Depending on the church calendar you might follow, one day in early August commemorates St. Nicodemus. This is the otherwise mysterious figure found only in the Gospel of John. He visits Jesus at night, speaks (discreetly) on his behalf in the council, and assists in his burial. I will focus here on the first of those events, mainly for what it says about how John’s Gospel was written, and its really complex literary devices.
I am staking no claim here to amazing discoveries, and what I am saying is familiar in the scholarly literature on John’s Gospel. But it is not well known among non-experts.
in his novel Rendezvous with Rama, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke reported that “The Ramans do everything in threes.” John’s Gospel does everything by twos (at least) although it might take some serious thinking to see what exactly these doubles and multiples are. I have already written, for instance, about how the coal fire that Peter warms himself before Jesus’s trial exactly prefigures the fire that Jesus warms himself at after his Resurrection, and there are many such doublets. The one half of the doublet (whether that is a story, or an individual, or a thing) makes little sense without its counterpart.
That observation offers a pointed warning for anyone attempting to elucidate a story or passage in John’s Gospel: almost certainly, that passage will find an echo somewhere else in the text, likely close by. Context is all.
With that caveat in mind, let me return to Nicodemus. The Nicodemus passage in John 3 is famous because it includes the core text 3.16, arguably the most famous single New Testament verse. But here is the wider context. Nicodemus is a very important leader of the Jewish community, who might be identical with a well-documented figure called Nicodemus ben Gurion, who is mentioned in the Talmud (and incidentally had his own reputation as a wonder-worker). Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night to explore his doctrine, and stumbles over Jesus’s words about being born again. How can that be, he says?
The passage is multiply evocative, not least because it is set up so perfectly. The concise statement about visiting Jesus “by night” suggests a whole lost narrative of clandestine meetings, dark corridors, and even muffled disguises. Whether the story contains historical truth, I would find very hard to say. But why on earth does it stand where it does in the Gospel?
Remember how the early chapters of John proceed:
The great theological prologue (1.1-18 );
John the Baptist, and Jesus’s Baptism (1.19-34 );
Jesus calls his first disciples (John 1.34-51);
The wedding at Cana (2.1-12);
Jesus expels the merchants and money-changers from the Temple (2.13-25);
More interactions between Jesus and John the Baptist (3.22-36);
The Samaritan woman at the well (4.1-42).
What possible strand of continuity can there be here? The opening chapter follows some logic than we can recognize from the Synoptics, but things change sharply after that. Particularly strange is the expulsion of the merchants, which must be associated with the final days of Jesus’s life, and his last visit to Jerusalem. That story, at least, seems badly misplaced.
yje consequence is to present the reader with a seemingly glaring contradiction of fact that has troubled readers since ancient times. In the third century, Origen’s commentary on John highlighted this episode as a launching point for a discussion on how to deal with any and all apparent contradictions in the gospels. The purification of the Temple was a classic example of “a spiritual truth in an historical falsehood.”
So why the contradiction? Here is one possible (and popular) approach to that contorted sequence. An editor or author had access to a connected narrative or list of incidents, but for whatever reason made an utter mess of the sequence in which he found them. Was he just incompetent, or were the documents in such a fragmentary state that they could not be reliably reconstructed? Why else would be take the Temple purging event and move it to the start of the Gospel? Elsewhere, we find what are obviously intended to be chains of dialogue that have been chopped up and reshuffled between quite different parts of the gospel as we know it.
But here is a rival theory, and the currently prevailing one. Yes, the editor might well have reshuffled material, but it was absolutely not done through ignorance or carelessness. At least in his view, passage X absolutely had to stand next to passage Y, even if that made nonsense of the linear chronology of Jesus’s life and ministry. The core goal was to explain and interpret that life and message. It is not a contradiction, any more than moving a passage in a symphony.
If you are writing a straightforward biography, you don’t randomly take episodes from one part of your subject’s life and cut and past them into a totally different part of that story. John, though, was clearly not writing anything like a standard biography, either in the ancient or modern sense of that word. Any reading of John has to start from that acknowledgment.
With that distinction in mind, I will look at the Nicodemus tale not in isolation, but in the context of the story that closely follows it, that of the Samaritan woman. When we do that, we see that we are dealing yet again with a double, two stories that echo each other. I will also argue that one overwhelming theme runs through those stories, and the chapters in which they stand, namely the idea of baptism.
At least in its first third or so, John’s Gospel is built on water.