Miracles - an Introduction
Jesus steals the magic of Asclepius!
"After this, Jesus went to Jerusalem for
a religious festival. Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there
is a pool with five porches; in Hebrew it is called Bethesda.
A large crowd of sick people were lying in the
porches - the blind, the lame, and the paralysed. A man was there
who had been ill for thirty-eight years. Jesus saw him lying
there, and he knew that the man had been ill for such a long
time; so he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”
sick man answered, “Sir, I have no one here to put me in
the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am trying to get
in, somebody else gets there first.” Jesus said to him, “Get
up, pick up your mat, and walk.” Immediately the man got
well; picked up his mat and started walking." – John
During the second Jewish war of 132-135 the wrecked
city of Jerusalem saw no major conflicts, although the rebel leader
Simon ben Kosiba is said to have offered sacrifices at the site
of the destroyed temple. Post-war a new Roman city was built on
ruins which had stood abandoned for sixty years. This new colony
Capitolina – was named by Emperor Hadrian for the
gods of Rome (Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) and himself (Pulbius
In the northeastern
sector of the new city,
just beyond the eastern forum, Hadrian's architects re-developed
an ancient Asclepieion. It was sited close
by the Sheep Gate (later Lions' or St Stephen's Gate), beyond
which Jews had marshalled vast flocks of animals intended for
ritual slaughter. The healing shrine probably dates to the earliest
Greek presence in the city in the 4th century BC. The existence
of a pagan shrine within the shadow of Temple Mount speaks volumes
about Jewish fidelity to their tribal god Yahweh.
the pool of Bethesda,
in a depression fed by natural springs, were reservoirs and
pools servicing the needs of the healing sanctuary. Holistic
treatment on offer at an asclepieion included
massage, herbal infusions, dream interpretation and bathing.
In the Hadrianic redevelopment the Asclepieion was
given an enlarged precinct and a temple to the god.
The 2nd century evangelists, hustling for position
in a world full of gods and convinced that they alone possessed
divine truth, set out to put the rival cult out of business. It
was "useful", therefore, for gospeller
John to have his divine
hero perform superior magic at the very spot that the god Asclepius worked
his wonders. With the triumph of Constantine this shrine to a pagan
god – and the rudimentary hospital that it provided – were
soon reduced to ruin.
Miracle, Magic or Myth?
“And when the Devil brings forward Asclepius as the raiser of the dead and healer of all diseases, may I not say that in this matter likewise he has imitated the prophecies about Christ?”
– Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 69.
Why would a divine being go to a pagan healing
centre to perform a healing? But in the gospel yarn that is precisely
what Jesus does. Unlike in a dozen or so
other Jesus "healings", there is NO prayer, NO touching
of hands – a word from the godman is all that is required
to end the chronic illness. The punch line about picking up his
bed and walking is taken from Mark 2.12.
In locating his miracle gospeller
John uses the word "probatike" ("of
sheep") which since the time of the Church Fathers
has been equated with "sheep pool" and this
in turn has been equated with the pool of Bethesda. But the identification
is wrong. Washing thousands of sheep in a reservoir of such depth
would have been ludicrous – and
would have made the whole reservoir useless for any other purpose.
What the misidentification illustrates is that only
a century after the purported "miracle" the theorists
of the Church were hard-pressed to fit the fable into a valid landscape.
The "sheep pool" was more probably the Pool
of Israel, closer to the Sheep Gate and closer to Temple
Mount (it is now covered by a car park) – and was thus
identified during the Crusader period. But if the Jesus miracle
is moved further west to this pool the rest of the story doesn't
fit at all! Why would the sick gather around a sheep dip?
Notice that the paralytic
in John's yarn
does NOT "believe" in Jesus (a shortcoming which in Nazareth
prevented JC from doing "mighty work"). He does not
even know who Jesus is (John 5.13)
but evidently the invalid does believe
in the healing powers of the pool when "stirred up" (that
is to say, by the rival god).
Amusingly, the "stirred waters" bit troubled
some early Christians (a natural manifestation of the water flow
but seemingly the action of non-Christian spirits). So some copies
of John's gospel added in an acceptable explanation: the
water was stirred by an angel of the Lord! Healing was
the prize of a cruel race:
"For an angel went down at a certain
season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever
then first after the troubling of the water stepped
in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had." – John 5.4.
But if there was already Christian
magic at work,
what need was there for Jesus to intervene? So later versions of John removed
The second, more ominous, part of the Christian "Bethesda" message
occurs a few verses later when JC again encounters the healed man.
NO cheery words of encouragement from Mr
Loving Kindness, NO stress
upon "faith', but a threat to the poor man
should he sin again.
"Afterward Jesus findeth him in the
temple, and said unto him,
Behold, thou art made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee."
– John, 5.14.
One wonders what sin a man sick for thirty eight
years could have committed. Could it be worshipping the wrong
god? The answer is prosaic. Woe betide you if you patronise
The priestly purpose of the "healing
Bethesda was to have Jesus neutralise the ancient
magic of Asclepius.
The smaller pools of the Asclepion – NOT
the deep reservoirs – served for healing. The pagan sanctuary
was first destroyed and then built over.
"Porches" at the Asclepieion of
Those "five porches"
does not support the claim made by Christian apologists (following
the lead of 3rd century Origen) that "porticos" surrounded the
two reservoirs. By supposing that another ran across the central "dam",
they derive the "five porches" referred
to by John.
And yet the sick and lame would never enter 13
metre deep reservoirs (and nor would sheep be washed
in them!). It was the numerous small, medicinal baths within
the Asclepieion which were used for healing. If the "five
porches" referred to anything, it is rather more likely
that the Asclepieion here, as elsewhere, had an E-shape facing
the pools and thus might be said to have "five porches".
In the empire of Christ created by the Christian
emperors, Asclepia were
quite unnecessary. Prayer and the touch of a saint's bones were
the only medicine a Christian required. God himself would decide
who lived or died. To interfere with that divine judgement was
sacrilege and the Devil's work.
To totally eradicate their ancient rival, and armed
with the "gospel truth" as their guide, the Byzantines
built a church directly above the sanctuary of the old god.
On its debris arose first a church
to Jesus' mother. As the legend grew, the original church of
Mary was replaced by a church honouring Jesus' purported grandmother Anne,
a character without any gospel pedigree.
In the dreamscape of
Christian fantasy, not a healing shrine of Asclepius but the house of
Mary's childhood underlay the basilica!
Does that make Mary a water nymph?
Where DID they
get their ideas from?
Spit, Touch and Faith – The Miracles of Jesus
Mark provides a
prototype in which blindness is cured by faith.
The tale is copied, almost word, for word by Luke (18.35,43):
"At Jericho ... blind Bartimaeus,
the son of Timaeus, sat by the highway side begging.
And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he
began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou son of David,
have mercy on me. And Jesus stood still, and commanded
him to be called ... And Jesus answered and said unto
him, What wilt thou that I should do unto thee? The
blind man said unto him, Lord, that I might receive
my sight. And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy
faith hath made thee whole. And immediately
he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way." – Mark 10.46,52.
Mark also reports
a cure for blindness involving spit and touch, though
seemingly without faith:
"And he cometh
to Bethsaida and they bring a blind man unto him, and
besought him to touch him. And he took the
blind man by the hand, and led him out of
the town; and when he had spit on his eyes,
and put his hands upon him, he asked
him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I
see men as trees, walking. After that he put
his hands again upon his eyes, and made him
look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. – Mark
Spit is obviously an important aspect
of Jesus magic and works equally well with deafness:
"He came unto the sea of Galilee
... And they bring unto him one that was deaf,
and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech
him to put his hand upon him. And he took him aside from
the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears,
and he spit, and touched his
tongue; And looking up to heaven, he sighed,
and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. And
straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his
tongue was loosed, and he spake plain." – Mark
In Matthew's report
of the healing at Jericho, it is JC's touch alone
that affects a cure (though he does double the magic with two blind
men, not just one):
"At Jericho ... two blind men sitting
by the way side, when they heard that Jesus passed by,
cried out, saying, Have mercy on us, O Lord, thou son
of David ... And Jesus stood still, and called them,
and said, What will ye that I shall do unto you? They
say unto him, Lord, that our eyes may be opened. So Jesus
had compassion on them, and touched their eyes:
and immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed
him." – Matthew 20.29,34.
the two blind men story so much he repeats it in chapter
9, with both faith and touch – but
without the spit.
"Two blind men followed him, crying,
and saying, Thou son of David, have mercy on us ... and
Jesus saith unto them, Believe ye that
I am able to do this? They said unto him, Yea,
Lord. Then touched he their eyes,
saying, According to your faith be it
unto you. And their eyes were opened." – Matthew 9.27,30.
Curiously, the blind are always male, never
female. Another indication that the Jesus yarn is pious
fiction not historical fact?
Robert Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City (Paternoster, 2004)
H. J. Richards, Pilgrim to the Holy Land (McCrimmons,1985)
W. Keller, The Bible as History (Hodder and Stoughton, 1969)
S. Gibson, J. Taylor, Beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Palestine
Exploration Fund, 1994)
Joan Taylor, Christians and Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian
Origins (Clarendon, 1993)
Martin Biddle, The Tomb of Christ (Sutton, 1999)
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land (Oxford, 1986)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (HarperCollins, 1997)
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Copyright © 2007
by Kenneth Humphreys.
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