Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Saint John’s Gospel (9): John 5: 1-18

Jesus heals the man at the pool

Patrick Comerford

John 5: 1-18:


1 Μετὰ ταῦτα ἦν ἑορτὴ τῶν Ἰουδαίων, καὶ ἀνέβη Ἰησοῦς εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα.

2 ἔστιν δὲ ἐν τοῖς Ἱεροσολύμοις ἐπὶ τῇ προβατικῇ κολυμβήθρα ἡ ἐπιλεγομένη Ἑβραϊστὶ Βηθζαθά, πέντε στοὰς ἔχουσα. 3 ἐν ταύταις κατέκειτο πλῆθος τῶν ἀσθενούντων, τυφλῶν, χωλῶν, ξηρῶν. 4 ἦν 5 δέ τις ἄνθρωπος ἐκεῖ τριάκοντα [καὶ] ὀκτὼ ἔτη ἔχων ἐν τῇ ἀσθενείᾳ αὐτοῦ: 6 τοῦτον ἰδὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς κατακείμενον, καὶ γνοὺς ὅτι πολὺν ἤδη χρόνον ἔχει, λέγει αὐτῷ, Θέλεις ὑγιὴς γενέσθαι; 7 ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ ὁ ἀσθενῶν, Κύριε, ἄνθρωπον οὐκ ἔχω ἵνα ὅταν ταραχθῇ τὸ ὕδωρ βάλῃ με εἰς τὴν κολυμβήθραν: ἐν ᾧ δὲ ἔρχομαι ἐγὼ ἄλλος πρὸ ἐμοῦ καταβαίνει. 8 λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς, Ἔγειρε ἆρον τὸν κράβαττόν σου καὶ περιπάτει. 9 καὶ εὐθέως ἐγένετο ὑγιὴς ὁ ἄνθρωπος, καὶ ἦρεν τὸν κράβαττον αὐτοῦ καὶ περιεπάτει.

Hν δὲ σάββατον ἐν ἐκείνῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ. 10 ἔλεγον οὖν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι τῷ τεθεραπευμένῳ, Σάββατόν ἐστιν, καὶ οὐκ ἔξεστίν σοι ἆραι τὸν κράβαττόν σου. 11 ὁ δὲ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτοῖς, Ὁ ποιήσας με ὑγιῆ ἐκεῖνός μοι εἶπεν, Aρον τὸν κράβαττόν σου καὶ περιπάτει. 12 ἠρώτησαν αὐτόν, Τίς ἐστιν ὁ ἄνθρωπος ὁ εἰπών σοι, Aρον καὶ περιπάτει; 13 ὁ δὲ ἰαθεὶς οὐκ ᾔδει τίς ἐστιν, ὁ γὰρ Ἰησοῦς ἐξένευσεν ὄχλου ὄντος ἐν τῷ τόπῳ. 14 μετὰ ταῦτα εὑρίσκει αὐτὸν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν τῷ ἱερῷ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἴδε ὑγιὴς γέγονας: μηκέτι ἁμάρτανε, ἵνα μὴ χεῖρόν σοί τι γένηται. 15 ἀπῆλθεν ὁ ἄνθρωπος καὶ ἀνήγγειλεν τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις ὅτι Ἰησοῦς ἐστιν ὁ ποιήσας αὐτὸν ὑγιῆ. 16 καὶ διὰ τοῦτο ἐδίωκον οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι τὸν Ἰησοῦν, ὅτι ταῦτα ἐποίει ἐν σαββάτῳ. 17 ὁ δὲ [Ἰησοῦς] ἀπεκρίνατο αὐτοῖς, Ὁ πατήρ μου ἕως ἄρτι ἐργάζεται, κἀγὼ ἐργάζομαι. 18 διὰ τοῦτο οὖν μᾶλλον ἐζήτουν αὐτὸν οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι ἀποκτεῖναι, ὅτι οὐ μόνον ἔλυεν τὸ σάββατον ἀλλὰ καὶ πατέρα ἴδιον ἔλεγεν τὸν θεόν, ἴσον ἑαυτὸν ποιῶν τῷ θεῷ.

1 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids – blind, lame, and paralysed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ 7 The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ 8 Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Now that day was a sabbath. 10 So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ 11 But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ 12 They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ 13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14 Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16 Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ 18 For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

Summary:

Jesus goes to Jerusalem for a feast. At the Pool of Betheseda, he heals a paralysed man. Jesus tells him to “Pick up your mat and walk!” This takes place on the sabbath. Many people see the man carrying his mat and tell him this is against the law. He tells them the man who healed him told him to do so, and they ask who that was. He tries to point to Jesus, but Jesus has slipped away into the crowd. Jesus comes to him later and tells him: “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man then tells people it was Jesus who healed him.

This story is very similar to a similar story in the synoptic Gospels (see Mark 2, Matthew 9 and Luke 5), but the paralysed man comes to Jesus at his home in Capernaum, and Jesus at first says the sins of the man are forgiven and only when people question his ability to forgive sins does Christ say that he could have said to the man pick up your mat and walk.

People begin to persecute Jesus because he is working on the sabbath and comparing himself to God. Jesus responds that his power comes from his Father.

Introduction

This passage is the well-known story of Jesus healing of the lame man on the sabbath. But there is more stirring under the waters.

In Section Two of the Fourth Gospel, which began with the first miracle at Cana and which ended with the second miracle at Cana, Jesus shows that he is about to replace the Jewish rites of purification and the Temple. Now we reach the point where he is about to replace the great feasts, one by one.

In this section, we also see a continuation of the “life” theme, which reaches a climax with the introduction of the “bread of life” in John 6.

Once again in the Fourth Gospel we are introduced to a story with a water setting. Remember the Baptism of Christ by John in the River Jordan, which is an Epiphany moment; the Wedding at Cana, where water is turned into wine, and which is also an Epiphany moment; and the conversation with the Samaritan women at the well, where Jesus talks of himself as the living water that bring eternal life.

Like the waters of the Jordan, there is also a comparison with the waters of creation. Although verse 3, with the introduction of the angel who hovers over the water, is not questioned by scholars, nevertheless it points to the way this story was linked by the early church with the story of creation and the story of Christ6’s baptism.

What do you think is the symbolism of the five porticos? Whether archaeologists have found these porticos is another question. But can you see the cross-reference to the story of the Samaritan woman, for example? Once again, by choosing his setting, the writer of the Fourth Gospel is building up our expectations. There is a promise here not only of healing and wholeness but also of eternal life.

The setting:

Jerusalem ... the site of the Pool of Bethesda

Bethesda is the name of a series of pools in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, on the path of the Beth Zeta Valley. In Greek Biblical manuscripts its name is often mistaken for name of the town of Bethsaida. Its name may be derived from the Aramaic beth hesda, meaning either “house of mercy” or “house of grace.”

Since the 4th century it has also been called the Sheep Pool, but this is now thought to be a translation error. It is associated with healing. The Fourth Gospel describes the pool’s location using the Greek word προβατικῇ (probatike), which literally means “pertaining to sheep.” In the early 4th century, Eusebius interpreted this as the sheep-pool, and later Church Fathers repeated this suggestion, so that it also appears in some translations. However, it is now thought that the term προβατικῇ (probatike) refers to Bethesda being located near to the Sheep-gate, a gate in the former city wall, near to the Lion Gate in the present city wall. Which interpretation does your translation favour?

The history of the pool dates back to the 8th century BC, when a dam was built across the short Beth Zeta valley, turning it into a reservoir for rain water. A sluice-gate in the dam allowed the height to be controlled, and a rock-cut channel brought a steady stream of water from the reservoir into the city of Jerusalem. The reservoir became known as the Upper Pool.

Around 200 BC, during the period in which Simon II was the High Priest, the channel was enclosed, and a second pool was added on the south side of the dam. Although there is a popular legend that claims that this pool was used for washing sheep, this is very unlikely due to the pool’s use as a water supply, and its depth of 13 metres.

In the 1st century BC, natural caves to the east of the two pools were turned into small baths, as part of an ασκληπιεῖον (asklepieion) or healing temple. However, the Mishnah implies that at least one of these new pools was sacred to Fortuna, the goddess of fortune, rather than Asclepius (Ἀσκληπιός), the god of healing. According to the Fourth Gospel, this pool was a swimming bath (κολυμβήθρα, kolumbethra) with five porticos – although this was translated as porches in older translations – close to the probatike or Sheep-Gate. Archaeologically, the reference to five porticos is not yet fully understood, as the only applicable structure found in the pools themselves has three porticos rather than five. The closest alternative match is to the five colonnades of the asklepieion itself.

Saint John’s Gospel describes the porticos as being a place in which large numbers of infirm people were waiting, which corresponds well with the site’s use in the 1st century use as an asklepieion.

Some scholars have suggested that the narrative is actually part of a deliberate polemic against the Asclepius cult, an antagonism possibly brought on partly by the fact that Asclepius was worshipped as Saviour (Σωτήρ, Soter), because of his healing attributes.

The narrative uses the Greek phrase ὑγιὴς γενέσθαι; (hygies genesthai? Do you want to be made well?), which is not used anywhere in the three Synoptic Gospels.

Verse 1:

It is not clear what feast is being referred to here. Some think it is the Feast of Pentecost, which comes 50 days after the Passover. Others suggest the Feast of the Spring Harvest. By the time of Christ, Pentecost had become the feast of renewing the Sinai Covenant, since Moses arrived at Sinai approximately 50 days after the Passover in Egypt. Later in this chapter, the references to Jesus the judge (see verses 22 and 30) and to Moses’ witness to Jesus (verses 46-47) appear to echo the themes of the Sinai law and covenant associated with the feast of Pentecost.

Verse 2:

In the NRSV, the Hebrew name of the pool is given as “Beth-zatha.” In some ancient versions, the pool’s name is given as Bethseda, Bethsaida and Bezatha. Archaeological excavations near the gate through which sheep were brought to the Temple, led to the discovery of a large pool.

Verses 3-4:

The Angel at the Pool of Bethesda .... Robert Bateman

After the word “paralysed” later manuscripts add, wholly or in part, an explanatory statement:

“waiting for the stirring of the water; 4 for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had.” But these words, which reflect popular tradition, are missing from the best manuscripts, and modern scholarship views these extra details as unreliable and unlikely to have been part of the original text. And so, many modern translations do not include the troubling of the water or the angel tradition, leaving the earlier numbering system and moving from verse 3a straight to verse 5.

But some ancient manuscripts say these people were waiting for the troubling of the water. A few manuscripts also move the setting away from Roman rituals into something more appropriate to Judaism, by adding that an angel would occasionally stir the waters, which would then cure the first person to enter.

Verse 8:

Jesus tells the man to take up his mat and walk.

Verse 9:

But the biblical narrative now introduces the fact this healing took place on a sabbath.

Verse 10:

The problem for the authorities is not that the man was healed, or that he was healed on the Sabbath, but that he breached a prohibition on lifting and carrying a mat on the Sabbath, which amounts to work.

They ask him who has healed him, who has told him to break the Sabbath law. But the man does not know

Although God rested after six days of creation, it does not mean that he ceased to care for creation or to take an interest in its affairs.

God continues to work on the Sabbath, giving life, rewarding good and punishing evil.

Verse 13:

The phrase “for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd” is also given as “for Jesus had left because of the crowd.” This is not a vanishing trick. He had disappeared, or blended into the crowds in order to avoid publicity.

Verse 14:

There are worse things than illness.

Verse 16:

The phrase “the Jews” here represents the religious authorities in Jerusalem who opposed Jesus for his break with their legalism.

Verse 17:

God continually gives life and judges evil, as does Christ.

Verse 18:

For the phrase “making himself equal to God” see John 10: 30-33, where Jesus says “The Father and I are one” and is told: “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”

Some questions:

How do you understand the equality of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

What are the implications of this for how you pray?

How would you make the connections between the waters of creation, Christ as the living water, and the waters of baptism?

What do you mean when you pray for healing for yourself or others?

How do you respond when those prayers appear not to have been answered?

How do you see Christ fulfilling the hopes of Judaism and the hopes of other religions too?

Why did Jesus seek to avoid publicity?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group with BTh and MTh students on Wednesday 27 January 2010.