Who Was Nicodemus?

In my latest reading of Lee Harmon’s John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, I learned about the view that the Nicodemus of John’s Gospel appears in Josephus and the Talmud.  Lee refers to Josephus’ Jewish War 2.451, Babylonian Talmud Taanit 20a, and Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a.

Lee cites Josephus’ Jewish War 2.451 in arguing that Nicodemus “lived as a wealthy and generous Jew in Jerusalem during John’s time” (page 66).  The passage says (according to William Whiston’s translation): “the others readily complied with their petition, sent to them Gorion, the son of Nicodemus, and Ananias, the son of Sadduk, and Judas, the son of Jonathan, that they might give them the security of their right hands, and of their oaths: after which Metilius brought down his soldiers; which soldiers, while they were in arms…”

This scene is set in 66 C.E., according to Richard Bauckham (see here).  Bauckham argues that Gorion in this passage could be the son of Nicodemus ben Gurion, one reason being that it was common for people to carry their grandfather’s name.

The Babylonian Talmud depicts Nicodemus ben Gurion as a wealthy man who interacted with the Romans.  See here for some of its stories about him.  Babylonian Talmud Taanit 20a says that Nicodemus was a nickname for Boni, for the sun shined (dikdera) for him when he asked it to do so.  In Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a, there is a Buni who was one of the five disciples of Yeshu (and Yeshua is related to the Greek name Iesous, or Jesus).  Yeshu, according to this passage, was hanged on the eve of Passover and was said to be a sorcerer who enticed Israel to apostasy, plus he was connected with the government (which, according to the translation in my Judaic Classics Library, indicates that he was royalty, or was influential).  Buni was executed sometime after the death of Jesus.

I haven’t done a thorough study of this issue, to tell you the truth, but I do have a couple of questions.  First of all, if the people who put together the Talmud realized that Nicodemus ben Gurion was a follower of Jesus, why does the Talmud seem to portray Nicodemus in such a positive light? 

Second, there’s the issue of how old Nicodemus was, and when, and even which Nicodemus we are talking about.  This article states the following, as its author refers to Craig Blomberg’s scholarship: “there are two people called Nicodemus, one in Josephus’ Antiquities (14:37), and one in the Babylonian Talmud. Both were members of the ben Gurion family, ‘in which…’ as Blomberg says, ‘… only a handful of ‘first’ names reappear over the generations.’ (The implication is that Nicodemus is one such name.)  Josephus’s Nicodemus [in Anitquities] was alive in 64 BC, so he certainly cannot be the person John writes about. The Nicodemus of the Babylonian Talmud was a rich man who lived in Jerusalem during the war with Rome, i.e. the late 60s AD. The Nicodemus of John’s Gospel could have been the uncle of this Naqdimon ben Gurion of later Jewish history.”  As I look at Josephus’ Antiquities 14:37, I see no evidence that the Nicodemus who lived in 64 B.C.E. was part of the Ben Gurion family.  If he were, then, in my opinion, that would challenge the notion that Nicodemus ben Gurion’s name of “Nicodemus” was a nickname—-either because Nicodemus caused the sun to appear (as the Talmud says), or because he was innocent of Jesus’ blood (which Lee argues, as we shall see shortly)—-for Nicodemus would have had his name simply because it was a name that recurred in his family.

In any case, I think that the article does well to grapple with the identity of Nicodemus in John 3.  If the Nicodemus of John 3 is the Nicodemus of Josephus’ Antiquities 14:37—-the one who lived in 64 B.C.E.—-then Nicodemus would be really old (perhaps approaching his 90s) when he met with Jesus in John 3.  If the Nicodemus of John 3 is the Nicodemus of the Talmud, who lived during the late 60’s C.E., then how old was Nicodemus when he met with Jesus?  The author of the article goes with the option that the Nicodemus of John’s Gospel could have been the uncle of the Nicodemus ben Gurion of the Talmud.

Lee speculates that John refers to Nicodemus by name (when it is rare for John to refer to people by name) because Nicodemus in Hebrew means “innocent of blood”, and John may want to highlight that Nicodemus refused to condemn Jesus.  According to John Paulien in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Nicodemus in Greek means “conqueror of the people”, which assumes that the name is from the Greek words nikao (“conquer”) and demos (“people”).  The word means “innocent of blood”, however, in Hebrew: naqi can mean “innocent”, and dam means “blood”.  Do I think that Nicodemus was given that name because he refused to condemn Jesus?  I suppose that it’s possible, but one cannot be sure.  After all, others were named “Nicodemus”, including someone who lived in 64 B.C.E.  According to Paulien, it was a common first century Greek name.  Nicodemus could have had his name simply because that was his name, not because he was innocent of blood in his refusal to join in Jesus’ condemnation.  At the same time, in my opinion, Lee does well to ask why John names Nicodemus, when John does not name so many other people in his Gospel.  Perhaps it is to highlight that Nicodemus was innocent of the blood of Jesus, but there could be alternative reasons: because Nicodemus was influential and John wanted to show that even prominent Jews were following Jesus (a similar sort of thing may be going on with Gamaliel in Acts 5:34, even though Acts does not say that Gamaliel followed Jesus), or because John is drawing from Nicodemus’ eyewitness testimony (a Richard Bauckham sort of argument).

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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