Study Bible notes are helpful: A case study of the Wind-Spirit play-on-words in John 3:8

Study Bibles with reference notes have become very popular in the last few decades. While the common refrain of “my Bible says in the notes . . . ” has derailed many group discussions, Bible study notes do more good than harm. These notes often provide helpful cultural or linguistic information to help modern readers understand the author’s intended meaning. One example of this benefit is found in Jesus’ well-known interaction with Nicodemus in John 3.

John 3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the solemn truth, unless a person is born of water and spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 3:6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 3:7 Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must all be born from above.’ 3:8 The wind blows wherever it will, and you hear the sound it makes, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (NET Bible)wind wheat

Those who have not studied Greek usually do not realize that in
this passage the English word “spirit,” “Spirit,” and
“wind”are translations of one Greek word: pneuma.
In Koine Greek, pneuma was a word with a very large semantic range. In Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, “pneuma”occupies 119 pages![1] In Greek, pneuma could refer to several things like: the wind, a person’s inner disposition, breath, the breath of life, a supernatural being, and the Spirit of God.

In John 3:8, the first occurrence of pneuma carries the sense of “air in movement . . . wind.”[2]  This use is attested in the Septuagint,[3] Josephus,[4] and Philo.[5]  In the New Testament, however, John 3:8 is the only instance of a NT author choosing pneuma with the meaning “wind.”  (Hebrews 1:7 uses pneuma for wind but this occurrence is a quotation of LXX Psalm 104:4.) John the Evangelist’s unusual choice of pneuma argues for understanding pneuma as an intentional word-play.

Another piece of evidence for intentional word-play is that John 3:8 begins with pneuma (with the meaning “wind”) and ends with pneumatos (with the meaning “Spirit”). Τhis beginning and ending of a thought with the same word is called an inclusio. An inclusio is a rhetorical device that ties its contents closer together. In this case, the inclusio contains the comparison between the actions of the wind and being born of the Spirit.  Using pneuma for both wind and Spirit increases the power of the metaphor. The movement of the wind helps us understand the movement of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit brings “birth from above.”The Spirit’s work of rebirth is not centered in human initiative, but has an “other” origin, destination, and power – like the wind.

The word-play is lost in English when pneuma is simply translated “wind.”  However, “wind” is the best English equivalent because the verb to blow (pneo) reinforces the sense of wind and the physical event of moving wind carries the metaphor. Nevertheless, the author’s use of pneuma is unusual since all other New Testament writers prefer other terms (usually anemos) when referring to wind. Again, this atypical use argues that John intended this word-play.

In this instance, Bible notes provide very helpful information for a linguistic phenomenon that is difficult to translate. In English one needs to translate the first occurrence of pneuma in 3:8 with “the wind,” and the second occurrence as “Spirit,”but there needs to be a note of qualification. The NET Bible, for example, provides such a qualification in its translator’s notes, alerting the reader to the word-play. The NET Bible’s approach seems the best way to convey the full intended meaning that is intrinsic to the word-play. The close connection between meaning and linguistic structure should be highlighted in some way since that was the author’s intent, and Bible notes provide such a way.

John 3:8 provides just one example of how Bible notes can help readers understand the meaning of the text, even if they lack knowledge of the original languages. These notes are not inspired or canonical, and they need to be consulted with an understanding that many things are unknown and debated. But when used properly, study Bibles and translation notes can help contemporary readers incorporate important linguistic and cultural contexts into their interpretations.

[1] Schweizer, “pneumaTDNT 6:332-451.

[2] BDAG 832.

[3] Gen 8:1; Ex 15:10; Num 11:31; 1 Kings 19:11; Ps 10:6; 47:8; 103:16; 104:4; Ecc ;  Job 30:15; Hos 4:19; Is 11:15; Jer 4:11., et al.

[4] Ant. 8:346;  12:75; 14:28; 16:17

[5] De opificio mundi  1:58, 113, 131. De vita Mosis 1:41, 179: just a few of the many examples of pneuma as wind in Philo’s works.


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