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In John 3:3, Jesus famously tells Nicodemus that to see the kingdom of God, one must be born again. Likewise, 1 Peter 1:3 and 1:23 both use this idea of a new or second birth.

1 Peter 1:3
[...] In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,

1 Peter 1:23
For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God.

Where did the idea of rebirth originate from in early Christian thought? Was it borrowed from earlier Jewish themes? Was it a Greek or Roman idea? Or something new?

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5 Answers 5

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Nicodemus Should Have Known from the Old Testament

That the Old Testament is the source of the doctrine is confirmed by Christ Himself, for Nicodemus was supposed to have known these things. A slightly larger context helps see this:

Jn 3:3-10 (NKJV)

3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again [or "born from above," see below], he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 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?” 5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh [i.e. of woman], and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit [i.e. of God]. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9 Nicodemus answered and said to Him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered and said to him, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and do not know these things?

Verse 10 clearly indicates that Christ expected that Nicodemus should be following Christ's previous statements because he was one of those that taught Israel the scriptures. So the concept certainly is not "new" with Jesus, but rather one contained in Israel's teachings. However, that does not mean it is found as directly stated in the OT as what Christ is stating here.

Clarifying Christ's Meaning

So Christ introduces the "born again" concept to the discussion and links it to the Jewish expectation of the kingdom of God (v.3). The phrase "born again" in the Greek is two words.

The first word is that typically used for ones birth, an aorist passive form of the verb γεννάω (gennáō), to "be born" (BDAG).1

The second word is ἄνωθεν (ánōthen), translated in the NT only in John 3:3 and 3:7 as "again." In most uses of the NT, it means "from above" (including Jn 3:31; also Jn 19:11; Jam 1:17, 3:15, 3:17) or "from the top" (Mt 27:51; Mk 15:38; Jn 19:23). Occasionally it is a time reference (in context), and so "from the first" or "from the beginning" (Act 26:5). The Luke 1:3 usage is debated whether it should be a time reference or a source from above reference. Gal 4:9 it is usually untranslated, considered to be intensifying the typical word for "again" in that passage, πάλιν (pálin).

It is (1) the fact that Christ does not use the common word for "again," πάλιν, in John 3, and (2) his paralleling of flesh/Spirit as sources of the two births that leads me to believe the better translation in all of John 3 is that used in v.31, "from above." The idea of "again" was probably favored because of Nicodemus' reply in v.4, where a repetition of a natural birth is inquired about (but even so, such is to him obviously an incredulous idea.

So the "born from above" Christ is referring to is a Spiritual birth, as he clarified in vv.5-8.

Therefore, to look for what Christ was referring to in the OT, we need to find references that (1) refer to the insufficiency of the fleshly birth, and (2) the necessity of the spiritual birth, especially as relates to the kingdom of God.

The Need and Remedy are both Understood in Job

The idea that the first, natural birth from a woman is insufficient is expressed in the book of Job.

Job 15:14—“What is man, that he could be pure? And he who is born of a woman, that he could be righteous? (cf. Job 4:17)

Job 25:4—How then can man be righteous before God? Or how can he be pure who is born of a woman?

Through these rhetorical questions, both righteousness and purity are understood to be impossible for one merely "born of a woman."

But Elihu gives the answer to these questions in his statement to Job:

Job 33:23-30

23 “If there is a messenger for him, A mediator, one among a thousand, To show man His uprightness, 24 Then He is gracious to him, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down to the Pit; I have found a ransom’; 25 His flesh shall be young like a child’s, He shall return to the days of his youth. 26 He shall pray to God, and He will delight in him, He shall see His face with joy, For He restores to man His righteousness. 27 Then he looks at men and says, ‘I have sinned, and perverted what was right, And it did not profit me.’ 28 He will redeem his soul from going down to the Pit, And his life shall see the light. 29 Behold, God works all these things, twice, in fact, three times with a man, 30 To bring back his soul from the Pit, That he may be enlightened with the light of life.

Notice how the theme in this passage also parallels Christ's later statement in John 3 about his death. He is the "mediator" to "show man His uprightness" of Job 33:23. He is the "ransom" found (v.24). Through this mediator, one is made new from above, both physically (flesh, v.25) and spiritually (righteousness, v.26), which newness comes by a person's repentance (v.27) and is a redeeming from the spirit going down into the pit (i.e. grave, v.28), and a bringing of the flesh "back" from the grave (v.30).

Note the similar themes between Job 33 and John 3 (some of these connections are more direct, some more conceptual... I leave it for each one reading to decide how well matched conceptually the parallels I show are):

       Job 33:23-30                              John 3
A messenger v.23                     Christ's witness v.11, v.32-34
A mediator v.23                      The Son from heaven as mediator v.13-16
Show uprightness v.23                Christ recognized as godly v.2, above all v.31
Deliverance from pit v.24            No perishing v.15, salvation v.17 
Ransom v.24                          Son is given v.16
Flesh like a child's v.25            Born again v.3-8
Return to youth v.25                 Born again v.3-8
Redeemer prays to God v.26           [no parallel found]
God delights in Redeemer v.26        God with Christ v.2, loves Son v.35 
Restores righteousness v.26          Believer not condemned v.18
Admission of unrighteousness v.27    Belief is key v.15-16, 18, 33
Redemption from going into Pit v.28  Believers not perish, have eternal life v.15, 36
Redeemed one's life sees light v.28  Doers of truth go to light v.21
Three works of God for man v.29      [no parallel found]* 
Redemption back from the Pit v.30    [no parallel found]**
Enlightenment by life v.30           Doers of truth deeds enlightened v.21

*  Unless the three works are as messenger, mediator, and judge, all ideas seen in both 
   Job and John
** Resurrection is not forefront in John 3, but both the concept of eternal life 
   (v.15-16, 36) and experiencing the kingdom (v.3, 5) have that as a background necessity.

While exploring potential parallels between Job 33 and John 3 is intriguing, for the question here, the passage in Job (especially v.25) is speaking of a change like a new birth, and it ties to the resurrection from the grave (v.30). These ideas are tied more directly to the Spirit and kingdom in later revelation...

The Picture in Ezekiel

Ezekiel 37 speaks of the resurrection, which Job tied to the new birth, but in Ezekiel it is clear that it is an act of the Spirit (the same word in Hebrew for "breath," רוּחַ [rûaḥ]). The term is found in v. 1, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 14, but specifically the active agent of physical resurrection (v.5-8), and a renewing of spirit itself (v.9-10, 14).

Further, this resurrection pictured in Ezekiel 37 is part of Israel being put back into their land (v.14), united (v.15-21), and the ushering in of the one kingdom under one king (v.22), never to be defiled again (v.23)—that is, to remain righteous.

Conclusion

The "born from above" concept was already taught within the OT canon of Christ's day. It was scattered in various passages, of which there are others that could be mentioned, but the two above bring together the concepts. Job shows the need for new birth, that new birth bringing both a spiritual change (righteousness) and physical change (resurrection). Ezekiel shows a spiritual source of the resurrection, a spiritual change as well, and the resurrection being needed for experiencing the kingdom.


NOTES

1 BDAG refers to William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

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Does the idea of being “born again” have a root earlier than John/Peter (or Jesus)?

I did not bother to comment before because I was certain that someone would have brought up the passage from 1 Samuel in response to this question.

And the Spirit of the LORD will come upon thee, and thou shalt prophesy with them, and shalt be turned into another man. —1 Samuel 10:6 (AV)

While there are a number of OT passages that address the resurrection, this verse is the only one I am aware of which addresses, albeit implicitly, being born-again. If the argument be put forth that the new birth is a NT move of God's Holy Spirit, I will quite agree. But it cannot be denied that here Samuel's words are without rebuttal; "the LORD would turn Saul into another man."

The question addresses the "idea" of the new birth, not the new birth itself. Here in 1 Samuel, we have such an idea. Saul was to meet with prophets of God, the Spirit of the LORD would come upon Saul, and Saul was to prophesy with those prophets. It is unclear from the passage whether or not his being turned into another man was to be the result of his prophesying.

One would be hard-pressed to deny the obvious parallel between 1 Samuel 10:6 and any of the classic passages of the NT which deal with the new birth (e.g. 2 Corinthians 5:17). Saving faith in Messiah turns us into another man; a new man, a superior man. After all, the "Sinner's Prayer" is nothing short of prophesy.

According to 1 Corinthians 14:3—

But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort.

When sinners confess Yeshua as Savior and Lord, are they not edified and comforted? That prayer (prophesy) of faith in Yeshua is the single-most comfort a believer will ever receive. He (or she) has just been turned into another man (or woman).

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+1 for mention of King Saul's conversion. I'm not sure why anyone downvoted this, although the connection to prophecy and "Sinner's Prayer" (what variation?) is unclear. –  disciple Jun 6 at 1:45

The origin of the Christian teaching of the ‘new birth’ is at most partly an outworking of the Hebrew concept of a resurrection, it uses words in Greek that can barely be traced in other literature and on the whole is therefore entirely something new.

The Greek word used in 1 Peter 1:23 (αναγεγεννημενοι) is actually quite hard to find in any other Greek literature. According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, one place where it is found is in the Eleusinian Mysteries which has origin prior to 1600 BC. It is therefore in some sense assumed that the bare idea, or word, was prior to Christ. However this is just tracing the usage of a word, which in itself does not prove any direct original at all.

More reasonably the idea of the new birth is more related to the Hebrew concept of the resurrection in the Messiah for there was at a minimum and elevated state of being or life envisioned when Messiah would build God’s kingdom on earth, but an entire inward renewal and change of nature for Rabbis and all of Israel through a Messiah was never imagined.

Alfred Edersheim the Jewish Historian explains why it must be a new concept quite well:

It has been thought by commentators, that there is here an allusion to a Jewish mode of expression in regard to proselytes, who were viewed as ‘new-born.’ But in that case Nicodemus would have understood it, and answered differently—or, rather, not expressed his utter inability to understand it. It is, indeed, true that a Gentile on becoming a proselyte—though not, as has been suggested, an ordinary penitent—was likened to a child just born.a It is also true, that persons in certain circumstances—the bridegroom on his marriage, the Chief of the Academy on his promotion, the king on his enthronement—were likened to those newly born. The expression, therefore, was not only common, but, so to speak, fluid; only, both it and what it implied must be rightly understood. In the first place, it was only a simile, and never meant to convey a real regeneration (‘as a child’) [Edersheim, A. (1896). The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Vol. 1, pp. 383–384).]

We must understand the concept to be very new because when Jesus used it to explain to Nicodemus that in order to even see the Kingdom of God, he must first be entirely changed in a way that he could not understand. If Jesus was just using the simile to express repentance and restoration to God, something very common to a Jew, Nicodemus would not have marveled so deeply.

Again Edersheim gives good insight into the Jewish mind and how the new birth was something so different:

Only one possibility of being occurred to him: that given him in his natural disposition, or, as a Jew would have put it, in his original innocence when he first entered the world. And this—so to express ourselves—he thought aloud. But there was another world of being than that of which Nicodemus thought. That world was the ‘Kingdom of God’ in its essential contrariety to the kingdom of this world, whether in the general sense of that expression, or even in the special Judaistic sense attaching to the ‘Kingdom’ of the Messiah. There was only one gate by which a man could pass into that Kingdom of God—for that which was of the flesh could ever be only fleshly. Here a man might strive, as did the Jews, by outward conformity to become, but he would never attain to being. But that ‘Kingdom’ was spiritual, and here a man must be in order to become. How was he to attain that new being? [Edersheim, A. (1896). The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Vol. 1, p. 386)]

In conclusion the Jews had a concept of a Messiah where life would be restored to a higher and better level centered in Israel, but the idea that one must die and receive an entirely new life, something absolutely ‘other’ from what is known by the natural mind and life, was fully new in the doctrines that Jesus spoke with the view of his death of an atonement for sin and man’s ability to be redeemed and inwardly resurrected by simple faith in it.

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The Hebrew Bible speaks of "new birthing" involving water, which then later carries into the Christian New Testament. Specifically, water in the Hebrew Bible removes the contamination of death, and thus emerges "new life."

To begin, the simple Hebrew verb חָטָא means to sin, but in the intensive forms of the verb (Piel, Pual, and Hithpael) the meaning includes to "de-sin," and therefore to cleanse from the contamination of death. In this sense, the intensive idea appears in the Hebrew Bible with water, which will "de-sin" the object contaminated by death (or dead flesh, which is leprosy). In the following two verses, the Hebrew verb חָטָא occurs three times in the third person masculine singular Hithpael (imperfect) form.

Numbers 19:12-13 (MT)
הוּא יִתְחַטָּא-בוֹ בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי--יִטְהָר; וְאִם-לֹא יִתְחַטָּא בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי--לֹא יִטְהָר

12 That one shall purify himself from uncleanness with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and then he will be clean; but if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean.

כָּל-הַנֹּגֵעַ בְּמֵת בְּנֶפֶשׁ הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר-יָמוּת וְלֹא יִתְחַטָּא, אֶת-מִשְׁכַּן יְהוָה טִמֵּא--וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי מֵי נִדָּה לֹא-זֹרַק עָלָיו, טָמֵא יִהְיֶה--עוֹד, טֻמְאָתוֹ בוֹ

13 Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself, defiles the tabernacle of the Lord; and that person shall be cut off from Israel. Because the water for impurity was not sprinkled on him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him.

The Hithpael is reflexive, so the subject of the verb acts on himself. The exact same verb form occurs again in Numbers 8:21, Numbers 19:20 and Numbers 31:23 within the same context of ritual self-purification within the Mosaic Law. So anyone who was contaminated by dead people or animals (or had been contaminated with dead skin, which was leprosy in Leviticus 14:1-57) were made clean with the water flowing under sacrificed animals and/or filtered through ashes of the red heifer, and then sprinkled by means of some red fabric/cedar/hyssop branch.

In summary, the removal of the contamination of death occurred through washing with water. Death is "washed away" with water.

Finally, in the Book of Ezekiel the major promise of washing by water occurs; that is, the "New Covenant" would be inaugurated with the cleansing of water.

Ezek 36:24-26 (NASB)
24 For I will take you from the nations, gather you from all the lands and bring you into your own land. 25 Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. 26 Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

In the Book of Ezekiel, idolatry was connected with dead people, and therefore the House of Israel was contaminated with death, and so needed this washing.

Ezekiel 6:4-5 (NASB)
4 So your altars will become desolate and your incense altars will be smashed; and I will make your slain fall in front of your idols. 5 I will also lay the dead bodies of the sons of Israel in front of their idols; and I will scatter your bones around your altars.

In the Christian New Testament, which is the "New Covenant" interpretation by Christians, the idea carries over: the blood of Jesus atones for sin, but his eternal life washes away the spiritual death of man as promised by Ezekiel, because his eternal life is "living water." That is, the death of Jesus was the sin/guilt offering, and his water (which was "filtered through" His sacrifice) is his eternal life, which washes away the contamination of death so that we may have life eternal.

The following verses draw this distinction.

Romans 5:8-11 (NASB)
8 But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. 11 And not only this, but we also exult in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

The sinner is "justified" by the blood (sin/guilt atonement), but is only reconciled or "saved" through his eternal life (washing away of spiritual death). The Holy Spirit applies the "living water" of Christ to the sinner, and thus the Holy Spirit "baptizes" the believer into the body of Christ. Thus the believer is born "by spirit and water" (Jn 3:5).

Thus while Jesus died for all men (1 Jn 2:2), only those who receive eternal life are saved.

In summary, the idea of the new birth stemmed from the Hebrew Bible, where not blood, but water was used to remove the contamination of death. When this contamination is removed, such a person is now alive (because death was washed away). This now-being-alive is the new birth, which Jesus, Paul, and Peter describe as born again.

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Like when we say "skin a fish." We mean to remove the skin from it. –  Frank Luke Jun 2 at 16:23

The Talmud uses a similar phrase (in Hebrew) regarding the conversion of proselytes to Judaism. The rabbis stipulated that a convert to Judaism had to perform three acts during the conversion process: offering a sacrifice, circumcision, and immersion ("baptism").1

In the Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nashim, Tractate Yevamot, Folio 48b, Gemara English | Hebrew, it is written,

Rabbi Yose said, "A proselyte who has converted [to Judaism] is like a child that is born" (i.e., a newborn child).

רבי יוסי אומר גר שנתגייר כקטן שנולד

Essentially what Rabbi Yose said is that a proselyte who completed a conversion to Judaism was considered to be born again. The reason that a convert was considered born again was because all familial ties were considered legally annulled. No longer was the proselyte considered to be a child of his biological father, but rather, a child of Avraham and Sarah. Hence, the convert was like a newborn child, i.e. the convert was born again.

However, in order to answer in the affirmative to your question, one would need to prove that this Jewish tradition and practice described in the Talmud existed prior to the composition of the Gospel of John as well as the Petrine epistles. The Gemara was not completed in writing until about 500 A.D. So, it seems the only way one can answer in the affirmative is to assume that the tradition described in the Gemara was indeed practiced several centuries before, even though it had not been described in the Gemara until 500 A.D. In other words, we cannot know for certain.

Of course, although there are similarities between the Gemara and the New Testament in referring to a person being "born again," this does not mean that the New Testament authors understood the regeneration (ἀναγέννησις) in the same way. While there is a quasi change in legal status since Christians are adopted into God's family, the actual regeneration or being born again of a Christian occurs spiritually, and not simply in a legal manner, as in the case of the proselyte. Thus, "being born again" was not a new concept. Nicodemus misunderstood Christ because he assumed Jesus meant he had to be physically born again (i.e., enter his mother's womb a second time). However, Jesus meant a man had to be born again spiritually.


Footnotes:

1 Moshe ben Maimon. Mishneh Torah, Sefer Kedusha, Hilkhot Issurei Bi'ah, Chapter 13, Halakha 4. English | Hebrew

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