged for medicinal and religious purposes. After bathing, patients could sleep in a grotto. “Priests” were available to interpret dreams as part of the healing ritual.

This description precisely matches the ritual of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing.

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Snake symbols on a column in the temple to Asclepius near Pergamum

The pool of Bethesda was a shrine to Asclepius. A couple centuries after Jesus, the Romans replaced the bath and grottos with a full-fledged temple to Asclepius.

Kind of adds a whole new dimension to the story in John 5, doesn’t it?

You can almost understand why some later manuscripts sanitized the story by adding the line, “From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters.” (Which was almost certainly not a part of John’s original manuscript.)

The pool of Bethesda was not some innocent place where the mildly (but forgivably) superstitious sought relief from their ailments. Bethesda was a place of pagan worship — sitting in the shadow of the Jewish temple.

But why would Jesus go to a place like this? Why would he risk his reputation and his religious purity?

It’s almost as if Jesus is seeking a confrontation — as if he goes to the pool of Bethesda to challenge Asclepius’ claim to the title of “great physician.” Jesus does not use water from the pool to induce healing. He does not even touch the paralyzed man, leaving no doubt that his power comes from God Almighty, not Asclepius.

The man Jesus healed may have been a syncretistic Jew — someone who spent their Fridays at Bethesda and their Saturdays at the temple. He doesn’t indicate any faith in Jesus because his faith is in Asclepius. That’s why he’s come to the pool in the first place.

Which also explains Jesus’ seemingly harsh rebuke near the end of the story. The man was sinning; he had broken the first commandment, forsaking God and putting his trust in Asclepius instead. Maybe Jesus is telling the man, in effect, “Stop trying to have it both ways; it’s time to decide who you stand with.”

But I think there’s one more thing to this story. Notice something else about the man Jesus chose to heal.

He’s the one who kept being getting left behind. The one who was always cut off by someone else on their way to the pool. The one who was consistently overlooked and ignored by Asclepius.

Sometimes Jesus healed simply because he saw needy people and had compassion on them (Matthew 14:14). Jesus healed the ones no one else would. His earliest followers accepted those who were rejected by the other gods.

Asclepius won’t heal you? No problem. Jesus will. Apollo won’t give you a word of wisdom because you can’t pay his fee? No worries. Jesus has the very words of life, free of charge. Mithra won’t accept you because you’re a woman, a slave, or some other “undesirable”? No problem. Jesus is building a kingdom where the last come first.

It reminds me of something a professor in college once said.

Jesus is for misfits.

11 thoughts on “Grumpy Jesus and a pagan swimming pool

  1. Once again, your writing is with such clarity. It’s a joy to read. Thanks for the great care you take in summarizing and declaring your thoughts.

    It is an amazing healing event. And your insight makes me think its place in Scripture is to remind us that Jesus does not work from a formula. This is often the manner in which I’d like him to work. But He works and He heals out of grace and out of who He simply is (which affords me to have faith).

    How exciting to discover the cultural environment in which this healing at Bethesda occurred. All the more to testify of God’s great unconditional love for man. That he went somewhere unexpected and healed someone who did not know Him and who was really looking to someone else for healing and possibly bothered at having been passed over.

    He doesn’t heal based upon someone’s stature, faith, or effort, but by His power and His authority. But, when we encounter Him, our life is to be different–improved. Definitely.

    Thanks for the encouragement and teaching.

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  2. Jesus is for misfits.

    That is beautiful. I am thankful he is for misfits, because we are all misfits on one level or another.

    Great post! I love when you dig into the Bible like this and pass along your learnings.

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  3. Pingback: The Easter Story | Scrutable Scriptures

  4. “No problem—Jesus will. Apollo won’t give you a word of wisdom because you can’t pay his fee? No worries—Jesus has the very words of life, free of charge. Mithra won’t accept you because you’re a woman, a slave, or some other “undesirable”? No problem—Jesus is building a kingdom where the last come first.”

    The problem, of course, is that these claims are manifestly untrue — at least if it is meant that Jesus accomplishes these things to a greater degree. It is quite foolish to believe this and is an anti-apology.

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    • I’m afraid you missed the point. It’s not a matter of Jesus doing the same things as other first-century objects of worship, only slightly better. My point was that Jesus took on counterfeit gods like Asclepius and did for real what they could only pretend to do. Jesus also demonstrated his superiority (in my opinion) by reaching out to those who were excluded and marginalized by other religions.

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      • I was going to leave a comment, but I rather reply to your comment. You hit the nail right on the head. Jesus always went to those who needed him. He wasn’t like the Pharisees because he cared about the people. He always did his father’s will and therefore, he went to those who needed help. Mark 2:17 says, “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” He cared about what God, the father sent him to do and not what people may think of him. Kudos to you Ben! God bless!!

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  5. Pingback: Everyone else is doing a top 10 list, so… « Ben Irwin's blog

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