A Discussion on the Symbolism and Meaning of Christ’s Words to Nathanael in the Gospel of John

By Dr. Agonson

In the opening of the Gospel of John, 1:45-51, we are introduced to the apostle Nathanael. In summary, he’s approached by his friend Philip and told that many prophecies were being fulfilled by a denizen of Nazareth, to which Nathanael shows an almost humorous but definitely critical attitude: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). He then meets this Jesus of Nazareth, the acclaimed Prophet who would be like Moses, the acclaimed Messiah who would redeem the nation, and the acclaimed King who would rule that nation. Before anything is said between them, Jesus shows forth knowledge of Nathanael that Nathanael recognizes as correct. His first question to this Jesus is then, “How do you know me?” Jesus replies simply that he saw him under the fig tree (John 1:48). This seems to turn the questioning skeptic Nathanael into a devout believer boldly proclaiming Jesus as King (John 1:49). This is seemingly an extreme reaction on Nathanael’s part. Jesus then says that for his belief Nathanael, “shall see greater things than these,” (John 1:50) and among these greater things are visions of angels climbing Jesus as a ladder (John1:51).

The whole dialogue seems strange, if taken in the very literal sense. It goes, “look, a truthful person,” says Jesus. “How do you know that about me?” asks Nathanael. “You were under a tree earlier and I saw you,” Jesus replies. “Oh, my God, you’re sent from God!” proclaims Nathanael. “Yes,” says Jesus, “and you’ll see angels using me like a flight of stairs.” This dialogue has the air of a comic’s sketch, or an absurdist’s, but is expressed in a manner most reverent and factual.

However strange this conversation can be made to seem a true student immediately senses meaning when reading the text, whether or not he’s able to express it. Furthermore, knowledge of certain symbolism, that the author and original audience knew, is not automatically grasped in our generation and culture. Manny would not notice that Jesus is referencing Genesis chapter 28 when he speaks of angles ascending and descending upon Him; also the representation of a fig tree to the Jews of Jesus’ day may be alien to most Americans in the 21st century.

To exemplify the meaning, the text may be better understood when juxtaposed with annotation…

“Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the Prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’” John 1:45

The reference to Moses’ writing of Jesus in the law closely relates to Deuteronomy 18:15-22 and Exodus 20:18-19. In Exodus 20, God, for the first time, spoke directly to the wandering people of Israel giving them the Law, or the Ten Commandments. The Israelites then requested that God not do that again, and instead have Moses mediate between them and God. Later, in Deuteronomy 18, Mosses writes that God says it was a good thing for the Israelites to ask that, and sets up a precedent of Prophets who would be that intermediary between the people of God and God himself. But the writing can be confusing, at verse 15 Mosses appears to be speaking of one prophet, but definitely transitions by verse 19 to speaking of a series of prophets who will take up his mantle. One interpretation of this is that Mosses was speaking of a series of prophets, but also of one specifically that would be like himself.

Philip also references other prophecy being fulfilled by this Jesus. These mainly involve the restoration of Israel’s nationality and a restoration of David’s throne. Jesus was a descendant of David and as such could fulfill the promise of God given in the second book of Samuel to King David, “And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:16)

“And Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’” John 1:46

Nazareth, according to most sources[1], was not where important people came from. It was the proverbial ‘Nowhere town,’ to the Jews. It is also suggested by some sources that Nazareth was a place of high immorality. Nathanael, in that case, seems to be inquiring as to the moral character of this Jesus.

Nevertheless, Philip’s reply is to tell Nathanael to see for himself. He offers no defense for Nazareth or Jesus but seems to believe that experience will put all of Nathanael’s doubts to rest. Here lies the importance of the passage; we are given the character of Nathanael, that he is not one to follow foolishly the words of other’s experience.

“Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile’” John 1:47

Again we are given more of Nathanael’s character. Jesus says that Nathanael has no guile, or, as some translations put it, deceit. Juxtaposed to the previous facet of Nathanael, that he questions, we are given a deeper understanding of Nathanael’s character than either of these facts convey alone, i.e. his need to question. There is the scoffer that offers wholesale ridicule of anything, not seeking truth, he inevitable becomes the voice of foolishness, not wisdom. Nathanael is not of this kind, says Jesus. Implying more than, “He is truthful,” the bible seems to say that Nathanael seeks truth as a prime directive. He questions, not to appear wise, but to gain wisdom.

“Nathanael said to Him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered and said to Him, ‘Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” John 1:48-49

Here is the crux of the matter. How can the student square what he’s just read of Nathanael to Nathanael’s reaction to an apparently simple statement, “…When you were under the fig tree, I saw you”? Earlier, when called by Philip, Nathanael was openly doubtful that this was the foretold Messiah. What was so potent in Jesus’ words that Nathanael was convinced of his divine purpose?

Seeing this dialogue in a purely literal context does not answer certain questions like: ‘Why is this an answer to Nathanael’s earlier question?’ and ‘how does seeing someone under a fig tree foreshow that person without guile?’ and ‘why does Jesus’ knowledge lead to Nathanael’s conclusion that He is the Christ?’

The fig tree itself is found throughout scripture and holds a special place among the trees of the bible. Making an early appearance, the fig tree is found in Genesis 3 where, after eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve attempt to clothe themselves in fig leaves. The land of Israel was described to the Jews in Deuteronomy 8 as, among many other things, “a land of fig trees.” Often the fig tree is a sign of blessing, and prosperity, a reward for the faithful.

But what does it mean here, ‘I saw you under the fig tree’? In context, we learn little. What we know is that it meant something to Nathanael, drastically altering his worldview. If the question was ‘how did You know that I sought truth?’ we can assume that Jesus’ answer means He saw something proving Nathanael’s integrity, and that Nathanael thought this knowledge only accessible by the Spirit.

Whatever it was may be unknown. Scholars debate the issue; was Nathanael praying for the Messiah while under the fig tree, or did ‘fig tree’ represent Israel or one of its tribes? Little can be authoritatively reckoned.

“Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Because I said to you, “I saw you under the fig tree,” do you believe? You will see greater things than these. And He said to him, ‘Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angles of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’” John 1:50-51

Here Jesus admonishes Nathanael for his faith, and then references an important aspect of Jewish history (Genesis 28). Jacob sees a vision in a dream of a ladder connecting earth to heaven. Upon this ladder angels were going up and down. God then speaks to Jacob, foretelling of his descendants, that they would own this land.

Not much is told of Nathanael in the bible, the other three gospels don’t even mention the name[2]. However, Jesus tells him that for his belief he will receive similar revelation as that of his country’s namesake, a founder of his people. Following the context of John’s Gospel parallels between Jacob’s ladder and the Christ can be seen; He acts as a connector of the heavenly to the earthly (John 14:16, John 10:7-10, John 3:13).

[1] Crosswalk.com By Doctor Ray Pritchard (http://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/dr-ray-pritchard/nazareth-can-anything-good-come-from-there.html)

[2] Most biblical scholars cite Bartholomew and Nathanael as the same person. The name Bartholomew is in the synoptic gospels while the gospel of John uses the name Nathanael.


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