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Jerusalem finds validating Gospel of John

2nd Temple Period

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9 Mar 2013
Jerusalem finds validating Gospel of John

When we study the life of Jesus, most Christians turn to the pages of the New Testament and the four canonical gospels. These include the three synoptic (chronological) gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, plus the book of John, which is a considerably different work.

The distinctive nature of John has led many modern scholars to conclude that John was the last gospel compiled, dating to the second century A.D. and, as such, is irrelevant for historical Jesus studies (known officially as Jesus Research since 1980).

These scholars argue it is of later authorship because John is dependent upon the synoptic gospels and it was written specifically to offer a much more theologically advanced and sophisticated literary work that served to complement the earlier gospel accounts.

Secondly, the Gospel of John is viewed as having a later origin because it reveals some ignorance of Jerusalem. That is, the author of John knows little about first-century Jerusalem because he was never there and the Romans thoroughly destroyed it in 70 A.D. Therefore, he invented places like the Bethesda Pool having five porticoes (John 5) and the Pool of Siloam (John 9), investing in them heavy symbolism as he crafted his theological masterpiece.

However, a paradigm shift in Jesus Research has taken place in recent years. It is a shift that is challenging the skeptical scholars while proving to be edifying for the believers in Christ. What is the catalyst for this shift? In a word – Archaeology! More specifically – Biblical Archaeology!

To be clear, it is not that biblical archaeology proves or disproves the Bible. As Avraham Biran, Director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem, attests, “the Bible, as a book of divine inspiration, needs no proof.” Yet, it is the marriage of both disciplines, archaeology and biblical studies, that is rocking the boat of modern scholarship.

In a recent lecture in Jerusalem, James H. Charlesworth, Professor of New Testament Language and Literature and Editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary, outlined some of the new archeological finds in the environs of Jerusalem that are challenging the detractors of the Apostle John being the author of the book by his name. Charlesworth contended that recent finds demonstrate convincingly that the Gospel of John was probably written much earlier than often suggested and is, therefore, valuable for the study of the historical Jesus — in recreating his time, place and social environment, and in helping us understand his life, actions, teachings and agenda.

For instance, John chapter 5 records the story of the healing of an invalid man at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. The pool is said to have consisted of five porticoes, or porches.

For hundreds of years, people believing the pool did not exist read this text symbolically and theologically. ‘Bethesda’ means ‘house of mercy’ and was interpreted to be a symbol for the mercy Jesus showed the disabled man. ‘Five porticoes’ symbolized the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses), since there has not been found a pentagon (5-sided structure) in antiquity. And what the Pentateuch could not do, Jesus will do. Verse 8 reads, “Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up!’” – providing a beautiful explanation of what Jesus does. Spiritually speaking, he makes people upright!

Beginning in the late 1800s and continuing in stages since then, archaeological excavations have been carried out in a location in the northeast quadrant of Jerusalem’s Old City based upon literary evidence in Josephus (War 2.15.5 §328) and Eusebius (Onomasticon 58.21–26). The Copper Scroll text discovered in 1947 at Qumran also describes a hidden treasure “in the Bet ‘Eshdatayin (pool precinct) in the pool at the entrance to its smaller basin” (3Q15 11.12).

Bet ‘Eshdatayin is in the dual Aramaic form and refers to two basins for the pool. Excavations have revealed sections of two massive pools, covered colonnades and a segment of Herodian steps in the general area described in John 5 and in Josephus’ writings. Rather than a pentagon shape, the five porticoes mentioned in John 5 surrounded the pools on the north, south, east and west, with the fifth portico dividing the 2 pools east to west (as seen in the photograph).

The photo depicts an artist’s rendition of the two pools – north and south – surrounded and divided by porticoes. The artist’s model of Second Temple Jerusalem can be viewed today at The Israel Museum.

The Herodian steps in the Pool of Bethesda (see photo) can be seen today and are believed to extend for the length of the southern pool, or approximately 100 meters. It is a massive pool that is mostly covered by a parking lot today. The repetition of steps-landing-steps-landing can be easily seen and is typical of a mikvah, a pool or bath used to perform purification rites in Judaism.

In order to enter the courts of the Temple, located a little over 100 meters from the Pool of Bethesda, one had to be pure. In order to be pure, one had to be fully immersed in ‘living water.’ Thus a host of scholars today believe that the Pool of Bethesda was a first-century mikvah that served this purpose for tens of thousands of Jerusalem residents and for the thousands more that visited Jerusalem during the three annual pilgrimage feasts.

It has been estimated by some that over 100,000 Jews were in Jerusalem during the feasts. That is a lot of ‘living water’ needed for purification. It is likely the massive Pool of Bethesda helped to serve this purpose, along with other ritual baths surrounding the Temple. The requirement was that the worshipper must dip himself or herself in a mikvah before entering the courts of the Lord.

Re-reading John 5 with the pools, colonnades and steps in view, one can now easily envision the disabled man lying on his mat on the landing trying, with great difficulty, to immerse himself in the water just below. One can also envision another individual racing past him as the water is stirred up.

Now we can begin to understand that what the Gospel of John describes is precisely what had happened. The surviving literary records, such as the Copper Scroll, Josephus, Tacitus and the New Testament, refer to the water systems of Jerusalem, but none except John specifically mentions the Pool of Bethesda. That is to say, no other literary record but John and the Copper Scroll appear to have been aware of the pools which were likely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD.

This is especially important because the Gospel of John is the only gospel that claims to have an eyewitness. Luke interviews the eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4), but John actually claims to have been an eyewitness to the miracles of Jesus (John 1:14; 19:35; 21:24-25).

Therefore, the story in John 5 was not a later creation of Christology (explaining the divinity of Jesus), but a real historical event that took place in a real time at a real place. That is how he knew the details about the pool, its name, its function, the age of the disabled man and the fact he was lying on a mat. All of these incredible details of the account attest to the eyewitness testimony of John, thereby adding to the credibility of its author and the early date of its authorship.

Visitors to Jerusalem today can enter the premises of St. Anne’s Church in the Muslim Quarter and see the real place where Jesus healed the invalid, perhaps on the very steps that you can observe today.

Meanwhile, John 9 tells the story of Jesus healing a blind man by smearing mud on his eyes and telling him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The old paradigm in Jesus Research interpreted this passage on a very Christological basis, since they concluded there was no Pool of Siloam nor a relationship between the Gospel of John and actual history. The invented story simply shows how Jesus is the “light of the world” (verse 5) by showing the progression from first receiving physical eyesight followed eventually by receiving spiritual eyesight.

But in 2004, archaeologists discovered an ancient pool in the southern portion of the City of David excavations, south of the Temple Mount, which had been hidden since 70 A.D. The 50-meter northern edge and part of the eastern edge of the pool have been excavated while the remaining pool is on property owned by the Greek Orthodox Church.

Like the Pool of Bethesda, one can easily see the pattern of steps and platforms allowing pilgrims to easily enter the pool for full immersion in preparation for entering the Temple located 700 meters to the north. That is to say, like the Pool of Bethesda, the Pool of Siloam was also likely a mikvah, according to many archaeologists. These two pools represent the largest mikvaot (plural form) that have been discovered to date in the Land of Israel. Also, like the Pool of Bethesda, it is conceivable that Jesus immersed himself at this pool before entering the Temple.

The discipline of biblical archaeology and its resulting discoveries are forcing Jesus Research to undergo a paradigm shift. It is challenging the skeptic scholar because the recent discoveries of the Pool of Bethesda and Pool of Siloam demonstrate that the author of the Gospel of John knew intimate details of pre-70 AD Jerusalem that even Josephus failed to know or mention. He also knew things about Jerusalem that we did not know ten years ago.

“The accuracy of the Johannine information is clearly established,” writes Urban C. von Wahlde, Professor of Theology at Loyola University of Chicago, in his work Jesus and Archaeology. John can no longer be read as strictly a theological work comprised of invented stories to illustrate its theological truths.

Moreover, biblical archaeology is proving edifying to the passionate believer who can now point with confidence to the excavated Pool of Bethesda and say, “Jesus healed a disabled man here.” Or, they can sit on the steps of the Pool of Siloam, read John 9 and imagine how the story unfolded before their very eyes, bolstering their faith in the Light of the world.


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