Context is King

Yesterday I was doing some work on James 1.17: Every good thing bestowed and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation, or shifting shadow (NASB). I was doing a search on the Greek word ἄνωθεν, which is translated “from above” in the translation above. Somewhere in the middle of all this I got distracted and went off on a tangential search when I saw that the same word, ἄνωθεν, is also used in John 3.3.

The NASB, which is the version I typically use, translates John 3.3:

Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.

And for the Greek readers out there, the Greek reads:

ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι, ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν, οὐ δύναται ἰδεῖν τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.

So, my question, after looking at the Greek of John 3.3, was, why isn’t John 3.3 translated “Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Then, I started going through the English translations to see if this was something that the various translators offered as a lexical possibility. And, lo and behold, these were my findings:

NIV In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”
ESV Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
NASB Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
NET Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
NLT Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
The 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.”
CEV Jesus replied, “I tell you for certain that you must be born from above before you can see God’s kingdom!”
NAB Jesus answered and said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
NRS Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
KJV Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
NJB Jesus answered: In all truth I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.
HCSB Jesus replied, “I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

** The English rendering of the Greek word ἄνωθεν is in bold in each instance.

You do NOT need to know Greek in order to be able to see where the interpretive issues are in this verse, all you have to do is make a chart of the various English translations and compare them.  Start asking the question, “where do the translations differ from one another?”  Of course, comparing the translations doesn’t resolve the issue entirely but it can give you a really good idea of what issues are at stake. Learning to ask the right questions is a major part of exegesis.

Sure enough, after glancing at a couple of lexicons, I found that the word ἄνωθεν can mean both “from above” and “again.” BDAG (Frederick William Danker, ed.  A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature 3rd Ed (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 92), the standard Greek Lexicon, gives the basic semantic range for the word ἄνωθεν as the following:

  • 1. in extension from a source that is above, from above
  • 2. from a point of time marking the beginning of something, from the beginning
  • 3. for a relatively long period in the past, for a long time
  • 4. at a subsequent point of time involving repetition, again, anew

Our verse, John 3.3, is listed under categories 1 and 4. In other words, the immediate context of John 3.3 is suitable for both meanings (1 & 4) and not even BDAG, the Greek Lexicon par excellence, knows, unequivocally, which meaning is best. BDAG says that John 3.3 is “designedly ambiguous.” But what does “designedly ambiguous” mean, exactly? This seems to be the same question that another lexicon has when it says the suggestion that both meanings are meant “is superfluous and unprovable” (Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Vol 1. Translated by Geoffrey Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), 378).   But to this ostensible skepticism, J. Gerald Janzen quips, “The charge of superfluity in a gospel that abounds in double-meanings is supercilious” (“How Can a Man be Born when He is Old? Jacob/Israel in Genesis and the Gospel of John,” Encounter 65 (2004): 323-343).

Welcome to lexical study, Siestas.

Isn’t this fun?

As you can see on the chart, the NET Bible translates the word ἄνωθεν “from above.” In a fairly extensive footnote the editor explains to us the reason for the translation:

The word ἄνωθεν has a double meaning, either “again” or “from above”. This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means “from above.” Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is “from above.” Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, “How can a man be born when he is old? He can’t enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born, can he?” The author uses the technique of the “misunderstood question” often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.

I often recommend the NET Study Bible to people (you can also find the entire text along with notes online), because even if one does not agree with the translation at various points, the notes are plentiful and invaluable. They really give the reader an idea of what is going on in the translation process. Just picture yourself as a little fly hovering on a brittle old papyrus in Daniel Wallace’s office when you read the notes.

It’ll be fun. Kind of? I mean, if you like this sorta thing.

Just in case you got bored and/or distracted but are somehow still reading out of compassion for my mental health, the bottom line is that we do not know whether the word in John 3.3 should be translated “from above” or “again” or if the word is providentially ambiguous in light of its double meaning.

The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology says, “The meaning of anothen in John 3.3, 7 has been a matter of debate among scholars. It can mean that a person must be born “again,” but it can also mean that one must be born “from above.” Perhaps we do not need to choose between the two, for when we are born from above (i.e. born from the Spirit of God), we experience rebirth (i.e., we are born again)” (Verlyn D. Verbrugge, ed.  New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 56).   Similarly, William D. Mounce says “the ambiguity in the word beautifully covers both concepts” (William D. Mounce, ed. Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 274).  Sounds to me like a very nice way to say, “Get a grip, folks. Stop bickering about minutiae because both renderings end up meaning exactly the same thing.”

But, then again . . .


So, just to clarify, here are the major interpretive options:

1) In the context, the meaning of ἄνωθεν is probably “again.”
2) In the context, the meaning of ἄνωθεν is probably “from above.”
3) In the context, the double meaning of ἄνωθεν is intended; it is intentionally ambiguous (I am not sure how these folks would translate the verse into English since they can still only choose one English word)
4) Considering the context, it really does not matter if ἄνωθεν means “from above” or “again” because ultimately the theological meaning of being born again and being born from above is exactly the same.

So, who do you think is right?

This is just one (relatively insignificant) example of the issues translators have to deal with on a regular basis.  Perhaps we should pray for them.  For real.  I recognize that this is fairly tedious at some points, but I really want to know what you think. Given the data, what do you think is the best interpretive option for John 3.3? Try to carefully examine the immediate context of John 3 (I would read all of John 1-3 to be safe).  As the exegetical pundits like to say, Context is King.  What does the immediate context tell us?  There are things about the immediate context that support the translation “again” but there are also things that support “from above.”  What are they?  Also, don’t forget to survey the four additional verses in John’s gospel where the word ἄνωθεν is also used: 3:7; 3:31; 19:11; 19:23.   What do these additional usages tell us, if anything?

And, oh yeah, I am not going to tell you what I think.  Mostly because I am totally open to your persuasion.

Remember, there are no right or wrong answers.

{Actually, let’s be honest, there is a right or wrong answer, but none of us are going to know it on this side of eternity}

Talk to me.

P.S. I think I’m going to start calling Christ followers “born-from-above-Christians” just to be annoying.


357 Responses to “Context is King”

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  1. 251
    Kay says:

    I think it is texts like this that remind us of how wonderfully sovereign God is in ordaining that Jesus come to earth at the time He did and in the culture He did. The ancient languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek are so much richer than our English. I think it is by God’s sovereignty that Jesus said what He did in a language that held multiple meanings for so many words and phrases. And that’s why I believe Jesus was saying, “You must be ‘born again’, ‘this time from above.'” Because Nicodemus was trained to think so literally, as a Pharisee, he had trouble with Jesus’ meaning.

    And perhaps that’s the bigger issue, now that I think about it. I think Jesus often spoke the way He did in order to get the people to think a little bigger, a little broader, a little more eternally. The religious leaders of that time were so legalistic that they had made all of God’s Word nothing more than a list of do’s and don’ts. Jesus wanted them to think beyond their literal rules and get to the heart of the matter.

    I think Nicodemus had a hard time with Jesus’ question more because of what he (and others) had made of God’s Word than because of semantics.

    I think God continues to stretch our minds and hearts. That’s why studying the Bible never grows old and we never know it all.

    I’m also relieved that you added your comment after you said, “There is no wrong or right answer.” I too, believe there really is a right answer. I can speculate and postulate and simply “be late” all day long, but God’s Word is HIS WORD. He wrote it and means what He means. But it sure is delightful to dig in there, seek the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and try to better understand what He means.

    • 251.1
      Mary says:

      Dear Kay:
      What a beautiful, thought-provoking response! Your suggestion that God wanted “to get the people to think a little bigger, a little broader, a little more eternally…to think beyond their literal rules and get to the heart of the matter” deeply resonated with me.

      I think many of us who grew up with legalism, were like Nicodemus and “had a hard time with Jesus’ question more because of what [our religious teachers] had made of God’s Word than because of semantics.”

      After years of searching, I’m beginning to realize just how exciting it is to allow God “to stretch our minds and hearts…[and to relish the fact that] studying the Bible never grows old and we never know it all.

      My sincere thanks for the wisdom in your beautifully-worded message,
      Nova Scotia

  2. 252
    pat w says:

    if you will indulge me, i hope not to offend anyone whom may regard themselves as a “born again-er” but I have had difficulty with this “born again” stuff for a long time and think deep down that it has become a cliche among people more so like a bumper sticker might, seen one today “got jesus?” a take-off of the “got milk?” craze, or the infamous “wwjd?” keychains license plates t-shirts stickers — when fact is I cannot do what jesus would do, cause I’m not jesus, period. If i can remember, when in the heat of emotion to ask myself, what would jesus Have Me To do?, then I feel humbled by it and often ashamed that I didnt ask before my big mouth opened first and got me in deeper trouble again…. maybe i should ask myself that question right now as well. but back to “born again”- I have to say that “born from above” just feels or resonates more with something within that opens the door more, for what’s that? born from above? what’s that mean?- and this opens the door for introspection, for me… again, thank you for indulging my input, though am not disputing the variations of it either way, just had never thought of it before, and have enjoyed letting brain play a little bit on this one…. :]

  3. 253
    Cindy Barganier says:

    I am WORN OUT!!!! ha ha

  4. 254
    Anita Kemp says:

    Could both be accurate? The human mind, is totally confused about the “born again” concept, therefore, the dual meaning allows the hearer to understand the “rebirth” is “from above.” This can only possible, if, the ancient listener would understands “from above” to mean spiritual. In English we have these dual meaning words…could this be a possibility? I love these entries of yours, I am in awe of your brilliant mind and LOVE your sharing so I can and others can learn.

  5. 255
    Susan Warren says:

    Good Morning…it’s wonderful to read over your research included in your blog! I like your questions, a lot.
    Here is my take:

    What ever we receive from The Father, from Jesus, Our Lord…since they are from and currently live in “Above”…then being born again…must include the corresponding action and miracle from the Source…Jesus…our Lord, Redeemer, Savior, and High Priest, and Coming King! To me…we are all instantly connected …spiritually…from right here on planet earth, to right there, in Heaven…when we embrace His offer and with our mouths (and hearts and all that is within in us)…confess that Jesus is Lord, and then, embrace the miracle of our very own new birth in Christ!! And in addition, Holy Spirit’s ministry is here on earth…so, it’s all a miracle…and isn’t limited to time or space! I just love it!

  6. 256
    Kassie says:

    I dont know what to think!

    Above- or born again… either way- Jesus still meant “From Him”

    I’m just so happy to see that someone else does the same thing- it’s nice to know I am in good company! I am referring to getting hooked on a phrase or a verse and then later seeing that some how I have spent hours inbedded in it! But those unexpected trips always leave me feeling like I was just holding God’s hand while He was leading me deeper into His Word!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • 256.1
      brenda says:

      Your post really touched me this friend and I have just really started getting into these could be scripture..a song that we have sang thousands of times …or just how a speaker phrases something…
      It has truly been like that nudge from GOD…study this ..go deeper…and now after your post I am going to add..God says hold my hand and I will walk you through it!!!!!

  7. 257
    Sherri says:

    It certainly stands to reason that either “again” or “from above” can be used in John 3:3, since, as you pointed out, at the end of the day, they are the same thing. However, if Christ had said “from above” would Nic have asked Him how he could possibly crawl back into his mother’s womb? Therefore, the footnote cited makes total sense to me.

    In this passage, Christ seemed to be reading Nic’s mind more than the other way around, (See Christ’s reply to Nic’s comment in verse 2! huh??…didn’t ask that question, but obviously that’s what Nic needed, so Christ knew his heart even if his words didn’t express it clearly) so it would stand to reason Nic’s questions would have been asked on the basis of what he understood Christ’s words to be rather than on what Christ may have been thinking. So in my pea-sized brain, I’ll vote, today anyway, for “again.”

    Yes, this is fun!

  8. 258
    Shawna says:

    I don’t know what the “right” answer is, but reading “born from above” gave me chills when I read it. My spirit cries out for that interpretation rather than simple “again.”

  9. 259
    Tiffany says:

    I love my KJV and I agree with “BORN AGAIN”! I’m glad I was “born again” b/c that means I went from my old sinful self to a new creature in Christ Jesus – 2 Cor 5:17!! I am impressed with your study on the Greek words and translations. That is just one of the things I love about Beth’s deeply, prepared studies over the Greek meanings. However, since you asked for our input and I happen to have an opinion on this:) I do have to say I only read and believe the King James Version translation. Not that I would want to cause any dispute between my fellow brothers & sisters over this, but it is a concern of mine that there are so many translations of the Bible. If I or you or Beth wrote a book, I’m sure you would not want to have 10 other people rewrite their version or translation of your words. I wonder if this is how God feels? I understand that the translation to another language was needed, but why translate over and over and over again? Also it bothers me because can two people no longer “quote” The Bible and have the same quote & meaning? Even though in the case of this scripture reference the ‘meaning’ seems to have weaved through the translations seamlessly, but there are several verses of scripture from other versions are so far from the original English translation(KJV). Not to offend anyone but do some comparing and you’ll find out some shocking differences. Satan loves to twist God’s word and truth, as he tried to do even to Jesus when He was tempted in Matt 4 when he twisted around scripture. All I can say to end my long spill is hopefully I won’t offend anyone with this post! 🙂 I would only want to encourage others to think and research on their own just as Melissa has! Thanks for sharing Melissa!

  10. 260
    Stephanie W says:

    Yep, it feels like a “from above” to me. For me, I consider the emotion it evokes, fallible as it may be. Since, I know, and because I feel, and have been changed by the Holy Spirit who is responsible for my present state as a gift from the Father because of the Son, it applicable that it is “from above” and not simply “born again”. Some would dare receive the context of “born again”, as simply “turned over a new leaf” and for me that is severely incorrect and dangerously inadequate.

  11. 261

    Loved it, Melissa!

    Back in May, I felt the Lord put this question to me, “What does it mean to be born-again?” And yes, He (the Spirit of God) used the phrase “born-again.”

    Hmmm…as a 40+-year-old, spiritually speaking, I thought, sounds like He’s wanting me to do some in-depth studying of the basics. So, I pulled out four or five translations (NIV, NASB, KJ, NKJ, NLT, Amplified, The Message…oops, that’s more than four or five), went online to, and dug into John 3:1-8 plus other cross-referenced scriptures.

    Interestingly, the first thing I made note of in my study was the very thing you’re writing about here: why do some translations translate that greek word “from above” and others “again?” For whatever it’s worth to you, my conclusions were pretty much the same as yours…as far as which is right. Both!

    For me, however, the “message” that the Holy Spirit seemed to impress on me after well over a month’s study of this text had more to do with a deeper understanding of the “results” of being born-again/born from above rather than how I wanted to refer to the “spiritual event.”

    It’s about a heart change. Something that didn’t exist before, at the heart level (or spiritually), now does. Whether it’s born-again, or born from above, “born” is the key word…and that’s what I “keyed” on for the duration of my study.

    By the way, I LOVED how you inserted the table showing the various English versions and translations. This is way better than how I was doing some of my writings where I was trying to share multiple translations.

    Thanks, Melissa!

    From another “born-from-above” Christian!

  12. 262
    Pam says:

    I really wish it could be the translation: “from the beginning.” That makes sense to me. You have to be like Jesus. You have to have been there before sin entered. Obviously, we can’t do that, but Jesus WAS there. So, by choosing Him, we’re choosing to be a part of the beginning — the before picture. It’s a cool way of thinking about that passage. Now just to keep that doctrinlly sound…hmmm…..

  13. 263
    Andrea Porter says:

    Glad to have a chance still to reply to this post, I was sidetracked by a little water in the basement. I am leaning more towards the translation “again”. I thought the word “above” was used more in a context of authority over or in relation to someone’s authority or position over someone else. I felt that the word “again” is more appropriately used in this passage. This is what I found in my one and only Word Study Dictionary. I am sure if I had more, I would be pulling my hair out and getting no sleep due to my word nerdiness. “Again”- to beget again, regenerate. It is equivalent to being a child of God or to be born of God; or to be born from ‘above’. Or becoming a qualitatively new creation or creature. My opinion, when a person accepts the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and turn from sin,repent, I believe they become a qualitatively new creation or creature. They are revived, become fully awake, to rescue from death, to make alive, to receive fully. In neut. the word indicates either the second time or again. In my opinion regarding the passages in John 19:11 and 19:23 I feel are referring to God’s authority from above is reinforcing the fact that Jesus is God’s son and all authority God has is shown through his son. Jesus would not be able to perform his miracles or teach with such authority if God was not ruling from ‘above’. I think I will start using the phrase ‘Begat -Again- Christians. This was fun, thanks for the opportunity to try and dig deeper into the word.

    Andrea Porter 😉

  14. 264
    Amber says:

    I find this type of thing fascinating. My husband is a preacher and his seminary is teaching that KJV 1611 is the only inspired word of God. I have several issues with this so this blog is wonderful for me. The only translation I have researched is NIV and I do not agree with it at all. But there are other reasons for that. Anyway, I would be interested in more information! so excited to see this on the blog. yes, i am a nerd 🙂

  15. 265

    What a wonderful discussion. Melissa, you DO add an amazing layer of discussion–at once scholarly and intuitive. I just happened to have a K.S. Wuest “expanded translation” of The New Testament and it says, “born again, that second birth having the same source as the first one, he is not able to see the kingdom of God……” Wuest’s translation repeats the statement at the end of verse 7 “It is necessary in the nature of the case for all of you to be born again, that second birth having the same source as the first one.”

    Melissa, how about looking at Mark 11:22 the same way you did this passage? Most translations say “Have faith in God,” Jesus answered. But Dr. Charles S Price, in his eloquent book, “The Real Faith for Healing”, discusses literal greek word order as “Have you faith OF God.”

  16. 266
    Esther White says:

    Thanks Amanda,
    I love word studies and I learned so much here. Thanks for taking us deep and helping us use our brains! I love this!!!!

  17. 267
    Mari says:

    First off, thank you Melissa for delving into such interesting topics with us! As I read your whole post I was struck that both translations were as you said getting us to the same explanation. But what if, we stick that fancy greek word in there twice? Side by side. In English it would be “Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God!” Now obviously the original text only has it once, but just for fun if you do it twice it really sends a nice message.

  18. 268
    stillanon says:

    would you please teach a class so i could listen and learn …..this sent me off to james 1:18….i love this book!…..born again/from above through the word!

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