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“A Teacher” or “The Teacher”? (John 3:10)

What a difference an article can make! This is an example of one of those subtle uses of the article that can often be missed, and is also an example of why we need to do our exegesis and translation looking at the bigger picture.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, either because that is when rabbis study, or because he did not want others to know. In the case of the latter, it would give us the best example in the NT of the genitive of kind of time; Nicodemus came as one who comes in the night (νυκτὸς).

He addresses Jesus with some politeness in v 2: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God.) Note the anarthrous διδάσκαλος; “a” teacher. It isn’t clear how sincere Nicodemus is; but after all he did come, so we should give him some credit.

Any credit we give him, however, quickly diminishes. Jesus says he must be born again (γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν). We know γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν could also be translated, “born from above,” and that the Aramaic (if Jesus were in fact speaking Aramaic) does not carry the same ambiguity as the Greek. Therefore, we must assume Jesus said “born again,” or there is no explanation for Nicodemus’ response.

Nicodemus responds, “How can (μὴ δύναται) a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter into his mother’s womb and be born a second time, can he?” The only way I know to read that is as sarcasm, and the initial μὴ at least confirms Nicodemus expected the answer to be “no.”

This then becomes the backdrop for v 10. “Jesus answered, saying to him, ‘Are youthe teacher (ὁ διδάσκαλος) of Israel and you do not understand these things?’” There can be no question (in my mind) that the article is Jesus’ sarcasm looking back to the anarthrous “teacher” in v 2. Nicodemus politely says Jesus is “a” teacher; but when Nicodemus does not understand the necessity of a spiritual rebirth, Jesus questions his status as “the” teacher, an authoritative rabbi.

Why all the translations don’t pick this up is a bit of a surprise. The ESV does (and I don’t remember if that was at my insistence of not) as does the NET and NASB. Neither the RSV or NRSV have “the,” and neither does the NIV (“You are Israel’s teacher”). The HCSB lists “the” as an alternative translation. The NLT’s expansive “You are a respected Jewish teacher” may be a reflection of the article, as is the TEV’s “You are a great teacher in Israel.”

Even a rabbi apart from the working of the Spirit should have understood from the OT that we do not move smoothly into the kingdom of God, but that we must experience the transforming work of God’s Spirit.

My recommendation: stay away from polite sarcasm. It might come back on your head.