The Bethesda pool was a public bath house north of the Temple in Jerusalem. The Hebrew name Bethesda translates to “mercy house” or “grace house,” and tradition holds that the pool was associated with healing. It was originally formed by building a short dam across a small valley near Jerusalem, thereby creating a reservoir for rain water. From here, a channel cut into the rock brought fresh water from the pool into the city. Eventually, as Jerusalem expanded, Bethesda was incorporated within the city walls and a second pool was added to the south. Its five porches (or porticos) were covered walkways supported by columns. Four of them likely surrounded the two pools in a rectangle, with the fifth dividing them down the middle. Its whereabouts was largely unknown until archeological digs in the 19th century revealed a large pool that matched the biblical description of the Bethesda pool.
Like many natural springs, legend held that Bethesda had supernatural healing properties. Later copies of John’s Gospel include text that sheds light on why it was so popular among the infirm:
”… many of the sick, blind, lame, and withered lay [waiting for movement in the waters. Because an angel from Lord would descend at certain times to the pool and stir up the water. Then whoever stepped in the water first after it was stirred up became healthy from whatever disease he was held by.] And so it was for a man...”
– John 5:3b-4
This additional text isn’t included in the earliest known copies of John’s Gospel, suggesting its incorporation into Scripture later.