Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Bennema on Nicodemus

In chapter nine of Encountering Jesus: Character Studies in the Gospel of John (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009), Cornelis Bennema analyzes the character of Nicodemus, an ambiguous character who appears at three crucial points in the gospel (John 3, 7, and 19). Bennema offers some interesting proposals, some of which I find more convincing (e.g., that "Nicodemus, accompanied by his disciples, came one evening to have a discussion with Jesus and his disciples" [79]), some less (e.g., that "Nicodemus is the teacher or 'top theologian' of Israel," or that his question at 3.4 "seems to imply that he was advanced in age" [78]).

Of course, the most pressing question is whether the Fourth Gospel portrays N. positively—as one who responds appropriately to Jesus—or negatively. Early in his discussion, Bennema reproduces rather than explains or explores the ambiguity we find in the gospel. N., that is, was "attracted to and even 'believed' in Jesus on the basis of his signs but Jesus was critical of his response" (80). So N. observes what Jesus does and appropriately, in the terms established at the end of the gospel (see 20.30–31), recognizes that Jesus comes from God. But despite his ability to recognize Jesus as "from above," N. is somehow nevertheless "unable to grasp the real significance of these signs" (80). But what is that "real significance" that N. misses, if not that Jesus "comes from God"? Bennema never answers this question.

Even so, in the conclusion to his discussion of N. and Jesus in John 3, Bennema rightly notes that N. "remains ambiguous and as readers we must look at his two later appearances to determine whether he is able to progress in his understanding of Jesus" (80). The evangelist has certainly not tied up all the loose ends at the conclusion of this first encounter between N. and Jesus.

Nicodemus appears twice more in the Fourth Gospel. In 7.45–52 N. speaks up on Jesus' behalf—sort of—as the chief priests and Pharisees berate the "attendants" [ὑπηρέται; hypēretai] they had sent to arrest Jesus. In his discussion, Bennema notes N.'s ongoing ambiguity in the narrative; so far so good. But he appeals to the "edict" mentioned in 9.22 to explain N.'s ambiguity:
We learn later that the parents of the man born blind failed to testify because of fear of the Jewish religious authorities, who had decided to excommunicate anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah (9:22). Nicodemus would certainly have known of this edict and may have been afraid of his colleagues. In John 3 we were uncertain about Nicodemus's attitude and what he had grasped of Jesus' identity, and this incident only adds to his ambiguity. (81; my emphasis)

I think here Bennema misreads John. Certainly at some point [very] early in the history of John's gospel the Johannine audience would have known of the edict mentioned at 9.22, and perhaps John's audience would have interpreted N.'s actions in John 7 in against the "fear" [φοβέω; phobeō] of the blind man's parents in John 9. But this isn't what Bennema claims. Instead, he slips out of a narratological analysis and into a historical argument: (i) The Jewish authorities had decided to expel Jesus' followers from the synagogue, (ii) N. was a member of the Jewish ruling class (7.50), and so (iii) N. knew of the authorities' decision, and (iv) this helps explain N.'s actions in the narrative. There are at least two problems here.

First, Bennema makes a number of historical assumptions that are at the very least open to challenge. Even if ultimately we want to agree with those assumptions, Bennema doesn't offer any kind of historical argumentation to support those assumptions. For example, he assumes that N. is a historical character who actually existed outside the Johannine narrative. He additionally assumes that the decision mentioned in John 9.22 was a historical event that actually existed outside the narrative. And he also assumes that this decision helps explain both the actions of the historical N. and of N. the narrative character in the Fourth Gospel. These first two points are both debated issues among Johannine and Jesus scholars. But even if both N. and the authorities' decision are historical realities, there simply isn't any evidence that either the historical N. or the Johannine N. shied away from a bold, public defense of Jesus for "fear of the Jews" and of being expelled from the synagogue. Granted the value of Bennema's proposed "historical narrative criticism" (13), I'm not convinced that this is a helpful use of the method.

Second, if we limit ourselves to making literary-critical observations, we really can't escape the observation that the Johannine narrator simply does not appeal to the decision in 9.22 to explain N.'s ambiguity. Had this been the key to understanding N.'s behavior, it would have been helpful—even necessary!—for the narrator to mention the authorities' decision in this context. Certainly the narrator doesn't exhibit any hesitation to mention the expulsion "from the synagogue" [ἀποσυνάγωγος; aposynagōgos] to explain the blind man's parents' melting in the face of fierce opposition in John 9. Why, then, should he avoid it here? I think the answer is clear: The Johannine narrator does not interpret (or intend his audience to interpret) N. in light of the decision to excommunicate Jesus' followers from the synagogue.

This is a pretty major weakness in Bennema's analysis, and I don't want to downplay it. But there's also a pretty major strength, I think. Bennema respects the ambiguity of the Johannine portrayal of N. Though I think he misreads certain features of that ambiguity (e.g., I think N. actually draws the correct inference from Jesus' "signs," viz. that Jesus "has come from God" [3.2]), he nevertheless recognizes it as the overriding characteristic of this Jewish leader. "John does not provide sufficient evidence that Nicodemus's actions or understanding of Jesus is adequate for salvation. Although Nicodemus remains sympathetic to Jesus, it is uncertain what he understands of Jesus and his mission" (82–83). And yet, John's gospel is not particularly known for its embrace of the ambiguous; if anything, John files everything into one of two categories: light or darkness, from above or from below, life or death, etc. And so Bennema, even as he recognizes the ambiguity of the Johannine N., argues that the narrator presses the reader to assess N. as one or the other. Bennema's conclusion, then, respects N.'s ambiguity but insists that he "is attracted to the light but does not remain in the light; he keeps moving in and out of the shadows, and within John's dualism, there is no place for a twilight zone" (84).

I'm not sure if I follow Bennema here. I think N. may come off a bit more positively than he has allowed. But overall I think he's right: Despite the haziness of John's portrayal of N., the narrative presses us to understand N. as either in or out, for Jesus or against him. And once we—as John's readers—adjudge N., the way is set for us to assess ourselves and, hopefully, respond more appropriately (i.e., less ambiguously) than he.

2 comments:

Jaime said...

Do you think that Nic could have come to Jesus with his own agenda? Didn't religious scholars pose questions and debate one another? I think maybe N came to Jesus and, with flattery, threw down the gauntlet, so to speak. He acknowledges Jesus' miraculous signs, possibly acknowledging him as a worthy debate opponent.
But Jesus doesn't even let it begin. He throws something at N, that is nothing like N has ever heard before, forcing him to think. Jesus challenges N, and earns his respect, enough that N continues to think and study on what Jesus said to him.
I'm not sold on that theory, just something I was thinking about this week. What do you think?

Rafael said...

Sure, Jamie; it's certainly possible. In the synoptics we find a great example of "religious scholars pos[ing] questions and debat[ing] on another," when the Sadducees ask Jesus about a woman who married seven brothers (Matt. 22.23–33).

John 3.1–21 could certainly be a similar example. But Nicodemus's appearances later in the gospel (7.45–52; 19.38–42) make me think he wasn't just coming to debate Jesus as just another teacher/rabbi. I'm prone to take N.'s statement in 3.2 at face value: He acknowledged that Jesus came from God and that God was with him, the very thing John says about the Word (1.1–18).

But if you're right about N.'s motives in John 3, you're also right that N. continued to think about Jesus' words, apparently. Enough, anyway, that he stuck his neck out for Jesus in John 7 and 19.

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