"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 3 New Beginnings

Section 3.3: Nicodemus Visits Jesus (Jn 3.1-21)


These twenty-one verses are so richly connected with the language and ideas of the Prologue and so bound together internally that it is hard to know where to begin in commenting on them. Perhaps the best place to start is Nicodemos himself. Some have doubted his historicity -- Bultmann for instance refers to the Evangelist as '"historiciz[ing]"' the discourses of chapter 3 by 'working them into his portrait of the life of Jesus' and as 'compos[ing] the Nicodemus scene himself', neither of which seems to allow for much actual historical or traditional material in this section (see Bultmann 1971 p 132). However Bauckham (2007 pp 137-72) has constructed from Talmudic and other sources a plausible 'family tree' for the Gurion family, in which the comparatively rare name 'Nicodemos' occurs in two generations. The background of the Gurion family fits with what can be most probably deduced about Nicodemos from the gospel (eg, that he was a man of wealth and influence among the Jerusalem leadership) and Bauckham concludes (p 166):

If John invented the character of Nicodemus, we should have to say not merely. with Lindars, that he chose "the name as a typical one for a Jewish ruler," but that he invented a fictional member of the Gurion family. It is easier to suppose that the character has a historical prototype.

The narrative itself works in accordance with the misunderstanding motif which is so important in the Fourth Gospel: Nicodemus misunderstands both Jesus himself and his words from the start, but each misunderstanding offers Jesus (and the evangelist) a fresh opportunity to explain his true meaning. Some at least of these misunderstandings are possible only through the medium of the Greek language and have no parallel in English or in Aramaic (the language in which this conversation would have been likely to happen), like the word play between 'begotten from above' and 'born anew' in vv.3 and 7. This is a strain on any translator's resources but more importantly it illustrates one of the principal differences between ancient history or biography, even about near-contemporary events and people, and modern history and biography.

We expect that part of the task of a modern historian or biographer will be to quote the words spoken by a famous person in their important speeches and conversations as accurately as possible. For the ancient writer a speech or a dialogue such as those given by Thucydides was an opportunity to showcase his own rhetorical skill as much as it was an opportunity to provide the gist of what had been said at the time. This is not to say that ancient writers of history and biography did not quote the sayings or aphorisms of their subjects, such as Caesar's 'ueni, uidi, uici' or that Augustus, when he wanted to emphasise the speed of something, used to say that it took less time than cooking asparagus. But speeches and dialogues were set pieces, as it were, and a chance for the author rather than the subject to shine. No-one expected that a famous oration in Thucydides was a direct quote, only that it captured the essence of what had been said in the most suitable words.

The author of the Fourth Gospel is demonstrably writing within the tradition of ancient biography, as we have discussed in the Introduction, and writing in Greek, so the fact that this dialogue with Nicodemos uses word-play that only makes sense in Greek does not mean that the dialogue is fictional. It means only that the dialogue is meant to conform to some of the conventions of ancient biographical writing. The underlying encounter was likely to have been an event well-known to the Evangelist's Jerusalem-based tradition.

This section naturally breaks into two parts, a conversation (vv2-12) and an apparent monologue (vv13-21). The structure of the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemos is basically that of questions and answers: Nicodemos begin with his statements about Jesus as a teacher sent from God and affirming the relationship between Jesus' signs and God's presence. Interestingly he phrases his first statement with a first-person plural: 'we know that you have come from God as a teacher' -- is he dignifying himself with the so-called plural of majesty? Or is he actually speaking for a group, other members of the Sanhedrin? Jesus' remark in v.10 may imply that Jesus felt Nicodemos was arrogating too much authority to himself, and this may imply that Jesus at least took this 'we' as a plural of majesty.

In either case, Nicodemos' statements imply questions about the source and authority of Jesus' teaching and his signs. Nicodemos probably hoped for a reply that affirmed his recognition and insight. Instead he got as an initial reply one of the gospel's double-Amen statements, likely a traditional saying of Jesus. But because the nature of this gospel meant that the saying was given in a Greek form, the Evangelist opened the door to an ultimately productive misunderstanding (in that it allowed for an explanatory discourse).

In v.3 Jesus speaks of being begotten from above, language that for us, the readers, is reminiscent of the Prologue, which speaks of those who received Jesus as children of God, begotten by God. Brown 1966 pp 138-41 has a very useful discussion of the ways in which the Hebrew Bible illuminates the statements in vv. 3 and 5, had Nicodemos 'heard' v.3 properly at the start. But because the verb 'gennēthēnai' ('γεννηθῆναι', to be begotten) can also mean to be born and the adverb 'avōthen' ('ἄνωθεν', 'from above') can also mean 'anew', in v.4 Nicodemos can plausibly misunderstand Jesus as saying something absurd, that one must be born all over again.

Jesus responds to this misunderstanding with another gnomic statement, introduced by the double-Amen in v.5. Now instead of saying one must be begotten from above, he says that one must be begotten of water and the Spirit, alluding perhaps to Ezekiel 36.25-7, which uses water-washing as a metaphor for spiritual cleansing and refers to a new spirit as empowering obedience to God's commands (an idea that will become even more central to Johannine thought in the Farewell Discourse of chapters 14-17). And, continuing to allude to the Hebrew Bible, Jesus makes reference to the unknowability of God in v.8. Here the wordplay between 'breath' and 'Spirit' (in both vv. 6 and 8 and in Ecclesiastes 11.5) works both in Greek and in Hebrew/Aramaic.

At this point Nicodemos more or less gives up and says in v.9, 'How can such things be?' Jesus's initial response is testy: 'You are a teacher of Israel and you do not understand these things‽' -- clearly he felt that at least some of what he was getting at should be discernable by a man who was a teacher of Israel and who had witnessed his signs. He continues with the third and last of the double-Amen statements in this conversation, no longer focussed on the need to be begotten by God but now focussed on Jesus' authority for speaking as he does about such things. He speaks directly to Nicodemos for the last time at v.12: 'If I tell you earthly things and you don't trust me, how will you trust me if I tell you heavenly things?'

It is a little hard to discern here how speaking of being begotten from above, by water and Spirit, can be described as speaking of earthly things. Perhaps because birth itself is part of the earthly realm? Certainly this begetting happens in the earthly realm, here in the realm of nature, although ultimately it points toward heavenly things. Perhaps because this begetting is part of the saving work that the Word accomplished only after being incarnate? In any case it is clear that in the contrast here between earthly things and heavenly ones, the earthly refers to the previous conversation with Nicodemos and the heavenly to the subsequent discourse.

The final verses of this section, vv.13-21, have troubled many commentators, some of whom posit that the conversation with Nicodemos comes to an end at v.12, while vv.13-21 are an explanatory discourse either put into the mouth of Jesus or provided by the Evangelist. Although the character of vv.1-21 does seem to change decisively after v.12, I cannot see that there is a strong argument for a change in speaker. This would not be the only time in the Fourth Gospel that a conversation or dialogue becomes a monologue as it continues.

The change to a monologue also seems to signal a major shift in subject: until now Jesus has spoken to Nicodemos of earthly things, that is, of things like being begotten from above by faith or the distinction between flesh and spirit. But now he turns to heavenly things, and we hear no more about the earthly ones.

[[Use Bauckham 2007 ch 7 more extensively re ch 3 of GJohn]]


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The phrase 'at night' has provoked much discussion. Why should the Evangelist bother to mention that Nicodemos came to see Jesus at night? Since he is interested in no other details about this encounter, it seems unlikely that he mentions it just because it in fact happened at night. Some have suggested that Nicodemos, like Joseph of Arimathea in a later passage, is afraid of the rest of the authorities and is keeping his visit secret from them by going at night. There is no hint of this in the text, however, and it does not seem to fit well with Nicodemos' willingness to speak up in defence of Jesus in ch 7.

Another theory is that the mention of night locates Nicodemos on 'the dark side' as it were, which also seems unlikely given his emergence over the course of the gospel as a follower of Jesus, albeit for most of the ministry a hidden one. Yet another relates this detail to the preference for rabbis to study Torah at night: thus Nicodemos comes to Jesus after or because of his study of Torah. Certainly the detail shows Nicodemos as coming out of a dark place and into the light that Jesus represents; in this he may provide a contrast with Judas, who in chapter 13 leaves the lighted room in which Jesus and his disciples have gathered and enters the darkness of a city at night. See Brown 1966 p 130, and in general for Nicodemos as an ambiguous figure, see Bassler 1989.

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Nicodemos' words about Jesus as a teacher represent his initial misunderstanding of Jesus and his most fundamental. In the latter part of Jesus' discourse, after Nicodemos has all but vanished from the scene, the titles Son of Man and Son of God are emphasised, likely in contrast to Nicodemos' words here.

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The mention of signs here underscores the importance of the Evangelist's affirmation in John 20.30 that Jesus had done 'many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book' [[NRSV: check after you have finished translation]]. Because of course the Evangelist has at this point related almost nothing about signs done in Jerusalem or nearby. Either the story about Nicodemos' visit to Jesus is being told out of any chronological order or the signs to which he is referring are among the many not written in this book. Given that up to this point, the events narrated are arguably in at least a roughly chronological order, it seems logical that this visit should be considered part of the same post-Cana visit to Jerusalem as the cleansing of the Temple, even though it begins without any chronological references. This is particularly true if we see the story of Nicodemos as an illustration of Jn 2.23-5. That in turn suggests that we should take our inability to identify the signs that had so impressed Nicodemos as evidence of the Evangelist's selectivity.

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This phrase 'kingdom of God', so common in the Synoptic Gospels (where it occurs 51 times, usually in parables or sayings of Jesus), occurs only twice in the Fourth Gospel, here and in v5. It is interesting that both occurrences are in double-Amen statements. Its presence likely signals sayings well-known in the tradition upon which the Evangelist drew and whose particular vocabulary he was careful to preserve.

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The tense of the verbs in v13 is an initial difficulty. We the readers know from what has come before in the Prologue that Jesus has come from God and therefore in some sense can be said to have come down from heaven (and it is strongly implied that Nicodemos should partially understand from what he has heard and seen). But no foundation has been laid in the text up to this point for the idea that anyone has gone up to heaven. The beginning of the solution lies in seeing the perfect tense 'anabebēken' (ἀναβέβηκεν, 'has gone up') as an example of the so-called empiric perfect, one used to express a general truth known by experience: no-one's ever gone up into heaven except the one who came down, and that's the Son of Man. (The use of that title however suggests that we are indeed dealing with a saying of Jesus from John's tradition.)

But when it is considered in relation to the following verses, it becomes clear. The allusion to the lifting up of the serpent in the Wilderness in v14 is the first of three such allusions in this gospel to that story from Numbers 21, all of which foreshadow Jesus's death by crucifixion (that is, Jn 3.14, 8.28, and 12.32). In John's reading of the story and of Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension, the lifting up of the serpent does not just look forward to the manner of Jesus' death. It also describes the first step by which the Son of Man that came down from heaven will go up to heaven: Jesus must be lifted up in death so that he can go up to his Father, thus completing the process whereby we are also made children of God. Jesus is thus the link between heaven and earth, the one who will in fact go up to heaven because he first came down.

Thus this section builds upon and explains the vision of the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man in Jn 1.51. In that passage too John's Jesus uses images from the Hebrew Bible to portray himself (using his self-designation as Son of Man) as a bridge connecting heaven and earth.

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What a shame it is that Jn 3.16 is so often wrenched from its context and made to stand alone, without any of foundation so carefully laid for it here and in the previous sections of this gospel. God's love acts as a cause throughout the saving work described here: it is the reason for the Son of Man's coming down from heaven in v13. Ultimately it leads to the eternal life that belongs to those who respond to the Son of Man with trust (vv15 and 16) and so is a factor in the lifting up of the Son in death that leads to his return to heaven and the believers' acquisition of eternal life. And with v17 the Evangelist repudiates the idea that the Son has come as a judge: instead he has come 'that the world might be saved by him'. So all the saving work of Christ arises from and is conditioned by the Father's love.

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The theme of judgment, carefully distinguished from the Son's purpose in coming into the world, is the key to the subsequent section (vv18-21).This final subsection of the monologue is about judgment and bringing what was hidden to light. In it the judgment described is one that individuals bring about themselves by their reaction to the light that has come into the world (a reference back to the Prologue): some embrace the light and others shun it. As Bultmann truly observed, '[i]n the decision man makes when faced with the question put to him by God, it becomes apparent, in his very act of decision, what he really is.' (see Bultmann 1971 pp 159-60) By introducing not just the idea of bringing people's actions into the light, but also that of the people themselves coming into the light, the Evangelist ends this important story with a link back to the figure of Nicodemos, who comes into Jesus' lodgings at night, thus making the transition from darkness to light.

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