Problem: "Born again" involves an impossible play on words
Verses: John 3:3-7;
My source for this problem is Bart Ehrman's book Jesus Interrupted.
While talking to a man named Nicodemus, Jesus tells him that he must be born "from above". However, the word Jesus uses - ανωθεν (anwqen) - can also mean "again", and Nicodemus understands Jesus in this second sense. Obviously these verses pose some difficulties for the translator, but this is the NRSV's attempt at John 3:3-7:
Jesus answered him, 'Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above
.' Nicodemus said to him, 'How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother's womb and be born?
' Jesus answered, 'Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, "You must be born from above."
Right then. Jesus said one Greek word, but a word with two meanings, and Nicodemus understood the wrong meaning. This isn't just my own interpretation; it's the view of (among others) the NET Bible:
This is a favorite technique of the author of the Fourth Gospel, and it is lost in almost all translations at this point. John uses the word 5 times, in 3:3, 7; 3:31; 19:11 and 23. In the latter 3 cases the context makes clear that it means "from above." Here (3:3, 7) it could mean either, but the primary meaning intended by Jesus is "from above." Nicodemus apparently understood it the other way, which explains his reply, "How can a man be born when he is old? He can't enter his mother's womb a second time and be born, can he?" The author uses the technique of the "misunderstood question" often to bring out a particularly important point: Jesus says something which is misunderstood by the disciples or (as here) someone else, which then gives Jesus the opportunity to explain more fully and in more detail what he really meant.
Emphasis mine. Ehrman alleges that this misunderstanding between Jesus and Nicodemus cannot have occurred, since Jesus and Nicodemus would have been speaking Aramaic, not Greek, and there is no such double meaning in Aramaic. Sadly this is one of those cases where my lack of knowledge of ancient languages will prevent me from knowing the truth. A reader sends me to a blog post that claims, contra Ehrman, that exactly such a double meaning is possible in Aramaic as well.
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