Rethinking Characters and Their Readers: Nicodemus as a Test Case


In this article, I offer an interdisciplinary approach to ancient characters, utilizing cognitive science, Greek stock characters, and ancient rhetoric. I illustrate this approach by offering a fresh perspective on the characterization of Nicodemus. Against the vast majority of scholars, I argue that ancient audiences would have largely construed Nicodemus as a trickster, who develops from deceptive outsider to Johannine disciple by the story’s end.

See Also: Configuring Nicodemus: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Complex Characterization (Bloomberg. 2019).

By Michael R. Whitenton
Baylor Interdisciplinary Core
Baylor University
May 2019

Of the more than seventy characters in the Fourth Gospel, Nicodemus stands out as one of the more memorable and influential. We have Nicodemus to thank for the “born again” verbiage that peppers sermons throughout North America because of his “misunderstanding” of Jesus’s message of a birth from above. I suspect that Nicodemus understood more than he publicly displayed, as my scare quotes are intended to indicate. In this brief article I offer an interdisciplinary reading of Nicodemus that integrates narratology, theory, rhetorical criticism, psychology, and cognitive science. I propose that ancient audiences would have questioned Nicodemus’s sincerity. In making this argument, I articulate a new way of thinking about ancient characters that aims to redescribe characterization from the perspective of actual readers/hearers of early Christian narratives. Biblical scholars often focus only on a character’s life in the text, but, as I argue, these “paper people” come alive in the minds of real audience members. Moreover, I argue that research on the cognition of characterization suggests that ancient audiences would largely have construed Nicodemus as a trickster, who begins his journey across John’s gospel as a deceptive outsider, only to develop into a full-fledged Johannine disciple by the story’s end.

A Crash Course on How Real Readers Understand Characters

When someone first encounters another person, an initial categorization of the person takes place based on relevant previous experience. If the incoming information supports the initial classification, confirmatory categorization occurs. Alternatively, if the incoming information does not support the initial classification, recategorization occurs based on the most relevant previous experience. However, if the incoming information does fit any particular previous experience, piecemeal integration takes place in which a person’s or character’s attributes is added up or averaged and is used to form an impression (Fiske and Neuberg 1990: 1-74; cf. Culpeper 2009: 136).

Disney’s animated film, Frozen (2013), provides a particularly helpful example of these dynamics. Princess Anna (Kristen Bell) sets out to rescue her sister Queen Elsa (Idina Menzel), but Anna falls prey to Elsa’s ice magic. At this point, audience members only know that Anna is a (1) princess, (2) in trouble, in a (3) Disney film. These three factors alone, in 2013, prompt inferences associated with the DAMSEL schema. Appropriate impressions of Anna, based on this schema, would be that she is helpless and in need of the love of a man to free her (references to an “act of true love” [i.e., true love’s kiss] encourage audience members in this direction). However, by the story’s end, when Anna’s sacrifices her own life to save Elsa from the evil Prince Hans of the Southern Isles (Santino Fontana)—and thereby reverse the frozen curse by an act of true love—Anna is transformed from the DAMSEL to the HERO. Anna needs no man; in fact, Kristoff needs Anna, who defends her own honor (and Kristoff’s) by punching Prince Hans off the boat. While Anna develops into the story’s HERO, she cannot be properly understood without first categorizing her through the DAMSEL schema and appreciating that she bursts the “helpless female” role worn smooth by over seventy-five years of Disney films, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

In other words, when audience members initially categorize a character as X, only later to recategorize them as Y, they tend to construe that character as developing from X to Y (cf. Fiske and Neuberg 1990: 1-74; cf. Culpeper 2009: 125–160, esp. 136).

Character Types Relevant to Nicodemus

In order to approximate ancient audience construals of characters, we need to familiarize ourselves with the different “types” of characters in the Roman world. We will use Theophrastus’s influential work, On Characters [371–287 BCE] as a starting point, but it will also be important to show the prevalence of any relevant character type, before suggesting its availability to ancient audiences.

Audiences of Hellenistic Jewish Christians would have heard John’s gospel through a variety of cultural scripts populated through direct interactions with real people, but also from literary traditions embedded in the broader Mediterranean world. For the sake of space, I highlight only the two most relevant character types.

The Idiot

The behavior of Theophrastus’s “obtuse man” and his “dissembler” most closely resemble Nicodemus’s behavior when he initially encounters Jesus. Theophrastus describes the “obtuse man” as one whose behavior makes no sense, suggesting a disconnect with reality. For example, such a person might go through pains to ensure proper calculations with his counters—only to ask the person sitting next to him for the total (14.2-3). Basically, the obtuse man is surprisingly dense and stupid. When one would expect him to understand, he does not; he disappoints even the simplest expectations. There were many known fools in Greco-Roman antiquity (e.g., Margites, Coroebus, Dionysius, Cornelia Africana, and Emperor Claudius). Here I highlight two. Margites provides a blueprint for idiots the world over. While an eponymous comic mock-epic, purportedly written by Homer, is no longer extant, Margites’s ridiculous exploits come to us via his reputation as the paragon of stupidity; his name even became a shorthand insult for other fools (cf. Dio Chrystosom 67.4-5 [1st c. CE]; Lucian, Philops. 3 [2nd c. CE]). According to Ps-Plato, Margites “knew many things, but knew them all badly” (Alcibiades 2.147c [4th c. BCE?]). Margites was such an idiot that he did not know the mechanics of coitus; wife had to trick him into having sex by claiming that a scorpion stung her on her vagina and that the only remedy was intercourse (cf. Lucian, Philops. 3; Hesychius μ 267 [5th-6th c. CE])! In the second century CE, the Roman historian Suetonius relates that the Emperor Claudius constantly seemed to forget that he had put people to death, only to scorn them for their absence. For example, after he put his third wife, Messalina, to death, he shortly inquired as to why she was absent for dinner. Similarly, he put many to death on one day and then summoned them the next to join him for games or consultation. When they (naturally) did not show, he would send a messenger to upbraid them for their absence (Cl. 39.1-2).

Such fools abounded in the cultural memory of the first and second century CE Mediterranean world. As such, we may conclude that variations of the OBTUSE MAN schema populated the minds of ancient audiences.

The Dissembler

Theophrastus’s “dissembler” feigns the stupidity the “obtuse man” exemplifies. He conceals his true feelings as he “comes to his enemies and willingly converses with them” (Char. 1.2). He is evasive, noncommittal, and invents excuses (1.4); he is deceiving (1.5) and offers up professions of disbelief, such as “‘I don’t believe it,’ ‘I can’t imagine it,’ ‘I am amazed’” (1.6). While dissemblers came in all shapes and sizes, deceit marked all their interactions. For example, they might come to an enemy under the pretense of friendship but converse patronizingly and embellish flattery, harboring ill will in their heart. Or they might lie or feign disbelief, misunderstanding, and amazement in the presence of a rather mundane datum or person. A later note appended to the description of the dissembler in Theophrastus is instructive: “One should be more wary of disingenuous and designing characters than of vipers.”

Dissemblers abounded in ancient literature, but I only mention three here. In Aristophanes’s (5th c. BCE) famous satirical play, Knights, a character named Demos pretends to be a fool in order to trick two other characters. In an aside, he quips, “Just watch me and see if I don’t ingeniously trick them, those who think they’re smart and that I’m their dupe. I monitor them all the time, pretending I don’t even see them, as they steal; and then I force them to regurgitate whatever they’ve stolen from me, using a verdict tube as a probe” (Knights 1141-50 [Henderson, LCL]). Later, in first century BCE, Cicero described Socrates as “fascinating and witty, a genial conversationalist” and “what the Greeks call ‘a dissembler’—in every conversation, pretending to need information and professing admiration for the wisdom of his companion” (On Duty 1.50.108 [Miller, LCL]). Finally, after the turn of the Common Era, Plutarch characterized Alcibiades as someone who “could so easily pass entirely from one manner of man to another,” depending on the needs of the moment (Alcibiades 23.6-7 [Perrin, LCL]).

Again, as with the OBTUSE MAN, the DISSEMBLER populated the cultural memory of the world of John’s gospel and its earliest audiences. But of the two, which would Nicodemus most likely prime for ancient readers/hearers?

Categorization: Nicodemus as Either an Idiot or a Dissembler?

Nicodemus’s first appearance in John’s gospel (3.1-21) provides the most detailed information about his character. He is introduced in an exchange with Jesus that occurs at night. We are not told why he comes to Jesus; we are only told when he comes. He praises Jesus as a teacher from God, based on his observations of the signs that Jesus has performed. Jesus, however, responds with a statement about spiritual transformation. From that moment on, Nicodemus appears to be the platonic form of confusion. His stupidity, it would seem, knows no bounds.

While they do not appeal to Theophrastus, scholars have almost universally treated Nicodemus as though he were an idiot, gawking together with Jesus at the unbelievable stupidity of this “leader of the Jews” (cf. John 3.10). (Jesus uses a Greek term, anothen, to refer to a divine awakening, but Nicodemus purports to misunderstand him as referring to a literal second birth.) If he were not a religious scholar, we could chalk this up to stupidity that rivaled Margites. Are we really to believe that such a man would fail to understand such a basic concept, especially considering the frequency with which Jewish religious leaders use circumlocutions for God (“from above” = “the divine realm”). I suggest that the intense incongruity created by the collision of schemas associated with RELIGIOUS SCHOLAR and IDIOT point toward a less appreciated conclusion: Nicodemus’s behavior would likely have triggered DISSEMBLER schemata.

Nicodemus’s lavish praise, amazement, and claims to ignorance strongly resemble the classical dissembler. Like this ancient trickster, Nicodemus approaches with a friendly façade and lavishes praise on Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do the signs you are doing unless God is with him” (3.2). This praise complements his claims to ignorance: “How can a person be born after growing old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” and later, “How can these things be” (3.9)? Lest audience members miss his apparent buffoonery, the Johannine Jesus even highlights it: “You are a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (3.10) Moreover, while Nicodemus does not explicitly say he is amazed, he acts the part with so much finesse that Jesus tries to stifle his wonder: “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born anothen (“from above”/“again”) (3.7). These lines bear an uncanny resemblance to the typical speech assigned to a dissembler by Theophrastus: “Sometimes he says that he will think about it, that he has no idea, or that he is surprised […]. In general, he is a great one for using expressions like ‘I don’t believe it,’ ‘I can’t imagine it,’ ‘I am amazed…’” For audience members following this line of interferences, Nicodemus plays the fool and rejects Jesus’s message, presumably because he does not understand who he is. So, if Nicodemus “misunderstands” anything, it’s the identity of the Johannine Jesus, not his message (3:19-21). Beyond this, the description of Nicodemus, as a “person” (anthropos), links his introduction in 3.1 with the “people” (anthropoi) whom Jesus does not trust (2.23-25).

If we take Nicodemus at face value, he is a well-meaning imbecile. But if we question the positive intent behind Nicodemus’s behavior and words in John 3, a different scenario arises: Despite his appearance, Nicodemus seems to be hiding something from Jesus in John 3. The rhetorically barbed nature of Jesus’s responses to Nicodemus confirm the suspicious nature of his character. In an ancient rhetorical context, the double-entendres that populate Jesus’s responses to Nicodemus are usually reserved for disarming a hostile or deceptive opponent (see Rhetorica ad Herennium 4.53.67; Quintilian, Institutes 9.2.67-74). Importantly, the goal of this figured speech is not merely deception for the sake of deception, but rather deception for the sake of convincing a resistant conversation partner.

To sum up, I argue that understanding Nicodemus as a dissembler, rather than an idiot, better accounts for Johannine narrative, ancient rhetorical strategies for dealing with resistant rhetorical opponents, and the commonsense expectation that religious leaders ought to at least be more intelligent than Margites. If the scripts and schemas associated with dissembling are activated, audience members may suspect that Nicodemus does in fact understand Jesus’s message of birth from above but feigns misunderstanding. He thus becomes an exemplar of, among others, the larger Jewish religious establishment, which does not receive the testimony of Jesus and his disciples (3:11). It is no accident that 3:12-21 focuses not on misunderstanding, but on the refusal to believe and receive the message. At stake therefore, in Johannine parlance, is not cognitive misunderstanding versus cognitive understanding, but rather love of the Light versus love of the darkness, acceptance versus rejection.

If audience members categorized Nicodemus as a dissembler in John 3, how might his subsequent appearances have augmented that characterization?

Character Development: Recategorization and Individuating Behavior

When Nicodemus appears in John 7.45-52, Nicodemus’s “stupidity” seems to have worn off. Yet he persists in his dissembling—even if he has changed sides. (The reintroduction of Nicodemus immediately after the Pharisees ask whether one of them has believed in Jesus suggests his inclusion among the growing number of Jesus followers.) Whereas he attempted to trick Jesus by feigning stupidity in John 3, he now hides what seems to be a burgeoning allegiance to Jesus by coyly suggesting that the law requires the Pharisees listen to Jesus’s case before rendering judgment (cf. 7.51). While this does not explicitly mark Nicodemus as a disciple, his behavior does destabilize categorizations of him as a dissembler against Jesus.

Nicodemus does not return in John’s gospel until after Jesus’s crucifixion, at which point he seems to have left his dissembling behind. In John 19.38-42, Nicodemus appears together with Joseph of Arimathea to retrieve Jesus’s lifeless body. Since Joseph is explicitly marked out as a “secret believer,” many have suggested that Nicodemus should be similarly categorized. And yet, Nicodemus’s retrieval, preparation, and burial of the body of a crucified criminal is no small private task. Indeed, it would have required a great (and very public) expenditure of labor, resources, and courage. Whereas Nicodemus first approached Jesus at night, he now retrieves his body during the light of day, sacrificing his reputation, body, and money in the process.

While DISSEMBLER schemata were initially enough to create a satisfactory global inference about Nicodemus, his individuating behavior in John 7 and 19 would likely have prompted audience members to infer that he had been born of the spirit by Jesus’s rhetoric in John 3. From dissembling against Jesus to providing him an honorable burial, Nicodemus seems to have developed subtly but completely into a full-fledged Johannine disciple, who has come to “believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing [he] may have life in his name” (Jn 20.31).

I am by no means alone in suggesting such a transformation. Ancient audience members seem to have believed, perhaps as early as the mid-second century, that Nicodemus became a disciple of Jesus. The Acts of Pilate, for example, places Nicodemus in the argument between the Jews and Pilate over whether to kill Jesus. There he seems to make a full profession of faith and offers a rhetorically savvy defense of Jesus (cf. 5.2; 12.1). In other words, while the first audience members are lost to us, very early tradition suggests that many believed Nicodemus joined himself to Jesus by the end of John’s gospel.


While scholars have tended to treat Nicodemus as a rather undeveloped character-made-literary-device, I have argued that, for actual ancient readers, Nicodemus emerges from the Fourth Gospel as a complex, dynamic character. Moreover, considered within the framework Nicodemus and his transformation becomes something of a model for ancient Christians to follow, whether that involves joining the community (John 3), redoubling acts of allegiance (John 7), or risking literal or metaphorical life for the aims of the community (John 19).

I suggest that we have lost the dynamic nature of characterization. While characters only exist as paper people on printed pages, they are instantly animated in the minds of actual readers. All too often, we read these characters as if they (and we) were in a vacuum, insulated from the contagions of a reader’s own generative contexts. This fool’s errand stifles our ability to understand how actual audience members read these texts and their characters, which are at once inextricable from their narratives and yet incomplete until they are configured and animated in human minds.


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Cicero. 1913. On Duties. Translated by Walter Miller. Revised edition. LCL 30. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Culpeper, Jonathan. 2009. “Reflections on a Cognitive Stylistic Approach to Characterisation.” In Cognitive Poetics: Goals, Gains and Gaps, edited by Geert Brône and Jeroen Vandaele, 125–60. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Diggle, James, ed. 2004. Theophrastus: Characters. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries 41. Cambridge University Press.

Fiske, Susan T., and Steven L. Neuberg. 1990. “A Continuum of Impression Formation, from Category-Based to Individuating Processes: Influences of Information and Motivation on Attention and Interpretation.” In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, edited by Mark P. Zanna, 1–74. New York: Academic Press.

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Ps-Cicero. 1954. Rhetorica Ad Herennium. Translated by Harry Caplan. LCL 403. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Quintilian. 1969. Institutio Oratoria. Translated by Harold Edgeworth Butler. LCL 124–127. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press London: W. Heinemann.

Suetonius. 1914. Lives of the Caesars, Volume II: Claudius. Nero. Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. Vespasian. Titus, Domitian. Lives of Illustrious Men: Grammarians and Rhetoricians. Poets (Terence. Virgil. Horace. Tibullus. Persius. Lucan). Lives of Pliny the Elder and Passienus Crispus. Translated by J. C. Rolfe. Revised edition. LCL 38. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.


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