Saturday, September 8, 2012

'Knowing' in John 3: Jesus and Nicodemus Part I

This is the second in a series of posts that I am writing as I prepare for my John class. Again, these notes are based on my observations and not secondary literature. Also I am refraining from reading ahead in order to let the narrative set the pace for these thoughts. For my initial foray into the subject of 'knowledge' in John's Gospel click here.

One of the most famous episodes in John's Gospel and certainly of the dialogues that take place in the narrative, is Jesus' encounter with the Pharisee, Nicodemus at the beginning of chapter 3. The reader/ hearer has just been told at the end of chapter 2 that Jesus, while attending the Passover festival, performed many 'signs' (τὰ σημεῖα; cf. 2.11 ) that the people saw (θεωροῦντες; cf. 1.32) and as a result they 'believed in his name' (ἐπίστευσαν εἰς τὸ ὄνομα αὐτοῦ; 2.23; cf. 1.12). Surprisingly the reader/hearer is told that "Jesus would not entrust himself to them (ἐπίστευεν αὐτὸν αὐτοῖς), for he knew (τὸ αὐτὸν γινώσκειν)all people (2.24). He did not need human testimony about them, for he knew all people (ἐγίνωσκεν; 2.25). The knowledge of Jesus based purely on his performance of signs is clearly not enough.

In steps Nicodemus, a Pharisee (3.1). This marks the third confrontation that a Jewish leader has had with either John the Baptist (1.19 ff.) or Jesus (2.18 ff.). He comes to Jesus at night (νυκτὸς; 3.2). The reader should be aware of the significance of Nicodemus' timing. The prologue mentions that the light shines in the darkness (ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ) and the darkness (ἡ σκοτία) has not overcome/understood (καταλαμβάνω; 1.5). So, if one is sensitive to John's literary cue, one can imagine what might happen next. Next, Nicodemus' statement to Jesus in 3.2 is so dense with symbolic import, I will take a moment to unpack it bit by bit on what has transpired in the previous two chapters.

  1. "Rabbi": Nicodemus' first word to Jesus reveals his insufficient knowledge of Jesus. Formerly, two of John's disciples, one unnamed and the other Andrew address Jesus with this title of respect in 1.38. Also, Nathanael does the same in 1.49. I argued in the previous post, that these titles reveal insufficient knowledge of who Jesus is.
  2. "we know" (οἴδαμεν): Thus far, Jesus is the only one who really 'knows', as he reveals God (1.18), renames Simon (1.42); identifies Nathanael's character (1.47), understands the nature of the people at the Passover where he performed 'signs' (2.24). Those who do not know at different points in the narrative are John the Baptist (1.33), who doesn't know who Jesus is until God reveals it to him, the disciples whose subsequent attempts to give Jesus honorific titles based on their knowledge are only partial, at best (1.38, 41, 45, 49), and the Jewish leaders (1.26; 2.18-21). In Nicodemus' first few words, he has revealed his ignorance.
  3. "that you are a teacher..." (see notes above.)
  4. "For no one could perform the signs" (τὰ σημεῖα): The first of Jesus' signs that are performed is at the Wedding at Cana (2.1-11). The first hint of a somewhat negative emphasis on 'signs' occurs when "the Jews" confront Jesus after he clears out the Temple, demanding 'a sign' to verify his actions (2.18). The third time we hear of 'signs' are when Jesus performs them at the end of chapter 2, where belief based on his 'signs' is insufficient causing Jesus to distrust the crowds loyalties (2.23-25).
  5. "...if God were not with him. ": The reader already knows that God is with Jesus, i.e. the 'Word' based on 1:1b: "The Word was with God" (καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν). This makes Nicodemus' words full of irony.
Conclusion: In his opening statement, Nicodemus displays a level of knowledge of Jesus that is at best, partial. This continues a theme already established to this point in John's narrative that complete knowledge of Jesus' identity continues to be elusive to the characters in the narrative, with the exception of possibly, John the Baptist.

The next post will examine the remainder of the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus (3.3ff.).

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