350 Raymond Brown

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This page is part of item 350 Jesus To Nicodemus within the Jesus Database project of FaithFutures Foundation.

Raymond E. Brown

In The Gospel according to John. Anchor Bible 20. pp. 135-37], Brown provides a typically cautious introduction to these issues in general and this case in particular:

The Nicodemus scene is our first introduction to the Johannine discourse. It is the first oral exposition in John of the revelation brought by Jesus, and in capsule form it gives the principal themes of that revelation.


When we try to think of this scene occurring in the ministry of Jesus, there are many problems that must be faced, not the least of which is setting. The opening statement of Nicodemus in vs. 2 implies that Jesus has worked many miracles in Jerusalem, and this is also the burden of ii 23 and iv 45. Yet, the fact that no miracle done in Jerusalem has been narrated by John has led many to suggest that the Nicodemus story should come later in the Gospel after miracles in Jerusalem have been described. Mendner, art. cit., suggests that the authentic setting for the Nicodemus story is in vii 51. Mendner supposes that, after Nicodemus had spoken on Jesus' behalf, he went to investigate him. In his Diatessaron (Codex Fuldensis), a 2nd century harmony of the Gospels, Tatian placed the Nicodemus scene in Holy Week, an arrangement Lagrange finds tempting. A prediction of death, such as found in vs. 14, would be more in harmony in Holy Week. Gourbillon, art. cit., would relocate iii 14 21 between xii 31 and 32, thus giving part of the Nicodemus scene a setting toward the end of Jesus' life. Such exercises of ingenuity are always interesting, but in the end one is discouraged by the lack of proof.

John obviously intends Nicodemus to illustrate a partial faith in Jesus on the basis of signs and has prepared the way for this with ii 23-25. Such an illustration comes logically after examples of more satisfactory faith (the disciples at Cana) and of complete lack of faith ("the Jews" at the Temple). Thus, the sequence is at least logical. To seek perfect chronological sequence in John is a vain endeavor, for the evangelist himself has warned us that such was not his interest (xx 30).

The question of historical value affects not only the setting but also the contents of the discourse. In the NOTES we have pointed out the numerous difficulties: in vss. 3-4 a play on words possible only in Greek; in vs. 11 Jesus speaks in the plural as if the Church were speaking; in vs. 13 it seems as if the Son of Man has already ascended. These problems lead some to regard the whole discourse as a Johannine creation, or else to regard only the introduction as showing signs of origin in earlier tradition (see Noru on vs. 2). Many scholars suggest that at least some part of vss. 12-21 is a homily by the evangelist himself rather than the words of Jesus. The reference to Baptism in vs. 5 has led even so conservative a scholar as Lagrange, p. 72, to remark that this whole exposé would appear more natural on the lips of a Christian catechist long after the Church's founda¬tion than on Jesus' lips as his opening words of the ministry.

As we remarked in the Introduction, the relation of the Johannine dialogues to the primitive tradition about Jesus of Nazareth and his sayings is not a question open to facile solution. Certainly there has been a reworking of material by the evangelist in vss. 1-21, a changing of perspective, a development of later themes. But there are Synoptic parallels to many of the isolated statements attributed to Jesus in these verses, and it seems probable that a solid nucleus of traditional material has been elaborated in homiletic fashion into the present form of the discourse. The attempt to attribute a certain number of verses to Jesus and a certain number to the evangelist is, in our opinion, impossible. There are no stylistic differences in vss. 12-21 to tell us where such a division should be marked. Rather, throughout the whole the threads of tradition and homiletic development are too interwoven ever to allow precise separation.

Plan of the Discourse

How are vss. 1-21 to be subdivided? On the basis of form, we note that Nicodemus makes three statements in 2, 4, and 9; the last two are explicit questions, the first is treated as an implicit question. To all three Jesus gives an answer that begins, "I solemnly assure you" (3, 5, 11 the last is preceded by an ad hominem remark). The three answers of Jesus are progressively longer in their development. Thus, from the standpoint of form alone, the section is not so haphazard as some of the attempts at rearrangement might indicate.

There is also a development in thought. Roustang points out a reference to the three divine agents that may, at least, form a secondary motif: the words of Jesus in vss. 3-8 concern the role of the Spirit; those in 11-15 concern the Son of Man; those in 16-21 concern God the Father. Perhaps a combination of form and thought pattern gives us the best division (see Roustang, p. 341; De la Potterie, pp. 430 31). After the introductory first verse which follows ii 23-25 and sets the scene more precisely, we have:

1. Vss. 2-8. Begetting from on high through the Spirit is necessary for entrance into the kingdom of God; natural birth is insufficient.

(a) 2-3: First question and answer: the fact of begetting from on high.
(b) 4-8: Second question and answer: the how of the begetting— through the Spirit.

2. Vss. 9-21. All of this is made possible only when the Son has ascended to the Father, and it is offered only to those who believe in Jesus.

9-10: Third question and answer introduces this whole section.

(a) 11-15: The Son must ascend to the Father (in order to give the Spirit).
(b) 16-21: Belief in Jesus is necessary to profit from this gift.

We believe that the evangelist has left some signs that this was roughly the plan he followed in organizing the discourse. Division 1 begins with Nicodemus' assurance, "We know that you are a teacher"; this is balanced at the beginning of Division 2 by Jesus' statement, "You hold the office of teacher of Israel . . . we are talking about what we know." Besides the similar pattern in the two divisions, the whole discourse seems to be held together by an inclusion. The discourse begins with Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night; it ends on the theme that men have to leave the darkness and come to the light. Nicodemus opens the conversation by hailing Jesus as a teacher who has come from God; the last part of the discourse shows that Jesus is God's only Son (vs. 16) whom God has sent into the world (17) as the light for the world (19). If we consider ii 23-25 as the introduction to the Nicodemus scene, there is still another inclusion. In ii 23 we heard of those who "believed in his name," but their belief was unsatisfactory because they did not come to see who he was; in iii 18 we find an insistence that salvation can come only to those who "believe in the name of God's only Son."