A Man Born Blind: John 9:1-41 1 As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. 4 We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (the remainder of the gospel can be read here).
Our narrative begins with the simple phrase “As he passed by…” It lacks the general markers (time, geography, etc.) that indicate a break in continuity, suggesting that John intends the story of the blind man to be read in continuity with the preceding chapters. So what was in the preceding chapter? The primary narrative in Chapter 8 is the “woman caught in adultery,” Jesus’ self-identification as the “light of the world,” and a long discussion between Jesus and the “Jews” about the very nature of what it means to be of the covenant people – a dialogue that occurs in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Jesus’ claim to be the light of the world (8:12) is repeated in 9:5, and the healing miracle in John 9 stands as a demonstration of this claim. In addition, the Mishnah identifies Siloam, the water in which the blind man bathes (v.7), as the source of the water for the water libations of the Tabernacles feast, strengthening the connection. Finally, John 9-10 build on Jesus’ denunciation of the “Jews” in John 8. The intense conflict between the healed man and the Pharisees (esp. 9:24-34) dramatizes the theological arguments of the earlier debate. Clearly, there is continuity – and we will encounter more of these “echoes” as we study the gospel narrative. There are also key Johannine ideas that must be kept in mind as we move forward. Key among them are: miracles and sin.
Miracles. The standard NT word for miracle is thauma (wonder), dunamis (mighty work), and terata (portent). John does not use any of these words – he simply says sēmeia (sign) a word that is unique and distinctive to Christianity. The seven miracle accounts in the Fourth Gospel are all found in chapters 1–12 (from AYBD):
- water into wine (2:1–11) – unique to John
- healing of an official’s son (4:46–54) – see also Matt 8:5–13 and Luke 7:1–10
- healing of a paralytic at Bethesda (5:1–15) *
- feeding of a multitude (6:1–14) – see also Mark 6:32–44, Matt 14:13–21 and Luke 9:10–17
- walking on water (6:16–21) – see also Mark 6:45–52 and Matt 14:22–33
- healing of a blind man (9:1–41) *
- resurrection of Lazarus (11:1–44) *
* similar in type to miracles reported in the other gospels
Though the number of miracles in John is fewer than in any of the Synoptic Gospels, their importance has long been recognized by scholars, even while their meaning, function, and source have been much discussed and disputed, beginning with the distinctively Johannine terminology for miracle. Aside from one instance, miracles are called either sēmeion, “sign” (2:18; 4:54; 6:14, 30; 10:41; 12:18), in the plural sēmeia, “signs” (2:11, 23; 3:2; 6:2, 26; 7:31; 9:16; 11:47; 12:37; 20:30) or, ergon/a, “work,” a word consistently used by Jesus. Ergon/a is a broader term that can embrace Jesus’ words (14:10), his whole mission (17:4) as well as his miracles (e.g., 7:21; 10:32, 7:3; 9:3–4; 10:25, 32, 37–38; 14:10–12; 15:24).
In the gospel of John the semeia themselves are extraordinary and point beyond themselves to the divine – not just the divine as a vague power, but to a person. They identify Jesus as the light (8:12; 9:5; 12:46) and life (11:25; 14:6) of the world, the bread of life from heaven (6:35, 41, 48, 50, 51), and the Logos who, through the semeia/signs, reveals his own glory (1:14; 2:11; 11:4), which is also the glory of God his Father (11:4; 11:40), since he and the Father are one (10:30, 38; 14:3, 10, 11, 20; 16:15, 32; 17:21) and since he does the Father’s will (4:34; 5:30; 6:38) and works (erga: 4:34; 5:36; 9:4; 10:25, 32, 37; 14:10; 17:4).
And those semeia, not surprisingly, evoke a variety of responses has we have seen in earlier chapters of the Fourth Gospel and as we will see here in John 9. The responses can be generalized as follows:
(1) For some, Jesus’ wonderworking endorses him as prophet sent by God (2:11, 23; 3:2; 4:39, 45–47, 49, 53; 6:2, 14; 7:31; 11:45–48; 12:11, 18). Jesus is critical of this type of response. When you consider what is being revealed, “prophet” is a cautious response at best. Jesus characterizes the response as untrustworthy (2:24) and wrongly motivated (6:26); ultimately, it fails (12:37). Those who give this tepid response are described as “the Jews.” A term which has a very mixed use in this gospel.
(2) There are many places in the gospel where “the Jews” is a negative term designating those Jews who are skeptical toward or reject the sēmeia and/or the claims Jesus makes in connection with them (2:18, 20; 5:10, 16; 6:41, 52; 9:18; 10:24–25, 31–33; 12:11). Sometimes the those who reject the sēmeia are specified further as “the Pharisees” (7:31–32, 47–48; 9:13, 15–16, 40–41; 11:46–47; 12:18–19) or “the rulers” (7:48), though the latter term more often designates persons in the first category (3:1; 7:26, 50; 12:42). The hostility between Jesus and Jewish authorities in his day is reflected in these passages; but equally, if not more, important, they reflect antagonism between the evangelist’s community and the Jews of his day.
(3) But there are those who see Jesus’ miracles for what they are, signs identifying him as the life and light of the world, the bread from heaven, the one sent by the Father (2:11; 6:69; 9:38; 11:41–42) to do his works (5:36; 10:25). Jesus can therefore invite belief in his works as a way to perceiving that he and the Father are one (10:38; 14:11). This last group reflects the clearest division in the body of the faithful:
- Those who believe, and
- Those who do not believe and the quite understandably charge Jesus with blasphemy (10:33; cf. 5:18; 8:58–59; 19:7).
- NB. Even his disciples fail to comprehend his relation to the Father (14:8), eliciting an astonished reaction from Jesus (14:9) and, later, the prediction that the faith they profess (16:30) will not stand the test (16:32)—not surprisingly, for to believe such claims requires a deeper and true understanding.
- Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, vol. 29a in The Anchor Bible, eds. William Albright and David Freeman (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1966) 368-82
- David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996): Harold Remus, Miracle (NT), 4:856-70