Commentary: John 1:43-51
In this passage Jesus meets Nathanael, "truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit" (v. 47 NRSV). Nathanael's character stands as a prototype of all who come to honest faith in Jesus throughout the fourth gospel. Early in the gospel, Nathanael's cautious reserve gives way to belief in much the same way that Thomas' doubt dissolves into faith late in the story, though Nathanael wins praise from Jesus and Thomas gets a mild rebuke (20:2429).
Nathanael appears in none of the lists of Jesus' apostles in the synoptic gospels or the book of Acts. The present passage does not necessarily say he became one of the twelve, though his reappearance with the disciples after Jesus' resurrection (21:2) suggests that he did. Moreover, his meeting with Jesus follows immediately on the call of Andrew, an unnamed disciple, Simon Peter and Philip (vv. 3:743), again suggesting that he did join them. If so, perhaps Nathanael does appear in the lists under another name.
Of the various apostles sometimes identified with Nathanael, Bartholomew seems the most likely.1 In the synoptic lists, though not in Acts, Bartholomew appears just after Philip, and the gospel of Matthew explicitly pairs the two (Mt 10:3). Nathanael ("God has given") serves as a personal name while Bartholomew (likely Bar-Tolmai, "son of Tolmai") sounds like a patronymic. If so, one man could easily have both names, compare "Nathanael bar-Tolmai" with "Simon bar-Jona."
As the pericope begins, Jesus has just recruited two of John the Baptist's disciples, as well as Simon Peter (vv. 3742). On his way north from Judea into Galilee, he asks another Galilean, Philip of Bethsaida, to go with him. "Follow me" (v. 43), the reader understands, has become not simply an invitation to travel with Jesus but a call to discipleship. Philip responds to the call by the action of recruiting someone else. "Him about whom Moses…and…the prophets wrote" means the messiah (v. 45).
Nathanael's cynical sounding question, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" sounds like the attitude of a man from a rival town. Nazareth and Cana lay about ten miles apart. At least his reply reflects the natural doubt that anyone or anything important can come from familiar territory. Jesus will later describe this attitude when he says, "a prophet has no honor in the prophet's own country" (4:44 NRSV). Philip's response to Nathanael echoes Jesus' earlier response to John's two disciples: "Come and see" (v. 46, cf. v. 39).
Jesus' first words upon meeting Nathanael contain a pair of compliments (v. 47). Calling him a genuine Israelite means identifying him with the "in group of the house of Israel" as opposed to "outsiders, such as the Romans."2 Naming him as one "in whom there is no deceit" affirms Nathanael's personal integrity, a quality he shows in this passage both by his healthy skepticism and by his belief in the evidence when he sees it.
The text does not make clear why Jesus' remark about seeing Nathanael "under the fig tree before Philip called" him (v. 48) immediately elicits an emotional affirmation of Jesus' sonship and right to rule Israel (v. 49). Whatever the case, Jesus' simple knowledge of where Nathanael sat before Philip invited him to meet Jesus shows Nathanael that Jesus had the kind of supernatural knowledge one might expect of such a figure. Once doubtful, he now affirms his faith in no uncertain terms.
Jesus now responds, first to Nathanael (note the singular verbs and pronouns in v. 50) and then to those nearby (note the plural verb and pronoun in v. 51). We might over translate v. 51 like this to catch the nuances: "And he [Jesus] said to him [Nathanael], `Truly I tell youall, youall will see the heaven opened…." Here Jesus broadens his audience to include not just Nathanael but all those who hear him, including now the readers of the gospel.
In v. 51 Jesus appears under the title "Son of Man" for the first of thirteen times in this gospel. His prediction that his hearers "will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" uses language from the story of Jacob's dream at Bethel (Gen 28:1022). This motif identifies Jesus as "the link between heaven and earth…." In this passage the place of the ladder is taken by "the Son of man…." He is the means by which the realities of heaven are brought down to earth Nathanael will see this for himself.3
Carl B. Bridges
1. E. P. Blair, "Bartholomew," Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible 1:359, says the arguments for Bartholomew "fall short of proof." 2. John J. Pilch, "No Jews or Christians in the Bible," Explorations, Vol. XII, No. 2, p. 3, 3. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapid: Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 170171, with the order of clauses altered.