Discuss John 3:8

Due to the large number of comments on the Share page regarding this verse, I’ve started this post and moved the comments here. Please try to keep the Share page for short questions, links and comments.

  1. EricW
    Posted December 22, 2010 at 7:52 pm | Permalink | Edit

    Mike Sangrey asked that I put this on the Share page for response:

    John 3:8

    τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ, καὶ τὴν φωνὴν αὐτοῦ ἀκούεις, ἀλλ’ οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει· οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος. (SBLGNT)

    The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (NET)

    Most Bibles translate it, and most people understand it, as saying that this is how people are born of/by/from the Spirit – i.e., the Spirit works like the wind – but the Greek seems to say that people who are born of/by/from the Spirit move and operate like the Spirit moves and operates (i.e., like the wind), not that the Spirit births people the way the wind moves.

    That makes no sense to me as an interpretation, but it seems to be the most straightforward reading of the Greek. And if it’s true, then I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has been born of/from/by the Spirit. :)

    Thoughts? Help?

  2. Posted December 22, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink | Edit

    EricW asked recently about John 3:8. I’d like to expand the discussion to John 3:1-8 (though we can take all of 3:1-21 into account as needed). EricW inquires about the οὕτως of 3.8: is it saying that everyone born of the Spirit is likewise unpredictable as the Spirit, or is it that the Spirit-birth is unpredictable? [At least, I think that’s his question]

    I have my own question on this passage, though. How are we to understand words such as: born, flesh, water, and spirit in this passage? What are the possible interpretations, including the wrong ones Nicodemus might have had?

    I’d like for us to look specifically at whether water connects with spirit or with flesh in this passage. I’ve heard convincing arguments both ways.

  3. Mike Sangrey
    Posted December 22, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Permalink | Edit

    @EricW. Interesting question. I’m hoping one of the bloggers here can pick this up and cobble together some kind of post to focus our discussion.

    Personally, I’ve wondered if there is a solid, semantic connection between verse 8 and 31-34. The entire chapter seems to be a coherent, interpretive unit. Could 31-34 be a further explanation of what 8 is saying? It’s too foggy to me right now, but I think it’s worth exploring.

    @Gary, A couple of interesting (at least I find them interesting) and quick thoughts that might play into Eric’s question, too.

    1. Apparently, Nicodemus misunderstood. However, Jesus’ expectation was that any “teacher of Israel” should have understood. So, the point Jesus was making appears to be a readily available OT point. This evidence takes some of the wind out of the sails suggesting some esoteric, Christian only, post Acts 2, understanding. That, along with Eric’s observation of the Greek, surprises our theological assumptions.

    But, regarding our assumptions, please note that David Ker’s response to Eric concerning a more idiomatic understanding of the Greek can easily be correct. I think I’m much more comfortable exploring out-of-the-box thinking than a lot of people. Just know that because I explore, doesn’t mean I move into a different neighborhood. I hold onto the truth tenaciously; I just do so with an open hand.

    2. The passage starts with a “Rabbi, we know that you…” I’ve read something, somewhere about the dialog between Jesus and Nicodemus following a Rabbinical method of argumentation (that is, between two Rabbis). So, this may have been a specific genre that followed a specific protocol. John’s incorporating Nicodemus (a Rabbi) using the address of Rabbi when he started speaking to Jesus, and the phrases like: ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι (Literally: Jesus answering, “Amen, amen, I tell you…”) appear to suggest the protocol.

  4. Posted December 22, 2010 at 10:53 pm | Permalink | Edit

    Eric, your thought seems to me very profound, that believers in Jesus ought to move like the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it should be that just as the HS moves where the HS wills, so believers should move where the HS wills – and not where non-believers can predict.

  5. EricW
    Posted December 22, 2010 at 11:11 pm | Permalink | Edit

    Peter Kirk:

    You may be right. Maybe we’ve wrongly interpreted Jesus’ statement by making it less “spiritual.” I knew of one estoteric/New-Agey type writer who interpreted it that way, with no knowledge of Greek but just from reading the KJV: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” I.e., this is how people born of the Spirit operate.

    On the other hand, Nicodemus seems to be asking how one can be born of the Spirit, not what Spirit-born people are like. Actually, though, it’s not totally clear exactly what he’s asking; he asks “How can these things be?” or “How are these things to happen?” – which could include several things.

    It’s interesting, per the οὕτως discussion at BBB, that what is perhaps the most commonly cited/used verse in the New Testament (at least at football games) may not be properly understood by most or many Christians, include a lot of us here. Perhaps add John 3:8, too.

  6. Posted December 23, 2010 at 12:38 am | Permalink | Edit

    EricW: I hope you didn’t mind me summing up your question! I thought I’d do that and save you the trouble, since I had a similar question. Apparently we were both typing at the same time, though.

    Mike: As for your first thought, I’m not so sure that Jesus’ response “and you call yourself a teacher of Israel?” necessarily implies that the interpretation was straightforward enough from OT precedent that it would be understood simply on those grounds.

    It may be that Jesus thought the Jewish Rabbi Academy of Jerusalem was teaching all the right courses but Nicodemus simply didn’t pass muster in Jesus’ eyes, or it might be that Jesus thought the academy itself didn’t teach anyone properly — perhaps they neglected certain course studies and Jesus was frustrated with what passes for a “teacher of Israel” in general. So, I would be more open to an obscure-to-Nicodemus interpretation, including a post-Christian one.


21 thoughts on “Discuss John 3:8

  1. iverlarsen says:

    While I agree that a Christian ought to be led by the Spirit, listen to the Spirit and move with the Spirit, I do not think that this is what John 3:8 is talking about. The topic is not how a Christian should live, but how to become a Christian, how to get the spiritual birth.

    Eric, you said: “That makes no sense to me as an interpretation, but it seems to be the most straightforward reading of the Greek.”

    When a certain interpretation does not make sense to you, you are probably right. It doesn’t. A consequence of that is that what to you “seems to be the most straightforward reading” is probably not the intended meaning.

    The key contrast in 3:3-7 is the difference between the physical birth that every human has experienced and the spiritual birth that Jesus invites Nicodemus to experience. That physical birth is expressed as “born of the flesh” in v. 6 while the spiritual birth is expressed as “born of the Spirit”. The two are expressed in a very brief and less clear way in v. 5 as “born of water” and “(born) of Spirit”. I don’t think Jesus expected Nicodemus to clarly understand the meaning of that, so without waiting for a response he added the fuller explanation in v. 6. Speaking like that is very much a Hebrew way of expressing oneself. First a brief and memorable/memorizable heading, often not very clear, then a more detailed explanation of what the heading referred to. (Just like a modern newspaper.) In v. 12 the same contrast is explained as “earthly things” (including physical birth) and “heavenly things” (including spiritual birth).

    In v. 7 Jesus wonders why Nicodemus had a hard time understanding the concept of a spiritual birth (also called a second birth or a new birth). How can this happen? A person obviously cannot literally be born again.

    That is where v. 8 fits in. The work of the Spirit (πνεῦμα) is in some way like the work of the wind (πνεῦμα). The point is not unpredictability, but that it cannot be seen and also that no human can control it. Who has seen the wind? Who can tell it what to do or where to go? But you can hear and see some of the effects of the wind. Who has seen a phyical birth? Most people. Who has seen the Spirit when it gave birth to a spiritual baby? Who can tell the Spirit to go here or there to give birth to a new spiritual baby? But you should be able to see the effects or changes in the person who is born of the Spirit.

    The comparison is not between the wind and a person, but between the activity of the wind and the activity of the Spirit. The effects can be seen but not the activity itself.

  2. Peter Kirk says:

    Nicodemus seems to be asking how one can be born of the Spirit, not what Spirit-born people are like.

    Eric, you are right here. But Jesus doesn’t always answer questions directly.

    The topic is … how to become a Christian, how to get the spiritual birth.

    Iver, I wouldn’t disagree. But maybe Jesus’ point is that the way to get this spiritual birth is to allow oneself to be blown wherever the Spirit wants to blow one. Now maybe that doesn’t fit neatly into standard evangelical theology. But perhaps Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus what he needs to do.

  3. JKG says:

    Mike suggests the frame of a Rabbinical method of argumentation. And so does Tom Thatcher, who calls “Jesus the Riddler” (in his careful study by the same title); here’s a snippet:

    “The fact [is …] that riddles don’t necessarily stand out as ‘riddles’ in obvious ways…. Riddles generate intentional ambiguity, and this ambiguity can, in turn, be harnessed to serve a variety of objectives (entertainment, teaching, test of wits, etc.)…. Even within a single culture, there is usually no narrowly limited set of terms or themes to which they appeal again and again…. Riddlers use this license to generate confusion; the more different things a riddle could potentially refer to, the better. Because the form and content of riddles are necessarily inconsistent, specimens of the genre are most easily identifiable by the way people use them and by the way that other people respond to them. But this makes the task of locating riddles as the sources for Jesus especially difficult, simply because we are not now in a position to ask Jesus or the Pharisees exactly what they were trying to do with their words on various occasions. As a result, riddles have fallen below the radar of the typical criteria utilized in historical Jesus research.”

    In his book, Jesus in Johannine Tradition (co-edited with Robert Fortna), Thatcher invites various scholars also to entertain the possibility that John the evangelist is engaging in such riddling too:

    “…scholars debate whether the speaker is Jesus addressing Nicodemus [at various points in John 3] or the narrator addressing the reader.” – David Rensberger

    “Nicodemus (John 3) becomes a symbolic figure representing a type of character within the Johannine world…” – Gary M. Burge

    “John [will]… juxtapose reflection on the comparison between physical and spiritual… [as] applied to Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus (John 3:1-15). The setting and contents are thoroughly Jewish– a leading Pharisee interrogates the upstart Jesus in Jerusalem, and Jesus replies by alluding to the spiritual cleansing of Ezekiel, but in an unprecedented way by requiring even the ‘holiest’ within Israel to undergo a new birth. The text has been precious and influential in Christian history, but already in its second generation people were wrestling with how to treat those ‘born’ into the faith and holding up Nicodemus as a model convert, whereas in this text the dialogue ends with his simply not understanding.” — Craig L. Blomberg

    “[T]he misunderstandings by Jesus’ hearers… frequently have the literary function of leading Jesus to explain the image he has used or to develop it in ways that clarify its meaning (John 3… ). Sometimes the characters in the narrative come to understand as a result of these explanations by Jesus, and sometimes they do not…. But in either case… [t]he dialogues teach the reader the Johnnine language and symbolism. Hence, the symbols are often introduced and developed in Jesus’ dialogues, like those with Nicodemus (John 3)…. Even if a symbol, at its first occurrence, is as puzzling to readers as it is to the characters in the Gospel, this is not because readers must already be familiar with it in order to understand it. Rather, it is because FE [the Fourth Evangelist] wishes to stir readers into a desire to understand, a desire that the continuing development of the dialogue then helps them to fulfill… [through] initiating them step-by-step into its symbolic world…. For example, at John 4:13-14, the reader learns that, in Jesus’ usage, the everyday language of ‘water’ refers to the source of eternal life that Jesus will give. Jewish or Christian readers might naturally detect such symbolism in Jesus’ words… from their knowledge of the braod use of water as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. But readers who do not detect this nevertheless learn enough to follow the story, and later in the narrative they will gain further insight that ‘water’ symbolized the Spirit that Jesus will give to those who believe in him (7:37-39). Of course, FE’s explanations of the symbolism are never adequate, because the symbolism is not just a code that can be translated into an adequate literal description, as the sociological reduction of these symbols to an in-group language tends to suggest. The realities to which the symbols refer are transcendent realities that escape linguistic capture. This is why symbols proliferate through FG [the Fourth Gospel] without redundancy: each new symbol moves the reader closer to what they symbolize. But FE gives sufficient explanation of the symbols to point readers in the direction of their meaning.” — Richard Bauckham

    “The Greek term anothen [in the first of two riddles of Jesus in John 3] is intentionally ambiguous, as it can reasonably mean either ‘again’ or ‘from above.’ Nicodemus chooses the former, but the correct answer is ‘from above,’ which here establishes the difference between ‘born of flesh’ and ‘born of spirit’ [in the second riddle]. But one must question whether Nicodemus could possibly be aware of this nuanced usage of anothen to be able to answer the riddle correctly. [For example, this is John the evangelist’s Greek translation, not Jesus’ Hebrew Aramaic word.] It is also doubtful that Nicodemus could understand Jesus’ elaborate answer (John 3:11-21).” — Tom Thatcher

  4. Mike Sangrey says:

    Regarding Gary’s comment: It may be that Jesus thought the Jewish Rabbi Academy of Jerusalem was teaching all the right courses but Nicodemus simply didn’t pass muster in Jesus’ eyes, or it might be that Jesus thought the academy itself didn’t teach anyone properly.

    This only moves it up one level, so to speak. My point is that Jesus conveys that a teacher of Israel should have understood these things. Therefore, the things could not been new revelation. People, including the entire Rabbinical school could have missed it, but that’s a failure in the receptor(s), not the one who had already delivered the message.

    Whatever Jesus is saying that a “teacher of Israel should know”, it was a reiteration of something already revealed.

    I’m not sure where that takes us. But, it seems to me to be a straightforward acceptance of the data we have in front of us.

  5. iverlarsen says:

    Thanks, Peter,

    I agree that the kind of pictorial language Jesus is using is rich and can lead to several thoughts that can all be true and relevant. One of them would be as you say, the need to be blown away by the Spirit to a new way of thinking. That goes along with my thought of giving up your basic human need to feel in control in order to be born again.

  6. Bob MacDonald says:

    I noted this verse a few weeks ago at a lecture by Dan Fraiken, retired professor of Greek and NT from Queen’s. At the time I suggested that the water is symbolic of the words of Scripture – i.e. TNK. Fill yourself up with them and they turn into wine (so also born of water = word). Nicodemous, that demotic ruler, should have known. This born again thingy cannot be expressed with ‘becoming a Christian’ in any exclusive sense, but with ‘knowing the anointing of God’, ‘worshiping in spirit and in truth’ or other Johanine phrases, it fits well. It also fits with the impact of reading TNK in faith. ‘Hear O Israel’ – what do you hear? You hear the word. It is faith that makes the difference in all times and ages. What then do we make of the ‘believe also in me’? Maybe some of you might want to plan some questions or listen in to the Biblical Studies elist discussion with Tom Thatcher beginning Jan 10.

  7. jkgayle says:

    Regarding Mike’s comment: Whatever Jesus is saying that a “teacher of Israel should know”, it was a reiteration of something already revealed.

    Perhaps Jesus is not just pointing to some certain “something” that should’ve been “know” but also to the means or processes of understanding (i.e., “belief”) that comes on both sides of their reality (i.e., “the earth” / “the heavens”; “the water” / “the wind/spirit”; “the flesh” / “the wind/spirit”). But maybe he’s drawing lines between what a “Rabbi” knows, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, what a “teacher of Israel” may be able to come to on the other side of that.

    Interestingly, Nicodemus calls Jesus both “Rabbi” [Ῥαββί] and, precisely because of his supernatural-spiritual miracles which people were believing in, also “a teacher” [διδάσκαλος]. Jesus never calls Nicodemus a Rabbi, but he does sort of mock him for being an unknowing teacher.

    Furthermore, Tom Thatcher points out: “Not infrequently, the sources refer to Jesus as ‘rabbi’ or ‘teacher,’ terms that appear to be synonymous–John, in fact, twice tells his readers that ‘rabbi’ is synonymous with the Greek διδάσκαλος (1:38, 20:16), suggesting that he see no meaningful difference between these words.”

    However, Thatcher explains:

    “Jesus does not use these titles of himself; other people often do. On the former point, Jesus never calls himself ‘rabbi’ and refers to himself as ‘teacher’ in only two passages, both times imitating what the disciples might call him (Mark 14:14, John 13:13-14). In two other passages, Jesus flatly states that ‘I am not your teacher,’ criticizes those who like to be called ‘rabbi,’ and tells his own followers that they must never accept either designation (Thomas 13:4, Matt. 23:6-10)….”

    There seems to be different ways of understanding “rabbi/teacher”: Jesus’ way, and others’ way, which Jesus seems to be trying to expose and/or to correct. Thatcher continues:

    “In all these [many other gospel] instances [nonetheless], the people whom Jesus encounters seem to assume that he does things that a rabbi/teacher would do…. [I]t is relevant to note that Jesus’ frequent riddling and the remarkable wit that he thereby displayed would be entirely consistent with this portrait, especially since so many of his riddles touch on the Scriptures or theological principles. It is easy to imagine that Jews in Roman Palestine would refer to a person who is gifted at posing and answering difficult questions about biblical and ethical issues, and who often does this in public settings, as ‘rabbi/teacher.’ One may therefore confidently conclude that Jesus used riddles to display his wit, and that he did this in order to posture and credentialize himself as a rabbi/teacher, even if he did not like the implications of the title.”

    Seems to me, when Jesus uses “teacher of Israel” of Nicodemus, he’s flaunting the fact that he doesn’t or really cannot “know.” And “what he does not know that he ought to know” seems less in focus.

    Jesus, in effect, may be showing and saying to everyone listening, and now reading, that: “You don’t need to be Rabbi or a teacher of Israel to get this riddle, to believe the facts of the invisible realm here.”

    Jesus, in effect, may be demonstrating how people who are born of/by/from the Spirit actually move and operate (i.e., like the Spirit moves and operates). John may be trying to capture some of that with his Greek.

    This, then, goes back to how EricW reads the Greek:

    “the Greek seems to say that people who are born of/by/from the Spirit move and operate like the Spirit moves and operates”

  8. Mike Sangrey says:

    I’m quite in agreement with Iver’s explanation of “physical birth and spiritual birth” in verses 5-6.

    Since I brought up the Rabbinical argumentation protocol, let me explain a little further.

    The first time Nicodemus responds to Jesus making a statement (vs 4), he’s not baffled. It’s two Rabbis interacting. There are two reasons for thinking this way.

    1. Nicodemus states something completely obvious in response to something that is not fully developed yet. The two people in the discussion are two intelligent, highly capable people. We should not assume otherwise. Nicodemus is simply responding, according to the protocol, in such a way so that Jesus would continue. Perhaps a better translation would be:

    Surely a person cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born! So, tell me, how can someone be born when they are old?

    At one and the same time he is giving peer-permission to Jesus to continue, and he is expressing an interest to dialog the point. It’s two Rabbis talking theology. Nicodemus is saying, essentially, “Ok. I’m game. Tell me more.” And please note I’m not dismissing a sincere inquiry. But, we have to recognize that Nicodemus, being a “Teacher of Israel”, brings a fair amount of presupposed, intelligent, rational, baggage to the discussion. That is, he’s a highly trained Rabbi. It’s insulting to both Nicodemus and Jesus to think Nicodemus is clueless and asks what is essentially a brainless question.

    2. The other reason has to do with the Jewish understanding of the term γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν (born again or born from above). You see, Nicodemus already did believe he had an understanding of being born again. [This will probably surprise a number of readers here.] So then, from Nicodemus’ perspective, what’s the point in bringing up this “born again” thing. That is, “why tell me this? I know this.” So, if Nicodemus assumes that Jesus is a “man come from God” and he does (see verse 2), and therefore has something important to say (or why else would he have come, even at night), then he is surely thinking that perhaps there’s something more going on with Jesus’ born again statement. The appropriate response then is, “Ok, tell me more.”

    Now, to back this second point up a little: There’s a rather interesting short paper written by Arnold Fruchtenbaum. He studied at Jerusalem University College, the Hebrew University, and Dallas Theological Seminary. I’d love to see more collaboration of what Arnold presents.

    In his paper Nicodemus: A Rabbi’s Quest, Arnold outlines the Pharisee’s understanding of what it meant to be “born again.” Of the six ways to be born again, Nicodemus would have had four of them. The two others were impossible for him. Interestingly, we can easily glean the four ways from what John includes in this story in John 3. All six ways sync quite well with what we know of the Pharisee’s theology of the time.

    And, as Jesus’ develops his spirit way of rebirth, it becomes clear that the Jesus way is certainly not one of the six that Nicodemus knew. It’s fundamentally different.

    The key point of the six ways is that all of them were humanly achievable. Perhaps not equally available to all, but, nonetheless, they all sprung from humanity. None of them came from God’s grace–none came from “above.”

    That leaves the question as to why a “Teacher of Israel” should have already known this other way.

    In a nutshell, already introduced by John in chapter 1, Jesus’ way was οὐκ ἐξ αἱμάτων οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος σαρκὸς οὐδὲ ἐκ θελήματος ἀνδρὸς ἀλλ’ ἐκ θεοῦ ἐγεννήθησαν (“nothing to do with bloodlines, nothing to do with ethnic choice, nothing to do with a man’s choice, but born of God”). This was abundantly obvious from the OT via such things as Jonah, Isaiah’s message, and even the Abrahamic Covenant. It was abundantly obvious from the failures expressed in the Psalms, even by King David. The grace that came from above is seen also in the serpent on a pole reference in verse 14. This reference illustrates quite clearly that what a person brought to God was weakness, frailty, and failure. The person brings need. And, by bringing that failure, intertwined with faith, God responds by giving “new birth” such that a person enters the Kingdom of God. In exchange for spiritual failure, God gives spiritual success.[2]

    The play on words with πνεῦμα (wind, spirit) needs to be understood in this light. The wind (ie. the spirit) isn’t mechanically selective. It’s not bloodlines, it’s not human choice (θέλημα), it’s not humanly deterministic. It blows around all over the place. The prejudicial determinism of the Pharisaical way was not the Jesus’ way. Jesus’ way worked fundamentally differently. Spiritual rebirth was free for all like the wind is a free for all.

    So, what about οὕτως in John 3:8 then?

    οὕτως expresses manner. A synonym for manner is way as I’ve used it above.

    οὕτως ἐστὶν πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος

    So, all those born from the spirit are born in this way.

    I would probably lean more toward an adverbial expression of the Greek preposition. Something more like: So, all those spiritually born are born in this way.

    It’s a concluding statement and is immediately met with Nicodemus saying, “Huh? I’ve never heard such a thing.” (I’m paraphrasing 🙂 ) That is, here, now, he is baffled. This is a different world and one he knows little about.

    And then Jesus responds with an indictment that such a man as Nicodemus should have surely known this. For why the indictment, see above for a few reasons, or, for a full explanation, read the First Testament. 🙂

    [1] There’s another reason, too, that reflects our assumptions about the Pharisees since many have been taught something that actually isn’t true. This is something we bring to the text, wrongly, but we still bring it. We’ve been taught that the Pharisees were trying to earn eternal life. To get into why that isn’t true here would take us too far afield. Suffice it to say that the Pharisees already believed they were “in”–there was no earning required. Their efforts had a lot more to do with bringing about the advent of the Messiah.

    [2] I think another part of the confusion here is another thing we bring to the text. We tend to read Acts 2 and Acts 8:14ff back into John 3. While I believe the two events (born again and receiving the Holy Spirit) happen simultaneously today, they are conceptually two different theological points. Only the one concept is being dealt with here in John 3. There is no linguistic reason to transfer the later meaning into the text before us.

  9. Wayne Leman says:

    Peter wondered:

    But maybe Jesus’ point is that the way to get this spiritual birth is to allow oneself to be blown wherever the Spirit wants to blow one.

    Or maybe Jesus was, again, bringing in something which Nick would not understand, how the wind works, to illustrate that even though he is well versed (!) in the scriptures, he doesn’t understand the most basic thing, how to truly become a kingdom person. Jesus pressed that lack of comprehension of spiritual basics to Pharisees and Nick, as one of them. And he used simple metaphors to do so, but metaphors which are conceptually difficult to grasp, new birth and how the Spirit mysteriously works to bring spiritual life to us.

  10. Bob MacDonald says:

    If it is that “those born of the spirit operate like the spirit” blowing where they please, then to say to someone “I don’t know where you are coming from” or “where you are going with this” is a compliment.

  11. JKG says:

    [BBB moderator David Ker asked that the following comment be moved from the BBB Share page, saying, “We´re trying to keep this Share page from growing too unwieldy.”]

    Mike Sangrey contends that there’s the Jewish understanding of the term γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν (born again or born from above). You see, Nicodemus already did believe he had an understanding of being born again.

    But is the Greek phrase “γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν” really Jewish? Why doesn’t anything like it at all appear in the LXX? Why elsewhere in the NT is there not more of this “term”? I Pt 1 has ἀναγεννήσας and ἀναγεγεννημένοι, which is much less ambiguous and much more clearly referring to re-birth or a being born again (in verses 3 and 23). When John translates what Jesus said in Jn 3:3 as “γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν,” then Greek readers get it more as a locative, “born up there.” Every instance of ἄνωθεν in the LXX has this meaning of location [or perhaps direction, i. e., “from up there”] (see Gn 6:16, Gn 27:39, Gn 49:25, Ex 25:21, Ex 25:22, Ex 36:27, Ex 36:38, Ex 38:16, Ex 38:19, Ex 40:19, Nm 4:6, Nm 4:25, Nm 7:89, JoB 3:16, 3Kgs 7:40, Jb 3:4, Wsd 19:6, Is 45:8, Jer 4:28, EpJer 1:61, Ez 1:11, Ez 1:26, Ez 41:7). And notice how in Gn 27:39 and Gn 49:25 it’s οὐρανοῦ ἄνωθεν, or “the sky above” and “the heaven up there.” Likewise, in the NT, every other use of ἄνωθεν is this idea of some place up at the top or above (see Mt 27:51, Mk 15:38, Lk 1:3, Jn 3:7, Jn 3:31, Jn 19:11, Jn 19:23, Acts 26:5, Gal 4:9, Jas 1:17, Jas 3:15, Jas 3:17).

    So is “born again” a good translation of γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν in Jn 3:3? Is the phrase best understood as John’s Greek translation of Jesus’ wordplay? Is it really to be linked to some common-knowledge Jewish concept of the day? Are we all confused with Nicodemus? If so, why or why not?

  12. Iver Larsen says:

    The article by Dr. Fruchtenbaum was interesting, but I would have liked to see references to Rabbinic sources talking about these 6 ways of being “born again”, and especially what would be the Hebrew expression for it.

    The meaning of ἄνωθεν in John 3:3 has been discussed many times, including on the b-Greek list. Whereas the term is ambiguous in Greek, there is apparently no corresponding ambiguity in Hebrew or Aramaic.

    If we look at the Greek, LSJ has two main senses:
    I: Adv. of Place, from above, from on high,…
    II: in narrative or inquiry, from the beginning, from farther back,..

    Under sense II, they have a subsense 3, which is the one that appears relevant for John 3:3:

    “over again, anew, afresh, φιλίαν ἄ. ποιεῖται J.AJ1.18.3, Artem.1.14, cf. Ev.Jo.3.3; πάλιν ἄ. Ep.Gal.4.9, cf. Harp. s.v. ἀνάδικοι κρίσεις; κτίστης ἄνωθε γενόμενος IG7.27 12.58.”

    So, sense I is the literal, locative sense “from above” which is what we find in the LXX and several places in the NT. The Hebrew is me’al or similar phrases. This sense is found in John 3:31.

    BDAG has similar senses, and I will only quote their number 4 here:
    “at a subsequent point of time involving repetition, again, anew (Pla., Ep. 2 p. 310e ἄ. ἀρξάμενος; Epict. 2, 17, 27; Jos., Ant. 1, 263; IG VII, 2712, 59; BGU 595, 5ff) ἄ. ἐπιδεικνύναι MPol 1:1. Oft. strengthened by πάλιν (CIG 1625, 60; Wsd 19:6) Gal 4:9.—ἀ. γεννηθῆναι be born again J 3:3,7…”

    John 3:3 was not originally spoken in Greek, so what would the Hebrew (or Aramaic) have been? It is unlikely that me’al or something like it would have been used, since that is the literal sense, and Jesus is probably not intending a literal sense here.

    In Hebrew and to some degree in Greek, too, there is a close affinity between top, head, first and beginning. Luke 1:3 uses ἄνωθεν in the sense of “from the beginning”. One sense of ἄνωθεν can be expressed in English as literally “let’s start again from the top/beginning” or more commonly “let’s start all over again”. Paul has this sense in Gal 4:9.

    Yancy Smith mentioned a Syriac translation of John 3:3 in a post on b-Greek from February 6, 2010:

    “The Syriac translation of ANWQEN in John 3[:3,7 and 31] is given in two ways, reflecting its ambiguous meaning in Greek:


    ܡܬܝܠܕ ܡܢ ܕܪܝܫ
    mtyld mn dryš
    γεννηθη ανωθεν
    =from beginning, anew, from head, re-

    ܗܘ ܓܝܪ ܕܡܢ ܠܥܠ ܐܬܐ ܠܥܠ ܡܢ ܟܠ
    hw gyr dmn l’l ‘t’ l’l mn kl hw
    Ὁ ἄνωθεν ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν

    The Syriac “from head” [in 3:3,7] means “again,” or “from the beginning.” And when the Peshitta translators were faced with a clearly spacial meaning of ANWQEN [in 3:31], they had a different, completely unambiguous way of translating ANWQEN, similar to the Hebrew phrase, מעל, the rough equivalent of which in Syriac is dmn l’l.”
    End of quote.

    Based on such considerations, I believe that John 3:3 introduced an unintentional ambiguity when it was translated into Greek. It must have been “from the top/head” in Semitic, meaning a fresh start, being born all over again. The meaning of the Hebrew phrase would probably not have been clear to Nicodemus as the dialogue indicates. It was meant in a spiritual sense, but was taken literally as happens again and again in John’s Gospel. Jesus often spoke briefly in cryptic ways in order to initiate a dialogue and create a memorable phrasing. Another well-known example is the dialogue with the Samaritan woman.

    So, as far as translation goes, I would suggest “born again” or “born all over again” for the underlying Semitic phrase that Jesus must have used.

  13. Gary Simmons says:

    Forgive me for playing devil’s advocate, Iver, but your conclusion rests on the assumption that this conversation historically happened in these exact words (so to speak) in one language or another. If John is working with a paraphrase of the conversation, or is dramatically reworking a real scenario by giving it a fictional dialogue in order to make a theological point, then there need not be any Semitic vorlage of me’al, etc.

    How would we approach this question if Greek is all we have? Or to put it more clearly: if the Greek were τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ, as it were, then how would that change this conversation and our conclusions?

  14. Iver Larsen says:

    Hi, Gary,

    I don’t think your if’s are realistic. However, IF we only had the Greek text, the text would be more ambiguous as reflected in some translations like the NET.

    It is correct that I assume this dialogue took place in real life and that it originally did not take place in Greek. I also assume the disciples were together with Jesus and heard the conversation. Do you have any reason to assume otherwise?

  15. EricW says:

    But in a conversation with someone named Nicodemus, why would it not have taken place in Greek? Isn’t that about as “Greek” a name as one could have?

  16. Mike Sangrey says:

    As I mentioned, I would love to see support of what Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s presents. I’m trying to find out more; but, I don’t have high hopes. Even if we set that view aside, there’s still a few considerations to keep in mind.

    1. Nicodemus, in verse 4, responds to Jesus by referring to some kind of physical rebirth. Thus γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν can be taken to mean simply that. This is not to say that ambiguity is ruled out, intended ambiguity or otherwise. For me, I think it is ambiguous. Frankly, I think the phrase is an intended ambiguity and the double-entendre doesn’t obscure the meaning of the section, it actually clarifies it. In fact, the double-entendre is made explicit with Jesus’ statement of “born of water and the Spirit.”

    2. Another word to consider in this text is θαυμάζω (‘to be amazed or surprised’, ‘to wonder’) in verse 7. The occurrences in John are: John 3:7, 4:27, 5:20, 5:28, 7:15, 7:21. It always appears to have a positive sense. It never seems to have the connotation of “baffled”. This is consistent with other extra-Biblical uses where it can mean ‘honor’ and ‘admire’. Its use is also inconsistent with any sense of disdain. In fact, verse 2 suggests Nicodemus had a fair amount of respect for Jesus.

    So, to better express my thinking than I said above, what Nicodemus is saying in his first response is, “Ok. I’m surprised at your statement, but, I’m game. Tell me more.

    I can’t accept that Nicodemus is seriously asking, “Old man going into the womb again? Wow!! Do I understand you correctly?” Nor do I think he is being harshly sarcastic as in, “Gosh, what a moron. You actually think I’d believe an old man can enter the womb again?” Neither of these make sense to me. The question in verse 4 has to be more indirect than that.

    Come to think of it…it makes sense to me that John would include Nicodemus referring to physical birth in order to emphasize Jesus’ response referring to spiritual birth. The contrast sets up a semantic relief (as in “sculptured relief”).

    3. Lastly, the repeated ἀμὴν ἀμὴν (literally: Amen, amen). This is three times in rather quick succession-vs 3, 5, 11. I’m pretty sure the phrase is a rabbinical construction. That is, it’s a technical term used by Rabbis to delineate a solemn statement. To mix metaphors, it’s like a Rabbi speaking ex cathedra. I think this adds credence to a Rabbinical exchange. Nicodemus is introduced to the reader as a Rabbi (“member of the ruling council”). So, we need to ask, “what does it mean for one Rabbi to speak to another Rabbi with such solemn, technical term, statements?”

  17. W says:

    …In fact, the double-entendre is made explicit with Jesus’ statement of “born of water and the Spirit.”…

    If PNEUMA can become “Spirit” then what do you do with the other element in the text, hUDROS?

  18. Iver Larsen says:


    Although I agree that Nicodemus had a great deal of respect for Jesus, I don’t think you can deduce that from μή θαυμάζω (don’t be perturbed).

    BDAG says about this word:
    “to be extraordinarily impressed or disturbed by someth., act.
    ⓐ intr. wonder, marvel, be astonished (the context determines whether in a good or bad sense)”

    In Mark 6:6 Jesus was amazed by their unbelief. He did not admire it.

    In John 4:27 the disciples were perturbed that Jesus was taking to a woman, a Samaritan no less. They hardly admired him for it.

    In John 5:28 we have the same grammatically negative command: “You should not be so surprised”. Jesus is talking to hostile Jews who wanted to kill him (v. 18).

    I think Jesus is saying to him that if he had truly understood the Messianic prophecies, he would not be so surprised. But Nicodemus as most Jews at the time, had a too limited and policital expectation of the Messiah. Few had understood the prophecy about getting a new heart and a new spirit.

    The Jewish Encyclopaedia has the following:
    “Renewal of a man’s nature by casting aside the impurity of sin which cleaves to him from his former life, thus turning him into a pious and righteous child of God. The idea of man’s regeneration was first expressed by the prophet Ezekiel (xxxvi. 25 et seq.; compare xi. 19, xviii. 31; Ps. li. 12): “I will sprinkle clean water upon you; from all your filthiness and from all your idols will I cleanse you, and I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you.” … The expression used by the Rabbis for the person who underwent a change of heart through repentance and conversion is, therefore, “beriah ḥadashah” (a new creature). The verse, “The people which shall be created shall praise the Lord” (Ps. cii. 19 [18]), is explained in Midr. Teh. on the passage (compare Pesiḳ. d. R.K. xxviii. 181) thus: “The people who shall be reborn through repentance of their sins shall praise the Lord”…

    The Proselyte.

    The proselyte who casts off the impurity of idolatry and turns to the God of life becomes a “new creature” (Gen. R. xxxix.; Soṭah 12b; compare Asenath, Prayer of). “He who turns away from uncircumcision and becomes a Jew is like one who turns away from the grave and requires cleansing,” was the maxim of the Hillelites (Pes. viii. 8). Hence arose the halakic rule that “a proselyte is like a new-born child whose family relations are no longer the same as before his conversion” (Yeb. 22a, 48b, 97b; Maimonides, “Yad,” Issure Biah, xiv. 11).

  19. EricW says:

    Iver: That’s interesting about Nicodemus, but I have no way of verifying the veracity of the claims there, though I’ll have Neusner’s Talmud (Bavli and Yerushalmi) in Logos this Spring, so I assume I’ll be able to find the cited statement/tractate. On the other hand, Neusner himself has written about the problems with the reliability of the statements in the Talmud. Thanks for that link!

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