“As He was passing by, He saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples questioned Him: “Rabbi1, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” Jesus answered. “This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him.”
I have read this portion of the Gospel of John many times and never noticed it until last year sometime. I thought about what the disciples asked Jesus and something seemed a little peculiar that I had never noticed before and had just apparently glossed over by not being attentive. Can you guess what it is that had me puzzled? We all have heard someone say (wrongly of course) that birth defects or other physical or mental handicaps are caused by someone’s individual sins. Certainly original sin2 has brought about all of these problems we face, but we certainly cannot always say that just because someone is suffering or has some sort of deficiency that their own sins or their parents sins were the direct reason for their misfortune. Jesus here corrects the disciples when they ask Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” by saying it was neither him or his parents. Did you notice yet why part of their question seems odd? The disciples ask if THIS MAN’S SINS caused him to be BORN blind?
How can a man’s own sins cause HIM to be BORN blind, as he was not yet born to commit any sins! This seems very strange and to those who are new to Christianity or are studying and wondering if Christianity is coherent then this might make you pause momentarily and wonder how do we make sense of this. This is a great lesson in why it is important to not just read the Bible and the Bible only, but to study and incorporate information about the historical context which includes religious practices and beliefs prevalent in the time of the writing of any particular book of the Bible. There is a big difference between just simply READING the Bible rather than STUDYING the Bible. The responsible thing for us to do is STUDY the Bible. One of the major reasons for this is that we are far removed in our culture and society from the cultures and societies out of which these books that make up the Biblical text came out of. To better understand them we need to incorporate all of the information we can so that we properly interpret the text. Some things that seem very strange to us (like the disciples question to Jesus concerning the blind man) are not so strange once we include the relevant historical and linguistic data to see the entire picture. Having said that, let us now apply that to our present example.
Brief Excursus On Commentaries As Helpful Tools
We need to invest in some important tools to get the most out of our study efforts. One of the most valuable tools is a commentary. Commentaries are books written by scholars who have devoted much time to engaging with important and critical issues for a given book of the Bible. The author covers each passage of a particular portion of Scripture until the entirety of the specific book of the Bible has been gone through. Some object to the use of commentaries, but usually do so for unfortunate reasons. They will say “what’s in that is JUST man’s words, not Gods,” and other similar statements. While it is true that the comments/thoughts concerning how particular passages should best be interpreted are not God’s Words, it doesn’t follow that they are therefore not useful. In fact, it seems to me that the issue of using a commentary to aid in study is actually seen as being a very positive thing in light of the following passage of Scripture:
“And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers,
for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ,
until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.
Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit.
But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into Him who is the head– Christ.”
Notice in the above Scriptures that Christ gave as gifts to the church, “pastors and teachers.” A commentary is simply a teacher, who by walking in the Spirit is a gift from God, and instead of limiting himself to only being used in a local congregation is obeying God to be a help/blessing to the church at large, which is a positive thing. Also, the gift of pastor/teacher to the church was for the purpose of bringing us to maturity in Christ! So we should never shy away from the use of commentaries and take advantage of the knowledge and insight of others who have way more experience concerning the text we are trying to interpret.
Proposed Solution To the Disciples’ Question
I sampled two commentaries, one from a conservative Christian scholar and the other from a moderate to liberal scholar. The first is the late F.F. Bruce3 and the other is the late Raymond Brown4. What is interesting is that it’s always a good idea to consult more than one commentary by scholars who have differing view points, but on this particular issue they both agree. They document that in the Judaism of Jesus’ day certain rabbi’s would teach that one could actually sin in the womb and thereby cause yourself some sort of ailment or birth defect. So, once we are armed with that knowledge we can see that the disciples’ question isn’t that strange after all. Many rabbi’s in that day taught that a person’s parents could sin and thereby cause the child many physical problems. They also taught that one could sin in the womb and thereby cause problems as well. The disciples would have been familiar with the rabbinical teaching of the day. They naturally, given what other rabbi’s taught on this issue, want to know what Jesus (whom they referred to as Rabbi in the text) thought as far as who is at fault for this blind man’s condition, the blind man or his parents. Of course we find Jesus responding that it was NEITHER of them, showing that what other rabbi’s taught on this issue was of course false.
I pray this article has helped you to realize the importance of studying as opposed to just reading alone and that you start to dig deeper into the Scriptures and start using helps such as commentaries to help you arrive at the truth of what Scripture is trying to tell us.