Trinity Sunday: being born

waterandspiritBorn anōthen. Jesus response to Nicodemus’ opening greeting is bold, challenging and begins with the solemn “Amen, Amen…”

3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born gennēthē anōthen .”

The expression gennēthē anōthen can be translated as “born again” or “born from above.” Some bibles opt for the “again” (TLW), some opt for “again” with a footnote to explain there is an alternative (RSV, NIV, TEV, NASB, ESV, KJV). Other opt for “from above” without explanation (NAB, NJB) or with explanation as to the alternative (NSRV, CEV).

This double meaning is possible only in Greek; there is no Hebrew or Aramaic word with a similar double meaning. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in v.3 are unavoidably and intentionally ambiguous because of the inherent double meaning of anōthen. It also fits a Johannine pattern of using such ambiguous language. The ambiguity of meaning is lost in English translations because the translators have to pick – and this favor – one meaning of anōthen in the text. At best they relegate the second meaning to a footnote. Translations have their limitations. Neither meanings are primary or secondary as both to be heard simultaneously. Jesus’ expression “to be born anōthen, to be born from above/again” challenges Nicodemus to move beyond surface meanings to a deeper meaning. When English translations resolve the tension in Jesus’ words by reducing anōthen to one of its meanings, the challenge to Nicodemus (and to the reader) is lost. The intentional double meaning of anōthen must be kept in mind when reading this verse in order to discern Jesus’ full meaning and the nature of Nicodemus’s misunderstanding.

So – which is the better translation?This is a way of asking what is the answer Jesus intends as he asks the ambiguous question? Let’s take a look. As to the word anōthen , the prefix ana (adverbial form: ano) generally means “up”. As in anabaino = “to go up” in contrast to katabaino – “to go down”. The adverb ano is used three times in John all in reference to something “up”.

  • 2:7 – They filled the jars with water to the brim (top)
  • 8:23 – “You belong to what is below [ek ton kato], I belong to what is above [ek ton ano], You belong to this world, but I do not belong to this world [ek tou kosmou].
  • 11:41 – Jesus raised his eyes up and said…

The suffix -then generally means “(motion) from (a place)”. It is used in pothen in v. 8. pou- = where? + -then = from — “You do not know from where the Spirit comes.” So, most literally, anōthen means “from up”. Besides its use in our text (vv. 3 & 7), it always has the sense “from up” in John.

  • 3:31 – The one who comes from above is above [epano] all. The one who is of the earth is earthly and speaks of earthly things. But the one who comes from heaven is above [epano] all.
  • 19:11 – You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.
  • 19:23 – The garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.

As you might infer, I favor “from above” as a primary meaning. But then language is fluid. In the context of Greek, as in English, there are idioms such as the phrase “from the top” which can mean “start from the beginning” or “do over”. So anōthen can also mean, “again” or “anew.” Depending on how you understand the context will lead you to take one meaning as primary. But that is from the hearer’s perspective. From the speaker’s point of view, the very use of the word may well intend neither, but rather is the “bait” which will reveal the listener’s heart and understanding. What will Nicodemus hear? Did Jesus mean/did Nicodemus understand “from above” (= from God) or “again” (= a second time, starting over)?

As will (hopefully) become clearer, I understand this passage as Nicodemus being offered a choice – a spiritual choice or a more secular one – to be born again. Given that, while I understand and accept the question, “Have you been born again?” it is ironic (to me) that this question is rooted in Nicodemus’ misunderstanding. Such are the limitations of translation and the power of the accepted narrative and popular expression.

What about being born? Every reference to gennao (“give birth”) in John 3 are passive (vv. 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). A good grammatical question to ask here is “who is the one who gives birth?” Mary gave birth to Jesus – clearly here, Mary is the “actor.” But in v.3 there is no clearly stated actor because the verbs are passively stated. The word gennao is used in John 1:12-13 where the “actor” is clearly defined: “But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.” The “actor” is God.

This quick grammar lesson indicates that being “born from above” is not something we do. It is something done to us (by God). In a similar way, being born the first time was not something we did. Our physical births were caused by powers far beyond our being. Being born is something that happens to us from powers outside of ourselves. We have to take that image seriously. The problem of some who claim to be “born again” is that it often becomes something they do. The etymology, grammar and the imagery of birth indicate that gennēthē anōthen is something God (the one “from above”) does to or for us.

Birth as status. Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh write about the importance of birth in Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John [p.82]:

“It is critical to recognize that the topic here is birth. Birth status was the single, all-important factor in determining a person’s honor rating. Ascribed honor, the honor derived from one’s status at birth, was simply a given. It usually stayed with a person for life. … To be born over again, born for a second time (one meaning of anōthen ), however unthinkable that event might be, would alter one’s ascribed honor status in a very fundamental way. A new ascribed honor status would derive from a new birth.

Thus, a second birth, especially if it differed substantially in honor level from the first birth, would be a life-changing event of staggering proportions.

Then they comment specifically about the transformation indicated in our text:

“To be born ‘from above’ — that is, to be born of the sky, of the realm of God — is to belong to that realm, to become a veritable child of God. This, of course, is to acquire an honor status of the very highest sort. … Thus, whatever honor status a person might have in Israelite society, being born “from above” would re-create that person at a whole new level. In addition, since all children of the same father share that father’s honor status, differences in status among “the children of God” obviously disappear, except for the firstborn.”

All that being said, in our day, “Have you been born from above?” or “Have you been born again?” are asking the right question.

How is all this relevant to the celebration of the Solemnity of the Trinity? As tomorrow’s post will make clear when the dialogue continues, the expression “born of water and Spirit” (v. 5) interprets the phrase “to be born anōthen.” One can begin to see how the larger gospel passage, just beyond the boundaries of the actual text that will be proclaimed, speaks directly to the Trinitarian life of a believer.

Image CreditBorn of Water, Born of Spirit by Jan L. Richardson

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