I have considered a passage in the Bible that seemed at first glance like a laundry list of Solomon’s wealth and power. I added more biblical background and found the same passage a fulfillment of God’s promise to Solomon. Then I read more and the laundry list became an indictment of Solomon’s reign as king. I studied deeper to see if I could be persuaded that Solomon’s wealth could be both a fulfillment of God’s promise and a direct violation of his requirements for Israel’s kings. But the mere quantity of biblical passages I bring to bear on a particular passage isn’t the only thing that can alter my interpretation. The state—of mind, I’ll say, to begin this discussion—of the interpreter also plays a role (John 3:1-3 NET).
Now a certain man, a Pharisee named Nicodemus, who was a member of the Jewish ruling council, came to Jesus at night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus replied, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born from above (ἄνωθεν), he cannot see (ἰδεῖν, a form of εἴδω) the kingdom of God.”
When I was a philosophical and legalistic young man fighting my way back from atheism, Jesus’ response seemed different than it does today. The Bible I read at that time translated ἄνωθεν again rather than from above, and it never even occurred to me to consider any literal meaning for he cannot see the kingdom of God. I was absolutely convinced that Jesus told Nicodemus he must be born again or he would burn in hell for all eternity. Then I had to imagine all manner of evil acts and intentions and impute them to Nicodemus to justify Jesus’ unconscionable rudeness to him. Later, my Bible still read born again but born from above was a possible translation according to a footnote. It still didn’t occur to me to consider a more literal interpretation of he cannot see the kingdom of God. Today, my Bible reads born from above and a footnote alerts me that the Greek word translated above can also mean again. It even points out two other usages of the same word in the same chapter where the meaning is clearly from above.
When John the Baptizer’s followers were concerned that more people were beginning to follow Jesus than John, the Baptizer replied: The one who comes from above (ἄνωθεν) is superior (ἐπάνω) to all. The one who is from the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things. The one who comes from heaven is superior (ἐπάνω) to all. Perhaps the one who comes again is also superior to all, but the comparison of earthly and heavenly things here clearly favors above as the more appropriate translation.
So if Jesus and Nicodemus had their conversation in Greek, their miscommunication is perfectly understandable. Nicodemus assumed ἄνωθεν meant again, and asked, How can a man be born when he is old? And Jesus, who intended born from above, spoke of being born of water and the spirit: What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’ If Jesus and Nicodemus didn’t have this conversation in Greek, their miscommunication was a literary invention of the author John (the Apostle, not the Baptizer). The first time I ever considered a literal meaning for he cannot see the kingdom of God was also the first time I asked: “Why would the author of the Gospel of John invent this miscommunication?”
How often do people witness the same circumstances, situations or events? one sees fate, another luck, or chance, good breeding, superior skill, greater knowledge, while the other sees the hand of God. To be born again, born from above, born of the spirit—the Apostle Paul used the analogy of Jesus’ crucifixion, burial and resurrection—all describe the transformation that begins in someone who believes that Jesus is the Christ or Messiah sent by God. Apart from that transformation, though the kingdom of God may be all around, one cannot see it. Jesus didn’t threaten Nicodemus with eternal damnation, but made a simple statement of fact. Nicodemus was not entirely blind to spiritual interpretations. He saw Jesus’ miraculous signs as the hand of God, rather than magic tricks or outright lies. But he did not yet see Jesus as anything more than a teacher sent from God.
Suddenly whether Jesus and Nicodemus spoke Greek or whether John invented their miscommunication for emphasis and example seemed unimportant to me. The faith one has affects one’s interpretation of the meaning of scripture as it does the meaning of life in general. And this exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus highlighted that fact. When an atheist reads the Bible is it entirely surprising if he finds no god there? I might ask why an atheist would bother reading the Bible in the first place.