Who was Nathanael?

The identity of Nathaniel 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 Synoptic Gospels. 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  Nathaniel Bar-Tholami (cf. Simon Bar-Jonah). John seems to treat Nathaniel as an apostle, and he never mentions Bartholomew, making the identification quite likely.

Saint NathanaelWhen 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.

6 thoughts on “Who was Nathanael?

  1. I understand that Christians may want to jump to conclusions about Nathanael, that he may have been prejudice, and therefore would not be a good role model. For one, many of the disciples messed up worse than that…say Judas! If we remember we are all human and all sin and all people in the bible messed up. David, for example, was the man after God’s own heart and if we remember he messed up with Bathsheba. We also, as readers, are not perfect and mess up daily, so it would be very hypocritical to throw him under the bus. If anything, he was a man who came to faith and we could use his life as an example. He was a man, who like all sinned and had faults, and he too came to know Christ. We also are not even certain about all these assumptions about Nathanael, and it is worse to judge someone you do not know. Matthew 7:1 says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. It’s as simple as that.

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  2. Nathanael’s statement in verse 46 is definitely a bold one, and is understandably seen as prejudice. It is perplexing that he says something that is so negative in terms of the Messiah’s coming, and yet Jesus calls him a “true Israelite”. Nathanael’s preconceived doubt is no different than anyone else’s, the difference is that he voiced it in saying, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Jesus still considers him to be a man seeking after God, though he voiced the internal conflict that he was facing.

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  3. It’s very interesting to look at Nathaniel’s statement about Jesus being from Nazareth. I am under the impression that Nathaniel said this because he thought that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem, and he would come from the line of David. Nathaniel was a true Israelite by his birthright, but Jesus was telling him that he still needed work to become the true Israel. It is a statement that it does not matter where you are born into, but you can become the true Israel. Luke 10:27, loving God is the most important aspect of anyone’s life. Anyone can have a relationship with God. We just need to focus on the relationship with God, rather than the rituals and laws that have been set in place by the culture.

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  4. What was Nathanael doing under that fig tree? I picture him sitting with his back against the tree, but I have no support for that image. Is he alone there? Is he deep in thought about something?

    And Nathanael is impressed by Jesus’ knowledge of his whereabouts, but I’d like to know if there’s a story hidden behind it somewhere. Is there significance in the fact that it was a fig tree Nathanael was seen under? Also note Jesus’ self-designation in this passage: Son of Man, which has an eschatological origin from Daniel.

    Nathanael is dumbfounded that Jesus sees him under the fig tree. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal to me. Jesus could have been passing by the fig tree. He could have recognized that this is the guy that was under that fig tree only a short time before. Or was it a short time before?

    I think Nathanael’s poor image of Nazareth is well-founded, and yet God chose what is nothing in this world to shame those who are something. God delights in elevating the lowly and demoting the elite. It’s fitting that Jesus can be found in Nazareth rather than hobnobbing with the Pharisees in Jerusalem.

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    • Good question, I am not at all sure what he was doing there. I believe I have read that some rabbis would gather their students under the shade of a tree, or maybe he is ditching Torah lessons for the day and having a nap in the shade!

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