Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again (or ‘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 (John 3.3-5).
While John’s gospel isn’t the only source of Christian nuttiness, it’s certainly a mine of golden nuggets. This is mainly because it was made up so long after Jesus lived, by people who had, in all probability, never met him but who belonged to a sect led by someone who claimed he had.
Imagine, in a world without technology, photography and literacy, writing an account from memory (or from other people’s memories) of events that had occurred sixty years earlier. It would be like attempting to create today the history of a charismatic, back-water nobody who lived in the early 1950s – but without any reliable written records, pictures or sound recordings. How much faith would you have in such an account? How far would you trust, at such a distance, the account’s supposedly verbatim dialogue, especially when it conflicts on nearly all crucial points with the few other stories that circulate from the period? Of course you wouldn’t. And yet this is precisely what we have in ‘John’s gospel’, where we find the famous exhortation to be ‘born again’.
Let’s be clear at the outset; Jesus did not say ‘you must be born again.’ The point of the story is that he meant something else (equally ludicrous, but different nonetheless). Despite this, today’s Christians still insist he did say it and that to be truly saved you must indeed be ‘born again’.
But, as Bart Ehrman explains in Jesus, Interrupted (p 155), the misunderstanding central to this exchange, between ‘born again’ and ‘born from above’ occurs only in Greek. As Aramaic speakers, Jesus and Nicodemus would not, if they knew any, have resorted to Greek for this one conversation, just so this very confusion could be created.
The word in question is the Greek word anothen, which can mean both ‘again’ and ‘from above’, and it is this double meaning that prompts Nicodemus to ask if he is expected to crawl back into his mother’s womb so he can be born ‘again’. The contrivance allows Jesus to make a show of correcting him and to make his real point; ‘No, Nic, you dumbkoff. Not ‘born again’, but ‘born from above’. What do they teach you at synagogue school these days?’
So in a conversation he never had, depending as it does on a misunderstanding of the Greek he didn’t speak, ‘born again’ is not what Jesus means: his point, as the writers of John’s gospel make clear (in the Greek Jesus didn’t speak, but they did) is that one has to be ‘born from above’.
And why do people have to be ‘born from above’? Because that’s where the story’s creators believed heaven to be – above them, in the sky. Jesus himself would have believed this too, even though he didn’t utter a single one of the words attributed to him in this fabricated conversation.