Friday, April 26, 2013

Angels ascending

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”

35 The next day again John was standing with two of his disciples, 36 and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” 37 The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. 38 Jesus turned and saw them following and said to them, “What are you seeking?” And they said to him, “Rabbi” (which means Teacher), “where are you staying?” 39 He said to them, “Come and you will see.” So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour. 40 One of the two who heard John speak and followed Jesus was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. 41 He first found his own brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which means Christ). 42 He brought him to Jesus. Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas” (which means Peter).

43 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” 44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 45 Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” 46 Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” 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” (Jn 1:19-51).

i) Jesus’ statement that he saw Nathanael under the fig tree is enigmatic. The narrator must have known that when he recorded this provocative statement, it would invite speculation. So I don’t think it’s inappropriate to speculate, as long as we confine ourselves to textual clues and acknowledge the limitations of our conjectures.

ii) Some commentators don’t think there was anything significant about what Nathanael was doing under the fig tree. They think Jesus’ knowledge is the only significant consideration, and not what it was that Nathanael was up to.

Certainly that’s possible. However, unless Nathanael was overreacting, his exclamation ought to match what Jesus saw. The fact that Jesus exhibits supernatural knowledge doesn’t justify the claim that he’s the “Son of God and King of Israel.” After all, prophets could be clairvoyant (cf. 2 Kgs 6:8-14). But Nathanael’s claim attributes to Jesus a status that far outstrips a prophet.

iii) Some commentators think the fig tree is significant, based on OT symbolism. But while it’s true that fig trees can have emblematic significance, I think it’s artificial to project that onto this scene. This is not a literary construct, but a real event. It’s not as if the narrator invented a fig tree to stick a character under so that he could trade on literary allusions.

I think it’s a little too convenient to imagine that Nathanael just happens to be under a fig tree, that just happens to evoke OT associations. That would be too staged. 

Mind you, Jesus himself can stage certain events, like the cursing of the fig tree–but that’s a miracle.

iv) Fig trees were shade trees. If you wanted to go outside to pray alone, if you wanted a quiet, private place to pray, a fig tree would be a natural setting.

If, in addition, Nathanael was praying that God send the promised Messiah, then that would explain his reaction. What he prayed about would dovetail with Jesus as the answer to his prayer.

v) Admittedly, that’s speculative, but it’s not pure speculation. This very narrative is framed in terms of urgent Messianic expectations. So that’s in the air. That’s in the minds of the participants.

If Nathanael was praying about the coming Messiah, and Jesus, by disclosing to Nathanael that he knew what Nathanael was praying about, revealed himself to be the coming of the Messiah, then that would account for Nathanael’s astonished faith. Nathanael is standing face-to-face with the answer to his prayer. Be careful what you ask for!

vi) There’s also the question of what Nathanael meant by calling Jesus the “Son of God” and “King of Israel.”

a) Some commentators think this is merely the kind of honorific title used for the Davidic Messiah in the OT (e.g. Ps 2, 89; Isa 9). We shouldn’t read too much metaphysical significance into Nathanael’s exclamation.

However, that begs the question of whether the title in Messianic prophecy was merely honorific. It was already a very exalted title in Messianic prophecy.

b) In addition, as the narrative carefully underscores, we’re dealing with individuals who moved in the same circles as John the Baptist. As such, Nathanael’s usage might well be enriched by the Baptist’s understanding of the Messiah. The Baptist received a divine revelation regarding the divine sonship of Jesus (29-34). Like falling dominoes, the narrator relays a rippling series of events linking the witness of the Baptist to the witness of Nathanael. 

Even if, at this stage, Nathanael didn’t operate with a full-orbed Johannine Christology, his usage is probably enhanced by the Baptist’s rarefied usage.


  1. There's also a church tradition that says Nathanael was born under a fig tree. If it's true, then that might explain it. I heard this from a priest in Catholic parochial school. Here's an Orthodox link that mentions it in passing. HERE

    In their encounter, Jesus starts talking about angels to Nathanael. Maybe Nathanael saw or was spoken to by an angel during a time of private prayer. Or maybe an angel appeared to his mother when he was born and she never told anyone except him. If so, maybe the angel was the pre-incarnate Christ.

    1. Jesus' talk of angels seems abrupt, even almost out of place. Maybe Nathanael had a supernatural experience while sleeping under a fig tree like Jacob did when he slept on a rock (Gen. 28:11ff.). That would explain why Christ alluded to Jacob's dream of angels ascending and descending on a "ladder" which occurred while he used the stone as a pillow. Maybe Nathanael dreamed of angels, or of an angelic message, or saw the Lord "high and lifted up" like Isaiah did (Isa. 6). That might explain how he could recognize Jesus as "Son of God, and King of Israel." Though, unlikely since there's no indication that the Apostles in general or Nathanael in particular fully understood Christ's divine status before the resurrection.

    2. That's a good point.