86. “Born Again” or “Born from Above”? John 3:3

“Born Again” or “Born from Above”?

In all languages we have words with double meanings. When Jesus said to Nicodemus in John 3:3 that those who do not fulfill the requirement, will not “see” the Kingdom of God, He did not mean some visual aspect, but that those would not “enter” the Kingdom. In English “see” has the same double meaning and we understand exactly what the original reader of the Greek would have.
But in other cases we do not have a word with the same double meaning. That is the problem confronting the translator concerning the requirement Jesus was talking about.
The Greek word “anōthen”, used to determine “born” can emphasize two distinctive meanings. Should one be “born again”, or be “born from above”?
Unfortunately we do not have an English word with the same equivalents. The translator has to make a choice which can make quite a difference in the understanding of one of the core principles of Christianity.
The accustomed expression “born again” is widely used. But is that the best rendering of what Jesus said to Nicodemus?

Some versions use other words or expressions to translate John 3:3. Let us consider some.

American Standard Version: Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born anew.

Literal Translation of the Holy Bible: Jesus answered and said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, If one is not generated from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God.

Message: Jesus said, “You’re absolutely right. Take it from me: Unless a person is born from above, it’s not possible to see what I’m pointing to–to God’s kingdom.”

King James Version: Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again.

New International Version: In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”

The first meaning of the word “anōthen” has to do with position.
It could mean “from above” meaning from God
John 3:31: “The one who comes from above is above all…”
John 19:11: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”
James 1:17: “Every good and perfect gift is from above…”
James 3:15: “Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven…”
James 3:17: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven…”
It could also mean “from the top”.
Mat. 27:51, and Mark 15:38: “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”
John 19:23: “This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.”

The second meaning of “anōthen” has to do with time.
With this meaning it could refer to an incident or state at an earlier time.
Luke 1:3: “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning.”
Acts 26:5: “Which knew me from the beginning…”
Gal.4:9: “Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?”

The question before us is to determine whether John 3:3 and verse 7 should be understood as referring to position or to time?
Grammatically it could refer to position, resulting in a vertical movement in space: “From above, meaning from heaven or from God” down to the sinner.
But equally it could refer to an earlier time or incident, “the natural human birth”. This would result in a horizontal movement in time, from natural birth to the super natural birth of the sinner in the present time.
Both are perfect translations of the word “anōthen”.
How could we determine which rendering serves the context best?

In the conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus immediately cuts to the essence of seeing the Kingdom of God, stating that a complete regeneration is needed. This He describes with the analogy to birth. Nicodemus understood Jesus as referring to childbirth, hence his remark that it is impossible for a grown man to enter the womb again. “Born again” would bring out that meaning.
Jesus answers that one has to be born “of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.” Here in verse seven it is quite clear that Jesus is referring to a spiritual birth, which should rather be understood as a “birth from above.”

Yet it would not make sense if the translator translates “anōthen” in verse three as “born again” and the same word a few sentences later in verse seven as “born from above”. He has to make a choice!

This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus would most probably not have been in Greek, but in Hebrew, or Aramaic. These languages also do not have a word with the same double meaning. Nicodemus understood that Jesus was referring to childbirth, hence his objection that one cannot enter the womb again to be born again.
Born “From above” would more clearly elucidate the meaning of the same word used in verse 7, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ ” (Verses 5 – 7)
On the other hand, “born again” indicates a definite second step that has to be taken deliberately. It is not something that happens automatically. Therefore the translation “born again” should be preferred, both in verses 3 and 7.

A Christian must be born of God. Is it best described as “born again” or as “born from above”?

If you had to translate this verse for the next version of the Bible, what would your choice be?

God bless,


Your comments at the bottom of this page is welcomed.

About Herman of bibledifferences.net

The reasons for the differences between older Bibles like the King James Version and newer Bibles like the New International Version have fascinated me ever since my studies in Theology at the University of Pretoria in the seventies. I have great respect for scribes through the ages as well as Bible translators, so there must be good reasons for the differences. With more than 5600 Greek manuscripts and more than 19000 manuscripts of ancient translations to our disposal, the original autographs of the New Testament can be established without doubt. I investigate the reasons behind the differences and publish the facts in a post on my blogs www.bibledifferences.net (Afrikaans: www.bybelverskille.wordpress.com) to enable my readers to judge for themselves. Personally I love to make an informed decision based of facts. That is why I endeavor to provide that same privilege to the readers of my blogs. Since 1973 I am married to my dear wife and greatest friend, Leah Page, founder director of Act-Up Support (www.actup.co.za) a prayer ministry for families struggling with drug-, occult- and other dependencies. We are blessed with two daughters and two sons, four grand sons and two grand daughters. God is alive and omnipotent! Glory to His Name! Herman Grobler.
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38 Responses to 86. “Born Again” or “Born from Above”? John 3:3

  1. jangrey says:

    1. My broertjie … jy het te hard geswot aan die Grieks en Hebreus; maar jy het deurgekom!
    2. Ek kies “van Bo gebore” want dit is makliker te verstane EN dit is wat dit in der waarheid beteken. Wedergebore, weergeboorte, ens. het reeds vir Nicodemus probleme gegee. “van BO gebore” sou hom probleemloos laat verstaan het.
    Jou broer,
    Hd 20:24

  2. gary says:

    Isn’t it odd that if Baptists and evangelicals are correct that their “born again experience” is the true and ONLY means of salvation, the term “born again” is only mentioned three times in the King James Bible? If “making a decision for Christ” is the only means of salvation, why doesn’t God mention it more often in his Word? Why only THREE times? Isn’t that REALLY, REALLY odd?

    Why is it that the Apostle Paul, the author of much of the New Testament, NEVER uses this term? Why is this term never used in the Book of Acts to describe the many mentioned Christian conversions? Why is this term only used by Jesus in a late night conversation with Nicodemus, and by Peter once in just one letter to Christians in Asia Minor?

    If you attend a Baptist/evangelical worship service what will you hear? You will hear this: “You must be born again: you must make a decision for Christ. You must ask Jesus into your heart. You must pray to God and ask him to forgive you of your sins, come into your heart, and be your Lord and Savior (the Sinner’s Prayer). You must be an older child or adult who has the mental capacity to make a decision to believe, to make a decision to repent, and to make a decision to ask Jesus into your heart.”

    It is very strange, however, that other than “you must be born again” none of this terminology is anywhere to be found in the Bible! Why do Baptists and evangelicals use this non-biblical terminology when discussing salvation?

    Maybe “accepting Christ into your heart” is NOT what being born again really means. Maybe…making a “decision” for Christ is NOT how God saves sinners!

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

    • Gary, Thank you for this most important comment.You put something on the table that I blindly accepted.
      If “accepting Christ into your heart” is NOT what being born again really means, what then does being born again mean? What should one do in order to be born again?
      If making a “decision” for Christ is NOT how God saves sinners, what then is the prerequisite for being saved? What is my obligation, or should I sit back believing that predestination will take its course any way?
      How should one “wash ones robes” (Rev.22:14) and what is expected in order to fulfill the requirements?

  3. John Camden says:

    This article was very helpful: I wanted to find out whether “again” and “from above” were considered equally valid translations. Based on Nicodemus’ response and the fact that Jesus mentions two births (“of water and the Spirit”), I’m leaning towards “again” for my own understanding. Thank you. 🙂

    • WESLEY TRACY says:

      With Christ being GOD on Earth HE would know that there are 7000 angels and Satan judged to eternal death. Telling Nicodemus that he had to be born from above makes perfect sense to me. GOD is the only one that can send souls to flesh bodies. Any soul that comes to Earth for any reason without being born of water (women) is doomed! Remember the 7000 that die when Jesus steps foot on the Earth. OH and if you believe in a rapture–Keep studying! WES

  4. Jason Vancil says:

    So Jesus spoke Greek? The double entendre does not work in Aramaic does it?

    • Good day, Jason,

      A very interesting and legitimate point you are making.
      That is why we cannot only look at the way a word may be translated.
      Jesus indeed wouldn’t have spoken Greek with this Pharisee, would he? The challenge before us remains. If we knew the exact Hebrew or Aramaic word Jesus had used, the problem would be solved, but we don’t. That is why context is so important, as well as knowledge and insight in the cultural and religious practices of the time. The bottom line of this conversation is that one should be born from God. Would Jesus have explained that concept by a Hebrew word meaning “born again” or “born from above”? If only we knew!
      But the to translator of the Bible only the Greek is available. He should take everything into account and make a decision that would best translate the Greek in front of him, and render the most possible meaning Jesus would have conveyed to Nicodemus.
      Thank you for your interesting comment.

      • Jason Vancil says:

        Thank you for your response.

      • larry says:

        I have heard Jason’s argument elsewhere. This argument goes: The author has Jesus use a play on words and Nicodemus is taken in. Nicodemus understands it to mean “born again”, and so goes on about entering a second time into his mother’s womb. The author has Nicodemus say these words in so that we can be sure that he has taken the “again” meaning of the word. Then Jesus goes on to explain about a spiritual birth, showing that he actually meant the “from above” meaning. This rhetorical technique is in the form of a joke at Nicodemus’ expense, so that the reader can laugh along and enjoy the joke while at the same time learning something.

        What Jason is pointing out is that this “joke” doesn’t work in Aramaic, only in Greek, since there is no word with the same double meaning in that language. His point is that this “proves” that this story never really happened. Since it only makes sense in Greek, this joke couldn’t have originated from Jesus.

        Even conceding this interpretation of the “born again/from above” joke, it doesn’t really prove anything, as far as I can see. Perhaps the basic framework of the story is as described, but the author found a way to add some humor without changing any of the theology of what Jesus was describing by using the word “anōthen”.

        Another possibility is that while Jesus normally spoke in Aramaic, he could have occasionally spoke in Greek, when the need arose, as in this instance, when he needed to use the double meaning to make a point.

      • Thank you Larry for this fresh look on this very interesting incident recorded in the Bible.
        Most probably John himself had not been present in this conversation. When Jesus, or for that matter even Nicodemus himself told John about it, John grasped the deep meaning of this conversation. When he wrote down he gospel some 50 – 60 years later, he used the lovely Greek word with the double meaning. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the essence is clear, though Jesus might never have used the exact words.

  5. Norm Braedt says:

    Natural things are discerned through the natural man and spiritual things seem foolish to them. Spiritual things are discerned by and through the spirit of God that is not in the natural man.
    So we are born in the natural with a natural spirit much like the animals ,and need to be given the spirit of God that comes by way of the Holy Spirit. If Jesus said it I believe it so for me it is settled.

    • Hi Norm,

      I fully agree with you. My interest in this post is on how the Greek should be translated. It could be either “again”, related to time, or “from above”, related to direction. Jesus said it, and that settles it for me also, but still: Did Jesus mean in time, or direction? Nicodemus understood it to be related to time. But didn’t Jesus rather mean it to be related to direction?

      • Norm Braedt says:

        The Greek should be discerned by the Spirit for which the entire Bible is the basis. Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a sect of Judaism that perverted Gods word and reverted back to the sin of Adam and became disobedient to God. He could only understand Jesus words by the natural. Time is a natural element. He tried to make foolishness of Jesus words, because he was said to be a good Pharisee. The important thing is how do you understand Jesus words. Is he God incarnate? Is not God in Heaven above? Is not Jesus seated at the right hand of God?

  6. BEORH HOUSE says:

    I was raised Southern Baptist, and never did I hear that being ‘born from above’ had anything to do with a womb, but now I am convinced of this. Jesus is saying that our first birth involves being born from below–the womb of a woman. But if we wish to see the Kingdom, we must be born again–from above. Where is this second womb? No, not Heaven. This second womb is the Heart of Jesus, from which, like the first womb, blood and water flows. A far superior womb, to be sure, and necessary if we are to partake of the Kingdom of God.

    • Dear friend,
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
      I agree with you. So often we need to visualize spiritual or transcendental concepts to really understand their full depth.
      God bless,
      Herman, Pretoria South Africa.

    • Ron Woudenberg says:

      So whether born from above or born again the real question is who is doing the birthing? Is it the “decision” of the sinner or the effectual grace of God?

      • Dear Ron,
        You bring a very important question onto the table.
        As a Calvinist, I believe that, just as birth is happening without a baby’s own will and effort, so with being born again, or from above. In essence this is grace completely from God and not our own achievement.
        But on the other hand, the baby has to grow to a certain state of preparedness for his/her own birth. So we also have to grow in faith and being open to the will of God in our relationship with Him. But in the end, everything is grace from God. No man can, by his own, go to God and command Him to accept him as child, and thereby “force” a rebirth. When we do land up before God, and do the necessary accepting of Him according to John 1:12 – 13, we discover that He had already been busy preparing us for that decision. This He had done by means of many different encounters in our lives and through many messages from different people. But even then, the direct decision to bow before Him and accept Him as our Lord and Saviour, is our own responsibility.
        That is how I understand it.
        God bless,

      • TWELVE HOUSE BOOKS says:

        Free will is free will.

  7. Angieangel says:

    Jesus did not speak Aramaic, contrary to popular belief. Jesus is not his true name. His name is Yeshua and he spoke Hebrew. Read one new man bible it will change your life forever and reveal the truth,which is extremely hard for us mortals to accept. The truth that is!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  8. Hi Herman, I found the article interesting and was grateful for the question at the end. A thought came to me that the answer isn’t in what Jesus says but rather Nicodemus’s response. If Jesus had meant “Born from above” the the response about entering a second time into the mother’s womb doesn’t really fit. It isn’t the first thing I would think to say. But his response fits perfectly with “Born again.”

    Nicodemus has just declared that he believes Jesus has come from God and that God is with him. If Jesus then said “You must be born from above.” It would follow that Nicodemus would think Jesus is saying that he himself is born from above. To then talk about natural child birth would not make sense. “Born form above” sounds wonderfully spiritual and supernatural. It leaves a big question on “how?” but it puts in mind God, Spirit, regeneration, basically being zapped from above. No earthly human wombs involved. Because that would simply be repeating the birth he has already had, and not a different one from above.

    However, by saying “You must be born again” or in other words “you must be born a second time.” leads straight to the response of having a second natural birth.

    That’s what came to my mind anyway!

    • Hi Richard,
      Thank you for sharing your observations and insights.
      As I pointed out, Nicodemus understood the word in its meaning of time, hence his understanding of repeating the physical birth. But in verse 7 Jesus makes it clear that He was actually not talking of the word in its meaning in time, but rather in location, “from above”. So Jesus was actually correcting Nicodemus in his understanding of what Jesus was saying.
      Yet by not having an English word with the same double meaning, the translator has to make a choice.
      Struggling with the Word of God is always such an enriching experience!
      God bless,

  9. Great piece! Good word study! Why we don’t need another translation! Everyone should do this! Thanks!
    James Lawson

  10. angieangel says:

    Yeshua spoke Hebrew. . The original bible was written in Masoretic Text which is the old hebrew language. The plainest example of this is in Mark 5-41. The Greek text says “Talitha coum” then includes a statement saying “which is translated ” Girl ,I say to you, rise.” This purports to be a translation of “Talitha coum!” and must of been added by a well-intentioned copier who did not understand, mistaking talitha, the Greek spelling of talit,for the Aramaic talyiata, meaning young woman. “Talit coum” is Hebrew for Prayer shawl rise!” Yeshua placed his prayer shawl over the girl,then spoke to the prayer shawl.

    • Dear Angie Angel,
      The New Testament was most definitely not written in Masoretic Text, but in Greek, the Lingua Franca of the entire Roman Empire. And sometimes the Hebrew or Aramaic words were inserted into the text. Sometimes the writer does give a translation of the Hebrew, but not always. But I was not there. I prefer to rely on those who had been present, like John. Or those who wrote down what a first person witness had remembered, like Mark writing down Peter’s testimony. It is easy to make all kinds of suggestions on what should have been said and what not. But that is not my field of study.

      • Michael Maurice says:

        Matthew written first in Hebrew, Mark in Aramaic,Luke in Greek, John in Syriac

      • Thank you Michael for stopping by and giving your opinion.
        Unfortunately there is no evidence what so ever that the gospels originally were written in any language other than Greek.
        A careful study of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) clearly show that Matthew and Luke definitely made use of Mark in compiling their gospels. If the gospels had originally been written in different languages, a word for word congruence between them would not be possible. And John had also most definitely not been written in Syriac, but in Kione Greek.
        God bless,
        Herman, Pretoria, South Africa.

  11. Tom Sotirakos says:

    It’s actually from the mind. The way we think is what we do so cultivating proper thoughts creates a different reality. If someone with a specific personality experiences certain patterns those patterns will change once he changes his personality. If that is done then there will be noticeable differences in his outer worlds. So if the kingdom of heaven is within then being born from above means the mind.

    It could simply mean from the mind. After all we know that the kingdom of heaven isn’t anywhere else but within us so heaven means mind.

    “Luke Chapter 17:21
    Neither shall they say, ‘Lo, it is here!’ or ‘Lo, it is there!’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.”

  12. Hamma says:

    Look at Victor N Alexander’s Aramaic New Testament footnote on John 3:3 page 182,and then the footnote on page 184. 3.3.1 : (The) literal Aramaic idiom states “born from the head” or “again.”

  13. Edmund Lohr says:

    Were Jesus and Nicodemus speaking to each other in Greek? If so, why? If not, does the Hebrew or Aramaic equivalent of the word “ ἄνωθεν “ have the same duality of meaning? If not, how do you reconcile the duality in Greek if Nicodemus understood in a singular meaning?

    • Thank you Edmund for stopping by and directing my attention to something I missed.
      I decided to add the following paragraph to this study. I trust that you will also find it in order.
      “This conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus would most probably not have been in Greek, but in Hebrew, or Aramaic. These languages also do not have a word with the same double meaning. Nicodemus understood that Jesus was referring to childbirth, hence his objection that one cannot enter the womb again to be born again.
      Born “From above” would more clearly elucidate the meaning of the same word used in verse 7, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ ” (Verses 5 – 7)
      On the other hand, “born again” indicates a definite second step that has to be taken deliberately. It is not something that happens automatically. Therefore the translation “born again” should be preferred, both in verses 3 and 7.”
      God bless,
      Pretoria, South Africa.

  14. Hamma says:

    Herman of bibledifferences.net :
    John 3:3 :Victor N Alexander’s translation:Aramaic New Testament, Page182.Eoshoa (Ysho,Jesus the Messiah) replied (to Nicodemus) and said to him,”Amen, Amen,I am telling you, if the human [being] is not born from above*, they cannot see the Kingdom of Alaha (God)”. footnote:Page 184:
    3:3:Lit.Ar.id (Literal Aramaic Idiom) “from the head”, or “again”. Meaning one must have a renewed mindset.Be filled with the Holy Spirit,empowered by and lead by,and have a Christ-like mindset,throwing off that old sinful,animal man,and take on that Christ-like spirit-lead being.

  15. Udoeyo Joshua says:

    Since nobody decides his natural birth, likewise being born again is not an individuals decision. Another person has to cause the new birth, from above. See 1Peter 1vs3.

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