Blindness: interrogation

man-born-blindThe Interrogations. If there is a “typical” pattern to any miracle account it is: (a) the situation of need, (b) the miracle, and (c) the attestation/witness to the miracle. It is here that John’s telling of the story has unique features – patterns outlined in the introductory comments of miracles and sin (in John’s writing).  Be attentive to simple categories such as true witness, equivocating witness, unbelievers, accommodator, or similar categories that are other that one who believes and is willing to live/act based upon that belief.

Questioning by neighbors and acquaintances (9:8-12). Jesus’ healing of the man born blind produced an immediate visible transformation: he no longer sat and begged. Confronted with this evidence, his neighbors and those who knew him as a blind beggar asked whether this is the man who used to sit and beg?  Just as in John 8, there is division. The answers were various: some claimed that it indeed was the man they knew to be a blind beggar. Others said, “No, he just looks like him.” They thought it was impossible for a man born blind to be healed, and so distrusted their eyes—the man before them must be someone else. No one bothered to ask the man about his identity whether he was the one who used to sit and beg, but the man (born blind) himself insisted that he indeed was that man.

Once they have established that he is indeed the blind beggar they had known, they ask the obvious question of how he came to have his sight (v. 10), and he recounts what happened (v. 11) – and is so doing becomes witness.  This question will be asked four times in this story, stressing that something highly unusual has taken place, something that cannot be explained in the categories of this world. Unlike the man by the pool of Bethesda, this man realizes from the beginning that Jesus is the one who has healed him (v. 11; cf. 5:12-13), but he does not know where Jesus is (v. 12). This ignorance will be resolved soon enough. The deeper ignorance of the opponents, who do not know where Jesus is from (v. 30), does not improve as a result of this act of mercy and glory on Jesus’ part. The man’s admission of ignorance is an attribute of a true disciple, revealing him to be honest and humble. He stands in marked contrast to the Jewish opponents in this story, for they claim to know what in fact they realize they do not really know (v. 24; cf. v. 16). It is precisely this lack of integrity and self-awareness that Jesus criticizes in his conclusion to this story (vv. 39-41).

Preliminary interrogation by Pharisees (9:13-17). What follows is puzzling: the neighbors brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. This action might have arisen from a desire on their part to bring to the Pharisees’ attention evidence of the great miracle Jesus had performed. However, the next words foreshadow difficulties their action would create: Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. Mixing saliva and dirt was regarded as kneading, and applying an unusual salve was regarded as healing. Both these actions were prohibited on the sabbath according to Pharisaic tradition (see Notes 9:6 below). As in 5:1-18, the concern with sabbath violation reflects an issue current in Jesus’ time. To violate the sabbath law was to challenge the laws that bound the Jewish covenant community together and the Pharisees’ authority as interpreters of those laws. Whether intended or not, the neighbors’ action provided the Pharisees with evidence against Jesus, and brought the man born blind under Pharisaic scrutiny.

Hearing the miracle was performed on the Sabbath  “the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.” They were not interested in the miracle that had occurred, nor the benefits it procured for the man. They wanted only to know ‘how’ it was done, because they wanted evidence to use against Jesus. The man responded more cautiously to the Pharisees than he had to his neighbors.  His narrative does not mention “kneading” or that Jesus sent him to the Pool of Siloam; only that he washed, with the result ‘now I see’.

Jesus’ violation of a sabbath prohibition is thus seen by some of the Pharisees as evidence of Jesus’ distance from God (v. 16a). This conclusion resounds with irony (as the blind man will point out in v. 33), because the correct interpretation of the healing is as the reve­lation of God’s works (v. 3). Some of the Pharisees, however, link this healing with other miraculous acts Jesus has performed (note the use of the plural “signs” (semeia), v. 16b). This schism among the Pharisees (v. 16c) echoes the divided response of the blind man’s neighbors (vv. 8-9; cf. 7:12, 25-27, 31, 40-43).

Like the preceding scene with the neighbors (vv. 8-12), the Pharisees’ interrogation of the man provides an opportunity for the blind man to bear witness to his healing (v.15). There is a progres­sion in the man’s witness: earlier, he identified his healer simply as “the man called Jesus,” but in this scene he identifies Jesus as a prophet (v. 17; cf. 4:19). The man’s growing awareness of the truth of Jesus’ identity (cf. vv.30-33, 36, 38) underscores one of the story’s central theological themes: blindness is not determined simply by seeing or not seeing, but by recognizing the reve­lation of the works of God in Jesus (cf. vv.3,41).

The man’s parents questioned by the Jews (9:18-23). The religious authorities are divided about Jesus and the meaning of his miracles/signs. The point of division is Jesus’ disregard for their sabbath regulations and the idea that God would work though such “lawlessness.”  One possible way to resolve their impasse and division is to challenge the testimony of the man about his former condition – was he really blind from birth? “Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight….” And so they summons the man’s parents and ask three questions: (a) Is this your son? (b) Was he born blind? And (c) How is he now able to see? The parents respond that he is indeed their son who was born blind, but they refuse to speculate on how he gained sight.

This is now the third time the question of “how” has been asked. But here the parents understand the question to be asking for more than what mechanism enabled him to receive his sight – and they answer cautiously:  “Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” A Jewish boy comes of age at 13 years (m. Niddah 5:6) and one day and is then able to give legally viable testimony. The parents pointed out that since their son was of age he could answer for himself.

The evangelist explains why they were so cautious: “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Messiah, he would be expelled from the synagogue. This is the first of three occasions in the Fourth Gospel where belief in Jesus as the Christ is linked with the threat of expulsion from the synagogue (v.22; 12:42; 16:2).


Notes

John 9:22 that if anyone acknowledged him as the Messiah: There are some scholars who hold that this issue is primarily out of the experience of the Johannine community many years after Jesus life – but this is not to exclude the issue from Jesus’ own day – simply that it became very pronounced after 70 CE when the Pharisaic movement stamped its influence and perception on the post-Temple rabbinic Judaism.   expelled from the synagogue: The word used in each case is aposynagōgos, a word found in the NT only in the Fourth Gospel.  J. Louis Martyn proposed that the agreement to put out of the synagogue those who confessed Jesus as the Messiah refers to the “Benediction Against Heretics” that was introduced into the synagogue liturgy sometime after 70 CE and probably between 85 and 95 CE. Such an expulsion could take two forms: temporary for remedial purposes (Heb. niddâ) and permanent (Heb. ḥērem), although it is not clear whether this distinction existed among the Jews in NT times. That some form of excommunication was practiced is evident, not only from the three texts in the Fourth Gospel, but also from the beatitude in Luke 6:22 (‘Blessed are you when men hate you, / when they exclude you and insult you / and reject your name as evil, / because of the Son of Man’). Paul called for remedial excommunication for the incestuous person in 1 Corinthians 5:4–5, 6–7, 13, and permanent expulsion may be implied by references to cursing or anathematizing people, found in Mark 14:71; Acts 23:12, 14, 21; Romans 9:3; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 16:22 and Galatians 1:8–9.

Sources

  • 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
  • Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks scripture notes at http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970
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