Saturday, April 19, 2014


Re-born of Spirit 


In a painting from the German art historian and theologian Benita Joswig, a human figure appears. Not clearly male or female, this figure rests in a prayerful pose, draped in a blue robe. Is this Mary's robe? And are we seeing here into her womb to get a glimpse of Jesus? The white shape is startling. It looks like a windowpane that was painted and is now scraped away revealing a hand. A hand blessing or calling, receiving or beckoning. Shall we follow? We ask: How can anyone be born after having grown old?


How can anyone be born after having grown old? The Gospel of John relates embryology and birth several times. And this topic is deepened in the conversation with the Jew, Nicodemus, in the third chapter. Nicodemus asks if one, being older, is able to enter a second time into the maternal womb or abdominal cavity (the term koilia cannot be clearly defined) in order to be born. In a word play Jesus replies that one must be born of water and of spirit. In ancient medical understanding, spirit nourishes the embryo and causes the unborn to develop and grow. And as water, amniotic fluid is expelled when the amniotic membranes are ruptured during birth. So born out of water and spirit would refer to giving birth.


Theologically speaking, John elaborates here on the meaning of being born of water, saying that the one born of flesh is flesh. In making this distinction, he separates what belongs together in birth from a medical perspective, water and spirit. And also what belongs together in birth from a Jewish perspective, water and spirit. The tenses in chapter 3 are making it clear that the passage has a provisional perspective. Nicodemus is born of flesh, but he may be re-born of spirit.


This is indicated at the end of the Gospel in John 20:22: After Jesus is resurrected, Jesus breathes (emphysao) the Holy Spirit into his disciples. This is a special breath. With this spirit, the topic of embryology is taken up again, because it is again a term which is used in ancient embryology and signifies bringing to life, being born through spirit. It is now remarkable that early Syrian writings interpret this baptismal act also in an embryonic way: baptism is in the majority of Syrian texts conceived as birth, and the baptismal water is seen as womb. Therefore we find in many Syrian texts up to the third century the invocation of the spirit as mother.


Here the link strengthens between embryology (being in the womb of a mother) and pneumatology (the idea of spirit). Jesus as the relayer of this breath becomes akin to a mother with child. Perhaps Nicodemus sees that he should know and understand (oida), but doesn't quite experience it yet. The seeing, knowing, and being born of the spirit are formulations as conditions of possibilities. But not to worry, he will be born. And the time of not knowing isn't wrong. It's a part of a formation process as in the womb. This promise has been transformed in a command in John 20:22: Take this spirit!


We are currently living in a time of promise: Let's follow the invitation of this hand which is calling us to search for the stage of being re-born. If you were to start again, if you were to be born anew, what would you do differently? What is it you are looking for that you would have wanted to insert in your life? And what is stopping you from doing that now?


Dr. Benita Joswig, artist, art historian and theologian, died 2012 in Heidelberg.

Ich werde Dich in lebendiger Erinnerung behalten!

Dr. Annette Weissenrieder  

SFTS Associate Professor of New Testament
Jenna Meyers
SFTS M.Div. Intern