bible blog 2045

I am reading John’s Gospel and translating it with comment.

JOHN 5:1-17

bethesdAfter this there was a feast of the Judaeans and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is a pool in Jerusalem, near the sheepmarket, called Bethesda in Aramaic, which has five covered colonnades. A great assembly of invalids, blind, lame and wasted, lay in them. One man was there who had been an invalid for thirty eight years. Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there for a long time, so he said to him, “Do you want to get well?”

The invalid answered him, ” Sir, I have nobody to put me in the pool when the water is agitated and while I am on my way, someone else steps down in front of me.”

Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk!”

And immediately the man became well and he took up his pallet and walked. Now that day was the Sabbath, so the Judaeans said to the man who had been healed, “It us the  Sabbath and you are not allowed to carry your pallet.”

But he answered them, “The man who made me well, he told me,’ Pick up your pallet and walk.”

They questioned him, “What man told you to pick up your pallet and walk?”

In fact  the healed man did not know who it was, for Jesus had slipped away, as there was a crowd in that place. Later Jesus found him in the Temple and said to him, “Look at you, you are well! Sin no more, in case something worse happens to you!”

The man went off and told the Judaeans that it was Jesus who had made him well. That’s why the Judaeans were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My father is working even now; and I am working also.”bethes

Having read all the scholarly information about the location of this pool, including the discovery of ruined colonnades, I am left thinking that the historical assumptions of the scholars are irrelevant. For this author, the pool and its colonnade is a symbol of Judaism under the five books of Mosaic Law, and the collection of sick people an image of the spiritual condition of the Judaeans as he saw them. The 38 eight years the man has waited are surely tobe indentified with the thirty eight years of desert wandering mentioned in Deuteronomy 2: 14. This poor man has been “wandering in a desert” with no one to heal him.

Now I know some people, including my friend and colleague Kostas of the Orthodox Church, who robustly reject any kind of symbolic interpretation, noting its similarity to the very fanciful allegorical interpretations of the Greek fathers. I would urge all such to look  clearly at this Gospel and to see that its narrative is a constantly teasing mixture of symbolic, realistic and theological modes, which give it its peculiar tone and power. The author is not contructing an allegory, but is using biblical references to add depth to his story.

It is a story of conflict which continues the theme of Jesus’ rejectiuon by his own people and their leaders, a theme which intensifies in the narrative from this point onwards through to chapter 10. The healing which Jesus offers is the specific point at issue because it reveals his authority. The author shows us how Jesus diverged from a Judaism which emphasised the Law and the mystery of God, along with the patient piety of the faithful; by emphasising the kindness and unveiling (a-letheia/ truth) of God, and the need for an act of trust in the present tense.

The patient piety shown by the man is sharply qualified by Jesus’ fundamental question, “Do you want to get well?” and his brusque command for present action. He has been wandering in the desert so long that he’s become accustomed to infirmity. If he can put his trust in Jesus he can walk, now, into the promised land. In truth it’s not completely clear that the man wholly trusts Jesus even after his cure, as he seems to compromise with the Judaeans. The narrator shows something new happening but it is not completed yet; it has to struggle for its life against the power of religion. He wants his audience to see the struggle and not to assume that Jesus will be the winner. God enters this struggle in Jesus; relying on his strength and faithfulness, rather than establishing his will by force.

bethesdaAgain we are faced with the author’s special intepretation of the Sabbath: there will come a day, when Jesus has completed the creative work of God, when Jesus and his father can rest, but that is not yet, and cannot be represented by weekly ritual. Now, in the time of Jesus’ ministry, father and son are at work; as they will again be in the new world week which begins with the resurrection.

As we will see in what follows, the so-called “high theology” of Jesus in this Gospel, his oneness with the father, is also a stunning anthropology of the father, who acts only in his human son.

One comment

  1. I’m not that robust in my rejection of symbolism. I like symbolism when it’s not fanciful or arbitrary. I can’t decide about the five porticoes and the 38 years.

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