In John 3:5, Jesus says that we must be "born of water and the Spirit".

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. John 3:5 (NASB)

In English, it is ambiguous as to whether this refers to one birth (of water and Spirit), or two births (one of water, and the other of Spirit). What I would like to know is, in the original Greek, is it more clear whether Jesus is referring to separate births, or a single one?

I realize that this is a near duplicate of What does it mean to be “born of water”?, but I am specifically interested in the ambiguity of this phrase in the original Greek, and not the various interpretations of this passage.

I'm looking for an answer that analyses the Greek, and concludes whether this phrase is ambiguous in Greek also, or tends toward either a single or separate births.

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    Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics—Stack Exchange! This is an excellent distinction and a good test of our tagging system. We can always use more thoughtful questions. – Jon Ericson Mar 14 '12 at 16:51
  • Greek studies seldom do justice to the text since the original words of the Gospels were said in Aramaic and Hebrew. – user498 Mar 28 '12 at 14:43

ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ

It honestly requires some interpretation which means that, ultimately theology will come into play as one selects a translation.

It could be a hendiadys ("one through two") which expresses one concept through two terms, and many interpreters understand it as such.

There are some who perceive them as separate concepts, though.

Both nouns are anarthrous in the Greek, and are impersonal so GS (Granville-Sharpe's rule) does not apply.

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    καὶ seems to mean a lot of different things in Greek. (Like Good morning!) I'm not enough of a Greek student to know what "GS" stands for. Can you enlighten me? – Jon Ericson Mar 14 '12 at 16:58
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    So sorry about that. My sloth is showing. "GS" is Granville-Sharpe's rule. καὶ takes on many meanings. My Greek professor has this saying, "καὶ means 'and', it can also mean 'also,' it can even mean 'even.'" The importance of καὶ is how it coordinates what it's surrounding - and there are many ways in which that can happen. – swasheck Mar 14 '12 at 17:15

The Greek for the passage in question goes like so:

John 3:5
γεννηθη εξ υδατος και πνευματος
born of water and spirit

The grammatical construct used in 3:5 is fairly rare in Johannine literature. Below are probably the best parallels (but also see John 1:14 and 2 John 3):

John 4:23
προσκυνησουσιν τω πατρι εν πνευματι και αληθεια
worship the Father in spirit and truth

John 20:17
αναβαινω προς τον πατερα μου και πατερα υμων
ascending to my Father and your Father

1 John 5:6
ελθων δι υδατος και αιματος
come by water and blood

Each of these cases follows the pattern of verb-prep-noun-kai-noun. And in each instance we have here it seems best to understand a singular action described in two modes. Jesus isn't saying in 4:23 that worshipers must worship the Father in spirit and then come back later and worship him in truth. Likewise, Jesus isn't ascending in 20:17 to his own Father and then later ascending to Peter's father. And again, in 1 John 5:6, John, whatever he means, probably he does not mean that Jesus came once by water and then he came again by blood. Instead, there were two aspects of his one coming.

However, you can see from 20:17 that the Greek grammar allows for an ambiguity. We easily understand this to mean a single ascension because Jesus' Father and the disciples' Father are one and the same. But if they were two different fathers and they were not in the same place, the same grammar could be used to convey two different ascensions. The context controls our interpretation, as it should in John 3:5 as well.


This answer agrees with Soldarnal's, but I think this is an even stronger argument. The context of the whole discussion is that he is talking about regeneration; he is telling Nicodemus that even though he knows the Scriptures inside and out, he has to have a radical supernatural change before he will understand. Too often verses in this passage are interpreted in isolation (verse 16, for example, is talking about regeneration rather than justification). Born of water refers to the cleansing aspect of the rebirth (referencing the Jewish cleansing ceremonies); born of Spirit refers to the agent who brings about the rebirth. Thus, it is indeed a parallelism, and a hendiadys; the referent of "born" is the same in both cases, though their qualifiers add information.

  • could you please be more specific about what you mean by verse 16? Which chapter and which book? – crazyTech Jan 23 at 15:29

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