St. John's Gospel and the Archaeological Record

Ironically, though the Gospel of John has subject matter that can be subjected to archaeological examination, many seem to think the book is almost entirely non-historical and confines itself to theology and a sort of vague accompanying or underlying Greek-influenced philosophy. Some have even opined that topographical aspects of the Gospel are only symbolic. It’s a classic example of presuppositions leading folks astray.

It’s true that John’s Gospel has many elements that are more or less unique to itself, but it’s assuredly not lacking a solid grounding in historical reality. There are many compelling elements involved in probing the “archaeology of the Gospel of John.”

Jacob’s Well

John 4:12“Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?”

The location of Jacob’s Well is in Sychar (John 4:5-6), between Mt. Ebal and Mt. Gerizim, near Shechem and Nablus (or Neapolis). No excavations have taken place as of yet, but it’s well attested to in the second-century B.C. Jewish Book of Jubilee and in the Mishna (“the plain of Ein Soker”). Jacob’s Well is indeed located in the vicinity, about half a mile southeast of Nablus, at the foot of Mt. Gerizim. Jews, Samaritans, Muslims, and Christians all agree on its location and connection to Jacob, and there is scarce reason to doubt this strong tradition. Nor should John be doubted in writing that Jacob’s Well existed in Sychar.

John 4:6 (twice) and 4:14 use the Greek word pégé, which means “spring” or “fountain” (compare 2 Pet. 2:17; James 3:11). On the other hand, in 4:11-12, a different Greek word is used:phrear, which means “well” or “cistern” (see Luke 14:5). This perfectly describes Jacob’s Well, which is “a combination of dug-out well and running spring” and is “cut through alluvial soil and soft rock [limestone], receiving water by infiltration through the sides.”

Its water “is supplied in two ways—through underground sources that make it a true well and by percolated surface water, which makes it a cistern. This may have prompted Jesus’ remark about living water in v. 14.” Thus, we observe an uncanny accuracy of description through the use of two Greek words that fit the actual site like a hand in a glove. “Bible and science”—contrary to unfortunately popular conceptions—is always a harmonious combination. This is a classic example.

The Pool of Bethesda

John 5:2Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes.

Until the nineteenth century, clear archaeological evidence for the existence of this pool was lacking. But in archaeological digs in that century, Conrad Schick discovered a large tank about 100 feet northwest of St. Anne’s Church, which he believed to be the Pool of Bethesda. Evidence for a pool under this name (“Beth Eshdathayin”) is found in the Copper Scroll from Qumran, dated to between A.D. 25 and 68. Israeli historian Benjamin Mazar (1906-1995) believed that Jewish high priest Simon the Just built the pools in the third century B.C. Urban C. von Wahlde elaborates:

In John 5:2 the Pool of Bethesda is described as having five porticoes or colonnades. For centuries, scholars thought that the notion of a five-sided pool was purely symbolic, intended to represent the five books of the Torah that were somehow superseded by the miracle of Jesus. Beginning in the 1880s, however, archaeologists discovered the remains of a pool north of the Pool of Israel, and continuing excavation ultimately exposed a rectangular pool with a wall in the middle that divided it in two. With porticoes on the four sides of the pool and on the central wall, this was indeed a “five-sided” pool.

The Pool of Siloam

John 9:7“Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.”. . . So he went and washed and came back seeing.

The Pool of Siloam was built during the reign of King Hezekiah, to leave besieging armies without access to the spring’s waters. The pool was fed by the newly constructed Siloam tunnel (“Hezekiah’s Tunnel”). During its early period, it was sometimes known as the Lower Pool (Neh. 3:15; Isa. 22:9). It was rediscovered during work on a sewer in the autumn of 2004. Archaeologists Eli Shukron and Ronny Reich uncovered some stone steps, and it quickly became evident that they were likely part of the Second Temple-period (516 B.C.-A.D. 70) pool. Shukron commented in an article announcing the exciting find,

The moment that we revealed and discovered this four months ago, we were 100 percent sure it was the Siloam Pool. . . . We know today that the Siloam Pool is connected to the Temple Mount. There is a road that connects the two elements. The entire system is clearer today.

Once excavation commenced, four coins were soon found: all coins of Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.), a Hasmonean Jewish king. This is a strong indication that the newly rebuilt pool dates from the late Hasmonean or early Herodian period. A dozen coins later found date to the time of the First Jewish Revolt (A.D. 66-70).

We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from The Word Set in Stone: How Archaeology, Science and History Back Up the Bible.

Aug 3rd 2023 Dave Armstrong

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