[Audio for this study is available at Sermons.net, as is a PDF copy of the notes.]

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 7:50-52 (defending Jesus in Jerusalem, briefly) and 19:39-42 (the burial of Jesus), we do not know anything else about him from church history (for example, Acts does not mention him).

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 a number of 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 timid follower of Jesus, a secret follow who slowly realizes that Jesus is the true Messiah.  But as Andreas Köstenberger points out, the term “believer” is never applied to him, nor is he described as giving testimony to the true nature of Jesus.  Other than his involvement at the burial of Jesus, there is little to suggest that he is anything more than a respectful Jewish rabbi not unlike Gamaliel in Acts 4, who is interested in Jesus but never truly believes that he is the Messiah.

Is Nicodemus polite and friendly, but really looking to trap Jesus? His words are not unlike the scribes in Matthew 22:16 who say that they know Jesus is a teacher from God, but are obviously trying to trap Jesus. That he comes to Jesus at night should not be taken as stealth or embarrassment. In fact, rabbis 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 certainly a difference between Nicodemus who says “we know…” and Jesus’ authoritative statement “I say to you…”  It is possible that Nicodemus represents a faction of Pharisees that are interested in Jesus as a teacher, as in the Synoptic gospels and Acts 15.  It is also possible that the meeting described in John 3 includes disciples of both Nicodemus and Jesus.  Therefore Nicodemus is asking on behalf of his group, Jesus is responding as an authority.  (And his disciples do not know anything yet!)

Nicodemus is an example of an interested observer, a friendly but ultimately unconvinced witness to Jesus who simply fails to confess 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 of the Jews were interested and friendly, even if they failed to fully understand who Jesus was.

This is tied to the purpose of the Gospel of John.  He wrote so that the reader would be convinced and make a decision to follow Jesus.  The reader is given the example of Nicodemus as something of a warning – one can be friendly toward the claims of Christ without actually accepting them! (“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!]