The next three stories in John’s gospel illustrate what Jesus meant when he used the phrase “gennethe anothen.” Gennethe is typically translate “born” and anothen is typically translated “again.”
It is practically a meme in Christian lingo!
But what does it really mean?
It made me think of phrases we often say and expect everyone to know, such as
Pull out the stops: “Make every possible effort.” | Pipe organs have “stops” to control the air flow through the pipes and “pulling them out” increases the musical volume.
By and large: “Generally speaking.” “All things considered.” | A nautical term, with “large” meaning the wind filling the sail and “by” meaning knowing which way the wind is coming from.
Break a leg: “Good luck to an actor.” | Elizabethan: “break the leg line” by kneeling to pick up the money people threw on stage if you did well.
So, to get the full impact of gennethe and anothen, here is the expanded list of possible ways to understand each word:
Gennethe: is the future tense and passive voice of the root word “gennao.” Koine Greek verbs often have what is called the “middle” or “passive” voice, making it categorically different than English, which uses a much more active, assertive voice.
A middle voice means you are doing something for yourself, almost picturing yourself as both the actor and the one being acted upon. Perhaps your will is acting upon your person.
A passive voice, as the word “passive” indicates, means something is being done to you. You are the passive recipient of the action.
Gennao: the list of possible meanings, so far understood, are beget, bring forth, born, bear, produce from oneself, create, grow, get, engender, call into existence, regenerate, procreate. You can see why this word is most often translated as born. In fact, in the story where this word first shows up, that is exactly how the person hearing Jesus say the phrase gennethe anothen took it to mean.
Anothen: is an adverb, so it describes the verb, and in this case describes gennethe. The list of what anothen can mean is from above, from on high, from the interior (of a country), from the beginning, from farther back, from earlier, from ancestors, by descent, higher, more universal principles, over again, anew, afresh.
Just looking through the list, it becomes a little easier to understand why the hearer of this phrase got a bit confused about what Jesus was saying. It was another mashil of sorts, but a strange one! Let’s listen in.
Conversation with Nicodemus
Today’s passage opens with a powerful man in Jerusalem society: Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Judeans. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the council of seventy men who ran the religious affairs of the nation and who had religious authority over every person of Jewish faith anywhere in the world, and especially those living in Judea.
The Pharisees originated in around 135 to 105 B.C. These were devout and courageous men who had stood firm against Greek idolatry and the fierce and brutal religious persecution of their day. Each man had taken a vow before three witnesses that he would devote every moment of his entire life to obeying God’s Law.
A group formed within the Pharisees, of those who were scribes, who studied the Law and worked out how to apply it to every aspect of life. They compiled their work into a book called the Mishnah, which was considered more binding than scripture, and a commentary on the Mishnah called the Talmud.
Pharisees considered themselves as spiritually and morally superior to all other people and they were right on many points of doctrine. They believed in the
- resurrection of the dead.
- existence of spirits.
- existence of angels.
- divine inspiration of all the writings now in the Hebrew Bible (Sadducees only accepted the first five books of the Bible).
- eternal life.
- rewards and punishments in the future life.
But they also believed in a largely externalized religion—that if you were Jewish and adhered to a strict observance of the law and all the oral traditions, it would be enough to please God and guarantee entry to heaven. Nicodemus, though a man of high moral character and deep religious hunger, did not realize he also had profound spiritual blindness, because the teachings of his sect prevented him from seeing what he needed to see.
Remember what had just happened. Seemingly out of nowhere, Jesus burst into the temple during Passover, and had caused the biggest commotion in years by overturning tables, freeing animals, spilling all the cash money on the ground, and shouting scripture.
Afterwards, members of the temple authority came to question Jesus. He gave them a very provocative answer.
Meanwhile, the news of this outrageous and compelling new prophet spread like wildfire throughout Jerusalem. People came in droves! And Jesus performed many, many miracles, inspiring a sudden surge of belief in his name.
In the background, picture the Sanhedrin, the sect of the Pharisees, the scribes and teachers of the Law, all sort of lurking in the shadows, observing, speculating, assessing . . .
Imagine Nicodemus soon after, making his way through the Jerusalem streets after nightfall. The wind in the desert always picks up when the sun goes down, so it was blowing through the trees and between the houses. (Keep that in mind. It is important to the story.)
People typically had their living rooms up on the roofs of their houses to enjoy these cool, breezy evenings, so there was always a staircase on the outside of a house that led up to the roof. This is probably where Nicodemus came that night, to meet with Jesus.
Maybe he was being careful not to get in trouble with the Sanhedrin, but maybe he wanted a private audience, too. His approach was cautious and respectful, calling Jesus “rabbi,” even though Jesus was not an official rabbi, and had no diploma or credentials except for these miraculous signs.
“Rabbi, we discern that you [are] a teacher come from God, for no one is able to do these signs you do, if God were not with him.”Nicodemus, in John 3:2
That is an insight. Nicodemus, and evidently some other members of the Sanhedrin, thought they saw something in Jesus. So, Jesus answered with further insight.
(This is how Jesus entrusted himself to others. When Jesus perceived someone was understanding him in a spiritually insightful way, he gave them deeper spiritual truth.)
“Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless someone is born from above, begotten in heaven, created anew, and brought forth from heaven, [that one] is not able to perceive and discern the kingdom of heaven.”Jesus, in John 3:3
As an FYI, the koine Greek word “horao,” which is most often translated as “see,” means a lot more than just seeing with your eyeballs. It means to take heed of something, to see with the mind, to understand, or to know in an experiential way, to perceive and discern.
“Born again” could carry any number of meanings, depending on which definitions to each word one applied. Was Jesus literally talking about being physically begotten and born? Or was there some spiritual sense? Was Jesus referring to a time frame—being born again? Or was he talking about genetic lineage, referring to ancestors? Or, did he mean a new iteration, afresh or anew? Was he talking about some sort of regeneration? Or, if this was a spiritual creation, was he referring to heaven, or God above?
There was no easy interpretation of Jesus’ mysterious and startling comment. I imagine Jesus watching Nicodemus expectantly, for the Pharisee had already proven himself capable of great spiritual discernment.
You can see I already did some interpretation of my own, with my translation of Jesus’ words—as have virtually every other translation I have ever read of this passage. In a way, we have sort of preempted Nicodemus, by making him sound obtuse with his response, when Jesus was so clear (seemingly!) in his statement.
But, since you and I now know how complex those words are, maybe we can be a little more generous-minded towards Nicodemus. He was employing the ancient Hebrew method of learning—asking questions!
“How is a person who is old able to be born again? One is not able to again enter their mother’s womb and be brought forth?”Nicodemus, in John 3
[Nicodemus with Jesus | Henry Ossawa Tanner / Public domain]