Whence and Whither
A Narrative Perspective on Birth a!nwqen
Karl Olav Sandnes
In John 3,8 birth a!nwqen is
illustrated by means of the wind. Its effects can be experienced without
knowledge of from whence it comes and whither it goes (ou)k
oi]daj po/qen e!rxetai kai_ pou= u(pa/gei). This proverbial analogy,
drawing on ordinary experience, asserts the reality of the wind as well as its
mysterious nature. John 3,8 is not, however, exhausted by this analogy1. The
significance of the whence and whither of the wind will become clear as the
story progresses. It merits attention as the entire story in this Gospel is
unfolded. The enigmatic identity of Jesus forms a subtext of the dialogue
between Jesus and Nicodemus, and particularly so in John 3,3-8. Wayne A. Meeks
sees the language of the descent and ascent, to which the whence and whither of
Jesus naturally belongs, as having already been introduced in Jesus' response to
Nicodemus in John 3,82. This observation is substantiated and furthered in the
present article. The nature of faith is here explored by reference to the
language by which Jesus' identity with the Father in heaven is expressed in this
The story guides the readers from Nicodemus' misunderstanding
to the proper understanding of birth a!nwqen. As
John 3 unfolds, the emphasis will be on the concept "from above" (3,31 cf.
Furthermore, the full meaning of birth from above is progressively
elucidated as the Christological significance of whence and whither is developed
in the story. Jesus' whence and whither is part of the contrast between "above
and below" in the Fourth Gospel. This is also a fundamental structure of what
Jesus says about birth a!nwqen. John applies terms
which elsewhere describe the mysterious origin of Jesus in order to explore the
nature of faith. This is in accordance with the epistemological conviction at
work in John 3,3-8, namely "like is known by like": "What is born of flesh is
flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is Spirit" (NRSV)4. This article reads
John 3,3-8 in the light of the whole narrative as well as this epistemological
1. The Dialogue with Nicodemus: An Epistemological Setting
In the Prologue a pattern of knowledge/failure to know stands
out. This pattern is expressed also in terms of acceptance/rejection or
faith/denial. Cognitive terms abound in the prologue and the initial chapters of
John's story. According to John 1,10 "the world did not know him". The
believers, who are presented as born of God, saw his glory (1,14). The prologue
closes by a statement inspired by the Old Testament claim that human beings
cannot see God Himself. However, God was made known by Christ (1,18). This
closing adds to the epistemological nature of the prologue, and is thereby also
a reminder that epistemology is important to the entire story. The prologue
tells us that true knowledge of God and Christ sets the agenda for the story
told in the subsequent chapters.
The motifs of knowing/making known/not knowing permeate the
text about the Jews coming to John the Baptist (1,19-28), most directly
expressed in me/soj u(mw=n sth/kei o$n u(mei=j ou)k oi!date
(v. 26). In his testimony, the Baptist says that he also did not know (vv.
31.33), but that he had come to see5 (v. 34 cf. v. 32). The whole purpose of
his ministry was to reveal Jesus to Israel (v. 31). The story about Jesus
calling disciples (1,35-51) closes as follows: "...you will see heaven opened
and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" (v. 51).
This closing is prepared for by references in the immediate context to "seeing",
"finding" and "believing" the Messiah. V. 51 makes an explicit reference to
Jacob's theophany in Gen 28,12. All disciples are promised a vision like
Jacob's. They will thereby truly become Israelites like Nathanael (v. 47). In
the light of Philo's well-known etymological explanation of the meaning of
Israel (Gen 32,28-30) as "the one who sees God"6, the epistemological interest
of John's text becomes even more apparent.
Jesus revealed his glory in Cana, and the disciples believed
in him (John 2,11). The narrator makes this comment on the incident and thus
turns it into a story about knowing Jesus and his ministry. The steward is
caught by surprise when he tastes the wine (ou)k h!|dei
po/qen e)sti/n); his statement echoes what Jesus in John 3,8 says about
the person who is born a!nwqen. As with the wind,
human knowledge cannot understand the mystery; it can only experience it. This
illustration thus puts epistemology at the centre of the text. Twice in chapter
2 (vv. 17.22), true knowledge is connected with Scripture.
From this it follows that a teacher of Israel, like
Nicodemus, is supposed to have proper knowledge. But his knowledge seems to stop
at acknowledging Jesus as "a teacher come from God" (John 3,2). This knowledge
falls short of the truth because Nicodemus fails to see that Jesus is from
above. Three times in vv. 3-8 Nicodemus asks questions making him as an outsider
to the true knowledge of Jesus and his ministry. Jesus says to him:
tau=ta ou) ginw/skeij; (v. 10). This is contrasted
with v. 11, where the knowledge of the insiders is emphasized. V. 2 introduces
the question of knowledge at the outset of this narrative. This is pointed out
by Neyrey7, who draws attention to the fact that Nicodemus' statement ("we
know...") in v. 2 is challenged by Jesus' response in v. 3 ("unless...").
Nicodemus' claim to know is replaced by his questions to Jesus.
As the dialogue in chap. 3 proceeds, the question of
knowledge develops into "entering" the Kingdom of God, "believing" in the Son of
Man, "loving" and "coming to the light". This might disturb the epistemological
picture given so far. However, in John's Gospel all these terms, including
"knowing", are interrelated terms. Jesus' last prayer in chap. 17 demonstrates
this. At the beginning of this prayer, the knowledge of Jesus' disciples is in
focus (17,3.7-8), but "believing" (17,8.29) and "loving" (17,26) appear as well.
In the same way, the dialogue with Nicodemus moves easily between knowing,
believing and loving. The epistemological aspect of believing is clearly in
focus in 3,12, where pisteu/w sums up both
ginw/skw (v. 10) and lamba/nw
(v. 11): Here is a claim to have a faith that gives knowledge about
things the teacher of Israel failed to understand.
Jesus emphasizes that proper knowledge is beyond the capacity
of Nicodemus, as well as that of any human being (3,5-8). The two "unless ..."
sentences (3, 5) make birth a!nwqen or birth of
water and the Spirit a basic requirement. Nicodemus' incapacity is given general
relevance: "You must (dei=) be born
a!nwqen" (v. 7)8. This requirement triggers
Nicodemus' question: "How can these things be" (v. 9), which was anticipated in
v. 4. The entire dialogue sets out to respond to this.
John 3,3-8 emphasizes the contrast between flesh and Spirit,
which implies that "like is known by like". The "seeing" or "believing" that
Jesus addresses cannot be apprehended by flesh. Flesh is restricted to flesh.
Spirit, however, bridges heaven and earth and gives knowledge of heavenly things
that the flesh cannot see. Spirit and birth a!nwqen
thus correspond to each other. V. 13 claims that Jesus alone has access to
heavenly secrets, because he has descended from heaven and ascended there as
well (cf. 1,51). His whence and whither is entirely with God. A spiritual
transformation, birth a!nwqen, gives the believer a
heavenly origin like that of Jesus himself. What the heavenly origin is for
Jesus, birth a!nwqen is for human beings. The
contrast between flesh and Spirit is overcome by God's love (3,16). Flesh is
thus not understood in inimical terms.
The contrast between flesh and the Spirit occurs in 6,62-63
as well. The explicit issue is belief and unbelief, albeit the aspect of
understanding might be present in the question "who can accept (a)kou/ein)
it" (6,60). The Spirit gives life. Flesh is described as a contrast due to its
futility; life does not and cannot spring from flesh. This does not imply that
flesh knows flesh only, but that flesh must experience a transformation
occasioned by the life-giving Spirit.
The literary context of 6,62-63 brings to
mind the dialogue with Nicodemus. V. 62 echoes the whence and whither of Jesus,
and v. 65 is a slightly altered quotation of 3,27.
John 1,18, the peak of the Prologue, paves the way for the
principle of likeness. The Son alone could know God because He comes from God
and is of the same nature. The unity between the Father and the Son in John's
Gospel is, of course, in accordance with this principle9. In John 8,44-47 those
who are e)k tou= qeou= are contrasted with those who
are not, and this is a difference in terms of understanding versus not
understanding (a)kou/w cf. 19). John 11,10 addresses
the contrast between darkness and light in a way that recalls traditional ways
of illustrating the principle of likeness: Light can only be apprehended by
light10. Understanding that Jesus' way to Jerusalem is aimed at bringing life
from death is possible only for those who have the light within themselves. John
11,10 sheds some light on the epistemological nature of darkness versus light in
the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus. This contrast is clearly seen in
3,2.19-21. These passages do not, however, emphasize the light within, but
Christ's role as the light. These two perspectives on the light are, however,
integrated in John's Gospel. This is seen in the Prologue where vv. 9-10 in
particular echoes 3,19. Jesus as the light implies also illumination of human
beings. To ancient readers this was a term of epistemology, which is confirmed
in its contrast in 1,10 ("...the world did not know him")11. Furthermore, the
contrast between darkness and light in the Prologue (1,9-13) which implies a
contrast between man in himself and birth from God, fits the contrast between
above and below in chap. 3.
When, in his examination of Jesus (John 18) Pilate asks
"what is truth?", he raises an epistemological question. Jesus says that
"everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice" (18,37), thus claiming
that understanding truth requires a fundamental familiarity with it. The Johannine tradition in 1 John
speaks in the same vein (3,1-3; 4,4. 6)12. To summarize so far, I concur with
Jerome H. Neyrey who suggests that John 3 "contains a scrutiny of religious
epistemology and Christology"13. To Neyrey, John 3 presents Jesus as the
revealer of heavenly secrets. The importance of this observation is
unquestionable, but vv. 3-8 address a related issue, namely the prerequisite for
receiving such revelation. The Christological language of whence and whither is
here applied directly (ou#tw) e)sti/n) to the
believer. The exegesis of the dialogue must account for the way Christological
terminology occurs in the illustration of a person born
a!nwqen (v. 8).
2. Like is known by like
We have seen that John 3,3-8 is embedded in an
epistemological context in which likeness is foundational. This principle is by
no means attested only in John's Gospel; on the contrary it is found also
elsewhere at key points in the New Testament14. John 3,3-8 has adopted an
epistemological conviction of wide currency in Antiquity. It suffices to give
some examples to demonstrate this. Sextus Empiricus (2.-3. century A.D.) may
serve as a point of departure. In his work Against the Professors, he
mentions the principle "like is known by like" (toi=j
o(moi/oij ta_ o#moia ginw/skesqai) as fundamental to all knowledge. He
calls this principle an old do/gma handed down from
Pythagoras, which is found in Plato15 but stated much earlier by Empedocles (fl.
477-432 B.C.). Sextus quotes Empedocles, who says that earth is "seen" by earth,
water by water, air by air, fire by fire, love by love, and hate by hate16. This
principle explains, according to Sextus, why Empedocles called himself a god; he
kept his mind free from evil, and by the god within him (o(
e)n e(autw=| qeo/j) he understood the god outside himself17 (Against
the Professors 1.303 cf. Against the Logicians 1.121). In his
Against the Logicians 1.92-93, Sextus repeats the quotation without
attributing it to Empedocles. Instead he refers to Philolaus, who said that
things are understood when a certain sugge/neia is
possessed, since things are comprehended by their like (u(po_
tou= o(moi/ou to_ o#moion katalamba/nesqai pe/fuken). Sextus cites
Poseidonius as saying very much the same thing in his interpretation of Plato's
Timaeus: light is known by light, and sound by hearing since "The nature
of all things ought to be apprehended by its kindred reason" (...u(po_
suggenou=j ... katalamba/nesqai tou= lo/gou).
In these texts Sextus gives a "map" of the principle "like is known by like". He
mentions some important sources, he states both the antiquity and the importance
of this epistemological principle. The principle of likeness forms a substratum
to Plotinus's logic in his Enneads:
To any vision must be brought an eye adapted to what is
to be seen, and having some likeness to it (to_ ga_r
o(rw=n pro_j to_ o(rw/menon suggene_j kai_ o#moion poihsa/menon dei=
e)piba/llein)18. Never did eye see the sun unless it had first become
sunlike, and never can the soul have vision of the First Beauty unless
itself be beautiful. Therefore, first let each become godlike and each
beautiful who cares to see God and Beauty (Enneads I.6.9)
Antiquity shared a theory that human beings had a light
within, streaming forth through the eyes and meeting the light of day. The eye
was likened to a light within or a lamp that made perception possible19. This theory of vision developed a principle of
perception, an epistemological conviction that like is known by like.
Philo picks up this theory as well as the Greek notion of the
human mind or soul as sharing in a portion of the Divine. With these convictions
in mind, he addresses biblical theology. Men alone have knowledge of the
invisible God because God breathed into them from above (a!nwqen)
His own Deity (Det. 84-90). In Spec.Leg. 4.14 this idea is
expressed in terms of men's sugge/neia to God. In
Praem. 40-46, Philo speaks of those who can apprehend20 that God is. Philo
consciously draws a distinction between God's real nature and the knowledge of
His existence. The univocal Biblical testimony on the impossibility of human
beings seeing God paves the way for this important distinction. Philo's emphasis
that God's existence cannot be apprehended by any human co-operation is probably
due to his resistance to the notion of having "god inside", as Empedocles puts
it. Those who apprehend God's existence have, according to Philo, advanced from
down to up (ka/twqen a!nw) on a sort of heavenly
ladder. The analogy with Jacob becomes obvious when Philo says that such a man
is Israel, a person who sees God (o(rw=n qeo/n), or
more precisely, that He is. By an illustration Philo explains why this is
Do we behold the sun which sense perceives by any other
thing than the sun, or the stars by any others than the stars, and in
general is not light seen by light? In the same way God too is His own
brightness and is discerned through Himself alone, without any co-operating
or being able to co-operate in giving a perfect apprehension of His
This brings to mind the well-known quotation from Empedocles,
see above. Philo abbreviates this insight in § 46, saying that God is known
through God (o( qeo_j qew=|) and light by
light (fwti_ fw=j).
In Spec.Leg. 1.41-50 these thoughts on apprehending
God are repeated in a meditation on Exod 33,13-23. Philo starts from Moses'
request that God will reveal Himself to him. According to Philo, Moses asked to
understand God's ou)si/a. Moses motivated his
request by referring to the principle of likeness: "for as knowledge of the
light does not come by any other source but what itself supplies, so too Thou
alone canst tell me of Thyself" (§ 42). God did not accept Moses' request since
this knowledge is not for those who are brought into being by creation. Moses
rephrased his request then, and asked to see God's glory, surrounding Him21.
This is possible, but reserved not for the eye of the body, but for "the eye of
the mind". Throughout this text, Philo speaks of apprehension in terms of
and kata/lhyij. In this text it becomes apparent
that Exod 33 led Philo to adapt the notion of likeness with reservations. In
Mut. 3-4, Philo says that a vision of the Divine is only attainable to "the
eye of the soul". The eyes of the body perceive according to the principle of
likeness. When it comes to the eyes of the soul, however, this principle is
explained in terms of beholding without any assistance or agency, in other words
knowledge of a revelatory nature.
Thus the principle of likeness had a wide currency in
Antiquity. It was considered ancient and basic, and it was frequently stated.
"Like is known by like" was often connected to light being known by light.
Apprehension was described by means of cognitive verbs, of which "seeing" played
an important role. The term katalamba/nw and
cognates occurred often enough to be worth noting. Philo adopted this principle
and confirmed all the characteristics of the principle. Of special interest is
that to Philo, Exod 33 provided both a bridge and a means of clarifying how to
apply this principle in a Biblical context. Furthermore, he drew on Jacob's
vision of the heavenly ladder to describe this principle. This applies very well
to John's Gospel.
The question of knowing or seeing God (Exod 33–34) is at the
centre of the Prologue. Apprehending God is not within reach for human beings,
but Christ's role can be compared to Philo's o#sa meta_
to_n qeo/n which is attainable (John 1,18). "Seeing God" is in John
1,47-51 presented with Jacob's ladder as subtext. Light in opposition to
darkness is among the favourite symbols of this Gospel22. Cognitive terms
abound, and John uses katalamba/nw twice in a way
that is worth noting. In John 1,5 he says "The light shines in the darkness, and
the darkness did not overcome it (kate/laben)". When
this term is used within a context speaking of light in opposition to darkness,
we are indeed very close to the ancient material on "like is known by like"23.
Since the prologue prefigures the story to be told in the Gospel, this text
should be seen as providing an epistemological perspective on the entire story,
and echoing that like is known by like as well. The verb
katalamba/nw also occurs in John 12,3524. Once again this verb appears in
a text where light and darkness are contrasted (cf. v. 46). The immediate
implication is here the struggle between darkness and light that forms an
ideological framework for Jesus' ministry. Nonetheless, a cognitive aspect is
involved. When darkness seizes power, there is no comprehension, neither of
whither Jesus departs nor of the nature of his ministry. The cognitive aspect is
emphasized by the citation of Isa 6,10 in the immediate context (12,40).
Furthermore, John 12,35 echoes the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus in John
3. It is embedded in a context where Jesus' claim from 3,14 to be lifted up, is
debated (12,34-36)25. The second part of 12,35 also recalls the dialogue in
chap. 3; walking in darkness implies inability to know Jesus' whither:
ou)k oi]den pou= u(pa/gei. This is almost a verbatim
rendering of Jesus' words about the wind or Spirit in 3,8b. Thus, epistemology
and Christology are here combined in a way which brings to mind how Jesus
addressed the necessity of being born a!nwqen.
3. The Whence and Whither of Jesus
The introduction suggested that the whence and whither of the
Spirit were progressively elucidated in the story until they became a cipher for
the identity of Jesus26. It is now time to demonstrate this. The meaning of John
3,8b is based on three constitutive elements:
||kai_ pou= u(pa/gei
We will now trace how these three elements are elucidated in
John's story. Failure to know or understand "whence and whither" does not
consistently carry theological implications. There are certainly instances where
they appear without any claim of conveying anything beyond the simple
story-line27. But very often these three elements, and consistently so when they
appear together, signal a second level of meaning. They become a means of
expressing the mysterious and enigmatic nature of Jesus' ministry and his
identity, like in John 2,9: "When the steward tasted the water that had become
wine, ou)k h!|dei po/qen e)sti/n", and in John
4,10-11 where Jesus addresses the Samaritan woman by saying
ei) h!|deij th_n dwrea_n tou= qeou= and the woman asks him
po/qen ou]n e!xeij to_ u#dwr to_ zw=n28. The three
elements occur most frequently in disputes with the Jews over the identity of
Jesus, the so-called christologische Streitgespräche (chaps. 7–9), in the
introduction of the "hour" in chap. 13, and in Jesus' farewell to his disciples
in chaps. 14 and 16.
a) John 7
The celebration of the Festival of Booths forms the framework
of the controversy in this chapter, possibly also in the two following chapters.
The narrative is introduced by the question of "going up" (u(pa/gw)
to Jerusalem (7,3), which 7,8 and 10 repeat in terms of
a)nabai/nw, a traditional term for going up to Jerusalem to worship. A
reader acquainted with the entire story will here see a reference to Jesus'
going up to Jerusalem as initiating his departure to his heavenly Father (e.g.
20,17). This interpretation is also favoured by u#page ei)j
th_n 'Ioudai/an (v. 3) being replaced by u(pa/gw
pro_j to_n pe/myanta/ me(v. 33), which becomes the crucial point in the
controversy. In the light of the role of the "hour" in the story, this double
meaning of "going up to Jerusalem" comes as no surprise (see esp. 13,1-3). John
7,30bis a reminder of the "hour", and thus prefigures the Passion and Resurrection. In this context a
Christological dispute with the Jews occurs. The controversy is introduced in
7,11 and is carried throughout the entire chapter. From these observations we
can tell that the language of whence and whither in vv. 27-29 is associated with
Jesus' departure to his Father and is a cipher for true knowledge about Jesus'
Knowing/not knowing the whence and whither of Jesus is
essential for understanding who he is. The controversy becomes a question of how
this knowledge can be acquired, most expressly stated in the claims in 7,27-29:
knowing his identity is to know his whence and whither. The claim of the Jews
is: oi!damen po/qen e)sti/n (v. 27). When the
Messiah comes, however, no one will have proper knowledge of his identity29. This claim to know from where Jesus comes, is, however, an
irony30. The controversy reveals their failure to understand who
Jesus is, which will also become increasingly clear throughout the Gospel31 The
Jews judge according to appearance (kat' o!yin), an
outward judgement according to the flesh (cf. 8,15).
To understand the whence and whither of Jesus, some likeness
to him is required. This is pointed out in various ways in the controversy. In
v. 29 this claim becomes an epistemological notion in terms of likeness: Jesus
knows God because he has been with Him (cf. 1,18). The Jews claim to know the
whence of Jesus, but they are wrong because they fail to understand this in the
light of the "above – below" pattern of the Christology in John's Gospel. In
this way they resemble Nicodemus, who also missed this basic pattern; they both
falsely claimed to know the identity of Jesus.
The epistemological perspective on the controversy in chap. 7
sheds light on the role of vv. 37-39. These verses are in many ways enigmatic,
particularly since the passage seems detached from the Christological
controversy that frames it. Following the punctuation of Nestle-Aland 27th
ed., we take e)k th=j koili/aj au)tou= to refer to
believers. It is objected that Christ as the source of living water is more
dominant in the Gospel32. Christ is indeed the giver of the Spirit according to
John, but this particular text is not simply reiterating this. Christ's role as
the giver of the Spirit is implicit in v. 37: "Let anyone who is thirsty come to
me". V. 39 shifts the emphasis to the believers' reception of the Spirit and is
a comment on v. 38 by the narrator. Furthermore, the 3rd person
singular (au)tou=) is indicative of this. If it was
a comment about Jesus himself, we should expect (e))mou=.
This can hardly be explained as a supposed quotation33, since v. 38 is a
combination of several scriptural passages34. Since it is a paraphrase or a
reworking of many OT texts, it is unlikely that v. 38 has preserved the 3rd
person singular due to an original setting. There is simply too much "editing"
in v. 38 to imply that the 3rd person singular represents a quote.
Vv. 38-39 fits nicely into the controversy on who Jesus is
and how it is possible to know his identity. The Spirit, which in 3,3-8
represented the transforming power from above, is now within the believers.
Jesus, who is himself the well of living water, makes the disciples become a
spring of water as well (cf. 4,11). Similarly, the life that Jesus has in
himself (1,4) in 3,15 becomes the life of the believers. Jesus is light, and he
also enlightens (1,9). The same movement appears in John 7,38-39: The Spirit is
now within the believers. Hence they can also know that the true identity of
Jesus is from above.
The explicit references in 7,37-39 are to "coming" to Jesus
and "believing" in him. This is not epistemological language, but as noted
above, epistemology is integrated into this language in John's Gospel. The
believers become a source of spiritual knowledge only after having come to
Jesus. Spirit is the prerequisite for understanding the dispute about Jesus'
identity in chap. 7. Towards the end of this controversy the knowledge of
Scripture becomes the issue. It is in accordance with John's Gospel that only by
the Spirit can the Christological implications of the OT be rightly
understood35. This conforms to the epistemological aspect of the dialogue with
Nicodemus: the Spirit transforms and thus gives new insight.
The principle "like is known by like" is implicit in this
Christological controversy. Knowing the whence and whither of Jesus demands
having the Spirit associated with Jesus' glorification in John. Vv. 37-39 thus
forms the opposite of judging kat' o!yin and is a
parallel to 3,6b as well: "What is born of Spirit is
Spirit", and therefore also able to understand. The relevance of referring to
the dialogue with Nicodemus is justified in the light of 7,50 where he is
brought into the controversy. The mention of him works as a flashback; we are
reminded of Nicodemus' incipient faith, but also of his failure to comprehend.
John 7,25-29 is thus a Christological controversy focusing on the whence and
whither of Jesus. This is centred on Jesus' relationship with his heavenly
Father, his coming from Him and returning to Him. This controversy has a
structure which brings to mind the epistemological character of the dialogue
with Nicodemus in John 3,5-8. Only the Spirit can know who Jesus is.
b) John 8
John 8 progressively repeats the argument of chap.7. Jesus
claims to be "the light of the world" (v. 12). His followers do not walk in
darkness, but will have the light of life. "Walking" brings to mind ethics and
lifestyle, but the controversy gives emphasis to knowing Jesus. This
epistemological aspect is implicit in v. 12b about "having the light of life",
which describes the result of the illumination mentioned in 1,9. The believers
have faith as a source of light in themselves; i.e. the movement from
christology to anthropological implications noted above in 7,37-39.
Once again, understanding Jesus is a question of knowing
whence he comes and whither he goes. Jesus' confidence in being sent by his
Father is expressed in this terminology: oi]da po/qen
h]lqon kai_ pou= u(pa/gw (v. 14). The whence and whither strongly
emphasize his dependence on the Father. Jesus has not taken this ministry upon
himself, it has been given him from above (cf. v. 28). The unbelief of the
Pharisees is presented as a marked contrast: u(mei=j ou)k
oi!date po/qen e!rxomai h@ pou= u(pa/gw. They are unable to know Jesus or
to follow him whither he departs (vv. 21-23). This is due to their judging by
human standards (v. 15). Their failure to know whence and whither, due to
sa/rc, brings to mind the Nicodemus dialogue. So too
does Jesus' pointed remark in v. 23 about human inability to gain access to the
place of his origin and destination: "You are from below (e)k
tw=n ka/tw I am from,) above (e)k tw=n a!nw)"
(cf. v. 44). Knowledge depends on being from below or from above (cf. 3,31).
This is an implicit claim to the principle of likeness: "like is known by like".
An epistemological contrast marks the whole controversy. The
"seeing" and "speaking" of Jesus is contrasted with that of the Jews (v. 38),
while He is from above and they from below. This is exactly the contrast made in
the dialogue with Nicodemus36. The principle of likeness is voiced: "You know
neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also" (v.
19). The question of "knowing the truth" (v. 32) echoes 18,37, witnessing to the
principle which according to 8,47 is foundational: o( w@n
e)k tou= Qeou=, ta_ r(h/mata tou= Qeou= a)kou/ei:
dia_ tou=to u(mei=j ou)k a)kou/ete, o!ti e)k tou=
Qeou= ou)k e)ste/. The following contrasts appear:
A. Pharisees/the Jews
Walk in darkness
He is the light
Judge according to flesh
Judges no one or makes true judgment
They are from below
He is from above
They are earthbound/from this world
He is not earthbound/not
from this world
The Devil is their Father
He is from God
A less visible, but still present contrast is also at work.
Believers are contrasted with the Pharisees and likened to Jesus. We have seen
that John 8,12 speaks of the follower of Jesus who has the light, thus paving
the way for applying the Christological pattern to believers generally (24,
30-31 cf. v. 46)37. According to 8,44, the Jews were children of the Devil since
they did not have truth in them; the believers, however, will know the truth
(28,32). Since what one understands is solely dependent upon what is within — so
runs the theory of vision — this contrast to the Pharisees and likeness with
Jesus follows naturally. It can easily be inferred that the believers have God
as their Father, and this is actually spelled out in v. 47. The immediate
context indicates that "hearing God's word" here applies to the believers. The
Christological pattern is made relevant to the believers. The pattern is not
worked out fully, but the contrasts to A and the similarities with B38 are
sufficient to be worth noting; particularly so since the points of convergence
are identical with the fundamental points in the logic of chap. 8:
followers/believers both (1) have the light and (2) are from God.
Jesus is the one person who is from above, but the believers
participate in his identity a!nw while still being
ka/tw. This paradoxical truth is crucial in chap. 17
where a distinction is made between being in the world and belonging to the
world (17,13-14.16), also voiced in 8,23. Like Jesus, the believers do not
belong to the world, but unlike Him, they are in the world: "The perception of
who Jesus is, brought about by the mysterious work of the Spirit (3,7-8),
entails being e)n tw|= ko/smw| but not
e)k tou= ko/smou"39. Thus chap. 8 brings out the
likeness of the believers with Jesus, but also the distinction between them and
Is there a flashback to the Nicodemus dialogue in this
dispute? As noted above, there are significant points of convergence bridging
the distance between the two episodes. Both instances are about teachers of
Israel, both of whom are unable to comprehend. The Pharisees walk in darkness;
Nicodemus came at night (cf. 3,19-21). The Pharisees judge according to human
standards, while Nicodemus is implicitly said to be born of flesh. At the centre
of both texts is the vertical axis (earth – heaven), explicitly voiced in 8,33
and more implicitly in chap. 3 but nevertheless not to be overlooked (cf.
3,13-14.31). The Pharisees and Nicodemus are presented within the same
epistemological pattern, which implies the principle of likeness. What they fail
to know is described in similar terms, the whence and whither of the mystery of
faith and the whence and whither of Jesus himself. Finally, in both chapters
"birth" sums up what is at stake. In 3,3-8 this is obvious, but the response of
the Pharisees implies that the question of birth is involved: "We are not
illegitimate children (gegennh/meqa)" (8,41)40.
c) John 9
The narrative starts out as a miracle story. Jesus makes the
man born blind see (9,1-7). Throughout the text a)nable/pw,
ble/pw, a)noi/gw tou(j
o)fqalmou/j are repeated. The incident takes place on a Sabbath and hence
the narrative becomes a dispute on the identity of Jesus and his authority to
perform the healing. It becomes a controversy with the Pharisees and Jews on who
Jesus is (vv. 188.8.131.52-36), very much in line with the preceding chapters,
but with increasing hostility. The miracle is called a sign (v. 16), thus
indicating a second level of meaning. The reader is guided to this level in two
ways. In the first place, vv. 4-5 presents Jesus as the "light of the world" as
opposed to darkness. Since Jesus is himself the light, he can make the blind man
see41. Vv. 4-5 echoes John 11,9-10 where "having the light within oneself" is a
reference to the disciples' understanding the implications of his departure (u(pa/gw)
Furthermore, John 9,39-40 appears as Jesus' final comment on
the whole incident. He alludes to Isa 6,10, cited also in John 12,40, where
"seeing" has an obvious spiritual reference. Jesus also blames the Pharisees for
their blindness, a clear circumlocution for their lack of understanding
(9,40-41). Thus "v. 39...reflects the transformation that occurs within the
narrative; 'sight' has now taken on a symbolic value rather than the literal
sense of the opening scene"42.
At the centre of the dispute is the understanding of who
Jesus is. Within the narrative two opposite movements with regard to knowledge
are discernable. The rejection on the part of the Pharisees hardens; they prefer
"sinner" (v. 24) for "this man is not from God" (v. 16) as a proper description
of who Jesus is43. They claim to know (h(mei=j oi!damen)
(vv. 24.29), which in John's language is, as we have seen, a recurrent sign of
irony. This becomes apparent within the story itself. They claim the support of
Moses, a view that is rejected elsewhere in the Gospel (John 5,45-46). When it
comes to the crucial question, the whence of Jesus, they say:
ou)k oi!damen (vv. 29-30). The man born blind,
however, moves from ou)k oi]da (vv. 11, 25) to
believe in Jesus (vv. 36-38). At the end of the narrative he has gained sight,
both in a physical and spiritual sense. He declares his faith and has gained
Does this incident in any way shed some light on the dialogue
with Nicodemus and birth from above in particular? Generally, both texts deal
with Jewish teachers who fail to understand Jesus and his ministry. Both texts
centre on the theme of light or seeing vs. darkness and blindness. Within this
pattern some special features worth noting appear. Nicodemus' comment in 3,2 is
echoed in the question of the man born blind: "How can a man who is a sinner
perform suchsigns?" (9,16b cf. 9,31.33). The blind expresses his surprise in a way (u(mei=j
ou)k oi!date po/qen e)sti/n, kai_ h!noice/n mou
tou_j o)fqalmou/j) (9,30) which brings to mind Jesus' ironic statement to
Nicodemus: "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these
Birth plays a key role in both passages. The occurrence of
genna/w in John's Gospel is concentrated in
chaps. 3 and 9. Some exceptions affirm this impression (1,13; 8,41), and the
other three instances are not relevant here45. Within John 3,3-8
genna/w appears 8 times and in chap. 9 five times.
This invites some comments. According to chap. 3 Nicodemus was unable to
understand that Jesus spoke not of physical birth but birth from above. A
similar movement is assumed in chap. 9 as well. In all occurrences of
genna/w in this chapter the reference is to physical
birth, but 9,34 is different. The Pharisees say to the man born blind: "You were
born entirely in sins, and you are trying to teach us". This refers to his
refusal to accept their judgement on Jesus46. They saw nothing but
sa/rc in him. Of course, the irony here is blatant.
The accusation implies that more than a physical birth is at stake in this
controversy. The contrasting of fleshly and spiritual birth seems to lie behind
From a narrative perspective it can easily be inferred not
only that the man born blind gained spiritual sight, but also that he was born
a!nwqen, since the story is designed to convince the
reader that the judgement uttered by the Pharisees in v. 34 is an absolute
misunderstanding. Actually, things look exactly the opposite from the
perspective of the narrator. This depends, of course, on the reader's ability to
combine chap. 3 and 9; but the narrative in chap. 9 is certainly paving the way
for this to happen.
4. Bringing the findings together
The dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus is not an isolated
incident in John's story. This narrative, and 3,3-8 in particular defines what
is necessary to understand Jesus, his ministry and faith in him adequately. The
dialogue is fundamental to the question of "knowing", a concern permeating the
entire Gospel. Since men have no capacity to know heavenly things, a
transformation is required. This transformation is understood in terms of the
contrast between flesh and Spirit, earthly and heavenly, and is, therefore,
expressed in the principle that "like can only be known by like". The required
transformation is abbreviated in the notion of birth
a!nwqen. The fact that knowledge is due to this required transformation
forms a point of departure for comprehending both misunderstandings and irony in
the Gospel. Readers without this transformation will fail to understand. This
demonstrates the importance of this dialogue for the entire story.
The scholarly debate on birth a!nwqen
has been too limited to the lexical alternatives (anew/again or from above).
Arguments for both alternatives can be gleaned from John's Gospel48. John
explores here the ambiguity of the Greek term, and this article suggests that
the implications of birth a!nwqen must be drawn from
the entire story, and in particular the Christological cipher of the whence and
whither of Jesus. This language, which abbreviates or codifies the kernel of
John's Christology, hardly appears by accident in 3,8. Accordingly, the precise
meaning of a!nwqen should take into consideration
the Johannine style of progressive unfolding of topics. A lexical approach
hardly accounts for this. ou!twj e)sti/n in 3,8
involves a comparison which looks beyond the analogy of the wind.
In commenting on birth a!nwqen in
John 3, Udo Schnelle says that: "...Christus und die Seinen sind ihrem
Ursprungsort nach wesensverwandt"49. Otfried Hofius protests vehemently: "Der
Vierte Evangelist ist kein Gnostiker!"50. The German "wesensverwandt" is
misleading here, but some sugge/neia between Jesus
and the believers is suggested. This is implicit in the required transformation
and the principle of likeness. It is certainly a question how far one can take
this "likeness". To be "born from above" establishes a new connection with the
Son of God, who is from above, but it by no means eliminates all distinctions
between people and Christ. People see the light, but they themselves do not
become the light in the same way as Christ is. The believers are ascribed an
identity from above, but this does not mean that they have descended from above;
that is reserved exclusively for the Son of Man. They participate in the sphere
above while still being in the world. Although their identity is heavenly, it is
only Christ who has heaven as his place of origin. But Christ "holds out the
possibility of birth a!nwqen in a derivative sense
to humankind"51. Although Gnosticism is slippery to define, I take these
reservations to imply that the likeness addressed in this article does not in
any way justify labelling Johannine thinking as "Gnosticism".
John explores the nature of faith or birth
a!nwqen with the help of the disputes about Jesus'
identity, and thus brings out some anthropological implications of his
christology. With the Nicodemus dialogue as the point of departure, the
following observations hold true both for Jesus' identity and the believer's
Both are mysterious and enigmatic. There is something
elusive52 about Christ in John's Gospel, and this is connected to his whence and
whither. The nature of faith is similarly mysterious; it is beyond human
capacity to comprehend it. The whence of faith is explained by help of the
equally mysterious whence and whither of Jesus.
The mysterious whence and whither both of Jesus and faith
implies a given. The identity of Jesus is explained in terms of given, not
taken. This is implied when faith in chap. 3 is compared with the whence and
whither of the wind as well as of Christ.
From this follows that both Jesus and faith are dependent
solely on God or the Father.
The whence and whither of both Jesus and faith are, finally,
a reference to God in Heaven. That is where the origin, with the mentioned
reservations in mind, of both is to be found. This corresponds very much with
birth a!nwqen as being born from above.
As the story progresses, the parabolic saying about the wind
(3,8), which pointed out both its reality and the mysterious nature, takes on a
new level of meaning. The story led us to the Christological disputes in chaps.
7–9 with emphasis on the divine origin of both Jesus and faith. Finally, this is
confirmed in chap. 13 and the following chapters where the "hour" of departure
has arrived. Hence u(pa/gw is now in focus. This
verb now refers to Jesus' return to his Heavenly Father (13,3.33.36; 14,4.5.28;
16,5.19). The verb is combined with prepositional phrases like
pro_j to_n pate/ra/pro_j to_n
qeo/n/pro_j to_n pe/myanta/ me. This final
phrase includes the whence of Jesus, which is also the case in 13,3 where
po/qen is replaced by a)po_
qeou= e)ch=lqen. Jesus' identity and ministry is a divine affair from
beginning to end. Such is also the mysterious nature of faith.
* I owe thanks to Craig R. Koester for valuable and helpful
criticism on a first draft of this article.
1 Thus also P. JULIAN, Jesus and Nicodemus. A
Literary and Narrative Exegesis of Jn. 2,23–3,36 (European University Studies,
Series XXIII Theology 711; Frankfurt am Main etc., 2000) 66, but he does not
2 For the importance of the descent and ascent of Jesus, see
W.A. MEEKS, "The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism", JBL 91
(1972) 44-72, esp. 60-63); G.C. NICHOLSON, Death as Departure. The
Johannine Descent-Ascent Schema (SBLDS 63; Chico, CA 1983) 10-12, 21-23.
3 The replacement of "born a!nwqen"
by "born of water and Spirit" militates against the meaning "born again", since
"born of water and Spirit" implies more than a second physical birth. Thus also
T.G. BROWN, Spirit in the Writings of John (JSNTSS 253; London – New York
2003) 119. From a narrative perspective the question of baptism has been
overemphasized in the exegesis of birth a!nwqen; see
e.g. O. HOFIUS, "Das Wunder der Wiedergeburt. Jesu Gespräch mit Nicodemus Joh
3,1-21", Johannesstudien. Untersuchungen zur Theologie des vierten
Evangeliums (eds. O. HOFIUS – H-C. KAMMLER) (Tübingen 1996) 33-80, esp. 41-43.
OT expectations of spiritual renewal in terms of water and Spirit (e.g. Ezek
36,25-27; Zech 13,1; Joel 3,1-2 ) accord with the narrative itself. In a
narrative perspective it hardly makes sense for Jesus to blame Nicodemus for not
understanding a rite that never appears in the story.
4 Few commentaries pay attention to this principle; see,
however, C. TALBERT, Reading John. A Literary and Theological Commentary
on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles (New York 1994) 77, 98. Cf. B.E.
GÄRTNER, "The Pauline and Johannine Idea of 'To Know God' Against the
Hellenistic Background", NTS 14 (1967-8) 209-231 and W.C. GREESE,
"'Unless One is Born Again': The Use of a Heavenly Journey in John 3", JBL
107 (1988) 677-693.
5 Since e(w/raka is here used
without an accusative, it takes on the meaning of "I have come to understand".
6 For Philo references, see J.H. NEYREY, "The Jacob
Allusions in John 1:51", CBQ 44 (1982) 586-605, esp. 592, n. 30.
7 J.H. NEYREY, "John III – A Debate over Johannine
Epistemology and Christology", NT 23 (1981) 115-127. See also C.S.
KEENER, The Gospel of John. A Commentary (Peabody, MA 2003) I,
8 Dei= carries the meaning of
divine necessity or plan; see e.g. John 3,14.30; 4,20; 20,9.
9 See e.g. John 6,46; 10,38; 14,10.20; 17,21.
10 C.R. KOESTER, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel.
Meaning, Mystery, Community (Minneapolis 2003) 163 on this particular text: "The
ability or inability to see depended not only on a person's external
circumstances but on one's internal condition — one's belief or unbelief".
11 See KOESTER, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel,
12 The principle of likeness is found elsewhere in the New
Testament as well; e.g. Acts 17,27-28; 1 Cor 2,6-16; 15,50.
13 NEYREY, "John III – A Debate over Johannine Epistemology
and Christology", 115. See NICHOLSON, Death as Departure, 104 who says
that John 3,1-10 "revolves around the question of who Jesus is and what must
happen before a person can adequately understand him".
14 L.A. JARVIS, "Becoming like God through Christ:
Discipleship in Romans", Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament
(ed. R.N. LONGENECKER) (Grand Rapids, MI – Cambridge U.K. 1996) 143-162.
15 Sextus probably had in mind Timaeus 45B-D, where
Plato says that "seeing" takes place through the principle of
o!moion pro_j o!moion, and Protagoras
337C-338A where he speaks metaphorically of the "sanctuary of wisdom" (to_
prutanei=on th=j sofi/aj) in which the wise men among the Greeks live
since they know the nature of things which is to_ o!moion
tw|= o(moi/w| fu/sei suggene/j e)stin.
16 This fragment was quite popular in Antiquity; see e.g.
Aristotle, Metaphysics 1000b21; Hippolytus, Refutatio 6.11-12
(138.3-9). These references are taken from B. INWOOD, The Poem of Empedocles.
A Text and Translation with an Introduction (Toronto – Buffalo – London
1992). He mentions an apophtegm attributed to Empedocles: "To the man who said,
'I cannot find a wise man', Empedocles said, `that is because he who looks for a
wise man must first be wise himself` (159)". Diogenes Laertius 9.20 attributes
this saying to Xenophanes.
17 Greek philosophy shared the thought of the intellect as
divine; gods and humans share a rational nature; see JARVIS, "Becoming like God
through Christ: Discipleship in Romans", 145-147.
18 The translation is taken from S. MACKENNA, Plotinus.
The Ethical Treatises (The Library of Philosophical Translations 1; London
1917). Greek text, see P. HENRY – H.-R. SCHWYZER, Plotini Opera, Tomus I,
Enneades I-III (Oxford 1964).
19 H.D. BETZ, "Matthew VI.22f and ancient Greek theories of
vision", Text and Interpretation. Studies in the New Testament presented
to Matthew Black (eds. E. BEST – R.McL. WILSON) (Cambridge 1979) 43-56; D.C.
ALLISON, Jr., "The Eye is the Lamp of the Body (Matthew 6.22-23=Luke 11.34-36)",
NTS 33 (1987) 61-83.
20 Twice in this text Philo has
katalamba/nein and its cognate noun.
21 According to Post. 129, Exod 33 implies that God
Himself is beyond apprehension (au)to_j mo/noj
a)kata/lhptoj); what is attainable is, however, o#sa
meta_ to_n qeo_n cf. Fug. 164-165 and Mut. 9.
22 KOESTER, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, 141-173.
23 For katalamba/nw in the sense
of comprehending, see BAGD s.v. and LSJ s.v. and KOESTER,
Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, 143-144. The theme in John 1,5 is continued
in vv. 9-10 where the cognitive aspect is clearly voiced; rather than being
known, the light was rejected.
24 In John's Gospel lamba/nw also
sometimes takes on a cognitive meaning; see e.g. 3,11.27.32; 14,17.
25 The lifting up of the Son of Man occurs also in 8,28, but
the statement in 3,14 is the first appearance of this in the Gospel and is also
verbally closer to 12,34.
26 This is pointed out also by NICHOLSON, Death as
27 E.g. John 1,48; 4,16; 6,27; 9,11; 11,31.44; 18,8; 21,3. It
may be difficult to ascertain if a second level of meaning is at hand; e.g. John
11,8, cf. 7,3. The disciples ask Jesus if he will again go to (u(pa/gw)
Jerusalem, since they have already attempted to kill him there. Jerusalem and
the death of Jesus are crucial for understanding the whither of Jesus in John's
story. A narrative reading, therefore, throws some doubt on an immediate reading
28 See also John 4,22.32; 5,3; 15,1.
29 A reference to the hidden Messiah; see R.E. BROWN, The
Gospel according to John I-XII (AncB; London etc.,1971) 53. John has adapted
this to his own thought on the mysterious Christ.
30 JULIAN, Jesus and Nicodemus, 90 says that "...on
the lips of the Jews, the verb oi!damen is, almost
always used ironically" with reference to John 3,2; 6,42; 7,27; 9,24. 29.
31 So also MEEKS, "The Man from Heaven", 60.
32 Thus e.g. WAI-YEE NG, Water Symbolism in John. An
Eschatological Interpretation (Studies in Biblical Literature 15; New York etc.
33 Pace BROWN, Spirit, 156.
34 This is admitted also by BROWN, Spirit, 156.
35 See John 2,22; 5,46-47; 12,16; 14,17.26; 15,26;
16,7.13-55; 19,28; 20.9. This is emphasized by C. HOEGEN-ROHLS, Der
nachösterliche Johannes. Die Abschiedsreden als hermeneutischer Schlüssel
zum vierten Evangelium (WUNT II/84; Tübingen 1996) 39, 68-69, 214. She
demonstrates that 7,38 looks back to 1,50-51 and leads on to farewell speeches
where Jesus speaks of "...der nachösterlichen Dimension des 'Grösseren'".
There is no mention of the Spirit in the story between 7,39 and the farewell
36 Thus also NICHOLSON, Death as Departure, 81.
37 According to John 8,28 knowledge of Jesus' identity will
come when the Son of Man is lifted up (cf. 3,14). This corresponds to the
narrative aside in 7,39.
38 V. 52 and v. 55 also juxtapose Jesus and the believers in
a way worth noticing.
39 NICHOLSON, Death as Departure, 111.
40 The textual criticism question involved here does not
affect this fact.
41 Since readers know from several passages (e.g. 1,9; 8,12)
that Jesus is the light of the world, the miracle signals a new level of
meaning; KOESTER, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, 163.
42 D.A. LEE, The Symbolic Narratives of the Fourth Gospel.
The Interplay of Form and Meaning (JSNTSS 95; Sheffield 1994) 170, 179.
43 Similarly KOESTER, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel,
44 See the margin of NESTLE-ALAND's 27th edition
of the Novum Testamentum Graece.
45 This verb occurs twice in John 16,2, a proverbial analogy
where emphasis is on joy not birth, while 18,37 speaks of Jesus himself.
46 The accusation is polemically formed, while Jesus in chap.
3 simply speaks of the inability of men to comprehend what is from above.
47 Suggested also by BROWN, Spirit, 121.
48 For an overview of opinions held, see e.g. JULIAN,
Jesus and Nicodemus, 82-84.
49 U. SCHNELLE, Antidoketische Christologie im
Johannesevangelium. Eine Untersuchung zur Stellung des vierten Evangeliums
in der johanneischen Schule (FRLANT 144; Göttingen 1987) 201; see also his
Das Evangelium nach Johannes (THNT 4; Leipzig 2000) 69. GREESE, "Unless One
is Born Again", 689 similarly speaks of "becoming like Christ".
50 HOFIUS, "Das Wunder der Wiedergeburt", 43, n. 50.
51 NICHOLSON, Death as Departure, 111.
52 This term has been coined by M.W.G. STIBBE, John's
Gospel (New Testament Readings; London – New York 1994) 6, 15, 21, 23, 24,