Nicodemus appears in the Bible only in the gospel of John, in three separate passages. According to John, Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a member of the ruling council, the Sanhedrin. The three passages don’t tell us much:
- In John 3, Nicodemus comes to visit Jesus secretly at night and has some questions. Jesus give him very confusing responses that Nicodemus can’t understand.
- In John 7, after the Temple guards fail to arrest Jesus, the chief priests and Pharisees are incensed. Nicodemus speaks up on behalf of Jesus, and the others reprimand him, saying that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.
- In John 19, Nicodemus helps Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus down from the cross and put him in a rock-cut tomb.
This is not much information. Later Christian traditions claimed Nicodemus as a Christian saint, although these come centuries after the time of Jesus. There’s no particular reason to think these traditions are historically reliable.
So other than the gospel of John, we have no first-century sources of information about Nicodemus.
A Rare Name
The name Nicodemus is not common. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions a man named Nicodemus who lived about hundred years before the time of Jesus. This Nicodemus brought accusations of bribery against certain of his fellow Jews.
Thirty-five years after the time of Jesus, Josephus mentions a Jewish leader named Gorion the son of Nicodemus, who played a key role in the massacre of some Roman soldiers in Jerusalem at the very beginning of the Jewish Revolt in the summer of AD 66. It appears that this man Gorion had a son named Joseph, who became a leader of the revolutionary government a few months later. Then about two years later, Gorion was murdered by members of the newly created Zealot faction in Jerusalem. Gorion is never mentioned again in any first-century source, and neither is his son Joseph.
However, there are several stories recorded in later centuries in the Talmud about a very rich man named Naqdimon ben Gorion. Nicodemus seems likely to be the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Naqdimon. Might this Naqdimon ben Gorion be our Nicodemus from the gospel of John? Or related to him?
What We Know About Naqdimon ben Gorion
Naqdimon ben Gorion was a wheat merchant living in Jerusalem at the time of the Jewish Revolt. He was said to be one of the richest men in the city. When the Jewish Revolt began in the year AD 66, a Talmudic story tells how Naqdimon promised to supply the city with free wheat for 21 years. Two other wealthy men, identified as ben Zizit and ben Kalba Sabua, promised to supply the city with wine, salt, oil, and wood. But the war lasted barely more than 4 years, during which time Zealots burned many of the food supplies, including the wheat. So this man Naqdimon couldn’t live up to his good intentions.
Naqdimon was apparently a pious man who liked to go listen to the rabbis teach. A Talmudic story says that he had his servants spread woolen blankets on the streets before him. After he walked on them, he ordered his servants to leave the blankets behind for the poor to take up for their own use. That’s a weird kind of charity, but no doubt Naqdimon meant well.
One of the rabbis Naqdimon knew was Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, who is credited with founding rabbinic Judaism late in the first century, after the destruction of Jerusalem. (If Rabbi Yohanan’s name sounds familiar, he plays an important role in several of my novels, including all my City of God books, and my latest novel, Son of David.)
When Naqdimon’s daughter Miryam was married, he gave her a dowry of a million gold dinars. A dinar was the normal wage for a day-laborer. If you want a rough modern equivalent, figure a working day of 12 hours at the current US minimum wage of $7.25. That works out to $87 for one dinar. If Naqdimon really had that kind of money to give as a dowry to his daughter, then he was the ancient equivalent of a billionnaire! (The wedding feast of Naqdimon’s daughter gets a couple of scenes in my novel Retribution, and Rabbi Yohanan plays a key role in those scenes.)
A Possible Family Tree for Nicodemus
When you’re doing research for historical fiction, you learn that it’s OK to fill in the gaps with a generous dose of guesswork. Thirty years or so ago, when I was making notes on all the many people we know of in ancient Jerusalem, I made a guess on the family tree of Nicodemus. It looks like this:
Nicodemus, born around the year 20 BC, and the year of his death is not known. He would have been about 50 years old when he met Jesus secretly at night, defended Jesus to his peers, and took Jesus down off the cross. This Nicodemus had a son named Gorion.
Gorion the son of Nicodemus was born around the year AD 5 and died in AD 68. He was a wealthy man who took part in the insurrection during the summer of AD 66. Gorion helped massacre the garrison of Roman soldiers who holed up in Herod’s Palace that summer.
Joseph the son of Gorion was born around the year AD 30, and the year of his death is not known. In the fall of AD 66, after the Jewish rebels destroyed the Twelfth Legion at the Battle of Bet Horon, Joseph was chosen as one of the two rulers of Jerusalem in the new revolutionary government. His co-leader was another man you’ve heard of—Annas the son of Annas. The older Annas presided at the trial of Jesus in the early 30s AD. The younger Annas served as high priest for only three months, about the year AD 62, and he presided over the trial and illegal execution of James, the brother of Jesus. (The story of this trial is told in my novel Premonition.)
Naqdimon the son of Gorion was the brother of Joseph. He was also born around the year AD 30, but it’s impossible to know which brother is older. Naqdimon married off his daughter Miryam in the last years before the Jewish Revolt, which began in AD 66. We don’t know if Naqdimon got involved in politics like his father and brother. We do know that he was fabulously wealthy and offered to pay the grocery bill for all of Jerusalem during the Jewish Revolt.
But How Much of This is True?
We can’t know if the connections I’ve made here are correct. They might be. I can’t think of any facts that contradict my proposed family tree. I’d consider my guesses to be “plausible but impossible to prove.” That’s just the nature of the beast.
It’s useful to remember that Jerusalem at the time of Jesus had a population of only about 30,000 people. So the number of rich men in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was probably between 50 and 100, because the richest of the rich are usually about 1% of the population.
And it’s important to remember that Naqdimon/Nicodemus and Gorion were not common names in first-century Jerusalem.
My thinking is that when you find a cluster of rich and powerful men having the name Naqdimon/Nicodemus or Gorion, then they’re very likely related in some way. The only question is how.