47 Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” 48 Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” 49 Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” 50 Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” 51 And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
When Nathaniel followed Phillip’s advice and went to see Jesus, Jesus welcomed him in (vs.47) with the words “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!” With these words Jesus assured Nathaniel that he saw him under the fig tree doing something that only Nathaniel knew had happened. Not knowing what it is exactly that Jesus referred to (1:48) it is hard to explain exactly why Nathaniel, whose name means “God gave”, responded to Jesus’ words with a declaration: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel” (vs.49) One important note is that Hebrew literary structure of parallelism is used here. Son of God and King of Israel are therefore (meaningwise) one and the same concept.
It is significant that Jesus referred to Nathaniel not as Ioudaiois (a Jew) indeed, in whom there is no guile, but in a more generic way – “an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile.” (1:47) Nathaniel’s response, therefore, may point in the direction of inter-Israelite polemic present in this Gospel as the mainconcern and context for John’s gospel. Nathaniel referred to Jesus not as the king of hoi Ioudaioi (the Jews), but as the king of Israel (1:49).
In vs. 51 Jacob’s dream is evoked. According to the Biblical story, Jacob most likely dreamed about an ancient ziggurat-like structure that in the mind of the ancients normally had a temple on the top of that mountain with stairs leading to it. The angels were ascending and descending upon Bethel (house of God), where Jacob slept on a stone anxious about Esau’s reception of him after many years away and that under questionable circumstances. Samaritans thought that Bethel and Gerizim were one and the same place since Bethel is connected with Luz and Luz is connected to Mt. Gerizim. Up until today the Samaritan village of Luza is located essentially next to the Mt. Gerizim.
Jesus in talking to Nathaniel assured him that he has not yet seen much (“…you shall see the heavens opened, and the messengers of God ascending and descending on the son of man.”) In Genesis story it was “Samaritan” Bethel that was the foot of “Jacob’s ladder” (Gen.28), but in John’s gospel the house of God (Bethel) has become – the person of Jesus (1:51). In making a reference to Jacob’s dream, Jesus indicated to Nathaniel that he will also see the angels ascending and descending again, but not on Bethel as it was in the story of Jacob, but upon Jesus instead. This is, of course, linked with what we will read in Jn.4 when Jesus will talk with the Samaritan woman: “…the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.” (Jn.4.21) The basic idea is clear: When all is set in done, Jesus for both Judeans and Samaritans will be the focal point of meeting with Israel’s God.
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© By Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, Ph.D.
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Join the conversation (11 comments)
I am really interested in knowing first hand Jewish interpretation of the new testament, particularly Midrashic inscripturation, and how it is related to the way how some read Greek epics in mythology are to be understood by their immediate readers.
Ariel, relating Jewish background to Greek epics is not this groups specialty, but interestingly enough it does come up now and then in participant discussions. Glad you joined the study group.
[…] story, two days after the meeting with Nathaniel, takes us to a village named Cana of Galilee. Jesus and his family were there (1:1, 12). He also […]
Thank you again. I, too, love reading these insights. I had not linked the angels ascending and descending to Jacob and BeithEl.. now it seems so clear that Jeshua is saying he will be will be “the focal point of meeting with Israel’s God” So also: with “I am the way, the truth and the life..”Jn14:6 and Heb 12:22-24 I quote this always also with care and hesitation, knowing the blood-stained record of “the Church” towards the Messiah’s flesh and blood.
I understand. Jn 14.6 is problematic not so much what it seems to say but that it is clear to me that “we” do not know for sure what the context in which it was written is. So for example if the polemic is between Evil Shepherds of Israel vs. Good Shepherd of Israel than this verse may mean something else rather than what has been traditionally interpreted.
Thank you, Eli. I shall re-read Jn14 in the light of your comment on the Good Shepherd / Evil Shepherds. I do see all over Tenah redemption through repentance and forgiveness; last night reading Ps 32 etc. (Jeshua said he came to fulfill the law.) In the meantime, reading the general blog, I am exceedingly glad to read that you have a difficult time classifying yourself. I struggled with this for a long time. My children used to stand up at school for being Jewish and for being “Christian.” We did not see contradictions, but others did.
There are a lot more people like you and I that live on the border of Christianity and Judaism, Church and Israel. When asked we would have trouble swearing allegiance to only one place, because our house is smack in the middle of the borderline. The funny thing is that our house was there all along before the powerbrokers and key-keepers painted their dividing line that was supposed to make things clear 🙂 🙂 Read Daniel Boyarin’s works that available to you he talks a lot about it. Welcome to the blog, I trust that you signed up for updates.
how tragic that some feel pressured to choose allegiance to one or the other – surely both are precious and should not be in anyway mutually exclusive.
Once again, Dr. Eli, you say something that makes me respond with, “Wow!” Since you’ve opened my eyes to the idea that a lot of John’s gospel is about the Samaritans, or directed toward the Samaritans, I can see the differences now in how things are worded in this gospel. I hadn’t realized before now the difference in Jesus’ comment to Nathaniel, “an Israelite” and not “a Jew.”
And now I wonder: is Jesus’ comment about the angels meant to be taken literally, meaning Nathaniel was really going to see angels ascending and descending? Or was that figurative of the idea that Nathaniel would realize Jesus as the Person in whom God lives (being the “house” of God)? And if Nathaniel truly did see angels, I wonder how many times? It’s not ever mentioned again, is it?
Thank you for sharing this with us! I love reading these commentaries.
I’d like to know more of your thoughts on Jesus as the focal point of worship. Or perhaps you’re not saying that. At any rate, apart from Revelation and Thomas’ declaration “my Lord and my God”, there is precious little in NT writings suggesting worship of Jesus. While two Jewish sects of the first century (the Ebionites and the Nazarites) both accepted Jesus as the Messiah, but only one of them ascribed deity to him.
In regards to Thomas declaration upon seeing the risen Jesus, what in his Jewish heritage could have allowed him to say that? It seems out of character knowing that “no man can see God and live”.
I am not sure that this verse should be interpreted as Jesus worship, although I personally do not view Jesus worship as unsubstantiated in the NT. What is important here (the focal point) is the bridge idea, stair to heaven, the place where heaven meets with earth, etc.