Friday, March 13, 2009

Born Again? Watchoo Talkin' 'Bout, Jesus?

Jesus never said we should be born again.

To which the logical response would be, "Well, of course he did! Look at John 3:3! 'In reply Jesus declared, 'I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.' Look at John 3:7! 'You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' Pastor David, haven't you read the Bible? Just what are they teaching in seminaries nowadays?"

Greek, actually. In the Greek in which John was written, what Jesus says in the two verses above is that we must be "gennethenai aneuthen." The first word means "born," and it has a familiar root. Think "generate," or "genesis." The challenge comes with the word aneuthen, which the NIV and the KJV translate as "again."

That word occurs 31 times in our Bibles. It surfaces eighteen times in the Septuagint--that's the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was circulating at the time of Christ--and thirteen times in the Gospels and Epistles.

Of those 31 occurances, it is translated "again" only three times. Two of those are the verses we just saw in John 3. The third is in Galatians 4:9--but there it disappears into part of a two-verb construct with the verb form palin. And palin is--guess what--the most commonly used Greek term for "again." I really hope the Republican party doesn't know this.

In every other location, aneuthen is translated to mean "over," "on top," "from the beginning," or "from above." Let's take a look at seven examples from the NIV, where I've bolded the English translation:

Gen. 27:39 "...away from the dew of heaven above."
Gen. 49:25 "..who blesses you with blessings of the heavens above,"
Exodus 25:21 "..Place the cover on top of the ark.."
Job 3:4 "..may God above not care about it.."
Isaiah 45:8 "...You heavens above, rain down righteousness.."
Jeremiah 4:28 "..the heavens above grow dark.."
Ezekiel 1:26 "Above the expanse over their heads.."

Here are seven more from the New Testament:

Matthew 27:51 ".. the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom."
Mark 15:38 "The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom."
John 3:31 "The one who comes from above is above all.."
John 19:11 "Jesus answered, 'You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above'.."
John 19:23 "This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom."
James 1:17 " Every good and perfect gift is from above.."
James 3:17 "But the wisdom that comes from heaven..."

Given the dominant Biblical meaning of aneuthen, what Jesus said in that conversation with Nicodemus--despite the influence of the English translations--was not that we should be born "again."

The word we hear in scripture does not mean simple repetition. I would contend that Jesus is expressing a much more powerful spiritual truth to Nicodemus--that we should be born "from above," or born "from heaven."

So you say...so what? If he said we were to be "born from above"...so what? What possible difference does that make?"

If I were a closet Raelian, this would be the point where I'd start explaining, IN ALL CAPS AND BOLD TEXT ABOUT HOW JESUS WAS REALLY TALKING HERE ABOUT THE ALIENS!!! IT COMES FROM ABOVE!!! JESUS IS SAYING ALL CHRISTIANS MUST BE ALIEN BABIES!!!

But the transmitter implants the Presbyterian Church put in my pineal gland are still working nicely, so I won't say that.

I could also be proposing changing the term "born again," claiming that it never occurs in Scripture. But that wouldn't be valid, as the term "born again" does actually occur in the New Testament. It isn't in the Gospels, but in 1 Peter 1:23, where the Greek word anagegennemenoi is used. Ana means "again" and gegennemenoi means "y'all-are-born," so that term--legitimately translated--means "y'all-are-again-born." Think, for example, of how anabaptist means "y'all-are-again-baptized" or anakournikova means "y'all-are-again-wearing-little-tennis-skirts."

Honestly, for mature Christians, the distinction is mostly moot. Even with that verse historically mistranslated as "born again," we still know exactly what Christ was talking about from the broader context of his teachings. We are to be transformed. We are to be "born of water and the Spirit." (John 3:5) Those who have felt the Spirit moving in their lives, and whose lives have been--and are being--changed by Christ know what it means, no matter what word is used. They're feeling it. They're living it.

Nonetheless, the reality that a term that Christians have used to describe themselves for several generations has only a very tenuous root in Christ's teachings is...interesting.

It is also interesting that the words recorded in Scripture have a specific theological meaning, one that resonates with all of Christ's other teachings about the change he is bringing us. The birth that Christ describes has something to do with what is "above," which in the context of John's Gospel indicates a connection with the eternal and the heavenly realm.

Though it's a minor shift, just a single word, it does reinforce that the transformation Jesus is describing is our being born of and into our eternity.

1 comment:

  1. You, sir, are a Calvinist's Calvinist! ;o)

    Many in modern day evangelicalism get all kinda crazy when you speak of, "regeneration". One of their favored responses..."It's nowhere to be found in the Bible. Oh, how wrong they is!

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