Re: John 3:6

From: Carl W. Conrad (
Date: Wed May 06 1998 - 11:04:28 EDT

At 8:52 AM -0500 5/6/98, wrote:
>Edgar Foster wrote:
>> > > In a valuable essay entitled "Reading Text As Discourse", JP Louw
>> > > says: "The second of the two units [of Jesus' reply to Nicodemus in
>> > > John 3] states the issue [of begettal] unambiguously: "what is
>> born of
>> > > a human is PHYSICAL, what is born of the Spirit is SPIRITUAL" (Caps.
>> > > for emphasis. Words in brackets inserted for clarity).
>> > > Based on these grammatical insights, my question is:
>> > > Is it "permissible" to use the terms "physical" and "spiritual" in
>> > > John 3:6? This rendering seems to obfuscate the meaning of Jesus'
>> > > words. Before saying any more, I wonder what you think about Louw's
>> > > suggestion.

Personally, I think Louw's suggestion is a reasonable one for a text in the
gospel of John, where SARX and PNEUMA do indeed appear to represent
consistently what we mean by the distinction of body and spirit (to put it
in the conventional language of Cartesian rationalism); I think, however,
there's a great danger in this if one should suppose that the words SARX
and PNEUMA bear the exact same sense in John's gospel as in the Pauline
letters; for it is fairly easy to demonstrate, I think, that SARX in Paul
is fundamentally a negative/pejorative term, whereas it is just as
demonstrable (if only from 1:14 in the Johannine prologue, where "the LOGOS
became SARX") that SARX in John's Gospel, even if it is transient, is not
per se charged with the residue of human sinfulness (as it surely is in

>I was just re-reading John 3 this morning and when I got to this
>passage, I was struck by the similarity in the article-noun/anarthous
>noun [THS SARKOS/SARX ~ TOU PNEUMATOS/PNEUMA] parallel with John 1 [hO
>Gave me great pause...
>"What has been born out of the flesh is being flesh, and what has been
>born out of the Spirit is being Spirit."
>This try, which puts the ESTI in the ongoing present tense clearly,
>would then seem to give this passage a decidedly clearer meaning, and
>would also seem to have some exegetical value to John 1:1.
>What do you think?

Unless (or even if) you are prepared to translate every instance of ESTI in
Greek--or at least in NT Greek, as "is being," I think, (a) your readers
will find it very confusing or unintelligible, and (b) if it is understood
at all, it is likely to be misunderstood.

Why? (1) For one thing, ESTI in this sentence is clearly a copula, in both
instance following the predicate noun and depending accentually upon it as
an enclitic. There might be a justification for translation an
"existential" ESTI as "is being"--but even this would be so alien to
English idiom that it seems to me it wouldn't convey the sense of the
Johannine Greek to a normal English-speaking reader. (2) In normal English
idiomatic usage, "is being" links a subject to a noun, a phrase, or an
adjective indicative of a transient condition that can be expected to pass
soon--or cannot be expected to last very long: e.g., "The cat is being
fussy today," or "That child is being a pest," or "My wife is being a
marvel of patience today."

In sum, I really think, George, that the thinking you're doing about the
Greek "tenses" may have some validity (at least it could be expounded and
defended) in terms of a metaphysical understanding of time and eternity,
but that it does not adequately represent the discernible idiomatic usage
of EITHER the Greek OR the English verbal system. The Greek verb EIMI has
forms only in the present system (present and imperfect tenses) and a
future, ES(S)OMAI had already been constructed for it by the era of Homeric
literature, but it doesn't exist in any other "tense" system. For an aorist
of EIMI, ancient Greek uses GENESQAI, and although that verb has a present
tense GI(G)NOMAI, it has a different meaning from EIMI. I rather think you
are assuming (if I understand your notion of timeless aorist) that English
"is" a some sort of "present aorist"--but that's not really an adequate
perception of the actual usage of "is" in English.
Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics/Washington University
One Brookings Drive/St. Louis, MO, USA 63130/(314) 935-4018
Home: 7222 Colgate Ave./St. Louis, MO 63130/(314) 726-5649 OR

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