There are two ways to approach the manner in which the Fourth Gospel reveals Nicodemus. One is to consider the details chronologically as they are given in the narrative. Thus, Nicodemus comes at night (cf 3:1-21); speaks up for Jesus during the Feast of Tabernacles (cf 7:45-52); brought the myrrh and aloe and helped entomb the body (cf 19:38-42). This last act would be a public display; it would be very extravagant, befitting a king suggesting Nicodemus was true follower of Christ.
The second way to approach the details is to consider them as presented by a writer who knows with certainty the answer to the question. From this point of view, a narrative which fails to resolve the question, indicates Nicodemus never became (or remained) a true follower. In other words, if Nicodemus was a true believer, one would expect the writer to provide a definitive answer. So a narrative which ends without providing the answer implies the answer is "no."
In addition, the details paint a picture of one who is always identified with night:
- There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” (3:1-2) [NKJV]
- Nicodemus (he who came to Jesus by night, being one of them) said to them, “Does our law judge a man before it hears him and knows what he is doing?” (7:50-51)
- And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. (19:39)
Night and darkness are always portrayed as negative and in opposition to Jesus, so continually connecting Nicodemus to night is purposefully negative. Given the rarity of the name Nicodemus in the Gospels or in Jerusalem or the Diaspora,
1it is unnecessary to subsequently identify him as the one who came by night. This is a literary device which makes little sense to apply to a true follower, but it is what one expects if Nicodemus was not a follower.
Nicodemus' support for Jesus at the Feast could be nothing more than a Pharisaical desire to uphold the Law, regardless of the individual charged. That is, unlike those who wanted Jesus killed and were willing to ignore the Law, Nicodemus' primary concern was for adherence to the Law. After all he is a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews (3:1). Moreover, it is not accurate to characterize this action as defending Jesus because he fails to refute the inaccurate claim that "...no prophet has arisen out of Galilee" (7:52).
His participation in the burial is public, but passive. Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body and having secured it, Nicodemus provided the spices. True his actions were extravagant, but as with the Feast of Tabernacles, they could be justified as nothing more than ensuring the body had a legal burial. No doubt they display disdain for the execution, but there is nothing to suggest they are more than that. If questioned by the High Priest, Nicodemus might well respond, "since you had the man executed because he was a king, I made sure he was buried as such."
Finally, one of the distinctive characteristics of the Fourth Gospel is the frequent narrative asides:
John uses them for such purposes as to indicate the location or time of an event, to translate Hebrew or Aramaic words, to explain Jewish customs, to cite Old Testament passages, to clarify the inner thoughts, motivations, and feelings of characters, to explain what the words of Jesus or another character mean, and to comment on the significance of events, especially with the benefit of a perspective later than that of the characters in the narrative.
Therefore, if Nicodemus was a true follower, we would expect some type of an aside to make a definitive statement, as is done with Joseph of Arimathea:
After this, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took the body of Jesus. (John 19:38)
Despite actions which are very public, more so than Nicodemus', the writer calls Joseph a disciple, but secretly. No such statement is made about Instead the writer uses asides which suggest the opposite: Nicodemus is always the one who came at night.
1. Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John, Baker Academic, 2007, p. 152
2. Jonah was from Gath Hepher a village in Galilee (cf. 2 Kings 14:25). Additionally, Rabbinic tradition R. Eliezer (Sukkah 27b) and Seder Olam R. 21 both attest that there was not a tribe in Israel which did not have a prophet. CK Barrett says "John's words raise the question whether he had any firsthand knowledge of Palestinian Judaism in the first century." The Gospel According to John, SPCK, 1962, p. 275. Ironically, some scholars attribute Nicodemus' failure to correct the inaccurate statement as John's ignorance of Judaism. In fact, it is Nicodemus, "Israel's teacher" (cf. 3:10) who fails to state the obvious and defend Jesus' status as a prophet.
3. Bauckham, p. 105.