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An Oft-Stated Scholarly Factoid about John 3:3 is Not True

 James David Audlin

 

The following text comprises material from the upcoming new edition of The Gospel of  John Restored and Translated, Volume II, as published by Editores Volcán Barú.

Copyright © 2014 by James David Audlin. All worldwide rights reserved.

Reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Editores Volcán Barú.

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The Greek word ανωθεν (anōthen) can mean “from above” or “anew”/“again”. The usual scholarly understanding is that while the references to the πνευμα and the חוּר work equally well in both Greek and Hebrew (since both words have the triple meaning of wind/breath/spirit), the double entendre presented by ανωθεν as meaning either “from above” or “again” only exists in Greek, so this passage would suggest that Jesus and Nicodemus held their conversation in that language. The usual interpretation goes on to say that Jesus intended the word to be taken in the former sense, but that Nicodemus misunderstood him to mean the latter sense, as the next verse shows. This standard explanation of the text is correct, so far as it goes. Though, to be sure, as is often noted, certain sects of modern Christianity still misunderstand the word ανωθεν ironically, just as did Nicodemus evidently did – and thus they still promote today a “born again” theology.GOJ-two vol back vol i lulu

However, it is not correct to say that a double entendre is only possible in Greek, as scholars (Bart Ehrman, for instance, in Jesus, Interrupted) often say. The very early Aramaic versions of the gospel (both the Peshitta and the older Syriac Sinaiticus [the text is missing in the Curetonian Gospels]) have Jesus saying one must be born ܡܢ ܕܪܝܫ (men d’riysh) – the first word, of course, means “from”, but the second word, ܪܝܫ (minus the suffix), is slippery in its significations, as is ανωθεν in Greek, but with a somewhat different range of meanings. In I Corinthians 12:21 it means “the head” (i.e., the body part). In Galatians 4:9,19 it means “again”. It can also mean “origin”, “keystone”, “cornerstone”, and even “end/outcome” in the sense of the Spanish word exito. It also appears in the Aramaic Torah in Genesis 1:1 with a prefix, ܒܪܫܝܬ (b’rishiyt), equivalent to the highly evocative Hebrew noun רֵאשִׁית (reshith; see pages 521 and 933), meaning “in/from the beginning”, with a similar use in the Aramaic versions of Mark 1:1 – and of course in John 1:1, where it is the very first word, consciously recalling Genesis 1:1, taking the place of εν αρχη in the Greek version of the gospel.

All that said, the gospel’s Aramaic text suggests a number of possible interpretations, that we must be born: a: “from the head”, in the sense of ܒܪܫܝܬ in Genesis 1:1, implying that we must be born (or reborn) as a part of God’s Logos, presumably by our decision to align our words and deeds with God’s λογος, God’s overall plan for the universe, so we can enter into the Æon; b: “again”; c: “the beginning”, implying the beginning of the world or of our lives; or d: “the outcome”, implying God’s overall plan again. When the Presbyter was in his mind selecting a Greek word that carries the multiple meanings of ܕܪܝܫ, he wisely chose ανωθεν, whose range of meanings enables the Greek text to record Nicodemus’s confusedly thinking Jesus was saying “again”. But scholars who announce that the ανωθεν pun only works in Greek are guilty of sloppy scholarship. Before you say it, check it!

Option a makes the best sense. Since the word ܒܪܫܝܬ is the Aramaic equivalent to εν αρχη in this gospel, which always refers to the Λογος, I take the phrase here as referring to the Logos as well. Jesus is, I conclude, telling Nicodemus that we must be “born into” the Logos, that we must fully accept it and become a part of it: hence, in the Greek version, we must be “born from above”. Whatever Jesus’s actual intended meaning here, as mediated by the gospel author, he clearly is pointing at our need to be born into the realm of God, the Æon, the greater universe, heaven, wherein is God and those whom God draws thither because they have chosen to live in accordance with the Λογος, the divine plan/order or Logos, mediated by Jesus. Jesus is not saying we should be born again, physically, from our mother, but born anew, in the Logos, with our spouse! This is a reference to the bridal chamber theology that pervades this gospel; cf. pages 384-89, 932-33, and 1009-13.

Both the Greek and Aramaic words are found in this book’s reëstablishment of the original text, and the translation of the Aramaic follows the lead of John 1:1, which the Aramaic of this verse clearly implies.

In conclusion we see that, while in Greek the double entendre is that εν αρχη can mean either “from above” or “again”, in Aramaic a similar double entendre is possible: the word ܒܪܫܝܬ clearly is meant by Jesus as referring to the logical priority (αρχη) of the Logos, but Nicodemus could take the Aramaic word, too, as meaning “again”, as in Galatians 4:9,19. Note also that Jesus speaks of ανωθεν to Pilate in 19:11, forming an inclusio with this passage.

Early in these commentaries it should be noted that we always must approach these early Aramaic versions of the gospel with care. Yes, Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic, but Galilean Aramaic was somewhat different from this later church Aramaic. These Aramaic versions may have been translations from the Greek (as Western scholars insist) or original texts of which the Greek is the copy (as Eastern scholars aver), and it can only be guessed whether they are closer to the original manuscript of this gospel than the Greek. But they are in Aramaic, and Jesus spoke Aramaic, at least with everyone except foreigners.

This discussion raises the question whether Jesus spoke with Nicodemus in Greek or Aramaic. They were both Jews, and thus one would expect them to be more likely to speak in either Aramaic or even Hebrew. Still, this Nicodemus, certainly if he was Nicodemus ben Gorion (see the biographical notes beginning on page 480) was a seasoned, well-educated, and worldly man at the same time that he was a “teacher of Israel” and a Sanhedrin member, and spoke Greek as easily as his native tongues. To support this, it may be noted that his name as given in the text is a Greek variant on an Aramaic name. And Jesus (despite the common Christian belief that he came out of very humble origins and had little if any education) was the same: he was from a well-connected patrician family, and also was a quite well-educated rabbi. I conclude that the conversation could have been in either language, and the two men could just as easily have slipped back and forth between the two, as I have many times heard multilingual residents of Canada, Europe, and Latin America do.

 

Jesus’s Vine and Horace’s Branches

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What follows is a addition to The Gospel of John, my restoration of that original text, free from the later interpolations and excisions of the organized Christian religion, and translated afresh from the Greek. Ordering information here, but coming soon is the new two-volume edition!

Commentary on John 15:1-6 – Jesus shows his agrarian roots not in drawing this analogy, since it appears in the prophets (cf. Isaiah 5:1-10), but by amplifying it with knowledgeable references to the husbandry of grape vines. The Greek word καθαιρω means both “to prune” and “to clean(se)”, so there is something of a double entendre in these verses. A farmer carefully prunes grape branches that are bearing much fruit, so they bear even more, and in the same way, in this analogy, the Word (again, the word Λογος, suggesting God’s plan for the entirety of creation) that Jesus brings prunes away or cleanses anything that is dross in those who accept that plan, such that they are fruitful.

The Latin poet Horace (65-8 B.C.E.) often refers poetically to the husbanding of grapes, for instance these lines from his second epode:

Adulta vitium propagine
Altas maritat populos …
Unutilisque falce ramos amputans
Feliciores inserit.

He weds the tall poplar
To the productive vine; …
With his knife he cuts out useless branches
And grafts better in their place.

There are but scant suggestions that John the Presbyter, clearly well versed in the Greek classics, was at all familiar with the Latin masters; the only other I have found is a possible reference to Vergil in chapter 20. If it was not Horace himself in the gospel writer’s mind as he shaped Jesus’s speech, it may have been any of several Greek poets; pastoral verse of this sort was not uncommon. I am not at all implying that Jesus’s comments here were made up by the Presbyter by borrowing from classical poets, but rather that, as ancient poets often did, he found reflections of Jesus’s greatness in the classical works he knew and loved, which he knew would also be known to and loved by many of his potential readers, and which he would have believed, in a manner typical of his day, proved not just the validity and immortality of Jesus’s teaching, but that it came from God.

This passage from Horace suggests a possible alternate understanding of Jesus’s metaphor. Horace speaks of wedding the vine and the tree together: without the branches of the tree to hold up the vine, the latter cannot flourish. Of course, wedding metaphors permeate this gospel, finding their rootage in the Tanakh’s frequent analogy of the covenant between God and the Israelites as a marriage. If 15:1-6 is read in that light, then the branches of which Jesus speaks are not tendrils growing out from the mainstock of the vine, but rather the branches of a tree which hold up the vine, which enable it to live and produce fruit, and which make it and its fruit visible to the entire world, like the “serpent of Moses” (3:14). And the tree in question would be, symbolically, the Tree of Life (which is the same as the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil), the tree that also appears in Revelation 2:7 and 22:1-2.

Building on this reading, Jesus is saying his disciples bear Jesus’s fruit indirectly, inasmuch as they like tree branches bear and lift up the fruiting vine, and they cannot bear fruit by themselves, but only if they stay with the vine (15:4). And he is saying that those who live by his teaching will make it possible for the vine to bear fruit well into the future – but that any tree branches which fail to hold up the vine are cut away and burned in the fire (15:6). This interpretation not only carries the gospel’s frequent marriage motif and the motif of lifting up Jesus so he is visible to the world, but it also alludes to the Paraclete: this gospel, which is the promised Paraclete as discussed elsewhere, is the means by which followers of Jesus can all him to “abide in them”, keeping him ever alive and ever before the world. And the fruits of this vine are the fulfillment of the Λογος, the plan of God, the vintner in this metaphor.

Curiously, the Persian Diatessaron has Jesus say in 15:1 not “I am the true vine”, but ﻣـاـن ﺩـرـاـکــحــطى ﻣـوـاﯽ ﺭـاـثــطـى ﺭـاـثــطـى (man dirakht-i mīva-yi rāstī). This has been rendered into English as “I am the tree of the fruit of truth” (Craig D. Allert) and, adhering more closely to the word-for-word meaning, as “I am the fruit-tree of truth” (Robert Murray, from the Italian of Guiseppe Messina). However, a careful rendering of the suffixes has the Persian saying “I am the fruit of the tree of truth”. This version of 15:1, as an obvious reference to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil forbidden to Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:17), supports the conclusion above, based on Horace’s poetry, that Jesus was speaking of himself in terms of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This Diatessaron is a thirteenth century version of a now-lost very early Syriac text that retained many readings from Tatian’s original second century Diatessaron, the original text of which is, but for a couple of small bits, known only in part from quotations in later writers. (A diatessaron is a single work that draws together the four canonical gospels into one narrative.) With at least one link in the chain of copies lost, we cannot know whether this version of 15:1 comes from Tatian, or a later scribe of extremely unusual inventiveness in his handling of what was by then sacred scripture not to be edited. Yet there is a chance that this Persian version preserves an extremely early text from the Cæsarean family of manuscripts, even earlier than the Syriac Sinaiticus, one close in time and text to Tatian’s Diatessaron – in short a very early text originating in the nearest circle to John the Presbyter’s original manuscript.

And both the Syriac Sinaiticus and the Peshitta seem to support the Persian (the only other early Syriac manuscript, the Curetonian Gospels, is missing the final chapters of John). In those versions the beginning of 15:1 reads: ܐܢܐ ܐܢܐ ܓܦܬܐ ܕܫܪܪܐ (“I I the vine of truth”). There is no apparent reason for the repeated “I” (pronounced enā or ănā), raising a near certainty of a scribal error here, since the Aramaic word for “fruit”, ܐܒܐ (ebā), easily could have been misread and miswritten as ܐܢܐ. If this probable error is repaired, the phrase reads “I am the fruit of the vine of truth”, which is so close to the Persian version that the shift from “vine” to “tree” could be just an accident in the shift from Aramaic to Persian. The word for “fruit” is a homonym in pronunciation and spelling of ܐܒܐ, ABA, the word for “father” that appears in the second half of this verse (ܘܐܒܝ ܗܘ ܦܠܚܐ; “my father is the laborer”), so an early scribe may have misunderstood ܐܒܐ as meaning not “fruit” but “father”, making the sentence seem to read “I am the father of truth and my father is the laborer”, and he then corrected the apparent dittography of “father”. Strengthening this analysis is the fact that in verse two an entirely different word from ܐܒܐ is used; though this word, ܦܐܪܐ (peryā) is usually translated as “fruit”, it is closer to the English noun “produce”. As noted above in reference to the Greek, the Aramaic of 15:4 also speaks of tree branches that cannot bear the fruit of the vine by themselves, but only if they hold up the vine. The meaning is clear: these texts have Jesus saying that we must lift up Jesus and his teaching, just as trees lift up the fruit-bearing vine in Horace’s image; if we fail to do so, we will be taken away by the husbandman, the father.

All this is so impressive that it seems quite likely that Horace suggests, and the Persian Diatessaron and the Syriac Sinaiticus point to, the now-lost original reading. But, since there is no solid textual support for what is ultimately just a conjecture, I include the Persian-Syriac versions of 15:1-2 as alternate readings in my translation.
This last parabolic teaching in the Last Supper discourse appropriately echoes the first and last of the gospel’s seven miracles, that of the water turned wine and that of the fruiting grains. It thus emphasizes Jesus’s central teaching in the gospel that if we choose to be part of God’s Λογος we will bear much fruit and live into the Æon; but, if not, we will be “pruned away”. In this metaphor, Jesus means to say I AM, God, is the mainstem of the vine, and provides the lifegiving loving sap/blood that gives us life and envigors our souls, and it is for us to turn that sap into the fruit of love, and Jesus serves (like all prophets) as mediator/means for the nourishment of God to fill us.