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32. Pools of Bethesda

The Gospel of John records several events in the life of Jesus that are not documented in the other Gospels. The wedding in Cana is one example (John 2, see report #4).

During his stay in Jerusalem, the Gospel of John records Jesus healing a person, at a site called Bethesda:

“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.” (John 5:1-3).

A view of the area in Bethesda where stone basins were found, which were perhaps part of a Roman pagan cult to Ascelpius which was practiced at the site. (C) Michael Browning

The name Bethesda means ‘house of mercy’ or ‘house of grace’. The name could stem from the reputation of the site as a place of healing. Indeed the Gospel describes how paralytics were cured at the pools of Bethesda, and Jesus heals an invalid who could not reach the healing water.

The pools of Bethesda were identified in the Byzantine period (4th-7th Century CE) at a complex of the two large size pools north of the Temple Mount. A large church was constructed over the dam between the two pools, and it was dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus.

In the Crusaders time (12th-13th Century CE) the pools of Bethesda were again venerated. A small chapel was built over the dam, yet next to it a Romanesque style large church was constructed as well. It was dedicated to the birth and childhood of Mary, and was named after her mother, Saint Anna.

This church was not destroyed by the Muslims after the expulsion of the Crusaders, and was turned to a Muslim religious school (Madrase). The Turks used the church as a stable, and in 1856 it was given back to the Christians.  Under the direction of the French archaeologist Mosse the site was excavated and the church was renovated.

A visit to the site today enables pilgrims to see archaeological remains of the Pools, the Byzantine and Crusader churches built over them, and even evidence that in the late Roman period the site was also known as a healing centre (Ascelpieion). The Crusaders church next to them, complete and functioning now again, is also very impressive.

Until the 19th century Muslim held the Church of Saint Anne, and Christian pilgrims who wished to see the traditional birthplace of Virgin Mary, had to pay the Muslims to do so, and even then, they were only given permission to view the crypt from this narrow window. (C) Amos Frieldin