The account of Jesus’ meeting with Philip and Nathanael early in John’s Gospel is the first extended affirmation of John the Baptist’s declaration that Jesus is to be understood as the “Lamb of God” (1:29) and “Son of God” (1:34). Andrew’s disclosure to Peter that “We have found the Messiah” (1:41) positions the reader for a similar reaction from Philip and Nathanael. However, Nathanael’s initial response is one of great scepticism and disbelief. “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Yet immediately following Jesus’ visionary reply, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you” (1:48), Nathanael says, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (1:49). This appears to be an exaggerated reply to Jesus’ apparent foreknowledge of Nathanael seated under a fig tree. Such a rapid move from doubt based on Nathanael’s stereotypical understanding of the inhabitants of Nazareth, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (1:46), to ontological affirmations about Jesus seems intrinsically unlikely when viewed as a piece of historical reporting. A better reading is that John is laying the theological groundwork for Jesus’ self-disclosure as the Christ. Nathanael’s response is sarcastic—he believes no such thing. How does Nathanael’s alleged insight follow logically from Jesus’ vision of him beneath a fig tree? Why, in a parallel example, does the Samaritan woman consider Jesus only to be a prophet when he reveals similar special knowledge of her domestic circumstances? Need it be the case that Jesus’ assumption of Nathanael’s belief (1:50) implies actual belief on the part of Nathanael? What Nathanael uttered may not be what Nathanael meant though Jesus (and John) take it to be true. How do we account for this highly compressed dialogue? One possibility is that the author of John has constructed a dialogue for the purpose of arguing that Jesus’ true identity was known prophetically at a very early stage of his ministry and that such knowledge was only available by special revelation confirmed by Jesus’ concluding reply (1:50). In such a historicist view the interpersonal encounter between Jesus and Nathanael and its recollection became widely known and embedded in the Johannine tradition. As such, it became a model for many similar encounters with Jesus. Notwithstanding, the person of Nathanael is ultimately left as undefined as Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman and others—in John, the various actors often serve as narrative foils or cyphers, appearing and disappearing as the plot unfolds. However, applying only the assumptions of historical method results in weak conclusions—what historical method cannot do is make John’s assessment of Jesus sufficiently plausible to stimulate belief that Jesus is the Christ which is the stated goal of John’s Gospel (20:30f). Some other technique must be in view. In the Gospels generally event and interpretation are very intricately woven by the narrator.
John has introduced Jesus thus far — he is “unknowable” in his role as Christ — “the world did not know him” (1:10). John’s dogmatic exploration moves Philip to add new information to John’s emerging disclosure of Jesus by announcing his identity with Moses (1:17) and the prophets, but also his temporal identity with Joseph and Nazareth (1:45). This elicits Nathanael’s scoffing reply at verse 46.
However, an interesting reversal takes place. Philip invites Nathanael to “Come and see.” (1:46) but now the vantage point shifts and Jesus sees Nathanael coming toward him (1:47). Jesus’ estimation of Nathanael as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (1:47) immediately places the Israelite identity of Nathanael in the foreground and calls up the quintessentially deceitful Israelite, namely Jacob. This is not accidental and invites the idea that there might actually be such a person as a “true” Israelite that is, one who embodies the defining qualities of Israel’s relationship with God, him “of whom Moses wrote” (1:45). This excursion into Israel’s theology is further strengthened by the observation that again, the discourse reverses and it is Jesus who “sees” Nathanael in response to Nathanael’s question, “Where did you get to know me?” (1:48). Jesus observes Nathanael “under the fig tree before Philip called you.” (1:48). The motif of the fig tree was associated in biblical thought with seasons of peace, prosperity and divine blessing (cf. 1 Kings 4:25; Micah 4:4; Zech 3:10; 1 Macc 14:12)—the peaceable eschatological kingdom now made possible through Jesus.
Gradually, Nathanael disappears leaving only Jesus in view and the inference that Jesus is the true Israelite in whom the ancient texts of the patriarch Jacob and his vision take their embodiment—the One where heaven and earth meet. Nathanael has not believed at all but eventually he does. His sarcasm serves to stress the limitations of any temporal grasp of Jesus—belief is the gift of Christ.