Friday, March 16, 2012

Blind Hearsay

We are following the Gospel of John, where recently Jesus had a discussion with some Jews on the Temple grounds of Jerusalem. Many of these Jews had put their faith in Jesus, but Jesus told them that they that they were trying to kill Him, and that they could not understand Him because they were the children of the Devil. At this, those Jews changed their minds, and thought that Jesus was a crazy heretic. As Jesus continued, He claimed that He had seen Abraham, and that He was part of God. The Jews had heard enough, and picked up stones to kill Him, but He slipped away unscathed.

Blind Hearsay
Hearsay is testimony given by someone who has no first-hand knowledge of the event. It is normally inadmissible as evidence in court, because often it cannot be easily verified. Hearsay is not necessarily wrong. Historians make a career out of hearsay, but a credible historian has an obligation to reveal the source of that hearsay. This practice facilitates discerning the truth, or at least a version of truth based on best available information. Accordingly, there should be some caution regarding historical unsupported hearsay, even in sacred texts. All of the Gospels include some unsupported hearsay, such as the details around Jesus' birth and John the Baptist's beheading, and the Gospel of John is no exception.

The entire chapter of John 9 is centered on a man who was blind from birth, up until Jesus intervened. Before we get to the hearsay, the story begins with a fascinating revelation in John 9:1-3:
As [Jesus] went along, He saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked Him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life." NIV
You may be wondering how Jesus' disciples could have come up with such a crazy idea: that this man was blind because of sin; either his own sin (which would have necessarily happened after his birth) or that of his parents. Well, to them it was not a crazy idea, but rather a fact of life.

As we covered in a study of Leviticus, according to God's Law, if you became sick (or if your house got mildew), it was due to your sins. It is a short logical distance to lump blindness together with other sin-caused sicknesses, provided that it had not been cause by demon-possession. (But, hey, this is the Gospel of John we are talking about, which never mentions Jesus casting out any demons, so we know that demon-possession would not be the case here!)

Also, with regard to the punishment of the parent's sins being applied to the child, God promised to punish subsequent generations if the parents worshiped idols (Exodus 20:4-6). This line of thought extended far beyond that one divine commandment, such that Ezekiel 18:2 tells us that the Jews had a generalized proverb that "parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge."

Notice that in Jesus' reply, He did not correct their line of thinking in general, but rather addressed this specific case, telling them that this man was born blind to make manifest the work of God. This implicitly means that God made this man blind from birth. As Exodus 4:11 tells us, it is God who makes people deaf, dumb, or blind, but that is not the "work of God" Jesus is referring to.

As the story continues, Jesus claimed that we must do God's work while we have daylight, and He was that daylight, but night is coming. So Jesus made some mud with His spit, rubbed it on the blind man's eyes, and then told him to wash off the magic spit-mud at a certain pool in the city. The man did what he was told, and he gained his vision (John 9:4-7).

So the "work of God" was to give this blind man sight, thereby displaying God's good powers. From the eyes of the pious, this makes some sense, but an outsider cannot help but be appalled by it. Why? Well, imagine a king who had locked up a baby in his dungeon on the day that it was born, with the king planning to release the baby after twenty or so years in order to prove that he was a good and powerful king. Such is the case with this man's blindness.

Now, about that hearsay problem. Jesus did not send a disciple with the blind man to verify that he went to that pool and got his sight back, but that is no problem to explain, because Jesus would later meet up with this man, and the man would actually see Jesus for the first time, and worship Him (John 9:35-38). That implies that the man did what he was told.

The real hearsay issue is what happened after the blind man washed off the spit-mud and got his sight, up until when Jesus finds him again. In that time gap, John records that the man is doubted by his neighbors, who then take him in front of the Pharisees, who then get angry because Jesus had healed this man on a Sabbath and, in turn, they launch an investigation which included questioning of the man's parents. The tall tale ends with the ex-blind man mocking the Pharisees for their lack of discernment and him being thrown out of the synagogue for that mocking (John 9:8-34). All of these details are fully fleshed out beyond measure of a second-hand telling, replete with recorded dialog. Yet there are no disciple witnesses, and when Jesus does meet with the ex-blind man again later, there is no mention of the man recounting this "history."

If that level of voluminous hearsay is not enough to cast some doubt on its veracity, perhaps you need only look within it to find an intrinsic inconsistency (which is very characteristic of the Gospel of John) to arouse some suspicion. When the Pharisees tell the ex-blind man that they know that Jesus is a sinner, the man replies that he does not know whether or not Jesus is a sinner (John 9:24-25). Contrast this to later in the story in John 9:30-33, when that same man mocks those same Pharisees for not realizing that Jesus must be sinless to work that kind of a miracle.

Or, if that internal contradiction is not enough to cast doubt, consider John 9:29, where the Pharisees claim that they do not know where Jesus comes from. Yet in John 3:2, Pharisees considered Jesus to be a man from God, and in John 6:42 and John 7:27, the Jews knew Jesus' family and hometown.

I dare say, these issues make it worthy of reconsidering the truth that you think you know.


  1. Yet more evidence of the Biblical God's narcissism -- blinding an innocent man to demonstrate how awesome he and his son are. When I look at either the OT or NT deity, I don't see love, I see callous egoism.

    1. There is definitely callous egotism, but I do see love, and hate, and jealousy, and capriciousness, and hypocrisy, and mercy, and pretty much most human emotions and flaws you can think of. I think it is all the more evidence that man created God in his image, and not the other way around... :-)

  2. This implicitly means that God made this man blind from birth

    It means nothing of the sort. I agree one might accept your conclusion as a possible explanation, but no more. Forgive me if I sometimes feel that on some points you strain the text for it's exact, precise meaning, brooking no deviation from literalism (straining the gnat) yet elsewhere you make giant assumptions (swallowing the camel) which in no way are proven by the text.

    Each day you must run across many people stating things, even as premises to questions, with which you disagree. Do you correct them each time on every point, major or minor? Do you see that as your role? Does failure to do so mean you agree with whatever they have expressed?

    Isn't it just an assumption on your part that Jesus must be ever ready to lecture and correct anyone, on every off-base point, great or small? He didn't agree with their premise, after all. He simply didn't address it, meaning no conclusions are possible, implicit or otherwise.

  3. @ TWF
    I don't know if you listen to Mark Goodacre's Podcasts (which I enjoy), but here he talks about the Jesus healing the blind man in Mark 9:13. But Goodacre seemed to miss this John story and claimed only Mark shows us a nitty, gritty Jesus. You post made me question Mark -- I await his answer.

    You doubting the layers of witnessing is interesting. For those who take these stories literally, this is important. But like you, it is obvious to me that these are tales with very different purposes than literal history. Thank you again.

  4. Hello tom sheepandgoats, and welcome back.

    First of all, let me say that, for the most part, I agree with your sentiment, and I appreciate you calling me out here.

    When I was writing that paragraph, I had thought about putting some qualifiers in there that it may imply that God had made the man blind from birth. I chose not to, and that may be the mistake which has prompted your reaction here. That, and the fact that I did not fully supply the defense of that conclusion.

    More to the point, though, is this an unproven, "giant assumption" to draw this implication? No. Let us review:

    1) The man was blind from birth, i.e. coming out of the womb blind (John 9:1).
    2) The reference of "this happened" in John 9:3 is referring to the man being born blind.
    3) The "so that" in John 9:3 implies a causal relationship. It does not imply the cause itself, but it does imply a reason for this guy being blind from birth.
    4) It happened to display "the work of God," meaning the later healing of the blindness (John 9:3).

    Now, from the above, I think that it is reasonable to make such a conclusion. The blindness happened. It happened for a reason. That reason was God's purpose, which strongly suggests God's authorship. However, we can also draw more support for that stance elsewhere:

    5) In Exodus 4:11, God says "Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?" This is a direct confirmation that God can cause this kind of blindness.
    6) Furthermore, the Bible repeatedly claims that God made us in the womb, such as in Job 31:14-15, Psalm 139:13, Isaiah 44:2, Isaiah 44:24, Isaiah 49:5, and Jeremiah 1:5.

    So God causes blindness, and He built us in the womb. This guy was born blind, meaning that he was made blind in the womb. It logically follows that God made this man blind in the womb. When you look at this evidence, it seems more like a fact than a speculated conclusion, but it is most certainly not a "giant assumption" on my part.

    1. On the other hand.....

      Doctors, Garbagemen, Police, Lawyers, Undertakers, Firemen, and so forth all use their skills to alleviate certain maladies. No one would ever assume their doing so implies they caused the maladies, even if they uttered words along the lines of John 9:3.

      As to Exodus 4:11, “can” does not mean “does.” After all, a fireman can start a fire. An undertaker can kill a person. But it would be a “giant assumption” to conclude that they have, simply on the basis that they can

      As to God forming us in the womb, are we to assume that the womb thereby becomes his watch, so that he ought to be held responsible for whatever happenes “on his watch?” Haven't liability lawyers planted this uniquely modern notion into us all? In fact, aren't we buying into the Santa Claus notion of God, implying that it is somehow his obligation to remedy all ills, regardless of from whence those ills came?

    2. @tom sheepandgoats
      You have somewhat danced around what you think happens in the womb, so I am not sure how best to respond other than to ask for clarification. What are you saying happened to this man in the womb which made him blind? Are you taking the side of science, suggesting that his blindness was the result of a natural cause, perhaps a genetic defect? And if so, to what extent then is God forming us in the womb, in your opinion?

      Let us take a closer look at your other arguments.

      Regarding Exodus 4:11, you are right that "can" is different than "does." God's own words in Exodus 4:11 are not those of possibility, but those of actuality. Who makes men blind? God does, according to His own words, not mine, as is evident in the partial verse quote in my earlier comment.

      Even so, let us take that as a "can" for now, and let us take your suggestion. If a walked up to a burning house and said "this house caught on fire so that I could show how effective I am at putting out fires," would that not be a little strange to you? You would think that either the fireman played some role in starting the fire, or that he had a tenuous grasp on reality. Taking your suggestion that this is somewhat analogous to our situation here in John, either Jesus/God had some role in this man's blindness, or Jesus had a tenuous grasp on reality. The latter case is refuted by God's nature, but the former case is supported by Scripture.

    3. That was supposed to be "If a fireman walked up to a burning house..."


    4. Are you taking the side of science, suggesting that his blindness was the result of a natural cause, perhaps a genetic defect?

      Do you have something against science?

      And if so, to what extent then is God forming us in the womb, in your opinion?

      Are you playing with me? Do you really not know my view on this? Not that I expect you to be a mind reader, of course, but we're speaking of one of the most fundamental Bible teachings. Is it really possible that you can have such a stellar command of individual verses, rivaling that of anyone I've come across, yet be absolutely unaware of how they fit together on this? I wouldn't expect you to believe it, would want to test each component of it scientifically.... but to not know of it floors me. Unless, of course, you are playing. I suspect you are.

    5. @tom sheepandgoats
      No, tom, I am not playing with you. Perhaps there is universal consensus within the Jehovah's Witnesses (JW) on where God's part ends and nature begins, but not being a JW myself, I could not tell you. I will tell you that there is a spectrum of Christian belief of where that line is drawn, based on the viewpoints I have heard. In fact, I would say that most Christians I have heard from regarding this issue would claim that God creates both the soul and the body in the womb. If you believe that God has a purpose for everyone, then God creating both the soul and the body is a natural conclusion, as it may be difficult to carry out that purpose based on certain physical defects, such as Down's Syndrome or blindness (unless that purpose is to be cured of blindness by Jesus). So this is a very serious question.

      The Bible verses I mention above use terms like "made," "formed," and "knit," which all suggest a physical construction. In fact, the "formed" is the same word used for constructing Adam from the mud of the earth.

      No, I do not have a problem with science, but the Bible often does, and that problem extends into genetics, such as we see from Genesis 30:37-39 where Jacob influences the color patterns of the flocks by putting bark-stripped branches near their mating locations so that the flock produced streaked or speckled or spotted offspring.

    6. Well....alright then. Sorry about the mixup

      When Bible writers penned those womb scriptures, do you think they imagined that God climbs into each womb to hand-craft the final product? Do you think we imagine it?

      Better to picture an assembly line designed to crank out quality products. If you tell me that Ford built your car, I don't imagine that Henry Ford did it himself. Instead, the product comes through a process that he designed.

      From time to time, lemons may roll off the assembly line. Nobody would say they're not Fords. Nobody would say Ford didn't built them, even though they have defects. Nobody would blame Henry, for they realize the possibility of reckless operators, sabotage, abuse, improper maintenance.

      Surely with your religious background and subsequent study you can fill in the rest with regard to the baby assembly line, and how from the biblical point of view, matters came to be as they were in Jesus' day. You spent decades in some church environment, presumably learning whatever they taught there. Surely you can complete the picture, even if you don't buy into it.

    7. @tom sheepandgoats
      Why are you so coy? Is it too difficult for you to state your own beliefs plainly? Do you fear that they would be then subject to scrutiny? It probably would have taken you less time to state what you believe than to come up with the imperfect metaphor you have provided here. Quite frankly, I think you probably know that many people believe things which are contrary to what the Bible says, and yet they call themselves Christians. So for you to point me off to my own study to figure out what you believe is rather silly.

      This may be a good verse for you: Matthew 22:29
      Jesus replied, "You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God." NIV

      If you think that I am suggesting that the writers thought that God climbed into wombs to make babies (other than perhaps Jesus, wink), you are gravely mistaken. These same writers believed that God made the universe by speaking it into existence. Such a God could obviously "hand-craft" every baby without literally crawling into womb-space. To imagine it otherwise is to limit God.

      While Henry Ford does not claim to have built Ford assembly line vehicles all by himself, the Bible does have verses where God Himself claims to have made people in the womb.

      While birth defects do not get much mention in the Bible, the ultimate birth defect, miscarrying, does get a few mentions, and they are either implicitly or directly linked to God's control, such as Exodus 23:25-26 and Numbers 5:21. Something must be going on there...

    8. Why are you so coy? Is it too difficult for you to state your own beliefs plainly? Do you fear that they would be then subject to scrutiny?

      Because you want me to lob softballs to you so you can swat them out of the park. And I'm willing to oblige. After all, it's your blog, it's structured as you want it to be. I enjoy the exercise. I work on fastballs, curveballs, sliders, and I'm impressed by your batting average. Some of what you deem home runs I deem singles at best, and I do think you suffer heavily from 'can't see the forest for the bark of the trees' syndrome,' but still, it all makes for a stimulating exchange. In the final analysis, you get to be umpire on your own blog, just as I get to be on mine.

      At the same time, I can't help but wonder how you got to be as you are now. What makes you tick? Somewhere I read your history....was it on a sister blog?....but I don't recall the details. But with a phenomenal penchant for study, surely you must have made some use of it back in your Christian days, were it possible to do so. My suspicion is that it is not possible to do so. I've alluded to the point before: most doctrines associated with churches today are not taught in the Bible. It is the attempt to read them in which makes people eventually give up in disgust or take the position that such things can only be understood by faith.. Neither course is rewarding to the logical mind. Better to do a blog ripping the stuff apart, as your blog does with the gospels.

      So my “being coy” is an attempt to make you work. In all the time you spent in religious environment (I forget what branch or denomination....maybe you never said) were you able to do anything at all with your reasoning, as Witnesses are able to do? Recall you gave us credit once for studying the Bible far more than most. It's because there is something to study, since we don't try to read contradictory notions into the book. I don't think that's the case elsewhere; In the context of the typical church, Bible study tends to just confuse a person more. And I am wondering to what extent your example can prove/disprove my premise.

      Sigh....but you're not cooperative. You just want more softballs to declare home runs on. It's your right, I understand that. It's your blog, and surely one get to rule on his own blog. I'm well aware that my being coy is outside the blog's parameters. But perhaps I've been able to convey it's not for the reasons you suggested.

    9. Oh, OK. You want to know what makes me tick? I am afraid you may have difficulties with that, at least if you are just looking to assign a simple label. I am probably a bit more complex than what you may consider to be a garden variety atheist. But I can start to point you in the right direction.

      First, you may not know this, but in this blog I have also gone through the Pentateuch with the same type of detailed studies. When I first started the blog in 2008, I was doing OT to NT in a 3-1 ratio. The older posts are naturally a little rougher around the edges.

      Also, I have posted chapter-by-chapter summaries of the Bible which I have written in an unbiased format (to the extent possible for me). The OT is complete, but I have only recently posted Matthew. You will find "The Bible Summary" in the links at the right. You may even find it useful. I do.

      I mention this because if your goal is to make me "work" at piecing the Bible together for myself as opposed to taking someone else's word for it, well, I have been there, and I have done that. ;-) The views you will find here are largely my own (through my own conclusions of study), with the views of others just thrown in for robustness from time to time.

      So it is not that I am just looking for softballs. I have played hardball. I have tallied the score here in the seventh inning stretch, and, from my perspective, it does not look good for the home team of faith. Regarding "home runs" and singles, if you and I were to sit down and score the arguments we have made, I think we would actually be a lot closer than you think. But sometimes for a given pitch and a given batter (the often limited or obscure details), a single is about all you can hope for. It sure beats striking out!

      I am working on creating an index page about me, but this should get you started if you really want to attempt to figure me out:

      My rise and fall in the faith, and the beginning of study:

      My school/work history:

      Some views on Christianity and studying the Bible:

    10. Okay...I'll look them over. It may take awhile. Meanwhile I may comment on other posts, if I spot you waving red flags before a bull. :-)

      Coincidentally, as you are working on a index page on yourself, I am working on a scripture index on my posts, and perhaps later a person/place/thing index.

      “I think if you and I were to sit down and score the arguments we have made” we would disagree on the scoring methods. What you consistently regard as a trump card I count as only a so-so supporting argument. To some extent, you strike me as a fundamentalist, only an unbelieving instead of a believing one. As those characters go by the mantra “the Bible SAYS what it MEANS and MEANS what it SAYS,” you seem not too different. I'm not at all surprised that your field is that of engineering and computers, with its inherent insistence on precision. It seems to color your model of how people relate to each other.

      Since we've begun our exchanges, I've offered several examples of communication styles/degrees of literalism changing over relatively short time periods, to say nothing of two millenia. You blow them all away and insist on the fundamentalist mantra. This strikes me as especially risky in the case of Jesus, who takes abundant liberties with literalism.

      I didn't address a point you made earlier in this thread, knowing how it would go, but I will address it now (still knowing how it will go):

      If a walked up to a burning house and said "this house caught on fire so that I could show how effective I am at putting out fires," would that not be a little strange to you?

      Yes, it would. But “a little strange” is not enough to justify either conclusion you suggest. Especially so if we're speaking of a culture and time 2000 years ago. And if that particular fireman was known to speak in riddles. And if I, not he, had raised the topic in the first place, and it's not the one he goes on to develop. It strikes me that you're not too different from the Trinitarian, taking “I and the Father are one” as proof of a trinity.

      You would think that either the fireman played some role in starting the fire

      Not likely, given the how monstrous is the conclusion. I would need far more than just a quirky statement to think that.

      or that he had a tenuous grasp on reality.

      Not if the speaker was well-known to speak in illustrations/parables/metaphors.

      So it is with Jesus. He doesn't just shovel raw unambiguous data into people, as though they were computers. He speaks colorfully, abstractly as often as not. He makes them work a little, so as to reveal themselves.

    11. Oh...and I am probably a bit more complex than what you may consider to be a garden variety atheist.

      I came to that conclusion long ago, agreeably. Actually, I wasn't even sure that you that were an atheist, as it doesn't ooze through every page as is typical with atheists who blog. Criticizing the Bible and rejecting God are two different things. One doesn't necessarily signify the other.

      And you don't fly the scarlet A on your blog. All the "garden variety atheists" do that.

    12. @tom sheepandgoats
      Well, thanks Tom. I am only really atheist in the sense that I have yet to recognize a god by any definition, but that does not mean I have resolved myself against such a possibility.

      Actually, I do not think we would vary too much on the scoring method. I am sure you can understand the difficulties in arguing for alternative meanings for what is written when there is no blatant hint of metaphor/allegory/parable, opinions somewhat being as common as belly buttons. That is why I avoid such arguments, and why I may appear to be a bit of a "fundamentalist" in my blog. Even so, very often the fundamentalist-type view is supported in other text in the Bible, lending support to the literal translation, as in the case we are here debating.

      Here is another perspective on the fireman. What if he said that in front of the house owners, whose house had already half-burnt to the ground? How do you think that would make the owners feel? When you think about that, you may be able to see just how horrendous and insensitive such a comment would be to those home owners. You can follow your thoughts from there.

    13. Their feelings might possibly recover if the fire was put out and the home restored to, in their case, much better than new.

    14. See, for example, you can't tell why I put this comment here. No chronicity in hierarchies.

    15. @tom sheepandgoats
      Ah, but the precious mementos, keepsakes, and photos scorched in the fire would never be recovered, just as the blind man's childhood could never be relived with the bliss of sight.

      And the homeowners would be unlikely to change their opinion of that particular fireman, even if they did like how the contractors rebuilt the house.

      So, yes it would be monstrous for a fireman to have set a fire to prove his skills, just like it is monstrous for God to claim that He blinds people, makes them deaf, or makes them mute, as Exodus 4:11 states. That verse's context supports a literal definition. However, God making people blind, deaf, or mute in a metaphorical sense is not really that much better, now is it? In fact, in view of eternity, a metaphorical interpretation may be a whole lot worse. Can you think of any of these metaphorical cases in the Bible? I can. :-(

  5. @Sabio
    Did you maybe mean Mark 8:22-26?

    No, I do not think that I have heard of Mark Goodarce, but I will certainly listen to that podcast. Thanks!

    I think that the layered witness angle is pretty important, and far too easy to overlook. Of course, it is far from being a bulletproof objection. It could be suggested that the actual eyewitnesses relayed their messages in the presence of the author, and the author subsequently assembled that account into one seamless, cohesive storyline.

  6. @ TWF,

    That is FUNNY. In my note taking, I mixed up 9:13, which is the time spot on Mark Goodacre's podcast where he talks about Mark 8, with the actual verse number. Thanks for the correction. Man, you can see how rough the scribes must have had it. But then, they weren't multi-tasking like us moderns!

    Also, I just found out that Goodacre is the founder of NT Gateway. Give it a look -- lots of good resources.

  7. @Sabio
    I have now checked out the NT Gateway site, and I had a listen to that podcast. Great stuff, indeed!

    It is funny, but early on when I had started my studies, I came across the Q theory, and it seemed quite logical. Since I have dug in deeper, I have noticed where it appears that Luke edited right from Matthew, which sheds some doubt on the Q theory, but it has taken reading little from one of your commenter's blogs (Ian) and listening to this podcast for me to fully come to terms with the doubting of that theory. The big question that remains, however, is regarding Jesus' lineage and early years, where Matthew and Luke seem completely independent. That, to me, does support the Q idea.

  8. I've got to say (besides hating hierarchy comments),
    I've enjoyed the back and forth between TWF and the TomSheep.

  9. @Sabio
    LOL! Hey, I am with you on the hierarchy. I have seen the light! If I could turn it off without having to make a pop-up window for comments, I would. But they do not give you an option for embedded comments.

    I am glad you are enjoying the discourse. :-)