The Structure of John 9 - The man born blind

The account of the man born blind has a very elegant structure, which greatly aids in seeing the purpose of the passage.

The basic structure is easily discerned by noting that Jesus is only present in the opening and closing verses:

Dialogs with Jesus 1–7

  • Debates concerning the event v.8–34

Dialogs with Jesus 35–41

Opening and closing

The dialogs with Jesus can be seen to break down into three parts, with an inverse parallel structure:

  1. Relationship between sin and blindness – the disciples understanding corrected 1–3
    1. Jesus role in the world – to be the light 4–5
      1. Jesus Encounters the man: physical eyes are opened 6–7

Debate concerning the event v.8–34

  1. Jesus Encounters the man: spiritual eyes are opened 6–7
  1. Jesus role in the world – to bring blindness as well as light 4–5
  1. Relationship between sin and blindness – the Pharisees understanding corrected 1–3

At this point we might expect the inner debate to neatly fit into the same kind of structure, but it does not seem to. Attempts to force this end up with the summoning of the parents as the central pivot of the pericope—which does not make much sense. However it is possible to break the debate into five mini-discussions of roughly equal size, and to see some literary features.

Five conversations:

  1. The neighbors and the people 8–12
  2. The man brought to the Pharisees 13–17
  3. Pharisees summoned the parents 18–23
  4. Pharisees summoned the man a second time 24–29
  5. The man answered them 30–34

The purpose seems to show how four groups of people respond in different ways to the light. There is variety, and in two cases there is a progression in the responses:

  1. The neighbors show a surprising lack of persistence, not perceiving the implications of such a remarkable miracle
  2. & 4. The Pharisees are divided in 2. but firmly against Jesus in 4.
    • There is a clear parallel between 2 and 4 where in both cases the discussion hinges on whether “a person who is a sinner” could have done this sign, with the man insisting “now I see”.
  3. The parents prioritize their own security and so become blind concerning the spiritual reality of Jesus
  4. There is a distinct progress in the man’s spiritual insight, even before the confession “Lord I believe” in v.38.
    1. “The man called Jesus”
    2. “He is a prophet.”
    3. “one from God”
    This final conversation comes to a climax with:
    • “Never since the world began has it been heard of anyone opened the eyes of someone born blind”.
    • with the response “You were born steeped in sin”... And they threw him out.

Note: It might be asked what the basis is for starting a new paragraph at v.30? In every other place that the man speaks, it says “He answered” (Ἀπεκρίθη) but here it uses a more specific phrase “The man answered them” (Ἀπεκρίθη ὁ ἄνθρωπος) which does not assume an immediate antecedent to the subject, and so would be very appropriate for starting a new paragraph.

Putting it together

John has combined two structural features in this passage to support his theme, which is spiritual sight and blindness.

  • The inverse parallel form of the opening and the closing frame the pericope in a way that highlights this purpose
  • The central block of five conversations illustrates what this looks like and is linear rather than parallel in order to show the progression.

For a fuller notes, and a video of me teaching this in much more detail see:

Here is my translation of the passage, highlighting key words and showing the structural features discussed above.

  1. Now as Jesus was passing by, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who committed the sin that caused him to be born blind, this man or his parents?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but so that the works of God may be displayed in him.
  2. We must perform the deeds of the one who sent me as long as it is daytime. Night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
  3. Having said this, he spat on the ground and made some mud with the saliva. He smeared the mud on the blind man’s eyes 7and said to him, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam” (which is translated “sent”). So he went and washed, and came back seeing.
  1. Then the neighbors and the people who had seen him previously as a beggar began saying, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some people said, “This is the man!” while others said, “No, but he looks like him.” The man himself kept insisting, “I am the one!” 10So they asked him, “How then were your eyes opened?”
  2. He replied, “The man called Jesus made mud, smeared it on my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went and washed, and recovered sight.”
  3. They said to him, “Where is that man?” He replied, “I don’t know.”
  4. They brought the man who used to be blind to the Pharisees. 14(Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.) 15So the Pharisees asked him again how he had gained his sight. He replied, “He put mud on my eyes and I washed, and I see.”
  5. Then some of the Pharisees began to say, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a person who is a sinner do such signs?” Thus there was a division among them. 17So again they asked the man who used to be blind, “What do you say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He replied, “He is a prophet.”
  6. Now the Jewish religious leaders refused to believe that he had really been blind and had gained his sight until they summoned the parents of the man who had gained his sight. 19They asked the parents, “Is this your son, whom you say was born blind?
    Then how does he now see?”
  7. So his parents replied, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind.
    21But how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is an adult. He will speak for himself.” 22(His parents said these things because they were afraid of the Jewish religious leaders. For the Jewish leaders had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Christ would be put out of the synagogue. 23For this reason his parents said, “He is an adult, ask him.”)
  8. Then they summoned the man who had been blind a second time and said to him, “Promise before God to tell the truth. We know that this person is a sinner.” 25He replied, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know—that although I was blind, now I see.”
  9. Then they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he opened your eyes?” 27He answered, “I’ve already told you and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? You don’t want to become his disciples too, do you?”
  10. They heaped insults on him, saying, “You are his disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29We know that God has spoken to Moses! But as for this man, we do not know where he is from!”
  11. The man answered them, “This is an amazing thing, that you don’t know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes! 31We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but if anyone is devoted to God and does his will, God listens to him. 32Never since the world began has it been heard of anyone opened the eyes of someone born blind. 33If this was not one from God, he could do nothing.” 34They replied, “You were born steeped in sin, and you presume to teach us?” And they threw him out.
  1. Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, so he found the man and said to him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36The man replied, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” 37Jesus told him, “You have seen him and he is the one speaking with you.” 38He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.
  2. Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that those who do not see may see, and the ones who see may become blind.”
  3. Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and asked him, “We are not blind too, are we?” 41Jesus replied, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin, but now because you claim that you can see, your guilt remains.

Translation by Andrew Fountain