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. steve francees

    Dear Dr Eli, I really enjoy your teachings and how it is presented! Keep-up with the good job! Steve

    1. Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg

      Steve, thanks and welcome to the group. Dr. Eli