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!

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,

Herman.

Your comments at the bottom of this page is welcomed.

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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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19 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,
    Janstralia.
    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!

    Gary
    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. 🙂

  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.

  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!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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