Off the Beaten Track: The Church of St. Anne

Travel expert Joe Yudin guides you through some of Jerusalem's rich biblical history.

Damascus Gate 311 (photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
Damascus Gate 311
(photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
Joe Yudin owns Touring Israel, a company that specializes in “Lifestyle” tours of Israel.
More often than not, while wandering around the Old City of Jerusalem, eavesdropping on some of the tour guides, you can observe that some guides pronounce certain sites and places as being the place where "so and so" did this miracle and "so and so" fought that battle and "so and so" walked here or there. Other guides will state that "tradition holds" that "so and so" did this or that at the specific site. When talking about what happened in the Bible and where it actually happened, faith and belief plays a major part and evidence is hard to come by after thousands of years. One of my favorite tasks as a tour guide is retracing how a particular place became "the site" of a particular historical or religious event. Let's take for instance the Church of St. Anne and its grounds in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City inside Lion's Gate.
Either park your car at the Mamilla mall and walk through Jaffa Gate down the shuk and left walking on the Via Dolorosa backwards, passing Station I and you will get to The Church of St. Anne on your left. Or park on Derech HaOfel if you can find a spot and walk up to Lion's (St. Stephen's) Gate. From Lion's Gate walk less than 100 meters up Derech Shaar HaArayot and turn right through a doorway into the St. Anne's Church compound. In the winter it is open from 08:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in the winter time.
Enter the grounds, pay the fee and turn right. The ancient pools will be in front of you with a magnificent Crusader church dated to 1138 CE on your right. Tradition holds that this is Bethesda Pool, an important New Testament site and that this church is where Mary's childhood home was situated. Today a spectacular Crusader era church stands on the site over Mary's birthplace and access to the grotto are down the stairs to your right upon entering. Return to the main chapel and have a seat. If you are lucky, a choir group will be sing there. The acoustics here are simply magnificent. If no one else is singing, feel free to sing yourself. This church was saved by the Moslem conquest of the city by Saladin himself. When exiting notice the inscription on the doors lintel claiming this property for a Muslem seminary in 1192.
Check out the ruins and the giant pit in front of you which are part of the healing pools called Bethesda (which may mean "House of the Out-pouring Waters" or "House of Mercy"). There are a series of stairs and trails that take you throughout the impressive ruins. The oldest part of this archaeological treasure dates to the early second century BCE and the latest being a fifth century Byzantine church. The site once housed Jewish healing pools from the the time of the Temple, a pagan medicinal pool and temple to Seraphis from the time of Hadrian as well as the church. But is it the right place? The New Testament places Bethesda Pools next to the Sheep Gate (John 5:1). The book of Nehemiah in the Hebrew Bible clearly places "the Sheep Gate" in the northern city wall at the northern portion of the Temple Mount (Neh. 3:1; 12:39). The Second book of Kings (18:17) talks about an 'upper pool" in the area and an 8th century BCE dam was built across the valley there feeding water here to the Temple Mount. Second century BCE scribe Jesus ben Sira writes about another pool on the southern side of this damn (ben Sira 50:3). The Mishnah mentions a gate on the same spot of Nehemiah's Sheep Gate but calls it the "Tadi Gate" (Middoth I 3). All evidence, both written and archaeological point to Bethesda Pools at the Sheep Gate being in this area.
So what does the New Testament say happened here:
Sometime later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked.

The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” (John, 5:1-10 NIV).
So Jesus, we are told, heals a man here at the pool by commanding him to walk on the Sabbath. The odd thing here is that John tells us that it is forbidden by Jewish law to heal on the Sabbath. Jews know well that one thing you are allowed to do on the Sabbath is to help people when they are ill or dying so why would John site that Jewish law forbids it? Indeed even today you can see ultra-orthodox Jewish paramedics driving around the Old City in modified golf carts turned ambulances darting through the ancient alleyways on the Sabbath. With this in mind, John is probably referring to the Sadducee sect of Jews who believed in a strict, literal interpretation of the law and did no manner of work whatsoever on the Sabbath. This version of Judaism did not survive the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE. The Pharisee sect on the other hand believed in a more interpretive view of the Torah to which most religious Jews adhere to this day. It seems to me that Jesus agreed with the Pharisees in this instance.

Joe Yudin became a licensed tour guide in 1999. He completed his Master’s degree at the University of Haifa in the Land of Israel Studies and is currently studying toward a PhD.