Le Projet Béthesda (1994–2010): La Piscine Probatique de Jésus à Saladin Proche-Orient Chrétien, Numéro Spécial 2011
200 pp., $20 (softcover)
By Claudine Dauphin and Shimon Gibson
Reviewed by Urban C. von Wahlde
This is a preliminary report on “Le Projet Béthesda,” which for the past 18 years has been studying the Pools of Bethesda in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John recounts Jesus’ healing a crippled man.* During these 18 years the site (and associated museum) has been closed to other researchers. In this respect, the project is somewhat like that of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in which other scholars were excluded from studying a large portion of the scrolls while the scholars assigned to publish them procrastinated.
I wish I could state that this report on the Pools of Bethesda was worth the 18-year wait and the exclusion of other scholars (like me) from studying the site. On the contrary, this preliminary report is disappointing in almost every respect.
The project is directed by Professor Claudine Dauphin, the French representative for archaeological affairs in Jerusalem. Archaeologist Shimon Gibson is responsible for the archaeological part of the report. Dauphin’s discussion of a late mosaic (from the time of the Persian invasion in 638 A.D. to the ascendancy of Saladin in 1187) comprises 124 pages. The archaeological report and discussion by Gibson on the archaeology of the site, which is so important from the viewpoint of Biblical archaeology, is a mere 28 pages. This is only one example of the many ways in which this report is unbalanced.
Although the archaeological section is short, it is not short on new unsupported proposals. For example, Gibson proposes that both pools at Bethesda were built simultaneously in the early Roman period and were intended from their origin as ritual purification pools. I disagree. Given the need for reservoirs in rain-starved Jerusalem every year from March to October and given the steep incline of the Bethesda Valley, it is almost impossible to think that there would not have been an earlier reservoir in such an obvious place.
Another example: Gibson proposes—without argument or discussion—that an inscription found by J. Jeremias in the 1940s is not Hebrew but Greek.
Other examples are too complex for a brief review, but there are a number of them. In short, there is much that is new in Gibson’s report, but, unfortunately, there is no evidence or argument given for much of it. He makes reference in the text to numerous drawings, plans and measurements, but the drawings they refer to are not given. After 18 years, I think we could expect more than this brief survey.
Professor Dauphin indicates that there is yet a second phase of the project to come. So it is not over. Will the site be opened to other researchers now that this preliminary report is out?
I have been told that the project was to have culminated in a two-volume study. For the past year, however, it has been rumored that the archaeological study will not be continued, or at least that it will not be continued by Gibson. This is unfortunate. The Pools of Bethesda are an important Biblical site. These pools together with the pools at Siloam share parallel histories and have much to contribute to our understanding of the Gospel of John, to the development of attitudes toward ritual purity and to the
* See Urban C. von Wahlde, “The Puzzling Pool of Bethesda,” BAR, September/October 2011. history of water installations before and during the time of Jesus. As a contribution to our knowledge in these respects, the present volume is disappointing. We can only hope that we will not have to wait another 18 years to find out more.
Urban C. von Wahlde is professor of New Testament and former chair of the theology department at Loyola University, Chicago. He is author of a three-volume commentary on the Gospel and Letters of John (Eerdmans, 2010).