Doing Good Can Get You in Trouble!—John 5:1-18

Studies in John’s Gospel—Bible study lesson 11 

by Reta Halteman Finger

Excavation of the Pool of Bethesda
Archeologists had to dig deep to find the remains of the Pool of Bethesda. Present day Jerusalem sits atop many layers of destruction and rebuilding. Photo by Reta Finger.

Although the circumstances are very different, lessons 10 and 11 both recount miraculous healings: an acutely ill child from miles away (4:46-54), and now a chronically crippled man by a pool. I think about these stories in light of our current political struggle over affordable health care insurance and the fact that around 50,000 people in America die each year because they don’t have it.

But health care in the Mediterranean world of the first century was often worse than no care at all (i.e., Mark 5:25-26). Parents had to have five children if they hoped for two to survive. Life expectancy for those who made it past age ten was around the late 40s for men and lower for women because of the risks of childbirth. In this time of growing urbanization, plagues would sweep across a city, killing thousands.  Fearing contamination, people would throw sick family members out of their homes to die in the streets. Since 90 percent of the population lived at or below subsistence, the disabled who could not work to earn a living ended up as homeless beggars. No wonder rare persons with a reputation for healing were sought after.

A pool with a purpose

Can readers rise to the challenge of interpretation? I will provide background information for this story of a pool-side healing and then raise relevant or provocative questions for you to explore.

The previous episode took place in Galilee, but once again Jesus is in Jerusalem (5:1), so there are literary reasons rather than chronology that place these two healings together. We derive Jesus’ three-year ministry from John, since the Synoptics collapse it into only one year. But we don’t know which festival Jesus was attending.

A textual issue
Both the NRSV and the NIV omit 5:3b-4 [mouse over asterisk in Scripture text] because it is missing from all early Greek manuscripts. It was probably added later to explain verse 7.

Metaphor or historical reality?
For centuries, no one knew if the Pool of Bethesda (or its alternate name Bethzatha, meaning “house of mercy”) existed. Scholars thought the author knew little of the topography of Judea and Jerusalem, so the pool’s name and its five porticos (5:2) were thought to be symbolic. The name meant that Jesus showed mercy to the crippled man, and the porticos represented the five books of Moses which were ineffective for healing. However, archeological excavations begun in the late 1800s and continued in stages to the 1950s proved otherwise. The pool with its five colonnades was exactly where the author said it was, near the Sheep Gate at the northeast corner of the city wall (see Nehemiah 3:1, 32; 12:39). This discovery showed the author’s intimate acquaintance with Jerusalem. This influenced interpretation of the entire Gospel as being far more historically accurate than was earlier believed.

Model of Bethesda Pools
This model of the Bethesda pools with their five colonnades is in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Image from Wikipedia.

A pool that heals?

Scholars differ on how the pool was used, but its reputation of having intermittent healing properties when the water bubbled up suggests it may well have been used by Romans and Jews alike as an Asclepion. The son of the Greek god Apollo was Asclepius, worshiped as a healer and “savior.” His cult developed healing complexes in many cities of the Empire, such as Corinth and Pergamum. Here in the heart of the Holy City came the desperate sick. Whether through Yahweh or Asclepius, all they wanted was health and wholeness.

Restrictions in Jewish law

Ironically, blind, lame, and paralyzed invalids (5:3) could enter the pagan pool but not the Jewish temple on the hill above. Mosaic law prohibited using lame animals for sacrifice and forbade any priest with a blemish to serve in the sanctuary (Leviticus 21:16-24; Deuteronomy 15:21). This laid the foundation for stereotyping all disabled Israelites as pathetic “dead dogs” (2 Samuel 9:8) and preventing them from entering the temple precincts (i.e., Acts 3:2).

Jewish law also forbade people from carrying things from one place to another on the Sabbath. The Mishnah, a second-century collection of rabbinic oral traditions expressly forbids carrying empty beds.

Questions for discussion and reflection:

  1. Compare the healing stories of 4:46-54 and 5:1-18. How do they differ in theme and purpose, or in regards to the personality and behavior of each main character? Why not call the healing at the pool Jesus’ third sign? (see 4:54).
  2. How would you describe the speech and actions of the crippled man in verses 7, 9, 11, 13-15? Do you like him? Why or why not?
  3. In verse 14, why was the man in the temple? Why did Jesus seek him out? What did he mean by saying, “Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you”? Is Jesus suggesting illness is caused by sin?
  4. In this society, people who could prove they had healed someone received great honor. But here Jesus’ success only brought him public shame. What is the point of this story?   How might it continue the theme of breaking laws of ritual purity for the sake of human need?
  5. Evaluate Jesus’ final zinger in 5:17. What did he mean?
  6. Could Jesus have healed all the sick at the pool? Why didn’t he? Does the Spirit of Jesus heal miraculously today?
  7. Have you ever gotten into trouble for doing something good?

A side note

Is this Gospel anti-semitic because “the Jews” are Jesus’ constant opponents? No. This is an intra-Jewish struggle; Jesus and nearly all characters in the narrative are Jewish. “The Jews” refer only to the temple leaders, Sadducees threatened by Jesus’ power and authority. Judaism was very diverse at this time. Sadducees were the most wealthy, conservative, and politically powerful of the four main parties, which included Pharisees, Essenes, and the freedom fighters, later called Zealots.

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.