“What Really Happened?”: Story Becomes History— John 9:1-41

Studies in John’s Gospel— Lesson 23

by Reta Halteman Finger

Fourth-century Synagogue
The remains of a fourth-century synagogue in ancient Capernaum on the shores of Lake Galilee, built atop the darker rock left from a first-century synagogue. As the largest structure in the town, it symbolizes the centrality of religious life in the community. Ex-communication must have been a near-death experience. Photo by Reta Finger.

No matter how much we enjoy the cat-and-mouse game between Alfie and his challengers from our previous lesson, we can never be sure of “what really happened.” No camcorders or smartphones recorded the drama. In fact, historical accounts in our Bible, as well as in contemporary histories of Greeks or Romans, were written down long after the original events occurred. But because of low rates of literacy, ancient people passed on oral traditions far more carefully than we do today, so I consider the canonical Gospels trustworthy (if incomplete) accounts of the life of Jesus.

Yet even with today’s rules of historiography, authors cannot help reflecting aspects of their own time and place, including writing style and language usage. Each of our canonical Gospels, for instance, emerged from a particular geographical and religious community, although we can never be sure of location or exact authorship. Scholars look for clues in each Gospel to better understand the “Matthean” or “Markan” or “Johannine” communities. At first, Jesus-believers saw their movement as Jesus had understood himself—as part of a renewal movement within Judaism. But as the decades went by, tensions were increasing. Our Fourth Gospel, probably written in the 90s CE, may be chronicling the fatal split.

If so, many scholars would affirm with Raymond Brown that the blind man of John 9  “is acting out the history of the Johannine community” (Community of the Beloved Disciple, 1979, p.72). It does not mean that this healing never happened. But the plot and the cast of characters must have so well reflected what was happening several decades later that the author(s) found it easy to shape this story to depict the struggle of their own Jesus-community within its larger Jewish context. Some comments below are drawn from David Rensberger’s Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (1988, pp.41-48).

Symbols from the past: Alfie is us!

If you are not familiar with this “comedy in six scenes,” review it from the previous lesson. The blind man (I call him Alfie) must symbolize the Johannine community, as these believers progress from meeting Jesus in ignorance to embracing him as the Light of the World. Just as Jesus is absent for most of this chapter, so for years they have lived without his physical presence after his resurrection. Just as the healed man must cope alone with challenges from his religious community, so must they.  Alfie likely represents not only what believers have done, but also what they should do.

This growing confidence in the power of Jesus’s effect on their lives enables the Johannine community to engage with and debate authorities in the larger religious community. These leaders represent the Pharisees who know their scriptures, as well as the detailed applications from the oral law. How can this Jesus-community challenge such rigid purity laws? “One thing I know,” says Alfie, “that though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). He even taunts the Pharisees: “Do you also want to become his disciples?” One can sense the widening division between these two religious groups.

For a time, disagreement occurs among the authorities themselves (16). This may be a reference to some teachers like Nicodemus, who later appears as a disciple in John 19:39, or a Pharisee named Gamaliel in Acts 5:33-39, who warned his peers that to resist this movement, they “may even be found fighting against God” (39). However, by the end of the story, the religious authorities appear unified in their resistance.

A Jewish Power Struggle

Why are the authorities so opposed to the Johannine community? If we compile all of Jesus’ radical attacks on the religious status quo throughout this Gospel, it is not hard to imagine a power struggle among different Jewish parties in the ensuing decades. Who are the true people of God? Perhaps the Johannine community opposes orthodoxy by including non-Jews, following Jesus’ acceptance of Samaritans or Gentiles (see John 4 and Lessons 8, 9, and 10).

One of the reasons scholars generally date this Gospel so late is because of what happened after Alphie’s rather insolent speech of 9:30-33, where he declares that if this healer were not from God, he could do nothing. This angers the Pharisees so much that they drive Alfie out of the synagogue. Such an action could not have happened during Jesus’ lifetime, but there is evidence in Jewish writings that by the late first century, outspoken Jesus-believers like Alfie were excommunicated from their local synagogues. This also highlights Alfie’s timid parents, who represent secret Christians who refuse to publicly take a stand for fear they will be “put out of the synagogue” (9:22).

Into this swirl of religious politics is one word we haven’t yet mentioned: sin. When the disciples wonder whether Alfie or his parents sinned, Jesus does not mean that God deliberately blinded Alfie to show off divine power (3). Rather than seeing suffering as an occasion for moralizing, Jesus sees it as an opportunity to relieve suffering and make people whole.

But sin is a theme that pervades this entire story. Who did sin, if it was neither Alfie nor his parents? (3). Was it Jesus, who worked a miracle on the Sabbath? (14). Was it the parents’ fear that caused them to sin? (22). Was Alfie “born entirely in sins” after all? (34) Or does that last ironic conversation between Jesus and the Pharisees (39-41) clarify that those who say “we see” are the true sinners?

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1. Can you answer the above questions?

2. Do you think it is appropriate to see this story as symbolic of what was happening in the history of the Johannine community?

3. Are there parallels in certain church contexts today? Have you ever experienced rigid religious people who find sin in others but never in themselves? Have you ever been part of such a group?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.