(Βηθεσδά, for Chald. בֵּית אֶשׁדָּא, house of the mercy, q. d. charity- hospital; or, according to others, for Chald. בֵּית אֶשׁדָּאּ, place of the flowing, sc. of water), the name of a reservoir or tank (κολυμβήθρα, i.e. swimming-pool), with five "porches" (στοάς), close upon the sheep-gate or "market" (ἐπὶ τῇ προβατικῇ — it will be observed that the word "market" is supplied) in Jerusalem (Joh 5:2). The porches — i.e. cloisters or colonnades — were extensive enough to accommodate a large number of sick and infirm people, whose custom it was to wait there for the "troubling of the water." One of these invalids is recorded to have been cured by Christ in the above passage, where also we are told that an angel went down at a certain season into the pool and troubled the water, and then whoever first stepped in' was made whole. There seems to have been no special medicinal virtue in the water itself, and only he who first stepped in after the troubling was healed. It may be remarked that the evangelist, in giving the account of the descent of the angel into the pool and the effects following, does not seem to do any more than state the popular legend as he found it, without vouching for its truth, except so far as it explained the invalid's presence there.
Eusebius and Jerome — though unfortunately they give no clew to the situation of Bethesda — describe it in the Onomasticon (s.v. Βηζαθά, Bethesda) as existing in their time as two pools, the one supplied by the periodical rains, while the water of the other was of a reddish color, due, as the tradition then ran, to the fact that the flesh of the sacrifices was anciently washed there before offering, on which account the pool was also called "the Sheep-pool" (Pecualis, Προβατική). See, however, the comments of Lightfoot on this view, in his Exercit. on St. John, 5, 2. Eusebius's statement is partly confirmed by the Bordeaux Pilgrim (A.D. 333), who mentions in his Itinerary "twin fish-pools, having five porches, which are called Bethsaida" (quoted in Barclay, p. 299). The large reservoir called by the Mohammedans Birket Israil, within the walls of the city, close by the St. Stephen's gate, and under the north-east wall of the Haram area is generally considered to be the modern representative of Bethesda. This tradition reaches back certainly to the time of Saewulf, A.D. 1102, who mentions it under the name of Bethsaida (Early Trav. p. 41). It is also named in the Citez de Jherusalem, A.D. 1187 (sect. 7), and in more modern times by Maundrell and all the late travelers. The pool measures 360 feet in length, 130 feet in breadth, and 75 in depth to the bottom, besides the rubbish which has accumulated in it for ages. Although it has been dry for above two centuries, it was once evidently used as a reservoir, for the sides internally have been cased over with small stones, and these again covered with plaster; but the workmanship of these additions is coarse, and bears no special marks of antiquity. The west end is built up like the rest, except at the south-west corner, where two lofty arched vaults extended westward, side by side, under the houses that now cover this part. Dr. Robinson was able to trace the continuation of the work in this direction under one of these vaults for 100 feet, and it seemed to extend much farther. This gives the whole a length of 160 feet, equal to one half of the whole extent of the sacred enclosure under which it lies. Mr. Wolcott, writing since, says, "The southern vault extends 130 feet, and the other apparently the same. At the extremity of the former was an opening for drawing up water. The vaults are stuccoed" (Bibliotheca Sacra, 1843, p. 33). It would seem as if the deep reservoir formerly extended farther westward in this part, and that these vaults were built up in and over it in order to support the structures above. Dr. Robinson considers it probable that this excavation was anciently carried quite through the ridge of Bezetha, along, the northern side of Antonia to its N.W. corner, thus forming the deep trench which separated the fortress from the adjacent hill (Bib. Researches, 1, 433, 434). The little that can be said on the subject, however, goes nearly as much to confirm as to invalidate the traditionary identification.
(1) On the one hand, the most probable position of the sheep-gate is at the east part of the city. SEE SHEEP-GATE. On the other hand, the Birket Israil exhibits none of the marks which appear to have distinguished the water of Bethesda in the records of the Evangelist and of Eusebius; it certainly is neither pentagonal nor double.
(2) The construction of the Birkch is such as to show that it was originally a water-reservoir, and not the moat of a fortress. SEE JERUSALEM.
(3) There is certainly a remarkable coincidence between the name as given by Eusebius, Bezatha, and that of the north-east suburb of the city at the time of the Gospel history-Bezetha (q.v.).
(4) There is the difficulty that if the Birket Israil be not Bethesda, which of the ancient "pools" does it represent? On the whole, however, the most probable identification of the ancient Bethesda is that of Dr. Robinson (i. 508), who suggests the "fountain of the Virgin;" in the valley of the Kedron, a short distance above the Pool of Siloam. In favor of this are its situation, supposing the sheep-gate to be at the south-east of the city, as Lightfoot, Robinson, and others suppose, and the strange intermittent "troubling of the water" caused by the periodical ebbing and flowing of the supply. Against it are the confined size of the pool, and the difficulty of finding room for the five stoae. (See Barclay's detailed account, City of the Great King, p. 516-524, and 325, 6.) SEE JERUSALEM.
For rabbinical allusions to this subject, see Lightfoot, in loc. Joh.; for a discussion of the medical qualities of the water, see Bartholin, De paralytic. N.T. p. 398; Mead, Med. Sacr. c. 8; Witsius, Miscell. 2, 249 sq.; D'Outrein, in the Biblioth. Brem. 1, 597 sq.; Rus, Harmon. Evang. 1, 680; Eschenbach, Scripta Med. Bibl. p. 60 sq.; Stiebriz, An piscina Beths. calidis aquis numerari queat (Hal. 1739); Reis, Josephi silentium ev. historiae non noxium (Altdorf. 1730), p. 17 sq.; Richter, De balneo animali (in his Dissert. Med. Gott. 1775, p. 107); Schulze, in the Berlin. verm. Abhandl. ii. 146 sq.; Jungmarker, Bethesda haud balneum animale (Gryph. 1766); on the miracle, treatises are by Harenberg (in the Bibl. Brem. I, 6, p. 82 sq.), Olearius (Lips. 1706), Ziebich (Gerl. 1768), Schelgvig (Gedan. 1681, 1701); also general treatises, De piscina Bethesda, by Arnold (Jen. 1661), Frischmuth (Jen. 1661), Hottinger (Tigur. 1705), Sommelius (Lund. 1767), Wendeler (Viteb. 1676). The place has been described more or less fully by nearly every traveler in Jerusalem. (See especially De Saulcy, Dead Sea, 2, 244 sq.)