Jerusalem and the Gospel of John

Archeological discoveries provide evidence for the sites once thought not to exist

Pools of Bethesda 521 (photo credit: JOHN BLACK)
Pools of Bethesda 521
(photo credit: JOHN BLACK)
When most Christians study the life of Jesus, they turn to the pages of the New Testament and the four canonical gospels – the three synoptic (chronological) gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, plus the book of John, which is a considerably different work.
John’s distinctive nature has led many modern scholars to conclude that it was the last gospel compiled, dating to the 2nd century CE, and is therefore irrelevant for historical studies of Jesus.
But archeological discoveries in Jerusalem as recently as the last decade may in fact challenge the skeptical scholars, and prove edifying for believers in Christ.
Modern scholars argue that John is of later authorship because it is dependent upon the synoptic gospels, and that it was written specifically to offer a much more theologically advanced and sophisticated literary work which served to complement the earlier gospel accounts.
It is also thought to have a later origin because it displays some ignorance of Jerusalem. Scholars say the author of John knows little about 1st century Jerusalem because he was never there and the Romans thoroughly destroyed it in 70 CE. Therefore, they say, he invented places like the Bethesda Pool and its five porticoes (John 5) and the Pool of Siloam (John 9), investing in them heavy symbolism as he crafted his theological masterpiece.
However, a paradigm shift in historical research on Jesus has taken place in recent years, challenging the skeptical scholars, all due to discoveries of biblical archeology.
To be clear, it is not that biblical archeology proves or disproves the Bible.
As Avraham Biran, the late director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, once said, “the Bible, as a book of divine inspiration, needs no proof.”
Yet, it is the marriage of both disciplines – archeology and biblical studies – that is rocking the boat of modern scholarship.
In a recent lecture in Jerusalem, James H. Charlesworth – professor of New Testament language and literature, and editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary – outlined some of the new archeological finds in the environs of Jerusalem that are challenging the detractors of John.
Charlesworth contended that recent finds demonstrate convincingly that the Gospel of John was probably written much earlier than often suggested, and is therefore valuable for the study of the historical Jesus – in recreating his time, place and social environment, and in helping us understand his life, actions, teachings and agenda.
For instance, John Chapter 5 records the story of the healing of an invalid man at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. The pool is said to have consisted of five porticoes, or porches. For hundreds of years, people believed the pool did not exist, and read this text symbolically and theologically.
“Bethesda” means “house of mercy” and was interpreted to be a symbol for the mercy Jesus showed the disabled man.
In their interpretations, “five porticoes” symbolized the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses), since a pentagon has not been found in antiquity. And what the Pentateuch could not do, Jesus will do, the scholars thought. John 5:8 reads: “Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up!’” – providing a beautiful explanation of what Jesus does: Spiritually speaking, he makes people upright! Beginning in the late 1800s and continuing in stages since then, archeological excavations have been carried out in a location in the northeast quadrant of Jerusalem’s Old City based upon literary evidence in Josephus (War 2.15.5 §328) and Eusebius (Onomasticon 58.21–26).
The Copper Scroll text discovered in 1947 at Qumran also describes a hidden treasure “in the Bet Eshdatayin [pool precinct] in the pool at the entrance to its smaller basin” (3Q15 11:12).
Bet Eshdatayin is in the dual Aramaic form and refers to two basins for the pool. Excavations have revealed sections of two massive pools, covered colonnades and a segment of Herodian steps in the general area described in John 5 and in Josephus’s writings. Rather than a pentagon shape, the five porticoes mentioned in John 5 surrounded the pools on the north, south, east and west, with the fifth portico dividing the 2 pools east to west.
The Herodian steps in the Pool of Bethesda can be seen today and are believed to extend for the length of the southern pool, or approximately 100 meters. It is a massive pool that is mostly covered by a parking lot today. The repetition of steps-landing-steps-landing can be easily seen and is typical of a mikva, a pool or bath used to perform purification rites in Judaism.
In order to enter the courts of the Temple, located a little over 100 meters from the Bethesda Pool, one had to be pure. In order to be pure, one had to be fully immersed in “living water.” Thus a host of scholars today believe that the Pool of Bethesda was a 1st century mikva that served this purpose for tens of thousands of Jerusalem residents and for the thousands more that visited Jerusalem during the three annual pilgrimage feasts.
It has been estimated by some that over 100,000 Jews were in Jerusalem during the feasts. That is a lot of “living water” needed for purification, and it is likely the massive Pool of Bethesda helped to serve this purpose, along with other ritual baths surrounding the Temple.
Rereading John 5 with the pools, colonnades and steps in view, one can now easily envision the story of the disabled man lying on his mat on the landing, who was trying with great difficulty to immerse himself in the water just below. One can also envision another individual racing past him as the water is stirred up.
These discoveries show that the author of John had specific firsthand information about Jerusalem. Other surviving literary records, such as the Copper Scroll, Josephus, Tacitus and the New Testament, refer to the water systems of Jerusalem, but none except John specifically mention the Pool of Bethesda, which was likely destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.
This is especially important because the Gospel of John is the only gospel that claims to have an eyewitness. Luke interviews the eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4), but John actually claims to have been an eyewitness to the miracles of Jesus (John 1:14; 19:35; 21:24-25).
Therefore, many scholars argue that the story in John 5 was not a later creation of Christology (explaining the divinity of Jesus), but a real historical event that took place in a real time at a real place. That is how, they contend, he knew the details about the pool, its name and its function.
The details the author of John provides, add to the credibility of its author and the early date of its authorship.
Visitors to Jerusalem today can enter the premises of St. Anne’s Church in the Muslim Quarter and see the actual place where Jesus is said to have healed the invalid, perhaps on the very steps that one can observe today.
In addition, John 9 tells the story of Jesus healing a blind man by smearing mud on his eyes and telling him to wash in the Pool of Siloam.
The old paradigm in historical research of Jesus interpreted this passage on a very Christological basis, since they concluded there was no Pool of Siloam nor a relationship between the Gospel of John and actual history. The invented story, scholars said, simply shows how Jesus is the “light of the world” (9:5) by showing the progression from first receiving physical eyesight followed eventually by receiving spiritual eyesight.
But in 2004, archeologists discovered an ancient pool in the southern portion of the City of David excavations, south of the Temple Mount, which had been hidden since 70 CE. The 50-meter northern edge and part of the eastern edge of the pool have been excavated while the remaining pool is on property owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.
Like the Pool of Bethesda, one can easily see the pattern of steps and platforms allowing pilgrims to easily enter for full immersion in preparation for entering the Temple located 700 meters to the north.
That is to say, like the Pool of Bethesda, the Pool of Siloam was also likely a mikve, according to many archeologists.
These two pools represent the largest mikvaot that have been discovered to date in the Land of Israel. Also, like the Pool of Bethesda, it is conceivable that Jesus immersed himself in this pool before entering the Temple.
Biblical archeology and its resulting discoveries are forcing the discipline of Jesus research to undergo a paradigm shift. It is challenging the skeptic scholar because the recent discoveries of the Bethesda and Siloam Pools demonstrate that the author of the Gospel of John knew intimate details of pre-70 AD Jerusalem that even Josephus failed to know or mention. He also knew things about Jerusalem that we did not know 10 years ago.
“The accuracy of the Johannine information is clearly established,” writes Urban C. von Wahlde, professor of theology at Loyola University of Chicago, in his work Jesus and Archeology. John can no longer be read as strictly a theological work comprised of invented stories to illustrate its theological truths.
Moreover, biblical archeology is proving edifying to the passionate believer who can now point to the excavated Pool of Bethesda as the site where John says Jesus healed a disabled man. Or, they can sit on the steps of the Pool of Siloam, read John 9 and imagine how the story unfolded before their very eyes, bolstering their faith in the light of the world.