John 3 – Who Was Nicodemus?

Who Was Nicodemus?Nicodemus is a Pharisee, described as a teacher and leader of the people, and a member of the Sanhedrin. While he is mentioned again in John 7:50-52 (defending Jesus in Jerusalem, briefly) and John 19:39-42 (the burial of Jesus), nothing else about him from church history.

His name was probably Naqdimon in Hebrew / Aramaic, and it does not appear to have been common. Richard Bauckham surveyed all occurrences of the name in the Rabbinic literature and Josephus and concluded that all refer to the same family (ben-Gurioin), a wealthy, philanthropic from Jerusalem before A.D. 70. There are several opulent priestly homes excavated around the Temple Mount (the Burnt House, the Caiaphas’ house, etc.) which indicate that a man like Nicodemus could have been well-placed socially in the aristocracy of Jerusalem.

Does Nicodemus become a believer as a result of his encounter with Jesus? An impressive number of scholars describe Nicodemus as a timid follower of Jesus, a secret follow who slowly realizes that Jesus is the true Messiah. But as Andreas Köstenberger points out, John does not use term “believer” to describe Nicodemus, nor is does he give testimony to the true nature of Jesus. Other than his involvement at the burial of Jesus, there is little to suggest he is anything more than a respectful Jewish rabbi similar to Gamaliel in Acts 5. Nicodemus may be interested in Jesus, but never truly believes he is the Messiah.

Is Nicodemus polite and friendly, or is he looking to trap Jesus? His words are similar to the scribes in Matthew 22:16 who say they know Jesus is a teacher from God, but are trying to trap Jesus. That Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night does not mean he was embarrassed to be seen with Jesus. Jewish teachers in the first century often gathered in the cool evening to discuss Scripture. Rather than engage Jesus in a crowd (as the Pharisees do in Matthew), Nicodemus comes privately to talk with Jesus in a non-confrontational setting.

There is a difference between Nicodemus who says “we know…” and Jesus’s authoritative statement “I say to you…” It is possible Nicodemus represents a faction of Pharisees who were interested in Jesus as a teacher. It is the case that Jesus’s teaching is close to the Pharisees in many ways and that there were Pharisees who became followers of Jesus after the resurrection (Acts 15:1-2). It is also possible disciples of both Nicodemus and Jesus were presented at the meeting John 3. Therefore Nicodemus is asking on behalf of his group, Jesus is responding as an authority.

Nicodemus is therefore an example of an interested observer, a friendly but ultimately unconvinced witness to Jesus. But he never confesses faith in Jesus. The purpose of the dialogue with Nicodemus is not to condemn all Jews as unbelievers, in fact, it is probably the opposite. Some Jews were interested in Jesus and friendly towards him, even if they failed to understand fully who Jesus was.

This view of Nicodemus is connected to the purpose of the Gospel of John. According to John 20:30-31 John wrote so the reader would believe and make a decision to follow Jesus. The example of Nicodemus is a warning to the reader: one can be friendly toward the claims of Christ without accepting them.

If this was a challenge to the original readers of John, it is especially challenging for modern readers of the Gospel. Jesus is still asking, “What do you want with me?”

 

Bibliography: R. Bauckham, “Nicodemus and the Gurion Family,” JTS 47 (1996): 1-37.

[A brief post-script: I am aware that Nicodemus is sainted in both Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. I do not find anything of historical value in these traditions. It is entirely likely Nicodemus was an older man when he met Jesus, so he may have died of natural causes prior to soon after the resurrection. Thanks for the correction, Jeff!]

16 thoughts on “John 3 – Who Was Nicodemus?

  1. Regarding your post-script where you say Nicodemus may have died prior to the Resurrection, John tells us that he provides spices for Jesus’ burial so he was still alive on Friday afternoon. Are you suggesting he died some time between then and Sunday? That is certainly possible, but seems a bit specific for speculation.

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    • Thanks Jeff, you are absolutely correct. Perhaps I meant “soon after.” That post is three and a half years old and no one has pointed that out to me (and I will fix it so no one will ever no how dumb I was then).

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  2. I agree. Moreover, I find it hard to believe that someone of the stature of Nicodemus was a disciple of Jesus without any further mention being made of him in the canonical writings, such as the epistles.

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  3. To me, Nicodemus’s encounter with Jesus was based off curiosity and his longing to get some answers. Although in the beginning of their conversation it did seem as the conversation could have gone many different ways. One way gave the expression that Nicodemus approached Jesus with a sense of authority claiming to have known Jesus. This expression exhibits an aggressive tone behind Nicodemus words and almost feels confrontational. As Kostenberger explains it’s difficult to tell what were Nicodemus intentions when he said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who comes from God” (Kostenberger, 83). The conversation signals both a sense of curiosity but also gives a feeling that Nicodemus was condemning Jesus in a way. Further, in their conversation it still wasn’t clear if Nicodemus was there to learn from Jesus or lecture Him. The dialogue used in John makes it hard to determine the expressions behind their statements. Nicodemus continued using “We” statements notifying Jesus of the knowledge they’ve obtained about Him. On the contrary, Jesus uses “I” statements teaching Nicodemus that he is the true source of information. Eventually, Jesus won that battle and Nicodemus began to be well engaged in the conversation giving Jesus his full attention. By asking questions and showing a concern for his faith and what he has known to be.

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  4. Nicodemus is a man of different nature than that of Jesus. Jesus was born into the Jewish society, but on the poorer end of the spectrum. He is still a teacher, but a teacher of men. Nicodemus, on the other hand, is on the opposite spectrum of Jewish society as he is a powerful member of society, but he also a teacher, but a teacher of his people. Because of this, “Jesus and Nicodemus are engaged in what might be called an acute power struggle,” (Kostenberger, 68). I believe that because if this, it was difficult for the two to communicate. This is what Nicodemus came at night as explained in John 3:2, “he came to Jesus at night.” Because of their positions in society, this is the means as to how Nicodemus has to communicator so as not to be judged for it if the higher powered people found out. I think that through all of this, this is why Nicodemus probably did not become a believer, but was rather interested in what Jesus had to say because he had that longing in his heart for something more, but even still, he was ashamed to admit it, so he came at night. Also, he had a higher status and I think that he did not want to give that up, so he never fully believed because he had power and was ashamed for people to see him with Jesus.

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  5. The teachings of Jesus are often seen as deep and authoritative and cryptic, but they are often neglected as being practical and applicable to literally every individual. As Nicodemus saw Jesus merely as a teacher who perhaps had the authority to teach and illuminate the Scriptures, he–along with many people of our contemporary world–did not believe that he was the Word sent from heaven. And that is a crucial distinction to make. I think, particularly because one of the most famous passages about salvation is found there, many people assume Nicodemus was converted after his conversation with Jesus. The reality is, he was simply concerned with the teaching of Jesus, what Jesus had to say, but not with who Jesus was as a person. That is ultimately the attitude many nonbelievers maintain when thinking about Jesus. They believe He was highly intelligent and a good leader. Perhaps they even consider themselves a believer simply because they have made a considerable intellectual assent. But Jesus does not care so much about whether or not we accept the facts of His ministry. He is mainly concerned about a spiritual birth or a “birth from above”, which can only occur if we give Him our heart, so to speak. He wants us to acknowledge that He is God, and this is what He was trying to convince Nicodemus of. Nicodemus wanted to know if Jesus had the authority to teach and illuminate the Scriptures; the way Jesus responded, however, reveals that He knew that He was the embodiment of the Word. Not only does Jesus have the authority to teach the Word, but He has the authority to be the Word of God, His only Son, the only means by which we can obtain salvation. Kostenberger, in speculating about the position of Nicodemus in relation to Jesus, argues that John does not refer to him as a believer, but only as a interested observer. Unfortunately, but for good reason, even today God is not allowing merely interested people to enter His heavenly bliss. He wants people who know Him personally.

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  6. It is an interesting angle to point out that John’s intension of shareing the story of Nicodemus was to show that we can be freindly and accepting of what Jesus is teaching or who he is, but never truly accept it for ourselves. I have never thought about the story that way. I had always thought that Nicodemus truley wanted to know what Jesus was about and wanted to belive and had always assumed that because of his mention in Jesus’s burial. It seems to me that this really reflects a lot of people in the world today, many are okay with Jesus and who he says he is but don’t really beleive in him. A lot of people who call themselves Christians seem to act like that as well. I still wonder why if Nicodemus still hadn’t believed in Jesus as the Messiah, why he would risk losing his reputation by helping out with the burial of Jesus and by providing him with insence.

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    • hey Seth, I really enjoyed your post as you talked about how Nicodemus can seem interested in Jesus’ teachings but never excepted it for himself. that was a good point that you made that I didn’t think about. he is a very interesting fellow as he did things that he would lose his pharisee reputation for in helping and talking with Jesus.

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  7. want to bring up that Nicodemus was known around the village, and the city. Nicodemus was known to be very smart, someone of great wisdom yet when he encounters Jesus we see that he almost sounds like a child. “Can we enter a second time into our mother’s womb?” (John 3:4). Although Nicodemus asks these questions, it makes me really wonder if he was trying to test Jesus. John makes it really hard to find out if Nicodemus is really a believer or if he was just around to “play the part”. I do not think that Nicodemus was indeed curious, I think that he was trying to push/test Jesus if you will. I honestly think that Nicodemus was asking Jesus these questions from a more literal perspective and wants to know if Jesus meant something literal by it or if it was just a spiritual decoding. Once again, Nicodemus was a very smart man, what would he possibly be asking questions like this for? It does not really strike me as something that Nicodemus would be doing, especially if he was known around the city for not just being an average human being.

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    • I like when you said Nicodemus was almost sounding like a child when asking about entering our mother’s womb a second time. This question seems shocking to me as Nicodemus is known for being a very wise man, and a man that was a teacher of Israel. I think it is obvious that Nicodemus did not have previous knowledge of being born again, but Jesus was quick to think that he should have been able to figure it out. Another option that you touched on, along with Kostenberger p68 is the oral communication when Nicodemus said “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God”. Could this be Nicodemus setting Jesus up, and is that why Jesus fired back at him questioning his intelligence? In verse 11 it sounds like Jesus may be getting tired of Nicodemus when he says “but still you people do not accept our testimony”. I think this makes it clear that this was not the first time that Nicodemus and the rest of Israel had heard this message from Jesus. So does that mean that Nicodemus had possibly asked these same questions or something similar before? And that is why Jesus does not seem to be as patient with him in his answers?

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  8. This was a great post that can really make a person think, “what do I want from Jesus?” do I want Jesus to trap Him, or do I want Jesus to find out what He is really about, and then to except, and love Him. I think when reading this post it made me look back to their times a little bit more, and realize that if you were a Jew, they believed that they were already “saved by being Jew”. and Jesus was the one speaking out against this now that He is here, the Jews need to accept Jesus as the Lord their God. That’s why I like your post towards the bottom when you were talking about the Jews trying to convert everyone else to Judaism, and now that Jesus is on the scene He is saying that everyone has free will and can choose whether or not they want salvation through Jesus alone.

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  9. I feel that Nicodemus may have been cautiously curious because of the fact that he came to Jesus after dark. Nicodemus was respectful and he wanted to know the answers to his questions. The fact that Nicodemus did not come to Jesus in front of the crowds could be seen as he was not trying to trap Jesus with his own words, but some of the questions he asked could be seen as a trap created by the Pharisees. The Pharisees did not like Jesus so what made this one come to Jesus? Was Nicodemus trying to get some answers so he could make a conscious and unbiased opinion of what he should believe? Nicodemus came from a family of wealth and we know this because later in John, he wanted to help pay for the burial of Jesus. Nicodemus may have wanted to follow Jesus’ teachings, but he may have also treasured his status in the Jewish society. Maybe Nicodemus saw Jesus turn the tables in the Temple and that made him question whether he was in the right or wrong. Jesus gave Nicodemus some things he needed to ponder because he might have started questioning everything he had been taught.

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  10. The main thing I learn when reading into Nicodemus is now confused he was what Jesus told him that he must be born again. I tried to put myself into his shoes and try to comprehend what Jesus would mean when speaking of being born again. In verse 10 it seems as if Jesus is making fun of Nicodemus for being a smart man but not understanding this concept. I wonder if there is a lesson in this that there may be people in our lives that we look up to because of their position, or intelligence, but that does not mean that they have everything right. Nicodemus was known as a prominent figure, as he was the pharisee, and I believe because of his position he was cautious. I wonder that because Nicodemus knew that people are likely to follow what he does and believes, that if he were to publicly meet with Jesus to ask questions, people would know he is showing interest. This is good from our point of view, but if Nicodemus was skeptical then he may have not wanted to risk leading his followers down a wrong path. Kostenberger p68 says “Jesus chides Nicodemus by saying, ‘you are Israel’s teacher”. Jesus was not saying this in a praising way towards Nicodemus, but instead saying that he is the one who teaches them, and if he does not accept what Jesus is telling him, then the people of Israel will not either. I think this brings us back to my original thought of how confused Nicodemus was when Jesus was telling him how he would have to be born again, and this fear and confusion may have been the driving force to why he was so slow and cautious to take what Jesus was saying to heart.

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  11. This post was very interesting to read and learn from because I haven’t done any research on Nicodemus and his impact that he had or didn’t have in ministry or in Jesus’ ministry while he was here on earth. One thing that stuck out to me was this part in the article, “An impressive number of scholars describe Nicodemus as a timid follower of Jesus, a secret follow who slowly realizes that Jesus is the true Messiah. But as Andreas Köstenberger points out, John does not use term “believer” to describe Nicodemus, nor is does he give testimony to the true nature of Jesus.” While reading the Bible growing up it always seemed like Nicodemus was one of the pharisees that was out to “Trick” Jesus. But as it comes to show in this article and a little digging of my own it appears that it is true that Nicodemus was a quiet follower of Jesus as he was there at his teaching asking questions to Jesus about his teachings. He wanted to know more and dig in deeper of his knowledge which is something that pharisees don’t often do is learn from someone that isn’t a pharisee or teacher of the law. But Nicodemus was a very tricky guy to understand if he was friendly or if he was looking to actually trap Jesus. This article was a good one to read and learn from as we talk about Nicodemus.

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  12. It never occurred to me that Nicodemus was asking Jesus different questions because he was asking for a group of people. Probably because they were too scared by the tension that was happening between Jesus and the religious leaders and the political power-filled people. To add, I like how you pointed out how Nicodemus is responding to Jesus’ authority. They were both men of authority and they were both trained and taught, but one was taught by man and the other was taught by God. I can just see Nicodemus looking at Jesus with amazement while He taught and spoke words of such wisdom.
    In the book Encountering John, Köstenberger says this regarding this topic, “Jesus and Nicodemus are here engaged in what might be called an acute power struggle. Like it or not, the two men found themselves on two opposite ends of the spectrum of formal, didactic authority within Judaism. Regarding Jesus, people asked in amazement, ‘How did this man get such learning without having been taught?’ (7:15). Since Jesus never attached himself as a disciple to a Jewish rabbi, he was considered self-taught and without formal authority…”(Köstenberger, 68).
    This makes me think about how we today, can give people authority if they have been taught through schooling, a mentorship, discipleship or any other formal teaching.
    What if we encourage people to listen for Holy Spirit’s voice instead of needing the voice of man?
    What if true authority comes from being one with the Father?

    “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and that the Father is in me?
    The words I say to you I do not speak on my own authority.
    Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work.”
    -John 14:10

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