Introduction: An Enigmatic Figure
The Gospel of John focuses on the revelation of Jesus as the Father’s Son, and stresses the necessity of believing in him in order to receive life. In the process of revealing who Jesus is, the Fourth Gospel chronicles the interactions he has with several minor characters, and in so doing displays the different responses that people have to the works and character of Jesus.
Of all the minor figures John introduces, few have been emphasized and written about as often as Nicodemus. Nicodemus is found nowhere else in the Bible and appears only three times in John. His first and longest appearance is in John 3:1-21, where he has a brief conversation with Jesus but seems to be incapable of understanding any of Jesus’ teachings. He is mentioned a second time in John 7:45-52, and this time raises a legal question to ensure that Jesus is treated fairly when the chief priests and Pharisees want to have him arrested. Nicodemus appears a final time in John 19:39-41, where he helps Joseph of Arimathea prepare the body of Jesus for burial.
Based on these three appearances, it is generally agreed that the portrayal of Nicodemus in John’s Gospel is supposed to be significant, but commentators disagree sharply as to what the significance is or exactly how Nicodemus should be characterized.
This paper will examine the words and actions of Nicodemus in the scenes in which he appears, and in the process, the conclusion which John wants his readers to draw concerning Nicodemus will become clear.
John 3:1-21: A Night of Confusion
We are first introduced to Nicodemus in John 3:1, which describes him as “a man of the Pharisees” and “a ruler of the Jews.” Although some scholars also suggest allusions to Nicodemus in the Talmud and in rabbinic tradition, these claims are more interesting than they are conclusive, and ultimately, most of the biographical information we have about Nicodemus comes from this one verse.
John’s classification of Nicodemus as a Pharisee seems to immediately portray him in a negative light, as even a cursory reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus and the Pharisees did not get along. However, this initial characterization is perhaps diminished by the fact that, unlike his colleagues, Nicodemus came to Jesus with what appears to be a genuine interest in and openness to his teachings. As a Pharisee, Nicodemus would have been a man of some influence, and as a “ruler of the Jews”, he would have likely been a member of the Sanhedrin.
The next verse tells us that Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night”, and is a source of much debate among scholars. Those who draw more favorable conclusions about Nicodemus usually contend that the expression is simply a reference to the time of day or that Nicodemus was just visiting Jesus at the period of day that was best suited for theological discussion. However, the fact that Nicodemus specifically came “by night” is important enough to the Evangelist that he repeats it when he describes Nicodemus in John 19:39, and that indicates a deeper level of significance to the nocturnal nature of Nicodemus’s visit. It has also been suggested that Nicodemus visited Jesus at night in order to keep his visit secret from the other Pharisees, but D.A. Carson likely has the best interpretation when he says that based off of the other uses of “night” in the Gospel of John, the word always seems to be used metaphorically for moral and spiritual darkness, and in this context, suggests that Nicodemus came to Jesus at a time when he was spiritually in the dark.
Nicodemus begins his discussion with Jesus by addressing him as “Rabbi”, and then proceeds to explain that he knows that Jesus is a teacher from God because of the signs that he is able to perform. John 3:10 indicates that Nicodemus was a teacher of some distinction himself, and his use of the term Rabbi and acknowledgment of Jesus being from God shows his respect for Jesus, even if it does fall short of a full recognition of who Jesus was.
Regardless of how Nicodemus comes across to this point, scholars are in general agreement that for the rest of the dialogue in John 3, he does not fare well, as he appears to be completely unable to understand what Jesus tells him. When Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:3 that one must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God, Nicodemus takes him literally, and cannot understand how a man can physically be born a second time. After Jesus explains this teaching more fully, Nicodemus’s only response in John 3:9 is to ask, “How can these things be?” which prompts Jesus to rebuke him for being a teacher of Israel and yet failing to understand basic teaching. Paul Julian suggests that Nicodemus’s interaction with Jesus is doomed to failure from the beginning because he tries to define who Jesus is using his own predetermined criteria, and Terence Donaldson takes this line of reasoning a step further, saying, “Even though he seems to want to understand, the point of the story seems to be that as a Pharisee, a leader of the Jews, and a teacher of Israel, he is almost by definition unable to understand.” At this point, the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus becomes a monologue, as Jesus continues to speak and Nicodemus fades into the background.
Ultimately, when all the evidence from the first appearance of Nicodemus is taken into account, it seems clear that he is not really a believer at this point. He distances himself from the other Pharisees by coming to Jesus, he is impressed with the signs that Jesus has performed, and he is openly curious about him and his teachings, but he also appears to be so baffled by those teachings that for now he remains, from a spiritual standpoint, in darkness.
John 7:45-52: A Voice of Reason
After his evening discussion with Jesus, Nicodemus exits from the narrative of the Fourth Gospel, and does not reappear until John 7, at the end of an episode where Jesus’ teachings at the Feast of Tabernacles have prompted the chief priests and Pharisees to try to arrest him. When the officers return empty-handed, implying that there is something special about Jesus, the Pharisees rebuke them and decry the supposed ignorance of the common people who do not know the law.
As a Pharisee himself, Nicodemus is present in this gathering, and in John 7:51, raises a question in Jesus’ defense when he asks, “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” This question, in addition to exposing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees violating their own law immediately after criticizing the common people for being ignorant of it, also serves to draw the collective ire of the Pharisees against Nicodemus. The Pharisees respond toward Nicodemus in a mocking fashion in John 7:52, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” The learned and respected Pharisees once again display their own ironic ignorance, and at the same time attack Nicodemus by implying that he too must be a follower of Jesus.
What are we to make of Nicodemus’s second appearance in the Gospel of John? Predictably, scholarly opinion is divided. Margaret Beirne argues that this is a positive scene for Nicodemus, and points out the growth that he displays, saying, “Now he is seen to speak with a degree of courage, wisdom and precision not evident at his first appearance.”
On the other hand, some scholars downplay Nicodemus’s role in this passage, by first noting that John 7:50 associates Nicodemus with the Pharisees, describing him as “one of them”, and then also claiming that by speaking out in John 7:51, he is just upholding a legal principle in order to seek a fair trial rather than making any statement about his belief in Jesus. However, such views really miss the point. Certainly Nicodemus is a Pharisee, and also as a likely member of the Sanhedrin Council, is accurately classified as “one of them”, but the weight of the passage emphasizes how Nicodemus is different from the rest of the Pharisees, rather than how he is like them. Furthermore, even if Nicodemus’s defense of Jesus is motivated more by a desire to uphold the law rather than his own personal faith in Jesus, the fact that Nicodemus is willing to give Jesus a fair hearing at all shows an open-mindedness on his part that speaks well for him and distinguishes him from the rest of the Pharisees.
If Nicodemus’s scene with Jesus in John 3 shows him to be little more than a curious man who is completely baffled by Jesus’ teachings, his appearance in John 7 seems to show improvement on his part: whether or not he has come to a full understanding of who Jesus is, he is willing to speak out publicly on his behalf, an act which he undoubtedly knew would draw criticism from his peers.
John 19:38-42: An Act of Devotion
Nicodemus makes his final appearance in John 19, following the death of Jesus, where he assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing Jesus’ body for burial. All four of the Gospels relate that Joseph went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body, but only John relates that Nicodemus was also involved, that he brought 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes, and that along with Joseph, he bound the body of Jesus in linen cloths with the spices according to Jewish burial customs.
As is the case with his other appearances in the Gospel of John, scholars are divided as to the implications of Nicodemus’s actions in this passage.
For those who believe that Nicodemus ultimately falls short of being a disciple of Jesus, this passage supports their view in three ways.
First, much is made of Nicodemus’s association with Joseph, who is identified in John 19:38 as being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one due to his fear of the Jews. Alan Culpepper suggests that the characterization of Joseph can be applied to Nicodemus as well, and that together, they are representative of those who refuse to publicly stand for Christ because they are afraid that they will be put out of the synagogue, and that ultimately, Nicodemus “remains, therefore, “one of them,” not one of the children of God.”
Secondly, it is also argued that Nicodemus’s role in the burial of Jesus, although indicative of a certain respect he has for Jesus, also expresses the inadequacy of whatever faith he had. Marinus de Jonge is representative of this view, and says that “…Joseph and Nicodemus are pictured as having come to a dead end; they regard the burial as definitive.” Basically, the suggestion is that their roles in the burial suggest that Joseph and Nicodemus have no expectation of Jesus’ resurrection and therefore cannot really be true disciples.
A third negative argument from this passage stems from John’s description of Joseph and Nicodemus burying Jesus according to the burial customs of the Jews. From this reference, Bassler argues that whatever distance Joseph and Nicodemus are portrayed as having from their Jewish colleagues is somewhat negated by the care they show in adhering to Jewish burial customs: “Even when defined most clearly as disciples, they remain firmly rooted in their Jewishness. The link with the “Jews” in this pericope is a disturbing but ambiguous element.”
However, all of these arguments have clear problems. First, for Nicodemus’s association with Joseph to be a negative one, the testimony of the Synoptics has to be completely ignored. There, rather than being regarded as some type of inferior semi-believer, Joseph is described in Matthew 27:57 as someone “who had himself become a disciple of Jesus”, in Mark 15:43 as a man “who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God” and “took courage and went to Pilate”, and in Luke 23:50-51 as a “good and upright man” who had not consented to the Sanhedrin’s plan to kill Jesus. Furthermore, when properly considered, Joseph’s actions clearly contradict the secretive nature of the discipleship that he previously participated in. As Carson points out, asking Pilate for the body of Jesus would have certainly made Joseph an outcast from the Sanhedrin, and the fact that Joseph and Nicodemus would have had servants helping them with the burial would have prevented it from being anything but a public act. In light of the apparent public nature of the act of burial and the testimony of the Synoptics, what seems most likely is that John is pointing out the contrast between Joseph’s former “secret discipleship” and the public act of devotion he now displays. If we are now meant to associate Nicodemus with Joseph, then it clearly seems to be a positive association.
Secondly, the argument that Nicodemus’s actions with regard to the burial of Jesus prove that he misunderstands that Jesus will rise from the dead and somehow invalidate his faith is easily dismissed. After all, John 20:9 clearly indicates that Peter and the “beloved disciple” did not understand the resurrection until after Jesus appeared to them. Surely if this lack of understanding does not invalidate their faith, it should not be held against Nicodemus either.
Finally, the argument that Joseph and Nicodemus burying Jesus according to Jewish customs somehow carries sinister connotations seems entirely baseless. After all, Joseph and Nicodemus were Jews; if they were going to bury someone, according to what other customs would they do so? In the context of the passage, the reference to Jewish burial customs makes more sense to explain the use of the immense quantity of spices brought by Nicodemus rather than to in some way remind readers that Nicodemus is not really a true disciple.
When these arguments are removed a more positive reading of the passage emerges where Nicodemus is portrayed as a man who, though once a secret disciple, has now shed his inhibitions and courageously shows his devotion to Jesus publicly. As F. F. Bruce points out, the massive amounts of spices brought forth by Nicodemus suggest a royal burial, but to Nicodemus, that is exactly what Jesus deserved. To Nicodemus, Jesus “…was in fact what the inscription on the cross had proclaimed him to be in mockery—‘The King of the Jews.’”
Conclusion: A Believer’s Journey to Faith
As we have seen, each of Nicodemus’s appearances in the Gospel of John are interpreted differently, depending on whether or not the interpreter believes that Nicodemus ultimately came to belief in Jesus. Based on these differing interpretations, some scholars propose that the character of Nicodemus is intentionally meant to be ambiguous, but that viewpoint only makes sense if the opposing interpretations of Nicodemus are equally valid. Is that the case?
Simply put, no. Although Nicodemus certainly appears out of the darkness as a mysterious figure in John 3, his subsequent appearances clarify who he is, as each scene portrays him in an increasingly positive light: from a respectful but utterly confused teacher of Israel in John 3, to a fair-minded man willing to stand up to a hostile group of his peers in John 7, to a mourner who by his actions publicly declares his allegiance and devotion to his crucified King in John 19.
In the end, Nicodemus’s role in the Gospel of John is clear, as the Evangelist uses him as an example for all “secret” believers who cannot make up their minds about Jesus: the man who came to Jesus by night has now entered into the light that is manifested in him.
Jouette M. Bassler, “Mixed Signals: Nicodemus in the Fourth Gospel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (December 1989): 635; Richard L. Rohrbaugh, “What’s the Matter with Nicodemus? A Social Science Perspective on John 3:1-21,” in Distant Voices Drawing Near: Essays in Honor of Antoinette Clark Wire, ed. Holly E. Hearon (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2004), 145.
It is difficult to tell how much of John 3:11-21 is spoken by Jesus and how much is from the narrator, and, therefore, how much is meant to be directed specifically to Nicodemus. Some scholars consider only John 3:1-10 to apply to Nicodemus, see R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 134.
Marinus de Jonge, Jesus, Stranger from Heaven and Son of God: Jesus Christ and the Christians in Johannine Perspective (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1977), 29. De Jonge is representative of this perspective and points out that the narrator’s remarks in John 7:50 and 19:39 which tie those appearances to the first in John 3 indicate that the three instances are meant to be considered together.
All biblical references in this paper are taken from the English Standard Version.
Richard Bauckham, “Nicodemus and the Gurion Family,” in The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 137-72. Bauckham devotes an entire chapter of his book to exploring the references in rabbinic traditions to a Jerusalem aristocrat named Naqdimon (Nicodemus) ben Gurion. Based on repeated family names, Bauckham believes this man to be a family member (probably a nephew) of the Nicodemus described in the Gospel of John. Also, Bauckham mentions another rabbinic tradition that refers to a man named Naqqai, who is described as one of five disciples of Jesus. Bauckham identifies this man with John’s Nicodemus.
Gabi Renz, “Nicodemus: An Ambiguous Disciple? A Narrative Sensitive Investigation,” in Challenging Perspectives on the Gospel of John, ed. John Lierman (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2006): 260.
F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 81: “The Pharisees…exercised an influence on the general public out of all proportion to their numbers.”
Some commentators simply state Nicodemus’s membership in the Sanhedrin as fact, see Paul Julian, Jesus and Nicodemus: A Literary and Narrative Exegesis of Jn. 2,23-3,36, (Frankfurt: Lang, 2000), 72, 74. Bruce, 81, mentions specifically that it is the wording of John 3:1 that implies that Nicodemus was actually a member of the Council.
F. P. Cotterell, “The Nicodemus Conversation: A Fresh Appraisal,” The Expository Times 96 (May 1985): 238-39; Bruce, 81.
Patricia Farris, “Late-night Seminar,” Christian Century 119 (January 2002): 19; Karl Barth and Eduard Thurneysen, “Jesus and Nicodemus,” in Come, Holy Spirit, trans. George W. Richards, Elmer G. Homrighausen, and Karl J. Ernst (New York: Round Table Press, 1983), 106.
D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary Series (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 186: “Doubtless Nicodemus approached Jesus at night, but his own ‘night’ was blacker than he knew.”
Bruce, 87: “The description of Nicodemus as the ‘teacher of Israel’ implies that he had some standing among the rabbis of his day.”
Rohrbaugh, 153, disagrees with the assumption that Nicodemus is just misunderstanding what Jesus is trying to teach him, and argues instead that Jesus is intentionally confusing him by using a “Johannine anti-language” which underscores that Nicodemus is an outsider, and not part of the group: “…in the Nicodemus episode, the function of the language is not to reveal but to obscure.”
Terence L. Donaldson, “Nicodemus: A Figure of Ambiguity in a Gospel of Certainty,” Consensus 24 (January 1998): 122-23.
Raimo Hakola, “The Burden of Ambiguity: Nicodemus and the Social Identity of the Johannine Christians,” New Testament Studies 55 (October 2009): 441.
Bassler, 640; Severino Pancaro, “The Metamorphosis of a Legal Principle in the Fourth Gospel,” Biblica 53 (1972): 361.
Guy N. Woods, A Commentary on the Gospel According to John, (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1981), 160-61, mentions that Jonah was from Galilee (2 Kings 14:25), and that Elijah possibly was as well (1 Kings 17:1).
Bassler, 640, notes that this should not be taken as confirmation that Nicodemus now believes in Jesus: “…[A]lthough the Pharisees immediately accuse Nicodemus of being a Galilean, a label that is tantamount in this Gospel to that of believer, such an epithet on the lips of those notorious for poor judgement (v.24) does not constitute a solid confirmation of Nicodemus’s status in the Gospel.”
Margaret M. Beirne, “Nicodemus and the Samaritan Woman,” in Women and Men in the Fourth Gospel: a Genuine Discipleship of Equals, (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2003), 95.
de Jonge, 36, “Nicodemus’s remark does not deal with Jesus’ teaching and acts as such; he only emphasizes the legal requirement that the accused should be granted a proper hearing.” Also, Donaldson, 123.
A fundamental characteristic of the Pharisees in the Gospel of John is that they are so closed-minded that they are incapable of giving Jesus a fair hearing. This can be seen clearly at the end of John 9, when after healing the man born blind, Jesus calls the Pharisees blind because they are unable to see the sign as evidence of who Jesus is. Nicodemus’s defense of Jesus, if not motivated by faith, at the very least shows an openness to who Jesus is that distances him from the rest of the Pharisees in a fundamental and profound way.
Carson, 629, mentions that 100 litrai of spices was actually less than 75 pounds, and would be closer to 64.45 pounds.
de Jonge, 34.
Julian, 77, makes an interesting argument emphasizing the degree of Nicodemus’s devotion to Jesus, pointing out that the handling of Jesus’ body would have made Nicodemus unclean and would have prevented him from celebrating the Passover. This would have been another indication of the public nature of Nicodemus’s actions in John 19. As Julian explains, “Nicodemus has cut himself off from his fellow Pharisees and members of the Sanhedrin for the greatest celebration of the year, and that to respect the body of Jesus….”