"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 10 New Life Foreshadowed (Jn 11.1-57)

9.1 Jesus Heals a Blind Beggar and the Reaction (Jn 9.1-41)


Chapter nine is a beautifully crafted story. The evangelist tells it in such a way that the incidents flow naturally one into another. The narrative breaks into six scenes. First, Jesus and his disciples see a blind beggar by the wayside and, after a discussion about why he is blind, Jesus heals him (vv 1-7). Naturally the man's neighbours are confused and ask whether he is in fact the blind beggar and what happened to him (vv 8-12). Next a dispute arises because it was Sabbath when the healing took place as the neighbours take the man to a group of Pharisees, who question him and are divided over the meaning of this sign (vv 13-17). Then, looking for a loophole, the "Iudaioi" question the man's parents, asking whether this is really their son and was really born blind, and the threat of being thrown out of the synagogue (whatever that implies) is raised (vv18-23). They question the man again and he challenges their religious authority (vv 24-34). Finally Jesus seeks out the man and speaks with him and some Pharisee bystanders (vv35-41).

I will discuss each of these scenes below in more detail. In general however it should be pointed out that by choosing to tell this story after the Tabernacles section, John picks up the theme of light again and uses it to great effect by contrasting blindness and sight on the physical and spiritual levels

Scene 1 (vv 1-7):

This scene begins with a frustrating lack of context. Where were Jesus and his disciples passing by, and what is the temporal relationship with the events of chs 7 and 8? We don't know for sure. There are no indications of time or place except what is implied by the internal sequence and other clues in the narrative. Verse 5 repeats the "I AM" statement of Jn 8.12 and places this discussion between Jesus and his disciples in the context of the previous teachings at the feast of Tabernacles that immediately preceed it. Though v1 gives no indication where Jesus and his disciples are, equally there is no indication of a change in scene from the immediately previous chapters, set in Jerusalem. And the use in subsequent verses of "hoi Iudaioi" ("the Jews") to describe some of Jesus' opposition argues for a Jerusalem setting. As we have seen above, in the overwhelming majority of cases, that expression refers to people in or from Judaea or Jerusalem, suggesting that this story takes place in or near Jerusalem.

So it is not clear how closely we are to suppose that the story of the blind man follows after the teaching of Jesus at the feast of Tabernacles. But after the sayings on sheepfolds and shepherds that close the account of the healing of the blind man and the subsequent conflict, we are told in Jn 10.22 that it was winter and the Feast of Dedication. So we should probably imagine that Jn 9.1-10.21 is set between the autumn season of Tabernacles and the winter season of Dedication, as a bridge or transition from one to the next (See Brown 1966 pp 388-90).

The disciples' question in v2 demonstrates their participation in a common way of thinking about disease at the time, based on what we now understand to be both a misunderstanding of the human body and a misunderstanding of sin. In the following verse Jesus directs their attention away from sin to the Father's ultimate purpose. The man's blindness is not the result of anything we can "see" -- it comes from the divine plan in which the man, his parents, the disciples, and Jesus himself are actors, all fulfilling their roles in bringing about humankind's trust in Jesus and his Father.

The healing described in vv6-7 is unlike most of those found in the Gospels. Only here and in the gospel of Mark (Mk 7.31-7 and 8.22-6) does Jesus heal by combining the use of spittle with touching the affected parts of the body. The second of those Markan examples is most like this story from John, since it also concerns the healing of a blind man. But it is dissimilar in that the blind man's sight is not immediately restored by Jesus, who must lay his hands on the man twice. Possibly the rarity of the method used in these three cases is due to a perceived association between the use of spittle and the work of Jewish exorcists or pagan magicians (such as Brown (1966 p 372) and Carson (1991 pp 363-4) suggest may have existed).

It is interesting that the second of these miracles in Mark (8.22-6) is the starting point of an "inclusio" (a kind of literary bracketing in which similar wording or the narrative of similar events enclose a discussion or another narrative), in which two healings of blind men by Jesus (Mark 8.22 and Mark 10.46-52) are used to inclose teaching about the spiritual blindness that prevents the disciples from understanding the meaning and implications of Jesus' messiahship (see S. Dowd and E.S. Malbon, The Significance of Jesus' Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience in JBL 125.2 (Summer 2006) 271-97, p 286). John's story of the healing of the man born blind also uses physical blindness to indicate spiritual blindness, albeit that of Jesus' opponents rather than that of his disciples.

The Greek verb for wash used in v7 (and later in v11), "nizein", normally means to wash a particular part of the body rather than to bathe oneself entirely, so the implication is that the man was told to wash his eyes in the pool and did so.

Scene 2 (vv 8-12)

The attitude of the neighbours is understandable -- they don't expect to see someone they know as a blind man who can do nothing but beg walking about sighted. So they speculate about his identity. When he identifies himself as the man they know, they naturally want to know what happened. When they are told, their reaction is also natural -- they want to know where Jesus is.

Scene 3 (vv 13-17)

It seems natural that the neighbours, once satisfied that the blind man that they knew had gained his sight, would go with him to the Pharisees. They would want to inform and consult the Pharisees about the event itself and about Jesus, especially considering that the healing is now revealed to have taken place on the Sabbath. As above in ch7, where both the authorities (in vv11-13) and the crowd (in vv40-44) are divided about how to view Jesus, the Pharisees are divided about what they think of Jesus after hearing about this healing. The blind man does not seem to help the situation by his simple assertion that the one who healed him was a prophet.

Scene 4 (vv 18-23)

Who are these authorities ("hoi Iudaioi")? They cannot simply be identified with the Pharisees of the previous section. Those Pharisees seem to have accepted that Jesus had performed the miraculous sign of healing a man blind from birth but were divided over what it meant about Jesus himself and who he was. These "authorities" on the other hand are not willing to believe the occurrence of the sign until they have spoken to the man's parents. They are perhaps officials from a local synagogue in Jerusalem. This shows, perhaps, that it is a mistake to view these groups in John's gospel, whether "authorities" or "Pharisees", as monolithic.

The parents are very cagey in their response. They will go no further than confirming that the man is their son, born blind. For the rest he must answer for himself as one of legal age. The reason for their refusal to answer any further is given in v22: His parents said this because they were afraid of the authorities. The authorities had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged that Jesus was Messiah, he would be put out of the synagogue. But what does it mean to be put out of the synagogue?

The word used here ("aposunagōgus") is a rare one. In the NT it occurs only in John, here and in Jn 12.42 and 16.2. Some have taken it as a technical term, referring to a formal expulsion from the synagogue, enforced by use of the "birkat ha-mînîm" or "blessing of the heretics". This was a prayer, the Twelfth Benediction, of the eighteen intended for daily recital, designed so that it could not be used by a "mînîm" without cursing themselves. Since this benediction was dated to the last quarter of the first century CE or the start of the second, this whole segment of the story of the man born blind was seen as referring to a crisis in the life of the Johannine community rather than something that in fact could have happened in the lifetime of Jesus.

Further research has cast doubt on many of these assumption (see Brown 1966 pp lxxxv, 374, and 380 and Robinson 1985 pp 72-81 for a sense of the development of these questions). Carson in his commentary argues for some form of (likely local) excommunication or shunning as the putting out of which the parents were afraid. If indeed the authorities of vv19 and 22 are (as we have speculated) officials of the local synagogue, it would fit in with such a theory. It's important to remember that we likely do not now, and will not in future, have enough information about first century CE synagogues to be able to say for certain of what the man's parents were afraid. But there is no good reason to suppose that John is referring to an event that was only possible at the time he was likely writing. (See Carson 1991 pp 369-72.)

Scene 5 (vv 24-34)

Now the authorities of v19 call the man himself in. It seems odd that in the text they are said to summon him for a second time. Even if we assume that these "hoi Iudaioi" include some of the Pharisees of vv 13-17 (as v27 implies), he had not in fact been summoned before by either group. In v13 he is brought by his neighbours to the Pharisees, not sought out or called by them. Perhaps this is one of the rough patches that might have been smoothed out by the evangelist if he had made a final edit.

The formerly blind man's remarks in v27 and the subsequent discussion in vv28-34 recall the discussion involving Nicodemos and other Pharisees in 7.45-52. There the other Pharisees taunt Nicodemus with the jibe that he is a Galilean, here the blind man asks with an assumption of innocence if the Pharisees wish to become Jesus' disciples. In vv28-34 the increasingly ironic replies and arguments of the formerly blind man serve much the same function as Jesus' words in conflict with the Jerusalemites in ch7 and 8, in highlighting a refusal to trust in Jesus.

Scene 6 (vv 34-41)

As he had done with the man healed at the pool at Bethzatha, Jesus seeks out the man whom he had healed of his blindness after he had been questioned by the authorities. The sign of his cure had the desired effect in this case and the gift of physical sight led to the spiritual insights he had expressed to the authorities above and also to the trust he puts in Jesus here. But the picture is not complete without the inverse of the man born blind, the Pharisees who, gifted with sight, nevertheless refuse to see. They are condemned not for blindness, which would not be culpable, but for refusing to see what is before them in Jesus and to make the connection between Jesus and the teaching of Moses and the Scriptures.

The conflicts between Jesus and his opponents are becoming more pointed as the story told by John continues. The various conflicts and discourses of chs7 and 8 show Jesus clearly angry with at least some of his interlocutors. Here he condemns the Pharisees in the last scene with a curt judgement.


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