Pools of Bethesda
There are few sites mentioned in the Gospels that have a location that is not disputed between historians, archeologists or theologians. Oftentimes these different ways of relating to ancient history would seemingly contradict one another. However, in the case of the Pools of Bethesda, there would appear to be silence. The evidence is so compelling and there is no other site to compete with this location.
The site commemorates two different events, one Biblical at the Pools of Bethesda, the other extra Biblical in the Church of Saint Anne’s. In addition, it is well known as having one of the most beautiful acoustics in Israel, and consequently it is beloved by pilgrims as a special place of worship, just meters from the Temple Mount. The White fathers are very friendly. Groups are welcome to take turns to worship in the church, groups take it in turns, but they do not allow any talking inside, so the song/s should be agreed upon before entering.
Historical and archaeological evidence:
The church and monastery belong to the White Fathers of Africa who are French Catholics. They were established in France in the mid-19th century and were entrusted with this site in 1878. The Ottomans gave it to the French at the end of the Crimean War which dates to 1853-1856. It is an 800 year old Crusader Church and is one of the best preserved in the country.
The White Fathers began to do archeological digs, which continued into the 20th century. We have a lot of information about the history of the site, which began in the 1st/2nd century BC.
During the Hasmonean Era (Second Temple Period.) north of the Temple Mount, 2 huge reservoirs were constructed at this strategic location. There is a deep valley that comes from the North, from the area of Damascus Gate. It is possible to see this from the houses that surround the site on two sides; they are much higher than the level of the site. Damming walls were built here, to enable water to be collected and stored. In the New Testament, these are called the Pools of Bethesda, and they were located outside the 1st and 2nd walls that surrounded Jerusalem.
The pools did not feed the Temple Mount which can be determined by examining measurements of the heights and the angle of the channels. This area is much lower. Historians such as Dr Eyal Meiron think that the water was taken east from here; bypassing the Temple Mount and going to the City of David.
By the 1st Century CE, we hear about these pools in John 5. Yeshua comes here, near to the Sheep Gate, or Probatiche in Greek.
This area was known as a place of healing before the time of Yeshua. When the waters were stirred by an angel, healing was released into them. The first one to jump into the pool when this happened would heal immediately. In the caseof the paraplegic, he could not get there without the help of friends, and this took too long and he would never be the first. Thus when Yeshua came, he had compassion on him, and spoke to him, telling him to “get up off his mat and walk.” He was able to do this; amid great rejoicing. This healing took place north of the Temple Mount. Until recently, it was not understood why there were 5 porches/ porticoes. It didn’t make sense. However, two pools built side by side created the need for 5 and this was what was found archeologically. In addition to the double reservoir, mikvaot, (ritual baths) cisterns and basins were also found.
The name Bethesda is a symbol of a miraculous cure and is often used as the name of congregations in North America. The earliest extant copies of the New Testament are in Greek and most likely the name is a Greek rendering of a Hebrew word. Was the word “Beit Hizda” meaning House of Grace and becoming Bethesda in Greek?
After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE the Romans built a Temple to the god of medicine here. This god is called Asclepius in Greek, or Cerapis in Egyptian. This god was also part of the Roman cult. As part of the ritual, people would come and stay here in the night. They would have dreams and see the god and they would be healed. Side note: doctors were formerly required to swear the Hippocratic oath to Esclepius!!
Usually in these temples there would be a “holy” snake which was the symbol of the god of medicine. This symbol is often used as the symbol for pharmacies until today. 1000 years before this, in the First Temple Period, it was a symbol of healing for the Ancient Israelites. This is very interested if we consider the snake on a pole in the time of Moses, which is mentioned in Numbers 21 v 7-9: The snake on the pole is also understood to be a type of Jesus on the cross.
“So the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, because we have spoken against the LORD and you; intercede with the LORD, that He may remove the serpents from us.” And Moses interceded for the people. 8Then the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a standard; and it shall come about, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, he will live.” 9And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived.”
The Byzantine Era Church was huge. It had 3 apses and was built on the bedrock. We can still see a number of pillars and bases with their shaft. The Byzantine Church extended over the dam from the Second Temple Period. To build the aisle, they built a huge arch which is ‘floating” above one of the pools. The most sacred area of the church is built on solid rock and the entire church is vast.
It starts at the far end of the excavation and was dedicated to “Mary of the Probiotiche”. There is a later Crusader tradition of Mary being born at this site, to her parents, Joachim and Anna (This story can be found in the extra Biblical Proto Gospel of James.)
There was a 5th century AD tombstone found nearby in the 19th century by the French. It was from the private tomb of someone called Amos who was a deacon of the Probiotiche. Therefore, people in the Byzantine Era would have known that this was the Probiotiche. Assuming this to be true, they must also have known that this was the Pool of Bethesda. This is a confirmation/ corroboration but not a proof from the 5th century.
In the 12th century, under the Crusaders, 2 churches were built here:
- St. Anne’s Church, after the mother of Mary/ Miriam.
- The church above the excavations, probably commemorating the healing.
The Crusader era is the last phase on this site until the 19th century.
St. Anne’s Church:
Above the Arabic inscription on the church of St Anne, there is another inscription with the name of Anne. The Arabic inscription mentions “Madrassa Salahadin.” During the reign of Salahadin, much Christian Property was confiscated and turned into Muslim buildings, with churches often being turned into mosques.
The church was built as a classical basilica with a nave, 2 aisles and an apse on the eastern side. The apse is huge. The window above is not on the main axis of the church, but leans a little to the right. Was this a contractor’s mistake? Or, was it rather symbolic, pointed to the traditional birth place of Mary? On the right hand side, there are stairs leading to the crypt. In Greek, Crypt means hidden. It is an underground hall/ vault/ room. For Catholics it is very important, as it is said to be the exact place where Miriam was born. Others claim that she was born in Tsipori.
John chapter 5 – The healing of the Paralytic.
Extra Biblical Account
Place of the birth of Miriam, mother of Yeshua from the proto-gospel of James, an important apocryphal source for Catholics. (Hence the name of the church being Santa Anna. There is competition two doors up in the Greek orthodox Property where they also claim to have the cave.)
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