The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ 44Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’46Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ 47When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ 48Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ 49Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’50Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’51And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’
Translation: The next day, Jesus willed to go into Galilee and he found Philip and Jesus said to him, "Imitate me." But Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found of whom Moses wrote in the law and the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, out of Nazareth." Nathanael said to him, "Out of Nazareth can anything good come to be?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him and he said about him, "Behold, truly an Israelite in whom there is no treachery!" Nathanael said to him, "Where did you know me?" Jesus answered and said to him, "Before Philip called you, I saw your true nature under the fig tree." Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are ruler of Israel." Jesus answered and said to him, "Because I say to you that I saw you underneath the fig tree, you believe? You will be seeing greater things than these." And he said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to all of you, you will be seeing the heavens having been opened and the angels of God going up and coming down upon the son of man."
Background and situation: We are 42 verses into the fourth gospel. In those 42 verses, Jesus has been identified with the Word present before all of creation who then appeared in the "wilderness" with John.
So far, we have had no particular spatial markers. No geographical place has been identified. Andrew has just announced Jesus as "messiah" (1:41), and you might expect that the geographical place first linked with the "messiah" of Israel would be the Temple in Jerusalem. But no, the first specific place identified with Jesus in the fourth gospel is Galilee.
The fourth gospel is essentially an argument within the Judaism of its time--not an argument between Jews and Christians, in other words, but an argument between Galilean Jews and Judean Jews, the former represented by Jesus and the latter by the temple.
Galilee would be the place of Jesus' strongest political support so, from that perspective, its not at all surprising that the first specific geographical place to be associated with Jesus in the fourth gospel is Galilee.
Initial encounters: Jesus "found" Philip and said to him, "Imitate me." The imperative is akoleuthei, which means to "be in the same way with," i.e. to follow, or imitate. Jesus has not yet said anything about what following him might actually entail. Philip is to trust Jesus implicitly and commit himself to a future way of living about which, so far, he knows nothing.
Philip is then identified as being from Bethsaida, which, strictly speaking, was not in Galilee in AD 30, the time of Jesus' actual ministry, although at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel, c. AD 90, it was identified with Galilee.
Nathanael is not on any list of the Twelve though has at times been identified with Simon the Cananean, Bartholomew, and Matthew. The evidence for any of these associations, however, is slim to the point of non-existent. According to Fr. Ray Brown, Nathanael was from Cana, a town near Nazareth, which will prove to be the setting for Jesus' first "sign" in the fourth gospel, one which will come up shortly in chapter two.
Philip tells Nathanael: "We have found of whom Moses wrote in the law and the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, out of Nazareth." Actually, Moses did not refer to a specific "messiah" figure. (Brown says this refers to the "general expectation of the Hebrew scriptures" for "one-to-come.")
Also, what is Philip saying with his reference to Jesus as "son of Joseph"? If Jesus was known as "son of Joseph," even in only a few circles, this would tend to undermine the "virgin theology" expressed in Matthew and Luke.
Philip's names another specific place. He describes Jesus as "out of Nazareth." Nazareth was a Galilean village, and the second geographical marker used specifically in reference to Jesus. Galilee is not only the first place that Jesus "willed" to go, it is also his place of earthly origin.
As a physical place, Nazareth was a small village, so insignificant that it is not mentioned one time in the entire Old Testament nor in Josephus' list of Galilean towns. Nathanael makes a wry comment: "Out of Nazareth can anything good come to be?" Nathanael may not know that all things, including Nazareth, "came to be" out of the Word (1:3). That being the case, then of course that Word may also come "out" from anyplace created, including little Nazareth.
Another possibility is that Nathanael of Cana was trash-talking the neighboring town of Nazareth. It is certainly not uncommon for local villagers to make snarky comments about their rival community. This seems unlikely in this case, however. The fourth gospel has more important things on its mind than passing on local epithets.
Philip replies to Nathanael by saying the same words that Jesus had just previously said to Andrew and Peter: "Come and see (1:39)," which Nathanael then does. Jesus sees Nathanael "coming to him," and says, "Behold, truly an Israelite in whom there is no treachery."
The first person to be associated with the name "Israel" is Jacob (Gen. 27: 35-36). Jesus flatters Nathanael by calling him a true son of Jacob.
One notes also Isaiah 44: 5:
This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s’,
another will be called by the name of Jacob,
yet another will write on the hand, ‘The Lord’s’,
and adopt the name of Israel.
"Knowing" Nathanael: Nathanael, the "true Israelite," will later name Jesus as "son of God" and "King of Israel." Indeed, Isaiah 44, cited above, goes on to speak of "the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts... (44:6)" Says the fourth gospel: A "true Israelite"--a true son of Jacob--is one who comes to Jesus.
Nathanael asks Jesus, "Where did you know me?"--more literally, "From where are you knowing me?" The Greek word is ginosko, a "knowing" of deep intimacy and thoroughness. Historically, it even had a sexual component. It expresses the kind of interior "knowing" which will characterize the followers of Jesus. They will be "known" intimately by Jesus, and vice versa. This is a major theme of the fourth gospel.
Jesus answered Nathanael with this cryptic remark: "Before Philip called you, I saw your true nature under the fig tree." NRSV has: "I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you." This fails to translate the Greek word onta, which is the participial form of eimi, which is the Greek form of the English verb "to be."
Our word "ontology" comes from onta. Ontology refers to the essential nature of something. Jesus saw the "true Nathanael" in his essential being, in his true and essential nature. Indeed, Jesus did "know" Nathanael.
"Under the fig tree." Moreover, Jesus saw him "under the fig tree." Some midrashic stories refer to rabbis studying under a fig tree. (The Tree of Knowledge in Genesis 3 was said to be a fig tree. The expression "gathering figs" would mean studying.)
Perhaps this is the reason some commentators have come to the idea that Nathanael was a teacher or a theologian. (The supposedly brilliant Augustine said that, since Nathanael was educated, that probably meant he could not have been one of the Twelve, as if you had to have been an ignorant dullard to be one of the twelve disciples!)
In the Hebrew scriptures, "under the fig tree" recalls Micah 4:4--"...all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid..."--and Zechariah 3:10--"On that day, says the Lord of hosts, you shall invite each other to come under your vine and fig tree."
The fig tree is a symbol of the messianic age, an age of peace and serenity. Considering the close associations between the fourth gospel and the book of Genesis, one might also note that the fig tree is the only tree specifically mentioned in the primeval history (Gen 3:7).
Nathanael responds, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are ruler of Israel." The title of "rabbi" was not used prior to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 (Howard-Brook, p 70), but was used at the time of the writing of the fourth gospel. In the time of Jesus, "rabbi" was not an official title. The designation was usually given to a person as a sign of respect and authority.
"Ruler of Israel," as mentioned earlier, is likely a reference to Isaiah 44:6. Where Isaiah 44 has "Lord" (adonai), however, the fourth gospel has "Son of God."
Jesus responds, "Because I say to you that I saw you underneath the fig tree, you believe? You will be seeing greater things than these." In fact, the followers of Jesus will start "seeing" his "signs" shortly, i.e. the wedding at Cana in chapter two.
"Truly, truly": Then follows a "double-amen" saying: "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will be seeing the heavens having been opened and the angels of God going up and coming down upon the son of man." Only the fourth gospel has "double-amen" sayings--translated into English as "truly, truly"--of which there are 25 of them!
The image of angels recalls Jacob's ladder and angels "going up and coming down" on it (Gen 28:12). Yet here, they are "going up and coming down upon the son of man," which, itself, is a reference to Daniel 7:13--"one like a son of man."
At the time of Jesus, the book of Daniel was quite popular in Jewish circles. It expressed hope for a divine figure who would intervene in history and undo the oppression of Israel. That figure is identified as "one like a son of man," or "one like a human being," and also one who is "coming with the clouds of heaven," indicating also a divine figure.
In the first 50 verses of the fourth gospel, the following titles have been used regarding Jesus: God the only Son, Lamb of God, Son of God, rabbi, teacher, messiah, anointed, rabbi (again), Son of God (again), and King of Israel.
Yet here, in his first utterance in reference to himself, Jesus identifies with the "son of man" figure of Daniel, an apocalyptic image and one of victory. Three times, the fourth gospel will say that the "son of man" will be "lifted up" on the cross. (This is perhaps the fourth gospel's way of relating the three-fold passion prediction in the synoptics.) It is his "lifting up" which will "draw all people to himself (12:32)."
Thus, in Jesus' first description of himself in the fourth gospel, he identifies himself as the one who will be "lifted up" on the cross which will indeed bring God's victory to all people.
Image: Jacob's Ladder, Marc Chagall