John used "night" seven times, most likely as an allusion to creation and to reinforce the theme of light and darkness central to the Gospel. The uses have been distributed throughout the work following the principles of a chiasm in order to highlight this use:
But if one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” (John 11:10) [NKJV]
This is a prophetic reference to Judas Iscariot who left at night (13:30) after Satan had entered him: Judas, despite seeing all of the signs, did not have the light (Jesus) in him.
Seven Uses or Six?
The Critical Text of the New Testament in Greek lacks "night" (νύξ) in verse 7:50:
Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them (ESV)
λέγει Νικόδημος πρὸς αὐτούς, ὁ ἐλθὼν πρὸς αὐτὸν [τὸ] πρότερον, εἷς ὢν ἐξ αὐτῶν (NA28)
Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,) (KJV)
λέγει Νικόδημος πρὸς αὐτούς ὁ ἐλθὼν νυκτὸς πρὸς αὐτὸν εἷς ὢν ἐξ αὐτῶν (TR)
νυκτὸς, the genitive singular form of νύξ, is considered a scribal addition and so is omitted. As a result, modern translations which rely on this text only have these six uses: 3:2, 9:4, 11:10, 13:30, 19:39, 21:3. On the other hand, the Received Text and the Majority Text include it. Therefore, the question must first consider whether the use in 7:50 should be treated as original to make the total seven. (Bias alert: I believe the Majority Text best represents of the original text.)
The obvious reason to believe it is authentic is because the number seven is Biblically important, and, as Craig R. Koester notes, this element is often used by the writer of the Fourth Gospel:
The evangelist seems to have structured some, though certainly not all, aspects of the narrative in groups of seven: seven signs, seven "I Am" sayings, and sometimes seven scenes in a given episode.
Like other instances where the writer was purposeful to have something "found" seven times, the word belongs in 7:50 so that seven "nights" will be present. This echoes the opening of the Gospel and alludes to the work of creation. It functions to support the theme of light and darkness:
Images of light and darkness pervade the Fourth Gospel, creating what is probably its most striking motif. The prologue depicts God's Word as a source of life and light shining into the darkness (1:5). Later Jesus concludes his nocturnal encounter with Nicodemus with unsettling remarks about those who love darkness rather than light (3:19-21). Then the motif fades away until Jesus suddenly declares that he is "the light of the world" (8:12) and demonstrates the truth of his claim by enlightening the eyes of a man born blind (9:4-7). The healing of the blind man and its aftermath intensify hostility toward Jesus by many in Jerusalem, and shadows begin to fall over the period of daylight allotted for his ministry (11:9-10). With a final plea to believe in the light, Jesus vanishes from public view before plunging into the dark night of death (12:25-36, 46; 13:30). Afterward the motif is reduced to a glimmer, with but a passing reference to the glow of lanterns, a charcoal fire, and predawn darkness of Easter morning...Although light and darkness may signify many things, the Gospel creates a literary framework that focuses their meaning without completely delimiting it. The text establishes basic configurations of meaning by connecting light with God, life, and knowledge, and by associating darkness with their opposites.
The final scene in Chapter 21, which begins with the disciples fishing at night (darkness) and ends with their encounter with Jesus "when morning had come," can be added to Koester's analysis. The effect is to end the Gospel with night becoming day, echoing both the beginning of the Gospel and of creation:
...and the light shines in the darkness... (John 1:5)
So the evening and the morning were the first day. (Genesis 1:5)
The use of night is secondary to light and darkness, yet seven uses of night makes for two clear connections to creation, which is how the Gospel begins.
With respect to Nicodemus, if "night" is included in 7:50, then he is always described using the word with which he is introduced:
Nicodemus comes at night to Jesus at night... (3:1-2)
Nicodemus (who came to Jesus at night) says... (7:50)
Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came... (19:39)
And every scene with Nicodemus is constructed such that the reader may see both night and light:
Nicodemus comes at night to Jesus [the Light of the World] (3:1-2)
Nicodemus (who came at night) speaks in the Temple [during the light of day] (7:50)
Nicodemus (who came at night) buries Jesus [during the last light of day] (19:38-39)
Since the reader knows Nicodemus, the added description "who came at night" is unnecessary. But it is purposeful to play upon, and reinforce the motif of light and darkness. As the use in 19:39 is accepted as original, including it in 7:50 makes for a consistent treatment throughout.
Finally, in Chapter 7, Nicodemus is presented as defending Jesus saying, “Does our law judge a man before it hears him...” (7:51). He is referring to passages like Deuteronomy 1:16-17 and 19:16-18 which call for cases to be heard. But Nicodemus adds, "... and knows what he is doing." "Doing" here is ποιέω, which recalls Nicodemus first words to Jesus:
This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” (John 3:2)
Thus there are two connections back to the first introduction of Nicodemus. Moreover, ποιέω, ("do") is sometimes translated as "work." So the Nicodemus who came at night knowing what Jesus was doing proved God was with Him, is admonishing the authorities to see what Jesus does (His works while it is day) before judging Him. Including “night” at 7:50 not only shows the writer identified Nicodemus consistently, it echoes both Nicodemus’ first words and prefaces Jesus words about works, day, and night (9:4).
I believe the literary factors favor seeing "night" as original to 7:50 despite the preference given by modern scholars to those manuscripts which lack the word.
Brad McCoy defines chiasm as "the use of inverted parallelism of form and/or content which moves toward and away from a strategic central component." In his paper he states:
Chiasmus (or chiasm) is an important structural device/form
commonly found in ancient literature and oratory, both secular and
A chiasm highlights the main theme by "surrounding" it with "paired" supporting thoughts. This technique gives supporting thoughts primary and secondary purposes:
- Primary: Support and/or explain the main theme
- Secondary: Support and/or explain its corresponding partner
McCoy illustrates with the example of the covenant with Abraham and the prologue of John:
A: Abram’s age (17:1a)
B: The LORD appears to Abram (17:1b)
C: God’s first speech (17:1c–2)
D: Abram falls on his face (17:3)
E: God’s second speech (emphasizing “names/kings/nations”) (17:4–8)
X: God’s third/most important speech (emphasizing “the covenant”) (17:9–14)
E’: God’s fourth speech (emphasizing “names/kings/ nations”) (17:15–16)
D’: Abraham falls on his face (17:17–18)
C’: God’s fifth speech (17:19–21)
B’: The LORD goes up from Abram (17:22–23)
A’: Abraham’s age (17:24–25)
A: The Word with God (1-2)
B: The Word's role in creation (3)
C: God's grace to mankind (4-5)
D: Witness of John the Baptist (6-8)
E: The Incarnation of the Word (9-11)
X: Saving faith in the Incarnate Word (12-13)
E': The Incarnation of the Word (14)
D': Witness of John the Baptist (15)
C': God's grace to mankind (16)
B': The Word's role in re-creation (17)
A': The Word with God the Father (18)
McCoy also points out the importance of recognizing John's use of chiasms:
In regard to the Gospel of John, scholars have proposed a plethora
of theories concerning its content and organization in effort to explain
certain literary rough spots and supposed inconsistencies in the
chronological and geographical flow of the narrative of the book. These
theories include the important suggestion by Bultmann (which has been
revised in various ways by different scholars since his time) that chapters
five and six have somehow been displaced from their original order.
Recognition of the broad chiastic structure of the Gospel readily explains
apparent difficulties such as this one without resorting to speculative
redaction of the order of large blocks of its text.
While several specific chiastic proposals for the discourse structure
of the book have been suggested, the point being made here is that this
paradigm of its overall arrangement of material nicely explains otherwise
confusing aspects of its organization and content. In addition, a chiastic analysis of its overall literary structure transforms any erroneous
perceptions of the book as a disorganized literary patchwork to the correct understanding of it as an ingeniously constructed integrated
whole which has been justly described as “arguably the theological and
literary masterpiece of the Church’s canon.”
There are other aspects of the Fourth Gospel in which an important element was located "in the middle:"
- Raising Lazarus from the dead is the final sign and is presented as the event which triggers the plot to kill Jesus. This is placed in Chapter 11, the middle of the scroll/book.
- The Gospel is often divided into two parts: the Book of Signs (1-11) and the Book of Glory (12-21). The mid-point of the Book of Signs is Chapter 6 which has the "middle" sign (the 4th) and the Bread of Life Discourse. The mid-point of the Book of Glory is Chapters 16-17 which includes the promise and work of the Holy Spirit and Jesus' prayer.
Another example can be seen in the teaching on the Holy Spirit:
Chapter 14 - The Promise of the Holy Spirit for the disciples
Chapter 15 - Spiritual Fruit of the disciples
Chapter 16 - The Work of the Holy Spirit in the world
The three chapters are organized chiastically around Chapter 15 and the apparent "repetition" of Chapter 14 in Chapter 16, expounds the initial teaching, both of which support Chapter 15.
Chiasms are typically studied within a passage, not as a placement of individual words within the overall work. However, in making her case that Revelation is arranged chiastically, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza states how this type of structure was not limited to use in literature; it formed the rule for Greek drama, Roman poetry, and could be seen on coins, and art:
Moreover, the pattern is a widely employed pattern in the literature of antiquity. It is especially interesting to note the affinity of the structure of Rev. with that of a Greek drama.. According to the compositional rules of tragedy, the climax falls near the center of the action, and the denouement comes near the end. The narrative poetry of republican Rome follows the same compositional rules. Students of the literature of Israel and Judaism have found the same structural pattern. The pattern is also present in the visual art of the time. Two examples appear to be especially interesting for the understanding of Rev. Two Roman coins of 35-36 C.E. bear images of the temples of Divus Augustus and Apollo. These temple images exhibit the balanced structure ABCDC'B'A'. Even more significant with respect to Rev. is the fact that the golden candelabra which appears on the arch of Titus in Rome consists of a centerpiece paralleled on either side by three pieces and thus exhibits the pattern ABCDC'B'A'. Internal and external evidences thus support our reconstruction of the architectonic pattern of Rev.
Essentially, writers "thought" chiastically. Other examples of this in the Fourth Gospel are the healing the man blind from birth (9:1-41) and Jesus' trial before Pilate (18:28-19:16). Both are described with seven scenes symmetrically arranged: they are presented chiastically.
Night in John
Light and dark are important and reoccurring themes, so one should consider how the writer has treated the similar and supporting concept of "night." Here are the seven statements as they occur:
A: This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher
who comes from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”
B: Nicodemus (he who came to Jesus by night, being one of them) said to them (7:50)
C: I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when
no one can work. (9:4)
X: But if one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” (11:10)
C': Having received the piece of bread, he then went out immediately. And it was night.
B': And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of
myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. (19:39)
A': Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We are going with
you also." They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught
As shown, these seven statements form a chiasm. Additionally, the "middle" use of "night" was placed in the middle of the Gospel.
Like a chiasm, the "supporting" verses have been arranged in an inverse parallel order. The first and the last describe something which begins "at night." Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and Jesus came to the disciples fishing at night. The second (B) and sixth (B') identify Nicodemus by adding the (unnecessary) information he came "at night." Finally, the third (C) effectively introduces the fifth (C'), which is the night in which no one can work because Jesus has been "handed over." The implication is that this final act, planned by God, cannot be stopped: no one can work, all creation is a spectator to the Crucifixion of the Son of God.
John used "night" seven times to reinforce the importance of the word and support the motif of light and darkness. John then used a chiastic "template" to distribute the word "night" throughout his account of the life of Jesus placing this key point in the center of the Gospel:
...If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” (John 11:9-10)
While there is certainly a symbolic meaning (one who comes to Jesus even when it is night can be taught and saved), the main effect is to point to Judas. Unlike Nicodemus who came to Jesus at night knowing He was from God because of the signs He did, Judas left Jesus at night in spite of being a witness to the even greater signs which followed. The effect is heightened by placing the key statement in the middle of the Gospel and before the final, and indisputable sign, raising Lazarus from the dead.
Nicodemus is introduced as coming to the Light of the World at night; Judas leaves the Light of the World at night after Satan enters him:
Nicodemus: walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.
Judas: walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.
The theme is not only central, the reader sees it "acted out."
1. Craig R. Koester, Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel, Meaning, Mystery, and Community, Fotress Press, 1995, p. 264.
2. Ibid., pp. 123-124
3. Brad McCoy, Chiasmus: An Important Structural Device Commonly Found in Biblical Literature, Chafer Theological Seminary, 2003, Vol. 9 No. 2, p. 18
4. Ibid., pp. 28-29
5. Ibid., pp. 33-34 Notes:  See Ellis, The Genius of John. Jeffrey L. Staley, A Rhetorical Investigation of the Implied Reader in the Fourth Gospel, SBLDS, vol. 82, Scholars, 1985, like Ellis, argues that the bulk of the book is a large macro-chiasm patterned after the chiastic structure of the Prologue.  Breck, The Shape of Biblical Language, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1994, p. 193
6. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation Justice and Judgment, Fortress Press, 1985, p. 176
7. McCoy, p, 264 (See also Paul D. Duke, Irony in the Fourth Gospel, John Knox, 1985, pp. 117-137 and M. J. J. Menken, Numerical Literary Techniques in John: The Fourth Evangelists Use of Numbers of Words and Syllables, NovTSup 55, Leiden: Brill, 1985.)