Believe on the Evidence: "His Testimony is True"
His Testimony is True
This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. - John 21:24
The rise of historical criticism in the 18th and 19th centuries led to a general questioning of the historicity of the Bible. The rejection by academics of the testimony of the New Testament and that of the early Church Fathers as ahistorical lead naturally to a rejection of the basis of the Christian faith itself. If one shouldn’t believe the historical and geographical claims of the Bible, how could one believe the theological and soteriological message of the Bible?
In parallel to historical criticism, source criticism arose in the 18th century as a means to examine the origins of Biblical texts. This would allow scholars to judge whether these texts reveal any patterns or commonalities that might lead to the original sources of the Bible books we have today, and whether any redaction or recension has contributed to their current forms.
One of the earliest efforts in source criticism resulted in the theory of the Marcan priority; that is, that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke were largely derived from the Gospel of Mark. This proposal was first made by the German theologian Gottlob Christian Storr (1746-1805) and was later bolstered by comparisons of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in a side-by- side fashion. It was then theorized that Mark was in turn written using material from another source of the sayings of Jesus called the Q document that was not preserved, for some reason, by the early Christians.
Why those early Christians would not have preserved the Q document is inexplicable, but even so, source criticism became a scholarly obsession. Analyzing patterns in the New Testament writings to reveal supposed original texts gave a veneer of science to the field. The frequency of use of certain Greek prepositions was one area of study; other scholars would examine the breadth of vocabulary or apparent writing style changes to make sweeping claims about the authorship, integrity and historicity of New Testament books. These activities continued into the modern era with the convening of the self-proclaimed “Jesus Seminar”, which used voting by scholars using colored marbles to decide which sayings Jesus actually made. This “democratization of inspiration” resulted in many publications but very little insight into Jesus.
A special target for critics was the non-Synoptic Gospel of John. Although the writer of John claims to be an eyewitness to Jesus words and deeds (John 21:24), just as Luke said had happened (Luke 1:2), critical scholars attacked the Gospel of John on a variety of fronts. It was either too different from the Synoptics, or too theological, or too spiritual and full of miracles to be of any use in revealing the historical Jesus.
One of the earliest critics of John – one who claimed that the book had no historical value – was Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768). Reimarus was from a famous German scholarly family, and served as Professor of Hebrew at the Hochschule in Hamburg from 1727 until his death. Reimarus’ Deist and Materialist philosophy led him to reject the Gospel of John as a late invention of Christian writers, perhaps in the second century AD, and that Jesus was nothing more than a Jewish preacher and rebel who had been co-opted to be a resurrected savior by the movement that bore his name. The Gospel of John had a too well-developed Christology to be anything other than a work of fiction.
However, if examined closely one sees in John a degree of geographical and historical detail that would defy the abilities of some second-century forger:
The stone jars for purification at the wedding in Cana (John 2:6)
The location of Jacob’s Well near Sychar (Shechem) in Samaria (John 4:6)
The healing at Bethesda, near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem (John 5:2)
The healing at the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7)
Jesus walking in Solomon’s Colonnade on the Temple grounds (John 10:23)
The death of Lazarus in Bethany (John 11:1)
This limited list is impressive not only for its detail but because all of the Jerusalem locations were destroyed in the Jewish War (66-70 AD). A second-century forger of John’s Gospel likely would not have a first-hand experience of visiting these locations; in fact, because some of these sites were unknown to later commentators, they were considered “allegorical” and not real places.
While Bible critics continued to disparage the Gospel of John in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new discoveries in archeology revealed that the writer of John was correct. A closer look at two examples, the Pools of Bethesda and Siloam, are sufficient to prove this.
The Unknown Pool of Bethesda
Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.
– John 5:1-2
The story of Jesus healing the paralyzed man (John 5:1-15) introduces a series of conflicts between Jesus and the Jewish leaders in which Jesus asserts his authority from God and the Jews look for opportunities to kill him. This tension builds until it results in Jesus’ betrayal and crucifixion; thus, the healing at Bethesda serves as a literary device to begin the persecution of Jesus (John 5:16).
But the description in John has a striking specificity that implies a detailed knowledge of the geography of Jerusalem. John states that the pool called “Bethesda” in Aramaic and transliterated as “Bethzatha” in Greek was near the “place of sheep”, likely referring to a market for sheep that may have been located by a Temple gate with the same name. John claims the pool was “surrounded by five covered colonnades”, possibly suggesting a distinctive pentagonal shape. Each colonnade would have a roof supported by columns or enclosed by walls, which could shelter people waiting by the pool.
While a Sheep Gate is known from the time of Nehemiah (3:1, 3:32, 12:39), located on the north side of the Temple precincts, nothing from ancient sources tell us anything about a pool called Bethesda. It doesn’t appear on any of the earliest maps of Jerusalem (made in the Byzantine era), and was almost certainly destroyed at the end of the Jewish War (70 AD).
In the years before and after the Jewish War the Romans added a number of “places of healing” – underground grottos dedicated to Serapis (Asclepius) called asclepia in the area north of the Temple Mount. The later Byzantines built several churches to commemorate the site of the pool, but nothing of the pool and the colonnades remained.
The inability to identify the pool of Bethesda fed into Biblical critics’ attacks on the historicity of the Gospel of John. The critics charged that Bethesda was merely a prop for the narrative of the escalating conflict between Jesus and the Jews, its five colonnades being a metaphor for the five books of the Mosaic Law, and the paralyzed man being a metaphor for the powerlessness of those who tried to live by that Law. The “thirty-eight years” that the man had been an invalid (John 5:5) was an allusion to the period of desert wandering of the Israelites during which “that entire generation of fighting men had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn to them” (Deuteronomy 2:14). The fictional account of the healing at Bethesda was intended to show that divine power resided in Jesus, while the Jewish religion had none.
However, the lack of an identifiable Pool of Bethesda, like many other Bible anomalies, would be rectified by time and patience. In 1888 the German architect and archeologist Conrad Schick, at the time searching for the ruins of a fifth-century Byzantine church whose name in English would be “Mary of the Sheep”, discovered a large underground reservoir about 1100 feet north of the Temple Mount.
Schick immediately announced that he had found the Pool of Bethesda but some difficulties remained. The pool was four-sided, not five; its two long sides were cut from bedrock, while its shorter side on the South was stepped for walk-in access to a lower landing. The northern short side formed a dam with a sluice which Schick suspected was for emptying the pool for cleaning, but the pool had no water source like a spring at the bottom or a conduit to fill it. The pool could have collected rain water, but at nearly 50-feet deep, this could never be expected to fill the pool up to the steps. Schick made no further excavation of the site, since the northern end was covered with structures, but later archeologists realized that the sluice in the northern side was made to fill the pool, not to empty it.
Excavations in the 1950s and 60s revealed a northern reservoir, of similar dimensions to that discovered by Schick, which fed Schick’s reservoir through the sluice. The two reservoirs measured about 500 feet from end to end and nearly 170 feet wide, together covering the area of six Olympic swimming pools.
The dam between the reservoirs was wide enough for a Roman road to be built over it in the second century, as well as arches that supported the Byzantine church. This would have been ample to support a fifth colonnade (in addition to the four covering the sides of the pools), which explains John’s description of five colonnades.
The northern reservoir was fed by springs and runoff in the Bezetha Valley, perhaps from as early as the eighth century BC (2 Kings 18:17, Isaiah 7:3, Isaiah 36:2). Herod the Great or the Hasmoneans likely built the colonnades at a time when the Pool of Bethesda sat outside the gates of Jerusalem. Herod Agrippa I enclosed this area with an outer wall in 41 AD, after Jesus’ death, and in doing so cut off the water supply to the northern reservoir. The Pool likely fell into disuse and was ultimately destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans.
Two other notable items from the archeology of the Pool of Bethesda: The steps and landing of the southern reservoir show that this was a mikveh, a Jewish bath for ritual purification. Beginning in the second century BC, ritual purification was practiced for the hundreds of thousands of Jews who came to Jerusalem during the three pilgrimage feasts (Passover, Pentacost, and Tabernacles) each year. Those Jews arriving from the north and from the coast might utilize the Pool of Bethesda to purify themselves by immersion before visiting the temple.
These pilgrims are not mentioned in John 5; instead, the Bible tells us that “Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” (John 5:3). The non-existent John 5:4 is a fourth century AD gloss or editorial comment, added by a later scribe as an explanation of why those disabled persons would lie by the pool. The explanation of “an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease they had” reflects the superstitious belief in the healing powers of the water, probably mimicking the baths of the neighboring Roman asclepia.
The actor that would “stir up the waters” was not an angel but more likely the raising of the sluice between the reservoirs; this would cause a flow of water from the northern into the southern which would create turbulence at the surface of the southern pool. Viewed in this way, the healing by Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda was a condemnation of this superstitious belief; which is perhaps why, when Jesus later meets the healed man at the Temple, he tells him to stop sinning. Since we have no evidence that Jesus practiced any form of ritual purification (see Luke 11:37-38, Mark 7:1-8), he perhaps went to the Pool of Bethesda only to condemn the superstitious practice that went on there.
The Monumental Pool of Siloam
Like the healing of the invalid in John 5, the healing of the man born blind appears only in John’s Gospel (John 9:1-11) and is connected to another body of water, the Pool of Siloam. The healing in John 9 follows a long dialogue between the Pharisees (John 8:12-59) about who Jesus is, and precedes another long dialogue with the Pharisees about their own blindness to Jesus’ authority and his special relationship to God.
Because the Jesus in John 7-10 is totally certain and completely unapologetic about his oneness with God, the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Biblical critics rejected this narrative as fiction. It did not align with their preferred model of Jesus as nothing more than a simple Jewish preacher trying to build an earthly kingdom. This led to the critics even challenging the details of the healing of the man born blind.
The healing in John 9 is the only example in the Gospels where the person being healed is not healed where they sit, lie or stand; in every other example, even when Jesus is not with the person being healed, no action is required on the part of the one being healed to complete the healing. In the case of the man born blind, Jesus meets him somewhere near the Temple Mount (John 8:59-9:1), applies mud to the blind man’s eyes, then sends him to wash in the Pool of Siloam.
The blind man’s journey would not have been trivial: The walking distance from the Western Gate of the Temple Mount to the Pool of Siloam is close to 2000 feet, more than one-third of a mile. The difficulty of that walk - through narrow streets and alleys of the Lower City, out of a city gate, and down the Tyropoeon Valley to the pool – was increased by the fact that the Pool of Siloam is nearly 400 feet lower than the Temple Mount. Such a downhill walk at a 20% grade might be challenging for even a sighted person.
Unsurprisingly, the earlier Bible critics rejected the story of the healing of the man born blind. In their view, Jesus’ sending the blind man to Siloam was just a plot device to set up the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees that begins in John 9:39. The physical blindness of the man highlighted the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees, both of whom were born that way.
Almost incidental to the story of the healing of the man born blind, the Pool of Siloam was known from history, but its exact form and location in Jesus’ day was unknown to the early Biblical critics such as Reimarus. Originally just a geographic depression at the juncture of the Tyropoeon and Kidron Valleys, it was given a continuous water source by the digging of “Hezekiah’s Tunnel” in the late eighth century BC. Hezekiah, the Judahite King, had the tunnel dug to bring fresh water from the Gihon Spring on the east side of the City of David to Siloam on the west side (2 Chronicles 32:30). This brought the water supply for Jerusalem within the city walls and away from the invading forces of Sennacherib, the Assyrian King who had invaded Judah.
Hezekiah’s Tunnel is an engineering marvel that still exists. One tunnel started from Siloam, while another started from the Gihon Spring, and they met below the City of David using
unknown means of triangulation. The tunnel does not go in a straight manner between the spring and the pool, such that the total length is about 1,750 feet. The feat was marked by a memorial - The Siloam Inscription – that was carved into the tunnel wall.
The pool from Hezekiah’s time, as well as a later pool from Nehemiah’s time (Nehemiah 3:15), are no longer identifiable from surface features. This was also the case with the pool from Jesus’ time, with any surface structures being destroyed at the end of the Jerusalem siege (70 AD). The Tyropoeon Valley was filled in during the remainder of the Roman era, such that current surface in the land in this area is well above the surface in Jesus’ day. When the Byzantine empress Eudocia (~400–460 AD) wanted to mark the site of the Siloam Pool with a memorial church, she simply placed the church and a new reservoir at the exit from Hezekiah’s Tunnel. That church was later covered with a mosque as the surface level was raised over time.
The Pool of Siloam from Jesus’ day was only found in 2004, and then, only by accident. The archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron, having left a dig at the beginning of the tunnel, were observing the repair of a sewer near the exit of the tunnel. As heavy equipment dug out the sewer, the archeologists observed a set of steps beneath it. They extended the excavated site to find more and wider steps.
Additional work uncovered three sections of stone steps, each section with five steps leading to a landing and the next section of steps. The archeologists concluded that this structure was a mikveh and most likely the Pool of Siloam from Jesus’ day. Similar to the Pool of Bethesda, a person could walk down the steps and stand on a landing to a depth that matched the person’s height. The steps went around at least three sides of the pool, which formed a trapezoid. The uncovered base is 225 feet wide with the legs of the trapezoid probably of a similar width.
The stone steps overlay a plaster base; in the plaster were found coins from the reign of the Hasmonean king Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC), thereby giving an upper limit to the period when the pool was built. Additionally, coins minted during the later years of the Jewish War were found outside the pool, indicating that the pool was used until the destruction of Jerusalem, which clearly identified it as the pool of Jesus’ time.
The discovery of the Pool of Siloam from John 9 raised some additional questions, however. The massive Pool of Siloam, at least four times larger than an Olympic swimming pool, would likely be able to handle thousands of pilgrims coming to the annual feasts. But how would those thousands, perhaps more people than the permanent population of Jerusalem, make their way to the Temple? One has to consider not just the people, but the sacrifices they brought, plus their little ones and their baggage. How could that mass of humanity make their way from Siloam to the Temple Mount?
The answer lay right next to the pool. At the northern end of the pool was found a paved esplanade covering its width and leading toward the Temple. The archeologists theorized that this connected to a similar space found in the nineteenth century near the Temple where the crowds would exit. The expectation was that a broad street went between the two points, large enough to handle the crowds.
Excavations began near the pool in 2013, proceeding underground at considerable depth, and what was revealed was astounding. A Roman-style street, at least 26 feet wide and paved with 10,000 tons of quarried limestone blocks, progressed uphill from the Pool of Siloam toward the Temple Mount. More than 1,100 feet of the road has been uncovered to date, and the expectation is that it covers all 2,000 feet between the two points. The road was opulent, with stepped podia on the side leading to shops and a central market. Beneath the roadway’s blocks and mortar were found coins dating to no later than 31 AD, from which it is concluded that the road was built by Pontius Pilate, the Judean prefect, before Jesus began his ministry.
The picture now unfolds: when Jesus sent him to the pool of Siloam, the man born blind would not have wandered down narrow, twisting paths out into a steep valley. Instead, he would have followed a broad, smoothed street that led directly to the pool. However, this new view, only made possible by archeological finds in the current century, still begs the question: Why send the blind man anywhere at all to be healed?
Perhaps that answer lies in the timing. In John 7, Jesus goes to Jerusalem in the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles. Although the “the Jewish leaders there were looking for a way to kill him”, Jesus goes to the Temple and begins to teach. In spite of the audacious claims he makes about himself, no one stops him, and he continues to attack the Jewish leaders, and evens challenges the Jews who believed in him: the Jews will die in their sins, but the true followers of Jesus will never taste death. This statement exhausts the patience of the crowd, and they move to stone Jesus, but he slips away from the Temple grounds.
It is then that Jesus sees the man born blind. By sending him to Siloam, Jesus creates a public sign that Jesus is the Messiah. With all the pilgrims moving up and down the monumental road from Siloam to the Temple, many people likely witnessed this healing, and the comments of the crowd now shift from Jesus’ amazing teaching (John 7:15) to Jesus’ healing of the man born blind (John 10:21). As the formerly-blind man said himself, “Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind” (John 9:32).
The healing of the man born blind became the marquee sign that Jesus was sent by God. Many weeks later, after the Feast of Dedication (John 10:22), Jesus goes to Bethany to comfort his friends Mary and Martha on the death of their brother, Lazarus. Jesus weeps at Lazarus tomb, and the other mourners comment:
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” - John 11:36-37
The healing of the man born blind enlarged the thinking of many Jews that Jesus was capable of anything, and he astonished them again by bringing Lazarus back to life.
The archeological findings of the Pools of Bethesda and Siloam, and the “Pilgrim Road” from Siloam to the Temple Mount, upset the standard critical view that the Gospel of John has little or no historical value. The nineteenth- and twentieth-century methodology of the textual and source critics – to throw out John, reject the miracles and mission of Jesus, and turn the Gospel narratives into allegories – rested entirely on denying the Christ of the Christian faith. How that methodology could get anyone to an unbiased view of the historical Jesus is unclear and unproven.
But the basis of the Marcan priority, the existence of the Q Source and other unknown first century writings, and the declarations of the “Jesus Seminar” have made this the main approach for modern critical scholarship. But even now some scholars are beginning to question whether textual and source criticism needs a major rethinking.
One such area that is being reconsidered is the dating of the Gospels. From John’s detailed knowledge of Jerusalem landmarks, as befitting an eyewitness, some scholars now propose that the Gospel of John was written by the apostle of that name no later than 64 AD, when he is thought to have been in Ephesus. This date is close enough to the death of Jesus (36 AD) that an eyewitness could still be alive, which is unlikely for a writing date of ~100 AD or later.
This date is also is hinted at by two references in John. In John 5:2, the writer states that the Pool of Bethesda “is in Jerusalem”, using the present tense in Greek to indicate that the pool still existed at the time of writing, which had to be before 70 AD. In John 21:18-23, the writer has Jesus predicting the martyrdom of Peter, which by tradition is dated to 64 AD. It also aligns with the statement in Luke 1:1-2 that Luke was writing his “carefully investigated” account of the “things fulfilled among us” which were first handed down by “eyewitnesses and servants of the word”. The writer of the Gospel of John also claims to be an eyewitness (John 21:24), perhaps suggesting that the Gospel of John was written before the Gospel of Luke. The last event that Luke records, in Acts 28:30-31, can be dated to ~62 AD, suggesting that Luke finished writing about that time since he doesn’t include the death of Paul (~64 AD).
Dating of the Gospels based upon their claims, rather than highly-biased textual- and source- critical methods, brings their writing dates much closer to the time of Jesus, and puts the Messianic mission of Jesus as an original element, rather than a later addition.
The Goal of Jesus and His Disciples, Hermann Samuel Reimarus, trans. by G. W. Buchanan, Leiden, E. J. Brill., 1970. The Puzzling Pool of Bethesda, Urban C. von Wahlde, Biblical Archaeology Review, Volume: 37, Issue: 5, 2011. The Pool of Siloam Has Been Found, but Where Is the Pool of Siloam?, Biblical Archaeology Review, Volume: 43, Issue: 1, 2017. Unearthing the Bible: 101 Archaeological Discoveries That Bring the Bible to Life, Titus Kennedy, Harvest House Publishers, 2020. The Gospel of John in Historical Inquiry, James H. Charlesworth and Jolyon G. R. Pruszinski (eds.), T&T Clark Ltd, London, 2019.
All Bible references from the New International Version (NIV) Art Shirley February, 2021