John field notes 3a: John’s negative and positive space

Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a ruler of the Jews, comes to Jesus “by night.” (John 3:1-2)

Not “that night,” which would have made the detail another instance of John’s treating setting at first glance as mere overlay. It’s not that way here, even at first glance.

The place-and-time overlay in John is often loose fitting and follows the event, flapping like a cloak behind the event’s rush. (E.g., chapter 1’s “This took place at Bethany” and “It was about four in the afternoon.”)

Not here (or now).

“By night” makes the setting as significant as he earlier makes ambiguity and the unsaid. “By night” feels like “under cover of darkness” (speaking of a cloak). It suggests something about Nicodemus.

In fact, Nicodemus’s two later, briefer appearances in John come with “by night” as an identifier: “the same came to Jesus by night.” (See John 7:50 and 19:39.)

In the later references that include “the same came to Jesus by night,” I expect the reader to react, “Oh, yeah, the coward.”

“Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you are a teacher sent by God.” (John 3:2, REB)

But Nicodemus’s first statement here prevents me from concluding that he’s a coward. Nicodemus begins, “we.” Not “I/they.”  Not, “Look, I know you’re a teacher sent from God, but they don’t.” In the visible-brushstroke, impressionistic world of John’s writing, “we” contradicts the “by night” and thereby sets up a tension with “by night.” It’s all we need, or all we should need, or all we’re going to get, to explain the contradictions in Nicodemus and the contradictions we feel in fathoming him. Everything we later learn about Nicodemus, except for his need for time to process (okay, maybe that, too), is in the “at night” vs. “We.”

“Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you are a teacher sent by God.”

“We”: Does Nicodemus come as the Pharisee’s representative? Come by night because the Pharisees don’t want the people to know they wish to dialog with Jesus in a less confrontational way? Come by night because he’s not come as a representative and doesn’t want the Pharisees to know he’s come? Is Nicodemus conflicted? Or just busy?

The “by night”/”we” tension makes him rounder, makes him human, makes him more than torn, more than tentative. He chooses to associate himself with the Pharisees to Jesus, maybe even apologizes for them (“they realize more than you may realize they do”) or betrays them (“they realize you’re a legitimate prophet”), but it’s “we,” not “they,” as if he didn’t come by night.

Maybe three brushstrokes, and we have a character as round as any in literature. But the roundness, like the other important information in John, develops in the reader’s mind from what isn’t said.

John builds spaces like a poet.  Or like an architect conscious of the visitor’s movement more than he is of his building or landscape.

Figure-ground theory states that the space that results from placing figures should be considered as carefully as the figures themselves. Space is called negative space if it is unshaped after the placement of figures. It is positive space if it has a shape.

Matthew Frederick, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School (Thing #3). In John, space (the lack of information) feels negative, but I swear it’s positive. If creation argues that God exists, then John’s gospel argues that John exists. Just don’t assume John’s existence too quickly: you’ll miss out.

With “by night”/”we,” the tension and the space that adds to the tension don’t initially create a relationship, as it does with Nathaniel and Jesus and then with Jesus’ mother and Jesus (though we learn about all three from the relationships), but a character. With Nicodemus, John creates character development first and relationship second. And assuming John is not changing his literary ways, what does that say about Nicodemus?

[I’m reading John’s gospel. My reactions here vacillate between notes — a list of impressions — and something less sketchy. A note on nomenclature: the note number in my post’s title indicates the chapter of John’s material I’m reacting to. A title’s letter, though, differentiates the post from earlier posts about that chapter. “John field note 2c,” then, is my third post about something in John’s second chapter. N.B.: 12a may precede 3d: I skip around.]


  1. There’s a sort of dangling frame in a lot of John’s vignettes, you’re right. Like he starts sketching in the context and then can’t be bothered to finish it. It gives to me an intense sense of how magnetic Jesus must have been. Once he comes into view, everything else falls away.

  2. Yes, “can’t be bothered to finish it.” John’s Jesus is like a strong magnet that, when close, skews the normal compass readings of time and place. Or we’re on a ship and Jesus is heavy weather; we’re reduced to dead reckoning punctuated with only a few observations.

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