W. ROBERT CONNOR 2/10/14
It seems to me that Jesus keeps playing variations on the phrase ἐγώ εἰμι (“I am”). He asserts he is the water of life (I think), the bread, the wine, the truth, the way, the light (8:12) and by implication the life that lasts. Then in 8:24 we get it pared away. The simple ἐγώ εἰμι itself. “I am.” That drives the translators crazy. “I am he,” they say, i.e. “I am the Christ”, or “I am sent from the father,” or I am something for heaven’s sake.
But that brings me back to Moses at the burning bush. He wants to know who this god is, and God replies that he is ὁ ὠν. “I am who I am,” some translators say. Fine, but “the one who is” would be equally good, don’t you think? Here I think we have Jesus stripping away all the metaphors –bread, light, you name it. What’s left when the metaphors have all left? Being. Pure being? Nothing else. The one who is?
Maybe the one who is everything, Bob, or who is the raison d’être (logos?) of everything. In a similar vein, see Colossians 1:15-17 (roughly contemporaneous with John?): He [Jesus] is the image of the unseen God, he is the first-born of all creation, because in him was created everything in the heavens and on the earth, everything seen and unseen, whether you call them “Thrones,” or “Dominations,” or “Principalities,” or “Powers”! All things have been created through him and for him, and he himself is before them all; in him all things keep together (καὶ αὐτός ἐστιν πρὸ πάντων καὶ τὰ πάντα ἐν αὐτῷ συνέστηκεν).
Shades of Parmenides: the great “Is”!
Are the Judaeans “the Jews”?
RICHARD McKIM 2/11/14
Much as I empathize with Bill’s Heraclitean response, I think we’re making rather heavy weather of ἐγώ εἰμι in this context. I doubt that God’s declaration to Abraham has much to do with it — still less can I see any claim to be “Pure Being”.
Jesus first says to the Ioudaioi, “You are of this world but I am not (οὐκ εἰμί) of this world.” Then he says you’re going to die in your mistaken state “if you don’t believe that I exist” — in other words, if you think that, because I don’t exist as part of this world, then I don’t exist at all. To which they reply in effect, “Well, who are you, then?” (σὺ τίς εἶ;). Since the answer to that is, in short, the son of God, the issue seems to me to be whether the Ioudaioi are capable of believing that there is any such son. The belief that there is distinguishes the Christian from the Jew.
So I take this exchange to be another of John’s efforts to disown Judaism on Jesus’ behalf. I can’t get past the feeling that John has an anti-Jewish agenda, portraying Jesus as not only Gentile in spirit but as an adversary of the Jews.
After the refreshing flash of son-light in the synoptic-style adulteress interpolation, chapter 8 gets dragged down into mud-slinging, a long quarrel about paternity where Jesus attacks his fellow-Jews as if they belong to a different race. “You are the sons of Abraham” he says over & over in various ways (e.g. 8:37, 8:56) — “you, unlike me” is the inescapable implication. “Unlike you, I come from God. He’s my father, not Abraham.” In other words, I’m not really a Jew.
In 8:39-47 this transmutes into “You are the sons of the devil. He’s your real father, not Abraham.” Why? Because you want to kill me. This slide from “sons of Abraham” to “sons of the devil” — based on murderous Jewish hostility to Jesus — is classic anti-Semitism, to use the modern term. At best, John’s Jesus stoops here to a kind of peevish name-calling. At worst …
The whole passage seems shot through with the same us-against-them stance we saw in the argument over work on the sabbath — “Moses gave the law to you people. You perform circumcisions. I have more important things to do.” I don’t think John, so far, has let Jesus come anywhere near saying “I’m a son of Abraham too (at least in the flesh), I’m one of you,” which I took to be the spirit of his disputes with Jewish traditionalists in Mark — a family quarrel. Mark’s Jesus seemed to be saying “We share the same blood and the same scriptural inheritance. Yes, I want us to move beyond mere adherence to the letter of the law, but by being faithful to its spirit.” Christianity can be seen in Mark as at root a sort of reformed Judaism. John’s depiction, by contrast, pits Christianity against Judaism, and in the most inflammatory terms.
“Before Abraham was, I am.” Admittedly a memorable Logos-style paradox of tenses, but clearly dismissive of Abraham’s status. The best thing Jesus can say about Abraham is “he wouldn’t have tried to kill me like you do” (8:40), “he would have rejoiced to worship me” (8:56, loosely). In other words, he would have jumped at the chance to be a Christian — unlike you, his satanic Jewish descendants.
I prefer to translate οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι in John not as “the Jews” but as “the Judaeans” (residents of Judaea, in contrast to the Galileans or the Samaritans). Back in chapter 5, I had the distinct impression that Jesus had planted himself firmly in the Jewish tradition, staking his life and work on the truth proclaimed by Moses and the prophets:
Search the scriptures, because you think you have life in them for the coming eon: it’s they that give testimony on my behalf! (5.39). You don’t imagine, do you, that I’m going to accuse you to the father? The one who’s accusing you is Moses, the very one you’ve been counting on! You see, if you believed Moses, you’d believe me, for it’s about me that he wrote. If, however, you don’t believe his writings, how are you going to believe my words? (5.45-47).
So it would seem to me that his hostility is based not on their Jewishness, but on their failure to be truly Jewish. Jesus is provoked in 8:41 by the mob’s reference to his supposed illegitimacy. Sure, he flies off the handle — does that a lot in John, shouts a lot, we know the type — then escalates the shouting match by insulting their own paternity (“devil’s sons”). But in the heat of the moment, I suspect it’s not because they’re Jews, but because they’re assholes.
No matter how he felt about Abraham, I doubt that he’d be slamming him publicly. Abraham was not only the father of the Jewish nation; he was also their model for every virtue — courage, loving kindness, obedience, and above all unquestioning faith in his god. That faith was, presumably, what permitted him to “see” Jesus’ day (ἠγαλλιάσατο is indicative, not subjunctive: “rejoiced to see” ), at least from a heavenly perspective. This is very positive news about Abraham, and a very positive legacy for his descendants, if they’re true to his standards. Or so Jesus seems to say.
Yeah, I’d be pissed off too, and fly off whatever handle I had my hand on. But we expect better from Son of God, don’t we?
“Expect better”? Seems to me Jehovah himself, in the OT, is capable of behaving even more childishly and vengefully.
Bill, as for translating Ἰουδαῖοι as “Judaeans” instead of “Jews”, that’s an important point. How do you know?
How to translate Ἰουδαῖοι is a monumental question, over which gallons of ink have been spilled. The question came up for me in a serious and perplexing way only in John. The Synoptics, after all, only have their Jesus enter Judaea once or twice, and primarily for the Main Event. Throughout the NT, Judaea is thoroughly “othered” — a dangerous place, especially for skinny little Galileans like Jesus. So the ogres who live there aren’t much onstage in the Synoptics. But that’s not the case with John. His Jesus is an old Jerusalem hand, constantly having to deal with the antics of οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι.
The KJV, as I recall, translates οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι consistently as “the Jews.” Sometimes this just can’t make sense, as in John 7:1: Jesus went from place to place in Galilee because he wasn’t willing to circulate in Judaea: the Judaeans were looking for a way to kill him. Have a chuckle over the KJV translation: “Jesus walked in Galilee, for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.”
Another example at 11:6-8: After he’d heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed where he was for two days longer, and only then tells his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judaea.” “Rabbi,” the disciples tell him, “the Judaeans were just now looking to stone you, and you’re going back there?” And 13:33: “My dear little ones, I have only a short time left with you. You’ll look for me, and — as I told the Judaeans, and am telling you now — where I’m going you won’t be able to come.” Jesus is addressing fellow Galileans (the disciples), who of course are themselves Jews, so it would again be absurd to translate οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι (the mob of “others” in the temple) as “the Jews”.
But such are the easy choices, just as, conversely, it’s an easy choice to translate e.g. “King of the Jews” on the INRI-placard, or “custom of the Jews / Jewish custom” for the burial practice of 19:40: καθὼς ἔθος ἐστὶν τοῖς Ἰουδαίοις ἐνταφιάζειν (Or is it? Could the Judaean burial custom differ from the Galilean? This stuff can drive you crazy). There are many passages over which you have to ponder mightily, then try to use your best lights. I know some scholars think they see a specialized sense of religious outlook, or even authority, in οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι. But to me that overloads a term that should be basically quite simple and straightforward. In general, I’ll translate “Judaeans” where it’s obvious that we’re dealing with locals, especially Jerusalemites.
Convincing! Glad I asked; glad you know so damn much.
Let me try being stubborn in face of your happy consensus that οἱ ἰουδαῖοι means merely “the Judaeans” (at least, wherever “the Jews” would produce a distasteful effect). Bill argues for the geographical translation in support of the view that John’s Jesus, so far from being anti-Jewish, is a devout heir of Moses & Abraham whose objection to “the Judaeans” is not that they remain so stubbornly Jewish but rather that, unlike himself, they’re not Jewish enough.
“Jews” or “Judaeans” — I don’t think it makes much difference. Judaea is the power center of Judaism, right? Jerusalem, the temple, home base of the Jewish religious authorities … So if you thought “the Jews” were out to get you, you might well want to steer clear of Judaea, the region where Jewish hostility toward you is most concentrated, most powerful, most able to do you harm (get you arrested, have you killed). You’d want to stick to the hinterlands, where they don’t have so much organized (& Roman-backed?) muscle.
So even if the denotation of οἱ ιουδαῖοι is “the Judaeans”, the connotation is “the Jewish authorities”. In a word, the Jews. I fail to see that Bill’s astute translation points have any force against the charge that John is anti-Jewish.
Besides, Bill, at least some of the passages where you say “Judaeans” makes more sense are problematic. One example: in 7:1, you chuckle at KJV, but if you want to translate “οἱ ιουδαῖοι were out to kill him” as meaning (merely) the Judaeans, then you have to explain why, in the very next sentence (7:2), John refers to the Feast of the Tabernacles as the festival τῶν ἰουδαίων. This can’t mean anything other than “the festival of the Jews”. How can a word change meaning like magic at such close quarters?
As for Jesus’ attitude to Moses and Abraham … His good word for Moses is that Moses wrote about him. His good word for Abraham is that Abraham rejoiced to worship him. It’s irrelevant that, for Jews, Abraham was, as you say, “their model of every virtue”. As far as John’s Jesus is concerned, Abraham’s virtue consists in not being stubbornly Jewish, as the Judaean authorities are. Jesus turns the tables on stubborn Jews by arguing that their own much-revered founding fathers were … Christian!
So not only are stubborn Jews the sons of the devil — the very fathers they (falsely) claim to be theirs were in fact Jesus-worshipers avant la lettre. These are the same ιουδαῖοι who in 19:15 will force Pilate’s hand by yelling “Crucify him!” because “we have no king but Caesar”. How blatantly anti-Jewish can you get??
I’m not willing to endorse fully the view that οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι is a strictly geographical term. As you know, I’ve tried to apply both “the Jews” and “the Judaeans” to the contexts that fit them and, no, I’m not bothered even where the two stand in proximity, as in 7:1-2 (Rick’s perceived paradox) — all languages abound in homonyms. I think Greek-speakers were pretty well able to do the same sort of semantic separation in their own minds that we do in similar circumstances (e.g. he lies there telling lies; by a stroke of luck, he had his stroke at the stroke of midnight”).
I take your point about homonyms in general, but we’re dealing in proper names here. If I say to you “The people of Paris are out to kill me but I feel perfectly safe among the people of Paris,” I can’t blame you for feeling confused or for failing to intuit the “semantic separation” between Paris, France and Paris, Texas.
A thought experiment, involving a made-up news story:
Protesters successfully stormed the White House yesterday, pouring red paint on the floor of the Oval Office in protest against renewed American drone-strikes against civilians in Pakistan. In a statement the group, Americans for Peace and Justice, called attention to anti-American protests throughout the Middle East as a result of the drone strikes. Almost simultaneously with the attack on the White House, more than 20 American tourists in Amman, Jordan, were shot down as they boarded a tour bus headed for Petra. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas joined in the condemnation of the protest, saying “No red-blooded American will stand for this affront to America‘s fight to save the world from terrorists…”
The denotation of America/American is the same throughout — the territory and its inhabitants, south of Canada and north of Mexico. But then the fun begins. Differing factions claim the name for themselves, or use it to condemn not just the officials who ordered and carried out the drone attacks but all who can be identified as Americans. Is there an analogy here to John’s use of Ioudaioi?
What bothers me about those who favor “the Jews” as a consistent translation is their shared assumption that John was a product of the 90s, when the main issue among Christians, at least in Palestine, is supposedly their expulsion from the synagogues. Their premise is that this situation had led, perforce, to an anti-Jewish sentiment that was bound to come out in the gospel. Given that historical assumption, their view of John’s attitude toward Jews has been — unfortunately I think — predetermined. Meanwhile, our own thoughts as to the dating of the gospel and the circumstances of its appearance, while progressing apace, have not yet crystallized. I’ll hold my own views in suspense until the fat lady has actually sung. I concede that your viewpoint may win out in the end, Rick, but we’re not there yet. And I further concede that we may never know anything for sure.
Perplexity sets in and with it speculation. Who in that mix of Semitic people are “Jews”? How would one know — back then as well as now? Is it a self-defining term — if you claim descent from Abraham, follow the Law, and worship in Jerusalem (at Tabernacles, Passover). The last of these may be the joker. If you’re in Galilee or Samaria maybe you don’t think it’s crucial to go up to Jerusalem. You think you’re a good Jew, but the Jerusalem worshipers think you might as well be a pagan? If you live in Judaea, geography and social pressure combine. Better show up in the big city for the big festivals.
Jesus apparently avoids showing up in Jerusalem a lot of the time. Hence it’s easy to tar him with the “Samaritan” label in 8:48, along with insanity and illegitimacy (8.41). If that’s the case, οἱ ἰουδαῖοι covers a multitude of — not sins, but backgrounds, and maybe it’s easy for John to switch back and forth without even noticing it.
For Jesus it may not be so easy. Is he indeed a good Jew, son of Abraham, follower of Moses, fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, or is he breaking that mold, even unto the ethne — even Greeks!
Case in point: the healing of the man born blind (9:18-23). The guy’s parents, both Jewish and Judaean, cop out and tell the Ἰουδαῖοι “Why ask us why he’s no longer blind? Ask him, he’s an adult! He can speak for himself!” His parents said that because they feared the Ἰουδαῖοι, who had already agreed among themselves to expel from the synagogue anyone who should declare Jesus to be the anointed King (9:22).
What the parents fear is (necessarily) the Other. The parents are Jews, so we can’t translate Ἰουδαῖοι here as “Jews,” because the Other wouldn’t be signified thereby. Anti-semitism, at least as we know it, seems to be ruled out in the text.
The parents are Judaeans, so we can’t translate Ἰουδαῖοι here as “Judaeans,” using a purely ethnographic term. There again, the Other wouldn’t be signified. Do we resort to “orthodox Jews”? “Jewish religious leaders” (are the Ἰουδαῖοι of 9:18 identical with the Φαρισαῖοι of 9:15f.)? “Purists”? But those are expanded interpretations, not translations, and fly in the face of the simplicity and (should-be) clarity of the word itself, Ἰουδαῖοι.
Exasperating, non? On the other hand, I find myself immensely entertained by the sequence of 9:6 upon 9:5: “I am the light of the world.” With those words, he spat on the ground and made mud with the spit. What a segue! What a sound bite!
In John 1:6, I was puzzled about παρὰ θεοῦ — John the Baptist “sent from God”. Pedantic, I guess, but I’d expect ΥΠΟ or ΕΚ. Now I notice similar wording in 9.16 — “this man isn’t παρὰ τοῦ θεοῦ” — where it must mean something like this guy doesn’t do real miracles, or is not a real prophet. Why not? Because he doesn’t strictly observe the Torah and does awful things like healing on a Saturday? That, of course, puts them in a terrible muddle about how to account for the healing. Tough.
And that sends me back to Ἰουδαῖοι. Factions among the classical Greeks claimed the term ΕΛΛΗΝΕΣ for themselves, notably the Athenians in their fifth-century league against Persia. In effect, “We’re the real Hellenes; if you’re not with us, you’re against Greek freedom”. So do we have an analogy in the NT? Does a faction, the strict Torah group, say “We’re the real Jews, no one else is entitled to the name”? John, surely a Jew himself, lets them have the name, with the consequence that “the Jews” have to take the blame for what they did to Jesus. Does that work?
So we’re intuiting that Ἰουδαῖοι is not a descriptive term at all, but instead John’s subjective, perhaps ironic label for the self-righteous hypocrites who killed Jesus? Ι suppose I could go for that much of the time, with the understanding (perhaps explicit) that it meant “those who called themselves Jews,” “the soi-disant Jews”, since John’s Jesus is claiming that it is he who stands in the real tradition of Abraham and Moses. I’d probably want to hang onto the innocently geographic/ethnographic interpretation in some cases, however. The purely adjectival sense of Ἰουδαῖος (unlike Ἕλλην) is, I guess, a stumbling-block for me. I’d still want to translate Ἰουδαία (γῆ) and Ἰουδαῖοι (ἄνδρες) geographically in, say, 7:1, where the two words stand in such close proximity.
I like Bob’s thoughts on what might define a “Jew” for a Judaean versus a Galilean, but I’m dubious about Ioudaioi meaning “the real Jews” for Judaeans and “the self-styled Jews” for John. In fact, I want to question the underlying assumption here, that the debate in John 7-9 is about who’s truly Jewish.
Bill, you paraphrase John’s Jesus as arguing that “it is he who stands in the real tradition of Abraham and Moses,” in other words that he’s the real Jew. Bob seems to assume something similar. I don’t think the text supports you.
For John’s Jesus, it’s always you who are the sons of Abraham. Me, I pre-exist Abraham! So far from standing in the tradition of Abraham and Moses, he claims that his authority supersedes theirs. So far from their being the founding fathers of his religion, he recasts them as reverent acolytes of himself. The point is not that Jesus is the real Jew but that he renders Judaism obsolete. To downgrade Abraham and Moses in this way is to attack Judaism in general, not just some subgroup of Jews, no matter what Ioudaioi means or whom he’s addressing.
You’ve both expended a lot of philological know-how trying to make Ioudaioi mean a sub-group whom John dislikes for some reason other than that they are (or represent) Jews — for example, because they’re “assholes”, to use Bill’s word. Turns out this restrictive reading of Ἰουδαῖοι inevitably involves what Bill rightly calls “expanded interpretations, not translations”. I stand by my earlier claim that, even if Ἰουδαῖοι denotes something like “the Judaeans”, it connotes “the Jewish authorities” or “the official representatives of Judaism” — in a word, the Jews, stubbornly blind to the divinity of Jesus and ultimately to blame for his crucifixion.
John may not be “anti-Semitic” or anti-Jewish in a racial or ethnic sense — presumably he’s a Jew himself, as Bob reminds us. But he does attack stubborn Judaism, that is, the religion that accepts no progenitor greater than Abraham, that refuses to accept Jesus as the Christ. But of course this involves attacking virtually all Jews, except for a born-again handful. And John does so with considerable bitterness.
This bitterness makes the inference that he’s writing at the time when Christian Jews were expelled from the temple seem eminently reasonable to me. John is striking back, at the historical moment when Jesus-followers realize once & for all that they’re not the real Jews — in fact, not Jews at all anymore.
By golly, Rick, I’m beginning to think you’re right. In the chapters we’ve covered thus far, I find none of Paul’s agonized reverence for the Torah, his desire to make new converts to Judaism in Jesus’ name, or his message that Jesus is the crown jewel of the Jewish faith. Instead, it’s “you Jews” and “your Torah” and “the scriptures you trust,” a complete separation that clears the field of all but Jesus and the Father.
So is there an easy solution to the translation problem, one that never confuses the reader? Might we as well go ahead and translate “the Jews” in every case, only picking and choosing when the meaning is clearly geographical, or clearly ethnic? Though I’m still waiting for the fat lady, I’m now inclined more to Rick’s view.
Gee, Bill, thanks — you make the limb I’ve ventured out on seem a lot less precarious. As a Paul fan, I love the idea that he agonizes over reconciling Christianity with the Torah (as a good Christian should, in my half-baked opinion), and your perception that this is what’s missing from John (so far) has real bite.
I’ve been reading around online among the many attempts to absolve John, including a Catholic defense claiming that the whole discourse in chapters 7-9 is addressed not to Jews in general but to certain Jewish believers in Jesus who don’t quite go whole-hog somehow, so that for example the “sons of the devil” bit merely affirms the doctrine of original sin as everybody’s damned condition, Jewish or not, absent whole-hog belief in Jesus.
This seems rather far-fetched. The profound doctrine that we’re all creatures of original sin is a far cry from saying that non-Christians, and even believers who aren’t quite up to snuff, are all the spawn of Satan. And while at 8:31 John does say that Jesus is speaking πρὸς τοὺς πεπιστευκότας αὐτῷ ἰουδαῖους (does the perfect here mean “who had come to believe in him”?), taking this to cover the whole harangue seems a stretch — especially since Jesus keeps telling his listeners that they want to kill him!
Regarding the parents of the blind guy, Bill makes an interesting case, but I don’t quite see why Jewish Christians can’t be afraid of “the Jews” (Ioudaioi). Why do those we fear have to be “Other”? Why not just a small “o” — like, Jews who followed Jesus were afraid of Jews who didn’t. As I said before, Jews who didn’t constitute nearly all Jews. Since they (or their authorities) threaten the miniscule minority of Jesus-followers with expulsion from the synagogue (9:22), the minority has good reason to fear that “the Jews” will strip them of their community life, social status etc. (This episode gives additional heft to the theory that John’s writing when Jesus-followers are in fact being expelled.)
Similarly, a medieval heretic might “fear Christians”, though he himself is Christian, because Christians want to burn him at the stake. He might also be said to “fear Rome” because that’s the Christian power-center (analogous to fearing the Ioudaioi in the geographic sense?), representing (or dictating) the will of the community, except perhaps for a handful of free-thinkers. So maybe the only variants we need for Ioudaioi are “the Jews” and “the Jewish authorities” (headquartered in Judaea) — pretty much a distinction without a difference. John’s point remains the same throughout: for Jewish Christians, Jews in general are the enemy — the stubborn tribe that remains blind & hostile to Jesus, stuck in the outmoded religion of Judaism.
Healing the Blind
Thoughts on Chapter 9, the healing of the man born blind. It would be very easy to make this a miracle story, leading to his affirmation that Jesus was indeed “the son of man,” i.e. the Messiah, and to expand the implications by having the healing happen on the Sabbath, so the local Taliban could be nasty about it. The story is all that but much more — repeated interrogation of the blind man and of his parents, and his gradual progression from agnosticism about the man who cured him to the belief that Jesus is a prophet, to a final affirmation that he is indeed “the son of man.”
But it’s also a disquisition about how sin works consequences. It starts with the disciples’ conventionally pious understanding of sin as a source of affliction. That’s explicitly rejected by Jesus (9:3) with a perplexing bit of theology. This happened so that the erga of god — not his words but his actions — might become evident (phαnerothei). For that, of course, one needs light, and sure enough in 9:5 there it is, the phos tou kosmou, Jesus the light of the world.
But seeing involves more than light. One has to open the eyes. Jesus does that for the blind man, and we expect the obvious point that the Pharisees refuse to open their eyes to what has happened. That’s part of it. But again the story avoids the easy route. The Pharisees could simply deny the reality of the cure. We’d sympathize with them if they did. After all, we’re skeptical, too, about miracles. But when it comes right down to it, they don’t deny that the healing took place, but argue instead that since Jesus did it on the Sabbath he’s a sinner. The important point for them is discrediting Jesus.
So what’s the take-away for John’s readers? Not that this “sign” is a miracle. As the healed man says, the real miracle (thaumaston 9:30) is that people so learned can see what happened and not understand its implications. Ow! Nor does the episode establish that Jesus is the Messiah. We know that. Nor is it that the Pharisees are nasty people. Rather, it seems to me, John wants his readers to swallow a bitter pill about sin. That’s what behind, I think, the Pharisees’ incredulous question to Jesus, “Surely we are not also blind?”, and Jesus’ highly compressed response in 9:41: “If you were [physically] blind, you would not hold on to the sin [that blinds people to who I am]. But as it is, you say ‘We see,’ and your sin remains.” I’m not quite sure how this last sentence works. can you help me?
On 9:41, the last climactic verse of the chapter, I don’t see (!) a definitive answer. If by τυφλοί Jesus means “physically blind”, as you suggest, then I guess he’s saying “If you were physically blind I’d be able to make you (physically) see, as I did for this man, and then like him you’d believe in me and be freed from sin. But as it is, you say you can already see, mistaking physical for spiritual sight, and as long as you don’t realize that you’re spiritually blind, you remain in sin & I can’t help you.”
The alternative would be to take τυφλοί to mean “spiritually blind”, and to unpack the meaning as “If you admitted you were spiritually blind, then I could save you from sin (by giving you spiritual sight); but as it is you think you already have spiritual sight (you’re blind to your blindness), so you remain in sin.”
The second requires a bit less spelling out, but I tend to think you’re right about τυφλοί and that the first is closer to the intent. Either way, John’s over-compression seems pointlessly obscure. I’ve argued earlier that he can be a clumsy story-teller.
Of Rick’s two interpretations the first seems to me much more compelling. The alternation between physical “reality” and spiritual truth seems what John likes most.
Conventional chapter and verse divisions were only introduced centuries after the gospels were composed. Those divisions are not always helpful, and sometimes even obstruct the flow of thought, particularly in a lengthy discourse. Such is the case with the artificial break after John 9:41, which tends to obscure the meaning of that verse. Reading straight into chapter 10 without a break, I think Jesus is pretty clearly saying, “If you were physically blind, you’d be sinless because you’d have an excuse for not seeing who I am and what I do: namely, that I bring light to the world, I’m the sheepfold gate, I’m the good shepherd, I do wondrous works, I’m a son of God, etc. As it is, however, despite your excellent eyesight, you refuse to acknowledge what’s right in front of you, and that’s what convicts you of sin.”
Jesus re-affirms this at the last supper, further clarifying his “blindness as innocence” analogy (15:22-24): If I hadn’t come and preached to them, they would have had no sin; but as it is, they have no excuse for their sin… If I hadn’t performed among them the feats that no one else had performed, they would have had no sin. But as it is, they have seen them, and have hated both me and my father.
So 9 and 10 seem to me to be really a single “chapter,” following John’s usual pattern of developing a theme of discourse based on a narrative event (what I call the mythos->logos sequence). Bob has probably put his finger on the dominant theme of ch. 9 — the true nature of sin and its consequences. But when both chapters are seen as one total context, another topic — the familiar one of exousia or authority (did he really do this, who is he, where is he from, by whose authority does he speak & act?) — seems the overarching theme. The Pharisees, arrogant in their very real sinfulness, speak to that theme: “Praise be to God, we find that he’s a sinner.” The ex-blindman does, too: he acknowledges and worships.
As for the details of the narrative — in particular, the interrogation of the ex-blind guy and his parents — it again seems to me to represent a technique, one could almost say a voice, that’s wholly different from the logos that follows into the next chapter. John 9:18-34 is an uncanny piece of realistic writing, providing a penetrating analysis of the personalities and motives of all parties, and making us see and hear the participants as if we were looking over the shoulder of a court reporter. Not stilted, stylized, or formulaic, and lacking the high-volume obviousness of the logoi, it’s like nothing else in the New Testament — except for other Johannine narrative episodes like the first meeting with the disciples, the woman at the well, and the woman taken in adultery.