Friday, June 02, 2017

Born from above

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:3).

i) Most commentators think anothen is a typical Johannine double entendre. It could either mean "above" or "again" (or "anew"). 

ii) However, this creates a potential problem. Seems likely the Jesus and Nicodemus spoke to each other in Aramaic. Yet commentators inform us that Aramaic has no word with this double entendre. (e.g. Brown, 1:130). If the narrator is uses a play on words that only works in Greek, then that raises questions about the historicity of the dialogue. 

iii) One possible explanation is that this is a paraphrase or summary of a longer exchange. But a problem with that explanation, which may well be true in its own right, is that we have a case of dramatic irony which turns on the studied ambiguity of a particular word. Jesus intends one meaning ("from above"), which Nicodemus misunderstands, while the reader shares the understanding of Jesus. So the confusion of Nicodemus depends on double entendre. But if it was clearer in the original language, how did his confusion arise? 

iv) However, I question the scholarly assumption that the dialogue can't be reproduced in Aramaic. I'm struck by the overconfidence of some commentators.

I'm no expert, but what's our sample of 1C Aramaic? How much Aramaic survives from that period? What if 1C Aramaic did have a synonym that corresponds to the Greek word? 

Likewise, isn't most of the period Aramaic literary Aramaic? But Jesus and Nicodemus were using conversational Aramaic. The spoken word has some vocabulary that the written word does not, and vice versa. Colloquialisms that don't survive in written sources that come down to us.   

For that matter, the same word can gain or lose meanings over time. Likewise, you have dialectical variations from one region to another, or one social demographic to another. So I'm dubious about the self-assurance of some commentators on this issue. You'd think they were native 1C Aramaic speakers! 

v) In addition, if they spoke in Aramaic, that doesn't mean they used Simon pure Aramaic. It's not uncommon for one language to have loan words from another language. The more so in a polyglot culture like the Roman Empire. 


  1. Great points. Additionally, since Greek was the lingua franca at the time, who's to say that Jesus didn't just lapse into a Greek phrase from time to time to make a point? For example, we have a contractor where I work who's from a military family and they spent a lot of time in Spain, and at certain points in the middle of a discussion, usually to be humorous but I could see it being used in a serious context, she'll just say a Spanish word or phrase in the middle of an English sentence. It makes perfect sense, even if you don't know Spanish, because you get the tone and the context of the conversation.

    Or, for that matter, riding public transportation I've often overheard many conversations in "Spanglish" as people talk on their cell phones. Areas where multiple languages are spoken have people who will use any of the languages as the need arises.

    1. Like the French using American loanwords.

  2. The Jews therefore said among themselves, Whither will this man go that we shall not find him? will he go unto the Dispersion among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks?- John 7:35 ASV

    If the Palestinian Jews wonder whether Jesus might leave and teach Greeks or Greek speaking Jews in the Diaspora this suggests they knew Jesus spoke Greek.

    20 Now among those who went up to worship at the feast were some Greeks.21 So these came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and asked him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."22 Philip went and told Andrew; Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.- John 12:20-22 ESV

    The same with this passage. Apparently some of the Apostles spoke Greek and that these Greeks were hoping to speak to Jesus themselves. The Greek speaking Apostles could translate, but in all likelihood Jesus spoke Greek with some proficiency too. I mean, He is the Word made flesh. It only makes sense that His human brain was especially wired to absorb languages.

    I completely agree with Peter. People who speak both English and Spanish sometimes use "Spanglish". In my own community, people who speak English and Filipino/Tagalog speak "Taglish". For example, President Duterte often speaks Taglish when speaking directly to his countrymen. Then when speaking to a Western audience, only in English.

  3. I believe "Nicodemus" is a Greek name. So it's not at all implausible that he and Jesus were speaking Greek.

    I'm not entirely convinced that the double entendre is there in any event. It seems to me a clever idea of interpreters, but not knock-down, and a fortiori not so strong as to throw into doubt the historicity of the dialogue.