2021-01-06

What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Longtime Vridar readers may recall a post from 2013 in which I discussed an argument put forth by William Wrede regarding the priority of Mark’s gospel. Wrede noted that when Matthew took over Markan accounts, he sometimes condensed or rewrote his source, which led to oddities in the finished product. It turns out Volkmar and Wrede described this evidence of “inaptness” of the text well before Mark Goodacre discovered editorial fatigue.

Editorial Clues in the Burial Story

Vienna – Plaster statue of Burial of Jesus with the Nicodemus and Joseph from Arimathea in Michaelerkirche, Vienna.

In a similar fashion, in a post back in 2018, we considered the possibility that a grammatical error in Mark 8:27-30 might indicate a redactional seam that may hold clues to the original (hypothetical) source material. Recently, I became interested in whether such inconcinnities might be found in the narrative layer of the Fourth Gospel. Specifically, I wondered if we might find hints in the empty tomb story of editorial fatigue, which could have been caused by the intrusion of the Nicodemus legend in the burial story.

Recall that Mark’s burial story neatly pre-answers several continuity questions posed by the women-at-the-tomb story.

  1. Q: Why did the women wait until Sunday morning?
    A: Jesus died and was buried on the Day of Preparation (Mark 15:42). They rested and waited on the Sabbath.
  2. Q: Why were they bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body?
    A: Joseph of Arimathea had quickly wrapped the body and buried it in a tomb. (Mark 15:46)
  3. Q: Who’s this Joseph guy?
    A: A member of the Sanhedrin who was seeking the Kingdom of God. (Mark 15:43)
  4. Q: So Pilate just gave him the body? How did that happen?
    A: He was really brave. He demanded it, and Pilate relented. (Mark 15:43-45)
  5. Q: If the women didn’t participate in the burial, how did they know where to find the tomb?
    A: They followed Joseph and watched from a distance. (Mark 15:47)

The Stone

However, as Sunday morning rolls around, we begin to see some substantial inconsistencies in John’s account.

Mark’s attention to detail in the empty tomb story extends to the stone that blocks the tomb. As an afterthought, the women wonder how they’re going to move “the” stone that’s blocking the entrance. What stone would that be?

And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. (Mark 15:46b, ESV, all bold emphasis mine)

Oh, that stone. In Greek, we have the anarthrous stone, translated as “a stone” referred to later as “the stone.”

16:3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?”
16:4 And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. (ESV)

That’s how it works in narration. In English, an object is introduced with the indefinite article — e.g. a tomb — then referred to later with the definite article — e.g. the tomb. Greek has no indefinite article, but we can see the change occur from anarthrous to arthrous, even in the same verse. Here’s a good example:

καὶ  γοράσας σινδόνα [1a] καθελὼν αὐτὸν ἐνείλησεν τῇ σινδόνι [1b] καὶ ἔθηκεν αὐτὸν ἐν μνημείῳ [2a] ὃ ἦν λελατομημένον ἐκ πέτρας, καὶ προσεκύλισεν λίθον ἐπὶ τὴν θύραν τοῦ μνημείου [2b]. (SBL Greek New Testament, Mark 15:46)

Joseph bought a linen cloth [1a], took Him down, wrapped Him in the linen cloth [1b], and laid Him in a tomb [2a] which had been cut out in the rock; and he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb [2b]. (NASB)

Notice, once again, that Mark has introduced a stone, which will henceforth be referred to as the stone.

When we turn to John’s gospel, we find the same sort of thing. The evangelist tells us about garden with a new tomb in 19:41.

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden [1a], and in the garden [1b] a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. (John 19:41, ESV)

However, as Sunday morning rolls around, we begin to see some substantial inconsistencies in John’s account. Because he inserted the Nicodemus story and his 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe (yes, I know it’s more like 75 lbs. imperial), John forgot to mention stone. So when Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb, we have a reference with a missing antecedent.

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. (John 20:1, ESV)

The Women

Not only do we have the missing earlier reference to “a stone,” but we have no mention of women (or even one woman) watching the burial from afar. How does Mary Magdalene know where to go? John leaves us to guess at details that Mark explicitly laid out.

Mary runs back to Peter and the Beloved Disciple, and she tells them the body has been removed from “the tomb.” They don’t ask, “What tomb?” Instead, they tear off, sprinting at full tilt to the site of a burial that they did not witness. How did they know where to run? It’s fine drama, but it’s incoherent narrative.

By the way, when Luke retold Mark’s burial story, he had his own editorial baggage he needed to jam in. There were these women, see? And they had been following him since he left Galilee. Remember? And they saw the burial. Yes, and they realized they needed to go and buy some spices really quickly before the stores closed. Oh yeah, and they stayed home on the Sabbath, ’cause that was the law. In his breathless excitement, Luke also forgot to mention “a stone,” just like John.

Here’s another oddity in John. In 19:40, he mentions linen cloths with which Joseph and Nicodemus bind up the corpse. As in our other examples, the evangelist uses the anarthrous noun first and then uses the definite article when the disciples see the linen cloths lying in the tomb. We expected as much. However, in the post-resurrection story, we have an extra unreferenced object.

And the napkin, that was about his head, not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. (John 20:7, KJV)

I used the Authorized Version above because too many modern English translations use the word “cloth” instead of “napkin.” The Greek uses two different words: σουδάριον (soudarion) and ὀθονίων (othoniōn). The first is a specific item: a handkerchief or “face cloth.” The second is a more generic term: linen cloths or strips of linen. When Lazarus came back from the dead, he was wearing a soudarion.

And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go. (John 11:44, KJV)

We expect the anarthrous usage here, because John had not introduced it earlier. Consequently, the appearance of the napkin (specifically used to cover a dead person’s face) in 20:7 could indicate a missing referent caused by editing. In this instance, if a later redactor added it, he recognized the absent napkin in the burial story and quickly appended — “that was about his head” — to explain it.

Nicodemus

In any event, the absent women at the burial scene, as well as the missing stone to block the entrance of the tomb, have led me to conclude that John’s insertion of Nicodemus caused him to leave his primary source at the beginning of Mark 15:46. He thus inadvertently omitted Mark’s initial references to the stone and the women observers, which occur afterward. John also neglected to mention that the tomb had been hewn out of rock, a detail which Luke and Matthew did not forget when copying Mark.

If we can demonstrate, as I think we have, that Nicodemus in the burial narrative is an intrusion and a Johannine invention, some obvious questions follow: Why did he do it? What was so important about Nicodemus that John had to add him? And why, specifically, here?

We’ll address those questions and more in part 2.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is an RV Park host who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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5 thoughts on “What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 1)”

    1. Not clear what you mean to say here. Are you saying that Josephus writes that Jesus of Gamala had a disciple named Nicodemus? Where does he say that, if that’s what you mean?

      1. So wikipedia:
        Nicodemus ben Gurion (Hebrew: נקדימון בן־גוריון‎, Naqdimon ben Gurion) was a wealthy Jewish man who lived in Jerusalem in the 1st century AD. He is believed by some to be identical to the Nicodemus mentioned in the Gospel of John.

        The Talmud says so about Nicodemus:

        Nero then sent against the Jews Vespasian the Caesar, who came and besieged Jerusalem for three years. In Jerusalem there were three men of great wealth, Nakdimon ben Gurion, Ben Kalba Shabua and Ben Zizit Hakeseth. These men were in a position to keep the city (alive) for twnty-one years.

        About Martha:
        Martha, daughter of Boethus, was a widow from the respected Boethus family of Jerusalem who remarried a future High Priest of Israel. According to tradition, she paid a large sum of money to buy the position for her betrothed, Joshua ben Gamla, from King Yannai (BT Yevamot 61a).

        The Talmud has a curious story about a man named Nicodemus. It says
        he was one of the richest men in Jewish history. This Nicodemus had two
        daughters named Mary and Martha: Martha was a widow who returned to her father Nicodemus’ house, while Mary had married an extremely rich man and had brought him a huge dowry.

        The Talmud places this story 30 years AFTER the Gospel Nicodemus:
        a generation later.

        Eisenman thinks that Nicodemus and Boethus are the same person, because they appear to have the same daughters.

        Hence, it is plausible that a Nicodemus buried Jesus ben Gamala and this historical record ended in the Fourth Gospel.

  1. Furthermore, we find that in this verse the word used for linen cloths is different from the word previously used by Luke.

    In Luke 23:53 uses the word for linen cloths is “sindoni”, but in 24:12, he uses the word “othonia”, which is exactly the same word as is used in John 25:5.

    This is one of the reasons for believing that Luke 24:12 is an interpolation based on John 25:5.

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