The Angel at Bethesda

The passage John 5:1-16 is one of those rare instances where some translations include and some translations omit an extended portion of a passage. The words at issue are the last phrase in verse 3 and the entirety of verse 4, where we read, “waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.” This text is included in the Geneva Bible, the King James Bible and the New King James Version. Most modern translations, however, omit these words, and most people just accept this omission. The reason commonly given is that the latter half of verse 3 and all of verse 4 are missing in the oldest and best manuscripts. In my opinion, that statement is not totally correct. Some early manuscripts do omit the latter half of verse 3 and all of verse 4, but I don’t think that they are all among the better manuscripts. On the contrary, let me share with you what Bruce Metzger, perhaps the foremost authority on ancient New Testament manuscripts, says about one of these early manuscripts that omit verse 4 of our passage for today (D, Codex Bezae). He says, “No known manuscript has so many and such remarkable variations from what is usually taken to be the normal New Testament text. [This manuscript’s] special characteristic is the free addition (and occasional omission) of words, sentences, and even incidents.”[i] Some of the other “oldest and best” manuscripts that omit verse 4 have some serious irregularities as well.

Now what is at issue here? As to our understanding of the event recorded in the text, even those who omit verse 4 tend to recognize the verse as an uninspired record of an ancient tradition. They tend to acknowledge that they can’t understand verse 7 without the information that is found in verse 4. In verse 7, the lame man talks about the stirring of the water and about others stepping into the stirred water before he is able to do so. Verse 7 doesn’t make any sense apart from the information that we find in verse 4 about the occasional supernatural angelic activity at the pool. Everyone needs verse 4 in order to understand what verse 7 is talking about. Those who accept verse 4 as part of the inspired text believe that an angel actually did on occasion stir up the waters and heal someone at that pool. Those who regard verse 4 as merely an uninspired ancient tradition often agree with this, but not always. They may regard the ancient tradition as merely a superstitious myth that drew people to this pool. If verse 4 is only an uninspired record of an ancient tradition, then they are free to regard the account of the angel that way as well.

What is of greater concern is that this dispute about the reliability of the latter half of verse 3 and all of verse 4 of our text might cause some to question the reliability of the New Testament in general. No, the Greek New Testament is by far the best attested ancient writing in existence. There are over 5,000 ancient Greek documents, 8,000 ancient Latin documents that are translations of the Greek and many other ancient documents that are translations into other languages.[ii] In addition, there are many quotations from the New Testament in the surviving writings of early Christian leaders. No other ancient writing comes anywhere near such a vast array of surviving manuscripts and witnesses. Just to give you a basis for comparison, consider Caesar’s Gallic Wars, a classic Latin text which I had to struggle with when I took high school Latin. There are only nine or ten good ancient manuscripts that have survived, and the oldest was copied about 900 years after Julius Caesar wrote the book.[iii] I could give you other similar examples. Again, there is no other ancient document with a surviving textual record anywhere near like that of the Greek New Testament.

Also, in the vast multitude of these hand copied documents, there is a strong overall consensus as to what is the original text of the books of the New Testament. God has preserved the text not by making every copyist infallible but by providing us with a vast multitude of documents with “a high degree of textual uniformity.” And this high degree of textual uniformity increases significantly when we limit ourselves to the vast majority of the documents that are in large agreement with each other.[iv] Yes, there are those accidental slips that occur when someone copies any long document by hand, but these tend not to be an obstacle to discerning the original text, especially when multiple copies of the document are available. 

If that is the case, then you might wonder why there is some question about verse 4 in our text for today. The majority of the copyists did a good job in faithfully copying the content of earlier copies. Yet early on there were a few copyists in certain regions who felt free to expand the text here and there, to add an occasional something that was not in the text that they were copying from. In response to these few early expanded manuscripts, there were some copyists in Egypt who tried to purge the text. Too often these Egyptian copyists left the extraneous expansions in and took out instead portions of the true text. Yet even these manuscripts with this occasional foolish unauthorized editing tend to agree in large part with the consensus text that is in the majority of the manuscripts. And these manuscripts where the text has been inappropriately changed in some places can often be identified because they do not agree with one another in the changes that have been made. For example, the vast majority of the manuscripts containing our passage for today call the pool Bethesda. Yet in a few older manuscripts, the pool is called Bethsaida or Bethzatha or Belzetha. These few texts agree in changing the name of the pool but can’t agree on a replacement name. Disagreements such as that are a good indication that some copyists did indeed make some changes in the text that they were copying. Contrary to what many today claim, these few manuscripts which leave out verse 4 are not among the better manuscripts.

Let me give you one interesting piece of evidence for the reliability of Bethesda, which is the majority text reading, as the name of the pool. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the mid-twentieth century, and among these ancient scrolls is a scroll made out of copper. This copper scroll is dated between A.D. 35 and 65, which would be sometime after the death of Jesus and before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. This very ancient copper scroll existed long before the surviving Greek New Testament manuscripts were copied, and it confirms that the name of the pool was Bethesda, the name that we find in the majority of the ancient Greek manuscripts.[v] 

Most of these ancient manuscripts do include verse 4 of our passage, but there are a few early manuscripts that omit verse 4. Yet a manuscript can be an early copy and also be the work of a less than reliable copyist. Age does not necessarily guarantee reliability. In addition, verse 4 has its own early witnesses. Tertullian in the third century wrote about the water stirred up by an angel in John chapter 5 and thus testified to the validity of verse 4. Verse 4 is also included in the translations of the Gospel according to John into Syriac and Latin that date back to the second century. So there is ample ancient testimony for the inclusion of verse 4.

Now if there is ancient testimony to the inclusion of verse 4, and if the vast majority of the ancient manuscripts include verse 4, then why do modern translations usually omit verse 4 from the passage? The reason is the influence of a conspiracy theory that originated in the late nineteenth century. A New Testament scholar proposed a theory as to why the vast majority of the ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts have a largely uniform text. He theorized that the uniformity wasn’t because these were all largely faithful copies going back to a common original text. He proposed that the uniformity was because the church in the fourth century edited the Greek New Testament in order to create a new standard common version. He suggested that to be the reason why most of the ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament are in large agreement. This would mean that the majority text, the text in the majority of the ancient manuscripts, is really a later distortion of the original text. Now there is no historical evidence whatsoever that something such as this ever happened. It is hard to imagine something such as this having happened with absolutely no surviving record of the event. The churches in areas where Greek was the primary language used the Greek text of the New Testament in their worship services. These were the churches in Greece, Asia Minor and southern Italy. Imagine an effort to try to make all these churches use a new standardized Greek text. It is hard to imagine this being done quietly in a corner. But if something such as this did happen, then, the argument goes, the true original text must be found in the few older manuscripts that disagree with the vast majority of the other manuscripts. The modern popularization of this theory is why verse 4 is omitted in most modern translations. This theory is why some today will give greater weight to two or three ancient manuscripts from Egypt than they will give to the unified witness of the vast majority of other ancient witnesses to the true text of a passage.

Personally I do not accept this modern unproven conspiracy theory. Personally I believe that the vast majority of the ancient manuscripts largely agree because they are the result of faithful copying going all the way back to the original text. Personally I believe that this is how God preserved the text of the New Testament for us today. Personally I believe that verse 4 of our passage for today is part of the original inspired text of the Gospel according to John. Yet I don’t want to get this issue out of proportion. Even these manuscripts with this inappropriate editing tend to be in large agreement with the text found in the majority of the manuscripts. It is not that often that we come upon a text such verse 4 in today’s passage, a verse that is affected by this modern disagreement about how best to evaluate the relative significance of different ancient manuscripts of the Greek New Testament.

Let me share with you another argument that some people use against verse 4 of our text. They point out that an angel’s healing people through disturbed water is unlike anything else that had happened before in all of redemptive history. For that reason, they are open to doubting the text. I agree that this report about an angel’s stirring water and healing through that water is quite unique in redemptive history. Yet I don’t agree with their argument that this is a reason to doubt the text. This was indeed an unusual event, but these were unusual times. This was during the point in history when the incarnate God the Son accomplished His saving work on earth. During the time of Jesus’ public ministry, Satan staged a massive counter-attack as evidenced by all the demon possession that we read about in the four gospel accounts. We don’t read about any demon possession in the Old Testament. The closest that I can find to demon possession in the Old Testament are the distressing spirit that troubled King Saul in 1 Samuel chapter 16 and the lying spirit in the mouth of King Ahab’s false prophets in 1 Kings chapter 22. We don’t find demon possession in the Old Testament, but we find it during the public ministry of Jesus. Similarly, we find an unusual amount of angelic activity associated with the life of Jesus. The angel Gabriel appeared to the childless priest Zacharias in the temple at Jerusalem and told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a child in their old age. That child was John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for Jesus’ public ministry. The angel Gabriel also announced the coming birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary, and an unnamed angel announced the birth of Jesus to Joseph. An angel announced the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to shepherds who were keeping watch over their flock by night, and then a heavenly host of angels sang praise to God. After Jesus was tempted by the devil forty days in the wilderness, angels came and ministered to Jesus. During Jesus’ agony at Gethsemane, an angel came from heaven and strengthened Him. After Jesus rose from the dead, an angel descended from heaven, rolled back the stone from the door of the tomb, and announced Jesus’ resurrection to the women who came to the tomb. In addition, Jesus said to one of His early disciples,

John 1:51

 … “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

Surely in the midst of all this angelic activity, we should not be overly surprised that an angel had this healing ministry in Jerusalem during Jesus’ public ministry.

This pool was discovered and identified in 1888, and it has since been excavated. The pool was a double pool located to the north of the enclosure around the temple in Jerusalem. It did indeed have five porches. There was a row of columns around each of the four sides, and there was a fifth row of columns along the partition between the two pools. Each of the five rows of columns had a roof over it to give shelter from the sun and the rain. Our text says that this pool was near the Sheep Gate, a gate that is mentioned in the account of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in the book of Nehemiah. This was probably the gate into the city of Jerusalem through which sheep were brought to the temple for sacrifice. At this location, an angel occasionally troubled the water of the pool. Probably no one saw the angel, but the troubled water was the evidence of his presence. When the troubled water gave evidence of the angel’s presence, the first sick person to enter the water was healed.

I see some similarities between the ministry of this angel and the ministry of Jesus. An angel is a messenger from God sent from heaven, and the prophet Malachi prophesied the Messiah as a Messenger of the Covenant who would come to His temple. The Hebrew word translated here as “messenger” is also the Hebrew word for an angel. The angel stirred the water, and Jesus also came to cause a stir in Israel. As Malachi prophesied, “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like launderer’s soap.” The pool was near the sheep gate, and Jesus came as the Lamb of God who was sacrificed on the cross and by whose stripes we are healed. After Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit to apply in new covenant fullness the redemption that He had accomplished. Jesus compared the outpoured Holy Spirit to rivers of living water:

John 7:38-39

“He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive; for the Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Jesus’ statement about rivers of living water is based on Ezekiel’s symbolic prophecy of a river that flows from the temple in Jerusalem down to the Dead Sea and heals those dead waters such that the Dead Sea abounds with fish. The angel is our text healed infirmities through a pool of water.

I see these similarities between the ministry of this angel and the saving work of Jesus. But I also see the angel’s ministry as pointing to the superiority of the saving work of Jesus to the ministry of angels and the superiority of the saving work of Jesus to the ministry of the old covenant. When the angel stirred the waters, the only person healed was the first person to enter the water. And the sicker a person was, the less likely he would be able to enter the water first. These limitations point to the fact that the ministries of the Old Testament were shadows pointing to a coming greater ministry, the ministry of Jesus Christ.

Let me close by contrasting the healing ministry of this angel with the healing ministry of Jesus. As I do this, remember that the healing ministry of Jesus had a greater purpose than the healing of physical disease itself. Jesus did heal as a true act of compassion upon the sick, but Jesus also healed physical infirmities as a symbol and evidence of His ability to heal the spiritual afflictions of the soul. With that in mind, contrast the healing ministry of the angel at Bethesda with the healing ministry of Jesus as described in Mark 6:56:

Wherever He entered, into villages, cities, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might just touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched Him were made well.

NOTE: John 5:4 is in both the majority text and the received text but not in the critical text. The majority text is generally the consensus text found in the majority of ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts. The received text is a compilation based on a few Greek manuscripts compiled by the Roman Catholic scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam. The critical text is a modern compilation which often omits a passage if it is not found in all or some of four or five specific ancient codices even if it is found in the vast majority of ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts. There are a few passages in the received text that are not in the majority text. An easy way to check on the status of a passage is to use the footnotes of the New King James Version as explained in the NKJV preface. The NKJV translation is a translation of the received text. The footnotes use the abbreviation M to refer to the majority text and the abbreviation NU to refer to the United Bible Societies’ critical text. For example, the NKJV has the received text of 1 John 5:7-8 and this footnote: “NU, M omit the words from in heaven (v. 7) through on earth (v. 8). Only 4 or 5 very late mss contain these words in Greek.” This is an example of one of the few passages that are in the received text but not in the majority text.

[i] page 50, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, by Bruce M. Metzger.

[ii] p. xii, Preface, The New Geneva Study Bible, New King James Version.

[iii] pages 16ff, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable by F.F. Bruce; page 180, The Books and the Parchments by F.F. Bruce.

[iv] page i, Preface, The New Testament in the Original Greek: Byzantine Textform 2005, compiled and arranged by Maurice A. Robinson and William G. Pierpont.

[v] “The Angel at Bethesda – John 5:4” by Zane C. Hodges, Bibliotheca Sacra, 136, 25-39.