In the Fourth Gospel John the Baptist's final testimony contrasts his mission with that of Jesus. In particular he notes the origin of his calling and Jesus' origin:

27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven...31 He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. (John 3) [ESV]

John refers to his own call as "from heaven" (οὐρανοῦ) and Jesus comes "from heaven" (οὐρανοῦ). Both statements follow the Prologue: John was sent by God (cf. 1:6-8) and Jesus was with God (cf. 1:1-2). However, in speaking about Jesus, John uses different words to describe where He is from:

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.

ἄνωθεν ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν ὁ ὢν ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐκ τῆς γῆς ἐστιν καὶ ἐκ τῆς γῆς λαλεῖ ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν

ἄνωθεν also means again, which makes sense when applied to Jesus, who is from heaven and will come again. Since John uses οὐρανοῦ, heaven, for both himself and Jesus, it seems more likely he uses ἄνωθεν to mean "again." This also explains the verb ἐρχόμενος, literally, "coming:"

“The One coming again is above all. The one being from the earth is from the earth and is speaking from the earth. The One coming from heaven is above all. (DLNT)

Following "the one coming again is above all" is, ὁ ὢν, the Divine Name in Exodus 3:14:

“The One coming from-above is above all, The One Who Is...
ὁ ἄνωθεν ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν ὁ ὢν...

John's final testimony about Jesus would be: The One coming again, The One Who Is, The One coming from heaven.

Is "again" a better understanding of ἄνωθεν and is it possible John is also saying the One coming again is ὁ ὢν?


2 Answers 2


The Greek adverb ἄνωθεν (anothen) is a notoriously slippery to translate. BDAG lists four separate meanings:

  1. from above, eg, Mark 15:38, Matt 27:51, etc
  2. from the beginning, eg, Luke 1:3, Acts 26:5
  3. for long time, Luke 1:3, Acts 26:5
  4. again, anew, Gal 4:9, John 3:3, 7.

the word only occurs 13 times in the NT, five in the Gospel of John and three in John 3, which are among the most contentious. Indeed, BDAG suggests that while John 3:31 means "from above" as suggested by ἐπάνω πάντων (above all) and the later explicit mention of ὁ ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ ἐρχόμενος ἐπάνω πάντων ἐστίν· (= the one who comes from heaven is above all); however, BDAG further remarks that:

be born again John 3:3, 7 ... is designedly ambiguous and suggests also a transcendent experience born from above

I strongly agree. [This would make the meaning of ἄνωθεν consistent at least in this chapter.]

Now back to the OP's question: Might ἄνωθεν mean "again" in John 3:31. All versions I checked translate it "from above" - I found no exceptions. Thus, John 3:31a is translated: The one who comes from above is above/superior all.

By contrast, the OP suggests: The one who comes again is above all.

Which is correct? The force of John 3:31 is to contrast the heavenly origin of Jesus (from above) with the mere terrestrial origin of humans. Thus, if the One (Jesus) is the one who come again (rather than from above) then the sentence takes on a sudden, unexpected and uncontextual eschatological message and thus makes no sense.

The only other place where ἄνωθεν unambiguously means "again/anew" is Gal 4:9 which is strengthened by the presence of πάλιν (= again).

In John 3:31 the meaning of "from above" is a play on words between ἄνωθεν and ἐπάνω (better or superior) and thus gives a double indenture of "above" in the sense of both status and place (from heaven).

The context also makes this clear. John's testimony is about Jesus in the present tense not future tense (no future tense is used here.) John is contrasting Jesus divine origin with his own lowly status as a preacher from earth.

  • I agree that Gal 4:9 is the only occasion when 'from above' 'from the first' is not, immediately apparent. But I would suggest that the presence of palin is the sole presence of the meaning 'again'. The addition of anothen adds another concept. Thus : why turn ye again (palin) to be again (palin) under bondage from above (anothen) : is the meaning. But +1, nevertheless.
    – Nigel J
    Aug 11, 2020 at 11:45
  • Nice work. Do you have an opinion on attaching ὁ ὢν to the first statement rather than the second? Also I think the extent of the Baptist's testimony is more than present. It is present as is given by John, but it speaks to Jesus' preexistence, and so is also past. In the Prologue "He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me," comes after embodies two truths: Jesus comes after (John starts baptizing) and after John's death (the Second Coming). Given John's insight to the identity of Jesus, I see no reason to discount his knowledge/understanding of the future event... Aug 11, 2020 at 16:38
  • Semantically, if John wanted to say "again" is there some other way to do that? Regarding the tense, the present participle is how Jesus characterizes His return when He speaks of it (cf. Matthew 24:30, 26:64; Mark 13:26, 14:62; Luke 21:27). Again I do not think it is completely accurate to eliminate the Baptist’s understanding of the future event. Aug 11, 2020 at 16:38
  • 1
    @RevelationLad - Good questions. The future tense are in Jesus' mouth in John 14:3, "I will receive you". πάλιν = "again" is most unambiguous. ὁ ὢν is cannot be associated with anothen because it already has a subject in the opening of the verse. ὁ ὢν must be associated with with what come after, namely "from the earth".
    – Dottard
    Aug 11, 2020 at 21:32

When you quoted from the ESV, did you notice that the speech of John the Baptist ends at verse 30:

30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Verses 31-36 is a comment by John the Evangelist. He often makes such author comments in his gospel, and we see the same earlier in chapter 3, where the speech of Jesus ends at v. 15 and the Evangelist comments on this from 16-21. Unfortunately, ESV did not recognize that the speech of Jesus ends at 3:15. The old NIV was also mistaken, but it has been corrected in the newer NIV form 2011.

The problem arises from the fact that the original Greek text did not use quotation marks, so one has to look at the Greek connecting words like GAR (which often introduces a background comment. It is not a logical connector meaning "because", but an explanatory connector meaning "you see") as well as the kind of words used. If we look at verses 35-36, it is not difficult to recognize the Evangelist speaking:

35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. 36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.

It is true that the Greek ἄνωθεν is ambiguous and can mean either again or from above. It is a bit like English "Let us take it from the top" meaning "let us start again." However, Jesus would not have spoken Greek to Nicodemus as quoted in 3:3. The ambiguity in Greek does not correspond to a similar ambiguity in the Hebrew speech of Jesus, so in John 3:3 the word means "again" rather than "from above", and this also fits the context. This is clear from verse 4 where Nicodemus echoes the words of Jesus and says

Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?

So, the answers to your final questions are: No, and No.

  • If Jesus spoke in Hebrew and there was no ambiguity in what He said, then why did John use ἄνωθεν which means again/above instead of ἄνω which means only above (as in 8:23)? Dec 20, 2020 at 23:09
  • Have you ever translated from one language to a very differnet language? John chose the best word that covers the Hebrew, and it is a coincidence that the Greek word has a wider range of meaning than the Hebrew. That is why context is crucial for correctly understanding a word. Dec 21, 2020 at 7:19
  • Do you believe Jesus' words in John 8 were spoken in Hebrew? Dec 21, 2020 at 7:31
  • Probably, since we now know that the rabbis of that time used Hebrew for their Torah discussions. Of course, they also spoke Aramaic and probably some Greek. In both John 3 and 8:21ff he spoke to learned Jews. But it was more public, so possibly Aramaic. You could argue that if John had wanted to express "from above" in chapter 3, he might have used the same words as in 8:23. In that case, it is an argument against "from above" in John 3. Dec 21, 2020 at 7:42
  • I believe there are two issues with your position. First, the passage in Greek uses a word which has 2 possible meanings and that could have been avoided (as it was in John 8). Second, the use of words which have more than one meaning is one of the distinctive aspects of the Fourth Gospel. Sometimes it functions as a misunderstanding which leads to a correct one. Other times as in John 3 άνωθεν is used because the type of birth Jesus is speaking about is both "again" and from "above." So Jesus' repetition of the word can be understood as born again from above. Dec 21, 2020 at 8:05

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