In John 3:5, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” There has historically been much scholarly debate over the phrase “born of water and the Spirit.” Was Jesus referring to two births or one birth? Was he referring to baptism?
D. A. Carson, in The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, breaks down the different interpretations and then concludes with his preferred interpretation. Interpretation one:
Noting that v. 6 describes two births, one from flesh to flesh and the other from Spirit to Spirit, some interpreters propose that ‘born of water and the Spirit’ similarly refers to two births, one natural and the other supernatural. Natural procreation is not enough; there must be a second birth, a second begetting, this one of the Spirit. To support this view, ‘water’ has been understood to refer to the amniotic fluid that breaks from the womb shortly before childbirth, or to stand metaphorically for semen.
But there are no ancient sources that picture natural birth as ‘from water’, and the few that use ‘drops’ to stand for semen are rare and late. It is true that in sources relevant to the Fourth Gospel water can be associated with fecundity and procreation in a general way (e.g. Song 4:12–13; Pr. 5:15–18), but none is tied quite so clearly to semen or to amniotic fluid as to make the connection here an obvious one. The Greek construction does not favour two births here. Moreover the entire expression ‘of water and the Spirit’ cries out to be read as the equivalent of anōthen, ‘from above’, if there is genuine parallelism between v. 3 and v. 5, and this too argues that the expression should be taken as a reference to but one birth, not two.
Many find in ‘water’ a reference to Christian baptism (e.g. Brown, 2. 139–141). For Bultmann (pp. 138–139 n. 3) and others who have followed him, this is so embarrassing that he suggests the words ‘water and’ were not part of the original text, but added by a later ecclesiastical editor much more interested in Christian ritual than the Evangelist himself. There is no textual support for the omission. At the other end of the spectrum, Vellanickal (pp. 170ff.) suggests that when the Evangelist received this account there was no mention of water, but that he added it to provide an explicit reference to the rite of Christian initiation. Added or not, the simple word ‘water’ is understood by the majority of contemporary commentators to refer to Christian baptism, though there is little agreement amongst them on the relation between ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’. After all, reference is made in the near context to Jesus’ own baptismal ministry (3:22; 4:1), and John has connected water and Spirit in a baptismal context before (1:33, 34). Moreover John’s alleged interest in sacraments in ch. 6 encourages the suspicion he is making a sacramental allusion here. Many accordingly suggest the Spirit effects new birth through water (= baptism) (e.g. Ferrarro, Spirito, pp. 59–67).
Those who adopt this position, of course, are forced to admit that John’s words could have had no relevance to the historical Nicodemus. This part of the account, at least, becomes a narrative fiction designed to instruct the church on the importance of baptism. What is not always recognized is that this theory makes the Evangelist an extraordinarily incompetent story-teller, since in v. 10 he pictures Jesus berating Nicodemus for not understanding these things. If water = baptism is so important for entering the kingdom, it is surprising that the rest of the discussion never mentions it again: the entire focus is on the work of the Spirit (v. 8), the work of the Son (vv. 14–15), the work of God himself (vv. 16–17), and the place of faith (vv. 15–16). The analogy between the mysterious wind and the sovereign work of the Spirit (v. 8) becomes very strange if Spirit-birth is tied so firmly to baptism. . . .
The entire view seems to rest on an unarticulated prejudice that every mention of water evoked instant recognition, in the minds of first-century readers, that the real reference was to baptism, but it is very doubtful that this prejudice can be sustained by the sources. Even so, this conclusion does not preclude the possibility of a secondary allusion to baptism (cf. notes, below).
A variation on this view is that ‘water’ refers not to Christian baptism but to John’s baptism (Godet, 2. 49–52; Westcott, 1. 108–109, and others). In that case, Jesus is either saying that the baptism of repentance, as important as it is, must not be thought sufficient: there must be Spirit-birth as well; or, if Nicodemus refused to be baptized by the Baptist, Jesus is rebuking him and saying that he must pass through repentance-baptism (‘water’) and new birth (‘Spirit’). ‘To receive the Spirit from the Messiah was no humiliation; on the contrary, it was a glorious privilege. But to go down into Jordan before a wondering crowd and own [his] need of cleansing and new birth was too much. Therefore to this Pharisee our Lord declares that an honest dying to the past is as needful as new life for the future’ (Dods, EGT, 1. 713).
The argument presupposes that John the Baptist was so influential at the time that a mere mention of water would conjure up pictures of his ministry. If so, however, the response of Nicodemus is inappropriate. If the allusion to the Baptist were clear, why should Nicodemus respond with such incredulity, ignorance and unbelief (3:4, 9–10, 12), rather than mere distaste or hardened arrogance? Even if John’s baptism is mentioned in near contexts, the burden of these contexts is to stress the relative unimportance of his rite (1:23, 26; 3:23, 30). If John’s baptism lies behind ‘water’ in 3:5, would not this suggest that Jesus was making the Baptist’s rite a requirement for entrance into the kingdom, even though that rite was shortly to be superseded by Christian baptism? Moreover, as Dods sets out this proposed solution, it is assumed that Jesus is recognized as the Messiah who dispenses the Spirit, but it is far from clear that Nicodemus has progressed so far in his appreciation of Jesus.
Several interpreters have argued that Jesus is arguing against the ritual washings of the Essenes (a conservative and frequently monastic Jewish movement), or perhaps against Jewish ceremonies in general. What is necessary is Spirit-birth, not mere water-purification. But ‘water’ and ‘Spirit’ are not contrasted in v. 5: they are linked, and together become the equivalent of ‘from above’ (v. 3).
Carson mentions other less popular interpretations and then proceeds to offer what he thinks is the most plausible interpretation:
The most plausible interpretation of ‘born of water and the Spirit’ turns on three factors. First, the expression is parallel to ‘from above’ (anōthen, v. 3), and so only one birth is in view. Second, the preposition ‘of’ governs both ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The most natural way of taking this construction is to see the phrase as a conceptual unity: there is a water-spirit source (cf. Murray J. Harris, NIDNTT 3. 1178) that stands as the origin of this regeneration. Third, Jesus berates Nicodemus for not understanding these things in his role as ‘Israel’s teacher’ (v. 10), a senior ‘professor’ of the Scriptures, and this in turn suggests we must turn to what Christians call the Old Testament to begin to discern what Jesus had in mind. . . .
Far more important is the Old Testament background to ‘water’ and ‘spirit’. The ‘spirit’ is constantly God’s principle of life, even in creation (e.g. Gn. 2:7; 6:3; Jb. 34:14); but many Old Testament writers look forward to a time when God’s ‘spirit’ will be poured out on humankind (Joel 2:28) with the result that there will be blessing and righteousness (Is. 32:15–20; 44:3; Ezk. 39:29), and inner renewal which cleanses God’s covenant people from their idolatry and disobedience (Ezk. 11:19–20; 36:26–27).
When water is used figuratively in the Old Testament, it habitually refers to renewal or cleansing, especially when it is found in conjunction with ‘spirit’. This conjunction may be explicit, or may hide behind language depicting the ‘pouring out’ of the spirit (cf. Nu. 19:17–19; Ps. 51:9–10; Is. 32:15; 44:3–5; 55:1–3; Je. 2:13; 17:13; Ezk. 47:9; Joel 2:28–29; Zc. 14:8).
Most important of all is Ezekiel 36:25–27, where water and spirit come together so forcefully, the first to signify cleansing from impurity, and the second to depict the transformation of heart that will enable people to follow God wholly. And it is no accident that the account of the valley of dry bones, where Ezekiel preaches and the Spirit brings life to dry bones, follows hard after Ezekiel’s water/spirit passage (cf. Ezk. 37; and notes on 3:8, below). The language is reminiscent of the ‘new heart’ expressions that revolve around the promise of the new covenant (Je. 31:29ff.). Similar themes were sometimes picked up in later Judaism (e.g. Jubilees 1:23–25).
In short, born of water and spirit . . . signals a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets. True, the prophets tended to focus on the corporate results, the restoration of the nation; but they also anticipated a transformation of individual ‘hearts’—no longer hearts of stone but hearts that hunger to do God’s will. It appears that individual regeneration is presupposed. Apparently Nicodemus had not thought of the Old Testament passages this way. If he was like some other Pharisees, he was too confident of the quality of his own obedience to think he needed much repentance (cf. Lk. 7:30), let alone to have his whole life cleansed and his heart transformed, to be born again.