Is the Blind Man’s Expulsion From the Synagogue in John 9:22 Anachronistic?
In John 9, Jesus heals a man who was born blind during the Sabbath. The Pharisees, being fanatical over the Sabbath, called the man’s parents on the carpet to find out who healed him. His parents refused to answer, telling the Pharisees to ask their son for themselves. We learn why in John 9:22:
“His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.”
Skeptics have pounced on this passage, saying that it’s a glaring anachronism. Here’s NT scholar and critic Bart Ehrman:
“This verse [i.e. John 9:22] is significant from a socio-historical perspective because we know that there was no official policy against accepting Jesus (or anyone else) as messiah during his lifetime. On the other hand, some Jewish synagogues evidently did begin to exclude members who believed in Jesus’ messiahship toward the end of the first century. So the story of Jesus healing the blind man reflects the experience of the later community that stood behind the Fourth Gospel. These believers in Jesus had been expelled from the Jewish community, the community, presumably, of their families and friends and neighbors, in which they had worshiped God and had fellowship with one another.”
Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2016, 187–188.
So in other words, this is a tall tale that didn’t really happen. The writer of John added it into the story as a reflection of what was going on during his time. It wasn’t something that was happening in Jesus’ day at all. So what’s going on here? Do Bart and critics like him have a point? Not really.
The Curse on the Heretics
Bart and other critics are referring to the Birkat haMinim, or in Hebrew “Blessing on the heretics”. Modern scholarship tells us this curse originated to included Jewish Christians. This was before Christianity became more Gentile.
Two medieval copies refer to the minim (heretics) and the Nozerim (Nazarenes). These copies read:
“For the apostates let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the noẓerim and the minim be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant”
Critics believe that this expulsion began to happen in the late first-century. But is this what the writer of John is referring to?
An Obvious Anachronism?
Note that John 9:22 doesn’t say anything about the ex-communication of Christians. John doesn’t use the term Christian — it says if they confessed he was the Messiah. This is far from a full-blown creedal statement, like what we’d find in Romans 10:9–10 or even John 3:16.
Moreover, we see already that Jesus and his followers already faced hostility. These hostile critics were constantly following Jesus around, hoping he’d get himself in hot water. (See Matthew 15.1, Mark 3.22, Mark 7:1, Luke 5:17.) Plus, let’s not forget that these are the people who had him killed.
We also read in John that his messianic movement will get them in trouble with Rome. (John 11:47–48) They even plot to kill Lazarus. (John 12:9–11) Would John have added those passages to confirm the reference of being cast out of the synagogue? That seems unlikely, to say the least.
Didn’t Synagogues Develop After the Destruction of the Temple in 70 AD?
Some have said that before the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, synagogues were meeting places in the Jewish diaspora, but not strictly places of worship. There’s certainly some truth to this. Josephus refers to them as places for education, (Josephus, Antiquities 16.43) communal meals (Josephus, Antiquities 14.21) and for political meetings. (Josephus, Life 267–289)
Luke tells that Paul was constantly going into the synagogues, as they were places where Law and the Prophets were read. (Acts 15:21, 17:1–2) We know from archaeology there was a synagogue built in Masada. And there was also a synagogue built upon the ruins of a 1st-century synagogue in Capernaum. For the man healed from blindness, being removed from meeting place that centered on social, religious and political life would still be severe punishment.
Bart’s Argument from Silence
Bart says that we have no official policy on record that records this, but that’s an argument from silence. We do have the gospels. And all the Gospels say there was opposition to Jesus’ movement within his lifetime. Plus we have the witness of Acts. It’s filled with instances of unofficial, ad hoc persecution of key members of Jesus followers in and outside of Jerusalem. These happenings happened shortly after his death, not decades later.
- Acts 4:3–22, 5:17–42: Peter and John arrested by Sadducees, questioned by the Sanhedrin, and flogged.
- Acts 6:8–8:1: Stephen is arrested by “the people…the elders and the scribes”, questioned before the Sanhedrin, and stoned to death, supposedly sparking “severe persecution against the church in Jerusalem” (8:1).
- Acts 8:3, 9:2: Saul (whose Roman name was Paul) imprisons many Christians
- Acts 9:23–24, 20:19, 23:12–14: Jews plot to kill Paul
- Acts 12:1–5: King Herod (believed to be Agrippa I) executes James and imprisons Peter
- Acts 13:44–51: Paul and Barnabas being driven out of Antioch of Pisidia.
- Acts 14:5–6: Jews and Gentiles attempt unsuccessfully to stone Paul and Barnabas
- Acts 14:19–20: Jews stone Paul nearly to death
- 17:1–15: Paul and others are chased out of successive towns by Jews
Paul says that he partook of this persecution before he became a Christian (Philippians 3:6), and he reports he was on the other side of it in his letters. (Galatians 4:29, 5:11) These show that the Jewish leaders were fully capable of coming up with local rulings against those who they held to be heretics.
John 9:22 isn’t anachronistic
Given Jerusalem was the center of the most conservative Judaism of Jesus’ day, it’s not at all implausible that small-scale policies of disfellowshipping should have begun there. And this charge of anachronism is circular reasoning. You can’t start with the assumption that John’s Gospel is referring to the “curse of the heretics” and then use that to prove it’s an anachronism. The critics here are reasoning in a circle. We simply have no reason to think some official expulsion of Jewish Christians from the synagogue is what John is even referring to.
I’m grateful to Lydia McGrew for her valuable input on several points of this post.
Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on March 13, 2020.