Jumping to conclusions in John

Since I’m teaching the Gospel of John this fall, I’m trying to make my way through it in Greek. I just finished chapter one this morning, and it included a passage that I have always found strange. I don’t think it’s a translation issue at all, but I’ll include the Greek just because it’s cool to be able to have Greek in the post:

The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip 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.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And 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.’

Τῇ ἐπαύριον ἠθέλησεν ἐξελθεῖν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν. καὶ εὑρίσκει Φίλιππον καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Ἰησοῦς Ἀκολούθει μοι. ἦν δὲ ὁ Φίλιππος ἀπὸ Βηθσαιδά, ἐκ τῆς πόλεως Ἀνδρέου καὶ Πέτρου. εὑρίσκει Φίλιππος τὸν Ναθαναὴλ καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ Ὃν ἔγραψεν Μωυσῆς ἐν τῷ νόμῳ καὶ οἱ προφῆται εὑρήκαμεν, Ἰησοῦν υἱὸν τοῦ Ἰωσὴφ τὸν ἀπὸ Ναζαρέτ. καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ Ἐκ Ναζαρὲτ δύναταί τι ἀγαθὸν εἶναι; λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Φίλιππος Ἔρχου καὶ ἴδε. εἶδεν Ἰησοῦς τὸν Ναθαναὴλ ἐρχόμενον πρὸς αὐτὸν καὶ λέγει περὶ αὐτοῦ Ἴδε ἀληθῶς Ἰσραηλείτης ἐν ᾧ δόλος οὐκ ἔστιν. λέγει αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ Πόθεν με γινώσκεις; ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Πρὸ τοῦ σε Φίλιππον φωνῆσαι ὄντα ὑπὸ τὴν συκῆν εἶδόν σε. ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ Ναθαναήλ Ῥαββεί, σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, σὺ βασιλεὺς εἶ τοῦ Ἰσραήλ. ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ Ὅτι εἶπόν σοι ὅτι εἶδόν σε ὑποκάτω τῆς συκῆς πιστεύεις; μείζω τούτων ὄψῃ. καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ Ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὄψεσθε τὸν οὐρανον ἀνεῳγότα καὶ τοὺς ἀγγέλους τοῦ θεοῦ ἀναβαίνοντας καὶ καταβαίνοντας ἐπὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.

My question: Why does Nathanael have such an extreme reaction? Why do you jump to the conclusion that someone is the messiah for such a flimsy reason?

14 thoughts on “Jumping to conclusions in John

  1. I think that the bit about being under the fig tree is believed to be some idomatic expression about faithful study of the Torah. So could it be that this colloquialism, referencing deep Torah study, is responded with this, as you say, “extreme” reaction, that one who knows the Hebrew scripture well will, or should, also make such a conclusion after one gets past details such as whether anything good can come from Nazareth?

  2. I suspect that it might have something to do with the character of “seeing” in John’s Gospel which entails supernatural vision. The more arresting thing in this passaage- for me at any rate- is the inclusion of one the rare instances in John’s Gospel of “Son of Man.” The “Son of Man” is the fulfillment of the patriarchal vision given to Jacob. Perhaps. Yet another instance of the endlessly intruguing nature of John’s Gospel!

  3. Jesus seems surprised, too: “You believe me because of that? I haven’t even started making weird shit happen!” So maybe Nathanael is just supposed to be an idiot. This would also fit with him being “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” — he’s just not sharp enough to be able to lie.

    I was also surprised to see “son of Joseph” in here. Not a description you see very often in the mouth of a disciple.

  4. Best I can do is take the fig tree bit as some kind of reference to Micah 4:4. That also might make a little sense of the reference to Nazareth. Nathanael notes that there’s no prophecy regarding Nazareth, let alone one about the messiah coming from there, and then Jesus shows up and sets Nathanael’s present (sitting under a fig tree) in the context of the age to come–so apparently the age (and therefore the messiah) is here. I admit it’s a stretch.

  5. דף כד,ב פרק ה הלכה ב משנה כל המרבה בבדיקות הרי זה משתבח מעשה ובדק בן זכאי ב*עוקצי תאנים* ומה בין חקירות לבדיקות אלא שבחקירות אמר אחד איני יודע עדותן בטילה בדיקות אמר אחד איני יודע ואפי’ שנים אומרים אין אנו יודעין עדותן קיימת אחד חקירות ואחד בדיקות בזמן שהן מכחישין זה את זה עדותן בטילה (Sanhedrin; p 24-b, Ch 5)

  6. This little puzzle got me intrigued by its strangeness. If we agree that “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called to you” holds the key to the puzzle, then perhaps we are misled by asking what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree, or what the fig tree signifies. Why not look at the scene simply: Philip called Nathanael while he sitting under a fig tree in order to bring him to a Messiah named Jesus. Now we have an exact parallel to this scene in Zechariah 3:10 “In that day [we’ll see what that day is in a moment] each of you will call out to his neighbor under the vine and fig tree.” That day, we are told in the verse preceding, is the day when “iniquity” (avon) will be removed from the land (Israel). And it must be important that the chapter in Zechariah is about the high priest named “Joshua” (=”Jesus”) who is given a vision of the coming Messiah, symbolized as the Branch, and a stone with seven eyes. Ok, now I’ll go out on a limb: the stone in Zechariah with seven eyes refers to the stone on which Jacob laid his head when he dreamt of the angels ascending and descending, the place marker for the “house of God,” in which the seven-branched Menorah is represented by the seven eyes engraved on the stone. Zechariah 4, the very next chapter, has a vision of the Menorah with two olive trees on each side, the high priest and the king Messiah. So Jesus is saying to Nathanael: “When you were called to see the Messiah, you were under a fig tree, just as Zechariah prophesied each man would call to his neighbor in the day of the Messiah. And in that day iniquity would be removed from Israel, and look, you are without iniquity.” Now Nathanael sees that Jesus, despite his name being “Joshua”, is not the high priest, so he must be the rock with seven eyes, the Branch. Indeed, he is gifted with sight beyond human power. And Jesus, knowing now that Nathanael got his allusion to Zechariah’s prophecy of how in the day when Israel iniqutiy will be removed each man will call to his neighbor under the fig tree, goes further with the allusion and says, you will see what Jacob saw when he put his head on the “rock with seven eyes.” Admittedly, this is some pretty heavy intertextual play, but when two scripturally adept Jews met one another, this is how the game was played.

  7. Bruce, You’ve prompted me to dig into Zechariah for the first time in a long time. Like the others commenting, I find the connection to Zechariah’s vision compelling. One thing that occurs to me in regard to the rock with seven eyes is, first of all, that John is usually understood to include seven miraculous signs, starting with the wedding at Cana and ending with the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The angels ascending and descending does seem to create an obvious connection to Jacob, along with the Son of Man designation — yet I wonder if one might also hear a connection to the rock that makes them stumble, which has become the cornerstone…. And it’s perhaps noteworthy that he dubs his chief disciple Cephas/Peter (i.e., Rock) in the story immediately preceding.

    The idea that the Gospel of John would be in very detailed intertextual dialogue with the prophets is new to me — since John tends to dispense with the inelegant proof texts and supposed fulfilled predictions, etc., and since it’s generally viewed as a much more “Greek” gospel in general.

  8. Another connection with the Zechariah vision: Jesus’ much later claim that “I am the vine, you are the branches….” — which would provide a parallel for sitting under the vine.

  9. @Adam: Zechariah of course is concerned with the rebuilding of the Temple, as his vision of the Menorah and the two olive trees in chapter 4 makes clear. The rock where Jacob slept and saw the angels ascending and descending was the “house of God” rock, hence the Temple. Now it is possible, I think, that the rock alludes to the capstone or cornerstone that Zechariah mentions in 4:6, and that in turn alludes to the Psalm 118, the cornerstone, also a part of the Temple presumably. Now all this Temple imagery in John suggests, perhaps, some connection with his polemic against the synagogue, for the synagogue prayers paralleled the Temple sacrifices. So Jesus is Joshua redivivus, High Priest and King in one person (didn’t the Qumraners conflate them? In fact, the Qumran messianic texts would be an interesting place to look for all this Temple imagery in a messianic context.)

  10. @Adam M.: You get all the credit for the Zechariah background to the Nathanael passage in John. Your M.A paper makes the connection, so kudos to you.

  11. I think you mean Rod. I made a less worthwhile connection to Micah. But at least some points for looking in the prophets?

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