Pool of Bethesda, Jerusalem: Jesus Heals the Paralytic

Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”

Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath.

John 5:2-9 (NKJV)

The Pool of Bethesda is located in the city of Jerusalem in the Hill Country of Judah which is in the central part of Israel. In the first century, Jerusalem was part of the Roman province of Judea and was built upon a mountain with two valleys wrapping around it on either side (Hinnom Valley to the west and Kidron Valley to the east) and a valley cutting through the center of the city called the Tyropoeon. Across the Kidron Valley is the Mount of Olives which rises above the heights of the city, and to the north of this mountain, it dips into a saddle and rises to form another ridge called Mount Scopus. The region in and around Jerusalem is dry most of the year with annual rainfall between 28-36 inches during the winter months. Throughout the spring (May to mid-June) the temperature is mild, yet it gradually increases as summer is a dry, hot, and dusty time, especially with its locality with the Negev desert to the south. During the summer, it is common for winds to blow in from the eastern and southern deserts to form a thick brown haze around the city called a sharav where the temperature spikes and the humidity can drop forty percent. The sharav dries everything and leaves a blanket of dust on the land, but in the area of Jerusalem and to the north the sharav also helps ripen the grains of barley and wheat for harvest. Finally, by mid-September to mid-October, the end of summer approaches, which ushers in the fruit harvest and the rainy season.

For the Jewish people, Jerusalem has always been the spiritual heart beat. It was in this city that David established his capital, Solomon reigned, the first and second temple stood, and where it is believed the Messiah will return. Jerusalem is a city over 3,000 years old, but is a place that has been identified as Jewish for almost all of its history. It was where Jesus of Nazareth was dedicated in the temple as a boy, would have attended the feasts, spent his last days teaching, observed the Last Supper with his disciples, was crucified, and then was resurrected from the dead to ascend into heaven from the Mount of Olives. Jerusalem was the pulse of religious Jews, and the birth of the Church, yet it was also a hotbed for ideals and under strict Roman control with the Fortress Antonia dominating the northwestern end of the Temple Mount.

The geography of Jerusalem played a direct role in the events that transpired during the final days before Jesus was arrested and crucified. Everything He did, He did for a reason as Jesus challenged social norms, called for repentance, and preached. After His arrival into the city upon the donkey where He was celebrated as a triumphant king, Jesus entered into the Pool of Bethesda, which is located slightly northeast from the Fortress Antonia and in close proximity to the Temple Mount. The central place of the pools was a prominent Gentile area where people who were ill and diseased gathered near the waters to be healed. The Gospel of John gives a brief description of this pool, mentioning that it has five porches; archaeology has shown this site to be a temple to Serapis (Greek: Asclepius), who was the god of healing.

           Serapis was a conglomeration of deities, created by Ptolemy I who was one of the successors of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. Serapis was believed to have a unique set of powers and was identified with sacred snakes as he took on the embodiment of Asclepius, a Greek deity of healing. Serapis was an appellation of Greek and Orient qualities that appealed to the Romans and, therefore, we find a temple set up with twin pools near the Fortress Antonia. Most likely the five porches also possessed a military chapel for the soldiers near the pools where people came to be healed. At the pools themselves, history reveals to us that the priests would send a snake into the waters and proclaim healing for anyone who could step in. Excavations have also shown pipes leading into the pools so that air could be sent through to create bubbling and a stirring motion which John also attributes to the angel (Asclepius could sometimes be pictured with wings).

At the pool, Jesus found a lame man who had been stricken with disease for thirty-eight years, had been unable to crawl to the pool for healing, and was abandoned as there was no one to assist him. This shows the character of Hellenism which venerates the body and, therefore, a sick or diseased man would have no place in Hedonistic thinking. Rather, the people most likely to be healed would be those with hardly any ailments at all who could reach the water easily. However, Jesus deliberately went to this place to declare war on Serapis, to show to everyone who the real Healer is, to rescue a man, and unlike Serapis, Jesus did not choose favourites. Therefore, this geographical place had a direct result in what Jesus wanted to do and what He wished to declare. He simply asked the man if he wished to be healed, the man declares his frustration and misery, and the man is healed. Jesus demonstrated who He was and declared to all the deception of Serapis and the priests. He did this without any doubt in the presence of many other sick and crippled people who were waiting for the water to stir.

By: Peter J. Fast

A Temple to Serapis in Alexandria

The Background of the Creator:

In the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria there lies the remains of the Serapeum (copied after the Serapeum in Memphis) atop a modest hill where the Temple to Serapis had once stood. The history of such a place is a fascinating historical exploration, transporting one back to an age of gods and goddesses of the Hellenistic world which clashed with people groups of the orient. The creation of Serapis is an interesting tale in itself as it is the story of a god who was invented by Ptolemy I who was one of the successors of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.E.). A childhood friend of Alexander, and one who had been a loyal warrior and general, Ptolemy I carved out for himself a kingdom in Egypt with all the trappings of a Hellenistic kingdom, but one with a touch of the Orient which appealed to him. Bordering the hostile Seleucid Kingdom, Ptolemy I would rule with power, influence, and strength in what would be called the Ptolemaic Empire until his death in 283 B.C.E.

However, one of Ptolemy I’s desires for his new kingdom which had been conquered territory of the Macedonian King Alexander, was to make it an attraction for Greek tourists and anyone else who may visit. Later, after his death, Alexandria would continue to exist throughout the Roman era attracting famous men such as Gaius Julius Caesar and Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Alexandria also would become a city of rich diversity as it would house a large Jewish population, Greeks, Spaniards, Africans, Italians, and so on. Alexandria would also host amazing sites such as the famous Lighthouse (which was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world) or the Library of Alexandria which boasted a collection of over a million scrolls. Yet, for Alexandria to become a highlight tourist attraction and to pull in vast revenues of trade and people, it would have to relate somehow to the very people it sought to encourage to visit, and that lay within the religious realm. Ptolemy I had the city transformed into a thriving Greek-style capital (with polis, gymnasiums, etc) with a full set of temples to boast of its Hellenism, and in this he invented the god Serapis and gave him a throne in the south-western suburbs of the city.

The Creation:

Just looking at the list of ancient Egyptian deities must have both confused Ptolemy I as much as it made him cringe. It would have only taken a moment for a “civilized” Hellenist as himself to know that these deities would not overly attract Greeks in thralls to a temple which had a statue with a human body and an animal head. Or one with strange symbols plastered over it and odd-looking creatures. This was totally foreign to any Greek mind and Ptolemy would have seen this right away. If he was to bend to Greek taste, then his god would have to have Greek appeal. The creation of Serapis possessed just that. It was a known Greek trait to apply the art of syncretism in the area of religion. Ptolemy I decided first to make Serapis a god of greatness and worthy of worship. He gave Serapis the qualities of all-knowing wisdom (Zeus, Osiris, Helios), the character of fertility (Dionysus),  the beauty of healing (Asclepius) and the far reach into the after world and the grave (Apis and Hades). He blended the Orient with the Greek flavor and it clearly showed. Serapis would be revealed with all the looks of a Greek god. He would posses a great beard, a robe, a simple basket of grain upon his head symbolizing the fertility of Osiris, and the far off, magical like stare in his blank eyes. He would dominate his new temple, with outstretched arms that touched the walls on either side, and at his feet stood the three-headed dog Cerberus of Hades and the underworld. Ptolemy I would build a grand temple and raise it up for all the city to see upon a high platform with a massive one-hundred stone staircase leading up to it. It was an obvious statement of his devotion to the god and a flaunt of money and power at the same time. The result of his master, deified creation would be centuries of worship by Greeks and Romans until Christians in the 4th century A.D. would tear down the temple and destroy the image of the bearded god with the basket of grain upon his head for it represented the very paganism they opposed and wished to root out. What would survive, would later be discovered by archaeologists and identified as the foundations of the temple, and its size, along with a black image in basalt of the Apis bull. In other places throughout the Mediterranean world, Serapis would be discovered upon clay urns, vessels, plates, and finery, as well as small household statues, larger images, and personal amulets. The pagan worship of such a deity may have died out through time and change, but his memory will continue to interest researchers, writers, and historians alike.

By, Peter J. Fast