The pool of Bethesda, where Christ healed the paralytic lying in his bed for 38 years, is located north of the old Hebrew Temple and opposite to the pool of Siloam in the holy city of Jerusalem. The Gospel reminding us of the miracle our Lord performed with the paralytic near the water of Bethesda, is also read during the services of the blessing of the water.
Bethesda is Hebrew name composed of two words, “beth” meaning “house”, and “hesda” or “kindness, charity” or the “House of the merciful waters.” The name of this place was probably attributed to the waters gathered here in pools, known for their healing effects for bodily infirmities.
In Latin, this place was called “the Fountain of the sheep” as was near the place where the sheep sacrificed in the Jewish Temple, were washed.
Its newest name does not appear in the Old Testament, this place been called the “Upper Pool” which is believed to be the northern basin from Bethesda. In the times before to the reign of king Herod, the waters of Bethesda met the needs of the temple.
Near the pool of Bethesda, there was a public bath where the miracle mentioned in today’s Gospel took place, and a treatment center. Over one part of the pool of Bethesda, a Byzantine basilica was built and the Crusaders will later erect a small chapel and a large basilica dedicated to St Anna.
The ruins of the two pools of Bethesda, located northwest of Jerusalem can be seen today, on the right side after passing through the gate of St. Stephen (known as “the Lion Gate” due to its two ancient figures -two lions- attached to it).
The Pool of Bethesda in the Holy Scripture!
In the Old Testament the pool of “Bethesda” is known as the “Upper Poole”, possibly referring to the north part of the public bath.
King Achaz, preparing for war, checked the location near the water basin, in view of a possible siege. “Then the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Achaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field.” (Isaiah 7, 3).
“And the king of Assyria sent Tartan from Lachish and Rabshakeh of Rabsaris with great hosts of army into Jerusalem and arriving, they stopped at the aqueduct of the Upper Pool which is located near the road that goes the Launderer’s Field.” (IV Kings 18, 17).
“After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great 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, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me. Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the Sabbath. “ (John 5:1-9)
The Pool of Bethesda throughout history!
During the time of the First Temple of Jerusalem, the water tanks form Bethesda provided the necessary water for the Temple. The first fountain was built as a dent in the stone, which collected the rainwater and from this pool, the water was directed to the temple through an open channel.
In the third century BC, in the time of the Second Temple, the Bethesda fountain was rebuilt to provide more water for the needs of the temple. At this time, the site was divided into two pools and separated by a dam built from stones.
Beginning with years 150-70 BC, the place was expanded and turned into a treatment center.
Following the excavations from 1956, the archaeologists have uncovered the ruins of some buildings considered to be the ancient treatment center.
During the Romanian occupation, the Pool of Bethesda has lost its former importance. Thus, when Herod the Great built a new system of aqueducts, the pool of Bethesda remained deserted.
Before the fifth century, the place has been used as a public bath, because the waters remained here, although very few, were renowned for their healing power.
The miracles of our Saviour took place at Bethesda, in the Roman times. St. John the Evangelist in his Gospel reminds us that the pool of Bethesda had five porches. These porches were later (1956) uncovered by the archaeologists.
In the year 44 BC, Herod Agrippa built near Bethesda a new wall, which stopped the water supply for the pool. Few years later, the Romans built near it a pagan temple, dedicated to the god Asclepius, a Greek hero – the god of medicine and healing, and to the Egyptian god Serappis.
In the Byzantine times, the Pool of Bethesda became a center of Christian pilgrimage. During the years 422-458, when Juvenal was elected the patriarch of Jerusalem, a great Byzantine church was erected over the pool of Bethesda. This stony structure was supported by seven arches, built over the central pier of the pool.
This Byzantine cathedral was dedicated to Our Lady from Probatha, or of “bathing”, as it appears in the famous mosaic map dating from the sixth century, and preserved until today in the Church in Madaba. The Basilica was destroyed in 1010.
During the Crusader’ period, after conquering the Holy City in 1099, it was desired that the great basilicas may be rebuilt, but this work required great effort and expense. Thus, a humble new chapel it will be added only. This was the time when the place became a monastery.
By the year 1140, a new and magnificent basilica will be built, and was dedicated to St. Anna, the mother of the Theotokos.
The fountain at Bethesda was excavated by archeologists in 1956.