Yesterday we looked at an icon type in which Jesus heals a paralytic, then tells the man to take up his bed and walk. Today we will look at another type in which that happens. Here is an example, a 14th century ceiling fresco from Pech, Serbia:
The title inscription reads:
Х[РИСТО]С ИСЦЕЛIИАЕТЬ РАСЛАБЛIЕННАГО
Khristos Istsyeliaet Raslabliennago
“Christ Heals the Paralytic.”
Here is the story as found in John 5: 1-15:
“After this there was a feast of the Jews; and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. 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.
When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he says to him, Will you be made whole? 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 steps down before me.
Jesus says to him, Rise, take up your bed, and walk. And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked: and on the same day was the sabbath.
The Jews therefore said to him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for you to carry your bed. He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said to me, Take up your bed, and walk.
Then asked they him, What man is that which said to you, Take up your bed, and walk? And he that was healed knew not who it was: for Jesus had conveyed himself away, a multitude being in that place.
Afterward Jesus finds him in the temple, and said to him, Behold, you are made whole: sin no more, lest a worse thing come to you.
The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole.”
For those of you who are interested in the manuscript history of the New Testament, the portion of the text I have put in brackets and bold type — the story of the angel troubling the waters — is missing from the earliest manuscripts. The earliest Greek manuscript of John in which it appears is 6th century. It is, however, included in an Old Latin 4th century version.
The tale of the angel stirring the waters of Bethesda is mentioned by Tertullian in chapter 5 of his 3rd century work On Baptism:
“If it seems a novelty for an angel to be present in waters, an example of what was to come to pass has forerun. An angel, by his intervention, was wont to stir the pool at Bethsaida. They who were complaining of ill-health used to watch for him; for whoever had been the first to descend into them, after his washing, ceased to complain.”
But in the same chapter, Tertullian also warns against evil spirits lurking in waters here and there:
“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
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.”
The tale of the angel troubling the waters was also mentioned by Chrysostom and Ambrose in the 4th century. The problem is that the various early manuscripts are rather garbled as to whether the incident is omitted entirely or given only in part.
But back to the iconography. You will notice in the Pech fresco that the painter has carefully depicted the “five porches.” at the Pool of Bethesda, but has not shown the actual pool. In some examples we see the pool, while in others we see water pouring into five separate small tanks, or even only one tank. So there is considerable variation in how the image is presented, but the main elements are the figure of Jesus and the figure of healed man carrying his bed (some show him twice, first lying on his bed, then carrying it).
In the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar, the fourth Sunday after Easter is called the Неделя о расслабленном — Nedelya o rasslablennom (Greek Κυριακή τοῦ Παραλύτου) — Kyriake tou Paralytou), because on that day the liturgical reading is the story of the healing of the paralytic at the Pool of Bethesda.