Re: Question about John 3:5

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Fri Aug 30 1996 - 09:00:22 EDT

At 6:46 AM -0500 8/30/96, Greg Williams wrote:
>In John 3:5, Jesus answers Nicodemus:
>In the past, I've interpreted the phrase "EX hUDATOS KAI PNEUMATOS" as
>referring to two "births": natural birth and birth "again/from above".
>My reasoning for this was that Jesus seemed to be contrasting spiritual
>birth with natural birth in the immediate context.
>However, Beasley-Murray in "Baptism in the New Testament" seems to argue
>that "EX hUDATOS KAI PNEUMATOS" could not possibly mean that for the
>purely grammatical reason that "the unity of the two elements is shown
>by the use of the single preposition EK".
>From a purely grammatical standpoint, is Beasley-Murray correct? Does
>this Greek construction preclude my previous interpretation?

From a purely _grammatical_ standpoint, the use of the single preposition
EK doesn't prove anything; there are several ways in which the unity of
water and blood COULD have been underscored if that had been the author's
intention. The text as it stands is open--so far as the grammatical
possibilities are concerned--to more than one interpretation.

Moreover, although the integrity of the MS reading, EX hUDATOS KAI
PNEUMATOS, is not really in question, the question HAS been raised as to
whether this phrase as a whole or just the word hUDATOS may have been
interpolated into an earlier text that did not have it (Bultmann, of
course, argued that the phrase was inserted by an "ecclesiastical redactor"
to harmonize the non-sacramental Johannine text with mainline
ecclesiastical doctrine and practice. There is a lengthy and helpful
discussion of this question, with careful consideration of all
alternatives, in Raymon Brown's Anchor commentary on John's gospel, vol. 1,
pp. 141-144. The discussion is remarkably free from dogmatism; after noting
that the passage has served as fuel for Protestant-Catholic disputes, he
says (p. 144): "Fortunately ... such theological disputes about the
universal necessity of Baptism by water, and the corresponding existence of
limbo for unbaptized infants, go beyond the direct scope of the text, which
is what interests the exegete. Accepting 'water' at its face value, we do
not think there is enough evidence in the Gospel itself to determine the
relation between begetting of water and begetting of Spirit on the level of
sacramental interpretation."

Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University
One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO, USA 63130
(314) 935-4018 OR

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