The 3rd “sign”, (in John 5), introduces us to a number of problematical issues. We’re told about a pool in Jerusalem, close to which lie “many sick, blind, lame and paralysed people”. It has a strange feature. Every now and again, for no discernible reason, “the water is stirred up”. Most modern translations omit an ‘explanation’, found in some ancient manuscripts, for what was going on. “An angel from the Lord would sometimes come and stir [the water]. The first person to get into the pool after that would be healed”. Such a state of affairs, depending on the whim of an angel, seems very arbitrary, unfair and even sadistically cruel. Old ideas, however, die hard. God can still be praised for saving one particular person from a burning building, in seeming forgetfulness of all the others burned to death.
Jesus makes no mention of this belief and, inconsistently compared to other Gospel stories, he makes no enquiry about belief on the part of the disabled man. All he asks is a question which, since he “realised that [the man] had been crippled for a long time”, seems superfluous if not insulting – “Do you want to become well?” When the man points out the obvious, that he has no one help him get into the water first, Jesus says nothing other than, “Pick up your mat and walk”, which the man does. He walks away from the pool, lucky man, unlike the rest of the disabled people left to keep on playing the repetitive, cruel game.
John’s story reaches its climax with his telling us that “the day on which this happened was a Sabbath”. It’s as if his main interest in including this incredible and morally questionable story, is to enable him to focus on Jesus’ ongoing dispute with the Pharisees about Sabbath observance, (which I’ve written about elsewhere). What I want to highlight here, is how modern translations ‘tone down’ certain words and phrases. They make reference, in this story, to “the Jewish leaders”, which is not a translation but an interpretation. What John wrote was, “the Jews”.
It seems rather strange, since the disabled man, Jesus, and everyone else in the story are Jews, that we’re told that the man, “went away and informed the Jews that Jesus was the one who had made him well”. Then we’re told that these same “Jews” began “persecuting” Jesus for telling the man to carry his mat on the Sabbath. John’s Gospel was written near the end of the 1st century, when the followers of Jesus were no longer mainly Jews, but converted Gentiles, the result being an increasingly distinct and separated “Christian” movement. This is invariably a recipe for argument, antagonism, and division, followed by mutual recriminations, reprisals and worse. This is the context in which John’s Gospel targets “the Jews”, and it amounts to some of the first shots in the despicable anti-Semitism which became one of the worst aspects of early Christianity, and which has not yet been entirely eradicated.
And finally, when Jesus later encounters the man at the Temple, he says to him, “Look, you have become well. Don’t sin any more.” Here is Jesus, the man of his time, believing that an illness lasting “for thirty-eight years” can be God’s punishment for what are regarded as “sins” – sins being whatever happens to displease God.
I’m not attacking the Gospels. I read them most days in life. I’m simply stating what ought surely to be obvious. They’re ancient books, written in the fashion of their era, to serve time-related purposes. To be rightly understood, and applied to a contemporary context, they must be subject to the same literary, historical, and critical examination as every other ancient book or manuscript. People so easily become uncritical of their own ‘ancient books’. Similar contents in the books of other religions, which they would criticise, reject, and even demonise as being “of the Devil”, they accept without a second thought in their own, glossing over what ought to be challenged. In all these different books, there is gold, but there is also dross, that needs to be acknowledged and disowned.