• Winning the Pools: Bethesda Reprise


    A very good question came up regarding my short story about Bethesda, the pool in Jerusalem where one lucky sufferer at a time could score a healing by being first into the drink when an angel troubled the water.  The story comes from the Gospel of John, Chapter 5, and provides the setting for Jesus performing a miracle and irritating his critics even more than usual. Here is the pool of Bethesda as it appears in the King James Version (KJV) of the New Testament:

    5:2   Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep [market] a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.  5:3  In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.   5:4  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.

    The narrative continues with Jesus selecting some poor poolside sod who had been sick for thirty-eight years, and telling him to pick up his bed and walk.  The happy healee obliges, and promptly gets into trouble with the authorities for carrying his bed on the Sabbath.  Which is actually pretty funny.  But the interesting point here is the fact that some manuscripts – and therefore some translations – of the Gospel of John say nothing at all about any angel, troubled water, or miraculous first prize.  Compare the KJV with, for example, the Revised Standard Version (RSV):

    5:2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-za’tha, which has five porticoes.  5:3 In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed.  5:4 * [No text].

    That is, some versions omit half of Verse 3 and all of Verse 4, and move directly on to Verse 5, leaving a plot-hole large enough to drive an ox-cart through: for without that back-story, what are we to make of Verse 7?

    5:7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.” (RSV)

    So why do some translations omit that critical verse and a half?  That is the very good question.  The answer centres around the different texts used by the KJV and later translators.  Ironically, the KJV team worked from relatively late copies, dating from post-11th century AD.  Later translators worked from older manuscripts, which came to light since Jacobean times and were therefore not available to the KJV team.  Defenders of the decision to omit John 5:3b-4 consider the verses to be later interpolations or glosses, dating no earlier than about AD 500, and not to be found in the original manuscript as whispered by God into the ears of his human secretaries.  Defenders of the KJV, on the other hand, get very cross indeed when even one jot or tittle of the Word is messed with.  A concise summary of the debate and the relevant mss can be found here.

    But this is not simply a dry wrangle over dusty ancient manuscripts, the sort of debate normally reserved for the top floor of an academic ivory tower.  The real issue for believers revolves around which of the many manuscripts and translation(s) actually say what God meant to say.  Latter-day translators accept that the original manuscripts were inspired, but will point out the accumulation of errors, inconsistencies and interpolations that crept in through fifteen hundred years of manual copying by fallible humans; the infallible-scripture fans, on the other hand, argue that God promised his inspired Word would be passed on in a reliable form, which they assume for some peculiar reason to be the King James Version.

    I know whereof I speak.  My late uncle the fundamentalist minister was a big-time KJV-only defender.  In his view, the KJV translators were not only working from manuscripts hand-picked by God to be particularly trustworthy, but God also directly inspired the translators, making sure they got it right.  Which is a kind of special pleading, but an admirably direct way of getting around the problem of copyist errors and so forth.  He took it seriously enough that he resigned from the board of Bob Jones University when that august institution abandoned the KJV for the RSV or some other alphabet-soup variant of the Good Book.  Bob Jones, it seemed, was just not a good enough Christian for my uncle.  Which is also pretty funny.

    As for this specific disputed passage, I think the modern translators might be extra happy to drop those verses because they make God look like such a jerk.

    Category: AtheismBible

    Article by: Rebecca Bradley