Wind or Spirit in John 3:8?
Last Sunday, I heard a sermon on being born again which found its inspiration in John 3:1-17. One of the thoughts advanced in this sermon intrigued me in particular. This idea was related to John 3:8, which most modern translations translate with KJV: ‘The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.’ That is to say, the Greek word πνεῦμα has been translated by ‘wind’ when it first occurs in this verse, but with ‘Spirit’ when it is found a second time. Now, in the sermon referred to above, the thought was developed that, with the first employment of the word πνεῦμα, both meanings coincide and constitute a double entendre, suggesting that, here, the Greek word could have both meanings, e.g., ‘wind’ and ‘Spirit.’ Even though both semantic values are attested for this noun (Liddell-Scott entry 33941), I tend to reject the meaning ‘Spirit’ for the first usage of the Greek noun πνεῦμα in John 3:8.
‘The wind blows where it wishes’
To shed more light on the meaning of the phrases τὸ πνεῦμα ὅπου θέλει πνεῖ […] αλλ᾿οὐκ οἶδας πόθεν ἔρχεται καὶ ποῦ ὑπάγει, which KJV translates with ‘the wind bloweth where it listeth […] and thou canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth,’ it may be helpful to look at its origins. In this regard, it is illustrative to accept the idea that John 3:8 paraphrases a certain text or texts from the Hebrew Bible. For instance, Ecclesiastes 3:6 reads:
סֹבֵב הוֹלֵךְ הָרוַּח וְעל־סְבִיבֹתָיו שָׁב הָרוַּח
‘the wind goes around and the wind returns to its going around’
In this text, the idea of the wind turning ’round ‘n ’round on paths untraceable to human beings is expressed. Almost the same words are found in Psalms 78:39, where it says:
רוַּח הוֹלֵךְ וְלֹא יָשׁוּב
‘a breath, going and never returning’
In this latter text, however, the Hebrew word רוַּח could better be translated with ‘breath,’ as it deals with human beings, than with ‘wind,’ e.g., the natural phenomenon. Texts like Ecclesiastes 12:7, however, go to show that within one and the same context (in this case the book of Ecclesiastes), the noun רוַּח, when employed together with the verbs הלך and שׁוב, could mean both ‘wind’ and ‘Spirit.’ Cf. also Psalms 146:4. It appears, thus, that the Hebrew Bible provides evidence for both the meaning ‘wind’ and the meaning ‘Spirit’ for the Hebrew noun רוַּח and, by implication, its Greek counterpart πνεῦμα.
‘So is everyone born of the Spirit’
A second approach to the meaning of the first πνεῦμα in John 3:8 discusses the meaning of the word οὕτως . In this verse, the use of this particle expresses the metaphor or comparison employed. As with all metaphors, a certain phenomenon A is described as being like a certain phenomenon B. It may thus be useful to determine what are the exact values of these two letters. As far as ‘phenomenon A’ goes, it seems clear that the compared entity is ‘everyone born of the Spirit’ (πᾶς ὁ γεγεννημένος ἐκ τοῦ πνεύματος). In what regard is this phenomenon similar to phenomenon B, e.g., the ‘πνεῦμα‘? In the sermon of last Sunday, it was suggested that the ways of the Spirit from which someone has been born anew cannot be traced, just as those of the wind are inexplicable. In other words: it could be said of both the ‘wind’ and the ‘Spirit’ that their ways cannot be understood by mere humans. Thus, the word πνεῦμα could refer to both the ‘wind’ and the ‘Spirit’ in the description of John 3:8.
However, the above explanation fails to do justice to the metaphor employed, as it provides a picture in which the ‘wind’ is like the ‘Spirit.’ Instead, the metaphor developed in John 3 compares ‘everyone born of the Spirit’ to another entity, as has been argued above. To my mind, this entity is to be considered the ‘wind’ as a natural phenomenon, whose movements are inexplicable, but whose sound could be detected. The simile which connects these two entities, is that it is possible to detect whether or not someone has been born of the Spirit, even though the way in which this has happened, is beyond human understanding, just as the wind could be heard, but its movements not traced. By employing this metaphor, Jesus responds to Nicodemus’s literal and perhaps somewhat superficial reaction on Jesus’s words in verse 4.
All in all, it appears to me that the meaning of the first πνεῦμα in John 3:8 should be ‘wind,’ and not ‘Spirit.’ Jesus employs the natural phenomenon of the wind in response to Nicodemus’s seemingly superficial attempt to make sense of Jesus’s words in John 3:4. The metaphor expresses that the way in which someone is born again, cannot be traced, but it can be detected if someone has been born of the Spirit, just as the sound of the wind can be detected, but its ways are hidden for the human eye.