I’ve been trying to think of something worthy of posting on this Easter Sunday, 2015. All I can come up with at the moment is a subject I’ve had on the back burner for some time, namely the handful of references in the Fourth Gospel (FG) that remind us of Asclepius. Longtime readers may recall Neil’s description from his review of Jesus Potter Harry Christ.
Asclepius the gentle and personally accessible deity, lover of children, gentle, exorcist and healer, and one whose cult was considered at certain times the greatest threat to Christianity.
Several scholars have remarked upon the parallels in terminology and legends that surround both Jesus and Asclepius. Of course, the most obvious things that come to mind would include the designations of savior (sōtēr | σωτήρ) and healer or physician (iatros | ἰατρός). But I’m more interested for now in the specific events or ideas presented in the Gospel of John.
The Bronze Serpent and the Rod of Asclepius
I’ll start with the most obvious connections and proceed to the more tenuous. The most prominent correlation between Asclepius and the FG has to be the brazen serpent.
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life. (John 3:14-15, KJV)
In the United States, especially, we tend to confuse the caduceus and the Rod of Asclepius. We should associate the caduceus with the god Hermes; hence, it’s a symbol for traders, heralds, or ambassadors. The Rod (or Staff) of Asclepius, on the other hand, is a symbol of healing.
The bronze serpent or Nehushtan in the Hebrew Bible also had specific healing properties.
And Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on the standard; and it came about, that if a serpent bit any man, when he looked to the bronze serpent, he lived. (Numbers 21:9, NASB)
Oddly enough, we read that during Hezekiah’s reign, the bronze serpent was destroyed as a part of his reform movement.
He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). (2 Kings 18:4, ESV)
An Asklepieion at the Pool of Bethesda?
In The Good and Evil Serpent, James Charlesworth tells us that the Pool of Bethesda, the site where Jesus healed the invalid (John 5) was part of an Asklepieion, i.e., a temple of healing for the god Asclepius:
It is becoming clear that there was a temple to Asclepius in Bethesda (Bethzatha) that is just inside Jerusalem and north of the Sheep’s Gate (Stephen’s Gate, Lion’s Gate). There probably also was an Asklepieion with healing baths and a room for incubation.286 [Charlesworth, James H. (2010-02-17). The Good and Evil Serpent (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library) (p. 108). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.]
He lists a number of ancient objects found near the site (see pp. 108-109) that are most likely related to the cult of Asclepius, culminating in a “magnificent example of ophidian [of or relating to serpents] iconography” found north of the Temple Mount. Known as the “Vase of Bethzatha,” this object appears to be connected to the nearby Asklepieion.
It is conceivable that the object was associated with the Asclepian cult that was located just east of where it was discovered—that is, inside Stephen’s Gate to the north and where the author of the Gospel of John places the five-porticoed Bethzatha or Bethesda (Jn 5:1–2). There is abundant evidence that Bethzatha was a popular site for healing in the Roman Period. An Asclepian cult, not necessarily an Asklepieion with sleeping quarters, may have been located at the pools of Bethzatha. [Charlesworth, James H. (2010-02-17). The Good and Evil Serpent (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library) (p. 113). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.]
The Resurrection of Lazarus
John the evangelist moved the Temple disturbance to the beginning of his Gospel, insisting that the resurrection of Lazarus caused the Pharisees to seek Jesus’ death. In fact, John claims that the crowds that welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with shouts of “Hosanna!” had come not only to praise Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, “whom he had raised from the dead” (John 12:9).
Because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the people were even more attracted to him, which stirred up feelings of worry, resentment, envy, and fear.
So the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12:19, NIV)
The resurrection of Lazarus was the last straw — the precipitating event that brought about Jesus’ demise. Similarly, Asclepius was struck dead after resurrecting someone. The myth varies in the telling, but the common threads have to do with the raising of a dead man, the killing of the savior, followed by the savior’s resurrection. In one version, Zeus strikes down Asclepius with a lightning bolt, but then raises him to the heavens as the constellation Ophiucus.
Fluids from Chest Wounds
After Perseus killed the Gorgon, he offered the head to the goddess Athena. According to the myth, she put the head on her shield to ward off enemies.
She gave some of Medusa’s blood to ASCLEPIUS, the god of healing, and while blood from veins on the Gorgon’s left side brought only harm to man, that from veins on her right side could raise the dead. According to Euripides, Athena gave two drops of the blood, again one of them a deadly poison and one a powerful medicine for healing, to Erichthonius. (Jennifer R. March, Dictionary of Classical Mythology, p. 209)
It was this blood, then, that gave Asclepius the power to resurrect the dead. We recall that only in John’s gospel does the centurion prove that Jesus has died by piercing his crucified body with a spear. John tells us that blood and water poured out, thus proving he was already dead.
The FG doesn’t tell us which side was pierced, but it was long assumed to be the right side, since the purpose was not to kill him (i.e., to penetrate the heart), but to prove that death had already occurred. Later artists would typically show the soldier thrusting his spear upward through the right side, often with blood and water visibly spraying in different directions.
It was, of course, later understood that the two fluids, blood and water, represented the two key sacraments of the faith — namely, the Eucharist and baptism.
I’m not aware of any scholar who has drawn parallels between the Gorgon’s blood and the piercing of Jesus on the cross. However, to be quite honest, there’s a great deal of material on the subject of Asclepius and Jesus, and I’ve only scratched the surface.