Gospel of John and the “Other Disciples” – Nathanael

The identity of Nathanael is a problem since he is not mentioned as a disciple in the synoptic gospels.  Usually he is identified as Bartholomew based on the order of the apostles in the synoptics.  (Bartholomew always follows Philip in the lists.)  Bar-Tholami is the from of the name in Aramaic, meaning “son of Tholami,” therefore his full name was likely  Nathaneal Bar-Tholami (cf. Simon Bar-Jonah). John seems to treat Nathanael as an apostle, and he never mentions Bartholomew, making the identification quite likely.

When Philip declares that he has found the Messiah, he describes Jesus in biblical terms: Jesus is the one whom Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets wrote about (John 1:43-45).  That the Law and the Prophets testify to the messiah is clear from other New Testament texts.  Early on the apostles drew together a number of texts which were proofs that Jesus was the Messiah, but their source for much of this material is Jewish thinking about what to expect in the Messiah.

Nathaniel’s response is stunning:  “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  (1:46) This seems a rude statement of prejudice, probably because Nazareth was a rather small and insignificant town in Galilee. It is true both towns were small and insignificant, but what should Nathaniel have said?  Presumably he ought to have recalled that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem, according to Mi 5:2; or that he should be in the line of David from Psalm 2, or that he will be a king of Israel as in Zeph 3:15, or that he will come as a peaceful king riding a donkey, as in Zech 9:9.  But not that he will be a carpenter form Nazareth!

Is this an irrational prejudice? Most likely, and it is this sort of prejudice which blinds people to the gospels – how can someone like that possible have something to share with me spiritually?  Perhaps we do not suffer from a prejudice, but other people might very well have a real problem with us and will not hear the gospel because we are overplaying a less important issue rather than helping people to encounter Jesus.  In Nathaniel’s case, prejudice does not prevent him from coming to faith in Jesus.  He is able to set aside his preconceptions and encounter Jesus as he really is – the Son of God.

When Jesus arrives he declares that Nathaniel is an “Israelite in whom there is no guile.”   The background to this equally puzzling statement is the story of Jacob.  Jesus might as well have said, “here is a son of Israel with no Jacob left in him!” Just as the true heir of the promise was Jacob, not Esau; the true heir of the promise in John are the disciples, not the Pharisees, etc.  That there is a bit of play on the Jacob story is also clear in the reference to “heaven opening” and angels ascending and descending.  Essentially Jesus is saying that Jacob is a true Israelite, a man who is honestly seeking his God and is not distracted by the Works of the Law (Romans 2:28-29, 9:6-7)  In John 8:31 Jesus says that if the disciples abide in his words they will truly be his disciples, the same word is used as 1:47.

Nathaniel is a True Israelite, and if the disciples really understand and internalize his Jesus’ words they too will be True Israel.

10 thoughts on “Gospel of John and the “Other Disciples” – Nathanael

  1. Philip obviously knows that Jesus is the Messiah, since he describes Him Biblical terms. I take it that Philip was well educated in order for him to know this. I wonder how early the disciples found texts proving that Jesus was the Messiah? If the majority of their source was from Jewish thinking, then how much of it was accurate?
    I think what Nathaniel did was speak without thinking. That maybe one of the reasons that we need to be constantly looking at scripture; thinking before we speak.

    • Going off from the end of my last post about Nathaniel, I do not think that his statement is prejudice at all. I wish that he would have remembered that Jesus was was from one of those small towns. I do not understand how he could have just forgot something like that. Could it have been then that he was only thinking about himself? Even though Nathaniel had said this statement, he does believe that Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus calls him a true Israelite. Which is interesting to me, even after Nathaniel makes his bold statement.

  2. Nathaniel is a True Israelite, and if the disciples really understand and internalize his Jesus’ words they too will be True Israel. – Plong

    Wouldn’t you say that they were True Israel? It wasn’t until Jesus died and rose again that the ministries of the disciples took off. Why is that? Well so the counselor could come and allow the disciples to do greater things than Jesus! I wonder the weight of what Jesus was saying to the disciple in the beginning of Acts fully impacted the disciples in the way that Jesu had intended. “But when the Holy Spirit comes on you, you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” [Acts 1:7]. If they weren’t everything that God had to be yet… don’t you think they were showing signs of being who God has called them to be? Even in Acts, whenever they gave an account of Jesus, it was a very Jewish background, covering David through to His life being the Messiah and defeating death, and His ascension?

  3. Now is it Nathanael or Nathaniel?! 🙂
    Well at any rate, his response to the idea of the writers of the gospels going off of what they believed to be characteristics or signs of the Messiah “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (1:46), is very interesting. I have recently been struggling with the idea of judgment in my life. I know that I have no right to judge anyone on this earth, but everyone as preconceived notions about someone before they meet them. For example, if you are trying to set your friend up with a co-worker of yours, you are going to talk your co-worker up of course. But in talking about them, you might mention that they grew up in Detroit. When I said that, what was your first thought? That they must be a gangster or at least be a huge red wings fan! Nathanael probably had just heard so many things about Nazareth (Detroit) that he did not think that anything good could come out of it. I don’t think that he was necessarily trying to be prejudice, I think he was just basing his statement on what he had known about Nazareth.
    *Disclaimer…I do not think poorly of Detroit…thank you!*

  4. Joey I must say you always have the most interesting quotes with smiley faces! I actually have to disagree with your post though. It does seem like it was a prejudice saying because the way it is written in the text. When I read the passage it seems like Philip is just announcing to Nathanael that the one who we have been waiting for has come. He announces, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote-Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). That is when he says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth.” It is obviously a preconceived thought that Nazareth was a worthless town. Although I think it is undoubtedly a prejudice statement, I don’t think that Nathanael meant anything bad by it. If I am not mistaken, Nathanael didn’t even know Jesus yet, and when he found out what Jesus was all about he lived out a life of faith. He knew that Jesus was the true Son of God because Jesus told him He saw him under the fig tree. Nathanael said, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Isreal” (John 1:49). I think another interesting statement is when Jesus said, “You shall see greater things than that” (John 1:50). Jesus was going to do bigger and better things and Nathanael was going to be at his side for it all, even if Jesus came from Nazerath.

  5. (I looked his name up, it’s Nathanael…)

    While this is often seen as a prejudice comment, it also seems to be based on cultural reputation. Joey, I think you had the right idea, but it is more than just colloquial influence. Did Nathanael hear derogatory things about Nazareth? More than likely. Are these things that we know about? Maybe not. There is plenty of proof in the Bible that certain cultures and peoples had varying degrees of tolerance for other peoples. Take Jews and Samaritans for example. The loathed each other so much so that to come in contact with each other would be a disgrace for both parties. This is most likely not the extreme at which Nathanael was describing Nazareth, but surely there was hearsay among peoples at that time, even among Israelites. This puts an even greater emphasis on Jesus declaring Nathanael as a true Israelite. Although the Israel around him was segregated and full of prejudice, Jesus was calling the new Israel to be united and in one accord.

  6. The church I attend has been going through the book of John recently went through this very passage. I remember the pastor saying that when Nathanael says, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (1:46), he is referring to what he knows and / or has heard about it. Just like those in the posts above have been talking about, Nathanael had most likely heard rumors about Nazareth. Even though they did not have the technology we do today such as the internet and texting, there was still gossip. People talk and they also make judgements, whether they have seen whatever it is first hand or not, they still judge. I feel that this is what Nathanael was doing at this time, but Jesus knew that Nathanael, and he knew that Nathanael was a true Israelite. In telling Nathanael that he was a true Israelite, Jesus was earning Nathanael’s faith and trust.

    • I really like what you are saying here Crystal. The idea that Nathanael judged the people of Nazareth does not seem to uncommon among the Jewish people. In the story of the Good Samaritan it is prevalent that the Jewish people were also pretty judgmental towards the Samaritan people as well. So for Nathanael to have preconceived notions about what comes out of Nazareth doesn’t surprise me.
      “In telling Nathanael that he was a true Israelite, Jesus was earning Nathanael’s faith and trust.” I just want to add onto what Crystal is saying here. Perhaps Jesus was using this statement to earn Nathanael’s faith and trust but maybe Jesus was also using this particular statement to encourage Nathanael and build him up, because Jesus knew that Nathanael would play a role in the work for the Kingdom of God. Maybe this was Jesus confirming him.

  7. What a gift to be able to bounce your thoughts and beliefs off of Jesus. Nathaniel was totally in the wrong. Most of us have been in similar situations where our ignorance leads to prejudices. Nathaniel didn’t seem to even think about what he said. It was already a programmed response. This may indicate his youth, and lack of experience with Christ? It sad how much this effects the spreading of the gospel. I am one who has and had prejudices. When our personal glasses come off we are able to look at things through a different light. Selfish motives prevent us from sharing the kingdom with everyone. In 1 Corinthians 9:22 Paul says “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” We are called as followers of Jesus to spread the good news and evidence of the kingdom, even to the people who are different or seem weird.

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