John 3:1 Commentary - The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
1. There was a man ] Better, Now there was a man. The conjunction shows the connexion with what precedes: Nicodemus was one of the ‘many’ who ‘believed in His name,’ when they beheld His signs (Joh 2:23).
Nicodemus ] He is mentioned only by S. John. It is impossible to say whether he is identical with the Nicodemus of the Talmud, also called Bunai, who survived the destruction of Jerusalem. The name was common both among Greeks and Jews. Love of truth and fear of man, candour and hesitation, seem to be combined in his character. Comp. Joh 7:50, Joh 19:39. In Joh 19:39 his timidity is again noted and illustrated.
a ruler of the Jews ] A member of the Sanhedrin, Joh 7:50. Comp. Joh 12:42; Luk 23:13; Luk 24:20. His coming by night is to avoid the hostility of his colleagues: the Sanhedrin was opposed to Jesus. Whether or no S. John was present at the interview we cannot be certain: probably he was. Nicodemus would not fear the presence of the disciples.
Chap. Joh 3:1-21. The discourse with Nicodemus
This is the first of the eleven discourses of our Lord which form the main portion, and are among the great characteristics, of this Gospel. They have been used as a powerful argument against its authenticity; (1) because they are unlike the discourses in the Synoptic Gospels, (2) because they are suspiciously like the First Epistle of S. John, which all admit was written by the author of the Fourth Gospel, (3) because this likeness to the First Epistle pervades not only the discourses of our Lord, but those of the Baptist also, as well as the writer’s own reflections throughout the Gospel. The inference is that they are, as much as the speeches in Thucydides, if not as much as those in Livy, the ideal compositions of the writer himself.
On the question as a whole we may say at once with Matthew Arnold ( Literature and Dogma, p. 170), “the doctrine and discourses of Jesus cannot in the main be the writer’s, because in the main they are clearly out of his reach.” ‘Never man spake like this man’ (Joh 7:46); not even S. John, and still less any one else, could invent such words.
But the objections urged above are serious and ought to be answered. (1) The discourses in S. John are unlike those in the Synoptists, but we must beware of exaggerating the unlikeness. They are longer, more reflective, less popular. But they are for the most part addressed to the educated and learned, to Elders, Pharisees, and Rabbis: even the discourse on the Bread of Life, which is spoken before a mixed multitude at Capernaum, is largely addressed to the educated portion of it (Joh 6:41; Joh 6:52), the hierarchial party opposed to Him. The discourses in the first three Gospels are mostly spoken among the rude and simple-minded peasants of Galilee. Contrast the University Sermons with the Parish Sermons of an eminent modern preacher, and we should notice similar differences. This fact will account for a good deal. But (2) the discourses both in S. John and in the Synoptists are translations from an Aramaic dialect. Two translations may differ very widely, and yet both be faithful; they may each bear the impress of the translator’s own style, and yet accurately represent the original. This will to a large extent answer objections (2) and (3). And we must remember that it is possible, and perhaps probable, that the peculiar tone of S. John, so unmistakeable, yet so difficult to analyse satisfactorily, may be a reproduction, more or less conscious, of that of his Divine Master.
But on the other hand we must remember that an eventful life of half a century separates the time when S. John heard these discourses from the time when he committed them to writing. Christ had promised (Joh 14:26) that the Holy Spirit should ‘bring all things to the remembrance’ of the Apostles; but we have no right to assume that in so doing He would override the ordinary laws of psychology. Material stored up so long in the breast of the Apostle could not fail to be moulded by the working of his own mind. And therefore we may admit that in his report of the sayings of Christ and of the Baptist there is an element, impossible to separate now, which comes from himself. His report is sometimes a literal translation of the very words used, sometimes the substance of what was said put into his own words: but he gives us no means of distinguishing where the one shades off into the other.
Cardinal Newman has kindly allowed the following to be quoted from a private letter written by him, July 15th, 1878. “Every one writes in his own style. S. John gives our Lord’s meaning in his own way. At that time the third person was not so commonly used in history as now. When a reporter gives one of Gladstone’s speeches in the newspaper, if he uses the first person, I understand not only the matter, but the style, the words, to be Gladstone’s: when the third, I consider the style, &c. to be the reporter’s own. But in ancient times this distinction was not made. Thucydides uses the dramatic method, yet Spartan and Athenian speak in Thucydidean Greek. And so every clause of our Lord’s speeches in S. John may be in S. John’s Greek, yet every clause may contain the matter which our Lord spoke in Aramaic. Again, S. John might and did select or condense (as being inspired for that purpose) the matter of our Lord’s discourses, as that with Nicodemus, and thereby the wording might be S. John’s, though the matter might still be our Lord’s.”
We here enter on the second portion of the first main division of the Gospel, thus subdivided: The Work (1) among Jews, (2) among Samaritans, (3) among Galileans, (4) among mixed multitudes.
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The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges is a biblical commentary set published in parts by Cambridge University Press from 1882 onwards. Anglican bishop John Perowne was the general editor. The first section published was written by theologian Thomas Kelly Cheyne and covered the Book of Micah.
Perowne exercised limited editorial control over the writers of individual commentaries: his aim was "to leave each contributor to the unfettered exercise of his own judgment".