Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

John 3:1 Now (δέ)

John 2 ends on this note: Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man (ESV).

When John 3 starts, it is common to read a now: Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. The word is translating de, a word that can mean both and and but. So which is it here, and what is the significance?

The significance is whether Nicodemus is one of the people of chapter 2, or whether he is in contrast to them. Was he antagonistic or sympathetic toward Jesus? Specifically, how do you read v 4. How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born? Is that a serious or mocking response?

As is often the case in translation, you cannot determine the proper translation of δέ by looking the word up in a dictionary. Context is always king. So what is the context?

Nicodemus came at night. Either he did not want to be associated with the man who had just cleansed the temple — acted out God's judgment on Judaism — or he wanted uninterrupted time to talk.

He addressed Jesus as Rabbi. This is quite a statement for a trained scholar to make in reference to a totally untrained (at least, formally) man. It implies deference.

Nicodemus is willing to admit the presence of the supernatural in Jesus.

We do know that eventually Nicodemus did become a follower of Jesus.

So what do we do with v 4? Either Nicodemus is being sarcastic, or he is expressing his frustration at not being able to understand Jesus' language. Morris goes even further when he suggests (in his commentary) that Nicodemus did understand that Jesus was calling for a radical new start, and rather wistfully was expressing doubt that a new start was possible.

Either way, it seems to me that Nicodemus was being genuine and sincere, and hence I translate the de as but or now, holding him in contrast to the people of chapter 2. Now is the most neutral translation, which is typical for the ESV.