Israel Trip Journal- Day 3 pt. 3: Pool of Bethesda & Sheep Gate

Monday, March 14, 2011 (cont.)
St. Anne’s Church courtyard

Pool of Bethesda

As we headed west down the Via Dolorosa, we came to St. Anne’s Church. This church was built over what the Crusaders believed to be the birthplace of Anne, mother of Mary. It was built around 1140, to replace an earlier Byzantine basilica. From the Via Dolorosa, you don’t even notice that there is a church here, because as you leave the street, and enter through a wooden door you find yourself in a quiet hidden garden enclave– the courtyard of St. Anne’s Church. Just past the church is the Pool of Bethesda.Our group went to a small area on the north side of the church which faces the Pool of Bethesda, to pray for Jim Hickey. Jim and Wanda Jean were the tour group leaders and our friends. Jim has Lou Gehrig’s Disease, so we as a group desired to pray for him here where our Lord Jesus Christ healed the man who had been an invalid for 38 years (John 5:1-14). After Raouf spoke, Wanda Jean shared some words with us, then we all gathered around Jim and took turns praying for him.

Alter in St. Anne’s Church

After this, we all went into the church. This church is renowned for its amazing acoustics- perfect for Gregorian chant. Since the church is built on a grotto (supposed birthplace of Mary), the sounds resonate up through and across the open space of the basilica. And so Wanda Jean encouraged us to sing Amazing Grace together as we stood near the front of the church. We were then given some time to go down to the Pool of Bethesda to explore as a group and pray together in pairs.

The Pool was not what we expected. What remains over the pool are ruins of an ancient Byzantine church . We descended some steps in the northern section into a cave-like structure where there was standing water and water dripping out of a water hose. We found that amusing. This famed pool looked like it was fed by a water hose! The pool– actually pools- were created in the 8th century BC by damming a small river to create a reservoir for rainwater. They were later expanded and during the 1st century BC, Roman soldiers turned it into a shrine to Asclepius– called an Asclepion. Given that Israelites believed the water had healing power, it made sense that the Roman occupiers would sanctify it to the god of medicine and healing. It was an important center for healing treatments, dream therapy, and the like.

ruins of the Pool of Bethesda
In chapter five of John, the apostle very specifically describes a pool with five porticoes, just inside the Sheep Gate. Until the 19th century, some had questioned the veracity of John’s account, because the existence of such a pool had not been recorded anywhere else. Scholars went so far as to conjecture that the five porticoes described by John were only allegorical of the Pentateuch– the first five books of the Bible. However, in the 19th century, archaeologists discovered a pool identical to the one described by John. Thus “confirming” the historical accuracy of John’s gospel. There is some controversy among Christians over the John 5:4 verse about the belief that an angel gave the pool its healing properties. Our pastor gave an excellent explanation of this much-debated verse in December of 2010.
upper level of the Pool ruins

Some believe that because the Pool was widely known to be an Asclepion, Jesus’ healing of the man here was a direct assault on the the pagan-centered healing offered there. Some think that it is odd that Jesus healed this man quite anonymously (John 5:12-13), then returned later to tell him to stop sinning (John 5:14-15). However, unlike other healing miracles where Jesus would often ask if the person believed before healing them, or forgive them their sins and then heal them, or even say that their faith had healed them– this man obviously fit none of the previous categories. This man didn’t have faith in Jesus, nor even knew who He was. And Jesus didn’t forgive the paralytic of his sins before healing him. Could it be that Jesus was using this miracle to prove that He was the only God of healing in this place that attributed healing to a false god?

I recently read a commentary on this passage from a man who was trying to disprove Jesus’ divinity. He asked: “Why would Jesus admonish the man to ‘stop sinning or something worse will happen to you’? What sin could a man paralyzed for 38 years commit? What could be worse than being paralyzed for 38 years?” 

As mentioned earlier, this miracle was different in so many ways already but add to it that usually people sought Jesus out for healing–or someone sought Jesus on their behalf. However, it seems that Jesus sought the paralytic out instead. In my humble opinion, by virtue of the man being here at the Pool of Bethesda, he was looking to false gods for his healing.

lower level of  Pool

Thus, it is possible for a paralyzed man to sin– sins of the heart and mind are still sins. This man didn’t get the ‘go and sin no more’ farewell that Jesus had given so many others. This man needed to recognize he was indeed sinning and to stop. And to answer the last question, the only thing worse than being paralyzed for so long would be to die and go to hell. Of course neither of those answers would satisfy someone who doesn’t believe in sin or heaven and hell. But, those who do, can understand why Jesus made such a statement.

The Sheep Gate

Sheep Gate (Lion’s Gate)

After passing back through the courtyard area of St. Anne’s Church, we went back out to the Via Dolorosa and headed back east to exit via the Sheep Gate (Nehemiah 3:1; John 5:2). As we walked toward the Gate, I saw a little hand painted sign that said, ‘Birthplace of the Virgin Mary.’ There is no proof that she was born here, but that is what was painted above the door. When we stopped outside the Sheep Gate, Raouf told us that it goes by many names, Stephen’s Gate, Tribes Gate and Lion’s Gate. It is one of the seven open gates of the Old City. It marks the beginning of the traditional route for the Via Dolorosa; unfortunately we didn’t get to traverse that whole path.

Via Dolorosa looking east toward the Sheep Gate

It was called the Sheep’s Gate because this is the gate through which the sacrificial lambs made their journey to be sacrificed. There is an excellent article about the symbolism of Jesus entering this Gate as He began His sacrificial journey into Jerusalem that fateful day of His crucifixion. It has also been called Stephen’s Gate because of the tradition that Stephen, first martyr of the Christian faith, was stoned outside this Gate. It is now called the Lion’s Gate because of the four panthers, two on each side, which are often mistaken as lions. According to legend, Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, built this Gate because of a bad dream he had about lions tearing him apart. He had been contemplating heavily taxing the inhabitants, and his dream interpreter said it was a sign that God was going to punish him, so he built the gate to protect the inhabitants and appease God.

(I felt this blog entry was long enough, so despite my desire to finish day 3 in  three parts, I must finish it in four.)
Up Next: Day 3 pt 4: The Garden Tomb, The Wailing Wall & Rabbinical Tunnel