The “Born Again” Narrative in John 3: An Aramaic Impossibility? Well, No!

John 2:24-3:11/ Syriac Peshitta.

Bart Ehrman has published an argument concluding  the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus in Jn 3 “could not have happened, at least not as it is described in the Gospel of John” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, p. 155). We present Ehrman’s argument here with brief critique. As a preview, our main gripe with Ehrman’s presentation (more fully explained below) is that whereas Ehrman supposes an original Aramaic conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus would necessarily have had Jesus using an Aramaic word which can only meanfrom above,” but not “second time,” it turns out the ancient Aramaic versions we do actually have, such as the Syriac Peshitta, have “again”  (all of the major English translations of the Peshitta render the Aramaic men derish in Jn 3:3 either as “again,” or “anew”).[1] Further, if the Aramaic for “again” which we do find in the ancient Aramaic version could have been used in an original Aramaic conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus (and there is no good reason to think it could not have been) then both the original conversation in Aramaic and the translation of it into Greek make perfectly good sense, and Ehrman’s argument has come to ruin.

First, Ehrman’s argument:

“In the Gospel or John chapter 3, Jesus has a famous conversation with Nicodemus in which says, “You must be born again.” The Greek word translated “again” actually has two meanings: it can mean not “a second time” but also “from above.” Whenever it is used elsewhere in John, it means “from above” (Jn 19:11, 23). That is what Jesus appears to mean in John 3 when he speaks with Nicodemus: a person must be born from above in order to have eternal life in heaven above. Nicodemus misunderstands, though, and thinks Jesus intends the other meaning of the word, that he has to be born a second time. “How can I crawl back into my mother’s womb, he asks, out of some frustration. Jesus corrects him: he is not talking about a second physical birth, but a heavenly birth, from above. This conversation with Nicodemus is predicated on the circumstance that a certain Greek word has two meanings (a double entendre). Absent the double entendre, the conversation makes little sense. The problem is this: Jesus and this Jewish leader in Jerusalem would not have been speaking Greek, but Aramaic. But the Aramaic word for “from above” does not also mean “second time.” This is a double entendre that works only in Greek. So it looks as though this conversation could not have happened—at least not as it is described in the Gospel of John” (Bart Ehrman, Jesus Interrupted, p. 155).

Interesting argument, but it is complete nonsense! (note that Ehrman does not actually specify what exact Aramaic word or phrase he has in mind; we will proceed on the assumption that the Aramaic phrase found in the Syriac Peshitta will serve nicely.

Here is an English translation[1] of the dialog as it occurs in the original Aramaic of the Peshitta:

John 3:3 – “Jesus answered and said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, If a man is not born AGAIN he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

John 3:4 “Nicodemus said to him, How can an old man be born again? Can he enter again a second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?”

Verse 4 follows quite nicely from verse 4 in the Peshitta.  Nicodemus would have understood “again” in vs. 3 to mean… well.. “again“(!), and his reply in vs. 4 would have made perfectly good sense -no “double entendre” required (nor was it ever supposed by any of the numerous early ancient translations of the Greek NT into other languages (versions), all of which simply render Jn 3:3 with equivalents of “again.” In the ancient world it seems the natural reading “again” was obvious and unanimous. No direct ancient evidence for anything else exists in Aramaic, Coptic, Ethiopic, Latin, or any other language into which the Greek text was translated).

Here also is an interlinear translation from peshitta.org with Jn 3:3 in red; the footnote to their English rendering “again” has Lit. ‘from the start’ (‘over again’).

Finally, let us consider the form of the text in the Greek NT. How would a translator have rendered an Aramaic conversation if it occurred as it is found in the Aramaic Peshitta into Greek? Well… he might have translated the Aramaic for “AGAIN” with the Greek word for “AGAIN” – ανωθεν/anothen- and that is precisely what we do find in the Greek text of John 3:3.

__________________

[1]  peshita.org, Etheridge, Murdock, Bauscher, and Lamsa all render it as “again” or “anew.” Men derish suggests from the “head” or beginning of a process (cf.  Heb. bereshith: “in the beginning”). Men derish also occurs in the Old Syriac version.


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9 Responses to The “Born Again” Narrative in John 3: An Aramaic Impossibility? Well, No!

  1. Is this one of Ehrman’s big arguments? Not much of one if it is. Great article!

  2. Maximus says:

    Excellent!

  3. GothDad says:

    It seems as though a lot of modern controversy in the academic community stems from people needing fresh thesis/dissertation ideas, or having books or other written works to sell. I suspect this is Ehrman’s issue.

  4. wind from the East says:

    Bart Ehrman did originally make me doubt the coherence of this text. This article was very helpful to restore my faith. It would be good, if more detailed academic comments appear on this site.

  5. Raul says:

    Do you mean by accident an aramaic phrase became a greek word play after translation?

    • David says:

      Hi Raul,

      Wordplay/double entendre is a late hypothesis rather than a certain or indubitable datum of the Greek text of John 3:3 or necessary/inescapbable conclusion about the text. This was one of the points made in the original essay. If an original Aramaic conversation could have taken place which was similar to what we find in the Peshitta the most natural translation into Greek would be exactly what we find in the Greek text. Conversely, on any hypothesis that it is “inaccurate” to take the Greek text as intending the perfectly natural and usual meaning, “again,” one must explain why on earth the earliest ancient versions uniformly rendered the text of John in precisely that way (e.g. Aramaic, Coptic Sahidic, Bohairic, Latin and other early versions), as “again.” In other words one has to then argue it is impossible that the Greek can be taken simply as saying “again” even though that’s exactly what a majority of very early ancient translators, who were quite adept at their craft at a time when Greek was still a living language, did in fact take it to mean.

  6. Isa Almisry says:

    Ehrman’s “argument” is even dumber: the Aramaic literally means “from the head/top/start” etc. (lit. “from of-head”), the double entendre existing in Aramaic as well as the Greek.

    ryš, ryšʾ (rēš, rēšā) n.m. head; top; chief
    1 head Com.
    2 top Com. –(a) fig.: top, best, choice Com. (a.1) choice, first quality Gal, PTA. (a.2) best Syr. (a.3) preferred position Syr. –(b) lit. top, thing on top Com. (b.1) in compounds : the top thing . 1 ܪܝܫ ܐܣܬܐ : top of the wall, capstone Syr. 4 ܪܝܫ ܦܪܨܘܦܐ : forehead Syr.
    3 beginning OfA, Gal, Syr. –(a) first part of a tannaitic statement Gal, JBA. –(b) firstfruits Syr. –(c) in compounds : the first thing, beginning .
    4 capital funds OfA. –(a) ריש כיסא : principal JBA.
    5 tip, extremity Gal, Syr. –(a) bit ri$ end place, i.e. goal? Man.
    6 chief Palm, PTA, Syr. –(a) in compounds: chief X .
    7 major section Com. –(a) chapter Syr. –(b) region Syr. (b.1) band Syr. –(c) principal organ Syr.
    8 in compounds: s.t. characterized by being a head or top of s.t. . –(a) ܪܝܫ ܕܟܪܐ : battering ram Syr. –(b) ܪܝܫ ܕܒܒܐ ̈ ܡܝuܼoܟܸܦܗܲܠoܢ ܥܲ ܕܼܣܸܲܣܸܐ Syr.
    9 adv (various) Syr. –(a) ܡܢ ܕܪܝܫ again (see also s.v. mryš) Syr. –(b) mn riš briš again and again, i.e. forever Man. –(c) בריש adv./prep. see s.v. bryš OfA, JLAtg. –(d) ܩܘܡ ܪܝܫܐ : to do something first, most importantly Syr.
    10 center, point Syr. –(a) source Syr. (a.1) ܪܝܫ ܡܒܘܥܐ : the source of a spring Syr.
    11 poison [Heb. ראש , רוש ] JLAtg, Syr, LJLA.
    For ראש in the Edumean ostraca see discussion s.v. rwš n.
    LS2: 1462[728]. DJPA: 510a. DJBA: 1078b. Jastrow: 1477. DNWSI: 1042.

    http://dukhrana.com/lexicon/PayneSmith/index.php?p=540

    mryš, mryšˀadv. at first, formerly
    1 at first, formerly JBA.
    2 once again JBA.
    DJBA: 1082.

    • wind from the East says:

      To Isa. Thank you so much for an in-depth linguistic analisys of the Aramaic substratum. Knowing the original tongues (not just koine Greek) helps to have the whole picture, rather than a (distorted) part of it.

  7. jonathan says:

    As Ricky Ricardo would say, Ehrman…you got some splaining to do.

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