Is John 5:1-15 literal or allegorical?

What is the meaning of (moving the water)?,also, what is the meaning of an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water? How the ordinary people know that this is an angel?

What is meaning of: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had?

How a man had infirmity for 38 years?. And no one helped this man for 38 years?

Why Jesus said to that man: sin no more?

Is the mericle mentioned in John 5:1-15 literal or allegorical?

John 5:1-15 (KJV);

  1. After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
  2. Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep {cf15I market} a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.
  3. In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.
  4. 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.
  5. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.
  6. When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time {cf15I in that case}, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?
  7. The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.
  8. Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.
  9. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.
  10. The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry {cf15I thy} bed.
  11. He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk.
  12. Then asked they him, What man is that which said unto thee, Take up thy bed, and walk?
  13. And he that was healed wist not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in {cf15I that} place.
  14. 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.
  15. The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole.

Why Jesus said to the man who had infirmity: sin no more, lest a worse thing come unto thee.?

  • Is John's reference to 'sheep' and a 'messenger' and 'stirring of water' and 'Bethesda' (which has no authentic root in antiquity but is a made-up name) all a signal that this whole thing is a scam. He doesn't actually say so, for there is no absolute evidence, but really . . . . a horde of disabled people struggling to be the first to be healed . . . is this of God ? ? ! Jesus does not interact with any of it. He deals only with the crippled man.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 20, 2020 at 7:56
  • . . . the lesson is that even in the most appalling of religiously decadent situations, surrounded by sheer nonsense, Christ may yet choose to seek and to find one to heal, yet he does so as separate, not involved in the proceedings. But no, I do not believe it is allegorical. But if you do, then how can anyone prove otherwise to you ? You have not stated your evidence for why it should be regarded as such.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 20, 2020 at 14:48

3 Answers 3


There are two matters here: one textual and the other theological.

Textual Problem

In his "Textual Commentary on the GNT", Bruce Metzger lists four reasons why John 5:4 is not part of the original text: (UBS5 lists the considerable evidence for its omission and regards it {A} as almost certain)

  1. Its absence from the earliest MSS
  2. the presence of asterisks or obeli to mark the words as spurious in more than 20 Greek witnesses
  3. the presence of non-Johannine words or expressions (κατὰ καιρὸν, κατέβαινεν, ταραχὴν, etc)
  4. the rather wide diversity of variant forms in which the verse is transmitted

To this list I would add another based on that which follows: (5) the idea of healing being granted on the basis of disabled people competing to be first is decidedly unlike the way a gracious God operates. We are told that healing and forgiveness is granted to all who simply ask our gracious God, as Jesus subsequently demonstrates by healing the man. See also John 14:13, 14, Matt 7:7, 11:28-30, etc.

Thus, V4 must be regarded as an interpolation, perhaps of widely held myth at the time.

Theological Matters

The incident in John 5:1-15 (without V4) could be regarded as an enacted parable; that is, it is historical but Jesus intended it to teach spiritual truth greater than the simple events recorded. The point here as in almost all Jesus parables teaches something about the grace and love of God.

In this case, Jesus was teaching that divine healing does not come because were are good enough or fast enough (into the water) - healing was granted to the weakest person at the pool.

For if, by the trespass of the one man, death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ! Rom 5:17

  • why Jesus said to the man sin no more?
    – salah
    Mar 19, 2020 at 23:06
  • See John 15:10 for the result of love to God and Man
    – Dottard
    Mar 20, 2020 at 3:31

Short answer: The sin was that the man was worshiping another god...Asclepius... to provide healing rather than the God of the Israelites.

Explanation: The pools of Bethesda sit just north of God's Temple in Jerusalem. At the time of Jesus, there was a very popular god of healing named Asclepius. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg explains in his article The Pool Of Bethesda As A Healing Center Of Asclepius:

Asclepius was the god of medicine and health in ancient Greek religion. The god’s mythical daughters, for example, included the goddesses Hygeia and Panacea. We can hear in their Greek names our modern words for “hygiene” and “panacea” – key concepts associated today with medicine and health. Snakes were a key attribute of Asclepius’s cult of health and healing. Even today, one of the key symbols of modern medicine is a stick with a snake around it.

You can also read about the Asclepion in the book by Jeremias, Joachim. The Rediscovery of Bethesda, John 5:2. New Testament Archaeology Monograph No. 1. Louisville, Ky.: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1966.

Asclepius healed with moving water. At Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-17), there is a huge Asclepion (a hospital), that is situated at the base of the hills at the location of natural springs. You can see photos of the Asclepion at Pergamon here.

Archeologists in Jerusalem discovered evidence of an Asclepion at the Bethesda site. This was not a pagan site, but through the Hellenization of the city of Jerusalem, the worship of pagan gods by Jews made its way into everyday life.

It is important to note that Jesus does not use the water to heal the man. In fact, he does not do anything other than speak.

This story is a story of faith. Do we - even as Christians - move on to other "gods" when we think God isn't healing us or working on our behalf? It appears that many in Jerusalem - because they so badly wanted to be healed - turned to a false god of healing, Asclepius even if it was right under the shadow of God's temple.

In ancient religions "springs" or "moving water" had a prominent place in their belief that it could restore life and heal. Mircea Eliade has written extensively on this topic. One book - an excellent resource - is Patterns in Comparative Religions.

  • an additional resource if you have access to a theological library: Jeremias, Joachim. The Rediscovery of Bethesda, John 5:2. New Testament Archaeology Monograph No. 1. Louisville, Ky.: Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1966.
    – S. Broberg
    Apr 8, 2020 at 3:01

A few considerations:

  • This text can't be about faith or belief. The sick man was just laying there and did not know who it was that healed him (5:13). He did not believe in Christ and I suppose we can assume he is a Jew since he was under the Sabbath rules, but that was likely local law for everyone in the area which was under local Jewish rule. He was just laying in an Asclepion waiting for healing. So what he believed must have been what Christ came to reveal independent of his actual teachings (this ill man would have been ignorant of all that).

  • Archaeology, as mentioned, demonstrates that Bethesda had seven porticoes, but the fourth evangelist claims that there are five. Most scholars also agree that he was deeply Jewish, and that he had detailed knowledge of pre-70AD Jerusalem and the temple. There must be a narrative reason for this difference, and it must be very important since the author used groups of seven everywhere (seven signs, seven "I am the...", etc).

  • The temple was modeled on paradise (Eden) with the concept of being in the presence of God. Entry into Jerusalem, or the temple, would be metaphorical for re-entering Eden. Hence the sheep gate was a gateway to eden.. How do you enter this gate if you are paralyzed?

  • Jesus is "the Shepherd" and "the Gate" in John 10. Bethesda is near the sheep gate (John 5:2). So the sheep gate may be a metaphor for Jesus Christ. He is the way into paradise.

As for the five porticoes, Bethesda is from the aramaic/hebrew "Bet + Chesed" which means "house of grace/mercy." So if John is intentionally ignoring the number seven (the true number of porticoes), what are the five pillars of God's house of grace that provide access to the sheep gate through the son? I read this as the Torah/Pentateuch/Law; the five books from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

If Christ is the word made flesh (John 1), this certainly means, amongst other things, "the law/torah/pentateuch" in human form. Here, Jesus is the sheep gate to paradise, the shepherd, and the five porticoes made flesh. That would be a solid metaphorical reading. Also note that the woman at the well has five husbands (John 4) and Jesus feeds the five-thousand with five loaves of bread (John 5), more metaphors for the Torah.

I would also compare what the man says in response to Jesus' question with John 1:12-13, "12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God."

The man says (John 5:7), "No one can help me (will of man), and I cannot do it on my own (will of flesh)."

For me, John 1:12-13 lays out the central thesis of John. This man at Bethesda demonstrated a realization of this and was thus "made whole." It's a submission to God. Realizing that there is nothing... absolutely nothing... that you can do on your own to be made whole and no other human can save you of their own will. You can't "accept Jesus as your personal savior" on your own or with anyone's help... not anything. Give up hope for entering paradise by your own, like this man did, and then the kingdom of heaven is laid out upon the earth (and you can't do this because you want to, that would be hope). Sounds counterintuitive, but the exegesis later in John 5 describes exactly this. Christ does nothing of his own will, but only the will of the father through him.

(John 5:19) "the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever that one does, the Son does likewise."

John is careful to not imply that Christ has any will of his own. This is in contrast to the synoptics where, in Gethsemane, christ has his own will, but will accept god's will (not my will, but your will be done). For John, there is absolutely no "my will" in Christ.

The "child of God" (John 1:12), which we each can become, is a conduit for the will of God and has no will, hope (of his own), or merit/value as an individual self. As in Philippians 2, he is emptied of self. As in 1 Corinthians 13, he "hopes all things" not a specific thing, which is a fascinating way of saying "no hope" or "hopes what happens." That is some terrifying stuff. For me, it is way more terrifying and wondrous than if someone actually healed some old man two-thousand years ago as the literal reading implies. Note that these two references to Pauline texts (the Carmen Christi of Phil 2:6-11, and the Agape Hymn of 1 Cor 13) are likely very early Christian hymns integrated into Paul's letters and not written by him.

I take this as pointing out that it is exactly the idea that we can act independently of our own "free will" that is sin, our "diagnosis." The Truth is that none of us have free will, but it is our condition to be filled with the delusion of free will which is exactly the knowledge of good and bad (the tree in eden). The knowledge that we are moral agents on our own capable of judgment or of being judged. And there is nothing we can choose to do of our own free will to realize that we don't have free will. It is only when we are convinced of the delusion of our independent will or the will of others, that we are "made whole."

Frequently in John you find the idea that when you believe in Christ, you will not be judged. cf. 3:18, "Whoever believes in him is not judged (κρίνεται), but whoever does not believe stands judged (κέκριται) already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son."

What does this mean? One who understands Christ is purged of the fruit of the knowledge of good and bad, the fruit of judgment (that the world "should" be different than it is - hope). The one that doesn't understand the self-emptiness of children of God stand judged by the delusion of their own will... the knowledge of good and bad.. judgment. John does not say that we will be "judged well" except by another redaction in John 5:29 that is entirely at odds with the rest of the gospel and contains language found nowhere but in John 5:29 and John 3:20 which I believe were moralizer additions along with the other redactions (They are the only places that the concepts of good (ἀγαθὰ) and evil (φαῦλα) appear in the gospel). They are just tainted with that nasty knowledge of good and bad that ejected us from Eden in the first place and to which christ points out an antidote via hopelessness.

Or at least, that is one reading. I absolutely love this story. I think it contains the entire gospel.

I also think the insertion of John 5:3b-4 was from a redactor that didn't have the first clue what the gospel was trying to say. I believe they were trying to place the cause of this supernatural healing in the prevue of God, but I don't think that the "troubling of the waters" needed to be caused by God and it creates several theological problems (like why God would create this competition for healing). There may have been some worries about this as an Asclepion (temple to Asclepius the physician God), which the archaeology supports. The archaeology implies that there were two pools and some scholars have deduced that it may have been periodic filling and dumping between the spring fed pools that caused this "stirring" of the waters.

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