“Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God!” (John 3:3) Many Christians take this as a foundational principle of their faith. But what did this statement of Yeshua/Jesus actually mean in its original first-century Jewish context, before Christianity existed?
The first thing to consider is that the Jewish-Greek word ἄνωθεν (anôthen), often translated “again” in this verse, more commonly means “from above.” In the Septuagint, an earlier translation of the Hebrew Bible, the same word is often associated with heaven, the tabernacle, and visions of God’s throne.
So why did the young rabbi from the Galilee mention some kind of “new birth from above”? He was speaking with a senior Pharisee and member of the Judean ruling council, Nakdimon/Nicodemus (see also Talmud, Ketubot 66b). Nakdimon saw Yeshua as “a teacher come from God” and was hoping for insight into the heavenly realm (John 3:2, 12).
For his part, Yeshua called Nakdimon “the teacher of Israel” and clearly expected him to understand the points being made (John 3:10). This is a key to reading the passage. The Pharisaic teacher would have understood the “kingdom of God” as a realm of perfect justice, truth, and love centered around Israel. But what kind of related metaphorical “rebirth” would have been familiar to him?
One strong possibility is the case of the “proselyte” גר (ger) who joined the nation of Israel by choice rather than physical birth. In the first century many non-Jews (Gentiles) did make this choice, abandoning their former connections and pagan gods. According to the rabbinic tradition that grew out of Pharisaism, such proselytes or converts emerged from water immersion “reborn” to begin a “new life” with allegiance to the people and God of Israel.
From this perspective, the conversation between two leading teachers of Torah suggests an analogy between the radical choice of the proselyte and the lifestyle required for anyone to join the realm of “the above.” In other words, humans are born naturally (not by choice) into a flawed and often unjust world. But at any age a person can choose to start a “new life” pursuing the practical realization of justice, truth, and love.