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. 201
    Becky says:

    Whoa Baaaby that was somethin’.
    Sorry to tell ya sweetie, I only speak English, southern, and some slang. ha-ha-
    BUT…Interesting thought provoking post.
    I use 2 translations the KJV and after 40+ yrs of being taught legalism,(which I have shed and am still shedding) I now mostly use the NIV, espec. when doing a study, because I can understand it much better, but I still love my KJV.
    Now, back to Join 3:3. From Above or Again? huummm…I have heard taught, ‘again’ meaning we have been physically born on this earth, then we we accept Jesus into our hearts, we are being born into the family of God at that very moment of our salvation. = born ‘again’.
    From Above…that tells me without all the intelligent digging and study that I am not cable of doing, that when we accept Jesus as our savior we are born into God’s family above where God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are, we receive His gift. = from above.
    That is my take on it. Could be right, wrong, almost, or just plain stupid.
    Thanks for the food for thought.

  2. 202
    Brenda says:

    I would want to examine the word ‘born’ while I was at it, for some reason, it just stuck out to me and it might give a bit more insight. I would love doing what you do!! If only I were younger. Unfortunately I don’t have many brain cells left and I’m planning on getting a new cell phone soon, so I need to be frugal. : )

  3. 203
    Nikki L' says:


    Can you answer a question for me? How do you know which promises are ours in the new covenant? This is very confusing to me and I don’t understand why some promises from the Old Testament are continually applied to our lives but then others are not.

    For instance, I have heard your mother say that “material blessings are not a result of obedience in the new covenant like they were in the old.” So how does that apply to other areas, say healing. I really want to be able to firmly stand on Gods promises but because of this confusion, my ground is shaky at best:)

    I hope it’s ok that I asked you this here, I don’t know how else to get to you(I am having trouble with the contact us page). If you want you could just send me an email to [email protected]. Even if you could just suggest a book to read that would answer this for me I would be most grateful.

    • 203.1
      Rebecca says:

      Hi Nikki L
      Beth gave me a wonderful answer to this during July. I think it was around the July 10th date. Check back in the archives and maybe you can find it otherwise let me know and I’ll reprint her answer.

  4. 204
    Brandy says:

    I love this posting! I love lexicography and I think this is so interesting! To me it seems that of course the Son of God used this word on purpose. What didn’t he do on purpose? Clearly he knew that there was a double meaning and I’d say that since He is the beginning and the end surely He was well aware that would make it into the Bible and be important for all believers.

  5. 205
    Charlotte Gott says:

    I wouldn’t choose one or the other. I love that I just found out that the Greek means both “born again” and “from above.” I suppose that the “born again” has become a little — can I say this safely — cliche? And for some of the outside world, it has negative connotations of some obnoxious zealot screaming hellfire at you if you don’t suddenly profess to believe all. Ultimately, being born again is not a physical birth, but a spiritual one and so the second meaning just rounds out the first. P.S. At my Methodist church, we say “Context is everything” so I guess we’re onto something there.

  6. 206

    Well, here I am reading the LPM blog on a chilly Saturday night in Michigan. My main thought when first skimming this post was “Wow, not a light read for tonight!” But then I settled in and read it, then proceeded to read all of the comments. I completely ADORE women in the body of Christ! I love all of the different points of view, the many scholarly insights, and the precious ones who admittedly don’t care for word studies!

    While I am not one that dives into many word studies on my own, I totally appreciate your gift. Your passion for the word is contagious–and yes, you are very intelligent girl! Love hearing for all three of you, because there is such personality in each of your posts!

    And for the record, I like the “born from above” translation. Makes me happy.

    Blessings to you Melissa!

  7. 207
    Buddy says:

    It’s Saturday! There must be a Jackson soccer story somewhere! 🙂 My niece was the only girl on her kindergarten team and when she scored a goal, her little teammate (who was all of about the same size as she was)picked her up and carried her around. One. of. My. Most. Favorite. Memories. Ever.

  8. 208
    Linda says:

    I haven’t studied Greek or Hebrew, but absolutely love this post – and all other explanations of original Greek and Hebrew that illuminate Scripture and reveal God to be even bigger than I knew Him to be.

    As for me, I think I will happily adopt being called a
    “Born-AGAIN-from-above-Christian!” 🙂

  9. 209
    marylee says:

    Dear Melissa,
    Thank you for digging into the word for us and making it so easy to understand in ways that someone with a learning disability never could…I know that God blesses with people like you to give ways to open my heart and mind to the mysteries of the Word I know I could never discover on my own. Thanks so much for being the lovable scholar you are. Love, Marylee

  10. 210
    Rhonda says:

    Hey Melissa!

    I’m not able to enter into the discussion at present, however I just wanted to say…..I love words……..and I love that you share your expertise with words in English as well as other languages. Thanks so much!

    And I too think I’ll dub myself and other Christ Followers, “born from above Christians”……….annoying or not, it conveys a message in a whole new way : )

    Keep writing…… is so appreciated!!

  11. 211
    J. says:

    Love this! Thanks for sharing.

  12. 212
    tonya m. says:

    This “question” has been sticking in my mind since I read it, like chewing gum plastered on the bottom of my shoe…. but in a much better way!

    I had a brief moment to browse this post mid-week and haven’t had a chance to come back to it. I’m a mother of a wonderful 2 year-old little boy. ‘Nuff said.

    So, as God would have it, I’m sitting in church this morning, listening to the sermon, which is part of our church’s 40 day study with Ken Hemphill in Empowering Kingdom Growth. Our pastor was preaching from John 3 and as I’m sitting there chewing on John 3:3 and remembering this post, my pastor goes on to say that the phrase “born again” (v.3) actually translates to “from above”. So, I knew God was pulling me back to this to take a closer look.

    My instinct is to lean toward options 3 and 4.

    “3) In the context, the double meaning of ἄνωθεν is…(I am not sure how these folks would translate the verse into English since they can still only choose one English word)
    I don’t believe we can limit God’s actual meaning and Word within the confines of the English language or any human tongue. So, in our limitedness, we’re “stuck” with choosing which word to use.

    “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.”

    My first thoughts were of the following Scriptures: Ephesians 2:19 “So then you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with the saints, and members of God’s household.”

    Philippians 3:20 “For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ”.

    In the EKG study, we’re remembering who we are and Whose we are; that we should act and live like those in God’s Kingdom. So, to say that we are “from above Christians” is awesome in that it totally flips our perspective into what it should be. So, I do believe that “born again” in John 3:3 was intended to be “from above”.

    When we sit at the feet of Jesus, we’ll know for sure. :o) But it is certainly appropriate, healthy, and good for us to sharpen one another and our understanding of His Word to us. :o)

    Thanks for the mental workout!!

    • 212.1
      Yanna says:

      Tonya, this was really good. Thank you for the additional scripture refrences. I copied them in my Bible on the baptism dates to remember page. 🙂

  13. 213
    Leila Hollingsworth says:

    Siesta, you are your Mother’s daughter!! But in a more analytical way(should that be scary to some folks?!!!)
    Both meanings are rich and totally true so maybe “born again from above” would be the best word picture here.
    Thanks for showing us a gleaming, little facet of the perfection that is God’s Word. Fear not showing us these intricacies from time to time, it helps to make Scripture even more precious to me and I imagine to other folks too.
    Would love to have lunch in VA Hi one day. Give me a shout.
    P.S. Is it amazing how much of God’s heart we find going down “rabbit trails”? He just reveals Himself in the strangest places!

  14. 214
    Bonnie says:

    This is what I so love about the Bible. I prefer “from above” because to me it is very specific as to from where that re-birth must happen but admittedly, “born again” is a well used phrase understood by many to mean “from above” so it’s not really a matter of being more clear. Before I talk too much and write a book, I’ll get back to my original point. This is what I so love about the Bible. To dig, to dive, to revel in what is clear and what is not, all of it teaching, sloughing off that which is “human” thinking and focusing us back on Jesus and what He taught… Thank you for this. I hope to read more, learn more – drink in just how much one to two verses can teach us about God and what He intends for us. And dive deeper into the Word myself.

  15. 215
    Cindy says:

    Woo-hoo..this is good stuff!! Alot of it zoomed right over my head, but my heart just leapt at the “born from above” translation. Truly blessed by the blog..thank you all!

  16. 216
    Donna says:

    My “Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament” Fritz Rienecker / Cleon Rogers says:
    …”from above,” the heavenly world from whose power a man must be renewed (Schnackenburg), “again”, “anew”. The translation “reborn from above” includes both meanings of the word (Morris).

    Sounds a lot like what you already said. 🙂
    Don’t you love taking scripture apart and learning for yourself… the Lord blesses me so much when I’m faithful to study His word.
    Thanks for the scripture lesson!!! 🙂

  17. 217
    Emily says:

    Dear Readers,
    When translators use the English term “born again” they are giving us the conversation from the perspective of Nicodemas. When reading Christ’s response and explanation, we receive the conversation from perspective of Christ. In using the term “born again”, translators give Anglophones clarity to understand Nicodemas’s confusion, (and that confustion was something important enough that the Lord included in his Holy Word). Without the term “born again”, Anglophones do not easily understand why Nicodemas was confused. (I do not pretend to understand why God determined it was important that we see Nicodemas’s confusion. I contend simply that his confusion is included in the text, and is therefore something important for us to know). By using “born again”, the anglophone receives the benefit of understanding the text as as if it was written in Greek: A speaker of Greek would recognize the double meaning of the word and understand Nicodemas’s error. If the translators chose the terminology “born from above”, a speaker of English would not really understand why Nic was confused and would wonder why an educated and assumedly intelligent man asks about the physical world, when Christ uses exceptionally clear words which indicate a spiritual meaning. Using “born from above” would make Nicodemas confusion seem silly and thoughtless, yet we know that Nicodemas was indeed educated, especially in spiritual matters, leaving us to infer that he was not a fool but a wise man (yes, the double meaning there was intentional).
    In addition, the reader may pause to reflect: the use of the term “born again” does not make Christs meaning less clear: as Anglophones, we easily understand Christ’s point because of the subsequent explanation. Instead of making Christ’s meaning less clear, the term “born again” it makes Nicodemas’s confusion more clear. We, in essence, become Nicodemas: we see his confusion, and Christ’s words clarify the meaning to us just as His words clarified the meaning to Nicodemas.
    Dear Reader, Christ, when choosing his words in Greek, was not surprised by Nicodemas’s confusion, instead He chose this word with a double meaning KNOWING that Nicodemas would misunderstand. He certainly could have chosen to use other words that prevented such confusion, but He didn’t. He allowed Nicodemas’s confusion, and caused it to be recorded in His Word. Isn’t it best to understand that confusion? I argue that the translators, through prayer and spiruitual guidance, chose the words “born again” very well, that we might better understand the Word of God.

    When the translators used the term “born again”, the English speaker understands both Nicodemas confusion, AND understands Christs’ explanation . Using “born again” gives the English reader a more complete picture of what really happened. God makes a point of showing us the conversation as it was, AND the confusion of Nicodemas. If the confusion of Nicodemas was irrelevant, God wouldn’t have included it in the text. He woudl simply have included Christs’ explaination about being born from above. Using the term “born again” gives English readers a clearer understanding of the text God gave us.

  18. 218
    Jennifer says:

    “From above” seems to be the best rendering to me-I love Bible exegesis like you, but find myself waiting at times for the Spirit to reveal what the Godhead intended (since it’s at His discretion to reveal or cloak). You’re right-since Nicodemus was thinking of birth as a purely “here- on earth” subject, Jesus had to distinguish that He was talking about the gift only God could extend-which ultimately was extended from above.
    (All that being said, we are born again-new creations, right?) 🙂

  19. 219
    Ernest says:

    I believe that the “again” is the best, due to the proof in verses 4-8, it is clear that Nicodemus took it to mean “again” since Jesus had to clarify it to him. If it was supposed to be “from above”, Jesus’s explanation would not make sense. So yes “from above” would be better for us since we know that Jesus is referring to a spiritual birth. But for the conversation that took place with Nicodemus “again” fits the situation, since Jesus had to explain it to Nicodemus. You are right context is everything, that is why we must not only look at the meaning but also at the situation at hand. Which in this case is the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Contextually you didn’t lose the point of the the verses which is we must be born of the Spirit, but conversationally it must be “again”.

    In His service

    • 219.1
      Melissa says:


      The immediate context is the major argument for the “again” interpretation because, as you pointed out, it makes most sense with Nicodemus’ reply. The major question though is whether or not Jesus could have meant “from above” but Nicodemus misunderstood him to mean “again.” A significant number of scholars have argued that the usage of double meaning is a technique used quite a bit by the author of the fourth gospel. They argue it is used to highlight how often people misunderstand Jesus. The problem, of course, is trying to capture the phenomenon in an English translation. Thanks for your comment.


  20. 220
    Gleanne Marie says:

    I LOVE it! It’s a word problem with no math involved!!! I love the beauty of the ‘from above’ choice…however, if pressed, I think ‘again’ would be the most logical translation. But isn’t it just like Jesus to say something that still has us digging into the Word and words all these years later?
    Keep it up, sister!

  21. 221
    DM says:


    How do you get to the root of your fears? How do you figure what it is you really fear???

  22. 222
    A Heart to Know Him says:

    The Breath of the Spirit is King. The scripture teaches that it is the letter that kills but the Spirit gives life and so I would gently add that is truly the only *context* that matters.

    It is also the glory of KINGS to search out a matter. Concordances and different translations are wonderful and I praise the Lord for them, but if the Spirit doesn’t blow upon the written word it will remain hidden to the carnal mind.

    The Spirit of Revelation unfolds the letter so that we see with the eyes of our spirit what the natural mind cannot.

    I see(understand) that verse in James as referring to the Lord’s people….we are His PERFECT gifts….for IN Him we are finished…halleluYah to the name of Yahshua. We are his Heavenly Lights in this dark world, his perfect gifts that He gives to minister life to others. So yes, born from above makes sense.

    We are also told to leave the elementary teachings of Christ and LET US GO ON TO PERFECTION….to maturity….and so I believe that perfection is happening now…for those who believe…and that each and every day we are growing in grace and in KNOWLEDGE of the Lord Jesus Christ…and this happens all by His Spirit as we GAZE into the PERFECT LAW OF LIBERTY…. and who is that perfect Law of Liberty? …..our glorious elder brother Jesus/Yahshua! By gazing, I am referring to sitting at His feet and listening to Him speak a TODAY word…and that today word is where we enter into HIS REST. The labor is in sitting still, of being quiet, of resting and abiding IN HIM.

    The glorious thing is that He is the one who works in us to will and to do….amazing.

    I give you praise Lord….you alone.

    May the Lord bless you.

  23. 223
    Jackie Malpica says:

    I personally think it should be translated “from above.” Born from above is so exacting. It indicates being a part of heaven and God’s Kingdom. It implies understanding in a way different from the way of our world. It explains in an exact way that unless we know God, unless His Spirit is in us, we can not understand His ways. There is a piercing in the heart with that point. Unless he is “born again” has such and alien ring to it. Due to our limited human minds, it’s no wonder Nicodemus said how can that be! But, if you tell some one they can not understand unless they are part of it, born of it, they are more enticed to be curious about what that means and why they are not included in these things. Born again is illogical and ends the discussion were it began…..

  24. 224
    JJen says:

    Okay, I am so NOT a theological thinker like this. It hurts my brain 🙂 but here is my two cents. I think option #4 because I don’t believe that God is a God of confusion. He is a deep and double entendre God if ever there was one, so why not both? It really makes the most sense to me… aren’t you glad you asked? 🙂

  25. 225
    Joy S. says:


    Thanks for the post. This takes me back to a semester ago when I finished translating the Gospel of John for an Independent Study Greek III class. This discussion was as lively then as now. So, to honor the NERD that I am, I would offer a few additional references to keep the cogs turning:

    1) Word Biblical Commentary (Beasley-Murray, pg 45) gives this footnote for Jn 3:3 (which, by the way, they translate ἄνωθεν as “from above”):

    “ἄνωθεν can mean ‘from above’ and ‘again, anew.’ Westcott (1:136) and Bultmann (135) insisted on the latter meaning here, Bernard (1:102) and Schanckenburg (1:367-68) affirmed that it must mean the former; others considered that both meanings are intended (e.g., Bauer, Lexicon, 77; Dodd, Interpretation, 303). In this context ‘from above’ in the sense of ‘from God’ appears to be primarily in mind (this is its meaning elsewhere in the Gospel, including 3:31), the other meaning is naturally subsumed under its primary emphasis.


    “Since ἄνωθεν relates to God’s action it is best to translate γεννηθῇ as ‘be begotten,’ rather than ‘be born’ (used of birth from a mother).”

    One thing I’m thinking that makes me more a proponent of “from above” than “again” as a choice is the subjunctive mood of the verb γεννηθῇ. When Jesus uses “ἐὰν μή” in this sentence, he is speaking in regard to a conditional event. “UNLESS anyone may be begotten from above…” As if to say, this is not the normal “born from a mother” but something beyond that. Since it is not a “conditional” event that we are born from our mothers, but it is a “conditional” event as to whether we choose Christ because it is left to our free will to do so, the nature of the subjunctive verb here pushes me more to “from above.”

    The WBC also adds (in commentary, pg 47): “The concept of being begotten from above is not a simple translation of becoming as a child, but an adaptation of the Jewish hope of a new creation. The Jews became familiar with the application of this concept to people, even in noneschatological contexts (e.g. God is said to make men ‘new creatures’ when he heals them of their infirmities; Str-B Matthaus, 420-23), but in the tradition stemming back to Jesus the eschatological element was constant.” The commentary goes on to cite several familiar passages (all which cross reference in my NASB with the Jn 3.3 passage) on new creation: 2 Cor 5.17, 1 Pet 1.23, Gal 6.15 and Titus 3.5. Then the WBC concludes: “The saying in v 3 declares that it is those whom God makes new who sill ‘see’ (=experience) the new age.”

    One would think that at least some of Jesus’ language may have had echoes of familiarity with Nicodemus, but clearly he hears the words of Jesus is a physical and not a spiritual context.

    Having said all that, I offer the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary as a good place to land: “This double meaning causes problems for translators of the Greek text, because there is no equivalent word with this double meaning in English. Thus the ambiguity of meaning is lost in English translations because they privilege one meaning of anothen in the text and relegate the second meaning to a footnote. This translation strategy communicates to the reader that the footnoted translation is a secondary definition, not an inherent meaning of the word. The translators thus decide for the reader that one reading is primary and the other secondary, when the Fourth Evangelist intends both to be heard simultaneously. Jesus’ expression “to be born anothen, 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 anothen to one of its meanings, the challenge to Nicodemus (and to the reader) is lost. The intentional double meaning of another must be kept in mind whne reading this verse in order to discern Jesus’ full meaning and the nature of Nicodemus’s misunderstanding.

    “‘To be born anothen’ speaks both of a time of birth (again) and the place form which this new birth is generated (‘from above’). ‘Kingdom of God’ also has both temporal and spatial dimensions. The ‘kingdom of God’ evokes both the time of God’s reign and the place of God’s realm. ‘Kingdom of God’ is a frequent metaphor of eschatological newness in the synoptic Gospels (e.g., mk 1.15, 4.26, Lk 4.42, 13.18), but in John it occurs only in the Nicodemus story (3.3, 5). The juxtaposition of ‘to be born anothen’ with the more traditional ‘kingdom of God’ suggests that the new birth of which Jesus speaks is also an eschatological category. The new birth of which Jesus speaks gives new access to God (cf 1 Cor 15.50)” (Vol IX, Lk/Jn, pg 549).

    My best educated opinion: keep the tension, and regard that Jesus meant both, but lean toward the less human “understanding” and keep “from above” at the forefront.

    Also, HERE’S SOME EXTRA that helps with context:

    Additionally , Jesus goes on to describe birth “of water and the Spirit” which is clearly not a physical birth. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is also both preceded by a record of Jesus’ baptism and followed by the record of both John the Baptist and Jesus baptizing followers. The WBC remarks: “The need for cleansing and expectation fo the renewal of the Spirit, accordingly, was in the air in the period of Jesus and the early Church. The Evangelist’s setting of the dialogue with Nicodemus alongside a second section concerned with the relation of John’s baptism to that promoted by Jesus (vv 25-30) indicates how he wished the first to be understood: Pharisees like Nicodemus should not stand aloof from the call to repentance for the kingdom of God issue by John the Baptist and by Jesus, for all stand in need of God’s forgiveness and the recreating work the Holy Spirit, which is as imminent as the kingdom itself. In Nicodemus’s situation, these gifts are separated, but it is a division determined by the tension within the ministry of Jesus of the ‘now and not yet,’ of better the link of ‘is coming and now is’ of the saving sovereignty, and by the fact that the sending of the Spirit awaits the ‘lifting up’ of the Son of Man (7:39)” (pg 49).

    Thanks for the challenging post. I appreciate that BDAG is both comprehensive and inconclusive! Reminds me that even the greatest scholars cannot fully understand all the mysteries of God!

    Peace to you as you continue to break open His Word!
    Joy S.
    Springfield, OH

    • 225.1
      Melissa says:

      Joy, I loved reading through all you notes. Thanks for your helpful and thorough (I’m grinning) contribution. If you were in Atlanta I would totally want to meet up and read Greek together. Where did you take Greek? I am trying to think of schools in Ohio–Cedarville? My best to you.

      • Joy S. says:


        I took Greek online through Earlham School of Religion (also Bethany Theological Seminary) in Richmond. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep up/learn as well online, but I actually found that being a virtual classroom kept me much more on task as a student. I’ve been a full-time associate pastor in Springfield for almost 7 years, and wanted to supplement my MTS degree (for which I was not required to take language). As I was putting myself through seminary while keeping a fulltime job, I often took electives that fit in my schedule more than for interest. (Sad face.) Oh, to have that opportunity over again!!

        I always enjoy reading your posts, as the academic in me is challenged by what you share and, frankly, the NERD in me stays happy! Anytime you wanna throw stuff like that “out there” (or at least to an interested party), post it, or shoot me an email anytime at [email protected].

        Grace and peace!

        • Melissa says:

          Joy, I love it. Your story sounds fascinating. And good for you for taking Greek III online. That is quite impressive. Blessings to you and thanks for your contact information. Would love to cross paths some day! Best to you in your life and ministry, Melissa

        • Yanna says:

          No! Keep the conversation going with the blog, I am learning so much from Joy and your comments Melissa. It’s like sitting at your feet and gleaning harvest.

    • 225.2
      Yanna says:

      Father I thank You for blessing us with Nerds who light up my life!!!

  26. 226
    Andrea Porter says:

    I LOVE this kind of stuff! I am such a nerd when it comes to words. Where they came from, when were they first used in any language. I will take on your challenge and get back to you when I think I have an answer to your question. I will pray for you while you try and interpret the interpretations. Best of luck.


  27. 227
    Sister in Missouri says:

    Oh dear..reading your post so reminded me that we all have different gifts…although I think I am of average intelligence and like a good debate, it was all gobbedly gook to me! I am thanking God for you though, and the way God created you to love this “digging deep” – it truly benefits us all in the body of Christ!

  28. 228
    Gwen T says:

    We work for Wycliffe Bible Translators so I too have a huge respect for translators. No, I don’t have an answer to your interpretive questions, but one thought came to mind that a pastor at a supporting church brought up recently.

    Isn’t it ironic that we have so many English translations of the Bible (with more coming out every year!) yet there are still over 2400 languages around the world with absolutely no Scripture and no translation work started???

    Worth thinking about.

    • 228.1
      Melissa says:

      Gwen, Yes, it is terribly ironic and even tragic. Definitely worth thinking about. I have several friends from school who went on to translate in other countries for this very reason. Thanks for your reminder. -Melissa

  29. 229
    Jan says:

    Melissa – I want to thank you for this – mainly because I just love you and your beauty/brains combination that is so delightful. But selfishly I loved it because it gave me and my pastor-seminary student oldest son a chance to “talk shop!” …like I have a clue. Jeremy said you did GREAT!

    My Mom came over Saturday morning and I had four different Bibles, a commentary, and my Greek Key-Word Bible on the kitchen table. She thought I was studying for my “Inheritance” class, but alas – I was reading your post! I have a Bible I really love that I think is probably out of print. Dr. W.A. Criswell of FBC Dallas wrote the study notes for the Criswell Study Bible. It is so neat…and so Baptist! 🙂

    Now, I actually lean more toward “born anew/again” because it fit my thought processes as a pastor’s wife and me thinking more theologically than textually. I thought Nicodemus would grasp/accept born from above and would have to really ponder the meaning of re-birth. I don’t know. I just know that I love you and I loved this.

    Happy Monday! It’s been a rainy day in middle Georgia!

    Mrs. Jan

    • 229.1
      Melissa says:

      Mrs. Jan, I hear where you are coming from about Nicodemus’ response. Also, I sure love you! We have been so thankful for the rain this past two days because we are ready for some cooler temperatures. It was 95 on Saturday! We had the best day yesterday. It was slow, dark, and so quiet. I miss you and love you! -Melis

  30. 230
    Katie says:

    I am going to go with “again.” I think the phrasing “must be born from above” could be taken out of context to imply that if you didn’t come from heaven, you won’t ever be able to go there. Being born again is easily understood as physically impossible, yet must hold a simple meaning of starting a new life with God.

  31. 231
    Yolanda says:

    I totally “dig” and appreciate the term “Born from above”. Never seen that before and I smile knowing you are calling me, “Born from above Christian”.

    Lots of love,

    PS: We grew our own sweet potatoes this year and made for a mighty fine batch of roasted sweet potatotes.

  32. 232
    Carol Walter says:

    I love it!! And I am going to make sure my son, a Religion and Philosphy major, sees this. He studied a semester in Greece and he loves this kind of thing too. I think it is both meanings(how policially correct is that?) I think Jesus likes to use the simple to confuse the wise and perhaps the other way around. I love to think of the bible as living and this is a perfect example! Keep sharing!

  33. 233
    Dianna says:

    Back in the beginning of my walk with the Lord, a dear friend who taught Bible Studies and continues to teach me through her life said this:

    “Text without context is pretext”

    I wrote it down inside my Bible and now 30 years later, teach it in my Bible studies along side a quote from “Augustine”;

    “Scripture explains Scripture…
    Both in the immediate context…
    the surrounding context…
    and the Theological context.”

  34. 234
    Jean says:

    No, no. “Born from above again” would be annoying.

  35. 235
    Denna Gordon says:

    Melissa, If I wanted to really study the word, what version of the Bible is best, should one study Greek and Hebrew, or what other commentary would be best? I have a deep desire to study, but don’t really know where to start.

  36. 236

    I think it makes good sense to just roll it all together and say “born again from above”! After all, if we’re born AGAIN, it has to be FROM ABOVE!

    Melissa, you are SO smart it hurts my head to read what you say! ha But I read it anyway! 🙂

    God bless ya!

    Marilyn…in Mississippi

  37. 237
    Dana says:

    Wow! Good to know how to dig deeper. Always want to learn more. This came from the little girl I remember Beth talking about coming in and seeing the books spread all over the dining room table and saying she wanted to do all of that too! Now, time has passed and here you are! What a blessing to get to see it! God Bless You!

  38. 238
    Kim says:

    It’s all Greek to me but I think either way “from above” and “again” is the same….it’s all separate from our earthly orientation.

  39. 239

    Greetings Melissa,

    This was an assignment, but I’m glad I looked it up! In looking up those verses in John, and that verse in James, I can’t conclusively say how exactly that Greek word should be translated in English either. Much more brilliant minds than mine have wrangled with it, so I can leave it to the Holy Spirit illuminating their minds. However, what I did find was fascinating to me. The Greek Lexicon semantic range you listed made me think, especially about the phrase, “from the beginning.” Ephesians 1:4 came into my head, which lead me to Eph. 1:3-6, and then that led me to Rom. 6:23, and Rom. 8:29-32, I guess because my pastor is doing a series on Romans right now. Then, while reading John 19:11, a portion of Rev. 13:8 came into my mind. From there, I remembered the Amplified translation of James 1:17-18. The themes I saw in all these verses where: from the foundation of the world, free gift, first born, firstfruit, freely give, and free, large, and full. That verse is much deeper in meaning than I ever realized. These are my thoughts, thanks for the assignment, Melissa! I was blessed by it:)

    Many blessings,


  40. 240
    Marie says:

    What a feast of words! My uneducated take on this is that it means both “again” and “from above.” As a believer, our old self was crucified with Christ. Therefore, our spirit needs to be born again. We are united in Christ when we are born again…born from above.

  41. 241
    jar of clay says:


    Gotta share this. Today I went to the cattle call jury selection in Collin County TX. I was sitting there with my iPod watching Session 8: The POtter and the Clay from Breaking Free. I noticed a woman walk in and go to the clerk’s window to check in. She had a large satchel with her, and as she was digging for her paper, I noticed a “Woman’s Heart: God’s Dwelling Place-Revised” book in her bag. When she turned around I said, “ARe you doing the TAbernacle study?” She said, “Yes, I’m on Week 2”. I motioned for her to come sit with me. I went on to explain how that had been such a profound study for me, and really linked the OT and NT for me. She told me how she had been on a flight yesterday with a flight attendant that had prayed for God to show her His abundant love, and after a long day, turned around and you and your praise team were getting on her plane. She ended up at your LIttle Rock LPL sitting with her. This lady and I never shared names today, but we shared a love of Jesus and Scripture. We talked about translations, and had the best time I’ve ever had waiting for jury selection. The Lord brought us together today through your studies, and His Word. I love that! Just wanted you to know.

    • 241.1
      Yanna says:

      Jar of Clay that is the best story! How wonderful, to share God and the love of Beth studies He has sent us with a stranger! Hallelujah! If I had been on the jury “cattle call” I would have had Beleiving God in my lap with my Bible. Oh to have sit with you and your new friend, heaven on earth. By the way, I agree A Woman’s Heart was so good, tying the OT and NT together for me like never before. While in the study, God blessed our little group, there is a Traveling Tabernacle church’s can rent and it was set up on the outskirts of town. Really moving to walk through during the study, I was sobbing. Thanks for blessing me Jars of Clay with your experience.

  42. 242
    Nikki L' says:

    Ok, I have officially decided to change my mind on my original decision to go with “from above”. I like what Joy said about it meaning both but to keep “from above” in the front of our minds. And since this is what The Amplified Bible does it secures my decision.

  43. 243
    April says:

    I can only read so many comments before I give up on you posting your chicken and fluffy biscuit recipe. What’s a pregnant gal to do???? Would you please put me out of my misery and post the dang recipe! 🙂

    Emailing it to me would be a beautiful thing.

    Written with love,

  44. 244
    Sarah says:

    Insightful. Thank you for sharing. I find the information fascinating!!!

  45. 245
    carrie says:

    I think again makes sense in light of Nicodemus misunderstanding… then Jesus explains the other meaning… this way the double meaning is revealed and Nicodemus question makes sense

  46. 246

    Whoa! As fascinating as this is I have been way too busy with 1 Corinthians to even think about this too much. Instead of the study I was going to do that I told ya’ll I was doing on the blog. The one with the book, something about when people are big and God is small. Anyway, I opted instead to do a bible study that was not using any outside materials (like a workbook or something) and was just going to study 1 Corinthians on their own using concordances and commentaries and what not. Being the wanna be bible nerd that I am, I was truly fascinated, but it SOOOOOOO much more complicated than I ever thought. Concordances are so confusing! I’ve pretty much got it figured out, but I wish the only concordance I have wasn’t a Strong’s Concordance, cause I absolutely hate the King James (sorry to those KJV fans out there. It’s just way to confusing for me and many have told me really not all that more accurate than others.) I only have a Strong’s Concordance because one of my sponsors when I first started at Celebrate Recovery bought if for me several years ago, so I’m really thankful that I have one, but I’d really like one that goes with the NIV. I agree that the NASB is more accurate, but the NIV is way easier to read. Anyway, I’m a little overwhelmed by it and am wondering after getting halfway through chapter 1 of 1 Corinthians if I’m ever going to survive the rest of the book! I never knew how much was really there!!!! Oh, my goodness! I’m thinking I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I got all excited when people started telling me it was clear to them that I have the gift of teaching! Wow! This is a lot of work and my brain is fried after studying for several hours in case you couldn’t tell.

  47. 247
    J says:

    I tend to lean on the creativity of the Holy Spirit in inspiring John that perhaps both meanings were intended. I think you could read either meaning fluently in the text and it would make sense because both “born from above” and “born again” fit into the context. It could be something similar to our puns in English, where a double meaning is the meaning.

    Secondly, I think that both meanings get at the overall meaning or point of the passage. You could read it either way and come away knowing that a supernatural birth has taken place (whether it be from above, or a second birth) and that you are now a child of God.

  48. 248
    Yanna says:

    Melissa, thank you thank you for the lesson on lexical study. I have mulled, chewed, dreamed, filled what space is vacant in my brain with the James 1:17, John 3:3 and the other scripture addresses you listed ever since your original post. I am loving it. I beleive we are all so blessed to have windows flung open so we can open the eyes of our heart soul and mind and get to know Him in everything…lexical included now, thanks to you. I check everyday to see if there is a new post Share some more out of your brain! Father, thank You. Thank You for Melissa for her way with words, that she can simplify for people like me the study of Your Word, and have me so excited about lexical studies. I am in awe of You Father and all You are doing in my life. Thank You.
    In Jesus Name I pray and praise. Amen

  49. 249
    Lara says:

    Again context is king. I followed a rabbit trail of using born again together in the Strong’s NASB. There were the verses in John and In 1st Peter 1. I looked up born again using the Strong’s. In John
    Born: Gennao 1080 coming from a variation of 1085. Here He is speaking to Nicodemus who is a Jew. in 1080 part of the def is ( in a Jewish sense, of one who brings others over to his way of life to convert someone.)
    1085 is kindred offspring family tribe, nation or descent of a particular people the aggregate of many individuals of the same nature, kind, sort.
    In 1 Peter Born and again are both #313 from 1080 and 303. #303 is into the midst, in the midst among, between.
    Def-Again in John #509 adverb meaning from above, from the first, from the beginning anew, over again. So put the two together in context with John 3:5.

  50. 250
    Tori says:

    Thanks for that, Melissa. There is a bumper sticker that reads, “Born right the first time,” and while it is usually found on the bumpers of nonbelievers, I have always identified with it. To me, it feels like the concept of being “born again” is one of those things that “the world” has gotten its hands on and its meaning in the Kingdom has given way in many people’s hearts and minds to its meaning in the world. “Born again” has become for many people synonymous with “holier than thou” and it can have an air of superiority to it in their ears and hearts. “Born from above” has a different feel to it, at least for me. It feels more authentic and lacking the pretense that “born again” has had ascribed to it. Also, the words “from above” point specifically to an origin, rather than a timing (“again”), and that is really what it is all about. Pastors and churches can claim to make one “born again,” but there is only ONE place from whence “born from above” can come, from our Father in heaven who created us, redeems us, and loves us unconditionally (can you tell I’m Episcopalian?). Anyway, those are my thoughts. Reading this made my day.

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