I was going through some of my files on my PC and I stumbled across this gem that I wrote 2 years back, though I am not entirely thorough (in comparison to my present capabilities) I had a blast rereading this and do not want to change it for the moment…. Maybe I will rework it at a later date, but for now enjoy.
The Fourth Gospel presents an interesting challenge from a literary perspective, for a scholar. It has a narration which has been developed, by the evangelist, to an extent not generally presented in biblical texts. The gospel’s theological message is delivered to the readers through their active participation in its reading and textual interpretation. The comprehension and reception of the Johannine Gospel message hinges on the relationship between the implied author, narrator and reader. The implied author uses a wide variety of tools to captivate and bring the reader in the story alongside the narrator, to open up his eyes to the Gospel message. As Culpepper writes in Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, “In reading the gospel, one is drawn into a literary world created by the author from materials drawn from life and history as well as imagination and reflection. The narrator speaks retrospectively, telling a story that is a sublime blend of historical tradition and faith.” (Culpepper 232) The implied author’s main literary weapons of choice used to accomplish this are: characterization, misunderstanding, irony, plot, narrative point of view, narrator, and author-reader relation. These are the methods which are most frequently approached and studied by literary scholars of the Fourth Gospel. These methods shall be presented in this paper as a means to an end, in tandem with a more modern literary approach; for “the unity of this ‘spiritual gospel’ is more evident in the subtle elements of its narrative structure than in the obvious ones.” (Culpepper 234) One of these subtle elements is the use of the minor character Nicodemus, by the gospel author, as a literary device, utilised in a similar fashion to the fool in Shakespearian plays, as a means of advancing the ramifications of the theological and Christological Johannine message presented in the Fourth Gospel. The use of the fool, as a literary device, has been of common use in literature since the classical period, when “Diogenes embodied this role and Aristophanes mastered the rhetoric employed by the fool in his comedies.” (McDonough 107) For the purpose of this paper, however, the Shakespearian model of the fool shall be use as a means to draw a parallel between the literary device and models that have been fully observed in literary studies for centuries. As a model, the Shakespearian fool still holds to the tradition of the fool used during the classical period. Additionally, it will permit us to link it to widely known works of Shakespeare, where the role of the fool has been thoroughly developed and used to its full extent. In the first part of the paper, the role of the fool in its use as a literary device shall be fully explored. Subsequently, how Shakespeare uses the fool as subtle means to present his criticism and satirical message shall be exemplified. Following this, the second part of this paper will illustrate how the gospel author uses the character of Nicodemus, in a similar fashion to how Shakespeare uses the fool in his plays, to woo the reader into a higher plain of observance permitting the evangelist to convey the theological significance of the gospel. This observance shall be demonstrated in the use of the narrative exegetical method.
1. The Figure of the Fool
The fool emerged as a provocative figure within the literature of the Renaissance. The use of the fool in literature goes as far back as the Classic period, where it was principally used as a comedic means to disrupt the audience’s focus and bring to their attention something of importance. This comedic aspect is to be taken with a grain of salt, as it will often cloud the understanding of those who hear the word “fool”. The fool’s role is not simply comedic and lacking in intellectual value. Timothy McDonough explains in The Fool’s pedagogy: Jesting for Liminal Learning, that there is a “seriousness” to the fool’s rhetoric, specifically pertaining to its effectiveness in achieving pedagogical ends. (McDonough 107) The fool, as a literary device, is a significant tool to the author using him, as he can take on many differing roles. The fool, therefore, can be used in a manifold of techniques, texts, writing styles; as illustrated in his ability to cross literary periods. This character and device reached the pinnacle of its literary significance during the Renaissance, as a consequence of the changes occurring. The realm of science was becoming the main source of knowledge, offering the answers to the everyday questions of the masses. This inevitably challenged the theological and ecclesial dominion of providing the answers found in scientific knowledge. The fool “offered a form of communication that encouraged an unbinding of thought and negotiations between incompatible possibilities.”(McDonough 107) He permits a relation to be formed between reader and author, which sanctions intellectual communication between the conflicting world-views, through rhetorical and sometime comedic methods. The fool was widely used by the great authors of the Renaissance: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Erasmus, etc. Nevertheless, the fool never truly triumphed until the Elizabethan period, when this characterial literary device fell into the hands of a certain William Shakespeare.
2. The Fool in Shakespearian Writing
Shakespeare turned the fool into a truly diverse literary device; not only using it to its full potential, but stretching its boundaries. This is part of the reason why this paper shall compare the use of Nicodemus to the use of the fool by Shakespeare. The other reason is that Shakespeare, as a writer, was deeply influenced by Ovid; Francis Meres in 1598 stated that “the sweet witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare” (De Grazia p.91) Ovid was a popular literary model during the Elizabethan period; The model is not only found in Shakespearean literature, but is also found in Spencer and Marlowe’s literary works. . Shakespeare’s writing can be characterised as being tainted with ovidian elements; ergo, this “ovidian” characterisation is also impregnated upon the Shakespearian fool. As a consequence of this characterisation of Shakespearian writing, the fool is brought back to its roots found in the Greco-Roman and Hellenistic period through Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This is the same period when the composition of the Fourth Gospel by the Johannine community was occurring. One may ask: how does this relate to the Gospel? The answer would be intertextuality, where intertexuality would be defined as the allusive relation between literary texts. Culpepper in The Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel, affirms this “The evangelist, it seems, has moulded his material in forms based upon current Hellenistic models of philosophical and religious teachings, instead of following the forms, of Jewish origin, represented in the Synoptic Gospels.” (Culpepper 152) Intertextuality would be of significance in this situation, because the authors of the Gospels did not compose in a vacuum. The literary modes, both oral and written, of the period when the gospel of John was being composed were Hellenistic and Greco-Roman.
Publius Ovidus Naso, or Ovid, was one of the most prolific and significant Greco-Roman authors; he was present everywhere in Greco-Roman literature. It is conceivable, and somewhat inevitable, that the author of the Fourth Gospel would be influenced by the literature circulating during festivals and public events at the time they were writing. K.M. Coleman in his essay, Fatal Charades: Roman Executions Staged as Mythological Enactments, expounds the historical fact that during the Roman period punishment of criminals were done in a formal and public fashion. Criminals about to be put to death would role-play dramatic scenes from popular Hellenistic and Greco-Roman literature. In his essay he explains that one of the dramatic charades put on display by the Romans was that of the story Apuleius or the “Golden Ass” from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; more specifically the scenes from book four of the Golden Ass. This Book contains a character mould from which the fool stems from. One may not that Ovid Is a Greco-Roman author, not a Hellenistic one. Nevertheless, the literary roots of Greco-Roman literature are deeply engraved in Hellenistic literature. In Ovid and Genre: Evolution of an Elegist, Steven Harrison explains the multiple Hellenistic components of the Metamorphoses. When taking a closer look at the opening poem of the first book of Metamorphoses he states: “The brevity of the proem (exactly matching that of Apollonius’ Argonautica) and the metamorphic subject-matter and catalogue-frame of the poem also look to Hellenistic traditions, as does its overall concern with themes such as aetiology and paradoxography.” (Harrison 87) Aetiology (the study of causation) and paradoxography (pertaining to unexplainable natural phenomena’s) are significant Hellenistic literary elements which are linked to the Greek poet Callimachus. These literary elements are found in Ovidian literature. Moreover, Fritz Graf in his essay Myth in Ovid backs up what Harrison states as he writes “In Greece, the learned Hellenistic poets collected relevant myths and shaped them into collections that became master-texts for the Romans”. (Graf 116) One of these poets is Callimachus, who was aforementioned by Harrison. Graf explains that Callimachus’ work Aitia contains aetiological myths, rituals and cult-images which stem from either Greek myth or history. It is furthermore illustrated in his essay that Ovid takes up the Callimachean model when composing. Both Harrison and Graf agree that Ovid uses Hellenistic models in his writings
It is very unlikely that the author of the Fourth Gospel, whether he read Latin or not, would have been able to avoid being influenced by ovidian literary structures and devices as they were presented publicly to all at the execution of criminals. Furthermore, Ovid’s literary techniques and concepts are founded upon Hellenistic traditions and models, and as Culpepper stated the Gospels authors used Hellenistic. Consequentially, Ovid and the author of the Johannine Gospel are using literary techniques based on similar models and traditions.Therefore, having gone full circle, Ovid’s influence on Shakespeare, in his use of the fool as a characterial literary device, can be used as a comparative source to how the Johannine author used Nicodemus similarly as a literary device. Inevitably, the Shakespearean fool can be deemed perpendicular to the character of Nicodemus, there is a rational literary link between both characters.
For the purpose of this essay, it is important to come to the realization that Shakespeare uses the fool in many different ways. The fool’s roles will differ depending on which kind of play, or literary piece, Shakespeare is writing, as well as how he wishes to capture the reader’s attention. Now this versatility was not seen in the ovidian fool. This is a consequential effect of literary evolution, which Shakespeare is blessed to have had at the tip of his quill. Nicodemus, as a literary device used by the evangelist, is modeled on the Hellenistic fool. Shakespeare deconstructed the ovidian fool and partitioned him into differing categories, permitting the fool to take on multiple personae. This explains why Nicodemus will take on characteristics of many Shakespearian fools.
To truly understand how the author of the Fourth Gospel used Nicodemus as a literary device, similarly to the Shakespearian fool, one must know, first and foremost, the role of the fool as a characterial literary device. Secondly, the differing classes of Shakespearian fools must be understood, as well as their multiple literary usages. Hence, the significant question one must ask: what is the literary role of the fool? According to Timothy McDonough, as a literary device “The fool teaches not a specific knowledge but rather a way to position oneself in inquiry, in the mutual pursuit of goods and truths, which often must occur across difference.” (McDonough 109) The fool is used as a means to effectively countermand presuppositions, id est the fool promotes a change in the readers assumptions. The fool accomplishes this by permitting the author to disrupt the logic pertaining to a specific world-view. Roger Ellis, in his work The Fool in Shakespeare: A Study in Alienation, explains that the fool is a character committed to a world-view, which is in conflict with that of society; it is therefore not able to find acceptance with others of that central world-view. As a result of this powerlessness, the fool will “assume” the mask of folly, as a means to protect himself from the world. Consequentially, he cannot be openly involved in the action, as he would therefore be faced the rejection of the world. Hence, the fool cannot act: “he can only be acted upon.” (Ellis 249) Furthermore, the strength of the fool is found in his ability to expose, to the readers, the underlying belief structure of the central world-view, as well as its structural symbolism. This ability is what permits the fool to turn on its head the master-principles of the world-view at hand in the literary work. For the author of any work using the fool as a literary device:
“The fool is not teaching an ideological critique that assumes a right or wrong, but a position which dances between possibilities revealing the fluidity of the structures and the multiplicity of possible positions one can assume within the arena of ideological contest, inquiry and debate.” (McDonough 111)
The fool is there to play the role of a devil’s advocate, to a certain extent; destabilizing the world-view, permitting a protagonist to act upon the character of the fool and sanction a specific authorial message to be passed on to the reader. Shakespeare achieves this through the differing classes of Shakespearian fools and their literary usages. The first Shakespearian model of the fool is the natural fool found in Shakespearean comedies. These fools are rather simple, they relate in no way to the greater role of the fool. They are shallow characters, constructed simply to raise laughter; they have no significant relation to the action. It is through their comedic actions or their clumsy sentence structure and sayings that they disrupt the common world-view. This type of fool is found in the Character of Mercutio in Romeo and Juliette, as well as Gratiano in The Merchant of Venice. Their use is limited, to a quick disruption of the flow of a text as a means of grasping the attention of the reader for a moment. This brings the reader back to the narrator or author so that a quick message may be delivered. These fools rather “whistle trouble away than face it.” (Ellis 255) They cannot be used for any significant change of thought or ideological pondering; the comedic fool must give way to the world-view he is combating in the end. Nevertheless, what they can do, through their comedic actions, is set the stage for the plot of the literary work. This can be accomplished through many techniques, yet the most common is that of misunderstanding.
The second Shakespearian model of the fool is the fool used by Shakespeare in his mature comedies; these fools “crystallize for us the existence of different worlds” (Ellis 255). The Shakespearean fools which best fit these archetypes are: Bottom from A Midsummer Night Dream, Touchstone and Jaques from As You Like It, and Feste from Twelfth Night. These types of fools are used by Shakespeare in his comedies containing dualistic worlds such as A Midsummer Night Dream; this play presents the human world, as well as the world of magic. These fools are faced with a dilemma, as they have a foot in both worlds and are consequently at home in neither. They are consequentially able to participate in various levels of action, which in turn permits the reader to comprehend both world-views. The author can use this to his advantage, as the reader is offered a god-like perspective on the action. The author also uses the fool’s linguistics, puns, sentence structures, as well as double entendres to elevate the reader even more. The reader is thus seated next to the narrator, and granted privileged access to information not available or understood by the fool. The duality of the world-view is symbolic; the fool allows the reader to perceive that the dualistic symbolism is of greater significance than the character himself. The reader’s attention is therefore pointed towards the author’s message.
The third Shakespearian model is that of the fools found in the problem plays and tragedies such as King Lear. The fool in these types of plays can be defined as “the figure who sees truly what the world is like and feels his powerlessness to change it.” (Ellis 252) The fool, in this case, has an awareness of being aloof with the rest of the world, similarly to the fool of the mature comedies. The world of the fool in these plays is highly structured, policy and law have supremacy. As a consequence of this structure, the fool has to play by the rules and cannot step out of his role; he must play the fool. Being limited by the structure of the world in which he finds himself, the fool cannot fully share with other characters nor can he respond to them “he is the perfect embodiment of the ambiguous relationship of the outsider to a world at odds with him.” (Ellis 266) Consequentially, this type of fool will ultimately fail as he is unable to free himself from the binding force of the world; he is unable to see greater meaning and rise above the structural prison he is in. The limits placed upon the fool, by the author, help the readers to see beyond the structure of the character’s world, to see the choices that can be made, and the consequence of the right or the wrong selection. Hence, as illustrated, the Shakespearian fool is a very versatile literary device, considering that the fool is generally a minor character, who is static, and does not present much growth. The fool can be used in many differing genres and situations. Moreover, the fool can take on varying roles depending on how, and for what the author chooses to use him. Furthermore, the fool does not help advance the plot per se; yet, he helps the author grab the reader’s attention, permitting passing of judgment or knowledge. This guides the reader in the direction chosen by the author. It is in this fashion that Nicodemus is similar to the Shakespearian fool.
3. Nicodemus, the fool of the Fourth Gospel
3.1 John 3
The author of the Fourth Gospel forms Nicodemus into a static character that does not evolve a great deal throughout the Gospel. Nicodemus is used, by the author, to advance the plot and narration of the Fourth Gospel. He focuses the reader’s attention towards the greater theological, and Christological Johannine message, attempting to be delivered by the evangelist. This is further permitted by the fact that this gospel is not a missionary work, in the same way as the synoptic gospels; but a message aimed at members of the Johannine community. As Andreas Dettwiller explains: “Historiquement, on en a conclu, à juste titre, que le quatrième évangile n’est pas un écrit qui aurait pour but de convaincre les non-chrétiens de la pertinence de la foi chrétienne, mais un écrit adressé à une communauté chrétienne.” (Dettwiller 377) This fact forces the reader to take a step back and view the narrative from above, permitting the emplacement of a reflective mindset.
What is of interest is the complicated relation between the Johannine authorial voice and the text, as well as the reader and the text. Having elaborated on the role and use of the fool a priori, a comparison of the literary use of Nicodemus to the fool can be fulfilled. The characterial construction of Nicodemus, by the evangelist, is very similar to how the fool is constructed, in the sense that there is no complete character development. Nicodemus appears in three short increments of the Gospel. Now this is significant to note, for it does not point Nicodemus in the direction of being a true “character”; rather Nicodemus, through this, is portrayed as a characterial literary device. His character construct is being used to influence the reader in the theological direction deemed necessary by the evangelist. The way this is accomplished by Nicodemus is truly mirrored by the fool’s methodology. He is “in effect the prism which breaks up the pure light of Jesus’ remote epiphany into colors the reader can see.” (Culpepper 104) The key to understanding Nicodemus, like the fool, is to recognize that he is being studied from the outside. One does not try to understand why he is a fool, or his emotional relation to this role; rather one must understand that he is a character who is a representation of a different world-view.
In the Fourth Gospel, the author speaks of dualism which is presented to the reader in spatial terms. Nicodemus is committed to a world-view at odds with that of the society, in the sense that he has a foot within each world-views of the narrative: earthly and heavenly. Prior to even presenting Nicodemus, the author sets up the stage for his arrival in chapter 2:23-25. It is in these verses that the limits of the world-view, by which Nicodemus shall be bound, are set: “when he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs he was doing. But Jesus on his part would not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone.” (Jn 2:23-24) Following this passage, the author presents Nicodemus to the reader: he is a “man”, a “Pharisee” and he believes on the basis of the “signs” performed by Christ (John 3:1-2). Nicodemus never really had a chance to be anything other than a fool, for as soon as the limits are set, he is presented, and he does not fit the mould of the world-view. The limits placed upon Nicodemus are exemplified in his coming at night. This is significant, for the author reminds the reader of this fact when Nicodemus reappears for the third time in Chapter 19. This is not used by the author as a time marker; Ellis, in his paper, illustrates that the fool lacks security. For this reason, the reference of night signifies that Nicodemus cannot come to Christ openly, as he is limited by the mould of his title as a Pharisee, a Jewish leader. Being a Pharisee, he is at polar ends with that of Christ; he is forced to come and see him and night seeking heavenly answers which he should have as a religious leader. This polarity is presented in the Fourth Gospel as a conflict between light and darkness. One can understand this as being a conflict of knowledge “The higher plane is associated with truth and the lower with falsehood, deception, and error.” (Culpepper 167) Nicodemus is attempting to rise from the darkness of the Mosaic faith and into the light of Christ. Nevertheless, Nicodemus is presented as one who treads between two worlds, and is part of none as he never takes that leap of faith forward. Yet he has enough belief that he cannot turn completely back to the night, as he has caught a glimpse of the light. This immediate example of one that does not fit the world-view mould was purposefully done by the author so that the reader knows that this character is to be observed. As readers, we are made to recognize that Nicodemus will be powerless in gaining the acceptance of the heavenly Christ or the earthly Jews. From a literary standpoint, therefore, the author forces Nicodemus to take on the mask of the fool as a means to protect himself from the world. Thus, as a character, he cannot be openly involved, for he would be opening himself to the rejection of both worlds. Hence, as was stated above, the fool can only be acted upon. He is acted upon by the author, reader and protagonists. Through Nicodemus, the author forces the reader to take the step and do what Nicodemus cannot: pick a side.
Prior to picking a side, more information is needed, Nicodemus guides us through it. Therefore, this duality of having a foot in both worlds is amplified, by the author, through the use of misunderstanding; a recurrent theme of the Fourth Gospel. Dettwiler explains a significant effect of the use of misunderstanding, “la mise à distance créée par le malentendu empêche le lecteur de s’identifier trop vite et trop naïvement aux interlocuteurs de Jésus.” (Dettwiller 377) Through the use of misunderstanding, we are again invited to view the text from above, so that we may think, place judgment and make our own decision as we are faced with the problems and questions the author lays before us. This doubles the author’s intention of elevating the reader from the text, reaffirming its importance to understanding the gospel’s message. This device is especially effective when used with a fool type character, for the fool does not teach a specific knowledge, instead he presents a way to be positioned when questioning the status quo. The fool’s positioning is an effective means to countermand presuppositions as it promotes change in the reader’s assumptions in coming to the text. Misunderstanding is by the author, in John chapter three, when Nicodemus miscomprehend Christ’s use of the Greek word “anôthen” in verse seven. Jesus says to Nicodemus that he must be born “anôthen” to see the kingdom of God. The author chose to use this world for its dualistic meaning, as it can either signify “born from above” or “born again”. The author meant “born from above”, whereas Nicodemus understood it as meaning “born again”. This is due to the fact that “the double meaning of “anôthen” underscores that the newness of which Jesus speaks cannot be contained or comprehended by any simple or pre-existent categories.” (O’Day 56) It is not surprising then that, in verse four, we find a touch of Johannine humour in Nicodemus’ response to Jesus’ statement “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!” (Jn 3:4) Nicodemus being limited by the pre-existent categories of his time can only understand one meaning of “anôthen” in the physiological sense. His knowledge of this leads him to disbelief at the possibility of what Jesus has just said. This ironic twist is a mirror image to Puck, one of the fool in A Midsummer Night Dream, whose misunderstanding is at the source of the entire play’s plot. Puck, in this play, fulfills the role of the classic fool who disrupts the world-view through his comedic actions. Concerning this comedic role of the fool as a literary technique, Timothy McDonough explains:
“When we laugh at the jests of the fool, we are not laughing at the absurdity of his statement, but at our recognition that within his discourse he is doing something we thought undoable, questioning the unquestionable. [..] We laugh due to an emergent sense of power that comes with the recognition of our capacity to transgress boundaries of meaning-making we did not know were delimiting alterior possibilities.” (McDonough 115)
This is exactly what the character of Nicodemus does for the reader; he brings to light the questions we would have looked over, due to their impossibilities. He empowers the readers through this realisation, as we cross the boundaries of our liminal conceptions, and gain the Christological knowledge that the author desired us to gain. Nicodemus’ response, through a similar characterial technique used by Shakespeare with Puck, brings forth one of the significant aspects of Johannine Christology and theology. It echoes the Son of Man Christology present throughout the Gospel, the conflict between the world above and the world below, as well as presents how one attains salvation in this theology: by being born “anôthen”. Culpepper’s work on misunderstanding reaffirms this as he writes that, “a further effect of the misunderstanding is to remove any doubt or misperception about key point in John’s theology.” (Culpepper 164) Nicodemus’ misunderstanding of what Christ was attempting to say, as it disrupts the logic of the Jewish world-view, limited to being born from the womb. This brings to light, for the readers of this gospel, the Christological means of being born through the Spirit. With four simple verses, the evangelist creates the entire plot surrounding the Son of Man Christology. Through Nicodemus, the writer puts us on the Christological path of the entire Gospel, guided by the intent of the Johannine community.
The use of misunderstanding by the author, as well as the ironic questioning of Nicodemus, allows the character of Christ to respond to Nicodemus’ misinterpretation of what Jesus wished to state originally. Hence verses five to eight are dedicated to explain to Nicodemus what Jesus meant; it also serves as a chance for Jesus to speak to the readers. Knowing what is at odds through the use of misunderstanding, the reader has already picked a side with the limited information provided in the first four verses. Hence, Jesus’ explanation serves as a means, for the author, to affirm or countermand the decision made by the reader. The author must verify that the reader is on the path intended by the Johannine community. Roger Ellis explains that “with Shakespeare’s fools we are at once in a world where moral certainties are being questioned: where the questioner proves fool by his question”. (Ellis 251) Similarly, with the evangelist’s fool, we are in a world where theological certainties are being questioned. Ergo, it is not surprising that following Jesus’ explanation Nicodemus once again questions him in verse nine “How can this be?” (John 3:9), restating his prior questioning. He proves himself a fool by his question, and Jesus does not hesitate to point it out:
“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 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. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” (Jn 3:10-12)
Through Nicodemus, Christ reveals the inconsistencies between the earthly and heavenly realms, as well as challenges the social basis of the Pharisee’s role as the religious governing power (it is in moments like these in the texts, that one can truly hear the echo of the Johannine community stem out, as their conflict with the pharisaic movement surfaces in their writing). Culpepper affirms this “The scene culminates in a critical judgment on Nicodemus. Any expectation the reader may have had of the authority and enlightenment of a Jewish leader are overturned. Nicodemus is a teacher of Israel, but he cannot understand even earthly things.” (Culpepper 135) Though Nicodemus is the fool, once again he helps the author to direct the readers in the direction he wishes them to go. The power of the fool is truly remarkable, as the reader is being guided without truly realising what is happening. As the text goes on, one cannot help but to side with Christ and turn from Nicodemus.
Like the fools of Shakespeare’s plays, Nicodemus articulates the principles of the divided world in which he finds himself. The author does not accomplish this by victimizing him; rather, he articulates the principles, by expressing the tensions of the world-view through the characterization of Nicodemus. Ellis explains that “Shakespeare usually represents his fools as the conscience of a divided world because his drama is, in the end, symbolic, and its characters assume greater significance than they have themselves.” (Ellis 260) This is a very ovidian approach to a narration. In a similar fashion, the evangelist does the same. Nicodemus is represented as the conscience of a divided world; the Gospel is not historical, but truly a symbolic text. This is especially true for the Fourth Gospel. Nicodemus is a symbol; the evangelist uses the symbolic significance of Nicodemus as a means to tie in the various elements of the Gospel, as a literary work, together:
“The Johannine symbols unite the concrete with the abstract, everyday life with John’s distinctive theology. […] The symbols are in this regard bridges by which the reader may cross in some elusive sense into the reality and mystery, the life, which they represent.” (Culpepper 201)
What Culpeper states here is parallel to what the fool accomplishes in Shakespearian plays. One must simply turn to A Midsummer Night Dream to see that Puck and Bottom, the fools of the play, are used as literary devices; they bridge the gap, for the reader, between the mortal world and the magical realm. The consequentiality of Nicodemus being a symbol is that he is a static character. He has no significant part in the narrative or in forwarding the action (though he does forward the plot as explained above) as he “appears in only seventeen verses, three scenes, and speaks only sixty-three words, yet he is both individual and representative, a foil and a character with conflicting inclinations with which the reader can identify.” (Culpepper 135) Hence, being static, and used minimally in the gospel narrative, the literary role of a minor character comes into play. Minor characters force the readers to pause and reflect on what is being said by these players. Thus, as a reader, one must wonder: what is the significance of this limited use of the character; why has the author used him this way in the first place. It is through this thought process that the evangelist successfully uses the foolish archetype, of a minor character, to make the reader reflect on where Nicodemus is taking them. It is at this point of the narrative, at verse eleven, where the narration, between the fool and protagonist, shifts from a conversation to a monologue of Christ speaking to the reader. This shift is caused by a sudden change of the personal markers, as Christ begins to use the royal “we”, therefore taking on the voice of the Johannine community. As both Culpepper and Ellis state, once the role of the fool is fulfilled, he fades away from the narrative. (Culpepper 135; Ellis 260)
3.2. John 7:50
Nicodemus’ “fade away” is short lived, as the author calls upon him again in chapter seven, when the Pharisees are attempting to condemn Jesus without a lawful trial. The author reintroduces him, by alluding to prior events of chapter three: “Nicodemus, who had gone to him before” (Jn 7:50). Nicodemus’ appearance in this scene is once again marked by the tensions imposed by the strict structure of the world-views. This duality has morphed a bit since chapter three, as it is now torn between his origins as a Pharisee and his current status as one who had gone to Christ. This duality is the source of the fool’s success, as a literary device, in this scene. Once again, the fool steps in to create a division in the Pharisees ranks; Nicodemus disrupts once more the standard world-view. Once again it is shown that Nicodemus has no control over his status as a fool. Through the consequentiality of his dualistic title and stance Nicodemus, prior to uttering even a single syllable in the scene, causes havoc in the benchmark of the world-view with the use of irony:
The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? (Jn 7:45-48)
Nicodemus was presented as “a leader of the Pharisees” in chapter three; one can obviously see the ironic twist, in what the Pharisees say to the officers, as one among them has already begun to believe Christ, through signs. The division is clear; this continues the unequivocal division that Nicodemus is suffering, as he is still walking a path hell-bent between both world-views. He continues to put the worlds at odds with one another, as he reinforces this ironic twist by rebuking the Pharisees “does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (Jn 7:51). This ironic twist of faith, takes away all authority the Pharisees would potentially have had in the minds of the readers. This illustrates, unambiguously, that the religious leaders are not informed with what is taking place within their midst. Furthermore, Nicodemus’ words reveal the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, who moments prior, reprimanded the crowd for their ignorance of Talmudic law: “But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (Jn 7:49). The evangelist permits Nicodemus to fulfill his role gloriously as a fool in this short scene, the Jews are shown to be mistaken, as one of their members does believe in Christ. The author divides the status quo and conquers the minds of the readers. Yet, this is a problem, for now there is an ambivalent feeling towards Nicodemus. Where in chapter three he did not understand Christ, in chapter seven, now he comes to his defence portraying some form of understanding. Moreover, the Pharisees label him a Galilean, which is indistinguishable from calling one a believer for the Johannine evangelist and community. The author completely confuses the reader by creating this uncertainty. As Colleen M. Conway explains in her paper on the ambiguity of Johannine characters “Again and again, the characters are constructed in ways that pull the reader in multiple directions, frustrating attempts to discern a clearly drawn trait.” (Conway 330) The ambivalence leads the reader to question what is going on during the scene; he is attempting to find the answers to his questions concerning Nicodemus. Of course none are found, as he remains a character shrouded in mystery until the end, as intended by the evangelist. Consequentially, in our efforts to find an answer concerning Nicodemus, we discover what the author was attempting to tell us “seek and you will find” (Matt 7:7).
This characterization of Nicodemus is similar to the havoc causing fools such as Feste and Puck. These are the types of fool who create a kind of narrative Armageddon for the status quo. They wreak havoc upon the action in a “physical” or “psychological” fashion. Nicodemus of course does not cause havoc by releasing a herd of horses in the temple. He creates a silent Armageddon for the Pharisees who do not even know they have been turned into a simple jest to amuse and direct the mind of the readers. From this point on, the Pharisees will have no credit in the eyes of the reader, making the choice of the heavenly plane instead of the earthly one that is much simpler. This scene is one purely related to the use of the characterial literary device of the fool. As chapter seven concludes, the inconclusiveness surrounding Nicodemus still stands, the reputation of the Pharisees as religious leaders and authorities is tarnished. To the joy of the author, the reader’s should clearly know by now that their answers shall be found in the heavenly realm. Once again at the end of this scene, Nicodemus fades to the background of the narrative, disappearing once he accomplishes his duty in teaching “not a specific knowledge but rather a way to position oneself in inquiry, in the mutual pursuit of goods and truths, which often must occur across difference.” (McDonough 109)
3.3. John 19
Chapter nineteen is the final appearance of Nicodemus. In this chapter he does not say a single word; hence we can only judge him by his actions. The author presents Nicodemus in verse thirty-nine in the same way as in chapter three, recalling that he came by “night”; therefore, he reminds the readers that Nicodemus is still at odds with the world-views, and still has a foot in both worlds. Nicodemus regresses to his original state; in chapter seven, he had openly defended Jesus but was mocked by his counterparts. Therefore, he must revert to his beginning and come to Christ by the darkness of night to protect him from the mocking of society. It is simpler for the fool to turn away from trouble rather than face it. Nicodemus in this sense is similar to what Roger Ellis writes concerning the fool who: “is in the thick of things. He is forced to a recognition of the double standard, his own and the world’s and to the knowledge that where he sees himself as a self, the rest of the world will mark his caperings solely as an excuse for laughter. This becomes his great agony. It reflects his failure to act.” (Ellis 247) Nicodemus attempts to act meaningfully; yet, his position as delimited by the author, does not permit him to do so. As an outsider of the heavenly realm, he is deprived of the possibility of acting positively. Nicodemus must give way to the reality, which he is attempting to cast aside; he is not a true disciple of Christ. He is still shrouded in mystery; a true disciple must affirm his faith in Christ, not shy away from it and remain hidden in the shadows, a disciple comes to the light of Christ. He is confused, as he comes by night; yet, he brings a quantity of spices parallel to that used for the burial of a king: “Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.” (John 19:39) an amount fit for the king of the Jews. He shows recognition of who Christ is, all the while entirely misunderstands the dualistic nature of Christ. Though Christ is king, his kingdom is not of the earthly realm; Jesus will be resurrected, hence he does not need the embalming spices. This imagery produced by the misunderstanding is truly comedic. The readers can picture Nicodemus with a smile on his face, believing he understood Christ, yet missing the mark by just a little; all he was missing was that leap of faith demanded by the Johannine community. This indecisive duality is truly a problem of the fool, as “the fool deals in probables; he cannot be expected to know about miracles. He thinks he knows everything: but about the possibilities of redemption in the material order, like all the fools, he is uninstructed.” (Ellis 261) Roger Ellis, in this explanation, encompasses the exact problem pertaining to Nicodemus, yet this comes from his study of the fool in Shakespearian literature. The fool and Nicodemus can both only grasp the earthly realm; they cannot fathom or be expected to comprehend the miraculous things of the heavenly world above. Nicodemus attains some form of understanding by coming to Christ; yet, like the fool, he does not truly understand. He still comes to Christ by night, as well as embalms one who has preached the resurrection to him, and stated that he shall be the victor over death. Yet, his role is fulfilled; the reader knows that the religious Jewish leadership’s reputation has been tarnished. The reader understands that the path chosen by Nicodemus would be leading them astray, away from God; for like the Pharisees he is lost and wrong in his judgments. Furthermore, he is repeating his mistakes of the past, which the readers can key into due to the referential consequence of the reiteration of “night”, echoing chapter three. Though Nicodemus does not speak, the reader can see in his actions that Nicodemus is committing the same mistakes as he has in past chapters; he has remained static, hence, unchanged in his understanding and faith. Nicodemus never had a chance; as a fool, he is limited by the structure of the world in which he finds himself. Furthermore, he perfectly embodies the odd relationship of the outsider confronted by a world utterly opposed to him. Ultimately, Nicodemus had no choice but to fail, as he was unable to free himself from the binding force of his “Judaism”, as was lain out in the structural formation of the narrative world by the evangelist. Nevertheless, though he is limited, he permits the reader to see beyond the confining structure of the Judaic world-view. Through Nicodemus, the reader is permitted to see the choices and the consequences at hand, permitting one to make an enlightened choice; the choice that Nicodemus cannot make: to chose the heavenly realm, the kingdom of Christ and to be born from above.
This paper had originally set out to demonstrate that the use of Nicodemus, by the evangelist, as a characterial literary device, is similar to how the fool is used in Shakespearian plays, as a means of advancing the ramifications of the theological and Christological Johannine message presented in the Fourth Gospel. Nicodemus has shown similarities with the Shakespearian fools. Through the comparison of Nicodemus and the fool as we have studied in this work, common features between both characters have emerged. Roger Ellis and Timothy McDonough have explained in their works that: for the fool to have the prominence he is given, it is necessary for there to be two world-views opposed to one another. (Ellis 268) The author creates the limits of the world-views in place, in the gospel, and these limits are imposed upon Nicodemus; of course these limits will reflect the beliefs of the Johannine community. One world-view is held by the minority: Nicodemus, while the majority is held by the Johannine community. Consequentially the majority, id est the readers, will deem the minority to be fools; in the case of Nicodemus, he is a fool for he is following a course of action which is inconsistent with the world-view, as he has a foot in both worlds: heavenly and earthly. In combination with the character of the fool, the evangelist uses irony and misunderstanding. This combination has the function to point out to the readers that there is a choice to be made, due to the causality of a dualistic world-view. Like the Shakespearian fools, Nicodemus’ understanding is used by the author to further the plot of the narrative. As was illustrated, Nicodemus furthers the narration’s plot, by misunderstanding the dualistic significance of the use of “anôthen”. Limited by his world view he can only understand its first significance, pertaining to physiology, of being born again. On the other hand, the reader, through Nicodemus’ characterial use by the author, is permitted to comprehend the words second significance of being born from above. This misunderstanding brings to light the Son of Man Christology, which is being promoted by the evangelist of the Johannine community throughout the Fourth Gospel.
Nicodemus, in the Fourth Gospel, does not teach a specific knowledge; instead, he teaches how one should position oneself in inquiry. He helps the author guide the readers along, placing them in situations where they must question their prior beliefs, in accordance to the world-views. Nicodemus, therefore, successfully countermands the presuppositions that were at hand and changes the reader’s assumptions. The strength of Nicodemus, as a literary device, is found in his ability to expose the underlying belief system and expose its structural symbolism. He turns on its head the master-principles of the world-views of the narrative, revealing the multiplicity of positions one can assume in response to the world-views. Nicodemus, being the literary device fulfilling the role of devil’s advocate, permits Jesus to act on him, allowing the evangelist the opportunity to deliver the Johannine message to the readers. Furthermore, this is rendered possible as a result of Nicodemus being defined as fool type character, which cannot act; he can only be acted upon by others. To conclude, Nicodemus appears by night to begin the narration and ends the narration in the night. Ultimately, he fulfills his role as the characterial literary device of the fool, shedding light on the Christological and theological message of the Johannine Community. His task complete, it is thus justified that he fades from the narration and disappears, leaving the stage he has set for the fulfilment of the Son of man theology, as Jesus is raised, as stated in chapter three, glorified, exalted, and made the Saviour of the world.
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