Friday, July 15, 2011

"Master, Who Did Sin?"

And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.

And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
(John 9:1-2)

This set of verses raises the intriguing question, "How could the man sin before he was born in order to cause his own blindness?" Based on my studies, I have found three plausible perspectives by which one may interpret this question: (1) the Restoration perspective, (2) the Second Temple Jewish perspective, or (3) the rabbinic perspective.[1]

(1) The Restoration Perspective



When one views the 9:2a footnote (footnotes are often taken as authoritative), we see a reference to the Topical Guide's "Man, Antemortal Existence of." According to the Church's missionary manual Preach My Gospel, "God is the Father of our spirits. We are literally His children...We lived as spirit children of our Father in Heaven before we were born on this earth." Given the common LDS belief that the Prophet Joseph Smith restored ancient Christianity via revelation, many assume this Johannine phrasing to be implicit evidence of Christ's teachings of pre-mortal existence (Jesus was quite explicit about His own pre-mortal existence, while Paul makes reference to Israel and the Church as a whole). This mentality was likely solidified by the writings of Bruce R. McConkie, who stated,

Jesus' disciples—probably as a direct result of his teachings—knew and believed that men were the spirit children of God in pre-existence and that in such prior estate they were subject to law and endowed with agency. Otherwise they never would have asked nor would there have been any sense or reason to a question which is predicated upon the assumption that men can sin before they are born into mortality.

The Savior responded to his disciples, "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him" (John 9:3). This could be taken by some to be a reference to foreordination; another prominent LDS doctrine. 

The Restoration perspective is plausible and understandable, but only given the presupposition regarding the truthfulness of the Restoration itself. Relying solely on the text, it is near impossible to pin down vs. 1-3 as a reference to an early teaching by Christ Himself.[2]

(2) The Second Temple Jewish Perspective

This view is based on the pseudepigraphic and apocalyptic literature of Second Temple Judaism. References to the pre-mortal existence of human beings are scattered throughout various documents:

  • 2 Enoch has been dated to around the first century BCE and was most likely translated from Hebrew to Greek to Slavonic. In this text, the prophet Enoch is commanded to "write--all the souls of men, whatever of them are not yet born, and their places, prepared for eternity."
  • Prayer of Joseph, a fragment of the first or second century CE, speaks of the patriarchs being "created before any work." Jacob in particular is described as "an angel of God," a "ruling spirit," and "the firstborn of every creature." The Church Father Origen quoted favorably from the text, understanding Jacob to be a chief captain among the angels prior to his birth. Though not widespread, it was not an uncommon Jewish claim that the patriarchs were pre-existent. 
  • The Assumption or Testament of Moses (1st century CE), Moses is said to have been prepared "from/before the foundation of the world, to be the mediator of the covenant."
  • Another first or second century CE text known as the Apocalypse of Abraham has Abraham witnessing a group of men, women, and children prior to the creation.
  • Fourth Book of Ezra (2nd century CE) presents the world as being created for the pre-existent "righteous" to experience the "contest" of earth life. Ezra notes that the spirit "return[s] again to him who gave it."
  • The authoritative Wisdom of Solomon (first or second century BCE) has the author describing his quest for sophia ("wisdom") and makes mention of how he "entered an undefiled body."[3]
Given the apocalyptic flavor of some of the New Testament authors (particularly John), it is conceivable that a similar strain of pre-existence theology existed among Jesus' disciples apart from Christ's personal teachings.

(3) The Rabbinic Perspective

Another highly plausible context is the Jewish belief in prenatal sin. According to the NET Bible commentary, prenatal sin "was a common belief in Judaism;"

the rabbis used Ezek 18:20 to prove there was no death without sin, and Ps 89:33 to prove there was no punishment without guilt (the Babylonian Talmud, b. Shabbat 55a, although later than the NT, illustrates this). Thus 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 worshiped 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.

This rabbinic view continues the notion of collective sin that was prevalent in Israelite theology.


1. To clarify, this is not to say the disciples' view that the blindness required a causation beyond a naturalistic explanation is correct. This is merely an analysis of the possible contexts that would provide them with the concept that a man could sin prior to being born.

2. Caution should be taken when assessing the LDS belief of pre-mortal existence given the concept's historical development.

3. This list of sources and their descriptions are provided by Terryl L. Givens in his When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Existence in Western Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), pgs. 46-49. For an overview of the book's research and themes, see his 2007 FAIR Conference presentation. It should be noted that these concepts continued to have influence in rabbinic writings: “This idea is also found in the early Jewish Midrash Rabbah Genesis 8:7, in which God says of the creation of Adam, "We took counsel with the souls of the righteous" and adds that "the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, sat the souls of the righteous with whom He took counsel before creating the world." The same idea is repeated in Midrash Rabbah Ruth 2:3: "the souls of the righteous with whom the Holy One, blessed be He, decided to create the world... With the Almighty King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, dwelt the souls of the righteous with whom He decided to create the world.” (John A. Tvedtnes, “The King Follett Discourse in the Light of Ancient and Medieval Jewish and Christian Beliefs,” Presentation at the 2004 FAIR Conference)

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