Nathanael, the Transparent Man

Who was Nathanael? In John’s Gospel (John 1.43-51) he is among the first called to be an apostle; in the other three Gospels he is never mentioned. Some have suggested he was not a real person but a composite figure constructed to represent the ideal man, the “true Israelite.” Others believe he and Matthew are the same person because both Matthew and Nathanael mean the gift of God. However, there is a better explanation as to Nathanael’s identity.

Nathanael was brought to Jesus by Philip. As previously noted, Nathanael’s name appears only in John. Interestingly, Bartholomew’s name is never mentioned in John. In the first list of disciples in Matthew 10.3 and Mark 3.18, Philip and Bartholomew are mentioned together as if there was a connection between the two. Bartholomew is actually a surname meaning son of Tholmai or Ptolemy. Nathanael and Bartholomew are one and the same person, Nathanael being his given name and Bartholomew his surname.

Nathanael’s reaction to Philip’s announcement that the Messiah was Jesus of Nazareth is interesting and indicates a little prejudice on Nathanael’s part. “Can any good come out of Nazareth?” The Scriptures said nothing of the LORD’s anointed coming out of Nazareth. Besides, it was such an undistinguished place. Philip’s response was simply, “Come and see for yourself.”

When Jesus was introduced to Nathanael, He said, “Here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit (guile).” Nathanael was taken back, “Do you know me?” And Jesus responded with, “O, I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Surprised and convinced, Nathanael said, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God.” This exchange appears unremarkable to us, yet it’s filled with hidden meaning.

Jesus’ characterization of Nathanael as an “Israelite in whom there is no deceit” was prompted by His knowledge of Nathanael’s mind. He had seen him “under the fig tree.” The phrase under the vine and under the fig tree has special significance in Hebrew expression. The phrase is used often in the Old Testament to describe peace, contentment, and contemplation (Micah 4.4; Zechariah 3.10; Isaiah 36.16). Also, Jesus’ reference to Jacob’s vision at the end of the passage must have some bearing on the conversation with Nathanael.

“Under the fig tree.” Had Nathanael withdrawn to a place of seclusion for meditation upon the Scriptures? At the time he was interrupted by Philip was he reading the passage in Genesis 28 about Jacob’s vision? Guile (deceit) was Jacob’s chief character flaw. Even his name meant “supplanter.” But when Jesus met Nathanael, “an Israelite in whom there is not guile,” He was saying in effect, “Here is a son of Jacob, who unlike his famous ancestor, is without deceit.” He saw Nathanael to be a man of clarity – open and honest.

Nathanael’s sudden acceptance and confession of Jesus as the Son of God after first expressing skepticism now becomes understandable – Jesus read his mind, told him what he was thinking. Jesus “closed the deal” by telling Nathanael if he thought Jacob’s vision of the ladder into heaven was something to meditate upon, if he chose to become His disciple, he would see even greater things – the angels of God literally ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.

– Bill