EDIT : I appreciate that there may be some overlap with another question but I am seeking a definitive answer regarding the word ανωθεν and I cannot accept that it means 'again' in one place and 'from above' in another nor do I think that the plurality expressed in one place can be ignored.

The word conveys a concept and I am seeking to grasp that concept. Once the concept is grasped, it is relevant in every one of the thirteen places in which the word is used in scripture.

So I ask for latitude on this occasion that one might arrive at a satisfactory conclusion which will hold good for all usages of the word.

A previous question brought up the subject of ανωθεν, anwthen, which is an interesting and yet perplexing little word.

Except a man be born again ... John 3:3 [KJV] (Also in John 3:7)

'Again' translates the word ανωθεν.

(There is a previous question about being born again, referencing John 3:3 but the question does not cover this one nor do the answers answer it.)

  • 'Again'

Galatians 4:9 makes it doubtful that ανωθεν can possibly mean simply 'again' since Paul writes παλιν ανωθεν, which both words the KJV translators render as one word 'again'. They do not venture to translate both words, it should be noted, since παλιν means 'again' (thusly over 140 times in the New Testament) and they have already translated ανωθεν as 'again' (in John 3:3 and 3:7) so they avoid giving us 'again again', by just giving us 'again' for the two words.

If ανωθεν meant simply 'again' would Paul write παλιν ανωθεν ? it has to be asked.

  • Plurality

In John 19:23, John writes εκ των ανωθεν (translated 'from the top' by KJV) in relation to Jesus' garment for which soldiers gambled.

των is genitive, since that is what the preposition εκ requires. But, remarkably, των is plural.

Therefore, in this place, ανωθεν must be plural !

(Note : this place is dealing with material, presumably the warp and the weft are in view and 'woven throughout' refers to the weft, so does the plurality refer in some way to the multiple strands of the warp ? ?)

  • 'απο ανωθεν'

απο ανωθεν, apo anwthen, is used twice (Matthew 27:51 and Mark 15:38) both times in relation to the rent veil, and it would seem that this collocation might well mean 'from above' or 'from the top'.

  • From the First

Acts 26:5 and Luke 1:3 both contain the word and it has been translated, in these places 'from the first' in relation to Jews knowing Paul and in relation to Luke's original acquaintance with certain facts.

  • From Above

Five other texts contain the word and these instances might well be translated by 'from above' :

John 3:31, John 19:11, James 1:17, James 3:15, James 3:17.

I have here listed all thirteen places in which ανωθεν occurs in the New Testament scriptures and I am interested to discover how this word should be rendered coherently such that we can properly understand Jesus' words in John 3:3 -

'Except a man be born _______'

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    Despite your claim that this question is distinct from the duplicate, I disagree. If you are trying to focus on the word's meaning across all of these texts and not specifically in John 3:3, then this question is too broad and thus still off topic. – Dan Feb 24 '18 at 14:32
  • @Dan As I pointed out in the question, neither that question nor its answers deal with the meaning of ανωθεν. – Nigel J Feb 24 '18 at 14:32
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    Disciplined hermeneutics also understand context and why one author's use of a term in a specific context can't necessarily be taken into another. – Dan Feb 24 '18 at 14:36
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    Then ask about John 19:23 (and only 19:23 -- not about every use of it in the New Testament by different authors in different contexts). – Dan Feb 24 '18 at 14:39
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    Not to mention, it's an adverb, not a noun (ἐκ τῶν ἄ. ὑφαντὸς διʼ ὅλου = woven from the top in one piece; i.e., altogether without seam). This is more or less a parenthetical remark from the author about the tunic (χιτὼν) and has little to no bearing on how to interpret the word in 3:3 (again, context matters). – Dan Feb 24 '18 at 14:45

This was a subject of a couple commentaries by Greek Church Fathers. Some of these are not that well received today, as they suggest that perhaps Jesus did not quite mean "born again" in John 3:3, but rather "born from above".

A footnote in the English translation of Theophylact's commentary on John explains:

The two basic meanings of the Greek word ἄνωθεν are: "from the top, from above"; and "from the beginning." It is frequently used in the New Testament to mean "from heaven." (See verse 31 later in the same chapter: He that cometh from above [ὁ ἄνωθεν ἐρχόμενος] is above all; he that is of the earth is earthly.) It is clear that Christ is speaking of spiritual birth from above, from heaven, and from God, and that Nicodemus misunderstands Him to mean being born physically a second time. In the Gospel text in verses three and seven of this chapter [3], we have used born from above, which is a literal translation of the meaning intended by Christ.1

John Chrysostom, in his 34th Homily on John, explains:

The word “again” [ὁ ἄνωθεν] in this place, some understand to mean “from heaven,” others, “from the beginning.” “It is impossible,” saith Christ, “for one not so born to see the Kingdom of God”; in this pointing to Himself, and declaring that there is another beside the natural sight, and that we have need of other eyes to behold Christ.

Theophylact expands on Chrysostom's comment here:

Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

Nicodemus is astounded by these words which transcend all human teaching, and asks, with a weakness characteristic of human nature, "How can this be?" This is a sure sign of disbelief: it is the skeptic who objects, "Why is this?" and "How is that?" Christ's words appear ridiculous to Nicodemus because he was not thinking of spiritual birth, but birth from a mother's womb. When he heard the words Except a man be born from above [ἄνωθεν], he understood ἄνωθεν to mean "from the beginning, a second time." He thought Christ was saying, "Unless a man be born a second time." This is why he asks, How can a man ... when he is old ... enter the second time into his mother's womb? Two things perplexed Nicodemus here: spiritual birth and the kingdom of heaven, concepts which the Jews had never even heard of. To enlighten Nicodemus, the Lord explains how spiritual birth takes place, saying, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.2

You asked questions on other verses that I don't think I am prepared to comment on, but I wanted to at least address your title question.

1. Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. John (tr. from Greek; Chrysostom Press, 2007), pp.48-49n
2. Ibid., pp.48-49

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  • Many thanks. Up-voted. This goes some way towards a full answer and is helpful. – Nigel J Feb 24 '18 at 4:25

Both meanings can be put both grammatically and semantically.

In fact, the non-physical new birth that is related to those "which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13) is both to be born again and to be born from above, because "above" is a Biblical metaphor for the dwelling place of God (the "dwelling place" being also a metaphor, for God is beyond place and time).

Now the "born of God" of the John 1:13 is semantically absolutely the same as "a man be born ἄνωθεν" of the John 3:3 and "born of the Spirit" of the John 3:5, and since Spirit's dwelling place is also "above", for He is God's inseparable Spirit who issues from God (John 15:26) and who knows all depths of God (1 Cor. 2:10) (the epistemological equality entailing the ontological equality as well, so that Spirit is no less God than the Father), then one can freely translate ἄνωθεν "from above", or, since this birth is a new birth, or 'again-birth', then translation can go also as "born again", as it is understood and worded by no less an authority as St Paul, who calls the birth of the new creation through baptism (2 Cor. 5:17) a "birth again", παλιγγενεσία (πάλλιν - again, γενεσία - birth) (Titus 3:5). This option is taken by few authoritative ancient translators, like, e.g. Vulgate (denuo).

James uses the ἄνωθεν unequivocally as the "above" (with exclusion of the notion "again") when contrasting the two wisdoms - one divine, from "above", and another earthly, from "down" (James 3:13-18); now the "good fruits" (καρπῶν ἀγαθῶν) which we have through this ἄνωθεν σοφία, are the very same "fruits of the Spirit" of which Paul speaks in Gal. 5:22-23, and thus, since to be "born anew" means to bear those fruits through the divine, "from above" (ἄνωθεν) wisdom vouchsafed to us by the Spirit, then perhaps the "birth from above" is even a better and finer option for translators, than the "birth again".

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  • What of the plurality in John 19:23 ? – Nigel J Feb 24 '18 at 14:30
  • I guess your interpretation is quite reasonable: it was a seamless chiton knit by the Virgin Mary from up to down and since on the uppermost, the neck level there would be many stitches/loops of a knitted fabric, then plurality can be explained as simply as by that sheer fact. Another thing is to give multiple symbolic-metaphoric interpretations to it afterwards (like unity of plurality of Trinity etc.), but literal meaning always should precede any metaphor. – Levan Gigineishvili Feb 24 '18 at 17:03
  • Just to add: it is the same as one says "scissors", or "eye-glasses" etc. in plural, for even though an object is one, it entails an ostensible plurality; similarly here, ἐκ τῶν ἄνωθεν must indicate that the uppermost level of the chiton entailed an ostensible plurality also, thus, being one, was worded as plural nevertheless; or even, not only the uppermost part, but as being knitted it had many levels, hierarchical lines of loops, so that also can well explain the plural of ἄνωθεν. – Levan Gigineishvili Feb 24 '18 at 17:15
  • I am still striving to grasp the word ανωθεν. Whatever is true of it in this place, John 19:23, is also true wherever it is used. So a plurality exists, for sure. Then that plurality is carried elsewhere. Interesting. – Nigel J Feb 24 '18 at 17:18
  • I do not think that meaning of the one passage (John 19:23) can be synecdoche-like transferred to all other passages, for there is a polysemy in this word, similar to the preposition μετά, which can mean both "after", and "beyond", thus creating an ambiguity for instance in interpreting Arisotle's "μεταφυσισικά" as a) "after the book of physics" in study curriculum, or b) "beyond physics" as a subject matter relating to a non-physical intelligible reality of the Unmoved Mover, or c) both together. ἄνωθεν has the similar ambiguity, not necessarily exclusive, but complementary as the μετά. – Levan Gigineishvili Feb 24 '18 at 18:36

In his commentary on John 3:3, C.K. Barrett states (emphasis added):

ανωθεν is capable of two meanings and here it probably has both. It may mean "from above", but also "afresh", "again". The birth which is required here is certainly a second birth, but it is not (see v. 4) a mere repetition of man's first birth, but a begetting from above, from God.1

The discourse with Nicodemus should be taken in light of the main theme of the Prologue:

But to all who did receive him, who believed in His name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13) [ESV throughout]

John begins the Gospel by identifying three different types of "first" births and states a person who did receive Him or who believes in his name has the right to become a child of God (a second birth) by the will of God. This is contrasted with three types of physical birth: bloods, the will of the flesh, the will of man. These three types correspond to the three general classifications in which all humans may be placed. A person is either a Gentile or Jewish and if Jewish, a person may be Levite.2 These three may be aligned with the three types of birth John lists:

  • Bloods (Levites)
  • Will of the flesh σαρκὸς (Jewish)
  • Will of man (Gentile)

Thus all humans, whether born Gentile or Jewish or Levite are given the right to become children of God. The birth process for the children of God is not described in the Prologue. Rather it stands as a logical question coming from the assertion people have the right to become a children of God:

If the first birth was of bloods or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, what is the process by which the person who exercises their authority becomes a child of God?

If becoming a child of God is a present reality and not a future event and if the present reality includes being left in the world (not taken immediately to God), then the (only) answer is rebirth by the will of God. Therefore children of God are born again and from above as Jesus explains to Nicodemus using the word ανωθεν (John 3).

John later includes a statement describing a fifth type of lineage:

You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)

Unless the meaning of being born of the devil is the same as being born of bloods or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, this person has also been born again. The difference is they were not been born again (ανωθεν) from above (ανωθεν). They have been born again (ανωθεν) from below:

He said to them, “You are from below; I am from above3. You are of this world; I am not of this world. (John 8:23)

Thus when speaking of a person being born again (ανωθεν), it is necessary to examine the context to determine whether ανωθεν means again from above or again from below and the OP's assertion it must always mean either again or above cannot be sustained (which is also evident from the the use in Matthew 27:51 and Mark 15:38).

Galatians 4:9
The two words παλιν ανωθεν used together in Galatians are not "again again." Rather as the Darby translation shows there is a fundamental difference between again παλιν and again ανωθεν:

but now, knowing God, but rather being known by God, how do ye turn again to the weak and beggarly principles to which ye desire to be again anew in bondage? (Darby)

The distinction reflects human actions which may be done repeatedly:

Again (πάλιν) he entered the synagogue, and a man was there with a withered hand. (Mark 3:1)

Jesus can enter the synagogue again and again and again and Jesus could have said "unless you are born again πάλιν..." However, this type of "again" is associated with human actions which may be repeated many times.

The use of ανωθεν in John is purposeful to distinguish an action by God (from above) which only God can repeat (birth) from actions by men which are repeated πάλιν many times, such as entering the synagogue.

Most scholars accept John was written after Paul. If this is the case, John can be used to elucidate the phrase παλιν ανωθεν:

but now, knowing God, but rather being known by God, how do you turn again (πάλιν) to the weak and worthless principles of the world? Do you desire to again (πάλιν) be born again (ανωθεν) into bondage (that is from below doing the desires of the devil)?

1. C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, S.P.C.K., 1962, pp. 171-172
2. This does not mean a Levite is not Jewish. It recognizes a biological distinction within the group. Just as the LORD established a distinction between Gentiles and descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, He established a distinction within the descendants of Jacob. In doing so He established three distinct groups for all humans as John states.
3. Above here is ἄνω not ανωθεν: Jesus is from above (ἄνω) and from before (ἄνω).

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The dual meaning of this word is probably intentional and the translation in the Syriac Peshitta preserves both. A dual meaning would match Jesus' encounters with other people in the gospel of John, such as the woman at the well in John 4. The woman responded as if the water from Jesus was literal, then Jesus explained his meaning of water in a spiritual sense. The word with a double meaning in the account of the Woman at the Well is πηγή meaning both well and spring. In that account the double meaning is obvious.

3:3 ἄνωθεν (again, ESV) – If one looks at how this word is used in the Septuagint, it means from above. It translates מִלְמַ֔עְלָה (above) or a similar combination of prepositions meaning from and to combined with the root of the preposition עַל meaning upon, over, on account of, above, to, against. One would think that ἄνωθεν should be translated from above rather than again except that Paul uses ἄνωθεν in Galatians 4:9 to clearly mean again. The ambiguity of meaning is a common practice in John’s gospel, but it is unlikely that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus in Greek. He more likely spoke to him in the Aramaic influenced Hebrew of Judea at that time. Nicodemus seemed to understand the term as again. Did Jesus also use an ambiguous term? In both Delitzsch’s translation of the New Testament into Hebrew and 1976 United Bible Society translation of the New Testament into Hebrew, they translated ἄνωθεν as מִלְמַ֔עְלָה meaning from above. Both translators translate ἄνωθεν in Galatians 4:9 as מֵחָדָשׁ which is the preposition from added to the noun חָדָשׁ (new). This doesn’t give us a common Hebrew term. However, the Peshitta (the Syriac version of the Bible in AD 150 – 250) uses a word (ܕ݁ܪܻܝܫ) with the same root as רֹאשׁ. Words based on this root mean the head, the beginning and the top. This Hebrew word is used for the top of the ladder reaching to heaven in Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:12). The word is used for the beginning of the year to express the Hebrew New Year (Rosh Hashanah), i.e. used for new. Thus, this indicates there is a possible Hebrew term that has the ambiguity of ἄνωθεν. The word ἄνωθεν is used for the top of the curtain in front of the Holy of Holies in Matthew 27:51.

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  • Could you quote your source, please ? This appears to be pasted from a source since it is not taking any account of what I have detailed in my question. For example you fail to deal with παλιν ανωθεν ('again, again' ?) in Galatians 4:9 and you have not explained the plurality in John 19:23. – Nigel J Feb 24 '18 at 3:27
  • It is a personal unpublished commentary on the Gospel of John I'm working on. If I quote from electronic books on my computer, it automatically adds the source information. – Perry Webb Feb 24 '18 at 14:37
  • Understood. But if unpublished it is not yet peer reviewed and cannot be accepted as a valid source. So one still needs to quote valid reference from accepted sources. – Nigel J Feb 24 '18 at 17:12
  • The reference in the Peshitta is: ܥܢܳܐ ܝܶܫܽܘܥ ܂ ܘܶܐܡܰܪ ܠܷܗ ܂ ܐܱܡܺܝܢ ܐܱܡܺܝܢ ܐܴܡܰܪ ܐ̱ܢܳܐ ܠܴܟ݂ ܆ ܕܷ݁ܐܢ ܐ̱ܢܳܫ ܠܴܐ ܡܶܬ݂ܻܝܠܷܕ݂ ܡܶܢ ܕ݁ܪܻܝܫ ܆ ܠܴܐ ܡܶܫܟܱ݁ܚ ܕ݁ܢܶܚܙܶܐ ܡܰܠܟܾ݁ܘܬ݂ܷܗ ܕܱ݁ܐܠܴܗܳܐ ܂ Kiraz, G. A. (2002). The Peshitta (Jn 3:3). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software. – Perry Webb Feb 25 '18 at 0:01
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    Thank you. It was not I who down-voted you, btw. – Nigel J Feb 25 '18 at 0:26

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