Universalism of Logos or at a Pool with Jesus

Polska wersja tego artykułu znajduje się tutaj.

When a few months ago Mary Glasspool, a woman living in a committed same-sex relathionship, was consecrated as bishop in the Episcopal Church, the objections of the traditionalists were not only related to what comes to mind as first – the sex and sexual orientation of the bishop-elect. The impulse to additional criticism of the scandalous heterodoxy of the progressive Anglican circles was provided by the form of the celebration, which included among other things elements of Native American rituals. The whole event did in fact make an eclectic impression, which was meant to express the rich ethnic culture of the diocese of Los Angeles (we wrote about it here). Many people interpreted this combination as abandoning the exclusiveness of Christianity for an amorphous philosophy of inclusion, allegedly replacing the truly Christian doctrine for many Episcopalians and obscuring the task we were given – the proclamation of the Good News about salvation. It is supposed to mean an acceptation of what should remain unacceptable for believers; loosing the unique Christian charism. As one commentator put is: a promotion of pagan poppycock. Have a look yourselves.

Such suspiciously dense criticism, especially one of the Episcopal Church which I know very well, doesn’t make me doubt the faithfulness to the Gospel or the validity of the sacraments administered there, but it certainly provokes to reflect on some issues. First of all: what should be our attitude to paganism, to the non-monotheistic religions? Does establishing relations with their representatives or including elements of their cult into ours already mean betraying Christianity? What can we actually think about the role of the pagan religions in history and what future can we predict the people who come from them? Damnation, as the version of the traditionalists has it, justification through the natural law, as the Letter to the Romans has it, or should we rather place them in range of the Redeemer’s influence? This all brings also significant practical questions. For how should Christians deal with pagans? Some could say that convert them (probably not by force anymore, even though a bit of strong persuasion has never harmed anybody) – and pity them, if our efforts should fail. And if not always trying to convert them, can we state then (and even proclaim this openly through our church institutions) that the non-monotheistic religions lead to God, to Salvation, as well? That they are in fact other paths leading onto the same mountain, as a Dutch Orthodox monk we know, Fr Jevsevy, has once put (though in reference to the Christian ecumenism)? Many people consider this a simple offence to Christ, who was not crucified and he did not teach in order for anyone to ignore these teachings and recognize the value of any other faith. In this vision Christianity is indeed a matter of life of death, and it would be for the best if all the followers of other religions converted. There is also a tendency to equal Christianity with Christ, as if he had prepared the list of its dogmas and recommended using concrete philosophical traditions; in a word, as if he had given us a ready-made cultural product.

An alternative is proposed by Fr. Jerzy Klinger (1918-1976), a Polish Eastern-Orthodox theologian whom we have already quoted multiple times, in his exegesis of the healing of the paralyzed man (the miracle at Bethesda). Supporting his thesis by the archeological discoveries from the area where the pool known from the Gospel was, he tried to interpret what was the message that Jesus really wanted to give making this miracle happen. He takes the archeological data from works already published, but his conclusions are innovative and – which may sound surprising – also rather progressive, even in comparison to the Western commentators of the same discoveries and even though he represents a doctrine labeled by many a fossil of  Christian theology. And this fact may be of help, because it is far more difficult to accuse such a man of replacing Christianity with an amorphous humanism, than issuing such accusations toward a contemporary Episcopalian. Moreover, every theological statement Fr. Klinger makes is supported by a passage from the Bible (and a great biblical knowledge, helpful in tracing the sources of changes and editions) or a thread of the tradition of the Church.

Originally I intended to translate the whole article, which certainly is worth the effort, yet for the time being I decided to review the most important elements. And it is certainly worth reading the whole text included in the book O Istocie Prawosławia (On the Essence of Orthodoxy; unfortunately published just in Polish and rather difficult to find). I myself consider this article one of the best pieces by Fr. Klinger – anyway a must read for all those, who are indignant at some excesses of the interreligious dialog.

The fragment of interest is John 5;1-18:

After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had. Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.”
Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” 9 And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked.
And that day was the Sabbath. 10 The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.”
He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’”
Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”
The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.

For this reason the Jews persecuted Jesus, and sought to kill Him, because He had done these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.” Therefore the Jews sought all the more to kill Him, because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.

The archeological discoveries mentioned above are findings in the area of the former pool, actually a complex of pools and caves which was the healing centre. Except for the pools believed until now to be the location of the Gospel scene, some smaller reservoirs in the caves were found. Probably the mention of the five porches was about them, because the big pools didn’t have them. What is important, some votive deposits were found in the caves, and among them also images of a snake, the symbol of the healer god Asclepius. That and other discoveries made the scholars believe it was a temple of some pagan god, most likely Asclepius, though their opinions are divided as to this issue. Yet the most important thing is the function he exercised – namely, healing, which was related to water and springs, because as legend has it, it was Asclepius – and later also other healing gods like Eshmun or Serapis – were torn into pieces and their blood drained into the soil and gave it its healing features. Some doubt may be provoked by the fact that a pagan sanctuary was located just outside the walls of the Jewish temple, but

We shouldn’t be surprised by the presence of such a popular (pagan) cult in Hellenistic, Roman Jerusalem in the early years after Christ. Besides that, it was outside the walls of the Holy City and Jewish orthodoxy could pretend not to see it, and all the more so if it tried to adopt these practices, after having cleansed them a little.

This opinion of a French scholar, P. Benoit, whose work was the main source for Klinger for establishing the original meaning of Bethesda, seems convincing. Indeed, during the Roman rule the Hellenistic influence had to be significant. Assuming that the pool was actually a pagan sanctuary, a question rises: why is there no mention of it in the canonical text of the Gospel, and only of an angel?

There are two versions of this story – the long, most common one, and short, Alexandrian one. The Alexandrian one lacks half of the 3rd verse and the whole 4th verse, i.e. the explanation how the cyclical healings were performed. Some scholars argue that the longer version is the original one, while the shorter edition was introduced later. Yet Klinger noticed that this fragment has a non-Joanian character (which the linguistic analysis suggests), and was probably added in order to conceal the shocking truth about Jesus’ visit in the pagan temple. The Alexandrian version lacks this addition perhaps due to the fact that the authors feared an association of stirring up the water with some rituals performed in Egypt. The description of this scene contains probably some other manipulations, which all are meant to move the accent from entering a pagan temple to breaking Sabbath and claiming to be the Son of God, which eventually led the official Judaism to turn against him. What also makes one wonder is that after the fragment about Bethesda we can find a speech in which Jesus stresses his relationship with God again in almost the same way he had done it earlier among only the closes circle of disciples. In the Gospel of John, the most esoteric one of all, it is an apparent inconsequence, introduced probably indeed to conceal the significance of the pagan episode. A public visit to a pagan sanctuary was a scandal not only for contemporary Jews – who treated this as the ultimate offence – but also for the author of the Gospel that conceals this fact. Another important issue that the Scripture itself suggests, is the problem of the angel.

The Jewish angelology, Klinger argues, could be a bridge between Judaism and paganism. The ancient Semites considered springs to be living beings, and in the later Judaism we find figures of the “angels of waters” and the “angels of rivers”; also the relationship between the angels and the spirit – breath, ruach, is very clear (He makes winds his messengers…,Ps 103,4). The Christian authors of the first centuries, on the other hand, ascribed many positive aspects of paganism to angels; St Clement of Alexandria, for instance, argued that the angels not only gave to Law to the Jews, but also philosophy to the Greeks. The angels of nations become in their vision angels of the Churches after the coming of Christ. The responsibility for what is good in paganism is than taken over by Christ, who replaces the angels as mediators between God and humankind and takes in his hands the history of salvation (therefore Christians, and especially the concept the Gospel of John presents, emphasize the role of Logos):

In this perspective Asklepius, Eshmun, Serapis could be understood as incomplete expressions of the same divine word that spoke out in its fullness in the person of Christ. This tendency was expressed in Christian iconography in copying the outer features of the image of Asclepius on Christ.

S.N. Trubetzkoy

So it seems that the author of the 3rd and 4th verse in the longer edition didn’t intend to falsify the meaning of the message – it was obvious for him that the healing power manifesting itself in the pagan sanctuary could be expressed by the metaphor of an angel. The traditional interpretation of this healing says that Christ opposes paganism, argues with it. Fr Klinger states but that:


The Pool in Bethesda

Our text (…) suggests (…) that all what was good in paganism passes now to Christianity through the person of Christ, who is not only the fulfillment of the Old Testament tradition, but also the fulfillment of the best traditions of paganism.


In the whole text I can’t see even a slightest element, which could be read as an expression of some polemics. On the contrary, the fact of the miraculous stirring of the water and its saving results is not questioned. The place is clearly pointed. Only the name of the foreign god is replaced with the figure of an Angel. And what happens is that Jesus enters this place known to everybody and makes a miracle, not questioning the healings that cyclically happened there in any way, but making a miracle beyond the programme, so to speak, but one that was on the same line of human desires as the other miracles that were happening there. Christ shows only a greater power, for one not limited with any circumstances of any kairos (…) one not dependent on any subsidiary action of an angel or human, in which we can see an equivalent of the elevation of Christ above all the mights of heaven and earth (…), but it is hard to find here any action contradictory to the power of good at work also in paganism (…). On the contrary, the entrance of Jesus into some centre or house is itself always (…) an expression of some kind of acceptation.

Klinger opposes also the thesis of some scholars that the fact that the title belonging to Asclepius (the Saviour of the World) is an expression of polemics with paganism, because we would have to consequently acknowledge as such the relationship of Jesus with the Old Testament, which was clearly rejected by the Christian teaching, which speaks of the fulfillment of the figures and symbols we find there.


we know that the centre in Bethesda continued to exist also after Christ, which the archeological findings tell us about. And the author of the fourth Gospel must have known it too. In this perspective the quoted episode could be an expression of polemics. Even if the author wanted to tell us that from that time forth not the Angels, but Christ himself will be acting, it would only mean he would be acting also in the positive elements of paganism, which the episode in Bethesda became a symbol of.

It seems that the scholars identified the subsequent attitude of the Christian apologists with the views of Christ himself and the original meaning of the event in the Sheep Pool was concealed in this way.

Most interesting is how the miracle in Bethesda was presented against the background of the other events, which are in canon of readings for the Eastern season in the Orthodox tradition – the healing of the man born blind and the encounter with the Samaritan woman. Together they show in an amazing whey the history of salvation in relation to different people and cultures. The story of the man born blind applies to the case of the Jews – the one who recovered his sight represent the part of Israel which recognised Jesus as Messiah – that is recovered its sight – while the scribes and Pharisees the one which considered itself able to see, and in fact was blind. The Gospel about the Samaritan is about making a covenant with Samaria which was considered heretic, whereas the healing of the paralised man – about making a covenant with the pagan world. These are in an equally amazing way paralleled with fragments from the Acts of the Apostles used in this season, which speak about the extension of the church: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1;8).

Father Klinger notes also that:

The other two Gospel stories (…) end with a conversion (…). There is nothing like that in the story of the paralised man (…). It may seem that the fact that Jesus met the healed paralised man in the temple contradicts the interpretation I propose (…). Yet it is not necessarily an decisive argument (…). We know how broad was the term “temple” which embraces two courts and among them one called the “pagan court”. The Jews waited for the Messiah. The Samaritans for the coming of a great prophet, the second Moses. Therefore Christ wakes up in them the awareness of their desires being fulfilled. The positive aspect of paganism was fulfilling from nature what the Law demands (…) and Christ doesn’t demand from the pagans anything more than doing the best they can, doing good within the framework of the natural ethics. So at the end of the episode we don’t find any conversion, any proselytism according to the rule that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (J 6;44).

From all the above evidence and interpretations we can draw a few important practical conclusions. Christ is show as the fulfillment of the pagan traditions, which don’t cease to be in force, work though – it only becomes clear to us that it is Him who is responsible for what is good in them, that He is present in them and one can experience his power in them. Alone the statement that the pagan religions contain something good, that they are a reason of something good happening, is for many zealous Christians unacceptable, because we would rather see everything that lies beyond the boundaries of our revelation as Satan’s playground. Perhaps we feel then a little bit cleaner?

In any case the non-Christian religions as such shouldn’t be for us an object of attack. They weren’t for Christ. Similarly we shouldn’t think of their followers as a task of conversion. Yet we could consider if what happened in May in Los Angeles wasn’t in part simply an entrance with Christ to some Bethesda, an not abandoning him for superstition and magic?

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