How much of the Nicodemus discourse did Jesus say?

by K.W. Leslie, 21 March 2024

John 3.1-21.

There’s a big debate among bible scholars, and you’ll see it reflected in various bible translations: How much of Jesus’s talk with Nicodemus consists of a direct quote from Jesus? Does Jesus stop talking in verse 15, and the rest is the apostle John’s commentary? Or is it all a Jesus quote?

You can see this when you compare bible translations. Some translations make it all a Jesus quote; some don’t. Check out the English Standard Version and the New International Version.

John 3.1-21 ESV
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
9 Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10 Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? 11 Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. 12 If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
John 3.1-21 NIV
1 Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
9 “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.
10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

Heck, in the Word Biblical Commentary, commentator George R. Beasley-Murray ends Jesus’s statement with verse 12, and “Nobody’s risen up to heaven…” etc. Jn 3.13 is all John.

Why’s this a big deal? Honestly, it’s really not. Whether Jesus said it or John said it, it’s still Spirit-inspired bible, and just as valid. Doesn’t matter whether the Spirit moved John to write it, or Jesus personally taught it to Nicodemus. Ultimately the ideas originate with God.

But you know how Christians get sometimes: If it’s in the red letters, it’s extra important. Because Jesus said it. Since we need to especially pay attention to Jesus’s teachings, we need to exalt ’em far more highly than if some ordinary apostle wrote it, whether that apostle is John, Paul, George, Ringo, Luke, Matthew, Sosthenes, Mark, Peter, James, Timothy, Silas, Jude, or whoever wrote Hebrews.

Authorities within authorities.

Humans like to give ranks and priorities to stuff, and with bible it’s no different. Christians will prioritize Jesus’s teachings over everything else. And New Testament over Old Testament. Prophecies over poetry and wisdom literature… or vice versa, depending on the preacher. Law of Moses over Deuteronomistic history. Gospels over Acts.

And they’ll rank the gospels. If their favorite gospel is Luke, they’ll claim that gospel needs to be treated as if everything in it is literally true, and if there appears to be any discrepancy between Luke and the other gospels—if Luke doesn’t word-for-word jibe with Mark, or there’s something in John which appears to contradict it—go with Luke. Always go with Luke. That’s the gospel; the others are also gospels, but functionally lesser gospels.

Yeah, this is cherry picking. And not for the wisest of reasons. Most of the people who do this kind of cherry picking are not biblical scholars, and therefore have no good reason for prioritizing one book over another. Or one reading over another, or one bible translation over another, or anything over another. They’re doing it for personal reasons—and typically, these personal reasons are selfish. They like one passage more than another, because it was a childhood favorite, or a passage they memorized whereas they didn’t bother to memorize the others. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people insist on rejecting any translation but the King James Version, solely because that’s the translation all their memory verses are in.

For these people, they insist the Nicodemus discourse goes all the way to verse 21, because the translation they grew up with had the red letters go to verse 21. Their childhood KJV did it that way. Or their childhood NIV did it that way—the 1984 edition actually didn’t stop the Jesus quote at verse 15! It changed with the 2011 edition, because the scholars on their translation committee felt… well, what I’m gonna talk about in the next section.

And I admit: I’m also kinda biased towards the idea Jesus taught verses 16-21 to Nicodemus as well. It’s why my own translation makes it a Jesus quote, and puts it in red letters. But even if it’s not—even if John added it as commentary, instead of Jesus teaching it—it’s still true. The Father did send the Son into the world to save it. People are dooming themselves by embracing darkness instead of light. But people can turn to Jesus and the light.

Okay, so why might verses 16-21 not be a Jesus quote?

Or verses 13-21, if Beasley-Murray is correct.

Basically, scholars figure the second part of the Nicodemus discourse can’t have been said by Jesus to Nicodemus… because it’s a bunch of past-tense statements about Jesus dying for our sins, achieving salvation, and the judgment that’s gonna befall people who don’t trust in Jesus. And at the time Jesus was talking with Nicodemus, none of that stuff had yet happened. It was near the beginning of his ministry, not its end! (Well… Tatian the Assyrian put together a gospel harmony called the Diatessaron around the year 175, and because he believed Jesus only drove the merchants out of temple once, during Holy Week, he also believed Jesus didn’t talk to Nicodemus till then—so the year 33, not the year 27.)

Beasley-Murray points out Jesus stops speaking to Nicodemus in the second person (“you ought not; you must be; you should not”) at verse 12. Everything after that point is “a meditation on the ascent of the Son of Man”. Sorta with this outline: The Son of Man’s ascent (v13) consists of his crucifixion and resurrection (vv14-15), then “a confessional summary of the Gospel” (v16), plus a bit about judgment on those who reject this revelation. (vv17-21). Beasley-Murray 44

And if that’s how you interpret verse 13 onward, or verse 16 onward—as though “even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” Jn 3.14 KJV has to be a reference to Jesus getting crucified for the sins of the world, put on a pole same as the snake in the Moses story—then yeah, this is about events which hadn’t happened yet in John’s gospel. Events which would’ve made no sense to Nicodemus. And stated as if they sorta happened already… although the verbs are largely in the aorist tense, a Greek verb tense which has no time affixed to it. (Traditionally people translate aorist as past tense, but I translate ’em as present tense because many of the participles are present tense, and that therefore makes it the proper context for the sentences.)

So one could look at verses 16 onward as a prophecy to Nicodemus about Jesus’s suffering, death, resurrection, exaltation, and the need for everybody to accept his atonement for our sins. That’s kinda how I was taught about these verses from childhood onward. Many Christians still teach ’em this way.

But as I said in my article on John 3.16: That’d be inaccurate. Lifting up the Son of Man is not about Jesus getting crucified, and his cross hoisted up for all to see. Lifting him up is about exalting Jesus as our Lord, Master, Teacher, and Savior—and following him. Not solely focusing on his death and resurrection and atonement. That’s important, but you’ve seen what happens to Christians who only focus on how Jesus saves us from sin and death, and nothing else: They suck at following Jesus. They take his salvation for granted and ignore his teachings, and figure grace gives ’em a free pass to remain the same fruitless jerks they were when pagan. They lift up his death, but never bother to lift up his life.

And those folks who think verses 16-21 can’t have been said by Jesus to Nicodemus because they were about a future that hadn’t happened yet: No they weren’t. They were about their present time. The people of the year 27 needed to lift up the Son of Man and heed his teachings, same as the people of today. Because he’s the true light. Jn 1.9 Unfortunately, people prefer darkness. Jn 3.19

So I would still put this entire discourse in red letters. And have, if you read my translation. I see no reason why Jesus can’t have taught it to Nicodemus; the ESV has it right. The NIV, not so much.