“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).

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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 godsAccording 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.

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56 COMMENTS

  1. I studied under Daniel Gruber. Have you heard of him? So, whether Jew, gentile or proselyte all of mankind can choose this “new life” you describe. J.

    • I was amazed at how you missed Yeshua’s point here…’But what kind of related metaphorical “rebirth” would have been familiar to him?’ Its literal meaning was totally ignored. He points to himself as the standard here and you do not have to look to your left or to your right. Yeshua was born of the flesh yet He was born from above, “literally.” Where is the metaphor there? He is speaking in plain language and you try to complicate it with Hebrew roots. The problem is you keep coming from the Hebrew perspective yet Yeshua is coming from heaven’s perspective.

      • Thank you for commenting, Felipe. With all due respect, I think it is the reverse: if we look at the language and culture of the time, we can more easily understand the meaning of these ancient texts. If we instead look through the prism of much later interpretations that neglected this background, well, that complicates things (at the very least). I’m not sure I understood your point about the “literal” meaning of birth. That’s exactly Nicodemus’ question: “Can an old man go back into his mother’s womb?” (verse 4). The answer given in the discussion doesn’t seem to be “yes.”

        • Dear dr. Yeshaya
          I just dont understand why you say # in its original first-century Jewish context, before Christianity existed? Sounds like pounting a finger to Christians.
          All my life I understand rebirth as choose to be a new person with a better life with love and leave all sins and Idols behind. Thats what you say it is, or do I miss undertand you? (Sorry English is not my first language).

        • Born again of the Spirit of God, Nicodemus was thinking of the physical birth of flesh. We’re born anew as from above by the Spirit

  2. Dr. Gruber… you wrote, “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. Dr. Gruber, your words seem to be expressive of an outward experience…. but are we not the ones who are FLAWED? Are we not the ones who need to be born from above because of our sinful nature and our relationship to the first Adam?

  3. Yes Jesus died for the whole world ! Yet individually, each must accept HIS sacrifice for their sin to be able to be one of HIS, He alone gives the ability thru the Holy Spirit and the preaching of HIS WORD from the Bible

    • Well said Melva I agree with you wholeheartedly. John 3: 5 Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

    • Melva, I quite agree with your statement. We can never be born again by our own good works for the “Heart of man is desperately wicked and who can know it “. Scripture teaches and our Lord states that we are born of this world and as such carry the sin of Adam but as is stated the new birth is from above and is a gift of God. Hence we are changed from earthly to heavenly through our Lord Jesus work on Calvary. Blessed be His name.

    • Thank you (Melva, John, and Colin) for commenting. You mentioned things like “spirit,” “word,” “works,” etc. An important question: What were the concepts that existed in the language and culture of first-century Jews like Jesus and Nicodemus? It can be very helpful to explore such questions when reading. Here is one more quick example from John 3. In both Hebrew and Greek a single word meant “breath,” “wind,” and “spirit.” So in the original text there is no shift from v. 6 (“spirit”) to v. 8 (“wind”) – both verses use the same word (unlike in most English translations).

  4. I can swear on a stack of Bibles that I had never heard of Jesus (even though I sang Jesus loves me). I was not baptized, nor did I attend a religious assembly, yet I believe I was born again at that point in my life. My 1st century question is could the water (emersion) have been “rain” from heaven similar to Exodus 16:4 or Baruch 3:18

  5. Thank you for the insight, one question, are you saying that immersion in water is a requisite to salvation under Yeshua’s Grace?

    • Thanks for joining the conversation, Steve! In this article I was only suggesting some aspects of what the phrase “born from above” probably meant in its original first-century Jewish context. However, the issue of water immersion/baptism in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition is indeed related. Please stay tuned for (hopefully) more material to come on that topic!

  6. Is it not true that no one can come to the Father but by Jesus? And does not the father call us? My understanding of “born again” would be to forget all the old teaching that formed and shaped us to accepting Jesus into our hearts and minds and undergo a spiritual metamorphosis. Being renewd in our thinking and allowing the Word to transform us. To allow the Holy Spirit to teach us, prune us and deliver us from our stinking thinking. I guess one could go on for days

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Dellareese! The phrase could probably be interpreted in many different ways. I wonder, though, what meaning could Nicodemus have understood in that conversation?

  7. Follow the conversation between Yeshua and Nakdimon. He testified that he came from above in John 3:13 and so His thoughts are higher than any Jewish and pagan thought. His mindset is always coming from above. He followed it up with another testimony in v.19 about some kind of verdict or judgment, it depends on which version you are referencing. Yeshua is full on with His heavenly origin. If you are of the spirit you can easily follow what he is saying. You do not need to be deeply schooled by way of philosophy or intellectual jargons.

  8. Yes, it is necessary for Christians to become acquainted with the understanding of the Word of God from the point of view of the Jewish environment. Without this, there are deep mistakes. Jesus was a Jew as well as apostles, so the influence of Jewish culture is more important than the Greek influence for understanding the Scriptures.

    • Thank you very much for sharing this, Kurt! That is really our goal at Israel Bible Center – to help elucidate the first-century Jewish world (language, culture, practices, etc.) in order to get closer to the original meaning of these texts. Of course there is always more to learn for all of us!

  9. This born again, or born from above has something to do with the death we faced in Garden of Eden. As that death was not physical, so is this new life. If we died there spiritually then this new birth is related to the new life of our human spirits.

  10. The convert remains flawed and consequently his/her decisions to make a better world are flawed no different to a non-convert trying to do what is good. If he were a new creation living in an unflawed kingdom with an unflawed ruler there would good outcomes. What do you think about this statement? Does not a lot of harm come about when people try to do good?

    • Thank you for this, Winston. Yes, I think it is true that sometimes harm can result when people are trying to do good. There’s even a common saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions!” But what is the alternative? To not try to do good? To try to do evil? I think that “wisdom” is probably something like learning how to do good in such a way that it really is good, not bad!

  11. born again means, following Jesus Our Lord and Savior whole hardheartedly. abstaining from doing evil and focusing on doing right no matter what it’s may cause.

  12. Galatians 4:19 My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, Ephesians 4:13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: Romans 8:29 For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren.

  13. From the context, Nicodamus did not understand what Jesus meant. He took the metaphor “to be born again” literally— which was nonsense to him. Unless one has the experience of understanding this world as God and Jesus see and understand it, one cannot comprehend this metaphor. And unless one is infused with Jesus’ point of view, by the Grace of Spirit, one cannot comprehend His constant references to the beneficence of the Kingdom of Heaven.

    • Thanks for the comment, Marc. Yes, Nicodemus didn’t seem to understand the metaphor at first. However, it’s interesting that Jesus/Yeshua expected him to be able to understand (verse 10). So whatever the metaphor was, it was something that Nicodemus could potentially understand. And maybe he did in the course of the conversation – naturally, the text we have is only a brief summary.

  14. Jesus was a gnostic. He was right brain dominant as per Jill Bolte Taylor’s experiences revealed in her TedTalk on YouTube and book. He realized spirituality as Applied Quantum Theory, and rejected spirituality as a form of materialism. He overcame this world’s spiritual errors and revealed an alternative reality and methods of realizing the greater Truth of Quantum Spirituality, where God and Souls are truly One in Divine Love.

  15. Thank you Dr. Gruber for this important insight. It is possible previous scholars may have translated the Jewish-Greek word ἄνωθεν (anôthen) as “again” rather than “from above” based on the context in which Nakdimon initially interpreted Yeshua’s metaphor as being a literal salvation requirement that involved returning to one’s earthly mother’s womb to experience a rebirth in being born again. However, you raise an interesting point concerning Yeshua’s expectation of Nakdimon in understanding the spiritual context of the metaphor.

    • Thank you, Deborah! Yes, that reason for the translation choice is likely. No translation is “perfect,” because one always has to select certain aspects of the original to convey (at the cost of others). Some believe that the text deliberately uses an ambiguous word (anôthen) in order to play with the two meanings – something that cannot be reproduced in English. My preference would be to translate as “from above” so that readers could perceive connections to other texts using the same word, and because the only other passage to mention being “born again” uses a different expression (1Pet. 1:23).

  16. Thank you Dr. Yeshaya for all the great insights on the scriptures. It surely helps to understand or Lord in a much deeper and better way!
    Please if you could suggest resources on the convertion topic, specially in regards to immersion/baptism roots on the Torah will truly appreciate. In Christ!

  17. Nicodemus did not believe Yeshua was “The Son of YHWH.” If he had the holy spirit of YHWH upon him, he would have remembered scriptures of prophecy about Yeshua. A child has more real knowledge of the way of salvation than many who are pretended masters and teachers of Israel.

  18. My understanding of Jewish concept concerning being born again was when they entered the mikveh for immersion and as they came out that they considered themselves to be born again. Baptism does not save you though as some denominations believe.

    • Thanks for the comment, Debra. In general the outcome of immersion in the mikveh was to become ‘pure’; rabbinic sources give the ‘born again’ interpretation for certain cases (like that of the convert/proselyte).

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