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. Jonas Neto

    Gosto muito de História judaica, e o que seria de nós sem a história judaica? Como poderia entender a Bíblia se não sabemos a história? Comentário como esse deveríamos ler a toda hora.

    Gostaria na oportunidade, saber informação sobre cursos na Faculdade Hebraica para 2014.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Jonas, I agree we need to study Jewish history and all other relevant histories for that matter. Dr. Eli

  2. Justin Manning

    Do you think this was the same Nicodemus with Tractate gittin folios 55-56 in the Kamza and Bar Kamza story?

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Justin, I think you are current. See also the comment above my Judith Green. She teaches at Hebrew U. She is also of the same mind about it. Eli

    2. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Justin, yes I think that Nicodemus and Talmudic Nikademon is likely one and the same person. See Judith Green’s initial comment to that.

  3. Helen

    Awesome! I love it. Very respectfully written.
    I teach classical Hebrew and Hebrew Bible. How can I get hold of Eli.

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      You can write me at Eli.Lizorkin@eteachgroup.com 🙂 Thanks and welcome to our study group!

  4. Bonnie Fordham

    Good afternoon Dr. Eli, I always find your postings so interesting and thought provoking and this is no exception. Nicodemus came under the cover of night to question Jesus. Don’t you find it interesting that a man educated in the scriptures would need to come to see Jesus. I believe he came because he had so many unanswered questions, like people today, when they cross the threshold into a church. They are seeking answers for their own lives. I think that Nicodemus came under cover of darkness because he did not want to be seen as unlearned by her peers or the people. He was supposed to be the man with the answers but was wise enough to realize that the questions that may had been in his mind were not the ones that needed answered. Jesus in his loving kindness gave him the answers to the real questions that he could not present. Jesus has a way of cutting right to the real matter and doing the same thing for us in this day and time in our lives. Blessings for a great week. Shalom

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Thanks, Bonnie for your comments and participation. Dr. Eli

      1. Justin Manning

        Maybe Nicodemus was not afraid, we see in several places in the Talmud and the Zohar sages spoke about deep exegesis of the Torah late at night. Also Most early christian and modern day gentile believers, didn’t understand the jewish “clergy”(if I can use this term)systems. As we see in Talmud most of the sages had a “day job”. So maybe Nicodemus was just to busy during the day.

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Justin, I see what you are saying. Thanks for your comment. Look again at my other points that show clearly that Nicodemus was indeed afraid. ALTHOUGH you are right that “just him coming” at night does not prove it. So, thank you for helping us to test all things. Blessings and peace, Dr. Eli

  5. Michelle

    As always, your discourse on the book of John is wonderful and quite valuable to all seekers of God’s truth.

    I had never seen this conversation before as a Judean self-critique meant to cause the Galileans to question their own leaders. That’s intriguing.

    Of course, it still nags at me that Nicodemus, a very learned man, a Pharisee, and part of the Sanhedrin, could not answer Jesus.

    One question if I may: how does one interpret the last sentence in verse 8? “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Can you expound on what that means exactly? I’ve struggled with that sentence for years, because when I put it with the first sentence in verse 8, my vivid imagination conjures up all sorts of interesting pictures (We go wherever we wish? We don’t know where we came from, and we don’t know where we’re going? You can hear us, but you may not know what we are!?)

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      In my mind this is actually is a simple statement. Remember it was meant as an example to simplify! Like wind meaning…. no one has ANY control over when it blows. One can only see that did by looking at trees and feeling its breeze. But Holy Spirit’s absolute Sovereignty is affirmed here. The Spirit of God regenerates people so that they can see the Kingdom of God and believe in it. Without the Spirit, no one has ever come to God, without the Spirit no one has ever seen the kingdom of God. It’s invisible to them. That’s all.

      1. Lois Eaton

        but science has now reached a point where we DO know where the wind is coming from – and going to. We can also predict with fair accuracy when it will blow. I think this makes us much more responsible than people were then – we have access to much more knowledge, and are without excuse.
        Your commentary has made Nicodemus real to me in a way he has never been before.

        1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

          Thanks. About the wind. I don’t think you are correct. We still cannot predict where it is going in the sense that Jesus meant it :-).

  6. Margarida

    Dear Dr. Eyzenberg,
    It is interesting your insights, and it is marvelous the amount of people interested to know more about our Saviour and HIS goverment. Best wishes
    Grow up Catholic, married a Baptist, healed in a Pentecost church, Baptized in the Holy Ghost with the evidence in a nursing home while in prayer for an elderly, and now Torah observant by the blood shed of HIM entitled to the Commonwealth of Israel (learning Biblical Hebrew). keep up the good work. shalom

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear Margarida, sounds like the wealth of your exprience has allowed you took for truth in uncommon places. Wishing you well in your journey! Dr. Eli

  7. João Luis Arrais Laneiro Velez

    Thks very much for this portion of the bible was explained in a such good way.

  8. […] continues his conversation with Nicodemus around the familiar theme of the Son of Man. This was a well-known concept at the time of Jesus. […]

  9. Siew

    Thank you so much for the insightful reads and thank you for sharing. I enjoy reading your articles always!, Blessings!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Dear friend, as always I am thankful.

  10. judith green

    I agree with you that Nicodemus was a real person and another story about him is a midrash given in the Talmud, one of a number of stories that appear about him as one of the wealthy Jews who lived in Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. (M. Ta’anit 19b) There is no reason to doubt that this is the same figure as the Nicodemus in John 19:38, who was also wealthy enough to bring an abundance of spices, etc., to the tomb of Jesus, as you mention. The story also has a strange reference to his night-time activities and his association with water, recalling John 3:5.:

    One year, during a drought, there was no water available for the Jewish pilgrims who were coming to Jerusalem for the holiday. Nakdimon ben Gurion approached one of the Roman officers with an offer. He wanted access granted to twelve Roman cisterns on behalf of the Jewish pilgrims. He personally guaranteed that the cisterns would be refilled by a certain date, or else he would pay him twelve talents of silver. When the day arrived, the Roman officer demanded to receive either the water or the silver. Nakdimon ben Gurion responded that the day was not yet over. The officer ridiculed the notion of Nakdimon ben Gurion expecting the cisterns to be refilled in a year of drought. Laughing, he went to the bathhouse, looking forward to his windfall. Nakdimon went to the Temple and prayed to God that his concern for the Jewish people should not lead to financial ruin. The skies filled with clouds and rain began to fall, filling the cisterns. Upon completing their missions, Nakdimon and the Roman officer met outside in the rain. Nakdimon pointed out that the cisterns were not only filled, but were overflowing, and he claimed that the Roman owed him the overflow. The Roman admitted that God had brought the rain on behalf of Nakdimon, but he argued that the debt had not been paid on time, for the day was over! At this point, Nakdimon prayed and the clouds dispersed, allowing the sun to peek through – nikdera hamah ba’avuro – proving that the day was not over. This is a pun on his name, that the “sun pierced through on his behalf.” So Nicodemus can be recommended as a figure who was kind and thoughtful both to all his fellow-Jews and to Jesus in particular!

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Wonderful contribution. Thank you, Judith!