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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
This word signifies the house of mercy, and was the name of a pool, or public bath, at Jerusalem, which had five porticos, piazzas, or covered walks around it. This bath was called Bethesda, because, as some observe, the erecting of baths was an act of great kindness to the common people, whose infirmities in hot countries required frequent bathing; but the generality of expositors think it had this name rather from the great goodness of God manifested to his people, in bestowing healing virtues upon its waters. The account of the evangelist is, "Now there was at Jerusalem, by the sheep market, a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water; for an angel went down at a certain season into the pool: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had," John 5:2-4 . The genuineness of the fourth verse has been disputed, because it is wanting in some ancient MSS, and is written in the margin of another as a scholion; but even were the spuriousness of this verse allowed, for which, however, the evidence is by no means satisfactory, the supernatural character of the account, as it is indicated by the other parts of the narrative, remains unaffected. The agitation of the water: its suddenly healing virtue as to all diseases; and the limitation to the first that should go in, are all miraculous circumstances. Commentators have however resorted to various hypotheses to account for the whole without divine agency. Dr. Hammond says, "The sacrifices were exceedingly numerous at the passover, κατακαιρον , (once a year, Chrysostom,) when the pool being warm from the immediate washing of the blood and entrails, and thus adapted to the cure of the blind, the withered, the lame, and perhaps the paralytic, was yet farther troubled, and the congelations and grosser parts stirred up by an officer or messenger, αγγελος , to give it the full effect." To this hypothesis Whitby acutely replies,
1. How could this natural virtue be adapted to, and cure, all kinds of diseases?
2. How could the virtue only extend to the cure of one man, several probably entering at the same instant?
3. How unlikely is it, if natural, to take place only at one certain time, at the passover? for there was a multitude of sacrifices slain at other of the feasts.
4. Lastly, and decisively, Lightfoot shows that there was a laver in the temple for washing the entrails; therefore they were not washed in this pool at all.
Others, however, suppose that the blood of the victims was conveyed from the temple to this pool by pipes; and Kuinoel thinks that it cannot be denied that the blood of animals recently slaughtered may impart a medicinal property to water; and he refers to Richter's "Dissertat, de Balneo Animali," and Michaelis in loc. But he admits that it cannot be proved whether the pool was situated out of the city at the sheep gate, or in the city, and in the vicinity of the temple; nor that the blood of the victims was ever conveyed thither by canals. Kuinoel justly observes, that though in Josephus no mention is made of the baths here described, yet this silence ought not to induce us to question the truth of this transaction; since the historian omits to record many other circumstances which cannot be doubted; as, for instance, the census of Augustus, and the murder of the infants. This critic also supposes that St. John only acts the part of an historian, and gives the account as it was current among the Jews, without vouching for its truth, or interposing his own judgment. Mede follows in the track of absurdly attempting to account for the phenomenon on natural principles:—"I think the water of this pool acquired a medicinal property from the mud at its bottom, which was heavy with metallic salts,—sulphur perhaps, or alum, or nitre. Now this would, from the water being perturbed from the bottom by some natural cause, perhaps subterranean heat, or storms, rise upward and be mingled with it, and so impart a sanative property to those who bathed in it before the metallic particles had subsided to the bottom. That it should have done so, κατα κ αιρον , is not strange, since Bartholin has, by many examples shown, that it is usual with many medicinal baths, to exert a singular force and sanative power at stated times, and at periodical, but uncertain, intervals." Doddridge combines the common hypothesis with that of Mede; namely, that the water had at all times more or less of a medicinal property; but at some period, not far distant from that in which the transaction here recorded took place, it was endued with a miraculous power; an extraordinary commotion being probably observed in the water, and Providence so ordering it, that the next person who accidentally bathed here, being under some great disorder, found an immediate and unexpected cure: the like phenomenon in some other desperate case, was probably observed on a second commotion: and these commotions and cures might happen periodically.
All those hypotheses which exclude miracle in this case are very unsatisfactory, nor is there any reason whatever to resort to them; for, when rightly viewed, there appears a mercy and a wisdom in this miracle which must strike every one who attentively considers the account, unless he be a determined unbeliever in miraculous interposition. For,
1. The miracle occurred κατα καιρον , from time to time, that is, occasionally, perhaps frequently.
2. Though but one at a time was healed, yet, as this might often occur, a singularly gracious provision was made for the relief of the sick inhabitants of Jerusalem in desperate cases.
3. The angel probably acted invisibly, but the commotion in the waters was so strong and peculiar as to mark a supernatural agent.
4. There is great probability in what Doddridge, following Tertullian, supposes, that the waters obtained their healing property not long before the ministry of Christ, and lost it after his rejection and crucifixion by the Jews. In this case a connection was established between the healing virtue of the pool and the presence of Christ on earth, indicating HIM to be the source of this benefit, and the true agent in conferring it; and thus it became, afterward at least, a confirmation of his mission.
5. The whole might also be emblematical, "intended," says Macknight, "to show that Ezekiel's vision of waters issuing out of the sanctuary was about to be fulfilled, of which waters it is said, They shall be healed, and every thing shall live where the river cometh." It cannot be objected that this was not an age of miracles; and if miracles be allowed, we see in this particular supernatural visitation obvious reasons of fitness, as well as a divine compassion. If however the ends to be accomplished by so public and notable a miraculous interposition were less obvious, still we must admit the fact, or either force absurd interpretations upon the text, or make the evangelist carelessly give his sanction to an instance of vulgar credulity and superstition.
Maundrell and Chateaubriand both describe a bason or reservoir, near St. Stephen's gate, and bounding the temple on the north, as the identical pool of Bethesda; which, if it really be what it is represented to be, is all that now remains of the primitive architecture of the Jews at Jerusalem. The latter says, "It is a reservoir, a hundred and fifty feet long and forty wide. The sides are walled, and these walls are composed of a bed of large stones joined together by iron cramps; a wall of mixed materials runs up on these large stones; a layer of flints is stuck upon the surface of this wall; and a coating is laid over these flints. The four beds are perpendicular with the bottom, and not horizontal: the coating was on the side next to the water; and the large stones rested, as they still do, against the ground. This pool is now dry, and half filled up. Here grow some pomegranate trees, and a species of wild tamarind of a bluish colons: the western angle is quite full of nopals. Or the west side may also be seen two arches, which probably led to an aqueduct that carried the water into the interior of the temple."
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Bethesda'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/b/bethesda.html. 1831-2.