be-thez'-da (Bethesda; Textus Receptus of the New Testament, John 5:2 (probably beth chicda', "house of mercy"); other forms occur as Bethzatha and Bethsaida):
1. The Conditions of the Narrative:
The only data we have is the statement in John 5:2-4:
"Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a multitude of them that were sick, blind, halt, withered." Many ancient authorities add (as in the Revised Version, margin) "waiting for the moving of the water: for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and troubled the water," etc.
The name does not help as to the site, no such name occurs elsewhere in Jerusalem; the mention of the sheep gate is of little assistance because the word "gate" is supplied, and even were it there, its site is uncertain. Sheep "pool" or "place" is at least as probable; the tradition about the "troubling of the water" (which may be true even if the angelic visitant may be of the nature of folk-lore) can receive no rational explanation except by the well-known phenomenon, by no means uncommon in Syria and always considered the work of a supernatural being, of an intermittent spring. The arrangement of the five porches is similar to that demonstrated by Dr. F. Bliss as having existed in Roman times as the Pool of Siloam; the story implies that the incident occurred outside the city walls, as to carry a bed on the Sabbath would not have been forbidden by Jewish traditional law.
2. The Traditional Site:
Tradition has varied concerning the site. In the 4th century, and probably down to the Crusades, a pool was pointed out as the true site, a little to the Northwest of the present Stephen's Gate; it was part of a twin pool and over it were erected at two successive periods two Christian churches. Later on this site was entirely lost and from the 13th century the great Birket Israel, just North of the Temple area, was pointed out as the site.
Within the last quarter of a century, however, the older traditional site, now close to the Church of Anne, has been rediscovered, excavated and popularly accepted. This pool is a rock-cut, rain-filled cistern, 55 ft. long X 12 ft. broad, and is approached by a steep and winding flight of steps. The floor of the rediscovered early Christian church roofs over the pool, being supported upon five arches in commemoration of the five porches. At the western end of the church, where probably the font was situated, there was a fresco, now much defaced and fast fading, representing the angel troubling the waters.
3. A More Probable Site:
Although public opinion supports this site, there is much to be said for the proposal, promulgated by Robinson and supported by Conder and other good authorities, that the pool was at the "Virgin's Fount" (see GIHON), which is today an intermittent spring whose "troubled" waters are still visited by Jews for purposes of cure. As the only source of "living water" near Jerusalem, it is a likely spot for there to have been a "sheep pool" or "sheep place" for the vast flocks of sheep coming to Jerusalem in connection with the temple ritual. See Biblical World, XXV, 80.
E. W. G. Masterman