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John 5:1-9

[New to our exegesis of John’s Gospel? Try starting at The Beginning — see top menu for John 1:1-2].

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

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many ill, blind, lame, and paralyzed people. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight yearsWhen 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?” The ill 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.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Μετὰ ταῦτα ἦν ἑορτὴ τῶν Ἰουδαίων, καὶ ἀνέβη Ἰησοῦς εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα. ἔστιν δὲ ἐν τοῖς Ἱεροσολύμοις ἐπὶ τῇ προβατικῇ κολυμβήθρα ἡ ἐπιλεγομένη Ἑβραϊστὶ Βηθεσδά, πέντε στοὰς ἔχουσα· ἐν ταύταις κατέκειτο πλῆθος τῶν ἀσθενούντων, τυφλῶν, χωλῶν, ξηρῶν. ἦν δέ τις ἄνθρωπος ἐκεῖ τριάκοντα ὀκτὼ ἔτη ἔχων ἐν τῇ ἀσθενείᾳ αὐτοῦ· τοῦτον ἰδὼν ὁ Ἰησοῦς κατακείμενον, καὶ γνοὺς ὅτι πολὺν ἤδη χρόνον ἔχει, λέγει αὐτῷ· Θέλεις ὑγιὴς γενέσθαιἀπεκρίθη 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. λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς· Ἔγειρε ἆρον τὸν κράβαττόν σου καὶ περιπάτει. καὶ εὐθέως ἐγένετο ὑγιὴς ὁ ἄνθρωπος καὶ ἦρε τὸν κράβαττον αὐτοῦ καὶ περιεπάτει.

Stirred Up Angel?

There is a wealth of amazing things in these short verses. I am going to run through a few and then remark on what’s missing.

If you have been reading John’s Gospel for years you may be scratching your head because you thought the name of this pool was Bethesda and now you see this weird Beth-zatha. Some regard Bethesda a scribal error. It means “House of Mercy” and perhaps a scribe thought this was intended. An historian at that time, Josephus, writes of a Bezetha quarter in Jerusalem that fits this area. But a copper scroll found at Qumran calls this area Bet ‘Esda which means “House of Flowing” (as in disturbed water?). If the word is considered in the singular, in Greek it would be Bethesda, but if an Aramaic plural, Bezatha. Remember that Jesus spoke Aramaic, the Gospels were written in Greek, and Hebrew names and phrases were also common at that time. However, I suppose nothing rises or falls on this point.

We should mention the human suffering referred to here. This disabled man had been at this pool for 38 years. We need to experience the hopelessness of his condition and the fact he keeps getting pushed aside in those moments when he might have a glimmer of hope.

The question Jesus asks him is haunting, “Do you want to be made well?” I have asked myself that same question over the years when confronted with a bad behavior or habit. Do you, do we, want to get better, or have we made friends with our additions and ailments, even use them as excuses (“someone gets in the water before me!”)?

I should point out that, prior to the mid-twentieth century, some believed this story was made up. There was no evidence this pool with five porticoes ever existed in Jerusalem. And then it was found: exactly as John described it and in the proper location.

But where is verse 4? Did you notice it’s missing? In an older Bible you’ll find: “From time to time an angel of the Lord used to come down in the pool, and the water was stirred up. Accordingly, the first one to enter was cured of whatever sickness he had.” This gives us a window in biblical textual criticism and what gets into or out of the Bible. In this case, the best and oldest manuscripts simply do not have verse 4 indicating it was added later. (Sometimes a scribe would write in the margin a comment about a text that would later get written into it. These are identified and eliminated by comparing the older texts with later ones). Also, seven of the words in this verse are not in any of John’s writings — the verse simply doesn’t “sound like him.” Nonetheless, Tertullian around 200 AD alludes to this angel stirring, and Chrysostom around 400 AD refers directly to it. Even today, Palestinian muslims refer to spring-fed pools as being stirred up by “jinni” when the bubbles surface.

And then, in any event, you can see another reason why a scribe might have added it to a margin, and another bring it into the text, when you consider verse 7. With the phantom verse 4, verse 7 makes sense. Ahhh, but that’s another reason to kick out 4. Another principle of textual criticism: later texts seem to have solved problems earlier texts didn’t resolve. And the goal of the biblical scholar is to keep it as authentic to the original text as possible, even if that means preserving a confused or incomplete phrase or event.

So, no verse 4.

Maybe an angel stirred that pool and maybe not, but one definitely stirs my soul toward God. Thank you, Angel!