There was a man among the P’rushim, named Nakdimon, who was a ruler of the Judeans. This man came to Yeshua by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know it is from God that you have come as a teacher; for no one can do these miracles you perform unless God is with him.”
“Yes, indeed,” Yeshua answered him, “I tell you that unless a person is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
Nakdimon said to him, “How can a grown man be ‘born’? Can he go back into his mother’s womb a second time?”
Yeshua answered, “Yes, indeed, I tell you that unless a person is born from water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God. What is born from flesh is flesh, and what is born from the Spirit is spirit.”Yochanan (John) 3: 1-6. Complete Jewish Bible, translated by David H. Stern, 1998
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The citation above comes from one of the best known passages in the Christian New Testament. Many besides confessing Christians have pondered it and debated its meaning over the last two thousand years.
The standard translations used by most Christians use different names than those above for the characters (in English, Jesus for Yeshua and Nicodemus for Nakdimon, while the P’rushim are the Pharisees and the Judeans are “the Jews”). The Hebrew names help us to see this within its original context as a secret encounter between two First-Century Jewish leaders (whose real-life names were the ones given above) who spoke in Aramaic. Our version of this encounter is derived from the Greek New Testament Gospel of John (Yochanan). Perhaps Yochanan was privileged to have witnessed the meeting himself, which would make his story an eyewitness account. Yochanan (John to us) was one of the “inner three” of Jesus’ disciples – Peter, James, and John and may well have been permitted to “sit in”. He might even have been Nakdimon’s contact with Yeshua, as we learn later that “he was known to the High Priest” somehow. David Stern’s translation beings us closer to the historical characters and setting in which this conversation took place.
Stern’s translation of the Greek word “Ioudaiōn” as “the Judeans” rather than the oft-used general term “the Jews” is helpful in recalling the socio-political situation that existed within the Jewish world of the First Century of the Common Era. There was no state or Kingdom of Israel or Judea. It had ceased to exist (once again) as an independent, unified political entity in 63 BCE just after the Roman General Pompey subjugated the Seleucid Empire.
As an afterthought, Pompey headed to Jerusalem to resolve the squabbling over position among the Jewish authorities who had sought Rome’s protection against the Syrian-Greek Seleucid Kings. Pompey made the Jewish Hasmonean state a Roman protectorate and declared it to lie officially within the Roman sphere. Rome would appoint and acknowledge the accepted leaders. He then walked into the Holy of Holies of the Temple, saw no idols, and concluded that the Jews were a very peculiar people bordering on atheism. Having satisfied his curiosity, and not been struck dead by God as the Jewish leaders thought he would be, Pompey decided to leave their religious business alone as long as they accepted Roman supremacy and did what they were told when Rome told them what that was.
We will not rehash all the ensuing anguished perturbations of Roman-Jewish relations over the next 170 years. Roman rule varied from using on-site proxies, such as the half-Jewish Herodean dynasty, to direct rule of some sections of “Palestine”, as Rome dubbed this minor-province of their vast Empire. Palestine came under the overall direction of the Proconsul Governor of Syria, one of the most important provinces of the Empire. The Governor of Syria had direct command of three and sometimes four Roman legions, as well as an equal number of auxiliary troops stationed throughout the region. This army of 30 000 – 40 000 Roman troops was a very formidable force to reckon with for any ruler contemplating rebellion.
In the time of Yeshua (Jesus), Judea was under a Roman junior governor (a Procurator) who was subordinate to the Governor of Syria. Galilee, where Yeshua came from, was under one of the Herodeans, who also reported to the Governor of Syria. That is why there is a distinction of “the Judeans” in Yochanan’s story. Nakdimon was a member of Judea’s Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, which had no direct authority in Galilee.
A great deal more could be said to explain the underlying subtleties of this conversation, but it might prove tedious to readers to chase down all those rabbits. However, a certain amount of explanation is necessary to divest the narrative of some of the more bizarre ideas that have been grafted onto it. Then there is also the whole issue of anachronistic theological and philosophical attributions flowing from later Christian (and other) theological and allegorical interpolations.
Before we get into the meat of what Yeshua was telling Nakdimon, we should at least attempt to undo some of these layers to, hopefully, free up our ability to see and hear what this meant and still means. Many great Bible interpreters have labored over this story. Whatever can be said here is said in acknowledgment of their work. However, over the last few centuries, our modern culture’s peculiar obsessions have been so woven into and over this account that we have grown almost deaf to what the original people were saying to each other. Perhaps we cannot really recover all of that now, but we can at least try approach it.
Let us remember that even the “original” Greek of the New Testament is a translation of an oral tradition that was originally in Aramaic, the language spoken among Jews of Palestine in the First Century. That is what Stern is trying to convey in his version of it.
For me, understanding “unless a person is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” is still very much a work in progress. Although I am a committed Christian, I strive to remain open to other points of view as well as those of fellow Christians. I prefer to not engage in polemic or strident “preaching”. I hope to invite reflection, rethinking, and response, my own very much included, through this blogging vehicle.
First, a few comments about what Yeshua was not saying. He was not proposing reincarnation or the transmigration of the soul. Some gurus and teachers of major faiths (even some claiming Christian identity) such as some sects of Hinduism and Buddhism have said that Jesus was really an avatar of Vishnu, like Krishna, or a bodhisattva, like another Buddha, who reincarnated among the Jews in order to lead them to moksha (liberation from the wheel of samsara [futile existence]) and nirvana (blissful union with the World-Soul). There have even been far-fetched stories of his having journeyed to India to learn from the great gurus and bodhisattvas during the “hidden years” between ages twelve and thirty. After all, how do we know he didn’t do this?
Why didn’t the Gospel-writers tell us about this? Was it a conspiracy of silence in order not to freak out the Jewish believers? Was it another case of the later Church leaders suppressing this “truth” like they supposedly suppressed the other “lost Gospels” (like Thomas’ and Mary Magdelene’s and Barnabas’)?
Because this kind of story keeps raising its head, we owe it a brief consideration to evaluate its worth.
First, Jews did not believe in reincarnation. In the First Century they were divided on whether there was any sort of after-life. Jewish teaching was that a human was a body-soul being who lived and died once. No reputable teacher would propose reincarnation, a doctrine of pagan idolaters. Their sacred writings, which we now know as the Jewish Bible (“Old Testament” to Christians, the Tanakh to Jews), nowhere hinted anything else.
As to Jesus somehow making some sort of “pilgrimage of spiritual discovery” to India or Egypt, or both, as has also been suggested, this amounts to pure invention. Matthew’s account tells us that his parents took him to Egypt as an infant to escape Herod’s plan to kill him following the Magi’s visit. He stayed there, in all probability in Alexandria among the large Jewish diaspora community there, perhaps up to age 4. The family then returned to Galilee and settled in Natzeret, where Joseph and Mary (Yosef and Miryam) came from.
There is no evidence anywhere, other than the fertile imaginings of speculators with an agenda to show Jesus to be something beyond a “mere Jewish rabbi” with prophetic leanings, that he ever returned there or went off an a quest to distant India to meet gurus. If we could categorize him as a guru, we can discredit the Messiah identity.
Culturally and practically, there was no possibility that an oldest son of a respectable Jewish family would simply “take off” on such a journey, leaving his aging father, his mother and numerous siblings, to fend for themselves. This would be completely out of character within the culture and for the Jesus we see in the Gospels. Any oldest son who did this would lose all standing and respect. He would have no credibility to presume he could then become a teacher and leader they would listen to.
We see in his ministry that he adopted the recognized methods, teaching style, language, and model of a rabbi. He did not use highly esoteric mystical language when he spoke to ordinary folks. He taught in parables – everyday tales illustrating spiritual truths for uncomplicated people. The unusual aspect was his itinerant ministry among the lowliest people (for which he was disdained by most of the respectable elite) and his numerous healings and occasional outright miracles. These things so disconcerted the establishment that they accused him of sorcery and being demon-possessed.
Nakdimon was one of the elite. He, however, did not disdain or outright reject Yeshua. His opening remark, “Rabbi, we know it is from God that you have come as a teacher; for no one can do these miracles you perform unless God is with him,” shows that he had been pondering the contradiction in the elitist line of saying Yeshua was a sorcerer or a demonically controlled charlatan. By this point, the popular Galilean rabbi had a reputation and a following and his teaching was known and reported regularly to the Jerusalem Sanhedrin. It centered on the coming of the Kingdom of God. (We glean this information largely from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)
Nakdimon declares, “We know it is from God that you have come as a teacher…” In this he is not voicing an official endorsement of the elite. Who, then, is this “we”? He is bravely separating himself from the great majority of his peers. He is coming open, looking past the humble origins of this Galilean yokel. He is saying that any sensible person with eyes and ears can see that Yeshua is not demonic and is exhibiting a powerful connection with Adonai, Israel’s God.
Yeshua accepts Nakdimon’s sincerity and does not deny that he, Yeshua, is sent by God. Instead, he goes straight to the heart of the matter and tells him that “unless a person is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”
TO BE CONTINUED