Who did sin, this man, or his parents - The doctrine of the transmigration of souls appears to have been an article in the creed of the Pharisees, and it was pretty general both among the Greeks and the Asiatics. The Pythagoreans believed the souls of men were sent into other bodies for the punishment of some sin which they had committed in a pre-existent state. This seems to have been the foundation of the disciples question to our Lord. Did this man sin in a pre-existent state, that he is punished in this body with blindness? Or, did his parents commit some sin, for which they are thus plagued in their offspring?
Most of the Asiatic nations have believed in the doctrine of transmigration. The Hindoos still hold it; and profess to tell precisely the sin which the person committed in another body, by the afflictions which he endures in this: they profess also to tell the cures for these. For instance, they say the headache is a punishment for having, in a former state, spoken irrevently to father or mother. Madness is a punishment for having been disobedient to father or mother, or to one's spiritual guide. The epilepsy is a punishment for having, in a former state, administered poison to any one at the command of his master. Pain in the eyes is a punishment for having, in another body, coveted another man's wife. Blindness is a punishment for having killed his mother: but this person they say, before his new birth, will suffer many years' torment in hell. See many curious particulars relative to this in the Ayeen Akbery, vol. iii. p. 168-175; and in the Institutes of Menu, chap. xi. Inst. 48-53.
The Jewish rabbins have had the same belief from the very remotest antiquity. Origen cites an apocryphal book of the Hebrews, in which the patriarch Jacob is made to speak thus: I am an angel of God; one of the first order of spirits. Men call me Jacob, but my true name, which God has given me, is Israel: Orat. Joseph. apud Orig. Many of the Jewish doctors have believed that the souls of Adam, Abraham, and Phineas, have successively animated the great men of their nation. Philo says that the air is full of spirits, and that some, through their natural propensity, join themselves to bodies; and that others have an aversion from such a union. See several other things relative to this point in his treatises, De Plant. Noe - De Gigantibus - De Confus. Ling. - De Somniis, etc.; and see Calmet, where he is pretty largely quoted.
The Hindoos believe that the most of their misfortunes arise out of the sins of a former birth; and, in moments of grief not unfrequently break out into exclamations like the following: - "Ah! in a former birth how many sins must I have committed, that I am thus afflicted!" "I am now suffering for the sins of a former birth; and the sins that I am now committing are to fill me with misery in a following birth. There is no end to my sufferings!"
Josephus, Ant. b. xvii. c. 1, s. 3, and War, b. ii. c. 8, s. 14, gives an account of the doctrine of the Pharisees on this subject. He intimates that the souls of those only who were pious were permitted to reanimate human bodies, and this was rather by way of reward than punishment; and that the souls of the vicious are put into eternal prisons, where they are continually tormented, and out of which they can never escape. But it is very likely that Josephus has not told the whole truth here; and that the doctrine of the Pharisees on this subject was nearly the same with that of the Papists on purgatory. Those who are very wicked go irrecoverably to hell; but those who are not so have the privilege of expiating their venial sins in purgatory. Thus, probably, is the Pharisean doctrine of the transmigration to be understood. Those who were comparatively pious went into other bodies, for the expiation of any remaining guilt which had not been removed previously to a sudden or premature death, after which they were fully prepared for paradise; but others who had been incorrigibly wicked were sent at once into hell, without ever being offered the privilege of amendment, or escape. For the reasons which may be collected above, much as I reverence Bishop Pearce, I cannot agree with his note on this passage, where he says that the words of the disciples should be thus understood: - Who did sin? This man, that he is blind? or his parents, that he was born so? He thinks it probable that the disciples did not know that the man was born blind: if he was, then it was for some sin of his parents - if he was not born so, then this blindness came unto him as a punishment for some crime of his own. It may be just necessary to say, that some of the rabbins believed that it was possible for an infant to sin in the womb, and to be punished with some bodily infirmity in consequence. See several examples in Lightfoot on this place.
Master, who did sin? - It was a universal opinion among the Jews that calamities of all kinds were the effects of sin. See the notes at Luke 13:1-4. The case, however, of this man was that of one that was blind from his birth, and it was a question which the disciples could not determine whether it was his fault or that of his parents. Many of the Jews, as it appears from their writings (see Lightfoot), believed in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls; or that the soul of a man, in consequence of sin, might be compelled to pass into other bodies, and be punished there. They also believed that an infant might sin before it was born (see Lightfoot), and that consequently this blindness might have come upon the child as a consequence of that. It was also a doctrine with many that the crime of the parent might be the cause of deformity in the child, particularly the violation of the command in Leviticus 20:18.
On one occasion Christ anointed the eyes of a blind man with clay and bade him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.... He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.” John 9:7. The cure could be wrought only by the power of the Great Healer, yet Christ made use of the simple agencies of nature. While He did not give countenance to drug medication, He sanctioned the use of simple and natural remedies. MH 233.1
When we have prayed for the recovery of the sick, whatever the outcome of the case, let us not lose faith in God. If we are called upon to meet bereavement, let us accept the bitter cup, remembering that a Father's hand holds it to our lips. But should health be restored, it should not be forgotten that the recipient of healing mercy is placed under renewed obligation to the Creator. When the ten lepers were cleansed, only one returned to find Jesus and give Him glory. Let none of us be like the unthinking nine, whose hearts were untouched by the mercy of God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” James 1:17. MH 233.2Read in context »