In my latest reading of Lee Harmon's John's Gospel: The Way It Happened, I learned about the view that the Nicodemus of John's Gospel appears in Josephus and the Talmud. Lee refers to Josephus' Jewish War 2.451, Babylonian Talmud Taanit 20a, and Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a.
cites Josephus' Jewish War 2.451 in arguing that Nicodemus "lived as a
wealthy and generous Jew in Jerusalem during John's time" (page 66).
The passage says (according to William Whiston's translation): "the
others readily complied with their petition, sent to them Gorion, the
son of Nicodemus, and Ananias, the son of Sadduk, and Judas, the son of
Jonathan, that they might give them the security of their right hands,
and of their oaths: after which Metilius brought down his soldiers;
which soldiers, while they were in arms..."
This scene is set in 66 C.E., according to Richard Bauckham (see here).
Bauckham argues that Gorion in this passage could be the son of
Nicodemus ben Gurion, one reason being that it was common for people to
carry their grandfather's name.
The Babylonian Talmud depicts Nicodemus ben Gurion as a wealthy man who interacted with the Romans. See here for some of its stories about him. Babylonian Talmud Taanit 20a says that Nicodemus was a nickname for Boni, for the sun shined (dikdera)
for him when he asked it to do so. In Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43a,
there is a Buni who was one of the five disciples of Yeshu (and Yeshua
is related to the Greek name Iesous, or Jesus). Yeshu,
according to this passage, was hanged on the eve of Passover and was
said to be a sorcerer who enticed Israel to apostasy, plus he was
connected with the government (which, according to the translation in my
Judaic Classics Library, indicates that he was royalty, or was
influential). Buni was executed sometime after the death of Jesus.
I haven't done a thorough study of this issue, to tell you the truth, but I do have a couple of questions. First
of all, if the people who put together the Talmud realized that
Nicodemus ben Gurion was a follower of Jesus, why does the Talmud seem
to portray Nicodemus in such a positive light?
Second, there's the issue of how old Nicodemus was, and when, and even which Nicodemus we are talking about. This article
states the following, as its author refers to Craig Blomberg's
scholarship: "there are two people called Nicodemus, one in Josephus'
Antiquities (14:37), and one in the Babylonian Talmud. Both were members
of the ben Gurion family, 'in which...' as Blomberg says, '... only a
handful of 'first' names reappear over the generations.' (The
implication is that Nicodemus is one such name.) Josephus's Nicodemus
[in Anitquities] was alive in 64 BC, so he certainly cannot be the
person John writes about. The Nicodemus of the Babylonian Talmud was a
rich man who lived in Jerusalem during the war with Rome, i.e. the late
60s AD. The Nicodemus of John's Gospel could have been the uncle of this
Naqdimon ben Gurion of later Jewish history." As I look at
Josephus' Antiquities 14:37, I see no evidence that the Nicodemus who
lived in 64 B.C.E. was part of the Ben Gurion family. If he were, then,
in my opinion, that would challenge the notion that Nicodemus ben
Gurion's name of "Nicodemus" was a nickname----either because Nicodemus
caused the sun to appear (as the Talmud says), or because he was
innocent of Jesus' blood (which Lee argues, as we shall see
shortly)----for Nicodemus would have had his name simply because it was a
name that recurred in his family.
In any case, I think
that the article does well to grapple with the identity of Nicodemus in
John 3. If the Nicodemus of John 3 is the Nicodemus of Josephus'
Antiquities 14:37----the one who lived in 64 B.C.E.----then Nicodemus
would be really old (perhaps approaching his 90s) when he met with Jesus
in John 3. If the Nicodemus of John 3 is the Nicodemus of the Talmud,
who lived during the late 60's C.E., then how old was Nicodemus when he
met with Jesus? The author of the article goes with the option that the
Nicodemus of John's Gospel could have been the uncle of the Nicodemus
ben Gurion of the Talmud.
I'd now like to turn to what Lee says on
page 67 about the etymology of the name Nicodemus: "Nicodemus, while
clearly a Jew, sported a Greek name. It means 'innocent of blood,'
surely not his given name, perhaps coined as a reference to his refusal
to condemn Jesus."
Lee speculates that John refers to Nicodemus by name (when it is rare
for John to refer to people by name) because Nicodemus in Hebrew means
"innocent of blood", and John may want to highlight that Nicodemus
refused to condemn Jesus. According to John Paulien in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Nicodemus in Greek means "conqueror of the people", which assumes that the name is from the Greek words nikao ("conquer") and demos ("people"). The word means "innocent of blood", however, in Hebrew: naqi can mean "innocent", and dam
means "blood". Do I think that Nicodemus was given that name because
he refused to condemn Jesus? I suppose that it's possible, but one
cannot be sure. After all, others were named "Nicodemus", including
someone who lived in 64 B.C.E. According to Paulien, it was a common
first century Greek name. Nicodemus could have had his name simply
because that was his name, not because he was innocent of blood in his
refusal to join in Jesus' condemnation. At the same
time, in my opinion, Lee does well to ask why John names Nicodemus, when
John does not name so many other people in his Gospel. Perhaps it is to highlight that Nicodemus was innocent of the blood of Jesus, but there could be alternative reasons: because
Nicodemus was influential and John wanted to show that even prominent
Jews were following Jesus (a similar sort of thing may be going on with
Gamaliel in Acts 5:34, even though Acts does not say that Gamaliel
followed Jesus), or because John is drawing from Nicodemus' eyewitness testimony (a Richard Bauckham sort of argument).
Testing Mill's maxim
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