“There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus a ruler of the Jews: The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” - John 3:1-4
Nicodemus was a ruler of the Jews. This has been understood to mean that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council of Elders. He is mentioned three times in the Gospel of John: once talking with Jesus, once defending Jesus before the Pharisees, and once helping in the burial of Jesus. In the later capacity he assisted Joseph of Arimathea, who was also a member of the Sanhedrin.
These acts of kindness to Jesus (along with possibly others) exposed both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea to the ridicule of other Jewish leaders - especially during the delicate political situation at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Christian tradition accepts that Joseph of Arimathea was an adopted father of Jesus. Joseph the Carpenter was believed to have been an older man when he took Mary to wife. When he died, Jesus was still a boy. It is claimed that Joseph of Arimathea took it upon himself to care for the fatherless family (see Tuchman). He was said to have been a tin merchant and possibly a relative of the family. It is clear that he respected Jesus a great deal.
Nicodemus obviously respected Jesus as well. Perhaps he was introduced to him by Joseph. He was impressed enough to seek an evening meeting with him. It is often suggested that he sought out Jesus at night in order to be secretive - to avoid the criticism of his colleagues. This has been the traditional view among Christian commentators even though the argument is an indirect one – based only on the general wording of John 12:42-43, where it is recorded that there were many chief rulers that believed on Jesus but would not admit it because of the Pharisees. Significantly, no names are mentioned, or necessarily implied, in this passage.
What we do know about Nicodemus’s relationship with Jesus after their first visit can hardly be understood to be evasive. Near the end of Jesus’ ministry the Pharisees had arranged for certain officers to bring Him to custody. Nicodemus, standing up for Jesus asked them, “Doth our law judge any man before it hear him and know what he doeth?” (see John 7:50-53). Then after the crucifixion, Nicodemus is recorded to have brought a great deal (about 75 pounds) of expensive myrrh and aloes (John 19:39) for the burial of Jesus. What makes this even more significant is that he helped Joseph of Arimathea with the actual preparation of the body - making both of them unclean according to Jewish law to participate in the Passover (see Numbers 19:11).
There is even a suggestion in the Book of Mormon that nighttime visits by Jewish leaders in Jerusalem were not uncommon events. Nephi, after disguising himself as Laban (a Jewish leader living in Jerusalem) was greeted by Zoram (Laban’s servant) who, “spake unto [Nephi] concerning the elders of the Jews, he knowing that his master, Laban, had been out by night among them” (I Nephi 4:22.). It is possible that Nicodemus likewise met with Jesus at night in order to enjoy a more relaxed and intimate conversation with Him.
Another criticism of Nicodemus is that he lacked faith - that he relied on (and was overly proud of) his rational gifts. Chrysostom (the late 4th Century Archbishop of Constantinople) argued that his use of the word “how” (in, “How can a man be born when he is old?” – John 3:4) is evidence of this.
“For the “how” is the doubting question of those who have no strong belief, but who are yet of the earth. Therefore Sarah laughed when she said, “How?” And many others having asked this question, have fallen from the faith.”
Chrysostom wrote at a time of great sectarian division within the church. Many of his detractors were individuals that asked probing and faithless questions and it is understandable why he would feel the way he did. But his tendentious views, projected on to Nicodemus, can hardly pass as a rule of human nature. Sadly, it seems that Chrysostom’s negative view of Nicodemus has been copied ever since by theologians and commentators alike who have not given the subject much more thought. The evidence alone from John’s gospel is certainly insufficient to argue against the faith of Nicodemus (see note by Black).
A more realistic view of Nicodemus is that he was a successful Jewish man that had risen to the leading council of his society and yet who genuinely sought to understand the message of Jesus. Perhaps he had developed a friendship with one of his colleagues (Joseph of Arimathea) who had told him about Jesus and then sought out a time to speak with Him directly. There is nothing in his conversation with Jesus to suggest that he was being unduly critical, disrespectful or doubtful. Very likely he just wanted to learn more about Jesus.
In fact John records that Nicodemus used two revealing words in this conversation that show a significant amount of respect. First, Nicodemus greets Jesus with the title rabbi. This is a title of great respect. (Of the three increasingly respectful forms of this title: rab, rabbi and rabban - rabbi is an intermediate form (See G.C. Morgan)). Jesus had not yet openly declared Himself to be the Son of God and Nicodemus had no reason to use the highest form. That he used the title rabbi at all is quite significant coming from one of the leading authorities of the law, who was used to being called by that title himself. Nicodemus was used to the company of the brightest and wisest Jews of his day. He met with them on a regular basis - sometimes daily. Jesus was not part of this group, and yet Nicodemus recognized His wisdom nonetheless.
The second revealing word Nicodemus used was teacher (or master). I say this was the second word advisedly because the word rabbi means teacher in Hebrew. Almost all versions of John’s gospel indicate that Nicodemus addressed Jesus with the title rabbi and then recognized that He was a teacher sent from God. This distinction exists even in the Vulgate and the Greek New Testament. It is likely, though, that Nicodemus used the same word twice: rabbi.
This is significant because a teacher (rabbi) among the Jews was significantly more important than a teacher as we understand the word today. It was more important even than how the Romans and the Greeks understood the word. A teacher, for example, who passed along information, was a didaskalos. A teacher who lived by and conveyed the teachings of another was a mathetes (a disciple). But someone who was a true teacher had the truth within themselves - receiving it directly from God.
This is a very important theme for John. He points it out on a number of occasions: that truth comes from above, is manifest in Jesus, and is perceived by the spirit of truth. John wants us to know up front that Jesus is a teacher of this higher form. It is also significant that Nicodemus seems to have recognized this too - at least in part.
That such a man would use direct questions is perfectly understandable. It is also clear from his subsequent behavior that he respected Jesus a great deal. A simple inference from a nighttime interview with the Master does not imply that Nicodemus was morally weak. The truth is that there are more human failings written about Peter in the gospels, then there are about Nicodemus - and yet we recognize Peter as the leader of Christ’s church and one of the greatest men that ever lived. Nicodemus, it seems to me, deserves to be more favorably remembered.
Black, Matthew. 1967. An Aramaic Approach to the Gospels and Acts. Hendrickson Publishers. Black shows (page 160) that Nicodemus’s question is part of an Aramaic or Hebrew parallelism. In this light, Nicodemus’s question may be more properly viewed as a literary or rhetorical emphasis, than an implication of disrespect.
Chrysostom, John. Homilies on the Gospel of John 24:4. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Hendrickson Publishers, 2004 (Vol. 14, p. 85).
Morgan, G.C. The Gospel According to John. 15th ed. Fleming and Revell Co. See page 57. See also Alma 18:13 (in The Book of Mormon) where Ammon is called Rabbanah, which is possibly a related form of rab.
The Book of Mormon. 1981. Published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version. 1979. Published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Tuchman, Barbara. 1984. Apostle to the Britons: Joseph of Arimathea, in Bible and Sword (Chapter 2). Ballantine Books, New York.