On Chicago’s south side, where I’m from, it’s pretty common to walk down a street and find two or three churches on the same block. Being in such close proximity, these places of worship are tasked with finding the right name to distinguish themselves from their siblings in the faith. Yet, there is one word that consistently manages to find its way into many a title hanging above church doors; Bethesda. As a boy, I was very much familiar with the word itself before ever knowing it’s meaning, hence I assume there are maybe a few readers in the same position now. So, lets take a trip back, but only by about two thousand years this time, to the days of Jesus Christ and a legendary pool.
The gospel of John tells us that in Jerusalem there was a body of water known for healing, called bethesda in the Aramaic language, where many of the city’s disabled and injured would lie. Some biblical manuscripts elaborate that in certain seasons an angel would arrive to stir the waters, after which the first to enter would be cured of their ailment. It was here that Jesus came upon a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years and could not make his own way down to the pool. The Lord commanded him to stand and pick up the mat that he had been laying on, to which the previously crippled man complied, realizing that he was now whole. (John 5:1-9)
As time passes, so do memories into legend, and for centuries many believed this account to be nothing more than a metaphorical tale. It didn’t help that the Greek spiritual healing pools that did exist, known as Asclepieion, failed to match the detailed description from scripture; located near Jerusalem’s Sheep Gate and surrounded by five colored “colonnades”, or porches. Then in the 19th century a series of archaeological digs, led by archaeologist and missionary Conrad Schick, uncovered the site from John’s gospel but deep beneath more modern foundations of the city.
Today, you can visit the ruins of the pool itself in Jerusalem’s Old City, north of the temple mount. The excavated site is located in the same compound as the Church of St. Anne, an extravagant example of 12th century architecture. Keep on digging!
– Gospel of John, 5:1-9
– Archaeological site