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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Bethesda

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BETHESDA.John 5:2 ‘Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep-gate (ἐπὶ τῇ προβατικῇ) a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having live porches’ (RV). Instead of Βηθεσδά (TR), the most ancient authorities have other spellings, as א Βηθζαθά, L and Eus. Βηζαθά (? for Βηθζαιθά = בֵּית זַיִחָא ‘house of the olive’), B Βηθσαιδά, D Βελζεθά. As to the derivation, Delitzsch suggests בֵּית אָסְטִין ‘house of pillars,’ and Calvin בֵּית אָשְׁדָּא ‘house of outpouring’; but the most natural etymology is בֵּית חָסְרָּא ‘house of mercy,’ possibly in allusion to the munificence of some charitable person who had these porches built to shelter the sick, or to the goodness of God in providing this healing spring.

As the adjective προβατικῇ, ‘pertaining to sheep,’ requires some substantive to be introduced, the Authorized Version supplies ‘market,’ the Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘gate.’ Since there is no reference to any sheep-market in the OT, while the sheep-gate is repeatedly referred to (Nehemiah 3:1; Nehemiah 3:32; Nehemiah 12:39), the latter method of supplying the sense is the more probable one. Now the sheep-gate is known to have been north of the Temple, and, as Bovet says, ‘the small cattle which entered Jerusalem came there certainly by the east; for it is on this side that the immense pastures of the wilderness of Judaea lie.’ The modern St. Stephen’s Gate answers to these data. It is at the north-east angle of the Temple area, and is the gate through which the Bedawîn still lead their flocks to Jerusalem for sale. We must therefore look for the Pool of Bethesda in this vicinity, and may at once eliminate several proposed identifications elsewhere, such as the Hammâm csh-Shifâ, near the ‘Gate of the Cotton Merchants,’ about the middle of the west side of the Temple area, where there is a pool with pillars and masonry, some sixty feet below the present surface, the waters of which are still supposed to possess healing properties (Furrer); and the Pool of Siloam, where the remains of four columns in the east wall, with four others in the centre, ‘show that a structure with five openings or porches might easily have been erected’ (Alford); and the Fountain of the Virgin, the intermittent spring at the bottom of a deep cavern at the foot of the Ophel slope south-east of the Temple (Robinson). These are all too far from the sheep-gate as probably identified above.

Conder, who adopts the suggestion of Robinson that Bethesda was at the present Fountain of the Virgin, says, ‘This answers the requirements that it still presents the phenomenon of intermittent “troubling of the water,’ which overflows from a natural syphon under the cave, and that it is still the custom of the Jews to bathe in the waters of the cave, when this overflow occurs, for the cure of rheumatism and of other disorders.’ Against this view Grove (Smith’s DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] 2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] art. ‘Bethesda’) and Barclay (City of the Great King, 325) urge the inaccessibility of the deep subterranean water to invalids, the confined size of the pool, and the difficulty of finding room for the five porches capable of accommodating ‘a multitude’; and to the present writer, examining the cave in person, these objections seemed conclusive, apart from the difficulty of the locality.

Turning now to the neighbourhood of the sheep-gate, we find three proposed identifications. (1) Modern tradition identifies Bethesda with the Birket Israil, an empty reservoir, 360 feet long, 120 feet wide, and 80 feet deep, half filled with rubbish, which lies close to St. Stephen’s Gate and under the north-east wall of the Haram area. (2) Warren and others would place Bethesda at the so-called Twin Pools, in the ditch at the northwest angle of Antonia, under the convent of the Sisters of Zion. Neither of these can be the true site, as both the Birket Israil and the Twin Pools were constructed after the events narrated in John 5. (3) In 1872 it was pointed out by M. Clermont-Ganneau that ‘the Pool of Bethesda should be sought near the Church of St. Anne, where an old tradition has placed the house of the mother of Mary, calling it Bcit Hanna, “House of Anne.” This expression is exactly identical with Bethesda, both expressions signifying “house of mercy, or compassion.” ’ Sixteen years later this anticipation was verified by the discovery of what is now very generally conceded to be the ancient Pool of Bethesda, a short distance north-west of the present Church of St. Anne. In the autumn of 1888, ‘certain works carried on by the Algerian monks laid bare a large tank or cistern cut in the rock to a depth of 30 feet, and Herr Schick recognized this as the Pool of Bethesda. It is 55 feet long from east to west, and measures 12½ feet in breadth. A flight of twenty-four steps leads down into the pool from the eastern scarp of rock. Herr Schick, who at once saw the great interest of this discovery, soon found a sister-pool, lying end to end, 60 feet long, and of the same breadth as the first. The first pool was arched in by five arches, while five corresponding porches ran along the side of the pool. At a later period a church was built over the pool by the Crusaders, and they seem to have been so far impressed by the fact of five arches below that they shaped their crypt into five arches in imitation. They left an opening for getting down to the water; and further, as the crowning proof that they regarded the pool as Bethesda, they painted on the wall of the crypt a fresco representing the angel troubling the water of the pool.’ (Geo. St. Clair, Buried Cities and Bible Countries, 327–328. See also PEFSt [Note: Quarterly Statement of the same.] , July 1888 and Jan. 1891).

This site is thus supported not only by the mediaeval tradition, but by the early tradition as well. The Bordeaux pilgrim, who visited Jerusalem in a.d. 333, after mentioning two large fish-pools by the side of the temple, one at the right hand, the other at the left, says in another place (Itin. Hierosol. 589): ‘But farther in the city are twin fish-pools having five porches which are called Bethsaida. There the sick of many years were wont to be healed. But these pools have water which, when agitated, is of a kind of red colour.’ This is evidently the same place described by Eusebius (Onomasticon, 240. 15) in the same century and called by him Bezatha, though he gives no other clue to the situation—‘a pool at Jerusalem, which is the Piscina Probatica, and had formerly five porches, and now is pointed out at the twin pools there, of which one is filled by the rains of the year, but the other exhibits its water tinged in an extraordinary manner with red, retaining a trace, they say, of the victims that were formerly cleansed in it.’ Clearly, too, it is of the same place that Eucherius speaks in the 5th cent.: ‘Bethsaida, peculiar for being a double lake, of which one pool is for the most part filled by winter rains, the other is discoloured by reddish waters.’ It has been commonly assumed of late that the two tunnels under the convent of the Sisters of Zion are the twin pools mentioned by these writers; but the traditions of the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries, to be presently quoted, place the pool with the five porches and the church called Probatiea (cf. προβατικῇ, John 5:2) at or near the traditional birthplace of Mary, which is undoubtedly under the present Church of St. Anne. Thus Antoninus Martyr (a.d. 570) says: ‘Returning into the city we come to the Piscina Natatoria, which has five porches; and in one of these is the basilica of St. Mary, in which many miraculous cures are wrought.’ Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem (a.d. 632), says: ‘I will enter the holy Probatica, where the illustrious Anna brought forth Mary.’ John of Damascus (about a.d. 750) says: ‘May all things be propitious to thee, O Probation, the most holy temple of the Mother of God! May all things be propitious to thee, O Probatica, ancestral domicile of a queen! May all things be propitious to thee, O Probatica, formerly the fold of Joachim’s flocks, but now a church, heaven-resembling, of the rational flock of Christ!’ Brocardus also speaks (a.d. 1283) of a large reservoir near St. Anne’s Church, called Piscina Interior, just opposite Birket Israil.

Early tradition, therefore, as well as mediaeval, seems to favour the site discovered in 1888. This is the site now generally accepted, though some recent writers are still unconvinced, such as Sanday (Sacred Sites of the Gospels, 55), who rejects Schick’s identification but reaches no positive conclusion of his own, and Conder (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, article ‘Bethesda’), who argues for the Virgin’s Pool. The intermittent troubling of the water at the Fountain of the Virgin is, indeed, a point in its favour; but this phenomenon is not uncommon in the springs of Palestine (Thomson, land and Book, iii. 288; Barclay, City of Great King, 560), and, while nothing of the kind is now seen at the pool under the Crusaders’ church, it is not, perhaps, a too violent supposition that the same intermittence now observed in the Virgin’s Fountain may have characterized this pool also in that early time of more copious ‘rains of the year,’ as Eusebius calls them, especially if, as some think, they both lie upon the same concealed watercourse.

The last clause of John 5:3 and the whole of John 5:4, containing the account of the troubling of the water by an angel and the miraculous healing that followed, are relegated to the margin in Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885, on the ground of their omission by the ancient manuscripts א BD, and the exceptional number of variants in the other MSS [Note: SS Manuscripts.] . Popular superstition seems to have attributed the periodic bubbling of the water to the action of an invisible angel. These passages were probably at first written on the margin as an expression of that opinion, and later were introduced into the body of the text.

W. W. Moore.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Bethesda'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/b/bethesda.html. 1906-1918.

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