"From Tobit to Bartimaeus, From Qumran to Siloam:
The Social Role of Blind People and Attitudes toward the Blind in New Testament Times"
Ph.D. Dissertation: Yale University, 1997
Felix N. W. Just, S.J.


The New Testament contains several prominent stories involving blind characters, most strikingly the congenitally blind person Jesus sends to the pool of Siloam (John 9). To understand such stories better, we must put aside some modern misconceptions and ascertain exactly what "blind" meant in the ancient languages, how blind people lived in antiquity, and what attitudes people had toward blind persons. After a brief introduction and Forschungsgeschichte (Chapter 1), the middle chapters address these three issues.

Unlike modern definitions which include people having some residual vision under the category of "legal blindness," the Hebrew IVER, Greek tuflo/j, and Latin caecus all connote total and permanent loss of sight, while other terms denote partial or temporary sightlessness. Thus modern translations should more carefully distinguish "blindness" from other visual impairments (Chapter 2). If one distinguishes properly, one surprisingly notices that the only named "blind" person in the Hebrew Bible is the wicked King Zedekiah, in contrast to many blind characters portrayed positively in Greco-Roman literature. Although the beggar Bartimaeus may lead us to assume that most blind persons were "beggars" in antiquity, Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman sources show sightless individuals in many other social situations, including the merchant Tobit. Many blind persons were undoubtedly poor, but not all necessarily begged for their living. Moreover, throughout ancient literature the restoration of sight to blind persons is attributed only to the gods, so Jesus' healing ministry is distinctive in several respects (Chapter 3). One should also not assume that everyone in antiquity thought of sightless persons as unclean, sinful, or punished by God. Although these ideas are attested, so are many other attitudes about the causes and implications of blindness. The Qumran texts contain some of the harshest opinions, while Jesus was not the only person with more positive sentiments (Chapter 4).

Finally, I apply the knowledge attained to an exegesis of John 9, considering especially how blindness functions in the Johannine literary and historical contexts. Such narrative details as the Pool of Siloam and the therapeutic actions of Jesus turn out to be even more distinctively Johannine than is usually recognized (Chapter 5).

Go to the Table of Contents

This page was last updated on  09/26/01
Copyright © 1999 by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.