What did Jesus mean?
First of all, this conversation wasn’t in Greek, but rather in Hebrew. Looking at the Hebrew gospels, we find a slightly different meaning. Jesus’ words, “yivvaled ish milma’ǝlah” are often translated as “born again”, however the word ma’alah in Hebrew means “above”. Apparently, Jesus used a well-known Hebrew expression, ‘born from above’. What did that mean?
The 1st century meaning
We often find the expression “reborn” in Rabbinic literature – for instance, describing Israel after receiving the Torah. However, in the first century it was mostly used to describe the process of becoming a proselyte. A Gentile would turn away from pagan gods to the God of Israel, be circumcised (if male) and finally, go through waters of a mikveh. When he emerged out of the water, he was considered as being ‘reborn’, or ‘born from above’.
Discover the Jewish background
Many Gentiles made this crucial choice in Jesus’ times: they were ready to abandon their former lives for the people and the God of Israel. Jesus seems to refer to the experience of those proselytes – for Him, being ‘born from above’ means turning to God and His Word, following His ways and His commandments.