Exegetical Exercise

Henry Ossawa Tanner Jesus and Nicodemus

A man of the Pharisees who was called by the name of Nicodemus came to him during the night …

The Uniform Series text for Sunday, April 9, is John 3:1-16. This is another very familiar text for lots of people, and I don’t have a whole lot to add by way of exegetical notes.

First reading – I wonder whether Jesus and Nicodemus know each other at all, or have ever met before; and whether this is a conversation between people who like, or even kind of like, one another, or between neutrals, or hostiles? Like, if you were an actor playing Jesus, or playing Nicodemus, how would you read these lines? Kindly, compassionately? Dismissively? Consdescendingly? (“come on, you dolt, N., get with the program?”) We probably don’t normally think of Jesus talking that way, but he has a lot of long preachy lines in this scene. Does Nicodemus sound … stunned? Curious? Perplexed? I think most preachers give this a kind of “Nicodemus being clueless and Jesus being didactic” reading, but does that fit either of their personalities?

Nicodemus is “a man of the Pharisees” (v. 1) and “a leader (or archon, a “ruler” – if the Jews have rulers) of the Jews” – so, no slouch, presumably really learned in Scripture and in talking about Scripture and religious matters. Btw, the name “Nicodemus” means something like “victory of the people” or anyway “victory” + “people” (the Nike of victory, the demos of the people, as in demo-cracy) – foreshadowing?

He comes at night (everyone points this out) – this is significant – night, darkness, ignorance, needing enlightenment/enlightening.

Look at what is happening in the text: recurring words, patterns of activity, things the different characters are doing, etc.:

Jesus does exactly one thing in this passage: he answers Nicodemus.

Nicodemus does several things: he comes to the place Jesus is by night, he says things, and (in Greek) he also answers and says things.

So: it’s a conversation; Jesus has almost all the dialogue; if this were a movie, the director would be pulling out her hair trying to figure out how to make this exciting.

Does it seem like they are on two different wavelengths at first? Nicodemus’ opener (“we know you are a teacher who has come from God”) doesn’t seem all that directly related to Jesus “answer” (“no one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew/from above”) – a more conventional answer would be something like “yes, that’s right” or “well, that’s a long story.” If this is an answer, is it telling Nicodemus that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he says being from God is perceptible? And is perceptible because of signs of power? Is Jesus implying that Nicodemus can, or can’t, see the kingdom of God here?

Is Nicodemus really a literalist? So, taking Jesus as speaking literally about “re-birth”? Again, this seems inconsistent with his advanced exegetical training. So … is his speech in v. 4 also coded, as coded as Jesus’? If so, what’s the code? Could he be asking something like “how can someone change their life after the fact?” How can someone change tradition? Who is the “mother” in this speech, what is the “womb”?

There’s a repetition of the verb “enter” that’s interesting: Nicodemus talks about “entering” the womb of the mother [and some Christians might be thinking about “mother church” here, and baptism, btw, and thinking “heck, yeah, you can do that after you’ve grown old, just fyi”], and Jesus then talks about “entering” the kingdom of God by being born of water [there’s that baptism again??] and the Spirit [the other part of baptism??]

So perhaps they are having a conversation about baptism here. In code.

And then Jesus starts talking about the Spirit, or perhaps wind, and could he be talking about how the Spirit/wind has no determinate point of origin? Because if he were, this would make a little more sense of Nicodemus’ “how can these things be?” response, if Nicodemus is coming from a place that assumes that the determinate point of origin for belonging to the people of God is participating in the covenant community, being Torah-observant …; in which case, Jesus would be saying something like “it isn’t as clear-cut as that, it’s about the activity of God’s Spirit, which is not bound to the limits of the covenant community.” Just a thought. It would be consistent with John (also cf. John 1:12-13 about birth), and with the tone of this conversation at this point.

So Nicodemus flatters Jesus (by saying he’s from God), and Jesus puts Nicodemus down by saying he’s stupid for a teacher (v. 10). So: an example of Jesus being less than socially graceful? Not the only one in the gospels. (Remember that woman he calls a dog? E.g.)

In verses 14-15 cf. the story of the children of Israel being bitten by fiery serpents in the wilderness after they complained about the food in the wilderness again (Numbers 21:4-9), and presumably this involves some foreshadowing – so my question here is, how is this an analogy? Because Jesus sets it up as an analogy; in Numbers, the serpent is somewhat homeopathic, the people are bitten by serpents, so when they look at Moses’ serpent it’s an antidote. So what does the Son of Man represent when “lifted up,” what is the Son of Man a symbol of/antidote for? [Maybe someone – like Paul in Romans – will say “sin”? Might there be another possibility here?] Is the lifting up the lifting up on the cross? Or the lifting up of resurrection/ascension? Or both?

John 3:16 is not really the end of Jesus’ speech. Why are we stopping here?

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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