🔼The name Nicodemus in the Bible
There's only one man named Nicodemus in the Bible but he plays quite a part. His name appears only in the gospel of John (a mere 5 times; see full concordance) and his literary character develops beautifully from scholarly and skeptic to justificatory and finally sympathetic, empathic if not outrageously exuberant.
The gospel of John is one of the latest additions to the New Testament; it was written when the synoptic gospels had been circulating for decades and the letters of Paul even longer. Its perspective is clearly that from after the resurrection of Christ and its intended audience knew that the protagonist was going to end up alive and glorious. The audience's assumed foreknowledge of the facts is clearly demonstrated by John's introduction of the story of the raising of Lazarus, in which he refers to Mary as the one who had anointed Jesus (John 11:2). He's not referring to something he's already told. John's own version of that account would follow in chapter 12.
John is not trying to add more facts but organize the existing facts in a new way, quite possibly also to address the follies of Gnosticism, which slowly began to distinguish itself as an independent philosophy around the time of John's writing. The early Gnostics began to believe that salvation was the result of a certain true knowledge and that this true knowledge could be achieved by a life of study and ascetic self-denial. Christianity differs from Gnosticism in its belief that salvation comes from Christ, whose love surpasses all knowledge (Ephesians 3:19). Knowledge is of course highly appreciated in the Bible, but ultimately it's not knowledge but He who makes us able to stand blamelessly in the presence of God, and He gives great joy (Jude 1:24, Jude is also a relatively late book). Or said popularly: if true knowledge was the key, the devil would be in.
John's gospel is deliberately joyful; it even ends with a quip (John 21:25; also see John 20:30-31). John is probably too early to be an actual formal response to Gnosticism, but it deliberately shows the inadequacy of the intellectual effort and does that in the form of satire and downright banter. Commentators rarely touch the comic character of the debate between Nicodemus and Jesus, but while Nicodemus is obviously displayed as a stern academic and a very learned man, Jesus treats him like a banana.
🔼Nicodemus in the Gospel of John
John introduces Nicodemus as one of the Pharisees, a ruler of the Jews, but one who recognizes power when he sees it and also one who comes to Jesus under cover of the night, not to be seen by his colleagues (John 3:1). John leads Nicodemus into a debate with Jesus, which:
- Opens with the introduction of the fundamental element of Christology, namely that of the second birth (3:3).
- Casually reflects on baptism and the original sin (3:5).
- Connects in one sentence the creating Spirit of God to the identity of Christ as priest in the order of Melchizedek (3:8, see Hebrews 7:3). This "not knowing from where it came or where it is going" undermines the cardinal principle of logic causality and determinism. One's genealogy was of crucial importance to establish whether one had the right to live in post-exilic Judea or not (Ezra 2:59-62), and although both Matthew and Luke define Jesus as son of David, their diverging genealogies after David is a deliberate literary device and certainly not a mistake.
- Explains the enigmatic Nehushtan (3:14).
- Reflects on God's motivation and explains the gospel by means of possibly the most-quoted verse in the New Testament, John 3:16.
- Reflects on good and evil, light and dark, and the logic of judgment and thus the essence of the Law (3:17).
John has the debate develop like a kind of intellectual slapstick that shows that Nicodemus but mostly Jesus was thoroughly amused by the whole affair. We know that Jesus — Himself an unprecedented expert in the Law — spent most of his time with largely uneducated folks, but that He loved a good debate. He was a twelve year old prodigy when He took on the Pharisees for the first time (Luke 2:42) and at age thirty completely demoralized the devil himself in three moves (Luke 4:1-13). Jesus will meet anyone anytime and on any ground they choose, and no doubt He was delighted to go head to head with a man like Nicodemus.
John shows Jesus effortlessly eclipsing the Pharisaic intellect of Nicodemus ("are you sure you're a teacher?" says Jesus; John 3:10), but it's obvious from the continuation of Nicodemus' character that the latter grew very fond of his new friend.
As Jesus' ministry progresses, the people begin to be divided. Some say he's the Prophet (Deuteronomy 18:18) and others that He's the Christ. But then there are some who argue that the Scriptures never predict that the Christ would come from Galilee (John 7:40-41). Some officials decide to go see the experts on the matter: the revered and learned Pharisees. And they sternly refute the officials, because no one of the rulers or Pharisees believes in Him, do they? Not in that cursed bunch that doesn't know the first thing about the Law? The Pharisees know the Law inside and out and they aren't swayed by this fellow Jesus, are they? (John 7:45-49).
And out of the blue Nicodemus responds: How do you know that Jesus doesn't know the Law if you haven't heard Him speak? Does the Law forbid you to actually get off your cushion and investigate the matter? "Ah!" the Pharisees say, "Check for yourself and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee!"
No doubt this blunder of the Pharisees would have caused a roar of laughter in John's original audience. These self-proclaimed experts of the Law think that they can gauge Jesus from afar while they can't even fathom Nicodemus who sits right next to them. They're an obtuse bunch of vociferous louts who don't even remember that the prophet Jonah came from Gath-hepher, five kilometers north of Nazareth in lower Galilee (2 Kings 14:25). The Pharisees are caught with their pants down. They're not interested in the Law for theological reasons but for demagogical reasons (John 11:48; at this time, two high-ranking members of their own club pronounce them ignorant; Caiaphas says, "You know nothing at all"; John 11:49. And at least one other Council member was a disciple of Christ, namely Joseph of Arimathea; Mark 15:43).
The final time that Nicodemus shows up in John's gospel is at the burial of Jesus (John 19:39). We learn that Joseph of Arimathea, who retrieves the Body of Christ from Pontius Pilate, is still very much a fearful undercover disciple. Nicodemus, on the other hand, has by now figured out that he has absolutely nothing to fear, and brings a hundred litra of myrrh-and-aloe. And to put that into perspective: a few chapters earlier, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, had used one litra of the same oil to anoint Jesus' feet (which, whether the modern reader likes it or not, is a perfectly proper and open allusion to the most honorable member of a bridegroom's anatomy). In the previous chapter, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, and John makes sure that the reader relates Mary's act to Jesus' act (12:1, 12:9). Mary's oil filled the whole house with a pleasant scent (12:3) but Lazarus' corpse was producing the stink of death (11:39). John also makes sure that the reader knows that Martha believed in the resurrection (11:24), and makes it very unlikely that Mary didn't (11:45, 12:11).
The oil that Mary used was so costly that spending a litre of it had irritated Judas Iscariot. Mary's litre represented 300 dinari, which was a common man's annual wage. Nicodemus brings one hundred times as much; that's one hundred years of labor worth of myrrh oil. Moving that kind of oil must have involved every merchant in town. There's no way that Nicodemus could have amassed that much oil covertly, or even keep its purpose secret. Surely the whole town knew about it. But why the oil?
🔼Nicodemus and the myrrh oil
When Judas complaints about Mary's oil, Jesus tells him, "Let Mary be, that she may keep it for the day of My burial" (John 12:7, Matthew 26:12, Mark 14:8), and a large majority of modern commentators will state that Mary "prepared" Jesus' Body for embalming. That is entirely incorrect. Embalming the dead was done in Egypt (Genesis 50:2, 50:26) but certainly not in Israel. The Talmud allows embalming only if there is a dire emergency (such as there being no grave available) but states that it should be strenuously avoided because it desecrates the body (Avraham Steinberg, M.D. encyclopedia of Jewish Medial Ethics, page 377). To the Jews, draining a corpse of its blood and removing certain organs constituted a horrendous desecration of the human body, and even the bodies of executed criminals were treated with respect (Deuteronomy 21:23). Neither Mary nor Nicodemus intended to embalm Jesus.
John tells that Joseph and Nicodemus bound the Body in linen wrappings with the spices according to the custom of the Jews (John 19:40). But that custom was not a burial custom. Jewish burial customs are described in the Lazarus cycle and no oil or aromas are mentioned (note that only John tells the story of Lazarus of Bethany, to make sure that the reader understands about Jewish burial procedures). The aromatic oil appears in the next chapter, and is applied to Jesus who raised Lazarus.
If Mary's one litre had filled the whole house with scent, Nicodemus' hundred litres must have wafted all over the region. Its strong and bitter scent was unmistakably recognized by everybody in the wide surroundings and reminded everybody of only one thing, and that wasn't death.
With his hundred litre of myrrh-oil (and a hundred is two times fifty, or a double witness to jubilee), Nicodemus unmistakably declared that the marriage of God and mankind had been consummated. He never went there to bury Christ; he went there to see Him be "born again," just as Jesus had explained him when the whole Nicodemus cycle started (John 3:3). The only other time that word σμυρνα (smurna) occurs in the gospels is in the nativity story, when the magi from the east gave it to Mary and Jesus when He was born the first time (Matthew 2:11).
The older gospels had told the story of Christ's burial in Joseph's tomb but none of them mentioned Nicodemus' massive myrrh contribution (in Mark and Luke, the women bring spices; no myrrh is mentioned). It may have occurred to John that the audience of the older three gospels hadn't understood the resurrection as described by the earlier versions, and he may have inserted Nicodemus' outrageous gesture as a kind of inside joke. To people in the know, he couldn't have done it more obviously. A hundred litre of myrrh-oil. Custom of the Jews. A garden with a new tomb in which no one had yet laid, which is obvious to anyone a direct reference to the locked garden (the virgin bride) of the Song of Solomon 4:12 and the wafting spices of 4:16 (also see John 3:29).
All gospels explain that Jesus' Body was placed in the tomb on the day before the Sabbath. And all gospels tell that the women went to the grave the day after Sabbath. Not a single member of a Jewish audience would have assumed that the women went to the tomb to embalm a person who'd been dead for two nights and a day (also see John's hint in John 11:31).
John goes through great lengths to explain that in reference to the resurrection, there are three kinds of people:
- People who don't want to hear about it, and who may or may not be aggressively opposed to discussing it.
- People who believe it on forehand (Nicodemus, Martha and probably the other women), who understand it as a general principle and who prepare for it.
- People who aren't opposed to it at all but who simply can't intellectually fathom it (mainly the disciples; see John 20:9)
Any gnostic or proto-gnostic in John's audience would have condemned the first and last group and worked hard to be in the second. But John shows that the resurrection occurs irrespective of people's beliefs and intellectual understanding. Even those who see the resurrection as a logical consequence of preceding Scriptures and events, can not possibly predict the unimaginable practical manifestations of it. Even those who are violently opposed to it can experience it when it happens (Acts 9:5). But the most fertile group is composed of the people who are just ordinary folks, not the intellectuals but people whose beliefs are based on an everyday amicable interaction with Jesus. The resurrection does not occur by passing an exam; it occurs when it's time — and read for a closer look at the resurrection as a principle our article on the noun αναστασις (anastasis), from the verb ιστημι, (histemi).
John shows with great clarity that Nicodemus knew the resurrection to be precisely like someone's first birth; it happens when it happens and to whom it will happen. It can be predicted on forehand with the same kind of intellectual understanding that an unborn child has about its own birth and life on the outside. It happens because it's embedded in the way the universe works, and it doesn't happen due to our careful observations (Luke 17:20). God brings it about; He is the only active partner in the covenant He made with Abraham (Genesis 15:17, compare with Jeremiah 34:18), or in the words of Solomon: "Lean not on your own understanding but trust in the Lord with all your heart" (Proverbs 3:5).
The resurrection can be expected with an unwavering faith, but that faith isn't going to bring it about. If one's faith isn't based on a total surrender to the will of God, it will at best render the believer a front row seat to a spectacle he will not be part of. Here at Abarim Publications we're obviously very fond of intellectualism, but we've deliberately chosen the name Abarim to relativize our efforts. We nevertheless hope that you'll enjoy our two drops worth of myrrh.
🔼Etymology of the name Nicodemus
The name Nicodemus is a compound of two elements. The first part of our name comes from the word νικη (nike), meaning victory:
The second part of the name Nicodemus comes from the familiar noun δημος (demos), meaning people:
The name Nicodemus might mean Victory Of The People or, slightly more sinister; Victory Over The People. Spiros Zodhiates (The Complete Wordstudy Dictionary) translates our name diplomatically with Victor Among The People and NOBSE Study Bible Name List reads Conqueror Of The People.
With this name John seems to illustrate that Nicodemus is an intellectual Goliath. In Romans 8:37 Paul applies the verb υπερνικαω (hupernikao) to those of us who operate within the love of Christ. It literally means to be beyond conquering, and it doesn't simply denote a thorough defeat but a destruction of the very ways and means of the conquered party; that which gave them the illusion of power in the first place.