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In John 9, upon seeing the man born blind, his disciples ask Jesus,

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”(ESV)

Was it a widely held belief among first century Jews that a man could have sinned before his birth in this way? What could make the apostles say that?

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  • It could also be that they thought that God can punish or reward you from birth for something you do later in life. Because of His omniscience. – Sola Gratia May 14 at 20:34
  • Would it be regarded as a sin against the fetus when a pregnant woman consumes toxic substances? – Constantthin May 15 at 23:37
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Good question. Strictly speaking, we don't know how commonly held the belief was (as we do not have a huge number of documents from that exact time period, and certainly "opinion surveys" didn't exist then). However, the IVP Commentary does a good job of explaining the probable background based on rabbinic comments from the following centuries. I will summarize it here:

  • It was a common belief that all disease and disabilities arose from sin. This can be seen, for instance, in the rabbinic saying "there is no death without sin and there is no suffering without iniquity" (b. shabbat 55a).
  • This belief causes a problem for people born with disabilities with two possible solutions:
    • 1) their parents' sin was responsible. This position can be justified by for example, Exodus 20:5 and Ezekiel 18:20.
    • 2) the person had someone sinner before birth. Whether this was possible or not was a matter of rabbinic debate. Some rabbis thought it possible, while others thought it impossible. Its not clear how widely held the prenatal sin view was, but apparently it was widely held enough to generate debate at least.
  • The disciples were thus probably looking for an answer to 2) when they asked the question.

As to how someone could hold the view of sinning in the womb, in Genesis Rabbah 63:6, Rabbi Yonhanan commenting on the story of Jacob and Esah, interprets the words "struggled together" in the womb and "this one ran to kill this one and this one ran to kill this one". In other words, that the babies tried to kill each other in the womb.

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  • @0cc You are welcome. If you found my answer helpful, please upvote it by using the up arrow to the left of the answer. Additionally, if the answer fully answers your question, please accept the answer by using the checkmark below the arrows. See What should I do when someone answers my question? for more details. – ThaddeusB Jul 21 '15 at 17:05
  • The question was whether it was "a widely held belief among first century Jews that a man could have sinned before his birth in this way". The Rabbinic sources that you cite are all much later than the first century. – fdb Jul 21 '15 at 17:42
  • @fdb Fair enough, I have edited to make this clear. Naturally, we don't know precisely how common the view was... The only reason I encouraged 0cc to vote on the answer is that his "thank you" implied that his question was adequately answered and that he just didn't know there was a better way to say as such than by leaving a comment in reply. – ThaddeusB Jul 21 '15 at 19:34
  • @ ThaddeusB You are right. XD – 0cc0cc0c 0cc0 Jul 22 '15 at 12:08
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    Calvinism posits that babies are actually "vipers in diapers" because when they gurgle, they are gurgling sin, death and ill will! – Ruminator May 14 at 2:46
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The disciples assumed that sin (regardless of who committed it) was the cause of the man’s blindness. This was a common belief in Judaism; the rabbis used Ezek 18:20 to prove there was no death without sin [but this verse says explicitly, "The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father"], and Ps 89:33 to prove there was no punishment without guilt (the Babylonian Talmud, b. Shabbat Folio 55a, later than the NT, illustrates this).

Therefore in this case the sin must have been on the part of the man’s parents, or during his own prenatal existence. Song Rabbah 1:41 (another later rabbinic work) stated that when a pregnant woman worship[p]ed in a heathen temple the unborn child also committed idolatry. This is only one example of how, in rabbinic Jewish thought, an unborn child was capable of sinning.

Source: Note 3sn appended to John 9:2 NET

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  • The survey of Jewish sources here is very helpful, thank you. – Hold To The Rod May 21 at 15:30
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The reason why the apostles asked ‘who sinned’ is because they, like all Jews of the time, were influenced by the Mishnah. The Mishnah was an interpretation of the Old Testament. And it was oral (learnt by rote/memory). Later (after Jesus’s time) it was ‘written’ into what we now know as the Talmud.

Jesus often confronted the religious leaders of the day, where they would quote Mishnah, and Jesus would respond with Old Testament. Example...

MAT 15:1 Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 2 ”Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread.”

The ‘tradition of the elders’ is referencing Mishnah. And Jesus response ...

MAT 15:3 He answered and said to them, “Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? 4 For God commanded, saying, ..... [snip]

And that is exactly what is happening in John 9

JOHN 9:2 And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The Jews believed only by obeying the law could a person be blessed. This ‘belief’ comes straight out of Mishnah. And this persons parents were obviously not. [blessed] - because their son was born blind. That’s the only way that he could have been.

So, to your questions ....

Was it a widely held belief among first century Jews that a man could have sinned before his birth in this way?” - yes, because of the oral traditions that the Jews had over them. (Mishnah)

What could make the apostles say that?” - that was would have been a natural response - the obvious question to ask. They were very ‘intimate’ with those oral traditions - they were ‘part’ of many Jews.

Note they referenced Jesus as ‘rabbi’ - this indicates that this was early in their discipleship - and at this time, those asking the question only ‘saw’ Jesus as a ‘teacher’. It’s unlikely the question came from ‘the 12’. Jesus acquired many followers, but those closest to Him knew him as more than [just] a teacher.

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  • Dave, you write It’s unlikely the question came from ‘the 12’. I agree, but not because the word μαθητής (mathētēs) is used. John never uses the word ἀπόστολος (apostolos) to refer to the ‘the 12’. He uses it only once, at John 13:16, in the generic sense of 'he who is sent', 'messenger'. – Miguel de Servet May 15 at 14:22
  • @Miguel de Servet Thanks for this insight. Much appreciated! – Dave May 15 at 18:32
  • @Dave thanks for this helpful response. Is there something specific in the Talmud you can point to that would show what this belief was or where it came from? – Hold To The Rod May 19 at 4:13
  • @Hold To The Rod Others [experts] on this site would be able provide more details re: Talmud. Even though the Talmud is the written form of Mishna, the structures are very different. Unlike Talmud - Mishna is systematically codified. (Arranged in ‘topics’). RE: John 9, the disciples would have been referencing the section on Blessings (Brakhot). If you want more, check amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0688085067/theamericanisraeA – Dave May 19 at 20:37
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The issue is related to the concepts of original sin and inherited sin. Additionally, the disciples could have misinterpreted the following verses:

Genesis 25:22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, "Why is this happening to me?" So she went to inquire of the LORD.

Psalm 51:5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

Job 15:14 What is man, that he should be pure, or one born of woman, that he should be righteous?

Psalm 58:3 The wicked are estranged from the womb; the liars go astray from birth.

Isaiah 48:8 You have never heard; you have never understood; for a long time your ears have not been open. For I knew how deceitful you are; you have been called a rebel from birth.

When a person starts to believe a falsehood. They would see the world from that wrong perspective and able to construct a network of beliefs to justify the falsehood. But to understand them, you need to get into their mindset/worldview. In any case, they don't have any problem justifying their falsehood.

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    Tony, you have provided a few quite powerful verses, here. Il particular, it is hard to read in Psalm 51:5, even in the full context of Psalm 51, even for less prejudiced disciples, other than what it plainly says. By repeating the word "falsehood" three (3!) times in the last parapraph, it almost looks like you are trying to convince yourself ... – Miguel de Servet May 15 at 20:40
  • :) That's exactly why I try not to hold on to any position in any question but to follow the logic. – Tony Chan May 15 at 21:25
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    Tony, it is not “following the logic” that you repeat 3 times that the assumption of the disciples at John 9:2 (let’s unpack it: “the congenital blindness of the beggar is the consequence of sin, of his parents before he was born, or his own from the womb”) is a falsehood. You refuse to accept the very same scriptural evidence that you provide, without criticizing it ... It was you who started your Answer saying: “The issue is related to the concepts of original sin and inherited sin.” – Miguel de Servet May 16 at 5:05
  • (-1) Agreed with @MigueldeServet - you've held a position here that conflicts with every passage you've posted, without really explaining what you mean. The passages themselves answer the question, but you haven't provided any basis for your own ideas here, and so it comes across as conjecture. – Steve Taylor May 17 at 13:12
  • More accurate, it is an assumption that is consistent with the OP's questioning. – Tony Chan May 17 at 15:03
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The disciples did not believe that anyone can sin before birth. The child is born innocent and pure (Matt 18:3; Ecc 7:29). Their question was simply asking the responsibility of his birth defect. The idea that sins of parents could cause diseases and suffering must have caused from the exaggerated warnings against sin. Exodus 20:5 refers to the warning of the consequence of your sins maybe reaped by generations such as captivity and exile. The bad decisions of a king or a President would affect as punishment to the whole nation. Similarly, the Rabbis of the law have warned against sin in a very exaggerated language to save others from the smallest of the sins.

(Matt 5:22-23 ESV) But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. ​So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you.

(Matt 5:27-30 ESV) ​“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. ​If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. ​And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

Some Talmudic references. Tractate Kallah, Minor Tractates of the Talmud

(2.1) We may have escaped sin, but we have not escaped sinful thoughts’. Why [did they offer] signet-rings? Because whoever gazes intentionally at a woman is as though he had intercourse with her. Hence the Rabbis declared: Whoever touches a woman’s little finger is as though he touched ‘that place’.

He who gazes at a woman’s heel will have deformed children. [Why are children born] lame, blind, dumb or deaf? R. Eliezer said: Because [the husband] claimed marital rights but she refused. R. Joshua said: Because she declared at the time of cohabitation, ‘I have been forced’. R. ‘Aḳiba said: Because she says, ‘I am unclean’ when she is clean.

(2.2) He who gazes at a woman’s heel will have deformed children. [Why are children born] lame, blind, dumb or deaf? R. Eliezer said: Because [the husband] claimed marital rights but she refused. R. Joshua said: Because she declared at the time of cohabitation, ‘I have been forced’. R. ‘Aḳiba said: Because she says, ‘I am unclean’ when she is clean.

(2.3) R. Nehemiah said: Because of the sin of causeless hatred a man’s wife suffers miscarriage, contention is rife in his house, and his sons and daughters die young.

(2.5) R. Joḥanan said: The Ministering Angels told me four things and they are related to the lame, the blind, the dumb and the deaf. Why [are children born] lame? Because [their parents] overturned their table29 and behaved like animals. Why [are children born] blind? Because [their parents] gaze at ‘that place’. Why [are children born] deaf? Because [their parents] converse during cohabitation. Why [are children born] dumb? Because [their parents] kiss ‘that place’.

Shabbat 32b 2

It was taught in a baraita that Rabbi Natan says: Due to the sin of vows unfulfilled a person’s wife dies. The allusion is as it is stated: “If you have not the wherewithal to pay, why should He take away your bed from under you?” (Proverbs 22:27). Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: Due to the sin of vows unfulfilled, children die when they are young, as it is stated: “Better is it that you should not vow, than that you should vow and not pay. Suffer not your mouth to bring your flesh into guilt, neither say you before the messenger that it was an error; wherefore should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” (Ecclesiastes 5:4–5). What is the work of a person’s hands? You must say that it is a person’s sons and daughters.

Such exaggerated and scaremongering teachings among them must have produced some silly ideas that even touches reincarnation, trying to trace the diseases and suffering to the past life like the Hindus did. But there is no truth to these wild conjectures. The Bible states clearly that God does not transfer sins to anyone or their descendants; only the consequences may be seen in others, such as with the consequence of Adam and Christ's work.

The question of the disciples to Jesus was genuine inquiry seeking the explanation behind certain sufferings and pointless evil such as birth defects. Their question did not necessarily imply that they thought the man sinned in the womb, for God could still give him a suffering for the sins he would do in his adult life to punish and stop him for growing in sin. God is not bound by the linear time, he is omniscient and his allowing the suffering of at least some people might be the plan of God bringing them to himself, such as the sinful arrogant life of apostle Paul himself was used to make him more motivated to work for God.

Jesus's answer was not a normative one explaining why exactly God allows birth defects in general. His answer was only with respect to this blind man. God made him blind for this day, that he would glorify God and may live for him. He might have given the light to many others.

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  • "must have produced some silly ideas that even touches reincarnation, trying to trace the diseases and suffering to the past life like the Hindus did" Interesting speculation. It reminds me of talk about Jesus being Elijah (reincarnation?) or even John the Baptist (transmigration). – One God the Father May 14 at 17:40
  • @OneGodtheFather the idea of Jesus being reincarnation of Elijah is also similarly ridiculous limitless contemplation and imaginations of the Rabbis as you should read in the Talmud. John the Baptist was Elijah, in the spirit and role of Elijah. With due respect for the pagan Hindus of reincarnation or Karma theory. – Michael16 May 14 at 17:45

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