Blindness, defects of sight and diseases of the eye are frequently mentioned in the Scriptures, but usually in general terms. It is probable that in the period covered by the Bible, ophthalmia was as common in Palestine and Egypt as it is now. See BLINDNESS. The commonest of the diseases at present is the purulent conjunctivitis which is a highly infectious malady affecting people of all ages, but especially children, and whose germs are carried from eye to eye by the flies, which are allowed to walk freely over the diseased eyes. This is one of the most disgusting sights in a Palestine village, but I have been told by mothers that it is esteemed unlucky to drive off the flies. In this manner the disease is propagated. The number of persons in any Palestine village whose eyes are more or less blemished by disease is on this account phenomenally large.

Blindness incapacitated a man from serving in the priesthood (Leviticus 21:16,18); even a blemish of the eye was regarded as a disqualification (Leviticus 21:20).

The cases in the New Testament of persons blind from their birth (as John 9:1) were probably the results of this ophthalmia, but may have been due to congenital malformation. The interesting psychological record of the difficulty of interpreting the new visual sensations by the blind man healed by our Lord (Mark 8:22) indicates that it was probably not a case of congenital blindness, as the evangelist uses the word apokatestathe ("restored"), but he had been so long blind that he had lost the power of appreciating the sense-impressions. This condition has been often discussed as a psycho-physical problem since the days of Molyneux and Locke (Essay on the Human Understanding, II, 9, 8).

The blindness of Paul was probably a temporary paralysis of the retina from the shock of a dazzling light accentuated by the intense emotion which accompanied his vision on the road to Damascus. The "scales" mentioned in Acts 9:18 were not material, but his sight was restored as if (hosei) scales had fallen from his eyes. How far this left his eyes weak we do not know, but from his inability to recognize the high priest (Acts 23:5) and from his employing an amanuensis for transcribing his epistles (Romans 16:22), as well as from his writing in characters of large size (pelikos; Galatians 6:11), it is probable that his vision was defective, and this it has been conjectured was the "thorn in the flesh" of2 Corinthians 12:7.

Senile blindness, the result either of cataract or retinal degeneration, is mentioned in the cases of Isaac (Genesis 27:1), Jacob (Genesis 48:10) and Eli (1 Samuel 4:15). The frequency of such senile dimness of sight made the case of Moses the more remarkable that at the age of 120 his eye was not dim (Deuteronomy 34:7).

Tobit's blindness, caused by the irritation of the sparrow's dung (Tobit 2:10), was a traumatic conjunctivitis which left an opacity. It is not said that the whiteness was itself sufficiently large to destroy vision. There was with it probably a considerable amount of conjunctival thickening, and it is possible that the remedy might have removed this. It certainly could not remove a cicatricial white spot of the nature of an albugo. The conjecture of a recent commentator that the gall, by coloring the spot, made the eye look as if sight was restored when it really was not, seems ludicrously inept. In any case the historical accuracy of the narrative is so problematical that explanation is unnecessary.


Alexander Macalister

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Entry for 'EYES, DISEASES OF THE'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". <http://www.studylight.org/enc/isb/view.cgi?number=T3315>. 1915.