Sunday, January 21, 2018

Nicodemus: a comic encounter

There's only one man named Nicodemus in the Bible but he plays quite a part. His name appears only in the gospel of John (a mere 5 times; see full concordance) and his literary character develops beautifully from scholarly and skeptic to justificatory and finally sympathetic, empathic if not outrageously exuberant.

The story of Nicodemus is deliberately comical

The gospel of John is one of the latest additions to the New Testament; it was written when the synoptic gospels had been circulating for decades and the letters of Paul even longer. Its perspective is clearly that from after the resurrection of Christ and its intended audience knew that the protagonist was going to end up alive and glorious.

The audience's assumed foreknowledge of the facts is clearly demonstrated by John's introduction of the story of the raising of Lazarus, in which he refers to Mary as the one who had anointed Jesus (John 11:2). He's not referring to something he's already told. John's own version of that account would follow in chapter 12.

John is not trying to add more facts but organize the existing facts in a new way, quite possibly also to address the follies of Gnosticism, which slowly began to distinguish itself as an independent philosophy around the time of John's writing. The early Gnostics began to believe that salvation was the result of a certain true knowledge and that this true knowledge could be achieved by a life of study and ascetic self-denial. Christianity differs from Gnosticism in its belief that salvation comes from Christ, whose love surpasses all knowledge (Ephesians 3:19). Knowledge is of course highly appreciated in the Bible, but ultimately it's not knowledge but He who makes us able to stand blamelessly in the presence of God, and He gives great joy (Jude 1:24, Jude is also a relatively late book). Or said popularly: if true knowledge was the key, the devil would be in.

John's gospel is deliberately joyful; it even ends with a quip (John 21:25; also see John 20:30-31). John is probably too early to be an actual formal response to Gnosticism, but it deliberately shows the inadequacy of the intellectual effort and does that in the form of satire and downright banter. Commentators rarely touch the comic character of the debate between Nicodemus and Jesus, but while Nicodemus is obviously displayed as a stern academic and a very learned man, Jesus treats him like a banana.

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