Commentaries are often immensely helpful. They are helpful for elucidating the meaning of the text—or, at least laying out possible meanings. They are often helpful at explaining the details of what is found in the original languages, as well. The task of elucidating the meaning of the text and elucidating the meaning of the original language often goes hand in hand. Sometimes, though, commentators say odd things. They have been known to be inventive about the so-called “rules” of Greek when it is convenient. Every now and again, you come across a commentator making an assertion about how Greek functions that supports their point and sounds pretty convincing. But all is not always what it seems. In studying John 3.1-10 recently, I ran across just one of these instances. The commentary? Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, by Charles H. Talbert.


To begin, I want to state upfront that Talbert’s commentary is stimulating in many ways. While it is beholden to various scholarly movements whose validity is debatable—the Johannine school as the producer of the Gospel of John, a strong history of religions background leaning on Gnosticism—it is a masterly work concerning the literary and theological themes in John. The quibble I raise here is about a small detail, tucked away in the commentary.

By nature of the literary/theological reading enterprise, close discussion of the Greek text and syntax does not feature in this commentary. The author clearly knows his stuff, but the point of the commentary is not an analysis of the Greek. When discussing John 3.5, though, it proves unavoidable:

The expression “of water and Spirit” is best paraphrased as “of water which is Spirit.” Two arguments support this reading. (1) The construction in Greek is that of two terms joined by “and” (kai) and governed by one preposition. This Greek construction normally points to one act: e.g., Titus 3:5 (“by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit” = “by the cleansing renewal which the Holy Spirit works in regeneration”). If two acts were involved, normally two prepositions would occur (R. Summers, “Born of Water and Spirit,” in The Teacher’s Yoke: Studies in Memory of Henry Trantham [Waco: Baylor University Press, 1964], 117-28; X. Leon-Dufour, “Towards a Symbolic Reading of the Fourth Gospel,” NTS 27 [1981]: 429-56). (2) In John there are two types of references to water: those using water to refer to the lower world (e.g., John’s baptism, 1:33; 3:22; Jewish purifications, 2:6-7; water from the Samaritan well, 4:6-7; troubled water in pool of Bethesda, 5:7), and those using water to point to the upper world (e.g., 4:14; 7:37-39). In John 3:5, “born of water” is contrasted to physical birth (v. 4, 6) and linked with spiritual birth (v. 5); hence, in 3:5 water points away from the lower and to the heavenly world. “Unless one is born of water which is Spirit, one cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”

Charles H. Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, 99

For a point of reference, lets put the Greek text under discussion here:

  • ἐὰν μή τις γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, οὐ δύναται εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ.

The debate is how to understand the relationship of the two nouns in the prepositional phrase ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος, usually rendered something like “of water and spirit.” Talbert thinks this should be “(born) of water which is spirit.” He helpfully breaks his support up into two points: (1) an assertion about how Greek works and (2) an interpretive assertion about how ‘water’ works in John. The impression (1) leaves is that, based on how Greek “normally works,” it is appropriate to take ὕδωρ and πνεῦμα as referring to the same thing. In grammar speak, πνεῦμα is in apposition to ὕδωρ.

The weaknesses

Before being swept away by the clever and interesting interpretation, let’s stop and consider the proposed “normal” pattern in Greek. When we look closer, we will see that even if his claim about how Greek normally works is true, that does not require flattening the distinction between the two nouns in the prepositional phrase.

Does the support support?

First, Talbert points to Titus 3.5 as an analogous instance to prove the point that two terms governed by one preposition depict one “act.” Consider the passage:

  • ἔσωσεν ἡμᾶς διὰ λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας καὶ ἀνακαινώσεως πνεύματος ἁγίου,
  • he saved us through the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.

Talbert argues this means: “by the cleansing renewal which the Holy Spirit works in regeneration.” The sees it—sensibly enough—referring to one act of the Holy Spirit which is characterized through two noun expressions. In traditional terminology, this is called hendiadys (“one through two,” a figure of speech).

The phrase, “God created the heavens and the earth,” is a good example of a hendiadys. Rather than saying, “God created everything that exists,” the phrase the heavens and the earth convey that idea in the combination of the two.

At first blush, Talbert seems to be saying little more than what we find in the grammars:

A preposition is used with the first noun and omitted with the second when the two nouns (whether similar or dissimilar in meaning) unite to form a complex (Smyth sec. 1667b).

Smyth, Greek Grammar for Colleges, sec. 1667b.

The non-repetition of the preposition suggests the two noun phrase elements are being presented as a complex. One complex modifying one predicate can sensibly be described like Talbert does here: the prepositional phrase depicts one “act.” Though this is a sloppy description, it is good enough.

So far, it seems like Talbert is on the right track. The Greek appears to support him like he wants it to.

Note, I am unable to access either of the works Talbert points to for support, so I can’t verify what further clarification or support, if any, they offer to Talbert’s position.

A technical digression

Titus 3.5 is not a good example to compare John 3.5 to. They differ in a significant way in terms of syntax. In John 3.5, we have a prepositional phrase headed by ἐκ with two nouns inside it: ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος. So, one prepositional phrase with two noun phrases in it:

  • Prep Phrase[noun phrase καί noun phrase].

In Titus 3.5, by contrast, we have a prepositional phrases headed by διά with one noun phrase inside it, itself modified by two genitive modifiers. These are adjuncts—they are syntactically unnecessary yet give more information. So, ignoring the rest of the Greek sentence, we have:

  • Prep Phrase[noun phrase[adjunct καί adjunct]].

Stated simply, the core sentence with the core of the prepositional phrase in Titus 3.5 is this: “he saved us through washing.”

Once laid out that way, it becomes evident that Titus 3.5 is not a syntactical analogue to John 3.5. On the assumption that the current form is economizing words and thus avoiding repeating an unnecessary λουτροῦ, we could expand it into two noun phrases with distinct heads, but the result would be:

  • διὰ λουτροῦ παλιγγενεσίας καὶ [λουτροῦ] ἀνακαινώσεως πνεύματος ἁγίου

This is manifestly different from what we see in John 3.5, where we have two distinct noun phrases where any relationship between the heads of the noun phrases needs to be established. Such a formulation, though, would raise a further question: was Paul referring to two different washings of the Holy Spirit and grouping them together as a complex? The way the text stands in Titus 3.5 suggests, I believe, that there is one washing which is characterized by a complex inner-action. Regeneration and renewal form a hendiadys, in traditional terminology, the entire complex of which modifies washing. An appositional reading recommends itself. In either frame of reference, regeneration and renewal likely have little profound distinction in meaning here; they work together as a complex to modify washing.

In my initial reaction to Talbert, noticing this most likely unintentional sleight-of-hand tarnished my picture of his argument. However, to do some of his work for him, we can find a better analogue in 1 Peter 1.2 to support his initial point:

  • εἰς ὑπακοὴν καὶ ῥαντισμὸν αἵματος Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ “for obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ.”

This passage raises its own difficulties, but the syntax is at least analogous to John 3.5: Prep Phrase[noun phrase καί noun phrase]. So, although the text Talbert singles out as support (likely at the guidance of the sources he is leaning on) is a poor parallel, we can find a better parallel and continue on the discussion as we end this digression.

Does the point prove the point?

Having noted that Talbert’s assertion about how this pattern of Prep Phrase[noun phrase καί noun phrase] works in Greek appears on track, we would be wise to consider next if Talbert’s point really proves his point. He is not, after all, arguing that a prepositional phrase with two noun phrases joined by καί functions as a complex in modifying the predicate. He is trying to prove that the nouns within the prepositional phrase of John 3.5 should be taken as essentially redundant, thus opening up an appositional reading of καί. Let’s walk through the claim and the problems with it.

The deeper claim

Talbert’s claim is not that water and spirit function as a complex; he wants to equate water and spirit, that is, to see spirit as in apposition to water. The appositional use of καί is when it reiterates, amplifies, specifies, or summarizes the preceding noun. So, in this case, spirit further specifies water: “water, which is spirit.”

On the appositive use of καί at different syntactic levels, see the helpful discussion by Titrud, “Overlooked καί in the Greek New Testament,” 10-15.

This is undeniably possible. However, Talbert fails to mention a crucial point: unity of “action” does not mean unity of identity. We can see this in short order by looking at a couple examples:

  • Luke 2:34 ἰδοὺ οὗτος κεῖται εἰς πτῶσιν καὶ ἀνάστασιν πολλῶν ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ “Behold this one is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel”;
  • Luke 13:29 καὶ ἥξουσιν ἀπὸ ἀνατολῶν καὶ δυσμῶν καὶ ἀπὸ βορρᾶ καὶ νότου καὶ ἀνακλιθήσονται ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ. “And they will come from east and west and from north and south and they will recline in the kingdom of God.”

Luke 2.34 makes the point eloquently: here the semantic opposites of fall and rise are joined by καί within the same prepositional phrase. “Falling and rising” is pictured as a complex, yet each retains its own identity and meaning.

For this reason, the description in Smyth seems better than Talbert’s description that the preposition with two nouns joined by καί normally points to one “act.” Falling and rising are two manifestly distinct “acts.” What is going on here is that they are functioning as a related complex idea to modify the predicate. In this case, both draw from the semantic domain of (vertical) motion. It would be interesting to see if there are cases where two semantically unrelated nouns are subordinated to the same preposition. Likewise, Luke 13.29 shows opposite directional pairs in the same construction as John 3.5.

These examples illustrate that the prepositional phrase functioning as “one act” (better, serving as a complex modifier of the predicate) does not tell us anything, by itself, about the way the nouns relate to each other. They are viewed as a complex, but that does not trigger an appositional reading. In fact, in these two examples from Luke, an appositional reading is nonsense. Just because there are instances where reading the second noun phrase as in apposition to the first is sensible, does not prove in any way Talbert’s contention that this is what is going on in John 3.5.

Summing things up

Talbert is not necessarily wrong. His proposal seems at least possible. The issue I see in this brief section of comment is that the way he discusses the Greek makes it seem like the “rule” is a strong support for his position, when in fact, it is not. Or, at the very least, it lends ambiguous support. In reality, Talbert’s argument ought to run like this:

  1. It is possible that spirit is in apposition to water in this case, within the allowable patterns of Greek syntax;
  2. In the Gospel of John, all other uses of water belong either to the water below or the water above;
  3. In context, water here must be “from above,” since it relates to the birth “from above.”
  4. Thus, drawing on the literary/theological theme from the entire Gospel, we should take an appositional reading of the nouns in the prepositional phrase in John 3.5: “(born) from water which is spirit”

While I personally find this reading unconvincing, the argument as I lay it out here is at least clear about what is going on. The determining force of the reading is not Greek syntax.

Talbert’s appeal to the Greek seems—at least to me—to doctor the evidence and make it sound like Greek syntax is a firm part of the argument. In reality, his interpretation is driven by a broader reading of the word water in John. A defensible reading on its own two feet, without wishy-washy and misleading sounding appeals to Greek.

Since the ultimate question about whether the Greek supports his interpretation is not whether γεννηθῇ ἐξ ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος presents two “actions” or one, but whether the identity of water and spirit are the same. The syntactic “rule” he appeals to does not provide the support he wants it to. So as to not mislead readers for whom an appeal to “the Greek” ends are possible disagreement, the best way to state his argument would be like what I have just done: Greek syntax allows an appositional reading of ὕδατος καὶ πνεύματος.