The Non-Historicity of Jesus' Conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 (the chapter with John 3:16, a key verse for many Evangelicals). Bart Ehrman's Question

Jesus' Conversation with Nicodemus in John

Years ago I posted Bart Ehrmanʼs question regarding the historicity of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, a conversation that appears only in the third chapter of the Gospel of John and that includes one of the most cited passages among devout believers, John 3:16.

Ehrmanʼs point was that in that conversation Nicodemus showed confusion concerning the meaning of Jesusʼ speech about the necessity of being “born again,” and understood the phrase in an earthly fashion that involved being born “when old,” or, “entering a second time into oneʼs motherʼs womb to be born.” The confusion appears to have been due to Jesusʼ use of the Greek word, anothen, in conjunction with the notion of being born, and hence what Jesus said could be understood by Nicodemus to mean either born “from above,” or born “again,” since anothen has both of those meanings. But if the conversation was historical then Nicodemus and Jesus, being first century Jews, would not have been speaking in Greek at all, but in Aramaic, and in Aramaic there was no word that meant both “from above,” and “again,” and so Nicodemus would not have been confused. Therefore, the conversation was probably created by the author of the fourth Gospel.

At that time a comment was left that challenged Ehrmanʼs view:

Ehrman wrote “this conversation could not have happened” because the Aramaic “from above” cannot mean “again.” But what if the Aramaic word for “again” was used? The conversation with Nicodemus would make perfect sense, and the translation with Gk. anothen would make perfect sense. As it happens, that is exactly what we see in the Aramaic text of the Syriac Peshitta. NOT Ehrmanʼs “from above” in Aramaic, but “again.” The conversation makes perfect sense in the Peshitta, and the Gk. translation corresponds perfectly to the Peshitta. No problems whatsoever.

But the problem remains because the author of the conversation in Greek in John is playing on words with more than one meaning, and does it twice to his characters Jesus and Nicodemus, not just once. He does it with the Greek word anothen and does it right afterwards with another Greek word, pneuma. The author is attempting to draw distinctions between heavenly and earthly understanding, and he is using words to that effect. I will elaborate further below.

But first a bit of explanation so no further confusion takes place. The "Syriac Peshitta" mentioned above contains NT writings translated from Greek into Aramaic for churches that had sprung up in Syria, it is not older than the Greek text of the Gospel of John, itʼs a later translation. So, the Gospel of John was not originally composed in Aramaic. It was originally composed in Greek.

If the Gospel of John (chapter 3) did contain an actual historical conversation that took place in first century Palestine between two Jews like Jesus and Nicodemus (a Pharisee), it would have been in the native Jewish tongue, which was Aramaic, and there would have been no confusion in Nicodemusʼ understanding. The confusion only comes about in the Greek tongue since only in the Greek tongue is there a dual meaning of the Greek word used by the author of the fourth Gospel:

anothen
Outline of Biblical Usage as Given in Strongʼs Concordance

  1. from above, from a higher place
    1. of things which come from heaven or God
  2. from the first, from the beginning, from the very first
  3. anew, over again

When translating the Greek of the fourth Gospel into any language other than Greek you lose the double-meaning of anothen. There is a footnote in the NIV translation that admits:

John 3:3 The Greek for again also means from above; also in verse 7.

So any word you use in John 3:3,7 will have lost some of its meaning in translation. In English we have no word with a double-meaning of “from above” as well as “again.” Nor was there a word with such a double-meaning in Aramaic (the Bible produced for Syriac Churches in the third century CE). So when translating the original Greek text of John 3:3 and 3:7 into English (or Aramaic) the translators have to choose between the two Greek meanings of anothen, which are, “again,” or “from above.” They can add a footnote as the NIV did concerning the wordʼs other meaning. But they still have to make a choice. Will the text read like this:

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born from above.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their motherʼs womb to be born!”

Or like this?

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their motherʼs womb to be born!”

Therefore, both English and Aramaic translators of the Greek fourth Gospel chose “again” as the word to use in their translation, and only modern translations add a footnote about the Greek word having another meaning. But that footnote holds a key to the conversationʼs lack of historicity.

There is further confusion to be avoided on this topic due to modern day Bible readers (such as the person who left the comment, above) who think the word “again” might be the primary term as it is in English and Aramaic translations from the Greek. They imagine that Nicodemus was merely confused because Jesus was using a metaphor. But it was more than that, instead the original Greek word itself (anothen) had two meanings, especially when you paired it with the word for “birth,” it had either an earthly meaning of being “born again,” or a heavenly meaning of being “born from above.” Johnʼs Gospel is filled with similar illustrations of the authorʼs dualistic thinking. The conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus appears to have been composed to illustrate the difference between earthly and heavenly things, between flesh and spirit, darkness and light, truth and lies, eternal life and death, so it appears like the author of the fourth Gospel invented this conversation as one more of his dualistic sermons about things earthly and heavenly, and so he employed the Greek word anothen with its dual meaning, as well as the Greek word pneuma with its dual meaning since pneuma could refer to either “wind” or “spirit.” Now read John, chapter 3, below with new eyes:

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again/from above [a].” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their motherʼs womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again/from above.’ The wind [=pneuma, the same Greek word for spirit] blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit [=pneuma, the same Greek word for wind].”[b] “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

[Note: Nicodemus is confused a second time by the authorʼs use of a Greek word with a dual meaning that applies both to earthly and heavenly things, “wind” and “spirit,” but unlike the previous case the word pneuma had the same dual meaning in Greek as well as Aramaic and Hebrew, meaning both “wind” and “spirit” in all three languages, probably in even more than just those languages since the wind was invisible and mysterious/spiritual to all ancient cultures. Thatʼs why the first case of the authorʼs use of a Greek word with a dual meaning, anothen, is more telling, because the Aramaic word for “again” does not also mean “from above,” nor does the Aramaic word for “from above” also mean “again,” per Bart Ehrmanʼs email recʼd 9/4/11. In another email Ehrman further explained, “The conversation makes much better sense as hinging on a mistaken double entendre, as happens, in fact, in the very next chapter where the woman thinks that Jesusʼ reference to ‘living water’ means ‘running water’ (since that is how it is normally described in Greek), when in fact he means ‘water that gives life.’ Both conversations proceed by a double entendre, misunderstood, leading to a re-explanation. That works only if there is in fact a double entendre, possible in Greek but not Aramaic.”] “You are Israelʼs teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? [my emphasis] No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up [the same Greek word for lifted up also means exalted] the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up [the same Greek word for lifted up also means exalted, a third play on words] [c], that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” [end of John 3:3-15]

Notes

  1. John 3:3 The Greek for again also means from above; also in verse 7.
  2. John 3:8 The Greek for Spirit is the same as that for wind.
  3. John 3:14 The Greek for lifted up also means exalted.

The author of the fourth gospel continues in dualistic fashion by teaching that you either “believe in the name of Godʼs one and only Son,” or you are “condemned already,” and that you either “love the light” or you “love the darkness.” This is not the Jesus of the synoptics who taught that oneʼs deeds mattered more than what one believed about Jesus, and who said people could be forgiven even if they blasphemed the son of man.

John 3:16-21, continued from above:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of Godʼs one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

This conversation, found only in the Gospel of John appears to be a non-historical conversation, a fabrication by a Greek thinker and propagandist for Christianity (as he sought to define Christianity).

Just as in the third chapter that weʼve examined, the author of the Gospel of John attempts to make it appear like Jesusʼ identity and message were crystal clear right from the start. It starts with his lengthy prologue, not the words and claims of Jesus himself, but the words and claims of the author of that Gospel. Even after the prologue the author continues to try and stack up every accolade he can, as if everybody from John the Baptist to the earliest followers of Jesus were crystal clear on who Jesus was. In chapter one the author has John the Baptist announce that Jesus is “The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” and he has “[Andrew] hear what John [the Baptist] had said and followed Jesus. [And] the first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (that is, the Christ),” “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote,” and they say right from the start to Jesus, “you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” And Jesus says to them right from the start, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” And thatʼs just in the first chapter! Chapter three that weʼve discussed above continues to make it appear like Jesus spoke in crystal clear fashion about who he was and what his mission was about. This is not the Jesus of Mark, Matthew, Luke who spoke in parables so that people might not understand. This is the work of a single-minded theologian, putting words of his own understanding into Jesusʼ mouth and into the mouths of other characters in the Gospel as well.

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