Nicodemus

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For other uses, see Nicodemus (disambiguation).
Nicodemus helping to take down Jesus' body from the cross, Michelangelo Pieta.
Jesus and Nicodemus by Crijn Hendricksz, 1616–1645.
Nicodemus (left) talking to Jesus, by Henry Ossawa Tanner


Saint Nicodemus (/ˌnɪkəˈdməs/; Greek: Νικόδημος) was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus appears three times in the Gospel of John. He first visits Jesus one night to discuss his teachings.(John 3:1–21) The second time Nicodemus is mentioned, he reminds his colleagues in the Sanhedrin that the law requires that a person be heard before being judged.(John 7:50–51). Finally, Nicodemus appears after the Crucifixion to provides the customary embalming spices, and assists Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial.(John 19:39–42)

The discussion with Jesus is the source of several common expressions of contemporary Christianity, specifically, the descriptive phrase born again used to describe the baptism, and John 3:16, a commonly quoted verse used to describe God's plan of salvation. An apocryphal work under his name — the Gospel of Nicodemus — was produced the mid-4th century, and is mostly a reworking of the earlier Acts of Pilate, which recounts the harrowing of Hell.

Though there is no clear source of information about Nicodemus outside the Gospel of John, the Jewish Encyclopedia and many Biblical historians have theorized that he is identical to Nicodemus ben Gurion, mentioned in the Talmud as a wealthy and popular holy man reputed to have had miraculous powers. Christian tradition believes that Nicodemus was martyred because of his belief in Christ sometime in the 1st century AD.

Nicodemus in the Bible[edit]

Christus und Nicodemus, by Fritz von Uhde (1848–1911)

As is the case with Lazarus, Nicodemus does not belong to the tradition of the Synoptic Gospels and is only mentioned by John,[1] who devotes more than half of Chapter 3 of his gospel, a few verses of Chapter 7 and lastly mentions him in Chapter 19.

The first time Nicodemus is mentioned, he is identified as a Pharisee who comes to see Jesus "at night". John places this meeting shortly after the Cleansing of the Temple. "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him." (John 3:2)

Then follows a conversation with Nicodemus about the meaning of being "born again"/"born from above" and mention of the "kingdom of heaven". Jesus expresses surprise, perhaps ironically, that "a teacher of Israel" does not understand the concept of spiritual rebirth. James F. Driscoll describes Nicodemus as a learned and intelligent believer, but somewhat timid and not easily initiated into the mysteries of the new faith.[1]

In John Chapter 7, Nicodemus advises his colleagues among "the chief priests and the Pharisees", to hear and investigate before making a judgment concerning Jesus. Their mocking response argues that no prophet comes from Galilee. Nonetheless, it is probable that he wielded a certain influence in the Sanhedrim.[1]

Finally, when Jesus is buried, Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 100 pounds, for embalming Jesus' body according to Jewish custom (John 19:39). Nicodemus must have been a man of means. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week, Pope Benedict XVI observes that, "The quantity of the balm is extraordinary and exceeds all normal proportions. This is a royal burial." [2]

Veneration and liturgical commemoration[edit]

Nicodemus is venerated as a saint in the various Eastern churches and in the Roman Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic churches commemorate Nicodemus on the Sunday of the Myrrhbearers, celebrated on the Third Sunday of Pascha (i.e., the second Sunday after Easter) as well as August 2, the date when tradition holds that his relics were found, along with those of Stephen the Protomartyr, Gamaliel, and Abibas (Gamaliel's second son). The traditional Roman Catholic liturgical calendar lists the same feast of the finding of their relics on the following day, August 3.

In the current Roman Martyrology of the Catholic Church, Nicodemus is commemorated along with Saint Joseph of Arimathea on August 31. The Franciscan Order erected a church under the patronage of Saints Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea in Ramla.

Legacy[edit]

Daniel Burke notes that, "To blacks after the Civil War, he was a model of rebirth as they sought to cast off their old identity as slaves".[2] Rosamond Rodman asserts that freed slaves who moved to Nicodemus, Kansas, after the Civil War named their town after him.[2] However, the National Park Service indicates that it was more likely based on a 1864 song Wake Nicodemus by Henry Clay Work used to promote settlement in the area.[3]

In August 16, 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. invokes Nicodemus as a metaphor concerning the need for the United States to be "born again" in order to effectively address social and economic inequality. The speech was called “Where Do We Go From Here?,” and delivered at the 11th Annual SCLC Convention in Atlanta, Georgia.[4]

Nicodemus in art[edit]

Entombment, by Tizian
Nicodemus (right) talking to Jesus, by William Brassey Hole, (1846–1917)

Nicodemus figures prominently in medieval depictions of the Deposition in which he, and Joseph of Arimathea are shown removing the dead Christ from the cross, often with the aid of a ladder.

Like Joseph, Nicodemus became the object of various pious legends during the Middle Ages, particularly in connection with monumental crosses. He was reputed to have carved both the Holy Face of Lucca and the Batlló Crucifix, receiving angelic assistance with the face in particular and thus rendering the works instances of acheiropoieta.[5]

Both of these sculptures date from at least a millennium after Nicodemus's life, but the ascriptions attest to the contemporary interest in Nicodemus as a character in medieval Europe.

In popular culture[edit]

Cima da Conegliano, Nicodemus with Christ's body, Apostle John on the right and Mary to left.

Laurence Olivier portrayed in the Franco Zeffirelli television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977). In the miniseries, Nicodemus tries to warn Jesus that he might be arrested, and is there to watch the Crucifixion.

Nichole Nordeman's song To Know You references Nicodemus, as does the song Help Yourself by The Devil Makes Three, and "Nicodemus (The Seeker)" by the Christian band For Today.

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

  • Cornel Heinsdorff: Christus, Nikodemus und die Samaritanerin bei Juvencus. Mit einem Anhang zur lateinischen Evangelienvorlage (= Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte, Bd.67), Berlin/New York 2003

External links[edit]

Nicodemus
Preceded by
Temple Cleansing
New Testament
Events
Succeeded by
Samaritan Woman
at the Well