“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 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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140 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.

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  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?
    • Thank you for the interesting question, Nan! I don't think it is necessarily just one or the other (internal/external). Would the thought be better phrased as "humans are born naturally as part of a flawed world"? The ancient Hebrew prophet Yeshayahu/Isaiah spoke of a day when predators and prey would rest peacefully together (Isaiah 11:6-9). Yet currently the animal kingdom is full of violence, pain, and death as a normal, everyday experience. Similarly, in the first century CE/AD Shaul/Paul wrote that "all of creation" is suffering (Romans 8:21-22). So I think both aspects could be relevant here!
    • Yes Nan,Humans are born into a "fallen world" through our Adamic father. The Heavenly Father chose, through Jesus Sacrifice and the work of The Comforter, to give Birth to a whole New Race of people Fathered by Him alone, but contained in our Human Vessels.
  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.

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    • 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).
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  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
    • Kat, thank you for this comment and question. Water immersion/baptism in the Hebrew Bible and Jewish tradition will require another article or perhaps course – so stay tuned! Related to your question and what I wrote above: Genesis 27:39 speaks of “the dew of heaven from above”; this is one of the places where the Jewish-Greek Septuagint uses the same word as in John 3, ἄνωθεν (anôthen) “from above.” About Baruch – are you sure that is the verse you mean? Or perhaps 3 Baruch 10:8-10?
  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!

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    • Yes it does, because there was a requirement to follow the Law,if you were an outsider,you could then be “saved” along with the Israelites(fulfilling Mosaic Law with them)Now, New Testament entrance into kingdom of Heaven is through water baptism in Jesus’ name and having faith and obedience to the Gospel.
  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?
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  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.
    • Felipe, thanks for this follow-up. I think the best place to start following the conversation is from the beginning. It goes something like this. Nakdimon: You, Yeshua, must have come from God! (i.e., a "heavenly origin"; verse 2). Yeshua: Everyone should be born from above! (verse 3) Nakdimon: Really? Literally? Like go back into the womb? (verse 4) Etc. So in other words, Yeshua's heavenly origin seems to be taken for granted from the very beginning of the conversation (Nakdimon is the one who brings it up). The question they discuss is how other people can have "birth from above."

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    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Name of God and Exploring Jewish Interpretation. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!
    • Felipe, it is this understanding that has rendered Christianity void of roots. Yeshua himself did not dissociate Himself from the Jewish roots because through the Jews Hashem made Himself manifest to the world. It is time for Christians to go back to the roots and throw away the baby with the bath water. Yeshua came to cure some ills in the Jewish religion, but not to get rid of the entire faith for this was a people that had been in a relationship with Hashem from its inception.

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  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.
    • We are glad that you are finding our articles enlightening. You’ve already started your path into Scripture, but there’s so much more that awaits you! Consider enrolling in our immersive online courses: The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. We guarantee that they will deepen your understanding of Scripture and enrich your faith experience.
    • Hmm. I know Adam and Eve did not die physically immediately but have always understood that the process of physical death began there and that this process was not present before . Is there a lexical reason in the Hebrew for understanding it differently, I wonder?

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  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!
    • We are glad that you are finding our articles enlightening. You’ve already started your path into Scripture, but there’s so much more that awaits you! Consider enrolling in our immersive online courses: The Name of God or Exploring Jewish Interpretation. We guarantee that they will deepen your understanding of Scripture and enrich your faith experience.
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