Archaeology and the Pool of Bethesda

Friday, November 26, 2021 Comments (0)

The Pool of Bethesda: A Tale of Archaeological Wonder


Kevin J.N Hughes 

In New York City’s Central park there is a very famous statue that was sculpted by Emma Stebbins between 1859 and 1864. The statue is called “The Angel of the Waters” (an interesting reference which we will do a future article or show about I am sure) and is a tribute to the healing which Jesus performed at the pool of Bethesda according to John 5:1-15.[1] Until recently, many liberal scholars believed that this story was a fictitious account and that there was no real pool of Bethesda. In fact, for centuries, there were even many conservative protestant scholars who, while believing the story did take place, did not believe that the pool had five porticos, thinking that this was added later as a way to subtly point to the fact that Jesus is fulfilling the five books of the Torah.[2] However, recent archaeological discoveries have yet again vindicated the claims of St. John’s Holy Gospel.[3] The pool of Bethesda has in fact been discovered, and as will be shown, was actually known at least until the 12th century by all, and there is no reason to doubt these findings today.

First, it must be shown that the pool of Bethesda has in fact been discovered. How would one go about finding the pool, and if they found it, how would this vindicate St. John the beloved’s account? Well, the first thing that must be sought after is what a prospective seeker would even need to be looking for. The staff of The Biblical Archaeology Society can help with this task, “When Jesus heals the paralytic in the Gospel of John, the Bethesda Pool is described as having five porticoes—a puzzling feature suggesting an unusual five-sided pool which most scholars dismissed as an unhistorical literary creation. Yet when this site was excavated, it revealed a rectangular pool with two basins separated by a wall—thus a five—sided pool—and each side had a portico.”[4] More on that in a moment. For now, note that the first feature of interest would be a five—sided pool. The fact that such an unlikely design has been discovered is itself a small vindication of John’s gospel. However, Dean Smith helps pinpoint even further the fact that it is in fact the same pool that is under discussion, writing, “However, because the healing by this pool is only mentioned in John’s Gospel, the liberals quickly concluded it was a later addition by someone not familiar with Jerusalem. That theory prevailed until the late 19th century when archaeologists discovered the pool exactly where John said it was—by the sheep’s gate now located in the Muslim-controlled sector of Jerusalem.”[5]

So, what someone would be looking for is a pool with five porticoes, near the Sheep’s gate. Has such a pool in fact been discovered, and can it be shown to be a “pool” in the relevant sense? More specifically, what St. John is describing in his Gospel account seems, at least at face value, to be a Mikveh, which is a specific kind of pool that was for ritual washing. As Urban C. von Wahlde notes, the first thing that liberals did was to point out that the site near the Sheep’s gate now universally discussed as the famed Pool of Bethesda, was actually nothing more than a water reservoir, and therefore could not have been a pool or Mikveh like St. John describes in his Gospel.[6] To dispel these unfaithful “scholars” of their false notions, von Wahlde points out three separate reasons why it is actually quite clear that this site was indeed a site used for Jewish ritual washings. Additionally, the healing properties of the site now have external attestation apart from that of St. John’s Gospel, but more on that momentarily; in the meantime, can scholars be sure that this site was a pool at all? After all, if the liberals could succeed at showing that this was not a pool, then surely, they would have disavowed other scholars of the notion that this could be the specific pool of Bethesda.

The first point employed by Mr. von Wahlde is as follows, “The first clue that what we see today is a mikveh, is that steps in the southern pool extend across its entire width. Such steps allowed large numbers of individuals to undergo ritual bathing at the same time. Wide steps like those at Bethesda never occur in reservoirs since they considerably diminish the capacity of the pool.”

So right off the bat, it would seem utterly clear that this was at least a sort of “ancient public pool” but given the location, more likely a mikveh.

The second point is that “the steps are intersected with landings.” This is especially important because, as mentioned before, there is a dividing wall, which is what allows for a fifth portico in this pool. This also allows for the pool to be replenished by a natural spring. Which would serve two functions, first, it keeps the water from diminishing. Second, it keeps the water ritually clean for the mikveh. Which actually brings one to the third point, namely,

“The identification of the northern pool as the otzer [replenishing spring] of the southern pool further demonstrates that what we have here is a mikveh and not simply a reservoir, despite what the older explanation provided at the site suggests.”

So, there is no reason to doubt that this pool was a mikveh. Here is the real kicker though, John’s gospel is not the only place where this pool is ascribed healing properties. V. M. Traverso notes this, saying, “Further archaeological excavations revealed other sites that show how the location of Bethesda continued to serve as a healing space across generations. In the second century, the Romans built a temple to Asclepius, the Roman god of healing. In the fifth century, Byzantine basilica was a erected not far from the pool, followed by a smaller chapel that was erected during the Crusades [which is still in use today] in the 12th century.”[7]

The Romans clearly understood this pool to have some sort of healing power, which they mistakenly attributed to their gods. Moreover, Christians evidently knew that this was the site of the pool, since they had erected a Byzantine temple at the holy site, and later a Crusader chapel, which is still in use to this very day. Now, this does not mean that later scholars knew that this was why those churches were there, but it does show that at least until the 12th century, this holy site was known, which has been rediscovered only in the 19th century, and rightly identified only recently.

It seems quite clear then, that this is in fact the famed Bethesda pool, and is also an example which should serve to shame modern scholastics. This was simply a known fact up to at least the 12th century, as again evidenced by the fact that the Byzantines and Crusaders knew to build their chapel on this Holy Site, yet modern scholars arrogantly assume that they know everything, and can simply ignore these holy sites, until God Himself allows the sites to be uncovered and display the truth of His Word time, and again. As a matter of fact, the very fact that the people who were so eager to disprove St. John’s Gospel would accuse him of anachronism and say that the author “didn’t know Jerusalem of the time” only shows their own anachronism, and that they themselves did not know Jerusalem in Jesus’ day, whereas St. John the beloved evidently did.

This is truly a wonderful discovery, and more than an apologetic, it is truly a wonderful thought that Christians can now go on pilgrimage to the very location where Jesus abolished the Sabbath, showing Himself the Lord who is greater than Moses by healing the lame man there on the Sabbath day. Further, then as now, unbelievers were confounded by the sight, but those who were blind were given sight, and those who were paralyzed were given strength and movement by the Lord of life. The same Lord who gives eternal life to all who follow Him.

Pax Christi

St. Tsar Nicholas, Pray for us





[1] The Biblical Bethesda Pool: Myth or Reality V.M Traverso Aleteia October 12, 2018

[2] The Puzzling Pool of Bethesda Urban C. von Wahlde Biblical Archaeology Review Issue 37 vol. 5, September/October 2011

[3] Biblical Archaeology Second Edition David E. Graves 2018 Electronic Christian Media

[4] The Bethesda Pool, Site of One of Jesus’ Miracles Where Jesus Healed the Paralytic The Biblical Archaeology Society Staff April 24, 2018

[5] Controversial Bethesda Pool Discovered Exactly Where John Said It Was Dean Smith Open The Word September 2, 2014

[6] Urban van Wahlde Ibid

[7] Ibid V. M Traverso

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