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"Of Water and Spirit": John 3:3,5

by Philip Yim Kwok Hung

Table of Content

I. Historicity of the Discourse

II. Context of the passage

III. Analysis of the discourse





This article attempts to find the meaning of the phrase from the context, with the awareness of four probable levels of understanding, namely the level of Nicodemus, John the gospel writer, Johannine community (and early church), and later churches. Besides, John's style in using "hudatos" in wider context and wordplay will be discussed. This article suggests John preserve the original meaning (spiritual rebirth), which is misunderstood by Nicodemus as physical rebirth. John intends an implicit meaning (born from above, related to baptism) by using "anothen" in v.3, and other contextual implications, following John's Baptism in Ch.2. John's interpretation is used by apostolic and later churches.

I. Historicity of the Discourse.

First, the opening statement of Nicodemus in v.2 implies that Jesus has worked many miracles in Jerusalem, but John has mentioned none. Some scholars, like Tatian, tend to shift this story to Holy Week. But it is a vain attempt, since John has warned us that logical sequence is not his interest.[1]

Second, the question of historicity affects both the setting and contents of the discourse. There are numerous difficulties: in vv.3-4 a wordplay possible only in Greek; in v.13 it seems as if the Son of Man has already ascended. These problems lead some scholars to treat this discourse as simply Johannine "invention." However, the body is a coherent unit, which shows the material has been reworked by John to form a unit. In comparing with the Synoptics, I suggest John have persevered the core material,[2] though it is an edited record.[3]

II. Context of the passage[4]

The Witness of John 1:19-42

A journey of Jesus into Galilee 1:43-51

First Sign 2:1 - 2:11 Water into wine,

Interlude 2:13-22 Cleansing the temple,

Transition 2:23-25 Jesus knows man's heart,[5]

First Discourse 3:1 - 3:36 The new birth,

1. The new birth 3:1-3:21[6] "Of water and spirit"

2. Purifying rite 3:22-3:36 "ceremonial washing"

Second Discourse 4:1 - 4:42 The water of life,

Second Sign 4:46 - 4:52 Healing the nobleman's son.

Clearly, the dialogue is at the centre of the whole passage.[8]

Leitwoerter (keywords) like "ouranos", "ge", and "ana" have dominated this unit of narrative. Words related to "ana" are distributed even to Ch.2, and "the above/below contrast that begins to be emphasized here will go on to become a major motif of the gospel."[9]

III. Analysis of the discourse

A. Levels of understanding:

There are at least four levels of understanding we should pay attention to, namely the level of Nicodemus, John, John's first readers, and later churches.

On the level of Nicodemus, the OT background and contemporary Jewish customs influence his perception; and he is most likely speaking in Aramaic, not Greek, with Jesus. John the writer, however, is affected mostly by Jesus' examples and particularly the "Resurrection Event." He writes in Greek with Semitic flavour that reflects his Hebraic thought. For the readers, especially the Christians, may know some OT background, but the Hellenistic ideas and Christian thought will be the dominant influence. For the later church, especially the post-apostolic churches, their understandings of the biblical text may reflect the contemporary needs, rather than the "original meaning" of the text itself.

B. The setting of the discourse:

In 3:2 describes how "Nicodemus came at night (nuktos)." Many scholars have suggested at least four possible interpretations.[10] Since nuktos is not brought into emphatic position by fronting, like in the Acts 9:24-25,[11] and oppression has not arisen,[12] thus this word should be taken simply as a chronological marker. Being a Jewish "archon" may mean a member of the Sanhedrin.[13] Since Jesus has no house in Jerusalem, and a Rabbi will always be followed by his disciples, sometimes even to his bed[14]. The discourse is probably taking place in the Temple at night with their disciples surrounding them.[15]

C. The content of the discourse

Nicodemus calls Jesus a Rabbi, showing his respect, but he identifies Jesus as a didaskalos, not a prophet.[16] This interpretation is conservative, compared to the public ideas (Mark 11:32).[17] John 2:24-25 reflects the idea that a prophet knows the heart of man. However, the assumption that person who can perform miracles are "from God," doesn't seem to be commonly accepted among the Jews, eg. in Jn 9 they reject the blind man's testimony.[18]

Jesus's reply seems to be abrupt.[19] As Cotterell states "the normal easy flow of conversation has been interrupted and it is not clear how the dialogue is to continue."[20]But if we notice that "apo theou" is fronted by Nicodemus, the hidden agenda is highly probable connected to this theme.[21] Besides, other discourses in John show that Jesus would not answer a question unconnected to the enquiry. Then, Jesus's reply is directly addressing to his question in heart; His answer is suitable, rather than ridiculous.[22]

It is well-known that v.3 is parallel to v.5[23] and serves as a key to unlock the meaning in v.5. As Barrett claims "it is reasonable to assume that John speaks of the the same begetting, that is, that the adverb and the adverbial phrases are substantially equivalent to each other,"[24] The anothen may mean "to be begotten from above" or "to be born again."[25] Clearly Nicodemus understands the word as "rebirth,"[26] and says "can he enter a second time (deuteron) into his mother's womb and be born? (gennethenai )." Since they are likely speaking in Aramaic, which doesn't show any ambiguity like Greek; his understanding is important for us to clarify Jesus' meaning.[27] Of course, he misunderstands[28] Jesus' words, but in what way does he misinterpret? There are two possibilities:

The context supports the second interpretation: v.6 clearly contrasts "spiritual birth" with "physical birth". Also, Bultmann comments that "the ambiguity of Johannine concepts and statements, which lead to misunderstandings does not consist in one word having two meanings, so that the misunderstanding comes as a result of choosing the wrong one; it is rather that there are concepts and statements, which at first sight refer to earthly matters, but properly refer to divine matters. The misunderstanding comes when someone sees the right meaning of the word but mistakenly imagines that its meaning is exhausted by the reference to earthly matters; it is a judgment kata opsin(7.24), kata sarka (9.15)."[30] Hence, the second interpretation is preferred.[31]On the level of John, what does he intend?[32] why does John choose an ambiguous word anothen? I propose that he strives to preserve the original meaning and "added" an implicit meaning to it. (We will come back to this idea later.)

In v.5 Jesus emphasizes "born of water and spirit",[33] instead of anothen. Bultmann has suggested that "ek hudatos" is an ecclesiastical redaction,[34] but is refuted because of lack of support in textual history.[35] "ek hudatos" has many possible explanations, listed as follows:[36]

We will attempt to analyze it in different levels of understanding.

On the level of Nicodemus, several possibilities are listed as below:

As Some scholars rightly point out Nicodemus can't understand the Christian Baptism,[47] so it is unlikely the original meaning Jesus implied. Besides, the word "hudor" is used in different meanings in the wider context. In ch.2 it means physical water, and in 3:22-3:36 it refers to the water for Baptism.[48] But in ch.4 it "is partly spring water and partly a symbol of the benefits conferred by Jesus".[49] Hence, the diverse usage of the words in close context implies a different meaning may be intended. Also, the response of Nicodemus clearly points to the fourth explanation.

While on the level of John, four interpretations may be possible:

John knows the original dialogue and may take Jesus' words as referring to rebirth.[52] But after the "Resurrection Event", he has a new insight on this discourse. Just like Jn 2:21-22, John understands that Jesus is referring to his body. Hence, John may here preserve the original meaning, but adds an implicit extended meaning by putting the debate of baptism after this discourse;[53] without making any addition.[54]The use of anothen may be his intentional choice of word[55], which may imply the Spirit coming from heaven and descending on a christian who is being baptised.[56] This interpretation supported by other scriptures (eg Tim 3:5) may reflect the understanding of this verse in the apostolic churches. When we compare Jn 3:5 with the synoptics, esp Mt 18:3 (Mk 10:15; Lk 18:17): "Unless you turn and become like children, you will never the kingdom of heaven.", striking similarities impress Bernard and J. Jeremias to think they are variants of the same saying of Jesus.[57]Dodd[58], followed by Pryor,[59] suggested that John's form of the saying comes from an earlier, independent form of the tradition, rather than from any adaptation of Matthew. Divine begetting presented by John is a long way from Matthean childlike simplicity.[60] The Johannine passage implicitly is linked to Baptism, which is the natural association of the Christian readers. As Bultmann said "admittedly in the tradition of the church the event of the rebirth has been tied to baptism."[61]


On the level of other churches

Undoubtedly this implication is taken up by the Johannine community[62] and has affected the other churches.[63] This implication is taken up among the apostolic churches (eg Ti 3:5 and 1 Pet 1:23), which affect the later churches. As Bernard points out the words hudatos kai have been inserted in v.8 by _, a b e, etc.[64] In Justin Apol I.61: "Unless you are reborn, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven."[65] implies his loose rendering.[66] (which may be from Jn 3:3 or Jn 3:5)[67] Besides, he may mingle the Johannine text with the Matthean text.[68] Jeremias has proved that Matthean saying has later been reinterpreted as Baptism.[69] This may be influenced by the Johannine text. For example, the 4th-century Apostolic Constitutions adapts John freely, "Unless a man is baptized of water and Spirit, he shall not enter the kingdom of heaven"(VI 3:15).[70] In light of these evidences, we are sure that the post-apostolic churches have interpreted this verse as baptism, which may not reflect the original meaning of Jesus. Or on the contrary, they have followed John to find the deeper meaning of Jesus' words. [71]


The original meaning of the Jn 3:3,5 refers to the spiritual rebirth, which is misunderstood by Nicodemus as physical rebirth. This spiritual rebirth is interpreted by John related to Christian Baptism. Hence, he uses a term anothen which may imply "born from above" to show that when a person is baptised, he is born from above. This implication spread among the apostolic churches, which affect later churches.


Bauer, Walter. A GREEK-ENGLISH LEXICON OF THE NT and Other Early Christian Literature. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2nd ed. ET 1979).

Beasley-Murray GR "John 3:3,5: Baptism, Spirit and the Kingdom" THE EXPOSITORY TIMES Mar 86 Vol.97 No.6 pp.167-170.


Barrett, C. K. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST JOHN (London: S.P.C.K., 2nd ed 1978).

Brown, Raymond E. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN (i-xii) (AB Vol.29) (New York: Doubleday, 1970).

Bultmann, Rudolf. The Gospel of John A Commentary ET ( :Basil Blackwell, 1971)

Cotterell, F.P. "The Nicodemus Conversation: A Fresh Appraisal" THE EXPOSITORY TIMES May ? Vol. 96 No.8 pp.237-242.


Haenchen, Ernst. John 1 (Hermeneia) (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984)

Miller, D. G. "John 3:1-21" INTERPRETATION Apr 81 Vol.35 No.2 pp.174-9.

Morris, Leon. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST JOHN (NIC) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977).

Neyrey, J. H. "John III - A debate over Johannine epistemology and Christology" NOVUM TESTAMENTUM XXIII, 2(1981) pp.115-127.

Pamment, M. "Short Note" NOVUM TESTAMENTUM XXV, 2(1983) pp.189-190.

Pancaro, S. THE LAW IN THE FOURTH GOSPEL (Leiden: E.J.BRILL, 1975).

Pryor, John W. John Evangelist of the Covenant People (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).

Pryor, John W. "John 3.3,5. A study in the relation of John's gospel to the synoptic tradition" JSNT 41(1991) pp.71-95.

Staley, J. L. THE PRINT'S FIRST KISS: A Rhetorical Investigation of the Implied Reader in the Fourth Gospel SBL Dissertation Series 82 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988).

Tenney, M. C. John : The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 1985.)

Westcott, B. F. THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST JOHN (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, reprinted 1981).


[1] see Brown p.135.

[2] see Brown p.136.

[3]Cotterell p.238.

[4] based on Leon Morris, NIC, pp.65-66, with reference to Staley (p.58-59), modified by me.

[5]H. Thyen accepts 2:23-3:36 as an unit. (see Beasley-Murray p.167.)

[6]see Morris p.65 and Haenchen p.v.

[7] refers to Brown pp.136-137, modified by me.

[8]Staley shows "that John 1:19-3:36 exhibits a symmetrical, concentric pattern whose sequencing of narrative episodes seems to model that of the prologue,". "The pericopes found within the boundaries of the concentric pattern consist of Jesus' first acts of power and his first monologue." (quoted in p.59). Though some scholars, like Pryor (John Evangelist of the Covenant People p.99), take 2:1-4:54 as a unit, the centre is still around this discourse.

[9]quoted in Staley p.61.

[10] See Cotterell p.238. Four interpretations: 1. As a simple chronological marker. 2. Nicodemus wants to go secretly.(Tenney p.85 reflects similar ideas) 3. Redactor's concern the symbolic contrast between night and day. 4. Rabbis are used to discuss theological problems at night.

[11] See Cotterell p.238.

[12] Nicodemus emphasizes "we know" (oidamen), that indicates he is a representative of a group of Jews, hence opposition is not felt. Only when we relocate this passage to the Holy Week, is opposition possible. But relocation lacks of enough evidence.

[13]Haenchen p.199.

[14]Cotterell p.238 footnote 9.

[15]Cotterell p.238. The house of Mary, John Mark's mother, is unlikely available to him at this time. The word "We" used in v.11 can better be understood as Jesus identifying himself with his disciples, while "you"(pl.) means Nicodemus and his disciples, see Morris p.221-222. (Abbott's suggestion that Jesus identifies himself with the Father is out of context; hence it is not convincing to me. [see Morris p.221 n.46])

[16]Neyrey considers v.2 as "a confession", and claims John contrasts Nicodemus' incomplete understanding with the Christian's fuller understanding. see Neyrey pp.118-119. On the contrary, Pryor takes 'teacher sent from God' as an affirmation of a divinely-sent prophet, the expected Mosaic Prophet (Deut 18:15). (see Pryor John Evangelist of the Covenant People p.19.) But in the light of Jesus' rebuke of his unbelief, Pryor's suggestion is unconvincing.

[17]Cotterell p.239.

[18]Haenchen p.199. Of course, it may be caused by their unbeliving attitude(Jn 8:47-49); but it also reflects the idea is not firm in the Jewish mind. They don't know where Jesus comes from,(Jn 9:28-29) and on one occasion Jesus is taken to cast out demons by evil power.

[19] Tenney p.85 emphasizes the abruptness.

[20] Cotterell p.240.

[21]Neyrey takes v.2 as the topic statement of the dialogue: 1)introducing the agenda, 2) the mode of discourse and 3) the dominant rhetorical form of the dialogue. see p.119.

[22]Miller (p.174) demands us to study this passage in the light of the author's purpose (1:30, 31): to produce a living faith in the historic man Jesus of Nazareth as the Jewish Messiah.

[23]Jn 3 resembles the prologue is suggested by Bultmann, and Neyrey has advocated the parallel between Jn 3:3,5,7 with Jn 1:12b (to become children), 13 (they were born of God). [see Neyrey p.125].

[24]quoted in Barrett p.208, where he expresses some hesitation: "...though the introduction of 'water and spirit' suggests fresh, and more precise, ideas."

[25] Haenchen p.200. Morris even suggests that double meaning is intended by John(see NIC p.231).

[26]Bernard (p.102) cites 3:31 and 19:11,23 and synoptics (generally) to support the meaning of "from above" (in Latin: desuper). But he also reminds us that Gal 4:9 supports the rendering of "anew" or "again" (in Latin: denuo) which may be defended by Greek usage outside the N.T. (eg Artemidorus, Onirocr. i.13 and Josephus, Antt. I. xviii.3) However, he thinks desuper suits the context better than denuo.(which I strongly oppose).

[27] Cotterell p.240.

[28] Misunderstandings is a frequent device in the Johannine discourse. see Brown p.138.

[29]Variants among the MSS show the attempts to render anothen in v.3: eg. nascor , nascor denuo, renascor, renascor denuo (and other variants). see Barrett p.205.

[30]quoted in Bultmann p.135 footnote 1.

[31]Bultmann p.135. He admits that in 3.31; 19.11,23 anothen means "from above", but insists that in 3.3,7 it can only mean "anew". (most exegetes give this translation.)

[32]John uses anothen to mean "from above" in Jn 3:31 and 19:11,23 is a trouble for this interpretation. Cotterell(p.240) insisted to forsake the use of these verses when interpreting Jn 3:3. But I suggest to distinguish the level of Nicodemus and John.

[33]Bultmann claims: "pneuma refers to the power of a miraculous event,... rather than in the sense of the Platonic distinction between psuche (or nous ) and soma, or of the idealist distinction between spirit and nature." (quoted in p.139 and n.1).

[34]He bases this on three arguments: 1. the context of vv.3,8 doesn't mention water. 2. Nicodemus can't understand if it means baptism. 3. The evangelist has no interest in sacraments. [Brown refutes the above arguments in p.143.]see Bultmann p.138 note 3.

[35]Beasley-Murray p.168.

[36]see Morris pp.215-219.

[37]Barrett (p.209) suggests the use in rabbinic Hebrews of tsyph ( a drop ; P. Aboth 3.1 and other, later, passages; cf 3 Enoch 6.2) for semen to mean physical birth. Barrett rejects the idea that spiritual semen can be compared with the primal heavenly water, which is life-creating (Acts of Thomas, 52). And he remarks that "at Qumran, water and Spirit were connected with cleansing rather than regeneration. The following parallels have been adduced, but none is really close to John: 1 QS 3.7;4.20ff.; 1QH7.21f.; CD 19.9."

[38]see Bruce pp.216-219.; Barrett p.209.

[39]Pamment p.190.

[40]The editor of M Pamment (p.190) appends a reference to Old Babylonian documents to support this view in footnote 1. But I think the date is too far away to be useful for comparison.

[41]Odeberg's idea is strongly refuted by Bultmann. Odeberg takes ex hudor kai pneuma as ek spermatos pneumatikes. He argues : "yet the analogies in the Christian tradition which we have cited make this unlikely. -- In C. Herm. 13.3 rebirth (paliggenesia see p.135 n.4) is descibed as a gennethenai en no(i). Nous should not here be taken in the Classical Greek sense, but in the sense which it has in (Gnostic) dualism of the transcendent divine power, i.e.= pneuma. Cp. esp. C. Herm. 4, where the nous is the gift sent by god, with which man must be baptised in order to achieve the Gnosis." (quoted in p.139 n.1). However, Pament's proposal still has some force, since it stands on another ground, but it is waiting for further investigation.

[42]Haenchen p.200. According to Brown (p.141), the Christian readers will take it as baptism. But accepting this interpretation still leaves him with uncertainties: "Accepting 'water' at its face value, we do not think there is enough evidence in the Gospel itself to determine the relation between begetting of water and begetting of Spirit on the level of sacramental interpretation. Begetting of Spirit, while it includes accepting Jesus by faith, is primarily the communication of the Holy Spirit" (quoted p.144). Besides, there are two possibilities of the reference (Jn 3:5):

1. It refers to Baptism and faith, then begetting of water and Spirit are two co-ordinate exigencies for entering the kingdom of God.

2. It refers to Baptism and the giving of the Spirit (note that John mentions Spirit after water), then John may be thinking of the communication of the Spirit through Baptism. (p.144).

Barrett suggests that the addition of 'Spirit' transforms John's baptism into Christian baptism (cf. Acts 19.1-7). But Christian baptism, in the eye of the Evangelist John, is not just an external rite, but is accompanied by the action of the Spirit, which introduces one into the kingdom of God. see Barrett p.209.

[43]Origen suggested that in v.5 'water' differs from 'Spirit' only in epinoia, i.e. notion, not in hupostasis, substance. While Calvin interpreted water and Spirit as meaning the same thing, comparable to "Spirit and fire' in the preaching of John the Baptist. quoted in Beasley-Murray p.168.

[44]Odeberg demonstrates that water in v.5 relates to the celestial waters, viewed in mystical Judaism as corresponding to the semen of the sarx; this interpretation according to Beasley-Murray can hardly be justified. Besides, D.W.B. Robinson suggests that the water of Jn 3:5 represents 'the religion of the Jews'. This explanation lacks of support from other scholars. see Beasley-Murray p.168.

[45] Cotterell pp.240-241.

[46]Brown p.140. Eschatological gift of Spirit and cleansing in Jewish consciousness, as is attested by Ezk 36:25-27, Jub 1;23, Ps Sol 18:6, Test Jud 24:3; 1 QS 31.6-9, 1 QH 11.10-14. see Beasley-Murray p.168. Pryor holds a similar position. see Pryor's John Evangelist of the Covenant People. p.19, in which he cites Linda Belleville, ' " Born of Water and Spirit": John 3:5, ' Trinity Journal 1/2 (fall 1980) 125-41. to support him.

[47]Brown p.142. Brown doesn't mention clearly who uses this argument.

[48]But it is highly probable that the passage is closely followed by the baptism of John to help association of baptism; though I thinks this is the implicit meaning intended by John, not the original meaning of John.

[49]Quoted in Bauer p.833.

[50]Bernard has suggested "ek hudatos" is added by the Evangelist. see Bernard p.104-105.

[51]It is advocated by Bengel, Westcott, and J.A.T. Robinson. see Beasley-Murray p.168.

[52]Brown has suggested John may intend the meaning "again" on a secondary, sacramental level( pp.130-1), which is the opposite of my proposal. But, he ignores Nicodemus' response, which opposes his proposal.

[53]Since the Christian Baptism is compared to a cleansing bath (Eph. 5:26; Heb. 10:22),[see Kittel Abr. p.1206] Jn 2 may imply baptism by referring to the water for physical cleansing. Though it is not a well-grounded suggestion.

[54]If John wants to add this phrase (ek hudatos) to indicate the baptism (as Bernard suggests p.105), he would make more references in the text, just like the later manuscripts, eg a b e, make some interpolations in v.8. But he simply uses this phrase once and ek hudatos is connected to kai pneumatos without articles for each word.

[55]Since the Aramaic word doesn't have any ambiguity, John may choose anothen which preserve the original meaning (rebirth) and express his intended meaning (born from above) which can be connected to Christian baptism.

[56] Schnackenburg considers birth from the Spirit as the fundamental process of salvation which, for the early church-- according to the commandment of its Lord -- was linked only with the sacrament of baptism.[see Pamment p.189] But this idea has a weakness, since in Jn 20:22-23 the apostles receive the Holy Spirit by the breathing of Jesus Christ. Also, in the Acts, there are several cases in which baptism is disconnected with the descending of Holy Spirit. Though, these may be taken as special cases, but Jn 20 (contra to Ac 2) is not easy to harmonize with the previous idea.

[57]Brown p.143.

[58]Dodd pp.358-59.

[59]Pryor JSNT pp.94-95.

[60]Pryor JSNT p.93.

[61]quoted in Bultmann p.138 n.3. Besides, he cites some evidence: Tit. 3.5; Justin apol.I.66, 1 and 61,3f.10; dial. 138,2; Act. Thom. 132, p.239, 8ff.; Ps. Clem. Hom. XI 26 p.226, 33ff. Lag.; Herm. sim. Ix, 16 and II Clem. 6.9. [see Bultmann in pp.138-139.]

[62]Brown suggests John's readers interpreted v.5 as Christian baptism. see Brown p.141.

[63]The theme of "being born[again]" is a baptismal theme in 1 Pet i.23 (cf. "rebirth" in Titus iii 5). The fact that the early versions translated John iii 3 and 5 in terms of being born again means that from the earliest days this passage was thought of in a baptismal context.(eg catacomb art and inscription). Brown p.143.

[64]Bernard p.104.

[65]Brown p.144. see also Bultmann p.139 which cites Justin apol. I,66,1 as eis anagennesin loutron.

[66]Bultmann has admitted that in the tradition of the Church the event of the rebirth has been tied to baptism; and he lists a lot of evidence in pp.138-139 footnote 3. Also, Barrett affirms the early church connects this passage with baptism, and 'regeneration', both in Latin and Greek, is a technical term. see Barrett p.205.

[67] Bernard p.104.

[68]Dodd argues that John has some earlier sources. see Dodd pp.358-359. The relationship between John and the Synoptics is somewhat out of the scope of this article, please refer to Pryor's article in JSNT 41(1991) pp.71-95.

[69]Brown p.143.

[70]Brown p.144.

[71]Though interpreters has argued on the Sensus Plenoir of the Bible, we are certain that John has meditated on Jesus' words and reinterprets them in a deeper meaning; as Jn 2:21-22 has explicitly stated.