The Narrative Structure of John 9:1-41

John 9:1-41 is a fascinating text with many subtleties. One of its characteristics that it blurs the distinctions between insiders and outsiders, disciples and Pharisees, and Jesus and his followers.

The text starts with a three part opening section (verses 1-7). This is followed by four short dialogs (verses 8-34). The passage ends with a three-part closing section (verses 35-41) which echoes the introduction. This structure can be seen in the color-coded translation below. You can also click the following link for a larger, resizable pdf of the color-coded analysis.

The introduction has three parts:

  • Question: The disciples (students) ask a question. “Who was it that sinned?”
  • Theological statement: “Neither this one or his parents sinned…” Instead this is an opportunity to do the works of God. As per verse four, these aren’t just works for Jesus to do – the whole group listening is supposed to be engaged in these works.
  • Pastoral action: the healing of the person’s blindness.

This is followed by four short dialogs.

  • The first dialog (John 9:8-12) begins with a controversy between the neighbors of the formerly blind person. The neighbors argue about whether the formerly blind person is the same man, or just someone who looks like him. In the midst of this dialog, the formerly blind person says, “εγω ειμι” (I am). After uttering this phrase, the dialog is transformed. It now becomes a conversation between the man and his neighbors.

    In the Gospel of John, “εγω ειμι” is spoken by Jesus (John 4:26, 8:28, 8:58, 13:19, etc.) and clearly has great theological significance. The surprise in this passage is that it is not Jesus who says “εγω ειμι” – instead it is the person whom he has just healed. The lines that divide Jesus from Jesus’ followers become blurred, and a phrase that would otherwise be identified only with Jesus now belongs to Jesus’ followers as well.

  • The next dialog (John 9:13-17) is a three-way dialog between the formerly blind person and some Pharisees. Comparing John 9:13-17 with John 9:1-2, it looks like being a Pharisee is a better option than being a disciple. The disciples who open the chapter present Jesus with two options to choose from, (“who sinned, this man or his parents…?”) and both options are wrong. In comparison, some of the Pharisees in this section are completely correct about what has happened, and other Pharisees are completely wrong. The odds of being correct if you’re a disciple? Zero percent. For the Pharisees, the odds are more like 50/50. The distinction between being a Pharisee and being a disciple has started to blur.
  • The third dialog (John 9:18-23) introduces two “new” sets of characters. Instead of neighbors or Pharisees, we now have Judeans who question the parents of the person born blind. Unlike the Pharisees from the previous dialog, the Judeans are not at all divided – they are all just as wrong as the disciples were at the beginning of the chapter. The lines continue to blur, however, when we recall that Jesus is identified as a Judean in Chapter 4 of John. In John, the term Judean is used both for the opponents of Jesus, and to describe Jesus himself.
  • The fourth and final dialog (John 9:24-34) is between the Judeans of the third dialog and the person born blind. Paradoxically, it is the negative and incorrect statements of the Judeans that drive the formerly blind person to make stronger and stronger statements in support of Jesus.

After the fourth dialog, there is an closing section which mirrors the chapter’s introduction. While the opening of the chapter presents a question, followed by a theological statement, followed by a pastoral action, the closing section has these in reverse:

  • Pastoral action: Jesus goes to the person kicked out by the Judeans.
  • Theological statement: Jesus is the human one. He has come into the world because of judgement, so that that those who see might become blind, and those who are blind might see.
  • Question: “Surely we are not blind?”

Following the pattern set by the introduction, we would expect the closing statement to be asked by Jesus’ disciples, but instead it is the Pharisees who ask this question. The Pharisees aren’t Jesus’ disciples, or are they? The Greek of 9:40 states that the question is asked by, “The Pharisees, the ones being with Jesus…” Clearly these Pharisees have some sort of relationship to Jesus – it is not an accident that they appear to ask a question in the place where we would expect to hear from Jesus’ disciples. Once again the lines are blurred, and the Pharisees look more and more like disciples.

Jesus’ response may not seem comforting. If your vision depends on clear distinctions between disciples and Pharisees, Judeans and Jesus, or what Jesus says and what his followers say, then this passage is going to blur the comfortable lines and boundaries you might expect.

If, however, you are willing to cast aside those distinctions in order to focus on doing the works of God, your vision will be sharp and clear.

1 Comment

  • By Pat E, March 31, 2014 @ 11:10 am

    Thoughtful, and thought provoking. Jewish poetry and exemplified by the Psalms, use this structure of increasing density and then decreasing density, so it is not surprising John did. Here’s a quick example:
    A
    B
    C
    C
    B
    A

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