In the closing stages of writing my latest book, The Resurrection: A Critical Examination of the Easter Story [UK], I had a few test readers. One was David Austin, down in Australia, who has provided a few guest articles for your delectation. Here is another one – thanks muchly to him:
Quoting Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Silver Blaze”:-
Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”
Channeling Sherlock Holmes:-
Holmes “I draw your attention to the curious incident of Nicodemus in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew & Luke)”
Gregory “Nicodemus does not appear in the Synoptic Gospels”
Holmes “That was the curious incident”
It is a curious fact that, the character Nicodemus only appears in John’s gospel, and considered important enough to be mentioned three times, and yet he is apparently unknown to the Synoptic gospel authors. It is strange that even Luke, who says he has “investigated things carefully”, makes no mention of him, which leads some to speculate, he is just an invention of the author of John.
His most famous (or infamous) appearance in John’s gospel is in Chapter 3, and the relevant portion I reproduce below.
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b] 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] 8 The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus seems confused by Jesus’s reference to “being born from above”, and thought Jesus was saying he must be “reborn”.
Bart Ehrman addresses this issue:-
In “Jesus, Interrupted,” on page 155, Ehrman wrote,
“In the Gospel of John, chapter 3, Jesus has a famous conversation with Nicodemus in which he says, ‘You must be born again.’ The Greek word translated ‘again’ actual has two meanings: it can mean not only ‘a second time’ but also ‘from above.’ Whenever it is used elsewhere in John, it means ‘from above’ (John 19:11, 23). That is what Jesus appears to mean in John 3 when he speaks with Nicodemus: a person must be born from above in order to have eternal life in heaven above. Nicodemus misunderstands, though, and thinks Jesus intends the other meaning of the word, that he has to be born a second time. ‘How can I crawl back into my mother’s womb?’ he asks, out of some frustration. Jesus corrects him: he is not talking about a second physical birth, but a heavenly birth, from above.”
“This conversation with Nicodemus is predicated on the circumstance that a certain Greek word has two meanings (a double entendre). Absent the double entendre, the conversation makes little sense. The problem is this: Jesus and this Jewish leader in Jerusalem would not have been speaking Greek, but Aramaic. But the Aramaic word for ‘from above’ does not also mean ‘second time.’ This is a double entendre that works only in Greek. So it looks as though this conversation could not have happened—at least not as it is described in the Gospel of John.”
Already, this is creating the possibility that, if this meeting never took place, then, it’s not much of a stretch to think Nicodemus, himself, never existed, and whether John has included other possibly fictious events in his gospel, not mentioned in the synoptics (eg John the Baptist declaring Jesus as the “Lamb of God” ,Wedding at Cana, Raising of Lazarus, Jesus’ side pierced on the cross, “Doubting Thomas” & more). Some apologists have speculated that Jesus was able to speak & understand Greek, but this seems highly unlikely. He might have had a smattering of Greek, but I doubt he could have a long theological conversation in Greek, rather than Aramaic.
(As a side note, Christians often use this passage to talk about a “born-again experience”, but they are really mis-reading the passage, and what Jesus actually meant.)
Nicodemus appears later when counselling his fellow Sanhedrin members that a person should be heard before being judged.
His last appearance is after Jesus is crucified, where he brings spices to use on Jesus’s body, and he assists Joseph of Arimathea with Jesus’s burial.
Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels for the burial narrative, but only John’s gospel has Nicodemus assisting him. It is a curious omission that, the synoptics mention Joseph of Arimathea in connection with the burial, but not Nicodemus, being that Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin and not just some random character (since he is actually named; If he was just some servant assisting Joseph, he probably wouldn’t even get a mention).
It is also strange that, if Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were followers of Jesus, they are never heard of again after the burial of Jesus.
I think the answer is that they were fictious characters invented by the Gospel writers for a particular agenda. Gospel authors seem to have a proclivity for “inventing” characters with names that pertain to some theological point they want to make.
For example, the character “Barabbas” literally means “Son of the Father”, and he is pitted against Jesus who is supposedly “Son of God (the Father)” in the choosing of which one will be crucified. This is meant to mirror the “Yom Kippur” atonement ceremony where two identical goats are chosen, one to be sacrificed for the sins of Israel (Jesus), and the other released into the wilderness (Barabbas).
I believe the “clue” here is the most famous quote in the New Testament, that appears in the discourse between Jesus & Nicodemus – John 3:16
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
Now, the name “Nicodemus” translates as “Victory by the People”, so maybe Nicodemus, who is supposed to be a secret follower of Jesus, is meant to represent “Victory (over death) by the People” ie. every person who follows Jesus with have “eternal life”. This is pure speculation on my part, but it seems not an unreasonable hypothesis, in the circumstances.
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