Who Was Nicodemus? (john 3.1-8)

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.

Nicodemus is named here as ruler of the Hoi Iudaioi. While we cannot know this for sure, it is probable that Nicodemus was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council whose limited authority was sanctioned by Roman government. It is obvious that Nicodemus had an uneasy connection with the Hoi Iudaioi. On the one hand, he was an intricate part of it; on the other he was afraid and hassled by it. As such, he often felt that he did not belong.

For example, we see that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, and in John 7.50-52 we read that when he questioned his own fellow Hoi Iudaioi about Jesus’ arrest, he was questioned for loyalty: “Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, ‘Does our Torah judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?’ They replied, ‘Are you from Galilee too?’”

The final appearance that Nicodemus makes, this time with Josephus of Arimothea, can be found in John 19.38-40: “After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Hoi Iudaioi, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of Hoi Iudaioi.”

Nicodemus in Greek, the language in which this Gospel was written, means the “conqueror of the people”. A reader of the Bible in its English translation must reimagine how a speaker of Koine Greek would have heard these texts. Conqueror of People (Nicodemus) was consistently afraid of hoi Iudaioi, something that of course did not sound right, and therefore, was never meant to be.

As a member of a less powerful (Pharisaic party vs. that of the Sadducees), Nicodemus was a minority within minority. It is interesting that every known case of persecution against Jesus and Jerusalem believers in Jesus, especially their leaders, “was taken when the reigning high priest was one of those who belonged to the powerful Sadducean family of Annas”. Caiaphas, Annas’ son-in-law condemned both Jesus and Stephen. James the Son of Zebedee was executed and Peter arrested by Agrippa I, while Matthias, son of Annas, was probably a priest. In Acts 12:3 we are told that the king was motivated to gain the favor with “the Jews”, that is to “placate the high priest Mathias and his family” since some time before Agrippa humiliated Annas family by deposing Theophilus, brother of Mathias. Another son of Annas, Ananus II, put James to death taking advantage of Roman Emperor’s before appointment of the next leader of the Empire. The above shows that we are justified to speak of a case of family vendetta against “the followers of a man whose movement Caiphas (as a member of Annas priestly family) had expected but failed to stamp out.”

This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”

Nicodemus addresses Jesus using the respectful term “Teacher”, which acknowledges that despite the acrimony towards him, Jesus was still someone important, even for a powerful member of the Jerusalem ruling elite. The term “we know” most likely refers to a group of leaders inside of the Sanhedrin that thought that Jesus was indeed a very positive figure and possibly sent by God. Although there may have been other reasons for doing so, it is likely that the reason Nicodemus came to Jesus at night was to avoid being seen and questioned about Jesus by others within the Hoi Iudaioi system.

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Ancient Judaism celebrated several rituals which marked the stages of the Jewish life cycle, beginning with birth and circumcision, continuing on to ordination and various levels of Jewish leadership, culminating in the death of that individual at a ripe age. Nicodemus was in his final stage of such a life cycle (ripe age and high-level Jewish leadership status) when Jesus surprised him with his statement that, “you must be born again.” Later in the story, Jesus respectfully challenges Nicodemus’ affiliation with the Hoi Iudaioi by saying, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?” (John 3.10)

Someone who is born from above (again) is under control and influence of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit, however, is unbridled cosmic (personal) force, submissive only to the will of the Heavenly Father and his Royal Son.

Jesus’ question to Nicodemus is also a challenge to the authority of hoi Iudaioi of which Nicodemus, at least for the time being, was still a part of. Throughout the Gospel we see that hoi Iudaioi show themselves to be clueless and insensitive to the things of the Spirit. It is no wonder that Nicodemus, the best of them, does not know what the One Sent by God has in mind. On the one hand it showed the Jerusalem leaders (even the best of them) not in a good light, while at the same time it meant to provoke an appropriate question in the mind of the (Samaritan) readers: “What if my (Samaritan) sages/leaders also are just as blinded and spiritually incapable as the leadership of Jerusalem?” The main challenger of Judean and Samaritan current leadership structure was of course talking with Nicodemus at night. His name was Jesus, the Royal Son of God. It was a Judean self-critique that was meant to provoke Samaritan Israelites to challenge their own authorities as well.

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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.

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  1. Nury

    After the crucifixion of Jesus what is the rabbinic version about the life of jesus.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Let me just say that in some parts it is not pretty and some should not be even mentioned its ungly. You can read Jesus and Talmud by a Jewish scholar Peter Scheffer from Princeton University for more.

  2. joyce-mary

    Sincere and appreciative gratitude for sharing the fruits of your study and scholarship. Your articles are “food and drink” to my mind and spirit. It is 37 years since I studied St. John as part of the B.D. at a jesuit University and I now feel as if I am drinking from a well of refreshing water–perhaps that promised by Jesus to the Samaritan woman. May you be blessed.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Joyce-Mary, thank you for your kind words. It is humbling to hear them. I think you will like the chapter on Samaritan woman its coming within a month.

  3. Carolyn

    Thank you for your article on Nicodemus, I found it very interesting. I once heard that it was a common thing for people in the time of Yeshua to come to a Rabbi at night to ask questions and learn, is this correct? Although I agree that this particular meeting was most probably because he wanted to avoid being noticed by the religious leadership. I was also interested to learn what his name meant.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      It is of course common anywhere for people to talk also at night :-). But there is an ongoing matrix of fear for those who are located under the umbrella of hoi Iudaioi in the Gospel of John. It was not just Nicodemus that were afraid. The system rewarded its followers, and punished its critics severely.

    2. Nicholas

      Hi Carolyn,

      Nicodemus means the same as Nicholas. One comes from Nike+Demos and the other from Nike+Laos, meaning “Victory of the People”. (All Greek etymology, Nike = Victory, Demos = Laos = The People).

      Nakdimon has been rendered for Nicodemus, in the Orthodox Bible (Messianic Bible – I suspect based strongly on a US translation, but I will check and post again). Nakdimon means “Bringer of Illumination”.

      Shalom and joy to you,
      Nick

    3. Nicholas

      Nakdimon|Naqdimon (Hebrew) equivalent of Nikodaymos (Greek phonetic) comes from THE ORTHODOX JEWISH BRIT CHADASHA

      It is an interesting text because it inserts contemporary Hebrew (and I guess Aramaic too) vernacular into an otherwise current English Bible, for example John 3:1 “Now there was a man of the Perushim. His name was Rav Nakdimon, a [Sanhedrist] katzin (leader) of the Yehudim.”

      Some other info I have found recently: “The name Nicodemus, if Hebrew in etymology from dam and naki, may have meant “innocent blood;” if Greek, as is more probable, seeing that the plan of bearing Greek as well as Hebrew names was not uncommon, it would signify “Conqueror of the people.” The Talmud mentions a Nicodemus ben Gotten, who was also called Bonai, a disciple of Jesus, of great wealth and piety, who survived the destruction of Jerusalem, and therein lost nil his fortune.” [http://biblehub.com/john/3-1.htm]

      1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

        Yes, check early comments, especially from Judith Green. Thank you for your feedback. I personally think that while reading New Testament in Hebrew translation is very very helpful for seeing you don’t see reading even in Greek original.

  4. Juan

    Gracias por enviarme estos excelentes estudios,

    Dios les bendiga,

    Juan

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Many many thanks.

  5. Melani

    Thank you for an interesting post. I really enjoy your articles. They really help in adding insight and perspective to my frequent travels to the Holy Lands.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Melani, thank you for your encouragement. All success to you and Travel Overtures!

  6. Steve

    Great commentary on Nicodemus.
    I think it is also interesting that the term “born again,” gennao another in Greek is only used by Jesus when speaking to Nicodemus and by Peter when writing to Messianic Jews in I Peter. It is never used in relationship to Gentiles. The Hebrew people were an elect nation of God (Deut 7:6-8; Exod 19:5-6), and now had to be brought out of their works into faith by being born again. Gentiles simply need to be born as is evidenced in Eph 2 with emphasis on verses 1-5, 12-13, and 19. Their salvation is not any less than that for the Jewish people, but God did operate with Jews and Gentiles differently to bring them to faith.
    Thanks for all your time and study, Dr. Eli.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      You are most welcome, Steve. Thank you for your comments. Perhaps, you are right about Gentiles. I want to be careful however because this what is commonly called an argument from silence. It is not that it is not important, but we need more I think to reach that conclusion. Although once again you may be right.

      What I think may also be referred to here (or at least hinted at) is national resurrection of Israel (return to the land and restoration) described in Ezek. 36 (the valley of dry bones) although it is not readily apparent how it would connected to “you must be.”

      1. David W. Stokes

        Steve’s assertion that the “Gentiles simply need to be born” in relation to God’s dealing with them towards faith and their salvation, I believe is unscriptural at least and a theological leap without foundation. However, I do agree with Steve that “God did operate with Jews and Gentiles differently to bring them to faith”. So Dr. Eli, how do you see, connect, or relate the resurrection of Israel, if it be so, vis a vis Ezk. 36 connected to this statement by Jesus to Nicodemus that you must be born again to enter into the Kingdom of God? It is believed by many Christians in their interpretations of the parables of Matt. 13, in-particular 13:44 “the Hid Treasure” parable that Israel will, if resurection of Israel is to be, will be fulfilled in relation to this prophecy by Christ. In the parable, the Lord Jesus Christ being the purchaser and the nation of Israel being the Treasure, which he hid, until a time come (of his choosing), to recover (resurect) His treasure upon the establishment of His Kingdom. Help please!

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Dear Pastor David W. Stokes,

          Thank you for your comment. I am not confident about connecting Ezk.36 with Jesus statement to Nicodemus. So, if it connects, I am not sure how exactly. In the Old Testament and it would be probably fair to say in the Bible as a whole the idea of resurrection of Israel is her spiritual regeneration and return to its land. Resurrection of Jesus is always communal. In other words when he rose from the dead it was also the whole community of saints that did. When he ascended, they ascended, etc. How it all ties together, I am not sure. Do you?

          Dr. Eli

          1. David W. Stokes

            From the time of Jesus and Nicodemus, when Jesus make his pronouncement that – you must be born again – 2000 years have past. Jesus read and quoted in his day the old testament exclusively. Yet, no where do we read or hear any message from any OT prophet, like unto this saying. The moral commands and law of Moses do not require such, from Jehovah’s adherents Israel therefore, this saying was from the time of its origin, can we agree, eschatological in a general sense. We’re not concerned with the meaning of history here, but the future meaning of, being born again (and man’s death and destiny) from that time. Jesus’ concern here, then is for the future, yes?
            Assuming his work of salvation completed (presently unfinished) then , the way to God will be new and not old — Jesus tells Nicodemus. Also evident, The Kingdom of God — not ever having been — materially obtained for National Israel by your fathers, Jesus says never will be Nicodemus, don’t you know that! This saying too, is to all men (and future Christians) but, I believe, specifically to the seed of Abraham. Today though, only the “Church” of Christ pursues this way…

          2. David W. Stokes

            Also, perhaphs it begins with Nicodenus that Jesus introduces with his gospel a co-mingling, of the paths to access Jehovah if you will, of destinys(?) that is, of his Church and Israel, in terms of his Lordship. This evident when he offers to his disciples a future glimsp in Matt 24:14 – 42 to the fulfillment of the end of the age and of His promised return. The disciples (clear on his message) immediately want to know then, when is this to be and by what signs shall they know the end and his return.

          3. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

            Very interesting observations.

        2. Ilya Gromov

          I think the emphasis of second birth should be more on the manner of this birth – not physical but spiritual (a change, a tranformation).
          Nicodemus obviously thought at first that Jesus is talking about physical second birth, but Jesus tells him that this second birth should be both of water and spirit and that he, Nicodemus, as a teacher, should know better and should be able to understand it…

          This makes me think that Jesus is in fact talking about some supernatural transformation that is promised (prophesied) in the Tanakh. So the question is to which one exactly?
          I think that he could have been referring to Ezekiel 37:9 where breath (wind, spirit) is an agent of resurrection.
          The other factor of this second birth – water – might mean baptism as an act of repentance and all of it might be a way for Jesus to say that to be able to enter the kingdom, there must be a combination of human repentance and supernatural work of God – like in Jeremiah 31:33.

  7. Louis

    As a german reader i am interested to understand the difference between “the jews” and a “Judean”. The greek expression hoi iudaioi covers both? And “Nikodemos” – does he “conquer” the whole people, in the sense you mentioned, insofar they are clueless and unsensitive? – Thanks so much for your fearless handling of the holy words!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Luis, thanks for writing. You should read everything I have on John (commentary so far especially intro about Samaritans and origins of the Gospel). Basically, I do not think that Gospel of John uses hoi Iudaioi the same way that other new testament books do. I think John’s Gospel has a VERY specific context of its own.

      Since I think Nicodemus is not made up but a real character I think that one of the reasons to actually name him for a Greek speaking (Gentile, Jewish, Samaritan or otherwise) audience was to point out the irony that I already noted in the blog post.

      Let’s keep on thinking together.

  8. juliana

    thanks for sharing your wisdom

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thank you, Juliana for being part of this group.

  9. Rosina

    Thank you for your research into who was Nicodemus. I can’t wait to share this information with others.
    can’t wait for your next blog.
    Be Blessed

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      It is so wonderful to see that the study group members are making Jewish Studies for Christians known to their friends.

  10. inet

    I enjoy following your blog. Helps with deeper understanding and insight.
    Thankyou

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      We are so glad to have you with us!