Geoff Tennant - Promoting access to mathematics for all
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24/7/16: understanding Nicodemus in John 3

Just back from a short trip to Uganda to be the keynote speaker of the Uganda Mathematical Society - and here's the poster to prove it!

Just fantastic being there, much enjoyed the interactions both formal and informal, very happy to share anything I have on my laptop if you have a memory stick!  I hope colleagues appreciated what I had to say using this PowerPoint, please note that it's not intended necessarily to be self-explanatory, do get in touch to ask if you're interested.  I came away pondering the question, "Is good mathematics teaching a branch of geography?" which I'm hoping to work up into a paper shortly, and a related question as to how development projects connect up meaningfully with where people are rather than, I am sorry to say, frequently having a sense of being parachuted in from outside with little regard to context.  As always, if you have any thoughts on these questions, very pleased to hear from you, either through comments below or privately.

But actually I'm wanting to write about something else this week.  My Bible reading has recently taken me to John chapter 3, where Nicodemus speaks with Jesus and including perhaps the best known verse in the whole of the Bible:

For God so loved the world
That He gave His only begotten Son
That whoever believes in Him shall not perish
But have eternal life.

You may like to read John 2:24-3:21, preferably from the New King James Version (NKJV) which gives a more literal translation (I think I'm right in saying) of the last few verses of chapter 2 than either the Good News or New International versions.  Important to note before going any further that the division of the Bible into chapters and verses came some considerable time after it was written, and also that there were no speech marks in the original, so both of these things are editorial.

It was when I was an undergraduate that I heard an exposition of John 3 which has stayed with me ever since - albeit that I can't remember the name of the preacher.  He took the approach that what is reported in the Bible is pretty well exactly the conversation which took place and interpreted it accordingly.  He started at chapter 2 verse 23, arguing that there is a direct link between this section and the beginning of chapter 3, below is the NKJV of 2:23-32a without verse or chapter or any other divisions:

Now when [Jesus] was in Jerusalem at Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did.  But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.  There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jesus.  This man came to Jesus by night..."

It is the repetition of the word 'man' which gets lost in the GNB and NIV but is, I believe, faithful to the original Greek text, which gives the continuity from the end of chapter 2 to the beginning of chapter 3, positioning Nicodemus as someone who needed Jesus, not the opposite way round.

The analysis of what happens next is based on an understanding (leaving aside the definition and potentially problematic concept of 'important') as to how more important people relate to less important people.  The idea here is that it up to the more important person to set the topic, to ask questions and generally to set the tone of the conversation. So, if meeting Her Majesty the Queen of England, she would be asking us where we came from etc, not us asking her for her view on Brexit!  So when Nicodemus starts to speak in verse 2, according to this analysis, what he is in effect doing is saying, "I am the more important person here but happy to be geacious, therefore I will set out several possible lines of conversation for you to pursue."  So Nicodemus would have expected Jesus to talk about his role as a teacher, the signs He has been giving or God's presence.

But Jesus talks about none of these things, He instead talks about the need to be born again. According to the rules of conversation, He is therefore saying, "No, Nicodemus, I am the more important person here, I will decide what we will talk about."

So when Nicodemus comes back with his questions as to how this can be (verse 4), this is interpreted as saying, "I'm rather annoyed, now, Jesus!  I give you several perfectly good topics of conversation to be going on with, and you very rudely introduce something else entirely.  I do not appreciate being spoken to like this!  Therefore I'm going to challenge what you are saying before withdrawing from this conversation as soon as I reasonably can."  So he professes ignorance of the concept of rebirth - although he should have known about this - and his second contribution is much shorter than his first, with his third and final contribution, "How can this be?" very abrupt and sullen before withdrawing from the conversation.

As I said, this interpretation made a big impact on me - witness the fact that I can reproduce it 30 years on!  I've used it as the basis of a sermon when high up in the Peruvian Andes in 1999, a long story I'm happy to tell.  And quite a strong sense of, "I know how to interpret this story," any other interpretations being regarded as incomplete or wrong.

So, I come to the passage again, using the New International Version Application Commentary (golly this series is good!  Highly recommended for serious, sustainable Bible study alongside a busy life).  But the commentator takes a very different approach.  Think of the reported conversation not as a more-or-less verbatim account of what was said, but instead as the summary of a much longer conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.  And consider that John, in writing his summary, is interested not in the conversational dynamics between the two of them as the underlying theological truths as spoken by Jesus.  So in a sense, the role of Nicodemus as he is summarised is to provide Jesus with the prompts that He needs rather than to give a clear sense as to where Nicodemus stands.  So, by this analysis, Nicodemus comes across as interested, curious, surprised, respectful, all of which is consistent with his later appearances in John's gospel - chapters 7 and 19 - when he is highly supportive of Jesus and His followers, if not necessarily a follower himself.

So, where does these two interpretations leave us?  I am very aware, not least as a supervisor of dissertations at Masters standard, that the nature of learning can be that we have to go backward before we can go forward.  So, in a dissertation context, it is sometimes the case that students come to me initially with a very clear idea as to what they want to do, far beyond what can realistically be achieved in a small research study, and it's my job as supervisor to help them come up with an idea of much smaller scope which can, in the first instance, be quite deflating.  Similarly here, I thought I knew 'the' way to interpret this story, I'm now being challenged with a different view, and in the first instance I'm feeling I've gone backwards in my understanding.  Related to the fact that I'm very aware of my status as an extremely amateur theologian, able to appreciate the insights of others but without the depth of understanding to arbitrate in this kind of situation.  Are there reasons to prioritise one interpretation over the other?  Or are there ways in which these interpretations can be reconciled?  And how does one avoid the temptation to spend time and energy worrying about things which, ultimately, do not matter very much?  And have the discernment to know what these unimportant things are?  I well remember the words of Rev Alex Ross who was Vicar at St James's Muswell Hill when I was Organist there in the 1990s: "My problem with the Bible is not the bits I don't understand.  My problem is with the bits I do understand."

I think I'll leave things there for today.  My thanks for reading, any thoughts on any of the points raised above gratefully received.  Wiki njema na Mungu akubariki - Have a good week and may God bless you.

2 Comments to 24/7/16: understanding Nicodemus in John 3:

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Solomon on 24 July 2016 05:10
Thank you, Doc, for these reflections. For now, the only thing that comes to my mind is that since Nicodemus came to Jesus at night (for the sake of his reputation?), I should go with the second interpretation. If he had intended to challenge Jesus, I tentatively suggest he would have come boldly during the day, like many other Pharisees did -just a first thought. Wouldn't be very courteous to seek out someone at night and impose your position... not so sure of the culture then.
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Geoff on 24 July 2016 07:16
Thank you for considering this, Solomon. You're right that the fact that this conversation took place at night is noteworthy - notwithstanding that I didn't mention it above! - and light and darkness are important themes in John's gospel. And that a night time visit would seem to point towards a private, respectful conversation - therefore the second interpretation - rather than a public confrontation implied in the first. However, I have heard it said that, at the time of Christ, these kind of public debates may well have occurred at night time, but like you, I don't know the culture well enough to comment independently. If anybody else reading can help on this point, please do get in touch!

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