2021-01-16

What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 2)

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by Tim Widowfield

Before returning to the Johannine stories containing the words and deeds of Nicodemus, I must digress briefly to discuss the issue of dependence. The Gospel of John contains countless mysteries, many of which can keep a scholar busy for a lifetime. Who actually wrote the gospel? What were his sources? Who is the Beloved Disciple? Can we find seams (aporias) that might reveal both sources and later redaction?

These puzzles may entertain the mind, but they can often become dark, twisting, endless rabbit holes. I would offer here a rather imperfect analogy to the so-called hard sciences in which we may not understand certain things (yet), but rather than beat our heads against the wall, we measure what we can and try to derive workable models and submit modest predictions. With that in mind, let’s look at larger patterns — looking less at syntax and semantics and more at pragmatics and narrative frames.

Literary Dependence

Typically, scholars will demonstrate the probability of independent, unique Johannine sources by means of declaration rather than explanation.
The Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio, 1310–11 (Wikipedia)

As you probably know from my previous posts on Vridar, I believe that the author of John knew the Synoptics — especially Mark — and used them as source material. Anyone who argues for absolute independence must either ignore or explain the astonishing fact that John re-invented the gospel genre. We have discussed in earlier posts the ways in which John follows narrative boundaries already laid out in Mark.

The author of the Fourth Gospel has built his own road, but he was clearly following already established paths. As an example, we have the narrative “Dead Zone” between Jesus’ burial and the discovery of the empty tomb. The curtain closes as the tomb is sealed. Nothing happens in the story for about 36 hours. The curtain lifts, the sun rises, and the truth is revealed.

Many scholars posit the existence of “traditional material” that lies behind the Fourth Gospel. They insist that John’s usage of such unknown, unseen, never-referred-to sources is more likely than John’s appropriation of and embellishment upon existing Markan frames. Typically, scholars will demonstrate the probability of independent, unique Johannine sources by means of declaration rather than explanation.

However, I would argue that the silence in the Dead Zone represents a Markan frame adhered to by John. We can more simply explain it as an artifact of literary dependence than as a coincidence among pre-existing (yet somehow always magically independent) sources. The silence signals dependence. Yet despite this shared silence, we can find clues that John ached to say more.

The Raising of Lazarus and the Dead Zone

In fact, we can find the missing action between the burial and Sunday sunrise somewhere else. What are we missing from Jesus’ resurrection stories in Mark and John?

  1. The rolling away of the stone.
  2. The emergence of the resurrected Jesus.
  3. The unwrapping or unbinding of the body.

Somehow, the most significant event in human history occurs off-camera. Yet John manages to foreshadow the event when he describes the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Remember first that Jesus had deliberately stayed away, missing both the death and burial of his friend. He arrives on the scene some four days late. In 11:38, Jesus sees a stone lying against the mouth of the cave/tomb. In 11:39 he commands those around him to roll away the stone. (See the discussion of the missing stone in my previous post.)

He then shouts, “Lazarus, come forth!” (Recall the loud voice from heaven in the Gospel of Peter that preceded the opening of Jesus’ tomb.) Lazarus emerges, bound hand and foot and wearing a napkin or facecloth. In the Lazarus story, we are introduced to a napkin. Later, after the resurrection of Jesus, Mary Magdalene discovers the napkin that had once covered Christ’s face but was missing from the burial story.

The scene ends abruptly. Jesus says no more. The camera dollies back and pans over to Jerusalem. We assume Lazarus is glad to be back. We also assume Lazarus’ resuscitation is not the true resurrection, which will occur on the day of judgment. He will die again.

For the moment, I will resist the urge to jump down the Lukan-vs.-Johannine-Lazarus rabbit hole and ignore dozens of other tempting and distracting questions posed by John’s story. Yes, we appear to have in chapter 11 the culmination of the series of signs that will cause some to believe and others to fear for the destruction of the nation.

However, for the moment, let’s keep a tight focus on the contours of Lazarus’ resuscitation laid against the resurrection of Jesus. What’s missing in the latter is present in the former, and vice versa. The curtain lowers on the resurrection as it rises on the resuscitation. The story of the resuscitation abruptly ends exactly where the post-resurrection story in chapter 20 begins. In the Lazarus story, we encounter the actions oddly missing from the Dead Zone. That didn’t happen by accident.

Preliminary Conclusions

Please don’t imagine I’m arguing that the only purpose of the Lazarus story is to foreshadow the Resurrection. Clearly, John has much to say here about Jesus being the life and the resurrection. And we can see that this ultimate sign (or is the resurrection of Jesus the final sign?) causes the Sanhedrin finally and decisively to take action against Jesus. Hence, we have numerous narrative threads coming together here.

I’m saying, rather, that John has multiple ideas that he often expresses through narrative juxtaposition. The placement of Nicodemus at the burial scene means something theological that we can tie back to the earlier stories. We’re wasting time and energy if we worry about whether Nicodemus was a real historical figure and how he managed to carry around 100 lbs. of myrrh and aloe.

In the posts to come, I want to continue to look at intra-gospel and inter-gospel relationships based on some theological and narrative concepts that scholars don’t normally recognize.

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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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One thought on “What Is the Purpose of the Nicodemus Stories in John? (Part 2)”

  1. Maybe, by listing the grave clothes, the Gospel of John creates a verisimilitude that gives more credence to all that the reader is asked to believe.

    Throughout John’s Gospel those who wrote it hyped believe-ism. Regarding Lazarus, did Martha’s radical belief pump things up? She avows believing that, “Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Later in the text this culminates in, “If you ask me anything [whatever you wish—15.7] in my name, I will do it.” Who, including the author, has ever honestly claimed belief in that promise?

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