"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 6
Section 6.1: A Controversial Healing (Jn 5.2-18)
As in the Synoptic accounts of Jesus' ministry of healing and teaching (and in reports of specific events such as the Sabbath healing of a man with a withered arm in Mark 3.1-6), the Elder presents controversy over a heaing that took place on the Sabbath as a critical moment in Jesus' career. Jesus' Sabbath healings aroused the ire of the very strict, who believed that observance of the Sabbath commandment to rest must take precedence over the healing of a chronic condition. The sufferer here, like the one in Mark 3.1-6 (and its parallels Matt 12.9-14 and Luke 6.6-11) undeniably suffered from a chronic condition, yet Jesus sought him out for healing on the Sabbath. That alone is sufficient to lead the authorities who witnessed or were otherwise aware of this healing to act against Jesus in some way. As the note on the translation of v16 shows, their actions are expressed by using a verb that has several meanings; I have taken it here to indicate that 'hoi Ioudaioi' reacted to the healing by bringing a charge of some kind against Jesus.
In the Synoptic accounts of such controversies, Jesus engages in argument with his opponents, directly or indirectly. But here in John's Gospel Jesus appeals not to an argument based on Torah and its interpretation but to a claim based upon his status as the Son. For rabbinic authorities recognised that God could not rest entirely on the Sabbath because human beings continued to be born and die and the whole universe was sustained. Jesus' statement in v19 will put his own activity on a par with that of his Father, which amounts to the same thing as putting himself the divine side of the divide between humankind and God. This in turn inspires a heightened response from the authorities (or at least some of them) -- now, John tells us, they sought for Jesus' death because he was blaspheming against God.
For this section in general see Brown 1966 pp 206-11 and 216-17 and [GET OTHER REFS]
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COMMENTS ON SPECIFIC VERSES
This passage should make us acutely aware of the imperfectness of our own knowledge. It was at one time a common scholarly assumption that, since there was no such pool known in Jerusalem, these details in the text demonstrated that the Evangelist was himself ignorant of Jerusalem and its environs. Then archaeological excavations revealed a site with two pools on the northeast of the Temple, near Herod's Antonia fortress. It is now generally agreed that this is the site of the pool of Bethesda (as it is most commonly known). What is not so generally agreed is the character of the area in the time of Jesus. Later, when Jerusalem was rebuilt by the Romans as Aelia Capitolina, the site contained a pagan shrine to Aesculapius (the Greek Asclepius), a god of healing. This may indicate that the site already had a tradition of association with healing. In a 2005 article Shimon Gibson (who has been involved with the excavations) has argued that in Jesus' day the site was a complex for ritual cleansing before entering the Temple precincts. The tradition preserved in v4 suggests that a folk belief in magical healing had become attached to it, a process that would be aided by the OT associations between ritual purification and healing seen in the prophets and the story of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5.10-14). For more details, see Martien Parmentier, "The Lasting Sanctuary of Bethesda", Sanctity of Time and Space in Tradition and Modernity, A Houtmas, M. Poorthuis, and J. Schwartz, eds, 73-93, esp. p 82, and Gibson 2005 270-93, esp. pp 271-2 and 285-8.
The name of the pool appears in the manuscripts here in four different forms (with minor spelling variations): Bethesda, Bethzatha, Bethsaida, and Belzetha. Traditionally it has been known as Bethesda, but it appears now, after analysing many more manuscripts than were formerly available, that Bethzatha is likely to have been the correct name. Nevertheless, Bethesda continues to be very widely used to refer to it.
The 'missing' verse 4 (found after this verse in older English translations of the Bible, such as the Authorised (King James) Version) is given in note 4 to the text of this section. In the period in which those older translations were made, v4 was in the Greek text from which they were made. Better understanding of the manuscripts of the New Testament and of the Fourth Gospel in particular has led to its being dropped from the text because it is not present in most of the earliest and best MSS. Some scholars suggest that it is a very early explanatory gloss that somehow made its way into the text of the Fourth Gospel in a few early manuscripts.
It is interesting here that the sufferer himself does not ask Jesus for healing nor seek it out, neither does any friend or relative seek it on his behalf. The initiative is entirely Jesus'. This is similar to the miracle recounted in Mark 3.1-6, in which it is Jesus who accosts the man with the withered hand in the synagogue rather than the other way about. In fact the man at the pool of Bethesda appears not to know who Jesus is at all, and is unable to identify him to those who ask who told him to pick up his mat and walk until Jesus accosts him a second time in v14. This man by the pool anticipates in some particulars the man blind from birth whom Jesus heals in ch9, as we shall see.
This is the first time that the phrase "ho Ioudaios" (here in plural "hoi Ioudaioi") occurs in the sense of "the authorities". We saw in our analysis of the expression in John's Gospel that it usually means Judaean, Jerusalemite, or Jew. But there is a third sense that this substantive seems to bear, referring specifically to the ruling elite in Jerusalem, to the 'establishment'. That is a fuzzy definition, and deliberately so. It includes senior Saducees, Pharisees, and scribes (both inside and outside the Council), the lay aristocracy, the high priestly family, in short, the 'in group'. Sometimes these "authorities" appear to be primarily local (as in the story of the healing of the man born blind), sometimes they seem to be among the actual rulers. But it is in this third sense that the Evangelist strongly disassociates Jesus and his followers from 'hoi Ioudaioi' -- the latter are the leaders of the opposition to Jesus and his teaching and the group that plans his arrest and condemnation. Jesus represents the ultimate counterculture in this conflict.
Why did the Elder use this expression in that sense? There is no clear answer to that question. Some have found a connection with the statement in the Prologue (Jn 1.11) that the Word 'came to his own place and his own people did not receive him'. But that does not entirely explain using this expression for the leaders of the resistance to Jesus, since so many other Jews of the time, as well as some contemporary leaders like Nicodemus, followed Jesus. We may never understand this choice by the evangelist. In any case, the usage has led some scholars to theorise that the Gospel was written at a critical time in the life of the community led by John, during which it was going through a final break with the Jewish community of which it had once considered itself a part. This theory is now undergoing revision and correction, and contemporary scholars are less likely to speculate about the situation of the Johannine community vis-à-vis the local Jewish community (for discussions, see Winter 2010 pp 83-6 and Bauckham 2007 pp 113-23). What is undeniable is that this usage, especially when linked with a literal translation of 'hoi Ioudaioi' as 'the Jews', has been used to justify anti-Semitism and has thereby led to great harm to the relationship between Christians and Jews and to great violence against Jews. So it's important both to try to understand what the author intended and to get the translation right.
Elsewhere in this gospel, John's Jesus rejected a direct connection between sin and disability (in Jn 9.2-3). Here his words to the man by the pool of Bethesda do not suggest a connection, direct or indirect. Jesus was not telling the man that he would undergo a more serious illness or disability if he sinned further. Instead Jesus warned the man that the results of sin - estrangement from God and from others - is something worse than the results of his physical illness, as serious as they had been. His disabilities cut him off from his fellow Israelites in some real physical ways, but even lying there at the pool he was part of God's covenant people, albeit a marginal part in the eyes of some. But if he continued in a condition of sin he would experience something worse, because he would be estranged from God. In John's Gospel, Jesus' coming does many things, but one of the most important effects was that through a relationship of trust with Jesus, men and women could become part of the familial relationship between Jesus and his Father, and be children of God (as the prologue said (especially Jn 1.9-13)). His healing offers this man an opportunity to build a new life, which includes the opportunity to live in relationship with God and others rather than in the broken condition of sin.
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