Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” John 3:3 NASB
Born again – By now most of us realize that the translation “born again” is neither proper Greek nor reasonable Hebrew. A good English Bible will at least note that the proper Greek translation is “from above.” The only place where a Greek word that could be translated “born again” actually occurs is in Peter’s letter. That means we have to rethink the typical exegesis that claims Yeshua introduced the idea of being “born again.”
In addition, we know that Yeshua certainly did not speak Greek to Nicodemus. That means we have to back-translate this Greek sentence into Hebrew before we can begin to understand what Yeshua really said. So, let’s give it a try. Here’s a close approximation of the sentence in Hebrew (transliterated because most readers won’t have a Hebrew font):
amen amen ani omer lak eem-lo yivvaled ish mil-ma’alah lo-yukal lir’ot et malkut ha-elohim
(Rodney Baker suggests the following transliteration from the Delitzch Hebrew Gospels: amen, amen, ani omer lak, im-lo yivvaled ish milma’ǝlah lo-yukal lir’ot et-malkot ha-elohim)
You will recognize some of the words because they are now familiar English expressions or commonly understood Hebrew expressions (e.g. amen and ha-elohim). The crucial part of this Hebrew sentence is found in eem-lo yivvaled ish mil-ma’alah. Eem-lo (if not) yivvaled (be born) ish (man) mil-ma’alah (from ascent). The word ma’alah can mean an upward grade of land, an upward pathway, a staircase or a raised platform. As a feminine noun, it may mean a step, an ascent, an upper level or room or the idea of going up, something that is rising or ascending. If this is the correct Hebrew back-translation of the Greek anothen (from above), then we see that Yeshua uses the word metaphorically to indicate a higher plane, something “above” the world of ordinary men. So, even in Hebrew we have established that the proper idea for anothen is not “again” but rather a pointer toward a different reality, a “higher” world. In Hebrew thought, this is a legitimate circumlocution for “heaven.”
Now let’s tackle the important verb – yalad (yivvaled). Yalad is the common word for the act of a woman giving birth, but it is also used for the father’s part in conception. It is sometimes used for the entire process from conception to birth. If Yeshua used this verb, then he may have referred to any part of the whole birth cycle, from insemination to delivery. Since the Greek translator of John’s account uses the verb gennao (to beget), we must include the father’s role. Yeshua is not specifically speaking of the birth delivery itself. He is either speaking about the entire human reproduction cycle or about the father’s role in pregnancy.
There is an interesting nuance to the use of yalad that is peculiar to Hebrew thought. The word isn’t limited to just the immediate generation of the birth child. The parent of a child becomes the ancestor of all who will descend from that child. This is why we can be called sons and daughters of Abraham. If we add this element to Yeshua’s words, we see that He is not speaking simply about the cycle of renewal for Nicodemus. He is speaking about all who will follow from the renewal of Nicodemus, or the renewal of anyone who understands what He is teaching. Perhaps Yeshua also has in mind the imagery of Psalm 2:7 where the verb yalad is used to express the love between the Father and the Son and clearly indicates the direct link between father and son in the birth cycle.
In Hebrew there is another word that is used for the birth cycle. It is zara’. In order to be sure that we have the correct translation of Yeshua’s statement, we must examine the possibility that he used zara’ rather than yalad. Literally, zara’ means the action of sowing seed. It is used metaphorically of God “planting” Israel, of the act of “sowing” justice or trouble or as a reference to pregnancy (the result of a man “sowing his seed”). It is often found as the euphemism for sperm. As with yalad, when zara’ is used for sperm (seed), it is always used as a collective noun. It is never found in the plural form. This implies that all the offspring, the whole line of descendents, are viewed as one unit. This idea in zara’ and yalad has significant implications when it is connected to the followers of Yeshua (as in Paul’s letters). Even the Hebrew terms incorporate the thought of corporate solidarity, not individual persons. This peculiarity of Hebrew clearly indicates that the idea of a personal and individual salvation so common in evangelical thinking could not have been part of Yeshua’s thinking.
If we focus only on the Father’s role in conception, as might be indicated by the Greek gennao, we could conclude that Yeshua used the verb zara’ rather than yalad. However, Nicodemus’ confusion leads us to think that Yeshua used yalad, covering the whole birth process. But here’s the important recognition: neither verb allows us to move to a personal and individual doctrine of salvation and neither verb allows us to focus exclusively on the birthing action. And it is certainly clear that we are unjustified in translating any of this as “born again.” There are instances of “born again” in Hebrew (e.g., Genesis 4:2) but they are related to multiple births, not re-birth, and they use a different word (yasaf) for “again” rather than a word for “ascend.”
Finally, then, we should note that the idea of being born again plays very little role in the entire New Testament. Being re-newed is important, as Paul demonstrates. Being baptized into His death, putting on the new man, being raised to new life and all the related concepts are crucial – but they do not necessarily entail a “born again” idea. They are much more in line with the Hebrew concept of renewal, a deliberate and voluntary renunciation of past behavior and adoption of a new way of living. This might cause us to ask, “Why is ‘born again’ such an important part of our thinking?”
Topical Index: born again, John 3:3, gennao, yalad, zara’, mil-ma’alah, ascend