Sunday, April 3, 2016

John 3, New Birth, and the Rabbis

Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." Nicodemus said to Him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" Jesus answered, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:3-5 NKJV)

When I was a teenager, I remember my pastor, O. C. Crabtree, teaching about the "new birth" passage in John 3 and emphasizing the confusion experienced by the Jewish leader Nicodemus about this powerful metaphor. Nicodemus asked "Must a man reenter his mother's womb?" Jesus chided Nicodemus' response:

"Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?"
(John 3:10 NKJV)

Seeing a teachable moment, the Rev. Crabtree asked his listeners, "Why should Nicodemus have been expected to understand what it means to be born again?"

I immediately - and I think unexpectedly - answered that Jesus borrowed the language of renewing by water and Spirit from the prophecies of Ezekiel. In Ezekiel 36 and 37, the prophet utilizes the language of cleansing water and resurrecting spirit to describe the restoration of the exiled Israel.

That was a pretty good answer - except that it missed the first and guiding metaphor of John 3 - birth, or more specifically, rebirth.

Historically, most exegesis of the "new birth" passage centers on biblical images of bodily resurrection - thus my reference to Ezekiel 37 (The Valley of the Dry Bones). This is the most obvious biblical parallel, but resurrection is not exactly the same thing as rebirth. While there is certainly no suggestion of reincarnation found in the Hebrew Bible, the image of rebirth seems - at least to me - to be a richer concept than just reanimation of the physical body.

A closer parallel comes from the Jewish rabbis of the second century C.E. Rabbi Yose - no doubt Yose ben Halafta, the student of the great Rabbi Akiva and the teacher of Rabbi Judah the Prince, the compiler of the Mishnah (circa 200 C.E.) - offers this insight regarding converts to Judaism.

A proselyte who has converted [to Judaism] is like a child born (i.e., a newly born child).

Quite simply, the Jewish convert is "born again."

The rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud taught that the proselyte performed or submitted to three distinct acts of conversion: offering sacrifice, circumcision, and immersion in water (a washing ceremony for ritual purity).

Rabbi Yose seems to imply that such conversion brought a brand new start to the life of the convert. That is, the legal status of the convert completely changed. The convert is no longer accountable for past transgressions, neither is he any longer bound by former family obligations. Normal familial ties were severed - the convert was no longer considered the offspring of his biological parents, but now a child of Abraham and Sarah - thus a child of promise, a full participant in covenant blessing and obligation.

This proclamation was so bold - so revolutionary and potentially socially disruptive - that later rabbis were forced to add "restrictions" on this complete realignment of social relationships. Specifically, the rabbis restricted marriage to "former" family members even though these social ties had been severed.

The "born again" imagery of Rabbi Yose seems to parallel Jesus' teaching about the coming kingdom of God and the severing of family ties.

Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him. And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You." But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?" And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother." (Mark 3:31-35 NKJV)

So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time-houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions-and in the age to come, eternal life." (Mark 10:29-30 NKJV)

Then He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."  Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God." (Luke 9:59-60 NKJV)


While the parallel between the "newly born child" imagery of Rabbi Yose and the sayings of Jesus in John 3:3 regarding "new birth" is interesting and perhaps even informative, I must offer one caveat.

In seeking parallels between New Testament writings and rabbinic Judaism, there is always the prospect of anachronism. The New Testament was written between 30 and 100 C.E., whereas the first written records of the rabbinic teaching is the Mishnah around 200 C.E. and the final collection occurred with the assembly of the Babylonian Talmud around 600 C.E.

Clearly, the collective rabbinic writings refer to Jewish teachers before 70 C.E. (the destruction of the Jewish Temple). Specifically, we know of Hillel and Shammai (and the "houses" of their followers) as well as Gamaliel who is also referenced in New Testament writings. But Jacob Neusner, the great scholar of rabbinic Judaism, reminds us that we cannot know the exact form or language of the teachings of these early rabbis. All records of these rabbis came from later writings which expand, elucidate, and comment on their teachings. Neither the Mishnah nor Talmud attempts to recover the "historic rabbis" in their pre-70 C.E. context nor in the exact language of their teachings.

So New Testament parallels with rabbinic teaching can be suggestive and informing - but one should never solely interpret any New Testament passage by later passages from the Mishnah or Talmud.


  1. Where the post says "B.C.E." I'm sure you intend, correctly, "C.E."

    1. Perhaps Jesus originated the bold metaphor and later rabbis, such as Yose, picked it up or even invented it independently.

    2. Jesus, in his statement to Nicodemus" implied that the "born again" metaphor was common in Second Temple Judaism. "Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?"

      It does not appear that Jesus claimed originality for the "new birth" imagery. I am not trying to imply that Rabbi Yose coined the phrase and Jesus borrowed it or vice versa. Rather it seems to me that the metaphor predated the first century CE and both Jesus and Rabbi Yose drew from a similar tradition. If this is true, then the parallels between the two regarding familial identity and obligation can be enlightening.

      Of course, your observation that each may have arrived at the metaphor independently is completely possible.

  2. I am experimenting with voice recognition software rather than typing. Clearly, I am going to have to train the software to better distinguish between CE and BCE. I am also going to have to proofread a little better.

    Thanks for the catch. I will update the post.

  3. In addition to the outside sources of rabbinical parallels to the new birth metaphor, one must not forget the internal parallels, too. The letters of John are an important source in this regard. I, also, grew up in a community that emphasized the new birth in Jesus' conversation with Nicodemas, and like many others, I was continually reminded of the "tests" for the authenticity of new birth (which within our branch of Pentecostalism was primarily glossolalia). Ironically, those tests were drawn, not from the writings of John, but from a selection of favored passages in the Book of Acts, interpreted somewhat obliquely. It is not, of course, that Luke had nothing to say about spiritual awakening, but the metaphor of new birth is much more at home in the writings of John, and a better place to look for tests of authenticity is in the other writings of John. He offers several clear indications that one has experienced the new birth. Those who are born again do what is right (1 Jn. 2:29). Those born again do not continue in a lifestyle of sin (3:9; 5:18). Those born again love their fellow Christians (4:7). Those born again confess that Jesus is the Messiah (5:1). Those born again overcome the world (5:4).

    I have no idea whether or not John was reflecting to any degree the imagery of new birth that may have been used by any of the rabbis in the 1st century, but it seems clear enough that in narrating the first use of this metaphor on the lips of Jesus, John had a very different way of looking at the authenticity of the new birth experience than the ones we were taught when I was a boy.