Pharisees and Sinners: The 9th Chapter of John, Part I

The ninth chapter or the Gospel According to Saint John may strike some readers, as it struck me the many times I have read it, as a repetitious account of a simple miracle.  The “executive summary” of the chapter might be something like this:  

A man, blind from birth, approaches Jesus, who spits onto the ground, mixes up some mud, annoints the unseeing eyes, and tells him to bathe in the Pool of Siloam.  When the man returns, able to see, some doubt it is the same man, and the Pharisees object that he has been healed on the Sabbath.

Since Jesus has performed many comparable miracles, we may well ask why John has chosen to devote 41 verses to the episode.  The answer, I believe, lies in the beginning and the end of the chapter and their connection to the previous chapter (8).  The disciples ask Jesus: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he has been born blind.”  There is a problem with the little word “that”—ἵνα—which is generally used to introduce a purpose clause.  It seems unlikely that the disciples were asking Him, “What sin did he or his parents do in order the he would be born blind?”  F.F. Bruce, in his commentary, says offhandedly that here ἵνα introduces a result clause, but, while this interpretation makes sense and must be basically right, one should be more cautious about syntax.  As the great grammarian B.L. Gildersleeve once observed, “It is easy to sit in the seat of the scornful of nice grammatical distinctions." 

Goodwin, in his Syntax of the Moods and Tenses of the Greek Verb (357) discuses a fairly rare usage of ἵνα (hina) to introduce an objective clause and cites a Homeric example after a verb meaning “entreat,” an instance in Demosthenes, and observes that there are similar cases in the NT.  An "objective clause" is basically a clause that stands in for a direct object.  In English, while such clauses are not uncommon (They told me what I should do), we more commonly use an infinitive phrase.  In the NT, so it has been gradually understood, there are many instances where hina introduces an objective or substantive clause, often in an explanatory sense.  (An excellent 1947 article by the Methodist scholar J.H. Greenlee is available online.)

Here, with a little straining, we might interpret the phrase as something like:  What sin did this man or or his parents commit, that called down this punishment?  Yes, the effect is more or less that of a result clause, but if John had wanted to make the connection of cause and result clear, he had the means to do so at his disposal.

I am not suggesting that Saint John had mastered Greek so well that he could make fine syntactical distinctions or that my own cautious view of the grammar is the only possible solution, but I am saying that over-interpretation of the "that" clauses as either purpose or result could lead to confusion and error.

Of course the real interest in the question lies not in the grammatical confusion that partially obscures the meaning,  but in the easy assumption that human suffering must be caused by the sin of an individual himself or by the sins of his ancestors, whose guilt he has inherited.  Now, in the early parts of the OT, inherited guilt is taken for granted, but the later prophets explicitly repudiate the ancient teaching, one shared with ancient Greeks and other peoples, and hold the individual responsible for his own deeds.  The 18th chapter of Ezekiel is explicit:

What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge?  As I live, saith the Lord God, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.  Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die. But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right, (here follows a long description of a righteous life)....When the son hath done that which is lawful and right, and hath kept all my statutes, and hath done them, he shall surely live.....Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord God: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?

The alternative to inherited or collective guilt is individual guilt, but, since the man was apparently born blind, it is hard to see what sin he might have committed in the womb.  Even the doctrine of inherited guilt would make more sense than to hold a newborn responsible for his sins.   Nonetheless, these simple-minded disciples are echoed constantly by Christians, every time they put the responsibility for someone’s misfortune on the sufferer, or, what is even more common, attribute human suffering to the Lord’s will:  "Have I any pleasure that the wicked should die?"

One anecdote might be in order.  A young woman,  a serious Calvinist, was a teacher in a school.  When a kindergartner came to school weeping, she asked her what the matter was.  The child answered that her pony had died.  The teacher asked her, “Do you think your pony might not have died, if you had loved Jesus more?”  This was a particularly cruel question, since the poor child had been abandoned by her shiftless parents and was being raised by elderly grandparents.  Complicating the situation was the fact that the teacher and her husband belonged to a rival faction of Presbyterians who were feuding with the little girl’s grandfather.  The teacher was not a cruel person; indeed, she was extremely kind, but she had been misled into an unkind act by a false theory that seemed to justify her own superiority.

Jesus dismisses His disciples’ foolish question with the statement: Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but it [the blindness] was that (ἵνα again!) the works of God might be revealed in him.  Bruce assumes this is the typical use of ἵνα to introduce purpose, but that may be a slight overstatement.  If we are dealing again with something like an objective clause, the meaning might be closer to something like, the real significance of this blindness—and the blind man’s appeal is the revelation of God’s works.  He adds that it is necessary for us to perform the works of Him who sent me. 

He then rubs the man’s eyes with the mud and bids him to go bathe in the pool of Siloam, which (as John tells us) means “he who has been sent,” using the same verb (apostello) that is related to the word apostle, an obvious reference to His own mission.   When the man returns, with his sight, he is led to some Pharisees, who insist that the man who gave him his sight cannot be from God, because he does not observe the Sabbath.   (This brings us inevitably to Chapter Eight.)

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

4 Responses

  1. Craig Klampe says:

    We begin by talking about John chapter 9, but at the end we’re going to be moving on to chapter 8. There are some paragraphs that are duplicated.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Thanks for pointing out the repeated paragraph. This is the third time I have had to correct this WordPress glitch. It must have been confusing. I did say from the beginning that chapter 9 could only be fully understood in the context of 9. The parenthetical addition was to prepare for this in the next installment.

  3. Craig Klampe says:

    I’m looking forward to it.

  4. Dot says:

    My nephew was born with a terrible meningocele. He lived to 20 years of age. The mother could not handle the immenseness of the care and ultimately, my brother and she divorced. My mother, grandmother and brother cared for him. We asked the same questions.
    What happened, happened. It was a terrible thing brought onto my family. My brother died 2 years ago. He looked forward to being able to see his son again. The church was always important to him. I just believe in something we call God who created the heavens and earth. I’m sorry, but this brings back bitter memories. I just believe my brother is happy where he’s at and I am most happy for him.