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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Nathanael

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NATHANAEL (= Θεόδωρος, ‘Gift of God’ [Heb. נְחַנְאֵל, Numbers 1:8, 1 Chronicles 2:14 etc.]; cf. Adcodatus, Deodatus, Dcusdedit).—We know nothing about him except what is told us in John 1:45-51; John 21:2. On the question of his identity with Bartholomew, see art. Bartholomew, i. p. 173a. The place at which Nathanael was found by Philip and brought to Jesus is not mentioned; but it is not improbable that Nathanael was returning from listening to the preaching of the Baptist. He may have been baptized by him. The very detailed account of the calling of Nathanael leads one to suppose that it was an important event, such as the calling of one who was afterwards to be an Apostle. In any case, the local knowledge shown in John 1:44 f. is very real and, so far as it goes, it tells in favour of Johannine authorship; for St. John would possess this knowledge, and a later writer would not, and would not care to invent such details. Philip, like Nathanael, was a Galilaean, the one of Bethsaida, time other of Cana (John 21:2): they were therefore neighbours, and evidently friends. Like Andrew and John, Philip no sooner finds, or is found by, Christ, than he seeks to make Him known to others. The plural, ‘We have found him,’ etc., seems to imply that Philip, with Andrew and Peter and John and James, was now a disciple of Jesus. These five formed the beginning of the Christian Church. The order of the words in the Greek is noteworthy: Him of whom wrote Moses in the law’ comes first, ‘and the prophets’ being added as an afterthought; and the whole of this comes with emphasis before the verb, ‘we have found.’ It looks as if Nathanael and Philip had at times discussed the OT descriptions of the Messiah. At this time Philip would know nothing of the virgin birth at Bethlehem: he quite naturally describes Jesus as He was commonly known. The Scriptures to which he specially refers would he Genesis 17:7; Genesis 49:10, Deuteronomy 18:15.

Nathanael’s question, ‘Can any good thing?’ etc., does not imply that Nazareth had a bad reputation, but that the insignificant village, so close to his own home, was not a likely birthplace for the Messiah. Was a petty place, so familiar to them both, thus honoured? What prophecy said anything of the kind? The prophecy alluded to in Matthew 2:23 is not known to us, and was probably unknown to Nathanael. In any case, Nathanael’s question confirms the statement that the miracle at Cana was the first of Christ’s signs. If Jesus had worked miracles at Nazareth, Nathanael at Cana must have heard of them.

Philip’s ‘Come and see’ is in harmony with the practical bent of his mind (John 12:21; John 14:8), and is the best answer to anything like prejudice. ‘He that doeth the truth cometh to the light’ (John 3:21, cf. John 1:9); and this is what Nathanael does, with good results. It is part of his guilelessness that he is willing to have any prejudice removed, and he at once accepts Philip’s proposal; cf. John 4:20; John 4:30. Christ praises him as truly an Israelite, i.e. as one who has something more than the blood of the patriarch, viz. a character which corresponds to the dignity of the name (Psalms 73:1). In him the guile of Jacob the supplanter has given place to the righteousness which wins a victory with God. He is one whose death a prophet may desire (Numbers 23:10).

Nathanael overhears the praise of himself, and the question with which he replies to it has been criticised as arguing a want of modesty on his part. But his reply does not mean, ‘I know that I am all that; but how do you know it?’ Rather, he exhibits surprise that a total stranger should express any opinion about him, lie somewhat coldly intimates that he doubts the value of praise which can hardly be based upon experience. But, like Mary’s ‘How shall this be?’ (Luke 1:34), his question does not so much ask for proof as express astonishment. In both cases the proof which was not demanded was granted. Gabriel gave Mary a sign that he could read her future, for he showed that he knew all about Elisabeth’s prospects of a son; and Jesus gives Nathanael a sign that He could read his character, for He shows that He knows all about his private conduct (cf. what we read of Elisha in 2 Kings 5:26; 2 Kings 6:12). Nathanael at once recognizes the significance of this knowledge, and in his reply ‘the true Israelite acknowledges his King.’

It is right to allow for the possibility that in Nathanael’s confession (John 1:49), and in that of the Baptist (John 1:34), the Evangelist may be putting into the months of others language which had become natural to himself, but was not actually Used by them. St. John was so full of the doctrine that Jesus as the Messiah was the Son of God, that he may have made those who accepted Him as the Messiah express their belief in a form which was not used until somewhat later. We must admit that thus to antedate the terminology of a fuller appreciation of the truth would be possible. But Psalms 2:6-7 will suffice to explain the language which the Evangelist attributes to the Baptist and to Nathanael. This Psalm was generally recognized as Messianic, and seems to have been very familiar (Acts 4:25-28; Acts 13:33, Hebrews 1:5; Hebrews 5:5). In the fulness of his conviction Nathanael quite naturally uses the fullest Scriptural designation of the Messiah with which he was acquainted. Experience of Christ’s miraculous knowledge had convinced him, as it convinced the Samaritan woman (John 4:29) and Thomas (John 20:27-28), that Jesus stood in the closest relation to God. Hence he uses this title of the Messiah (John 11:27, Matthew 26:63, Mark 3:11 || Mark 5:7 || Mark 15:39 ||, Luke 4:41) rather than the common ‘Son of David’ (Matthew 9:27; Matthew 12:23; Matthew 15:22; Matthew 20:30-31; Matthew 21:9-15; Matthew 22:42 etc.). Although ‘Son of God’ and ‘King of Israel’ both indicate the Messiah, the titles are not quite synonymous, as is shown by the repetition of ‘Thou art.’ ‘Son of God’ gives the relation to God—a relation which would be only vaguely understood by Nathanael; ‘King of Israel’ gives the relation to the Chosen People. Thus the two titles complete one another.

Nothing is gained by suggesting (Cheyne in Enc. Bibl. iii. col. 3338) that ‘when thou wast under the fig-tree’ ought to be ‘when thou wast making supplication,’ because the Hebrew for the one (וְאַתֶּא מִתְחַנֵּן wĕattâ mithhannçn) would resemble the Hebrew for the other (וְאַתָּא תַּהַת הַתְּאֵנָה, wĕattâ tahath hattĕ’çnâ). What the Evangelist gives us is intrinsically more probable, as being more definite, and therefore more likely to impress Nathanael. Nathanael seems to have believed that Jesus knew what he was thinking about under the fig-tree, just as the Samaritan woman believed that He knew all about her past life. Fresh from the teaching of the Baptist, Nathanael may have been meditating on the coming of the Messiah as near at hand. It was under a fig-tree that Augustine heard the ‘Tolle, lege’ (Conf. viii. xii. 1). See OT reff. to ‘fig-tree.’

Believest thou?’ implies something of surprise at the rapidity of Nathanael’s conviction (contrast Mark 6:6); but ‘thou believest’ is perhaps right. Christ approves of his faith and of its basis; and He forthwith promises him an ampler basis, and therefore the prospect of a loftier faith. This wider basis of ‘greater things’ refers to the public signs which are to follow, and which seem to be alluded to in ‘the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.’ Angels are instruments of the Divine power in nature (Revelation 14:18; Revelation 16:5). Nathanael has believed because of a miracle of knowledge which could be appreciated by himself alone: he is hereafter to witness miracles of power which can be appreciated by all. And here it is to be noted that, while the ‘Israelite indeed’ enters upon a new life in recognizing his King by the sign granted to him, the Messiah Himself enters upon a new career in granting the sign. This private sign to Nathanael was a prelude to those public miracles in which Christ ‘manifested His glory’ to the Jewish nation and through it to all the world. The angels, who are to be instruments of the manifestation, are represented as being already on earth, the ‘ascending’ being placed first. They are ready to carry men’s prayers to heaven, and to bring down the blessings which prayer wins. But there is a reference to Jacob’s dream (Genesis 28:12), suggested possibly by the place; for Bethel, Mahanaim, and the ford Jabbok all lay close to the route which Christ would take in going from Judaea to Galilee; and in the narrative in Genesis the ascending angels are mentioned first. What Jacob had dreamed was fulfilled in Jesus. Heaven was opened and remained so (perfect participle) to mankind. Heaven came down to earth in the Person of the Son of God, and, by a regular intercourse between His place of sojourn and His home, man became capable of attaining to heaven. It narrows the meaning far too much when the promise to Nathanael is interpreted of the angels who appeared after the Temptation, at the Agony, and after the Resurrection and Ascension.

The change in the designation of the Messiah is significant. Nathanael had called Him ‘the Son of God’: He calls Himself ‘the Son of Man,’ and it is the earliest occasion on which He does so. In the Synoptic Gospels the title ‘son of Man’ occurs 69 times, and Christ is represented as using it (always of Himself) on about 40 different occasions. In John the title is used 11 or 12 times, John 9:35 being doubtful; and none of these passages is parallel to anything in the Synoptics. Here the point may be that He is come, not to revive the old theocracy, nor to ‘restore the kingdom to Israel’ (Acts 1:6), but to redeem the whole human race. It may also be that at this beginning of His ministry Jesus will not definitely accept the title ‘Son of God.’ Without rejecting it, He substitutes for it a title which seems to have been adopted by Him to veil, rather than to reveal, the fact that He was the Messiah. But here again we must allow for the possibility that the Evangelist is wording Christ’s reply according to language which he had often heard from His lips, but which was not used quite so early in the ministry as this.

In Nathanael we have an instance of a good man hampered by prejudice, but quite willing to be enlightened. He comes to the Light, and is searched, approved, and illuminated. In Christ’s treatment of him we have an instance of His knowledge of what was in man (John 2:25), not only in the case of mankind in general, but with regard to individual character; also of the working of the law that ‘whosoever hath, to him shall be given.’

The narrative of the call of Nathanael, like the rest of John 1, strongly confirms the belief that the writer is a Jew of Palestine, well acquainted with the Messianic hopes, and with the traditions and phraseology current in Palestine at the time of Christ’s ministry; able also to give a lifelike picture of Christ’s first disciples.

Literature.—B. F. Westcott, Gospel of St. John, 28 f., 33 ff.; R. C. Trench, Studies in the Gospels, 66; H. P. Liddon, University Sermons, 2nd ser. 4; Phillips Brooks, Mystery of Iniquity, 129; A. Maclaren, A Year’s Ministry; 2nd ser. 169; W. Boyd Carpenter, Son of Man, 163; J. G. Greenhough, Apostles of our Lord, 74; H. T. Purchas, Johannine Problems, 68; G. Matheson, Representative Men of the N.T. 71; Expos. 5th ser. viii. (1898) 336.

A. Plummer.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Nathanael'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/n/nathanael.html. 1906-1918.

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