A couple of years back in 2011, some low‑wage Palestinian day laborers were digging a new sewer line in Jerusalem and stumbled upon the ruins of an ancient pool, bath or spa. It was heralded as the discovery of the Biblical “Pool of Siloam” - mentioned in the gospels as “Bethesda” in John chapter five. The Evangelical world went wild! “This proves the Bible is true and infallible!”, the Christian media roared. They were happy. I was happy too. That is an exciting find. Of course that “pool” was known to the occupying Roman administration, who were fanatical note‑takers and record-keepers. The Bible is not the only source that mentions this place – likely built earlier during the Greek period. So finding it, although cool, does not really prove anything. The existence of the baths at Bethesda do not mean that the stories about it are true too.
The Bible account goes like this: Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 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. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty‑eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.” Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. (Jn. 5:1‑9)
Archeological finds do not prove the Bible true. They only prove that those historic sites mentioned in scripture actually existed – unlike Xanadu, Atlantis or Shangri‑La, which are unlikely ever to be discovered in modern times (although there are some who keep trying). LOL. Look at the narrative. What is going on here? There is this magic pool right in downtown Jerusalem. It is infested with all manner of societal outcasts – the crippled, the blind, the withered and the “impotent” (KJV). Why were they all hanging out there? Because an angel of the lord – on a whim – would appear and “trouble” the waters. I just love that word from the great King James Version of the Holy Bible, don't you? Anyway the angel would show up unannounced and “trouble” the waters. So what? Well, the good part is next. The first cripple to plunge into the pool got cured! Praise the Lord. How cool is that? I have heard a gazillion sermons about this set‑up and never questioned it very deeply. Like I didn't think to ask why only one lucky sickling could get healed at a time. Why not two or more? Heck, if that angel could heal one person – the fastest cripple at the pool - why not just heal them all? Why just one?
Anyway, Jesus interacted with an old geezer who had been infirm for thirty eight years. Very accurate, that, huh? Then Jesus asks him what he is doing there; and the old “impotent” man whines that he is never fast enough and no one is available to help him get into the pool to “go down” first in order to get healed. Wow, that's a bummer, huh?
Anyway, thereupon, Jesus asks him like the dumbest possible question. “Do you want to get healed?” Like Duh! What was he going to say? “Oh, no, not really. I am just here for the entertainment?” Come on! Jesus then simply circumvents the whole pool protocol and heals the guy on the spot. Yea! “Take up thy bed and walk!” Great Hollywood ending, but is this a factual account? I doubt it for this reason. If the Romans were aware of this magic pool, they certainly would have been aware of all those gimps hanging around it and above all, the angle troubling the waters and the healings that took place there. It is inconceivable that they would have missed such a big thing happening right in the city center!
Another example of this meme: archeological discoveries prove that the Bible is true, happened to me personally in 1983 when I was living and doing missionary work in Hong Kong, a British colony at the time. Astronaut, Jim Irwin of Apollo 15 fame, was sitting with me in my office discussing his new book entitled: I Walked on the Moon. He had synthesized it into a seven hundred word essay and asked me if I could help him turn it into a religious tract that he and his tour group could hand out during their upcoming trip into China. Piece of cake. I had it translated into beautiful Chinese by a truly gifted translator friend of mine whom I knew well - and I did the layout and design. During the two days that we had to wait for the print shop to produce the brochure, we hung out together. I really liked him, and was quite interested in his many stories of his frequent trips to Turkey to climb around on Mt. Ararat – in search of Noah's Ark.
Lots of people have done that over the years, but he was surely the most famous. Landsat satellite photography was just becoming common place at the time, so he had with him many such marvelous photos of that region, but no ark. They had found some wood samples above the tree line, which hinted of something. As I didn't want to appear too skeptical, I still had to question him. In my most polite voice I simply asked what that proved exactly. “Well, nothing on its own,” he confessed, “But we will keep trying. Meanwhile, it is an enthusiasm booster for us all." That made sense – sort of.
He was overjoyed with the product (so was I). As I saw him (and his tour group) off at the HK railway station, I couldn't help but wonder. Even if they did find something of some kind up on that mountain some day, would that really prove the flood story conclusively? I went back to my office and re‑read the flood tale from Genesis chapter six. I doubted it. As a fundamentalist and literalist (of sorts) at the time, I was in “the same boat” with Jim Irwin. My theology, my faith, and my whole world was wrapped up in stories like Noah's ark and the Pool of Siloam. If they are just fairy tales, then what else in the Bible is figurative as well? Eden, Jericho, Sodom? It is a classic example of the slippery slope. And in my experience, that slope is very slippery indeed.