A graduate of Vineyard Institute in Biblical studies and leadership, David Harder’s new book offers a closer look at the biblical personage of Nicodemus. In the historical novel Persuaded: The Story of Nicodemus (Ambassador International), Nicodemus has been entrusted by the imprisoned Apostle John with manuscripts for the Christian fellowships increasing throughout the Roman Empire. In our exclusive interview, David shares how he got intrigued with Nicodemus, expands on what he discovered during his extensive research and explains the challenge of writing historical fiction.
David, what provided the impetus for you to write Persuaded: The Story of Nicodemus?
During my personal Bible studies, I was studying in the Gospel of John and reading about the night Nicodemus visited Jesus. Later in John’s Gospel, I saw the name Nicodemus mentioned two more times. I then researched and noticed he is not mentioned anywhere else in the other Gospels or the New Testament books.
John’s record of his interactions with Jesus was written years after Mark, Luke and Matthew. In fact, John felt there wasn’t much he could add to the record about Jesus until he was encouraged by the seven churches of Asia to provide his story.
I was intrigued and wanted to know why John included Nicodemus in his account. The more I studied, the fewer answers I found, and I soon developed additional unanswered questions. I turned to extra-Biblical documents as well as research papers to find further information.
I discovered that Nicodemus was not a Pharisee but served in the Sanhedrin council. Based upon John’s second account of Nicodemus, we read that this curious man defended Jesus against his peers when they attempted to condemn Jesus without a trial.
The senior Pharisees and elders rebuked Nicodemus publicly and embarrassingly. Had he been an equal, they would have waited until they were in their chambers to argue. At the most, if they disagreed with Nicodemus and respected him on equal terms, they would have shaken their heads, thrown dirt in the air so it landed on their heads, or torn their robes. They did not see Nicodemus as an equal and I suspect he was young and learning to become a Pharisee.
The third account in John’s Gospel is when Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea ask Pilate for the body of Jesus, and then prepare it for burial.
At a time when the relations between the Jews and the Romans was tenuous, how did a young upcoming Pharisee-in-training and a Jewish businessman get the authority to approach the powerful Roman Governor, and at the same time defy the strict orders of the Sanhedrin. Why would these men risk their lives, their reputations, and quite possibly their livelihoods for a man their religious leaders hated?
It was at that moment, I realized Nicodemus had a life-changing experience when he met Jesus. It wasn’t an instantaneous change, but one that occurred over time. He came to believe that Jesus was the Messiah and his story needed to be told.
As I started to write this book, I would have dreams about whole chapters I was to write. I used material from all four Gospels and Acts to create the timeline.
Many times, I would awaken from my dreams at odd hours of the night and start writing. When I’d turn to the Bible for reference, I was amazed at the accuracy of what I had written when compared to the Biblical texts.
Without spoilers, what can you tell us about the story?
Persuaded drops into Jerusalem the moment the Romans are laying siege to the city. Chaos erupts everywhere and Nicodemus is trapped in the city. His prayers are answered when his friend, Joseph of Arimathea comes to rescue him and get him out safely. It’s a nail-biting start and they almost don’t make it.
Because Nicodemus is considered a traitor by the religious leaders, they pursue him even in Arimathea where he is living with his much older friend Joseph. Nicodemus changes his name and years later when Joseph is lying on his death bed, he gives Nicodemus a task and makes him promise to fulfill Joseph’s wish. Nicodemus must find the Apostle John, whom he and Joseph met years earlier when Jesus was alive.
Nicodemus discovers John is on the Island of Patmos, a penal colony in the Mediterranean Sea. The dangerous journey there is nothing compared to the new mission he receives from the aged Apostle John. Christian writings are considered contraband, but John has entrusted Nicodemus with several hidden scrolls to secret back to the mainland and distribute among the seven church of Asia.
If Nicodemus is caught, he could find himself imprisoned along with John. If he survives the harrowing journey home to Arimathea it will be a miracle. For an old man, Nicodemus’s weak faith will be tested to its limits.
When Nicodemus recounts his tale to a neighbor, the man asks if Nicodemus actually met and knew Jesus. All through the night, they sit together and Nicodemus retells his accounts of his encounters with the charismatic leader and Messiah called Jesus.
It is then, that the two men read for the first time, the words written by the Apostle John. Filled with excitement, it is a moment neither man will forget for their hearts are set aflame concerning the return of Jesus.
Did you do a lot of research? Did any part of the process surprise you?
Over two years of writing and research went into Persuaded. I wanted the story to stay true to the words in the Bible; and to provide a behind-the-scenes look at the characters found in the New Testament. In addition, I wanted to bring the words in the Bible to life. If the reader could relate and emote with the characters, there would be a deeper meaning in the words, and they would share a spiritual connection.
Historically, I wanted the information in the book to be accurate. Countless hours were spent on the internet reading about Israel, first-century Rome, clothing, traditions, customs, travels, distances, language, and more subjects than I care to remember.
I have a DVD full of downloaded information used for reference. Even with this much research, I still needed to know more and that is when I turned to apocrypha writings, extra-Biblical texts, oral/traditional history accounts and research papers to fill in the blanks.
The biggest surprise in the writing process occurred when I began to write about the burial of Jesus, on the day he was crucified. Normally, Romans liked to leave condemned bodies hanging until they fell apart. It was not only disgraceful, but it sent a message to others who would consider committing crimes.
In the case of Jesus, Pilate released his body to a Jewish businessman moments after his death. This means, Joseph had a good working relationship with the Romans and felt comfortable approaching the high-ranking Governor. According to the scriptures, Jesus died around three in the afternoon on the day before Sabbath and the eve of the Passover—both would begin at sundown around six-thirty in the evening.
A burial is called a Tahara in Hebrew and involves a lengthy process and instructions requiring a half a day. When I went looking for first century Tahara instructions, I found none.
I had nearly exhausted my research when I ran across an article translated from Hebrew and written by a university student in the early 1900s. He described the methods of a modern Tahara, the requirements, the rules, but he also referenced the ancient historical records of when these practices began. His references came from the third century and surmised that Taharas were practically unchanged for centuries.
Once I understood the Tahara framework, I was then able to piece together what Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus had time for the day they buried Jesus. These two men had less than three hours to do a job that required at least six to eight.
The job required a minimum of four people and it was only the two men. Their Tahara would be rushed and for this reason why the women wanted to finish anointing Jesus’ body on Sunday.
There are three basic types of burials in Israel, depending on a person’s financial status. In the first category, the body is laid on the ground and covered with rocks. The second case involves rock walls which are built around the body and stone slabs are then placed over the walls.
The third and most expensive are stone tombs. A hollowed cave is carved from the rock with a hearth for the body. Along the wall are carved niches. When the body is placed on the bench it desiccates over time and later the bones are collected and placed into a stone ossuary, which is similar to a modern-day urn.
The ossuary is marked with a name and placed in one of the niches and then the tomb is available for another burial. Joseph’s new tomb, which had never been used, was given to Jesus—another sign Joseph was wealthy.
Old Testament law prevented Hebrews from attending Sabbath, entering the Temple, or participating in Passover if they touched a corpse, unless they had performed a cleansing ritual and made a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple. When Joseph and Nicodemus performed the Tahara for Jesus, finishing it just as the sun set and Sabbath/Passover began, it meant they didn’t have time to perform the cleansing ritual and would not be able to participate in the most important holiday for all Hebrews.
What would motivate these two men to do this? It is another reason why this story needed to be written.
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Writing fiction seems easy for me. I come up with the idea for the story and create everything—the people, the places, the scenes, the events—it just has to be believable and interesting.
Historical fiction is quite different because as a writer, you must stay true to the events which occurred. When it involves Biblical history, it gets even tougher, because Bible critics appear from nowhere and pick apart anything and everything written. Then there is the added challenge of making sure what is written does not misrepresent the Gospel or do harm to the message of Jesus.
The second most challenging part is telling the story itself. This book is told mostly from Nicodemus’ point of view, but at certain steps of the timeline, the point of view needed to shift to Jesus or the Apostle John. It was important I break the rule about point of view in order to make this story feel cinematic (a term two different people have described the book after reading it) and flow.
What would you like to be the takeaway for readers of the novel?
My goal when I wrote this story was to tell the behind-the-scenes story about Nicodemus. Apostle John included this man in his accounting of the Jesus chronicle, and there had to be a reason.
The scene with Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night is where we get one of the most quoted scriptures ever—John 3:16—and that is significant and impactful. Anyone who has become a believer has heard this verse.
It’s terrible when we gloss over scriptures and read them strictly for the text, or only focus on the verses that mean something to us in our situation. By taking one character from one New Testament gospel, who is mentioned only three times in that Gospel, I hope that I have drawn the reader’s attention to subtle details that could easily be missed and encouraged them to dig deeper into the Bible to find more hidden truths.
Nicodemus did not have an instantaneous conversion to become a believer. His conversion took time.
He was highly educated, had studied the Laws and the writings of Moses. He was not part of the working class but was probably middle-to-upper class financially. He was young, yet part of the powerful Sanhedrin council. He thought in logical terms and saw verified proof of miracles as being from God. He was an introvert and quiet but could speak his thoughts in a coherent manner.
I doubt he had many friends outside the Sanhedrin and Joseph of Arimathea befriended Nicodemus becoming his mentor.
Nicodemus’ conversion from doubter to believer, then to servant took place in small steps. This should encourage some of us who have doubts about our own salvation. Not everyone meets Jesus, like Saul, has a road to Damascus experience, and then does a 180 degree turn and gets set on fire as an evangelist. Some of us slowly see the reality of Jesus as the room gets brighter. Each of us is called to a different purpose, but ALL of us are called to spread the Good News.
So, the biggest take away is this—it’s never too late to make Jesus your friend, and you’re never too old to start serving him in some capacity. Nicodemus is living proof.
The second take away is the underlying message of Persuaded; God is always watching over us. Psalms 119:105 says it best. “Your word (Lord) is a lamp for my feet (so I don’t stumble in the dark), and a light for my path (to light up the future so I know where You are taking me).”
Visit David Harder’s Author Page HERE!
Persuaded: The Story of Nicodemus