Re: John 3:5 and the genetive

From: Micheal Palmer (
Date: Wed Mar 12 1997 - 23:11:35 EST

At 10:08 AM +0930 3/13/97, Andrew Kulikovsky wrote:
>Fellow Greeks,
>at my Bible study last night, a question was raised about the meaning of
>John 3:5. In this verse Jesus responds to Nicodemus's question "How can
>a man enter a second time into his mother's womb and be reborn?"
>"Unless a person is born of water and the spirit, it is not possible to
>enter into the kingdom of God"
>Now, the question raised was what does the water signifiy? And what does
>it mean to be "born of water"
>Someone suggested that water often signifies cleansing. Therefore being
>born of water indicates repentence.
>This seems a bit eisagetical to me...
>My present feeling is that the water signifies the amniotic fluid we
>swim in when we were in our mother's womb. Therefore, being born of
>water means to be born physically.

Exactly. The very next verse answers this question: "What is born of flesh
is flesh, and what is born of spirit is spirit."

The water refers to the normal process of physical birth. Even in English
we still say of that a woman's "water" breaks when she is giving birth. The
child is born "from water" (EX UDATOS). Likewise, we must be born from
spirit (EK PNEUMATOS).

>I am assuming EX UDATOS KAI PNEUMATOS are compond genitives of source.
>Does this mean that a person must be born of water and the spirit
>*simultaneously*? If so then my suggestion above (physical birth) would
>obviously be incorrect.

No. They do not have to happen simultaneously. That interpretation is not
ruled out, but it is certainly not demanded either.

>How should this genitive be understood? These sill little KAIs keep
>causing me problems!

As I have recently argued on a different thread, the real question is "How
does EX function?" The genitive case form functions only to specify that
these nouns are objects of EX (whose object *must* be genitive case--the
author did not *choose* the genitive case to communicate anything in
particular, but just to be grammatical).

The question of how EX functions, though, can lead to some really
interesting exegetical discussions. This preposition has quite a variety of
functions in the New Testament. Which one is intended here? Source (as you
point out) is a very natural choice, since the reference to birth EX UDATOS
is given a source interpretation in verse 6 (TO GEGENNHMENOS EK THS SARKOS
SARX ESTIN = Whatever is born *of/from flesh* is flesh), it is natural to
try to apply the same semantic category to EX...PNEUMATOS, but what exactly
would that mean? Are we supposed to imagine some source spirit (Spirit)
from which we are born [wouldn't the gnostics love this!]? Or does
EX...PNEUMATOS indicate something besides this rather strict 'source'
interpretation? The possibilities are many. I'll stop for now and let some
others take a stab at this.

Micheal W. Palmer
Religion & Philosophy
Meredith College

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