The Angel at Bethesda, John 5:4
The challenge before us is to discern whether the explanation of the Angel coming down to stir the water at the bath of Bethesda had originally been written by John, or whether someone else had added it at a later stage. (John 5:4)
Some of the manuscripts to our avail incorporate this explanation (like the KJV), while others are without it (like the NIV).
In verse 7 the invalid mentions his dilemma. He has no one to assist him to enter the water after it had been stirred – and every time someone else goes into the bath before him. From this we can deduct that God healed the first person to enter the water after it had been stirred. The emphasis is on a total dependant person needing a Godly act of healing. The invalid gives no explanation on how or by whom the water got stirred.
That people eagerly would like to know who and how the water got stirred, is understandable.
Let us look at the King James Version where I highlighted the words not found in modern Versions like the NIV: John 5:3-5: “In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 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. And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.”
Since the last part of verse 3 and the whole of verse 4 are present or absent in almost the exact same manuscripts, I give the evidence on verse 4 only:
|Witness:||Greek:||Translations:||Church Fathers:||Greek:||Translations:||Church Fathers:|
|101-200||p75 , p66||Diatessaron|
|301-400||Sin., B, W||Syriac, Bohairic, Achmimic||1 Old Latin, Bohairic||Ambrose, Didymus|
|401-500||C, D, Uncial 0125||1 Old Latin, Georgian||Nonnus*||A||3 Old Latin, 2 Syriac, Armenian||Chrysostom*, Cyril|
|501-600||2 Old Latin||Uncial 078|
|601-700||1 Old Latin||2 Old Latin|
|701-800||1 Old Latin||L, At.L.|
|801-900||Minuscule 33||K, X, Sang., Kor., Uncial 063|
|1001-1600||Present Vulgate||f1, f13, 18 Minuscules, Byzantine Lectionary||1 Old Latin, Vulgate|
Apart from the manuscripts mentioned in the table above, four more Uncials, two Minuscules as well as a Syriac translation do have verse 4, but with clear indication that its authenticity is in doubt.
Where the elaboration is included, there are six different renderings, each with several variations.
To evaluate the manuscript evidence, we use three objective scientific criteria.
External Criteria, (Concerning the manuscripts themselves):
1. The eight oldest Greek manuscripts up to 500 A.D. do not have this elaboration, two of them less than 100 years after the Gospel had been written. During the same period, only one Greek manuscript does have this explanation. Up to the year 800 A.D it is found in three more Greek manuscripts (one ±550 and two ±750). After 800 A.D. it is more common.
2. Concerning Ancient Translations, apart from Old Latin manuscripts where it is found in some and lack in others. this explanation is lacking in translations of five other languages, while included in only three. Even the revised Vulgate by Wordsworth and White (1898) removed this explanation from the earlier Vulgate by Jerome.
3. The oldest Church Father to include the explanation is Tatian in his Diatessaron, a document containing many additions or omissions of words and clauses as well as rearrangements at Tatian’s own will. Though this document had been rejected from the beginning by prominent Christian leaders, many of its deviations found their way into some later manuscripts. Five more Church Fathers do mention the reason for the water to be stirred in their writings. Of cource these could be quotations from the Version he had at hand, but could just as well be his own personal explanation.
The external evidence calls for the exclusion of this elaboration as not being originally written by John.
Internal Criteria, (Concerning what scribes would normally do)
1. A scribe could easily mistake a note in the margin for something left out by the scribe responsible for his source manuscript, leading to his inclusion of the words.
2. For a scribe to leave out words that had been in his source manuscript, there had to be obvious reasons. In this case, no possible reason for such a decision comes to the fore. We have to assume that where it is lacking, it had not been part of the source copy for this manuscript.
3. The existence of six different versions of this clause, each with several variations, is important. It rather points to a note written from memory in different personal copies of John. Such a personal copy could later serve as the source for a next copy to be made. It does not resemble words copied from a written account, but rather of some explanation overheard, and noted from memory.
The internal evidence also calls for not accepting this explanation as authentic to the original.
Intrinsic Criteria. (Concerning the conduct of the author himself, or the flow of the narrative.)
1. Though not serious, the clause does cause a break in the flow of the narrative from mentioning the different afflictions to narrowing onto a specific person.
2. The clause in question directs the attention to something on the periphery and not the centre. It points to the cause for the water to be stirred while the matter of concern for the lame was help needed to get into the water first, to receive healing only God can provide. (Vs.7)
The intrinsic matter also calls for excluding this explanation.
All three sets of criteria point to the exclusion of these words as not authentic to the original autograph. The seeking for an explanation for the stirring of the water is obvious, though not essential.
In John 21:25 John writes: “Jesus did many other things as well” that John did not mention. But those incidents John did record, he usually follows up with the greater and deeper meaning behind the incident. In this instance it is the same. The rest of the chapter is devoted to different aspects concerning the deity of Jesus as Son of God; He is Lord of the Sabbath (10, 18), He is one with the Father (20), He provides salvation (24), He has the final authority to judge (27), and the Father, Scripture and even Moses testify concerning Jesus. (37, 39, 46).
It is obvious that this incident focuses on the fact that Jesus heals in the same way and with the same authority as the Father. Healing by a single spoken word, especially without anybody or anything else is at the core. Who and how the water got stirred, is of no concern, only the divine healing. It is possible that an angel went directly before God to stir the water. It is more possible that the water got stirred by natural means. According to archaeological excavations, this pool, from time to time, received water from the brook Kidron. This could have been the reason for the stirring of the water. But the stirring of the water does not play any role in the rest of the chapter, nor is it even mentioned. Only Jesus’ healing intervention in the life of this invalid is of any concern.
The explanation of the stirring of the water plays no role in the understanding of the miracle or of the rest of the chapter.