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.
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.