For the various places named after the Pool of Bethesda, see Bethesda.

Jerusalem Bethesda BW 1

Bethesda pool


The pools. Jerusalem during the Second Temple Period - A model in the Israel Museum.

Bethesda is the name of a series of pools in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, on the path of the Beth Zeta Valley. Since the 4th century it has also been called the Sheep Pool, but this is now thought to be a translation error.[1][2][3][4] It is associated with healing. In Ancient Greek Biblical Manuscripts its name is often mistaken for name of the town of Bethsaida.


Its name is said to derive from the Aramaic language beth hesda (בית חסדא), meaning either house of mercy[5] or house of grace. In the closely related Syriac branch of this ancient language, the cognate term hesdo has two opposite meanings - grace and disgrace;[6][7][8] this dual meaning may have been thought appropriate since the location was seen as a place of disgrace due to the presence of invalids, and a place of grace, due to the granting of healing.[original research?]

Alternative renderings of the name, appearing in manuscripts of the Gospel of John, include Beth-zatha[9] and Bethsaida (not to be confused with Bethsaida, a town in the Galilee), although the latter is considered to be a metathetical corruption by Biblical scholars.[10]

The Gospel of John describes the pool's location using the Greek term probatike, which literally means pertaining to sheep. Eusebius, the early 4th century Christian polemicist, interpreted this as the sheep-pool, and later church fathers copied his suggestion, but it is now thought that the term probatike actually refers to Bethesda being located near to the Sheep-gate[1][2][3][4] (a gate in the former city wall, somewhat near to the Lion Gate in the current city wall); modern biblical translations, such as the Revised Standard Version and New International Version, follow the latter interpretation.


The history of the pool began in the eighth century BC, when a dam was built across the short Beth Zeta valley, turning it into a reservoir for rain water;[11][12][13] a sluice-gate in the dam allowed the height to be controlled, and a rock-cut channel brought a steady stream of water from the reservoir into the city[11] The reservoir became known as the Upper Pool (בריכה העליונה). Around 200 BC, during the period in which Simon II was the Jewish High Priest, the channel was enclosed, and a second pool was added on the south side of the dam;[11][12][13] although popular legend argues that this pool was used for washing sheep, this is very unlikely due to the pool's use as a water supply, and its extreme depth (13m).

In the first century BC, natural caves to the east of the two pools were turned into small baths, as part of an asclepieion;[11][14] however, the Mishnah implies that at least one of these new pools was sacred to Fortuna,[15] the goddess of fortune, rather than Asclepius, the god of healing.[16] Scholars think it likely that this development was founded by the Roman garrison of the nearby Antonia Fortress;[11], who would also have been able to protect it from attack[14] the location of the asclepieion, outside the then city walls, would have made its presence tolerable to the Jews, who might otherwise have objected to a non-Jewish religious presence in their holy city.[14]

In the mid first century AD, Herod Agrippa expanded the city walls, bringing the asclepieion into the city. When Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, he placed a roadway along the dam, and expanded the asclepieion into a large temple to Asclepius and Serapis.[11] In the Byzantine era, the asclepieion was converted to a church.

After the Crusader conquest of Jerusalem, the church buildings were rebuilt on a much smaller scale, but when Saladin regained control of the city it was transformed into a school for Shafi`i fiqh. Gradually the buildings fell into ruin, becoming a midden. In the early 19th century, the Ottoman Empire, as an act of gratitude, offered Queen Victoria the choice of the possessing the Bethesda site or Cyprus; the Anglican church lobbied for the Bethesda site, but Victoria chose Cyprus, so in 1856, the Ottomans gifted the site to France instead. The French constructed the Church of Saint Anne, at the south east corner of the site, leaving the ancient ruins untouched.


The Upper Pool is mentioned in the Book of Kings (in a passage also repeated by the Book of Isaiah[17]):

And the king of Assyria sent Tartan and Rab-saris and Rab-shakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah with a great army unto Jerusalem. And they went up and came to Jerusalem. And when they were come up, they came and stood by the conduit of the upper pool, which is in the highway of the fullers' field.[18]

It is also mentioned in an earlier part of the Book of Isaiah:

Then said the LORD unto Isaiah: 'Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shear-jashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, in the highway of the fullers' field.[19]

Gospel of John

According to the Gospel of John, Bethesda was a swimming bath (Greek: kolumbethra) with five porticos (translated as porches by older English bible translations), close to the probatike[20] (as mentioned above, probatike is now thought to refer to the Sheep-Gate[1][2][3][4]). Archaeologically, the reference to five porticos is not yet fully understood, as the only applicable structure found in the pools themselves has three porticos rather than five. The closest alternative match is to the five colonnades of the asclepieion itself;[21] Origen, writing in the 3rd century, claims to have seen the five porticos, but since the site was by then Hadrian's construction, this must refer to the 2nd century version of the Asclepieion,[13] requiring the authorship of the Gospel of John to be dated after 130.

The Johannine narrative describes the porticos as being a place in which large numbers of infirm people were waiting,[22] which corresponds well with the site's first century use as an asclepieion. Some ancient biblical manuscripts argue[21] that these people were waiting for the troubling of the water;[23] a few such manuscripts[21] also move the setting away from Roman rituals into something more appropriate to Judaism, by adding that an angel would occasionally stir the waters, which would then cure the first person to enter.[24] Although the Vulgate does not include the troubling of the water or the 'angel tradition', these were present in many of the manuscripts used by early English translations of the Bible, who therefore included it in their translations. Modern textual scholarship views these extra details as unreliable and unlikely to have been part of the original text;[21] many modern translations do not include the troubling of the water or the 'angel tradition', but leave the earlier numbering system, so that they skip from verse 3a straight to verse 5.[25]

The biblical narrative continues by describing a Shabbat visit to the site by Jesus, during which he heals a man who has been bedridden for ages, and could not make his own way into the pool.[26] Some scholars have suggested that the narrative is actually part of a deliberate polemic against the Asclepius cult, an antagonism possibly partly brought on by the fact that Asclepius was worshipped as Saviour (Greek: Soter), in reference to his healing attributes.[27] The narrative uses the Greek phrase hygies genesthai,[28] which is not used anywhere in the Synoptic Gospels, but appears frequently in ancient testimonies to the healing powers of Asclepius;[27] the later narrative in the Gospel of John about Jesus washing Simon Peter's feet at the Last Supper,[29] similarly uses the Greek term goyein,[30] which is a special term for washing in an Asclepieion,[27] rather than the Greek word used elsewhere in the Johannine text to describe washing - niptein.



Displayed in the west transept of St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral in Memphis, Tennessee, this stone is part of one of the columns of the balustrade that surrounded the Pool of Bethesda.

Prior to archaeological digs, the Pool of Bethesda was identified with the modern so-called Fountain of the Virgin, in the Kidron Valley, not far from the Pool of Siloam, and alternately with the Birket Israel, a pool near the mouth of the valley which runs into the Kidron south of St. Stephen's Gate. Others identified it with the twin pools then called the Souterrains (French: Subterranean), under the Convent of the Sisters of Zion;[5] subsequent archaeological investigation of the area has determined these to actually be the Strouthion Pool.[31]

In digs conducted in the 19th Century, Schick discovered a large tank situated about 100 feet north-west of St. Anne's Church, which he contended was the Pool of Bethesda. Further archaeological excavation in the area, in 1964, discovered the remains of the Byzantine and Crusader churches, Hadrian's Temple of Asclepius and Serapis, the small healing pools of the Asclepieion, the other of the two large pools, and the dam between them.[32] It was discovered that the Byzantine construction was built in the very heart of Hadrian's construction, and contained the healing pools.[32]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Catholic Encyclopedia, on Bethsaida (section The Pool)
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1995), on sheep gate and on sheep market
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (1991), page 241
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Frederick Fyvie Bruce, The Gospel of John (1994), page 121-122
  5. 5.0 5.1 Easton's Bible Dictionary
  6. Louis Costaz, Syriac-English Dictionary
  7. J. Payne Smith, A Compendious Syriac Dictionary
  8. compare the english phrase fight with, which could equally mean both fight on the same side as or fight against
  9. Revised Standard Version marginal note to John 5:2
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 11.5 Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land, (2008), page 29
  12. 12.0 12.1 Maureen W. Yeung, Faith in Jesus and Paul, page 76
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Dave Winter, Israel handbook, page 121
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 André Duprez, Jesus and the god of Healing, as according to John (1970), page 97
  15. Zabim 1:5
  16. Maureen W. Yeung, Faith in Jesus and Paul, page 78
  17. Isaiah 36:2
  18. 2 Kings 18:17
  19. Isaiah 7:3
  20. John 5:2
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 21.3 Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962), on John 5:1-18
  22. John 5:3 (a)
  23. John 5:3 (b)
  24. John 5:4
  25. see the New International Version, English Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, and New Living Translation, for example
  26. John 5:1-18
  27. 27.0 27.1 27.2 Maureen W. Yeung, Faith in Jesus and Paul, page 79
  28. John 5:6
  29. John 13:5-18
  30. John 13:10
  31. Pierre Benoit, The Archaeological Reconstruction of the Antonia Fortress, in Jerusalem Revealed (edited by Yigael Yadin), (1976)
  32. 32.0 32.1 An archaeological diagram of the layout - the diagram displayed at the location itself - is visible at this link

External links

Coordinates: 31°46′53″N 35°14′09″E / 31.78139°N 35.23583°E / 31.78139; 35.23583eo:Lageto Betesdamk:Бетезда pt:Tanque de Betesda ru:Вифезда sv:Betesda wo:Betesda

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