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Angel at the Pool (John 5:3-4)


The Angelic Miracle

The underlined words pertaining to the angelic miracle are omitted in translations based on the Nestle-Aland/United Bible Society text:

John 5:3-7

3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 4 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. 5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole? 7 The impotent man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me into the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.


Without verse 4,
there is no explanation as to why the impotent man had to go into the pool when the water was troubled, or why he did not just go in right after another person went in before him (verse 7).

External Evidence

The disputed words appear in the Byzantine Majority Text.  The earliest Greek manuscript in which these words appear in their entirety is 078 from the 6th century.  The earliest Latin manuscript with all of the words is the Old Latin ita from the 4th century.  The earliest Greek manuscript with verse 4 without verse 3 is Alexandrinus from the 5th century.  In contrast, the earliest manuscripts to omit the words in their entirety are P66 and P75 from the 3rd century.

The following Church fathers, however, cited the account:

Tertullian (3rd century)

"An angel used to do things when he moved the Pool of Bethsaida. Those who complained of ill-health used to watch out for him, for anyone who got down there before the others, after washing had no further reason to complain." (On Baptism, Chapter 5)

Ambrose (4th century)

"Therefore it is said: "An angel of the Lord went down according to the season into the pool, and the water was troubled; and he who first after the troubling of the water went down into the pool was healed of whatsoever disease he was holden." This pool was at Jerusalem, in which one was healed every year, but no one was healed before the angel had descended." (On the Mysteries, Chapter 4, 22)

Chrysostom (late 4th century)

"And "an Angel came down and troubled the water," and endued it with a healing power, that the Jews might learn that much more could the Lord of Angels heal the diseases of the soul. Yet as here it was not simply the nature of the water that healed, (for then this would have always taken place,) but water joined to the operation of the Angel; so in our case, it is not merely the water that works, but when it has received the grace of the Spirit, then it puts away all our sins. Around this pool "lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water"; but then infirmity was a hindrance to him who desired to be healed, now each has power to approach, for now it is not an Angel that troubles, it is the Lord of Angels who works all." (Homilies 36 on the Gospel of John, John 5:2-3)

Explaining the Variants

A problem which textual critics have raised with respect to this account is that there is a group of witnesses which omits the words in both verses 3 and 4, another group which omits only the words in verse 3, another group which omits only verse 4, and another group which includes both verses 3 and 4.  The view of some critics is that the best way to interpret this data is to suppose that the words in both verses 3 and 4 were not original and that they were added in a piecemeal fashion, to be combined eventually in the later manuscripts.

Variants:
  • Variant 1 (includes both verses 3 and 4)
  • Variant 2 (includes verse 3, omits verse 4)
  • Variant 3 (omits both verses 3 and 4)
  • Variant 4 (omits verse 3, includes verse 4)

One could, however, accept the authenticity of all the words and interpret the data in the following manner:

Variant 1 is the original text.  This reading was transmitted by the Byzantine and Western Church until the present day.

Variant 1:

3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 4 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. 5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

Variant 2 arose in Alexandria with the removal of the explicit account of the angelic miracle (see Hypotheses of the Cause of Omission). However, some copies kept the removed verse 4 in the margin.  Two streams of transmission arose - Stream 2-A which had verse 4 in the margin and Stream 2-B which did not have verse 4 in the margin.

Variant 2, Stream 2-A:

3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

Margin: 4 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.

Variant 2, Stream 2-B:

3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water. 5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

Variant 3 arose in Stream 2-B with the removal of the words in verse 3 for the sake of thoroughly removing all traces of verse 4.

Variant 3:

3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, 5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

A scribe with Variant 3 regarded Variant 3 as the original reading, but was interested in the textual variant circulating in the margin of Variant 2, Stream 2-A.  He added the marginal note to the text of Variant 3.

Variant 3 with the marginal note of Variant 2, Stream 2-A:

3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, 5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

Margin: 4 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.

Variant 4 arose when a scribe placed this marginal note in the text of Variant 3.

Variant 4:

3 In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, 4 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. 5 And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

One might suggest that this hypothesis is too complex to appear feasible, but the truth of the matter is that whatever the starting point is, whether to think the account is spurious or to think it is authentic, a series of copyist events had to take place for the four different variants to form.  Any explanation as to how the four variants formed requires a hypothesis in which scribes juggled through various manuscripts and their readings.

The Vocabulary

There are various arguments relating to the vocabulary of John 5:3-4.  The charge is that there are too many non-Johannine words and constructions used in this passage.  To begin with, however, it should not be surprising that non-Johannine words and constructions might appear in this passage.  The reason being that this passage is not a unique divine revelation conveyed through John but a mere retelling of an existing oral tradition in Jerusalem, perhaps formulated as a "saying".  The author of such a tale was obviously not John.  The words, "εκδεχομενων την του υδατος κινησιν" in verse 3 were part of John's own narrative, but all of verse 4 is a retelling of an existing oral tale.  If John simply cited the oral tale verbatim, there is no reason to expect Johannine vocabulary and style in verse 4. 

There is an example in the New Testament where a hapax legomena (a word which appears only once in a textual source) appears when the author was obviously citing a foreign source.  In Jude 1:15, Jude used the word "εξελεγξαι" for "convince" or "convict".  This intensive form of "ελεγχω" is not the typical word used throughout the New Testament for "convince" or "convict", even in passages relating to the Lord's final judgment.  Jude used this word that was foreign to the New Testament because he cited a prophecy of Enoch, which was probably translated into Greek from Hebrew by an orator or writer not associated with the New Testament.  There is no reason to expect the author's typical vocabulary where he is simply retelling an existing story or prophecy.

That being said, the following answers the arguments concerning the vocabulary of the passage at John 5:3-4:

κινησιν ("moving"): The charge is that the use of κινησιν in the disputed portion of verse 3 is inconsistent with the uses of forms of ταρασσω later in verses 4 and 7.  However, that John would use κινησιν is not strange, for in Revelation he uses κινησω at 2:5 and εκινηθησαν at 6:14.  κινησις appears to be used throughout the New Testament to refer to noticeable outward movement whereas ταρασσω is used for internal agitation, such as emotional turmoil.  At John 5:3, we are told the people were waiting for the "moving" of the waters.  This was an outward visible sign that the miracle was happening.  The "troubling" of the waters at verses 4 and 7, is not a visible phenomenon but the internal condition of the water.  The angelic miracle "troubled" the water in the sense that the normal properties of the water were altered.  It is the outward "moving" (κινησιν) of the water which indicated the internal "troubling" (ταραχην) of the water.

την του υδατος κινησιν (enclosed genitive construction): The charge is that this construction is foreign to Johannine style.  However, Majority Text scholar Maurice Robinson states:

"Yet a simple electronic scan of the Johannine writings reveals that the embedded genitive construction not only appears three times elsewhere in John (Jn 6:51; 14:30; 18:10), but with one exception (Mt 13:55, ο του τεκτονος υιος) this construction is otherwise exclusive to John among the gospels. The embedded genitive in Jn 5:3b actually is more characteristic of Johannine style than of any other gospel, and its presence in Jn 5:3b argues more for Johannine authenticity rather than inauthenticity." (New Testament Textual Criticism: The Case for Byzantine Priority, 102)

αγγελος κυριου ("angel of Lord"): This phrase, though attributed to the Byzantine text, does not appear in 078, the earliest Byzantine reading, or in the Majority Text.  It is not proper to treat this as a distinctly Byzantine reading.

εμβας ("stepped in"): The charge is that this word is not the usual word for getting into water, καταβαινω.  John 5:4, however, uses both κατεβαινεν and εμβας.  It is understandable to make
εμβας an issue if it alone is used in verse 4.  But if both κατεβαινεν and εμβας are used by the same person (whether John or a scribe), it is reasonable to think the unique word was intended for some sort of distinction.

 ω δηποτε ("of whatsoever"): This is a unique construction that does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament.  John may have simply adopted this idiom from the words of the oral tale.

κατειχετο ("had"): This word, being used in a sense of being "held" by disease, is not strange in the context.  In Romans 7:6, the word is used in the sense that the law had once "held" (κατειχομεθα) us in bondage.  The use of
κατειχετο at John 5:4 is appropriate because just as the physically sick were "held" under the bondage of sickness, the Pharisees who appear a few verses later at 5:16 are "held" under the bondage of the law (of the Sabbath).  The impotent man, by being healed on the Sabbath, was freed from both the bondage of sickness and of the law.

νοσηματι ("disease"):
This is a unique word that does not occur anywhere else in the New Testament. This may have been the word used in the oral tale, and John may have simply adopted it.

Theological Arguments

Some claim that the idea of healing water has the earmarks of ancient superstition rather than a biblical concept of miracles. These critics seem to have missed occurrences in the Bible where physical substances or objects were given healing properties. In John 9:6, Jesus healed a blind man using clay created from his saliva and mud. In Numbers 21:8-9, a brass serpent was given a healing property. In Acts 19:12 handkerchiefs and aprons were given healing properties.  There is nothing unbiblical about a physical substance being given healing properties. Moreover, there is nothing unbiblical about angels performing miracles since the Bible is full of examples where angels perform supernatural feats.

Another theological objection to this passage is that the stated method of healing supposedly goes against God’s good character. According to the passage, only the first one who enters the pool at the stirring of the water gets healed. Consequently, sickest individuals, who need healing the most, are unable to get healed. Such a concept, however, does not diminish God’s good character or grace. The story of the healing at the pool bears a remarkable analogy to the story of the Samaritan woman in the previous chapter, John 4. Semi-pagan Samaritans, as with the sickest individuals by the pool, needed healing (salvation) the most. However, the Jews, as with able-bodied individuals by the pool, prevented the Samaritans from approaching the God of salvation. It is clear throughout the Bible that some individuals appear to be given greater opportunity to approach the place of healing (salvation) than others. People who were born Jews seemed to have had greater opportunity to come to the knowledge of salvation than people who were born Samaritans. Likewise, people who were able-bodied seemed to have had greater opportunity to approach the pool than people who were disabled. In both stories, Jesus transcended these seeming inequalities in opportunity, and gave healing/salvation to the unprivileged. Thus the seeming inequality of the method of healing at the pool serves as a backdrop to the manifestation of Jesus’ grace and his teaching that “the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30).

Hypotheses of the Cause of Omission

Aversion to the Content

It is possible that a scribe omitted the verse because it mentioned a seemingly fanciful activity of an angel.  Luke 22:43, another passage in which an angel appears, has also been deleted in many manuscripts. Yet this verse remains in all modern translations:

Luke 22:43: "And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him."
  • Omitted in P75, Aleph1, A, B, N, T, W, etc.
  • Appears in D, L, Θ, Ψ, 0171, the original hand of Aleph, etc.

Perhaps some scribes interpreted the "angel" in John 5:4 as an evil angel who was playing a game of "lucky dip" to gloat over the losers.  The text of John 5:4 is ambiguous about whether this was God's holy angel or a fallen angel.  Fallen angels can also work miracles (Revelation 16:14).  Tertullian, a Church father of the third century, expressed an apparently common view that unclean spirits brooded on waters.

"Are there not other cases too, in which, without any sacrament, unclean spirits brood on waters, in spurious imitation of that brooding of the Divine Spirit in the very beginning? Witness all shady founts, and all unfrequented brooks, and the ponds in the baths, and the conduits in private houses, or the cisterns and wells which are said to have the property of "spiriting away," through the power, that is, of a hurtful spirit. Men whom waters have drowned or affected with madness or with fear, they call nymph-caught, or "lymphatic," or "hydro-phobic." Why have we adduced these instances? Lest any think it too hard for belief that a holy angel of God should grant his presence to waters, to temper them to man's salvation; while the evil angel holds frequent profane commerce with the selfsame element to man's ruin."(On Baptism, Chapter 5)

To prevent people from becoming fascinated with suspicious angels brooding over waters, perhaps some scribes omitted the text or relegated it to the margin with a cautionary note.  Perhaps these scribes thought they were doing God a service for removing the focus on an angel and instead bringing to focus the work of the Lord.

Aversion to the Style

Modern textual critics doubt the authenticity of the passage based on its supposedly non-Johannine style and vocabulary.  Alexandrian scribes may have likewise doubted the authenticity of the passage.  By raising that the style of the passage is foreign to Johannine literature, modern textual critics inadvertently provide a reason as to why Alexandrian scribes may have been averse to the passage.  As provided earlier in this article, however, there is a common sense reason as to why an authentic Johannine passage might include some non-Johannine style and vocabulary.

Confusion Arising from Form

Perhaps the cause of the omission was not the content of the passage, but the format of the passage.  A scribe knowing of the verbatim oral tradition of the account may have formatted the text of the account differently or added text-critical symbols (such as enclosing the passage with umlauts).  He may have done this merely to indicate that it was a citation of an oral tradition.

Example:

εν ταυταις κατεκειτο πληθος πολυ των ασθενουντων τυφλων χωλων ξηρων εκδεχομενων την του υδατος κινησιν ¨ αγγελος γαρ κατα καιρον κατεβαινεν εν τη κολυμβηθρα και εταρασσεν το υδωρ ο ουν πρωτος εμβας μετα την ταραχην του υδατος υγιης εγινετο ω δηποτε κατειχετο νοσηματι ¨ ην δε τις ανθρωπος εκει τριακοντα και οκτω ετη εχων εν τη ασθενεια

But a later scribe, not knowing of the oral tradition, may have interpreted the different format or the text-critical symbols as meaning the passage was spurious.  This may have given rise to Variant 2 discussed above.

Also read: The Greek Text (Textus Receptus) of the King James Version is Reliable


Sources:
  • Gordon D. Fee, “On the Inauthenticity of John 5:3b-4,” The Evangelical Quarterly 54.4 (Oct.-Dec. 1982): 207-218.
  • Nestle-Aland: Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th revised edition (2006).