Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
NICODEMUS.—One of the persons mentioned only in the Fourth Gospel. He is described as a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews. He had an interview with Jesus by night (John 3:1 ff.); and though he did not become an avowed disciple, he protested in the Sanhedrin against the hasty condemnation of Jesus (John 7:50 f.); and after the Crucifixion he brought spices to embalm the body of the Lord (John 19:39).
The name Nicodemus is Greek (from νίκη and δῆμος—‘conqueror of the people’). Josephus (Ant. xiv. iii. 2) gives Nicodemus as the name of an ambassador from Aristobulus to Pompey. In the Talmud we have the form נַקְדִּימו̇ן as the name given to a certain Bunai ben Gorion, because, it is said, of a miraculous answer to his prayer. This hen Gorion was a rich man, and is reported to have spent a vast sum on the marriage of his daughter, who afterwards sank into abject poverty. He appears to have had charge of the supply of water to the pilgrims at Jerusalem; and he was accused of being a Christian. Some have identified this man with the Nicodemus of the Gospel; but the positive grounds of identification are insufficient; and there is the negative consideration that ben Gorion is spoken of as living till the siege of Jerusalem, whereas Nicodemus, already in John 3 an elderly man (γέρων, John 3:4), could hardly have survived to so late a period. Some writers, who regard the Fourth Gospel as un-historical, suggest that our Nicodemus is simply a typical character, constructed by the Evangelist from the traditions of ben Gorion, with the aid of the Synoptic references to Joseph of Arimathaea. Thus E. [Note: Elohist.] A. Abbott (Ency. Bib. art. ‘Nicodemus’) says: ‘Nicodemon ben Gorion passes into the Gospel under the shadow of Joseph of Arimathaea’; and speaks of ‘a conflate development of Joseph into two persons.’ He says that N. ben Gorion was one of three or four who were sometimes called βουλευταί, ‘rich men,’ ‘great men of the city,’ and suggests that as an official provider of water he was an appropriate character for a dialogue on regeneration, He concludes that Nicodemus is ‘a Johannine conception representing the liberal, moderate, and well-meaning Pharisee, whose fate it was to be crushed out of existence in the conflict between Judaism and its Roman and Christian adversaries.’ This reconstruction can hardly be persuasive except to those who on other grounds have already judged the Fourth Gospel to be without historic value. The general discussion goes beyond the limit of this article. It is enough to say here that there is nothing in what is related of Nicodemus, or in the circumstances of his connexion with Jesus, which is in itself improbable, or out of harmony with what we are told elsewhere. It is altogether probable that some men of the upper classes and of the Pharisees would be attracted by the personality and teaching of Jesus, and that they would seek with varying degrees of caution to know more of Him. To a certain extent the Synoptics confirm this (cf. Luke 7:36; Luke 8:3; Luke 19:5). We may add that the personality of Nicodemus stands out clearly in spite of the brevity of the reference to him. The protest in the Sanhedrin shows the same blending of courage with caution as the interview by night. There was a sufficient sense of truth and justice, and of personal interest in Jesus, to enable him to risk the anger of the majority by a protest, but enough of caution or timidity to put the protest into an indirect and tentative form rather than into a bold defence of the Master. The personality of Nicodemus and the conduct ascribed to him do not weaken the case for the historic credibility of the Evangelist.
It has been urged with some measure of plausibility that the conversation in John 3 bears the marks of artificial construction. It is said that it is really a brief sermon by the Evangelist, and follows the regular plan of the Johannine discourses:—a pregnant saying by the Master; a remark by an interlocutor who misunderstands the text by taking it literally and not spiritually; then a further exposition by the speaker: the whole being ‘a thoroughly artificial construction on a set plan’ (Gardner, A Historic View of the NT, sec. vi.). There is a very general agreement that the discourses in the Fourth Gospel owe something of their form to the Evangelist. Differences of opinion on that point are almost entirely confined to the question of the extent to which the writer has gone in condensing or re-shaping the Master’s utterances. Without surrendering the conviction that we have a faithful report of the substance of a real conversation, we may readily admit that the Evangelist has put his material into the form which seemed best fitted to make the truth clear to his readers. He is, we may suppose, chiefly interested in Nicodemus ‘as instrumental in eliciting from Jesus’ the sayings which he records. But this does not make Nicodemus a mere lay figure, and his questions mere ‘rhetorical artifice.’
Dr. Gardner says of the question in John 3:4 : ‘such crassness is scarcely in human nature.’ Yet when we give due weight to the prejudices of a Pharisee and allow for the deadening effect of respectable religious legalism, it is not hard to understand the sheer bewilderment of Nicodemus at the idea that he—no Gentile, no publican—needed to be born anew. How common it is for men of such a type to be utterly unable to understand even an elementary spiritual truth, if it cuts across their conventions and challenges their privileges. Nicodemus did not at all suppose that a second physical birth was meant. He was simply unable to conceive what kind of new birth could be needed by one who was already a Jew and a keeper of the Law. His questions are simply his bewilderment beating the air.
The last reference to Nicodemus (John 19:39) appears to show greater boldness and a more definite discipleship on his part. His gift of spices was certainly an expression of respect and reverence for the Master, and its amount is the lavish gift of a rich man. Whether it expressed faith in the Messiahship of the Crucified, ‘the Saviour typified by the brazen serpent which Jesus had explained to him beforehand (John 3:14)’ (Godet), is less certain. Nicodemus may have regarded Jesus simply as a martyred teacher, whose cause had perished, but who deserved to be held in loving memory. He could hardly at that moment have anticipated the Resurrection. He may even have been encouraged to bring his gift by the thought that Jesus dead was no longer feared by the authorities, and that it was no longer a serious risk to show respect to His name.
Christian tradition records many legends of Nicodemus, and his name is associated with one of the Apocryphal Gospels; but nothing further is recorded that has any historical value.
Literature.—Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , art. ‘Nicodemus’; Edersheim, Life and Times, i. 381; W. Boyd Carpenter, Son of Man, 185; W. M. Clow, In the Day of the Cross, 279; A. B. Davidson, The Called of God, 247; G. Matheson, Representative Men of the N.T. 115; Expos. Times, iv. (1893) 382, 478, 527, xii. (1901) 210, 307, xiv. (1903) 194; J. Reid, Jesus and Nicodemus (1906).
E. H. Titchmarsh.
Wednesday, August 24th, 2016
the Week of Proper 16 / Ordinary 21