Monday, May 18, 2015

Pools of Bethesda - Jerusalem

Jesus heals the paralytic at the Pools of Bethesda

One of the miracles of Jesus happened at the Pools of Bethesda. In John 5: 1-18: "...Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals....[N]ear the Sheep Gate [is] 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 - [and they waited for the moving of the waters. From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had.] 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." Some versions of the Bible do not include the bolded language above because it is only included in some manuscripts. Further, some versions include the term "sheep market" instead of "sheep gate" and some use the term "porches" or "porticoes" instead of "colonnades."

Was Sheep Gate the modern Herod's Gate or Lion's Gate or neither?

The majority of Biblical translations include the term "sheep gate" instead of "sheep market," but the King James translation uses the term "sheep market." Our tour guide mentioned that the area around Bethesda was a sheep market, I assume because of this verse in John 5, but I'm not finding anything that corroborates that. Most sources I've read tie in the term "Sheep Gate" to the modern "Lion's Gate." However, other sources talking about the gates of Jerusalem without any connection to the Pools of Bethesda connect the Sheep Gate to the modern "Herod's Gate," a northern gate, instead of an eastern gate. 

The Sheep Gate is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in Nehemiah 3, but a little history helps with the setting: Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and many of the Tribe of Judah were taken to Babylon. In 539 BCE Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians. The conquering Persian Emperor Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The exiles did not all return at once (in fact many did not return at all), but returned in waves. The first wave of returning exiles was led by Zerubbabel in 536 BCE. They started re-construction of the temple in 535 and completed it by 516 (Ezra 1-6). The second wave of returning exiles were led by Ezra who left with 1,500 men in 455 BCE (Ezra 7-10). The third wave was led by Nehemiah in 446 BCE and in 445 Nehemiah helped to build the walls of Jerusalem in 52 days. Nehemiah 3 describes the rebuilding of the wall, including various gates: "Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the Sheep Gate. They dedicated it and set its doors in place..." (Nehemiah 3:1) "Malkijah, one of the goldsmiths, made repairs as far as the house of the temple servants and the merchants, opposite the Inspection Gate, and as far as the room above the corner; and between the room above the corner and the Sheep Gate the goldsmiths and merchants made repairs." (verses 31-32)

Below is an illustration of the gates and walls at the time of Nehemiah which also shows how they compare to the modern walls. The modern walls spread out much further, particularly to the north and west. 
This illustration of the gates from Nehemiah's time is here. I've found modern associations for Sheep Gate as Herod's Gate, for East Gate as the Golden Gate and it looks like the Muster Gate, or Inspection Gate as identified in Nehemiah, would be the Lion's Gate. See here.  However, those modern associations are approximations as the old walls are not in the same place as the current walls as indicated in the illustration. 
This modern map of the old city shows the gates relative to the Pools of Bethesda which are just north of St. Anne's Church just inside St. Stephen's Gate or Lion's Gate. Picture from Wikipedia. Note that this map shows Herod's Gate to be much further away from the Bethesda Pools than the gate would have been at the time of Nehemiah and the time of Jesus. 
I believe the answer to the discrepancy between the association of Sheep Gate to Lion's Gate or Herod's Gate is that it is neither. The city walls were expanded between 41 and 42 CE by Herod Agrippa and the Bethesda Pools, which had been just outside the city walls were now included within the city walls. Sheep Gate no longer existed. So when we associate Sheep Gate with Lion's Gate or Herod's Gate, it is not reality. When Jesus was near the Sheep Gate, in John 5, he was outside the city walls. Today if we associate Sheep Gate with Herod's Gate, it has almost no relation to the ancient gate, except to the extent it faces north. I think that the reason Sheep Gate gets associated with Lion's Gate today is because it is closest to the Pools of Bethesda and John 5 implies that it is near. However, it is oriented in the wrong direction as Lion's Gate is an east facing gate and Sheep Gate was a north facing gate.  

Lion's Gate (or the approximation of it) near the Bethesda Pools is shown on the mid-6th century depiction of Jerusalem on the Madaba map, a mosaic on a floor in a church in Madaba, Jordan, which we visited (see below). The Madaba map has been extremely helpful to archaeologists in helping determine what Jerusalem was like at that time. The main street shown running horizontally through Jerusalem at that time is today known as the Cardo. At the top of the map, which is east, is what today would be the Lion's Gate, just below the Greek letters YC. A little bit to the left, below the Greek letters ICI is St. Mary of the Probatic, the Byzantine Church built over the Pools of Bethesda (more on that below). 
This is my photo of Jerusalem on the Madaba map. Below I give a borrowed photo which has much better delineation and different emphases on the color scale. 
This photo was taken from here
Symbolism of the Sheep Gate to Christ

The Sheep Gate was apparently named because it was the gate that sheep and lambs were brought through to be sacrificed at the temple. John 10:1-10 makes this a fun connection, where Jesus says, "I am the gate for the sheep...I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved."

History of the Pools of Bethesda

Because the area where the Pools of Bethesda is so overlaid with different layers of history, it is extremely confusing to figure out. I give two maps below to help out with the discussion of the history. I'll refer to the first map as Map A and the second map as Map B. The structures that were built there were built in the following order (then follows a brief mention of each structure): (1) the northern pool or "upper pool;" (2) the southern pool; (3) the asclepeion or Roman temple (shown on Map A, but not B); (4) the asclepeion expanded by the Emperor Hadrian (shown on Map B, but not A); (5) the Byzantine church; (6) the Crusader chapel; and (7) St. Anne's Church. 
This map, Map A, is from It shows the initial asclepeion, referenced as "Roman temple," but not the expanded asclepeion built by Hadrian. 
This map, Map B, is from here. It shows the expanded asclepeion built by Hadrian, but not the initial asclepeion. 
The Pools of Bethesda were started in the 8th century BCE when a dam was placed in a small valley to create a reservoir for rain runoff. This reservoir is what became known as the Upper Pool or as on Map A, the northern pool. A sluice-gate in the dam allowed the water height to be controlled and an open channel in the rock allowed water water to be brought into the city for use at the temple. This pool is possibly mentioned twice in the Hebrew Bible, first during the reign of King Ahaz of Judah (who ruled from about 744 to 728 BCE). In Isaiah 7:1-4, the sons of Remaliah, King of Israel had come to Jerusalem to fight. The Lord told Isaiah to "Go out, you and your son...., to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer's Field. Say to him, 'Be careful, keep calm and don't be afraid.'" During the reign of King Hezekiah (who ruled from about 715 to 686 BCE), 2 Kings 18:17-18 notes: "The king of Assyria sent his supreme commander, his chief officer and his field commander with a large army, from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem. They came up to Jerusalem and stopped at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Washerman's Field. They called for the king..."

Around 200 BC a second pool was added on the south side of the dam to increase the water capacity. It is referenced on Map A as the Southern pool. John speaks of a pool surrounded by five covered colonnades. A colonnade is a roof structure over a walkway supported by columns or enclosed by walls. The northern pool and southern pool were surrounded by colonnades and the dam between them also had a colonnade. The length of each side, covering both pools, was about 131 yards. The width was about 55 yards and the pools were about 49 feet deep. If you count each long side as one colonnade, the north and south end, and the dam, that gives you five colonnades. Jews planning to visit the courts of the temple had to be pure. To be pure they had to be immersed fully in water. There are steps leading into the southern pool which lead scholars to believe the southern pool was a mikvah, a place for the tens of thousands of Jews visiting Jerusalem during the three annual pilgrimage feasts to become ritually pure.  The model of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus in the Israeli Museum, below, shows the Pools of Bethesda with the colonnades surrounding the outsides and over the dam.
The Pools of Bethesda in the model of Jerusalem. The northern pool is to the right and the southern pool to the left. The healing pools of the asclepeion, which would be to the front of the model, are not shown. Note the walls of Jerusalem in the background, illustrating the pools were outside the city walls. I assume the opening in the wall to the upper left is Sheep Gate. Photo from Wikipedia. 
In the 1st century BCE (although I've seen speculation for the 4th century BCE), and probably in conjunction with the building of the Antonia Fortress, the Romans built an asclepeion, a healing temple, sacred to the god Asclepius (marked on Map A as Roman temple), just east of the southern pool and turned natural caves just to the north of it into small baths. The baths were used as part of the healing rituals. Scholars believe that these baths were where the healing miracle of Jesus took place, rather than in the larger northern and southern pools. The baths is where the sick people would have congregated and the southern and northern pools were too deep for the paralytic and other sick people.
The area in the center is part of the asclepeion. The base of the pillar to the upper right and just left of center are to St. Mary of the Probatic, the Byzantine church. 
The central water channel (the black hole in the center) brought water in from the north pool through the channel to the right and into the cistern to the left. The cistern was then used to fill the baths in the asclepeion to the right (and out of the picture). 
Remnants of the baths and grottoes in the asclepeion.
Facing east, another view of the baths and grottoes of the asclepeion with the Byzantine pillar to the upper left. To the far back, beyond the metal rail, are ruins of the expanded asclepeion and temple built by Hadrian.  
The Roman street over the dam connecting to the asclepeion. Photo from here
Herod the Great (73 to 4 BCE) built a new water system to the north of Bethesda making the pools obsolete. This would have left the asclepeion and its healing baths as the primary focus of the area during the time of Jesus.

When Herod Agrippa built a new city wall about 41 to 42 CE, after the time of Jesus, which brought the asclepeion and pools into the city, he blocked the water to the pools completely. So the focus was on the baths. Bethesda is a Hebrew word meaning "house of the graceful waters."

When the Roman Emperor Hadrian built Aelia Capitolina, starting around 130 CE, he expanded the asclepeion to encompass a larger area, added a temple to the gods Asclepius and Serapis (an Egyptian god), and put in a roadway over the dam to the asclepeion (see the map just above).   

In the 5th century a large Byzantine church, dedicated to St. Mary of the Probatic (sheep pool in Latin), was built that covered a portion of the asclepeion and Roman temple and extended west to cover a southeast portion of the northern pool and a northeast portion of the southern pool. The dam between the pools was the central support for the western end of the church and required rows of arches on each side to support it. The footprint of the church is outlined in dark red lines on Map A. This is the church shown in the Madaba map. I find a source that says it was built during the reign of the empress Eudocia, wife of the Emperor Theodosius II (between about 421 and 443) and another source that says it was built during the time of Patriarch Juvenal of Jerusalem (between 452 and 458). The church was destroyed by the Persian Chosroes II in 614. It was shortly thereafter rebuilt by Modestus, Patriarch of Jerusalem, who died in 630. The church was destroyed again in 1009 by the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim.
The central pillar base with a Byzantine cross is a support for St. Mary of the Probatic. Behind it to the right is an enclosed section which features some preserved mosaic flooring from St. Mary. Below the levels of the pillar are the baths and grottoes of the asclepeion. 
A model of St. Mary of the Probatic, the Byzantine church, and the northern and southern pools (now without colonnades) is found in St. Peter in Gallicantu. Photo from 
When the Crusaders arrived in 1099, they built a small Crusader church, called the Church of the Paralytic, or the Moustier, over the northwest section of the ruin of St. Mary of the Probatic (see both Map A and B). The Church of the Paralytic included a monastery. This is where Baldwin I, the first Crusader king, banished his Armenian wife, Arda, in 1104.
Facing west, the back wall, just left of center, with two pillars, is the west side of the southern pool. The arch in the center of the picture is a support for St. Mary of the Probatic, the Byzantine church. Looking through the arch to the right is the dam which separated the northern pool and the southern pool. To the right is part of the ruin of St. Mary of the Probatic.
Facing west, the rock structure to the upper right is part of the Church of the Paralytic, the Crusader church built on the ruin of St. Mary of the Probatic. Just left of center is the base of a white pillar. It is marked with a Byzantine cross and was a support for St. Mary of the Probatic. More in the foreground, the lower levels are the area that were the baths and grottoes of the asclepeion. This area is where the miracle of the paralytic would have occurred. 
As will be the subject of a later post, a new church known as St. Anne's was built between 1131 and 1138 by the Crusaders. St. Anne's is shown on both Map A and B. In B it shows it covering part of the footprint of the asclepeion. 


  1. What a jigsaw puzzle of history! Layers of civilizations and beliefs can be seen so clearly here, but it takes patient research to figure it all out. Great job.

  2. I love your information--we saw these things, but it's only after coming home and reading more that I've appreciated them in they way they should be appreciated.

  3. Thanks for your info and insight.

  4. I was there in 2016 and this area looked less like a public bath area and more like an excavation project. When I came across this article it all began to make sense. Various construction over the centuries explains the current state of the site. Thanks.