And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)Who did sin, this man, or his parents?—The disciples noticed that He looked at the man, and it may be that He halted as He was walking by. Their attention is directed to the sufferer, and with suffering they connect the idea of sin. They ask a question which may have come to them many times before, and which has in various forms come to men’s hearts many times since. Some of them may have heard it discussed in Rabbinic schools, and may have wished to know what answer He whom they had come to regard as greater than the Rabbis, would give. But it is a question not of the learned only, but of men generally, and those who now ask it do not propound it as a matter for discussion, but as a mystery of human life brought home to them in all its darkness, and for which they seek a solution at His hands. His teaching on the wider questions of the existence of evil and the connection of sin and suffering, though coming in the order of events after these words, and in part probably arising out of them, has in the order of the record occurred before them, and has been already dealt with in Notes on Luke 13:1-5. What is special to the question, as it meets us here, is that what is deemed to be the punishment had come with birth before possibility of thought or action, and therefore, as we think, before possibility of sin.
The form of the question puts two alternatives on precisely the same grounds; and we have no right therefore to assume that one of them is excluded by the questioners themselves. The fact of sin is stated as beyond question. The problem is, “Was the sin that of the man himself, or that of his parents?” The latter alternative is familiar to us, and daily experience shows us that within limits it holds good in both the moral and the physical worlds. It was clearly taught in the Second Commandment, and there is abundant evidence that the belief was at this time widely spread. We have greater difficulty in tracing the origin of the former alternative. It is not easy to accept the view that they thought of sin in his mother’s womb, though it seems certain that the Jews currently interpreted such passages as Genesis 25:22, and Psalm 51:5 in this sense. That a more or less definite belief in the transmigration of souls was common among Jews at the time of our Lord’s ministry, is made probable by references in Philo and Josephus. We know it was a doctrine of the Essenes and of the Cabbala; and we find it in the nearly contemporary words of the Wisdom of Solomon, “Yea rather being good, I came into a body undefiled” (Wisdom Of Solomon 8:20). Still it has been urged that it is not likely that such a belief would have made its way among the fishermen of Galilee. We have to remember, however, that among the disciples there are now men of Jerusalem as well as of Galilee, and that questions which men found hard to understand were constantly being raised and answered in the Rabbinic schools. In the meetings of the yearly festivals the answers of great Rabbis would be talked over and become generally known, and be handed on as maxims to those who knew little of the principle on which they were based. It was, then, probably with some thought that the life in this maimed body may not have been the first stage of his existence, that they ask, Did this man sin?Luke 13:1-4. The case, however, of this man was that of one that was blind from his birth, and it was a question which the disciples could not determine whether it was his fault or that of his parents. Many of the Jews, as it appears from their writings (see Lightfoot), believed in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls; or that the soul of a man, in consequence of sin, might be compelled to pass into other bodies, and be punished there. They also believed that an infant might sin before it was born (see Lightfoot), and that consequently this blindness might have come upon the child as a consequence of that. It was also a doctrine with many that the crime of the parent might be the cause of deformity in the child, particularly the violation of the command in Leviticus 20:18.
1. That all bodily punishments and afflictions come upon men for sin.
2. That as some come upon them for personal sins, so others come upon them for the sins of their parents.
The latter is unquestionably true: so is the former, but not universally: as there are afflictions which are punishments of sin, so there are some that are trials.
saying, master, who did man, or his parents, that he was born blind? the first of these questions, whether the man himself had sinned before he was born, which might be the occasion of his blindness, proceeds not upon the doctrine of original sin, though the Jews then believed that; See Gill on Romans 5:12; since that was common to all men, and therefore could not admit of such a question; but either upon the notion of transmigration of souls into other bodies; and so the disciples might ask whether this man had sinned in a pre-existent state when in another body, which was the reason of this blindness, or of his being put into a blind body. This notion, Josephus says (a), was embraced by the Pharisees; though, according to him, it seems, that they only understood it of the souls of good men; and if so, this could lay no foundation for such a question, unless these disciples had given into the Pythagorean notion of a transmigration of all souls, which was to be known by defects, as blindness, &c. (b); or else this question proceeded upon a principle received by the Jews, that an infant might do that which was faulty and criminal, and actually sin in the womb; of which Dr. Lightfoot has given instances: the second question proceeds upon the methods which sometimes God has taken with men, by visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children; or, as the above learned writer observes, upon a notion the Jews had, that a child might suffer for what the mother did whilst it was in the womb; or on another, which prevailed among them, that there should be neither merit nor demerit in the days of the Messiah; that is, that neither the good deeds, nor bad deeds of their parents, should be imputed to their children, neither the one to their advantage, nor the other to their disadvantage: and therefore since he the Messiah was come, they ask, how this blindness should come to pass? what should be the reason of it?And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)2. Master] Better, Rabbi: see on John 4:31.
who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?] Literally, that he should be born blind (see note on John 8:56). This question has given rise to much discussion. It implies a belief that some one must have sinned, or there would have been no such suffering: who then was it that sinned? Possibly the question means no more than this; the persons most closely connected with the suffering being specially mentioned, without much thought as to possibilities or probabilities. But this is not quite satisfactory. The disciples name two very definite alternatives; we must not assume that one of them was meaningless. That the sins of the fathers are visited on the children is the teaching of the Second Commandment and of every one’s experience. But how could a man be born blind for his own sin?
Four answers have been suggested. (1) The predestinarian notion that the man was punished for sins which God knew he would commit in the course of his life. This is utterly unscriptural and scarcely fits the context.
(2) The doctrine of the transmigration of souls, which was held by some Jews: he might have sinned in another body. But it is doubtful whether this philosophic tenet would be familiar to the disciples.
(3) The doctrine of the pre-existence of the soul, which appears Wis 8:20 : the man’s soul sinned before it was united to the body. This again can hardly have been familiar to illiterate men.
(4) The current Jewish interpretation of Genesis 25:22, Psalm 51:5, and similar passages; that it was possible for a babe yet unborn to have emotions (comp. Luke 1:41-44) and that these might be and often were sinful. On the whole, this seems to be the simplest and most natural interpretation, and John 9:34 seems to confirm it.John 9:2. Ἠρώτησαν, asked) They were well aware of the [omniscient] knowledge of their Master.—ὗυτος, this man) This question of the disciples ought not to be curiously examined into; whether, and when, that blind man could have sinned and thence contracted blindness. An interrogation, especially a disjunctive one, asserts nothing; and an assertion of the disciples would not compel us to an assent.—γεννηθῇ, that he should be born) That he was born blind, the disciples had heard from others.Verse 2. - And his disciples asked him, saying, Rabbi. This honorific appellation is found in John 1:38, 49; John 3:2; John 4:31; John 6:25; John 11:8; but very rarely in the other Gospels. It is applied to John the Baptist (John 3:26). The question seems to denote a very different frame of mind from that with which the previous chapter terminated. Who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind? It was the current idea and popular doctrine, not only that all suffering in this life had its origin in sin, and was a witness to the damage done to our nature by sin, by the disruption of our normal relations with the living God, but furthermore that every peculiar disaster pointed to some special or particular sin. Doubtless the Book of Job was a formal discussion of the question. The writer of that work repudiates the right of any onlooker to infer special sins from peculiar punishments. Jesus, moreover (Luke 13:1-3); had repeatedly discouraged the tendency to judge, but he did this by the still more solemn assurance that all men deserved the special fate of some. Still, the calamity of congenital blindness, with all its hopelessness, provided a very apt occasion for raising the question, "Who did sin, this man, or his parents?" It is and always will be difficult to say whether the disciples thought that they had exhausted the alternatives, or believed that they had plausible reasons for thinking either alternative possible. Some have argued that they had Scripture ground for the second of the suppositions, that the sin of the parents of the blind man was the real cause of the blindness of their son. Thus (Exodus 20:5) the idea is embedded in the Decalogue, and it is repeated in Exodus 34:7 and Numbers 14:18, that the iniquities of fathers are visited upon their children. The forty years in the wilderness was a case in point (Numbers 14:33, 34; Jeremiah 32:18), and numerous examples may be given of the punishment descending from parent to child; e.g., upon the house of Ahab, and on the sufferers from exile in Babylon. Compare the continuous threatening of vengeance for unfaithfulness upon the generation to come. The argument may have been strengthened by observation of the lot of men who have brought poverty, disease, and disgrace upon their unborn children. Ezekiel had deliberately repudiated the inference that Israel had drawn from their Scriptures, in the dictum or proverb (Ezekiel 18:2) that "the fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge," and maintained with great and passionate earnestness, "The soul that sinneth, it shall die." This may have led the disciples to put the conjectural solution. Did this man sin? Is there any way or sense in which the man's own sin could be the cause of so great a calamity? It seems entirely gratuitous to derive from this passage any final conclusion as to the method in which they supposed it possible that the man's personality preceded his birth, or any certain conviction that they meant more by their question than this - if sin is the cause of such fearful privation, it must either be the man's parents' or his own. It could not have been his own; was it then his parents'? There was sufficient discussion of the problem among the Jews for one or more vague and unsettled opinions to be floating in their minds.
(1) It cannot be proved that the doctrine of metempsychosis was ever held by the Jews. The language in which Josephus refers to the views of the Pharisees is ambiguous (cf. 'Bell. Jud.,' 2:08. 14; 'Ant.,' 18:01. 3). The view held by them was simply that "the immortal souls of the good (only) pass into another body," are raised into a new life; "but that the souls of the sinful αἰδίῳ τιμωρίᾳ κολαζέσθαι, are afflicted with eternal punishment." This differs profoundly from the Oriental, or Pythagorean, or Platonic doctrine of transmigration.
(2) The Jewish speculation of the pre-existence of souls has some countenance from Wisd. 8:19, 20, where the pseudo-Solomon says, "I was a witty child, and... being good, I came into a body undefiled," modifying somewhat the Platonic idea of a harmony between the pre-existing soul and the body (see Grimm, 'Exeg. Handb.,' in loc.; Bruch, 'The Pre-existence of the Soul,' freely translated; American 'Bibliotheca Sacra:' 1863); but beyond this there is no sound indication that the Jewish mind had accepted the doctrine which played so great a part in the later discussions as to the views of Origen.
(3) Lightfoot ('Horae Hebraicae,' in, loc.) thinks "the dogma held by R. Akiba, commenting on Ecclesiastes 13:1, to the effect that "in the days of Messiah there will be neither merit nor demerit" - i.e. that neither merit nor demerit of parents will be imputed to posterity - may account for the query of the apostles.
(4) The idea of the possible sinfulness of the child while in the womb of its mother - a theory based upon the supposed moral activity of Jacob and Esau in the womb of Rebecca ('Bemidbar Rab.,' fol. 230. 2), and the statement that John the Baptist leaped in the womb of his mother Elisabeth (Luke 1:41) - may have co-operated with other vague views floating in their minds with sufficient intensity to explain the first part of their question.
(5) The supposition of some (Tholuck), that the disciples may have thought that the man's sins were foreknown, and that the blindness was punishment beforehand, is so abhorrent to any notion of the justice of God, that we cannot suppose that it ever entered into their inquiry. The fact that no fewer than five distinct hypotheses as to the possibility of culpability before birth having had some place in Hebrew and contemporary thought, is an adequate explanation of the fact that they should have put this ever-recurring problem of evil in the particular form in which we find it.
It was a common Jewish view that the merits or demerits of the parents would appear in the children, and that the thoughts of a mother might affect the moral state of her unborn offspring. The apostasy of one of the greatest Rabbis had, in popular belief, been caused by the sinful delight of his mother in passing through an idol grove.
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