Gary Greenberg's blog on biblical studies and related matters

The Case for a Proto-Gospel and the Healing of a Blind Man in Bethsaida

I have been doing a series of posts on my new book The Case for a Proto-Gospel. Here are links to previous entries.

Introduction

Standard Source Criticism Theory

The Luke-John Problem

John’s Theological Biases

John’s Editorial Techniques

The Paralytic on the Mat

Mark 8:22-26 tells of Jesus healing a blind man at Bethsaida. According to the story, some people brought a blind man to Jesus  and asked for help. Jesus put saliva in the man’s eye and laid hands upon him. When he finished he asked if the man could see anything. The man indicated that he had some vision but it was not clear. Jesus laid hands on him again, and the man’s vison was restored and he could see clearly. The laying of hands suggests that Jesus healed the blind man through an exorcism.

Scholarly commentaries on this story focus on two elements. First, they are troubled by the allegation that Jesus used saliva to heal the man, and many scholars see this as an indication that the story goes back to an early primitive layer in the Jesus tradition. Matthew and Luke also seem to have been troubled by Jesus’ use of saliva to heal as they both chose not to include this story in their respective gospels. This suggests that as time went by, some Jesus followers were troubled by the way this story portrayed Jesus.

The second, and more significant area of comment on this story is theological. It appears to be almost universally accepted that this story should be understood on a symbolic level as to how Jesus was perceived. Scholars suggest that this story serves as a dividing point between the first half of Jesus’s mission, where the disciples had no clear vision of what Jesus represented, and the second half of the mission, where the disciples begin to acquire a better but not yet complete understanding  of what Jesus represents. Bear in mind that one of Mark’s theological themes is that no human really understood what Jesus stood for until he died.

While Matthew and Luke passed over this story, John 9 also tells a story about Jesus using saliva to heal a blind man, but John’s story looks nothing like Mark’s and there is a good deal of scholarly debate as to whether John’s story is based on the same story as Mark’s. The consensus seems to be that they are not related.

In The Case for a Proto-Gospel, I have a lengthy analysis of this chapter in John. I offer evidence that John 9 is not only a critique of Mark’s story but that it also serves as a rebuttal to other elements of other stories in Mark. In an effort to keep this post simple, I will try to strip down John 9 to its basic elements as it relates to Mark’s story about the blind man.

As I have suggested in my earlier posts on John’s theological biases and editorial techniques, John examines a source story to see whether corrections are necessary. If John knew a version of Mark’s story, he would have had some important objections that he would want to address. First, Mark’s story involved an exorcism and John eliminates exorcisms from his gospel because he doesn’t want them to serve as evidence of Jesus’ authority. John focuses on Jesus’ words as the evidence of authority. Second, Mark’s story carries a whiff of failure, Jesus was unable to fully heal on the first try. A second attempt was necessary for success. John’s Jesus would never fail at any such act because John’s Jesus is perfect and couldn’t fail to heal on a first try. John 9 addresses these concerns but he also merges the story with critiques of other stories in Mark, which makes it difficult to isolate how John addresses Mark’s healing story.

According to John, Jesus and the disciples encounter a man born blind. The disciples ask whether the blindness is due to the man’s sins are his parents sins. Jesus says neither. He was born this way so that God’s works can be revealed through him. John’s story departs from Mark in several significant ways.

First, the opening dialogue makes clear that the man born blind is not possessed by a demon and no exorcism is possible. It is a later feature of the story that no one born blind has ever been cured. Second, Jesus spits saliva on the ground and mixes it with dirt to make mud, and he places the mud on the man’s eyes. He then tells the man to go to the pool and wash off the mud. He does so, and he can see. There is no failure to heal on a first try. Third, John places the event on a Sabbath, raising issues about a Sabbath violation. This is a key feature of John’s story which I will discuss in a moment.

Scholarly comment on John 9 focuses on two points of conflict with Mark. First, they observe that John’s use of saliva, mixing it with dirt to make mud for covering the eyes, is very different from Mark’s story and the other details of the story are very different. Second, they note John’s placement of the incident on the Sabbath makes it very different from Mark’s story. For these reasons, the consensus appears to be that John’s story is unrelated to Mark’s.

The commentators appear to overlook several features that suggest a Johannine critique of Mark. First, John eliminates the exorcism by having the man born blind. Second, John eliminates the perception that Jesus failed to heal on the first try. Third, and most important, John has preserved the two-stage healing process. Fourth, the use of saliva mixed with dirt, is for all practical purposes just as primitive as the use of saliva in Mark’s story. If John has no literary connection to Mark, and was probably writing thirty or more years after Mark, and Matthew and Luke rejected this story for their own gospels, where is John getting an equally primitive saliva story for the healing of a blind man.

In both Mark and John, the blind man’s vision is initially obscured after the saliva is applied to the eyes. In Mark, it is obscured because Jesus failed to heal him fully on the first try. In John, the vision is obscured because the saliva was mixed with dirt and turned into mud and it was the mud on the man’s eyes that blocked his vision. But in John, the man was cured before the mud was removed. In Mark’s second stage, Jesus tries again and then the man’s vision is cleared. In John’s second stage, the vision is cleared by washing the mud off. There is no failure to heal on the first try.

John’s story preserves the main features of Mark’s, a two-stage primitive healing process of a blind man though the use of saliva. But John has stripped out the objections to Mark’s original story. But why did John place this story on the Sabbath? Here I’ll give just a brief explanation for what is the subject of a very extensive discussion in The Case for a Proto-Gospel.

The function of the Sabbath was to raise the question of whether Jesus could be a sinner. After the man was healed, an argument broke out among the Jews. One faction argued that Jesus was a sinner for having violated the Sabbath. The other side argue that Jesus couldn’t possibly be a sinner because, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.”

John’s Sabbath offshoot is meant to address a separate criticism of a different story in Mark 3:20–30, where Jesus is accused of being a sinner in that he conducts exorcisms through the help of Satan. In that story, Jesus uses parables to make a logical argument that he couldn’t be a sinner. John doesn’t use exorcisms or parables in his gospel and needed a different way to address the accusation that Jesus was a sinner. The short analysis is that John took an exorcism in a Markan story about a blind man, turned it into a non-exorcism healing, and used the Sabbath violation as a substitute for the parables in order to prove logically that Jesus couldn’t be a sinner. The long analysis is in The Case for a Proto-Gospel.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *