The first occurrences of the noun pneu=ma (“Spirit”) in the Gospel of John are in 1:32-33, part of the testimony of John the Baptist (vv. 19-34). The specific testimony in vv. 29-34 involves the Baptism of Jesus, presented in the Fourth Gospel only indirectly, by way of a description/narration by the Baptist. The references to the Spirit in vv. 32-33 draw upon early Gospel traditions shared generally by the Synoptic Gospels. While the introduction to the Spirit is important (including use of the expression “Holy Spirit” in v. 33), these references should little specific development or uniquely Johannine thought regarding the Spirit. I will not be discussing them here in these notes, but would direct the interested reader to the earlier series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition“, in which the Baptism of Jesus is discussed in considerable detail. Instead, I will turn to the next passage using the word pneu=ma—Jn 3:5-8, part of the famous discourse with Nicodemus in chapter 3.
The Jesus’ discourse (with Nicodemus) in chap. 3 is the first of the great Johannine Discourses, which follow a basic format:
- Narrative setting/introduction, which is based upon a specific (historical) tradition, such as an encounter episode (chs. 3–4) or miracle story (chs. 5–6).
- A central saying or statement by Jesus
- Reaction to this saying by those around him, reflecting some degree of misunderstanding
- Response by Jesus, in which he explains/expounds the true, deeper meaning of his words
The structure of saying-reaction-exposition is sometimes developed or expanded into a more elaborate dialogue-discourse format. All of the great Discourses in the Gospel are developed in different ways. The discourse of Jn 3:1-21 may be divided as follows:
- Narrative setting/introduction (vv. 1-2), establishing the encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus
- Central Saying by Jesus (v. 3)
- Question (misunderstanding) by Nicodemus (v. 4)
- Initial Exposition by Jesus (vv. 5-8)
- Second Question by Nicodemus (v. 9)
- Exposition by Jesus, divided into two parts:
The references to the Spirit are found in the initial exposition of vv. 5-8 and are central to it. This exposition may be divided into two pieces:
- The Saying about coming to be born of the Spirit (vv. 5-6)
- An explanatory illustration regarding the Spirit (vv. 7-8)
The saying in vv. 5-6 cannot be understood apart from the context of the discourse, where it is intended to explain and clarify the central saying in v. 3:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, if any(one) should not come to be (born) from above, he is not able to see the kingdom of God”
Nicodemus’ misunderstanding (v. 4) involves the Greek word a&nwqen (“from above”), which can be understood as in the English idiom “from the top”, “again”—that is, in a temporal, rather than spatial, sense. Nicodemus apparently thinks Jesus is saying that a human being must be born (physically) a second time, whereas Jesus is actually speaking of a kind of heavenly/spiritual birth “from above” (i.e. from God). This is what he clarifies in verse 5, a saying that is almost exactly parallel with that of v. 3 (differences in italics):
“Amen, amen, I say to you, if any(one) should not come to be (born) out of water and (the) Spirit, he is not able to come into the kingdom of God”
Clearly “out of water and (the) Spirit” (e)k u%dato$ kai\ pneu/mato$) is parallel to “from above” (a&nwqen). The main interpretive question involves the relationship between “water” and “(the) Spirit”. There are three possibilities:
- “Water and Spirit” is a hendiadys (two words representing one thing)
- The expression is a parallel image—utilizing water as a symbol of the Spirit
- There is a developmental contrast between water and Spirit—i.e. the Spirit in addition to water.
1. The first option is preferred by those who see here primarily a reference to (Christian) baptism. This might be called the sacramental interpretation, in which water and the Spirit represent two aspects of the same ritual. The close connection between Baptism and the Spirit is certainly found in many New Testament passages, going all the way back to early Gospel tradition (Mark 1:8ff par). It is also a distinctly Christian view of baptism (Acts 2:38; 18:25; 19:2ff; 22:16, etc), which Paul, in particular, expresses most vividly in reference to its spiritual aspect (1 Cor 12:13, cf. also Rom 6:3-4; Gal 3:27; Col 2:12). However, while early Christians might naturally read Jn 3:5 in terms of Christian baptism, this would have been essentially unintelligible to someone like Nicodemus. If we accept the authenticity of Jesus’ saying here, in any meaningful sense, it is hard to see how anything like a Christian view of Baptism could be the primary meaning.
2. The second option above is more plausible in this regard. For one thing, water (as a visible symbol) is used to represent the invisible Spirit (of God) frequently in ancient religious thought. This imagery is found a number of times in the Old Testament, both with a specific reference to “water”, as well as the idea of the Spirit being “poured out”—cf. Prov 1:23; Isa 32:5; 44:3; Ezek 39:29; Joel 2:28-29, also Neh 9:20; Zech 12:10. The association the Spirit of God with cleansing can relate to water as well as fire—on the former, see e.g., Ezek 36:25-27, and passages from subsequent Jewish writings, closer in time to the Gospels, such as Jubilees 1:23-25 and the Qumran 1QS 4:19-21. The motif of God creating a new heart/spirit in the believer begins to approximate the idea of being born. The reference from Jubilees makes this more or less explicit: “I will create in them a holy spirit… I will be their Father and they will be my children”. In Ezek 36:25ff, this “new spirit” in humankind is identified with (or is the result of) God’s own Spirit that is placed within.
The fact that both “water” and “Spirit” are governed under the same preposition (e)k, “out of”) suggests that the terms should be understood as parallel images or expressions of some sort.
3. There is, however, much to be said for the third option above, in which there is a contrast between Spirit and water. The contrast is best viewed as supplemental or developmental—i.e. born out of the Spirit in addition to being born out of water. The context of vv. 3-8, taken as a whole, would argue in favor of this view. I note the following points:
- The sayings in vv. 3 and 5 both indicate that human beings must undergo a different kind of birth from that of one’s ordinary physical birth.
- The use of the term a&nwqen (“from above”) suggests a dualistic contrast—above vs. below—found elsewhere in the Gospel (3:31; 8:23; 19:11, etc).
- The discourse in chapter 4 plays on the contrast between ordinary water and “living water” which is associated with the Spirit. This will be discussed further in an upcoming note.
Perhaps the strongest argument is to be found in the continuation of Jesus’ exposition in verse 6:
“the (thing) having come to be (born) out of the flesh is flesh, and the (thing) having come to be (born) out of the Spirit is spirit”
It is hard to imagine a more direct and emphatic contrast, which, taken together with verse 5, suggests the following parallelism:
“born out of water” = “born out of flesh”
(i.e. ordinary human birth)
“born out of (the) Spirit”
A final, difficult point of interpretation involves the two occurrences of pneu=ma in verse 6: “the (thing)…born out of the Spirit [e)k tou= pneu/mato$] is spirit [pneu=ma/ e)stin]”. Propriety requires that the second pneu=ma be translated in lower-case (“spirit”), to avoid the confusing (and impious sounding) idea that it is God’s own Spirit that is being born. Yet, in a sense, that is what is intended here. Use of the lower-case “spirit” can create the even more misleading impression that it is simply the normal life-force (“spirit/soul”) in a human being that is involved. Nowhere else in the Gospel of John is the noun used this way, except, to some extent, in 11:33, 13:21, and 19:30; but these (especially the last) are special cases, involving the person of Jesus, which must be examined separately. There can be no doubt that both occurrences of pneu=ma in verse 6 essentially refer to the Spirit of God.