Frequent visitors to Jerusalem know well the Pool of Siloam located at the south end of the city of David. However the pool so often viewed at the far end of Hezekiah’s tunnel is something rebuilt entirely in the 5th century by Byzantine architects eager to reshape Jerusalem into a city welcoming Christian pilgrims. In the 19th century it was given another facelift and this has been a traditional spot for Christian visitors to retell the story of John 9.
However in the fall of 2004, Israeli excavators working on a sewer line began hitting cut stone a bit further south from the traditional pool. Archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron were brought in and since then digging has been ongoing. A remarkable picture of the pool has emerged (see Todd Bolen’s excellent collection of photos) and this has begun a discussion concerning the real nature of the pool itself. Was it used for water collection? Was it a ritual bath before entry to the Temple? We can expect the scholarly interpretations to be vigorous for some years to come.
The interesting exegetical feature of this subject connects with John 9, the only NT passage to refer to the pool (but see Lk 13:4; cf. Neh. 3:15).
Here Jesus meets a man who has been blind from birth. After dismissing a discussion about the causes of his malady, he heals the man using spittle, then tells him to go wash in the “Pool of Siloam.” John reminds us that the Hebrew Siloam means “sent” and this of course supplies the ironic nature of the story: Jesus is the “sent one” from God and so the man is washing in a pool by the same name.
However here is where things get interesting. Scholars have often recognized that a water motif runs through John’s gospel. Jesus’s baptism appears in chapter 1, water jars are miraculously refilled in chapter 2, Nicodemus is pointed to rebirth through “water and spirit” in 3, even the woman at the well is directed toward “living water.” In 5 the paralyzed man is trying to enter a pool on Jerusalem’s north side to be healed. Water is a key element in how John views the ritual activity of Judaism. And Siloam may provide a clue, a tipping point for exegesis. If Siloam was a Jewish mikveh (or ritual bath as some scholars now wonder), it raises (again) the question of whether ritual cleansing is very much on John’s mind elsewhere in his gospel.
For example, the baptism of John was at least connected to some notion of readiness or purification before the coming messianic kingdom. And John refers to this (1:26). We also know that the stone water jars of Cana were filled with water for ritual purification. We also know that the woman at the well in 4 while seeking traditional well water here is offered living water, a ritual component of any mikveh. The matter of her own purity is even implied in the story. Jesus is the source of such living water (7:37) and those who obtain it are renewed. Perhaps what is really happening in much of John’s thinking is to see Jesus in relation to the purification systems of Judaism. In chapter 2 he replaces the water with his own wine – and in chapter 9 (perhaps) he directs a man to return to a mikveh to wash at a place that bears Jesus’ own name.
These are provocative ideas and if proven true, should lead us to revisit our interpretation of John 9. At the least they illustrate how archaeology and textual interpretation compliment each other. Texts spring from contexts. And the material culture surrounding those contexts has often been neglected by many of us. A quick trip to Siloam – and a revision of all tourist itineraries – should inspire us to rethink what we’re doing with a very familiar passage of the Bible.
Gary M. Burge (PhD, King's College, Aberdeen University) is a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and Graduate School and the author of several books. His forthcoming The New Testament in Antiquity,
which he coauthored with Lynn H. Cohick and Gene L. Green, has received enormous praise and is eagerly anticipated.