“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?
Your comments at the bottom of this page is welcomed.