In John 9, upon passing a man who had been born blind, Jesus’ disciples ask him a question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ answer, according to the NRSV is: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (most other modern translations are similar). I placed in bold/italics a phrase that does not appear in the Greek text. The Greek text literally says “Neither this man sinned, nor his parents, but in order that the works of God might be revealed…” This phrase (“he was born blind”) is added in order to help the text “make sense.” It was a common practice in Greek to leave certain words out that could be inferred from what was immediately just said (a phenomenon called “ellipsis”). We do this in English also. If I said, “Mark can play the piano. Jaime can too.” You don’t need me to repeat “play the piano” for you to make sense of the second sentence. Rather, you infer from what was immediately said, and intuitively complete what grammatically is an incomplete sentence.
The difficulty in the John passage is Jesus’ answer, as construed in most modern English translations, does not answer the disciple’s question. The disciples ask, “who sinned?” and then give two possibilities. Jesus’ response “neither this man or his parents” answers that question. But the supposed follow-up doesn’t address that issue, but changes the subject. Instead of talking about who sinned, he would be talking about the divine reason for this infirmity. It makes less sense that Jesus would leave out parts of the sentence that needed to be inferred from context, if he was changing the subject.
There is another option for understanding this passage, though it is not immediately obvious when looking at an English translation. This is a picture of Codex Sinaticus, the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament, from the 4th century. This particular column shows the passage we are looking at:
One thing you may notice is all the letters are jammed together with no spaces. This is how all the early new testament manuscripts were written. In the earliest centuries of the first millennium, there was also not a practice of placing a period at the end of each sentence. One mostly inferred from the context where one sentence ended and another began. So, the placing of a period after “in order that the works of God might be revealed in him” is a decision made by editors of the various editions of the Bible. That period is not part of “the Word of God.” If you had this to work with, where would you separate the sentences?
Jesus answered neither this man sinned nor his parents rather in order that the works of God might be revealed it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me while it is day night is coming when no one is able to work.
What if we punctuate this way:
Jesus answered, “neither this man sinned nor his parents. Rather, in order that the works of God might be revealed, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one is able to work.”
If this is the case, then Jesus’ statement “in order that the works of God might be revealed” is not the divine explanation for the origin of the sickness, but rather, the rationale undergirding the necessity of working the works of God while there is time. Interpreting this phrase as one sentence with the following clause (“it is necessary…”) rather than the former clause (“neither this man sinned…”) has at least three points in its favor:
1) It avoids the unbalanced nature of the question and Jesus’ answer that is present in most translations. They ask about who sinned (a “cause-and-effect” question). Jesus answers about the divine origin of sickness(es). Most translations add in a phrase not present in the Greek, which necessitates that the disciples would have been able to know he was switching subjects. Is this possible? Maybe, but I doubt it is likely.
2) It balances better with the following phrase. Words related to “work” appear three times. “In order that the works of God might be revealed in him, it is necessary for us to work the works of him…”
3) If you look closely again at John 9 in the manuscript from Codex Sinaticus, you will notice something very interesting:
I have circled two sets of two letters. In between each pair of letters, there is a dot in the middle of the line. This is some early form of punctuation. While not marking every sentence, there are places where Codex Sinaticus has these markings to make certain distinctions. Without knowing Greek, could you guess what is in between these dots? Remarkably, between those two points of primitive punctuation, is what we are here identifying as a singular sentence: “But in order that the works of God might be revealed in him, it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me while it is day.” There is no such marking after “might be revealed in him.” While it is not part of the inspired text, there is a long and ancient tradition of making a significant break between “Neither this man sinned nor his parents,” and “But in order that the works of God” that corroborates the interpretation we are setting out here.
What does all this mean? It means we probably cannot continue using this passage to defend an idea that God makes people sick in order that he can be glorified through it. Despite the modern craze with explaining evil and suffering, Jesus’ passion here is not to philosophize or sermonize about the origins of the illness but to underscore the urgency of taking action against it. He does not assign a divine cause to the suffering, but rather reaches out to touch those who are suffering with compassionate solidarity. Identifying with those in pain, he acts to alleviate it, and points to the presence of the kingdom, where there is no more mourning, or sorrow, or pain, and all tears are wiped away. While we are tempted to rest easy thinking God will somehow be glorified through the world’s horrific suffering, or our neighbor’s, or even our own, Jesus awakens us out of our slumber, calls us to action, and implores us: “It is necessary for us to work the works of him who sent me, while it is still day!”