April 2 (2): John 3:1-21

(From today on through Easter, I will be posting two daily notes—one in the morning, and another in the afternoon/evening.
The morning notes will continue the series on the Son of Man sayings.)

John 3:1-21 (Jesus and Nicodemus)

The scene between Jesus and Nicodemus (John 3:1-21[?]) is the first of the great Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John, containing some of the most famous (and extraordinary) verses in all the New Testament. And yet, as a formal matter, there are several basic questions regarding this passage, of which should perhaps be mentioned:

    1. How far does the actual discourse with Nicodemus extend in the passage? It appears to end at verse 21, but critical scholars have long had doubts about this. For the material from v. 13 to 21 does seem hard to relate precisely with what comes before. The shift from spiritual birth to the ascending/lifting-up of the Son of Man seems rather abrupt; however, one can find other similar abrupt shifts throughout the Gospels. Is it a product of Jesus the speaker or the way in which the author/redactor of the Gospel has assembled the material?
    2. When did the scene occur? In the Gospel sequence as it stands, the scene with Nicodemus takes place rather early in Jesus’ ministry. However, there are several indications that it may have actually occurred later on, perhaps during the last week in Jerusalem: (a) Verse 3 suggests that Jesus has performed many signs in Jerusalem and/or Judea; (b) the setting at night (cf. 13:30); (c) the discussion of lifting-up the Son (v. 14-15) seems more appropriate in the context of Jesus’ impending death. Of course, these details can otherwise be explained; but it is interesting that in Tatian’s harmony of the Gospels (Diatessaron, 2nd century) the scene occurs during the last week, following the Cleansing of the Temple (Arabic §32, and in the Codex Fuldensis). If John moved the Cleansing of the Temple episode to an ‘earlier’ position, he may also have done so for the discourse with Nicodemus; on the other hand, the Synoptic literary arrangement (with one final journey to Jerusalem) could naturally force all Jerusalem events into the final week, regardless of when they originally occurred. I suspect that the Diatessaron simply harmonized according to the Synoptic sequence.

There are so many wondrous and fascinating details in this passage—for the moment, I can only touch briefly on a few for which there is a particular textual or interpretive difficulty:

1. “Born again” (verse 3)

The Greek reads: e)a\n mh/ ti$ gennhqh=| a&nwqen ou) du/natai i)dei=n th\n basilei/an tou= qeou=, “if one does not come to be (born) a&nwqen, he is not able to see the kingdom of God”. The adverb a&nwqen is literally “from above”, but in a transferred temporal sense can also mean “from the beginning, again”. Jesus intends it primarily in the literal sense, but Nicodemus mistakenly understands it in the temporal sense, asking how one can come to be born (physically) a second (deu/tero$) time. This sort of wordplay on Jesus’ part, accompanied by misunderstanding from the hearer, occurs quite often in the Gospel of John; in this case, the wordplay, as many scholars have noted, is specific to the Greek. It is also an interesting response to Nicodemus’ statement in verse 2, where he specifically mentions the “signs” (shmei=a) Jesus has shown. Without any explanation, Jesus immediately points to something beyond what can be seen and judged in ordinary human terms—which must, at first, be met by incomprehension.

2. “Water and the Spirit” (verse 5)

Jesus follows his first statement in verse 3, with one similar: e)a\n mh/ ti$ gennhqh=| e)c u%dato$ kai\ pneu/mato$ ou) du/natai ei)selqei=n ei)$ th\n basilei/an tou= qeou=, “if one does not come to be (born) out of water and spirit he is not able to go into the kingdom of God” [differences from v. 3 in italics]. The parallel between a&nwqen (“from above”) and e)k pneu/mato$ (“out of [the] Spirit”) seems clear enough, which Jesus explains further in verses 6-8. Curious is the mention of water (u%dwr). Traditionally, this has been taken as a reference to baptism, and so critical scholars almost universally understand it here; for the critical view generally treats the passage according to the import it had for the early Christian Community. However, at the historical level, would Jesus here have referred to baptism, in the Christian sense, in speaking with Nicodemus? Perhaps the reference is to the “dipping/immersing” performed by John the Baptist—in the Synoptics, the Baptist prophecies of the One coming who will dip/immerse [i.e. baptize] e)n pneu/mati a(gi/w| (“in [the] holy Spirit”). If John’s dipping/immersing (with water) was for repentance, in preparation for the coming Kingdom, an immersing (by the Spirit) was necessary to see and enter into the Kingdom. The symbol of water to represent the Spirit of God was widespread, especially in early Christianity, but is also attested in the Old Testament (Ezekiel 36:25, implied) and in Judaism (see esp. 1QS 4:19-21)—for similar usage later in the Gospel, see John 4:14; 7:38-39. For a connection between the cleansing power of the Spirit and the coming of the Kingdom of God, see the variant reading in the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2): e)lqe/tw to\ pneu=ma sou to\ a%gion e)f’ h(ma$ kai\ kaqarisa/tw h(ma=$, “may your holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us”)

3. “The Wind/Spirit” (verse 8)

Here we find another wordplay by Jesus—in Greek, but one which also has a Semitic parallel. The beginning phrase in Greek, to\ pneu=ma o%pou qe/lei pnei=, is virtually untranslatable: a consistent literal rendering would be “the breath breathes where it wishes” or “the blowing blows where it wishes”. Idiomatically, Jesus is referring to the “wind” (that which “blows”, or “breathes” [according to a dynamic anthropomorphic view of nature]). Indeed pneu=ma can mean specificially “wind” or “breath” (just like the Hebrew j^Wr)—it also, like jWr, can refer to the life-breath [i.e. the animating life-principle] within a person (the “spirit”). Pneu=ma also came, in a technical or popular sense, to refer to any living, animated, but incorporeal being (i.e., “ghost, spirit”). Here Jesus moves, by symbol and comparison, from a simple natural image (“the wind blows/breathes where it wishes”) to one revelatory and profound (“the [holy] Spirit blows/breathes where it wishes”)—ou%tw$ e)stin pa=$ o( gegennhme/no$ e)k tou= pneu/mato$, “thus it is (for) every (one) coming to be (born) out of the Spirit”. Notice too the specific Greek preposition—it is not just a matter of baptism (going down into) the Spirit, but a coming-to-be (a birth) out of [i.e. from] the Spirit.

4. “Has ascended” (verse 13)

The perfect form a)nabe/bhken is a bit unusual. The verse reads kai\ ou)dei\$ a)nabe/bhken ei)$ to\n ou)rano\n ei) mh\ o( e)k tou= ou)ranou= kataba=$ o( ui(o\$ tou= anqrw/pou, “and no one has stepped up [i.e. gone up, ascended] into the heaven if not [i.e. except] the (one) stepping down out of the heaven, the Son of Man”. The perfect form could be taken to imply that the one stepping down, the Son of Man, has already stepped up above into Heaven. Some critics view this as evidence that the Discourse stems more from the vantage-point of the post-resurrection Christian Community than from the historical Jesus. However, Jesus’ words here probably mean something like “No one has [as yet] stepped up into Heaven”, that is, no one has ascended into Heaven. The theme continues on, paradoxically—the Son of Man’s “stepping up” begins with his being u%ywsen (“brought/raised high” [i.e., lifted], just as Moses raised the ‘bronze serpent’) upon the Cross.

5. “in Him” (verse 15, 16)

This verse contains both a textual and interpretive question. First, textual: the more unsual reading, also found in some of the oldest and best manuscripts (Ë75 B T Ws 083 [579] pc aur c l r1 vg) is e)n au)tw=| (“in him”); however, the majority reading (Ë63vid a [A] Q Y 086 f1, 13 33 ª) is ei)$ au)ton (“in[to] him”), while a few MSS (Ë66 L pc) read e)p’ au)tw (“upon him”). Now, even though we conventionally speak of having faith “in” God, Christ, His Name, etc., the more common preposition is ei)$ or e)pi, rather than e)n—according to a literal translation, one “trusts into” or “trusts upon” someone, and normally does not “trust in” someone. Therefore, assuming that the more difficult e)n au)tw=| is correct, the sentence perhaps ought to punctuated so as to read: i%na pa=$ o( pisteu/wn, e)n au)tw=| e&xh| zwh\n ai)w/nion, “…that every (one) trusting, might have life (of the) age [i.e. eternal life] in Him”. Is this not a powerful, pregnant ambiguity?—we both trust in him, and have eternal life in him.

6. “Judge/judgment” (verse 17ff)

Another ambiguity lies in the words kri/nw/kri/si$ (“judge/judgment”), which have, as with their English counterparts, a wide range of meaning—judging/judgment can have a positive, neutral, or negative sense. Generally, in the Gospel of John, the negative sense of judging (sometimes rendered “condemn/condemnation”) is meant, and so it  is here. The words kri/nw and kri/si$ occur five times in verses 17-21, generally in the context of light and darkness—light shines in the darkness (cf. 1:5) and exposes (“convicts”, e)le/gxw) that which is evil (v. 20). Curious is Jesus statement that God did not send the Son to judge the world (a theme echoed elsewhere in John), while other passages clearly state that judgment is given to the Son. Here there seem to be two special points of emphasis: (a) the judging has already taken place (perfect passive ke/kritai, “has been judged” or “will have been judged”) when one does not trust in the Son, while those who do trust are not judged at all (v. 18); and (b) there is throughout a strong sense, introduced here, of what is traditionally referred to as “realized eschatology”. However, in this last respect, I prefer the idea of a dynamic-spiritual aspect to faith and salvation—all of these symbols which suggest a process (birth, ascent, light dispelling darkness, etc.), do in fact take place “in Him”. The concept of “eternal life” (literally, “life [of the] Age[s]”) sums up this dynamic—what we wait for as believers, is already realized “in Him”. Consider the last words of this passage, that one “comes to[ward] the light” (e&rxetai pro\$ to\ fw=$, suggesting ‘conversion’?) which will “make apparent” (fanerwqh=|, lit. “be made to shine”, suggesting ‘final judgment’?) that his works “have been worked” (perfect participle ei)rgasme/na) “in God” (e)n qew=|).