Notoriety: First recipient of John 3:16 message
Occupation: Pharisee, Sanhedrin member, (the Jewish Ruling Council)
Time Period: Beginning of the First Century BC
Location: Palestine, Imperial Roman Province, governed by Pontius Pilate
What's In a Name?
He might have said: "You can call me Nicodemus, or you can call me Nick, just don't ever call me Nickie, (though one might call me sneaky)." Ironically, during continued research, the Hebrew equivalent is Nakkai, (Nakai), or sometimes he was known as Buni (or Bonai). Nicodemus is literally in Greek, Νικόδημος, "victor over the people".
Was it Nicodemus' position on the highest Jewish ruling court, the Sanhedrin, that forced him to furtively satisfy his piqued curiosity about this itinerant Rabbi
, Jesus of Nazareth
by meeting covertly at night? The famous mid 19th Century English "Prince of Preachers", Charles Spurgeon
made the point,
Perhaps he was very busy during the day. It is better to come to Jesus at night than not to come to him at all. All hours are convenient to Christ." But admitted: "In all probability, however, Nicodemus did not wish to commit himself by coming to Christ by day. He had not yet tried and tested him, so he would not be thought to be Christ’s follower till he had first had a quiet private talk with him. As a ruler of the Jews, he was wise in acting thus discreetly.
Spurgeon, as any Evangelical would expound, Nicodemus needed to have explained to him the need for a Spirit 'key' to understand Jesus' response. Though the alternate translation of "born again" could also be "born from above," relieving somewhat the critique that Nicodemus was an obtuse listener. Sidney R. Sandstrom, a now retired Christian educator, makes some interesting points on whether Nicodemus was a "Convert or a Coward." That maybe he met quietly at night with this teacher, not because he flip-flopped and was afraid of losing his reputation (or his head) -- but in reality he was extremely brave and this was just a method to get away from the "circus" atmosphere happening all the time during the day.
You Have Finally Got My Attention
As a member of the Pharisees, who were awaiting a Messiah (Heb. Mashiach, מָשִׁיחַ), Nicodemus' became attracted to this "Son of Man" and person who some claimed to be the awaited anointed One, (Gr. Χριστός - Christos), prophesied to sit on the throne of King David forever. This Yeshua did not just teach a novel application of the Law and the Prophets, but proved it with power of word and miracles. (John 2 had the water into wine phenomenon.) Nicodemus hints (as well as John 12:42) that there were others interested, as he says "we," and by calling him Rabbi, actually show a subservient respect for Jesus. Some have surmised that it was in the same Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus' prayed, and where the last time he sweat blood. The general setting was during a time when the great Temple built by Herod the Great unified, yet caused division among the residents of Judea. They had a puppet king who, like others with authority, did not want to bring the ire of the Roman rulers, even that of local governor, Pontius Pilate.
Honest to John
The Scripture references are from The Bible in Basic English Version Online, which is in the public domain: the Gospel of John, the third chapter through to verse 21:
1 Now there was among the Pharisees a man named Nicodemus, who was one of the rulers of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus by night and said to him, "Rabbi, we are certain that you have come from God as a teacher, because no man would be able to do these signs which you do if God was not with him."
3 Jesus said to him, "Truly, I say to you, Without a new birth no man is able to see the kingdom of God."
4 "Nicodemus said to him, How is it possible for a man to be given birth when he is old? Is he able to go into his mother's body a second time and come to birth again?"
5 Jesus said in answer, "Truly, I say to you, If a man's birth is not from water and from the Spirit, it is not possible for him to go into the kingdom of God. 6 That which has birth from the flesh is flesh, and that which has birth from the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not be surprised that I say to you, It is necessary for you to have a second birth. 8 The wind goes where its pleasure takes it, and the sound of it comes to your ears, but you are unable to say where it comes from and where it goes: so it is with everyone whose birth is from the Spirit."
9 And Nicodemus said to him, "How is it possible for these things to be?"
10 And Jesus, answering, said, "Are you the teacher of Israel and have no knowledge of these things? 11 Truly, I say to you, We say that of which we have knowledge; we give witness of what we have seen; and you do not take our witness to be true. 12 If you have no belief when my words are about the things of earth, how will you have belief if my words are about the things of heaven? 13 And no one has ever gone up to heaven but he who came down from heaven, the Son of man. 14 As the snake was lifted up by Moses in the waste land, even so it is necessary for the Son of man to be lifted up: 15 So that whoever has faith may have in him eternal life. 16 For God had such love for the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever has faith in him may not come to destruction but have eternal life. 17 God did not send his Son into the world to be judge of the world; he sent him so that the world might have salvation through him. 18 The man who has faith in him does not come up to be judged; but he who has no faith in him has been judged even now, because he has no faith in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the test by which men are judged: the light has come into the world and men have more love for the dark than for the light, because their acts are evil. 20 The light is hated by everyone whose acts are evil and he does not come to the light for fear that his acts will be seen. 21 But he whose life is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his acts have been done by the help of God."
Nicodemus speaks up for Jesus before the Council in this context of John's 7th Chapter:
45 Then the servants went back to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, "Why have you not got him with you?"
46 The servants made answer, "No man ever said things like this man."
47 Then the Pharisees said to them, "Have you, like the others, been given false ideas? 48 Have any of the rulers belief in him, or any one of the Pharisees? 49 But these people who have no knowledge of the law are cursed."
50 Nicodemus--he who had come to Jesus before, being himself one of them--said to them, 51 "Is a man judged by our law before it has given him a hearing and has knowledge of what he has done?"
52 This was their answer: "And do you come from Galilee? Make search and you will see that no prophet comes out of Galilee." 53 And every man went to his house; 8:1 But Jesus went to the Mountain of Olives.
Finally in John Chapter 19, where we now know Jesus' talk might have sunk in, Nicodemus, who had to be affluent, joined fellow underground disciple and man with connections, Joseph of Arithamea :
39 And Nicodemus came (he who had first come to Jesus by night) with a roll of myrrh and aloes mixed, about a hundred pounds. 40 Then they took the body of Jesus, folding linen about it with the spices, as is the way of the Jews when they put the dead to rest. 41 Now there was a garden near the cross, and in the garden a new place for the dead in which no man had ever been put. 42 So they put Jesus there, because it was the Jews' day of getting ready for the Passover, and the place was near.
Titus Flavius Josephus, (b. ben Matityahu 37 AD, d. 101) the Jewish Historian, whose writings gives us some of the best insights around this period, was also in the early part of his career, a Pharisee like Nicodemus, and in his commentaries he was a lot less critical of this branch of the Priests than those barbs of the upstart Galilean. He mentions Jesus in his famous history account Antiquities,"Testimonium Flavianum". Pharisees were conservative priests whose specialty was examining the Law and other sacred texts, their parallel counterparts were the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots, or the biryoni. The latter were revolutionaries, and Josephus joined them toward the end. This incidentally insured that Jesus' predictions about the Temple of which "...not one stone will remain upon each other..." would be fulfilled when the Romans quelled the rebellion in 70 AD. They burned the edifice thoroughly, and then pulled it apart for the melted gold. Essenes, of Dead Sea Scrolls fame, were the promoters of purifying the faith, with an apocalyptic edge, while the Sadducees were the more liberal theologians, and came out of the aristocratic class, and descended from the Maccabeean victors. (Also they did not believe in a Resurrection of the dead: Some even have joked, therefore they were sad you see).
It was as a released prisoner in Rome, because of his participation in that rebellion, that gave him the opportunity to write both his famous works. Copies of this work, the "Testimonium", were maintained by Christians, however, and controversies incurred concerning biased editing, but the Arabs had copies of an unknown Greek text too. There is some corroboration of some key historical points as Matt Slick, who studied, Edwin Yamauchi's research, concludes: "Even if both versions have been tampered with, the core of them both mention Jesus as an historical figure who was able to perform many surprising feats, was crucified, and that there were followers of Jesus who were still in existence at the time of its writing."
Now more to the point about Nicodemus from Josephus: there is some confusion about whether or not a Nakdimon Ben Gurion, cited by him in his Wars of the Jews II, 20 and IV, 3,9. Is he the same one mentioned in John? However, according to Britain's mid-17th Century Cambridge University Bible scholar, John Lightfoot, (who was one of the first to use the Talmud), he expands:
(Nicodemus) The Talmudists frequently mention Nicodemus. Now the Jews derive this name, not from the Greek original, but from this story:
Upon a certain time, all Israel ascended up to Jerusalem to the feast, and there wanted water for them. Nicodemus Ben Gorion comes to a great man, and prays him, saying, "Lend me twelve wells of water, for the use of those that are to come up to the feast, and I will give you back twelve wells again; or else engage to pay you twelve talents of silver": and they appointed a day. When the day of payment came, and it had not yet rained, Nicodemus went to a little oratory, and covered himself, and prayed: and of a sudden the clouds gathered, and a plentiful rain descended, so that twelve wells were filled, and a great deal over. The great man cavilled that the day was past, for the sun was set: Nicodemus goes into his oratory again, covers himself and prays, and the clouds dispersing themselves, the sun breaks out again. Hence that name given him Nicodemus, because the sun shone out for him.
He continues after his reciting that Talmudic story:
If there be any thing of truth in this part of the story, it should seem Nicodemus was a priest, and that kind of officer whose title was a digger of wells; under whose peculiar care and charge was the provision of water for those that should come up to the feast. His proper name was not Nicodemus, but Bonai; as Taanith in the place above quoted. Now in Sanhedrim, (sic) Bonai is reckoned amongst the disciples of Jesus, and accounted one of the three richest men amongst the Jews at that time, when Titus besieged Jerusalem. "There were three the most wealthy men in Jerusalem, Nicodemus Ben Gorion, Calba Sabua, and Zizith Hakkeesoth." But in Echah Rabbathi, "There were then in Jerusalem four counsellors, Ben Zizith, and Ben Gorion, and Ben Nicodemon, and Ben Calba Sabua; men of great wealth," &c.
There is mention also of a "daughter of Nicodemus Ben Gorion, the furniture of whose bed was twelve thousand deniers." But so miserably was she and the whole family impoverished, that "Rabban Jochanan Ben Zaccahi saw her gathering barleycorns out of the dung of the Arabs' cattle: saith he to her, 'Who art thou, my daughter?' 'I am (saith she) the daughter of Nicodemus Ben Gorion.' 'What then (saith he) is become of all thy father's wealth?'" &c.
I leave it with the reader to determine with himself whether the Nicodemus mentioned amongst them be the same with this of ours or no. It is not much for the reputation of that Nicodemus (whatever may be supposed in the affirmative), that these authors should all along make so honourable mention of him. However, some passages look as if it might be the same man, viz., the name Bonai, by which he went for a disciple of Jesus; the impoverishment of his family, which may be conceived to fall upon them in the persecution of Christianity, &c.: but it is not tanti (note: L, so much) that we should labour at all in a thing so very perplexed, and perhaps no less unprofitable.
Lightfoot makes an interesting comment on Nicodemus' (seemingly naive to some readers) failure to understand being born from heaven, or a second time:
He knew and acknowledged, as we have already said, that there must be a sort of a new birth in those that come over to the Jewish religion; but he never dreamt of any new proselytism requisite in one that had been born an Israelite. He could not therefore conceive the manner of a new birth, that he should be made an Israelite anew, unless it were by entering into the mother's womb a second time; which to him seemed an impossible thing.
On verse 10 he notes:
(Art thou a master of Israel?) Art thou a Wise man in Israel? It was the answer of a boy to R. Joshua, when he asked him, "Which is the shortest way to the city? The boy answered, 'This is the shortest way though it is the longest: and that is the longest way though it is the shortest.' R. Joshua took that way which was the shortest, though the longest. When he came very near the city, he found gardens and places of pleasure hedged in so that he could go no further. He returned therefore to the boy, and said to him, 'My son, is this the shortest way to the city?' The boy answered, 'Art thou a wise man in Israel? did I not thus say to thee, That is the shortest way though the longest?'" &c.
The Big Swiss Cheese
Lawyer-turned-theologian, 16th Century French/Swiss John Calvin had these thoughts about Nicodemus:
In the person of Nicodemus, the Evangelist now exhibits to our view how vain and fleeting was the faith of those who, having been excited by miracles, suddenly professed to be the disciples of Christ. For since this man was of the order of the Pharisees, and held the rank of a ruler in his nation, he must have been far more excellent than others. The common people, for the most part, are light and unsteady; but who would not have thought that he who had learning and experience was also a wise and prudent man? Yet from Christ’s reply it is evident, that nothing was farther from his design in coming than a desire to learn the first principles of religion. If he who was a ruler among men is less than a child, what ought we to think of the multitude at large?
(Of the Pharisees). This designation was, no doubt, regarded by his countrymen as honorable to Nicodemus; but it is not for the sake of honor that it is given to him by the Evangelist, who, on the contrary, draws our attention to it as having prevented him from coming freely and cheerfully to Christ. Hence we are reminded that they who occupy a lofty station in the world are, for the most part, entangled by very dangerous snares; nay, we see many of them held so firmly bound, that not even the slightest wish or prayer arises from them towards heaven throughout their whole life. Why they were called Pharisees we have elsewhere explained; (54) for they boasted of being the only expounders of the Law, as if they were in possession, of the marrow and hidden meaning of Scripture; and for that reason they called themselves פרושים (Perushim.)
Notes from a Noder
It was very kind of one of our community to add his learned opinion to my write up:
A.M.Gulenko says re Nicodemus: The reason I think every believer should "find more of themselves" is because each one of us who have believed have therein received the anointing from the Holy Ghost. As with faith, if we do not exercise this anointing, it becomes dormant in us (not that God's power EVER diminishes in any sense of the word), in a sense. Just like muscles atrophying. We tend to look out to "men anointed by God" for knowledge and revelation, but why do we do that firstly if WE have that SAME anointing? "You know all things," Apostle John writes. If that is true, which it is, then this all-knowledge can only be contained in our spirit, the only place capable of supporting such a quantity of information, and this given by and through God's Holy Spirit.
My two Mite's Worth
(⅛ of a penny) or Hebrew, (pruta), Latin, (kodrantes), Greek, (lepta)
My take on the whole affair is that it was providential for Nicodemus to meet with Jesus. There have always been those, a remnant, (Romans 9:25-33) who had a "good and noble heart" (Luke 8:15) to receive the seed of the Gospel message. Though Nicodemus was aware of prophesy regarding a future King like David (2 Samuel 7:12-16) who would sit on the throne forever and restore all things, God was first going to provide salvation from the consequences of sin for all mankind. Is sin a behavior? No, it is a condition of man that is inherent in his self sufficient and intelligent nature. This vicarious sacrifice was shown by a "type" (dramatic action paralleling future events) shown earlier in Bible history (Genesis 22:5 and 22:8) when Isaac was told by Yahweh to sacrifice his only son, only to have this slaughter stopped by intervention from the Almighty's who provided a substitute with a ram. Nicodemus, like others of that time now learn about necessity of the Lamb of God, foretold in Isaiah 53's 'suffering servant'. Here, Jesus gets to privately explain it to Nicodemus (and us) in simple, (or maybe too simple) terms to a much learned man who had a lot to lose if caught. The Son of Man did not come the first time to condemn. Judgement will come when the Messiah, King of King, Lord of Lords returns, whom Zechariah (12:10) declares upon His descent, all will see the Branch, the One who was pierced, and then they will know.
Whether it was concern for his safety, or to avoid the cacophony during the day time, more importantly is the dialogue itself, and of course, most importantly Jesus' explanation.
The Gospel Maybe Truth
There is also a 3rd century AD pseudepigrapha
writing called the "Gospel of Nicodemus" and author is named a "Roman top arch" (This 'Gospel' is the only source of this word). He purportedly dictated it to a Jewish scribe named Aeneas by whom it was also translated from Hebrew to Latin. In this supposed narrative Nicodemus played an advocate role to Pilate pleading:
I, being present in the synagogue, said to the priests, and the Levites, and the scribes, and the people, What have you to say against this man? This man does many miracles, such as man has never yet done nor will do. Let him go, therefore; and if indeed what he does be from God, it will stand; but if from man, it will be destroyed. (Acts 5:38) Just as happened also when God sent Moses into Egypt, and Pharaoh king of Egypt told him to do a miracle, and he did it. Then Pharaoh had also two magicians, Jannes and Jambres; and they also did miracles by the use of magic art, but not such as Moses did. (Exodus 7:10-14) And the Egyptians held these magicians to be gods; but because they were not from God, what they did was destroyed. This Jesus, then, raised up Lazarus, and he is alive. On this account I entreat you, my lord, by no means to allow this man to be put to death.
Another untold dialogue that appears in this scroll, that was not even accepted as part of the Apocrypha, comes after Jesus' death, among the priests, Annas and Caiaphas where he speaks to them:
O children of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the prophet Helias (Elijah) went up into the height of heaven with a fiery chariot, and it is nothing incredible if Jesus too has risen; for the prophet Helias was a prototype of Jesus, in order that you, hearing that Jesus has risen, might not disbelieve. I therefore say and advise, that it is befitting that we send soldiers into Galilee, to that place where these men testify that they saw him with his disciples, in order that they may go round about and find him, and that thus we may ask pardon of him for the evil which we have done to him. This proposal pleased them; and they chose soldiers, and sent them away into Galilee.
Why was John the only one in canon to mention Nicodemus? The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke are silent about him, yet they did mention other people who came to speak with Jesus on the side. (Matthew 24:3; Mark 9:28–29). One theory was that John had friends in high places (John 18:15–16), and it was at his house where Nicodemus came to find out more about this man. One who rocked the Sanhedrin's world recently, turning over the money changers' tables. This Pharisee, unlike the others that claimed their ancestry directly from Abraham, had a faith closer to the father of Israel. It is important to note that Nicodemus was checking and comparing this 'Messiah' candidate out from the several others mentioned by the Apostle Paul's, teacher, Gamaliel
(Acts 22:3). He knew him as Saul of Tarsus
), a Theudas and Judas of Galilee. Both killed, and both still in the ground (Acts 5:34–40).
So Many Johns, So Little Time
Did this Apostle John, write any or all of the 3 Epistles with that name? Or additionally, was he the ninety year old who the Romans tried to unsuccessfully burn to death in oil, and then in awe, exiled him to the Isle of Patmos? A place where he had his famous vision then penned the last book, The Revelation of Jesus Christ. He certainly used his witness of Nicodemus and Jesus' conversation, along with the rest of his Gospel, to promote his sacred agenda: showing the divinity of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. It makes sense to understand who should be martyred early (Stephen), and who should be protected to get out the message. Nicodemus and his peer, Joseph of Arithimea, and perhaps Gamaliel were secret Christians for special purposes, and borrowing a rich man's tomb, and being anointed in burial with expensive fragrances did happen. Gamaliel, by tradition is supposed to have sheltered Nicodemus after he was taken to task for being a Christian. Tradition also has passed down that Nicodemus finally died a martyr's death, too.