I was sent an email today asking whether or not I interpreted John 3.13-15 to be Jesus telling Nicodemus about his impending crucifixion. Also, I was asked how I thought Jesus would be using the title ‘Son of Man’ and how Nicodemus would have understood it. I thought I may as well share the content of my response here as well for anyone who is interested.
I think what is difficult about this text is it is hard to tell when Jesus’ words end and when the narrator is providing commentary. In part this is because the author is not as concerned with relaying well-known sayings of Jesus like the Synoptic evangelists. He presents Jesus’ words in the same “voice” as his own. For example, v. 11 sounds like the confession we find in 1 John 1.1-3 where the community confesses being a witness to Jesus (since it uses the first person plural “we” know and “we” speak). Is v. 11 an insert (i.e., commentary by the evangelist that maybe should be “red letter” in English) or should we trace it to the words of Jesus (as v. 32 hints, Jesus does for the Father what the community does for Jesus)?
Likewise, vv. 13-15 seem like commentary on Jesus’ words (actually, one could argue that vv. 13-21 are commentary on Jesus’ words). So this would mean Jesus’ part ends with “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Then the narrator explains Jesus’ authority to say this saying, “No one has ascended into heaven…”
If this is the case then the more important question is how does the Gospel of John define ‘Son of Man,’ and that is best determined by surveying the gospel itself. If these words are Jesus’ they may remain defined by how the evangelist frames them in his narrative. If these words are Jesus’ rooted in his Second Temple context my assumption is that one would have to read it as an allusion to the Son of Man figure from the Book of Daniel (7.13-14ff). If these words are Jesus’ then the evangelist portrays Jesus as predicting his own crucifixion and in some sense his ascension. That said, I think this is commentary by the evangelist for the reader, so Jesus wouldn’t have said these words directly to Nicodemus. Jesus’ discourse seems to end with v. 12.
On a side note, I realize that unlike the Synoptic Gospels it is almost impossible to trace Jesus’ words to the historical Jesus (not that it is easy there either). Jesus’ voice is one with the narrator most of the time. Even when the narrator depicts Jesus as speaking without adding his own commentary the words of Jesus sound like the narrator himself. For a good study of his phenomenon I recommend R. Alan Culpepper’s Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design.