Friday, August 10, 2012

Jesus’ Description of Nathanael as a True Israelite in John 1:47

Jesus’ interaction with Nathanael in John 1:47–50 is rather enigmatic until Jewish cultural and theological concerns are considered as part of the assumed knowledge relevant to the communicative context of this incident. In John 1:47, after Nathanael had been invited by Philip to go and see Jesus for himself, Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said about him, “Behold, truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!”

Jesus seeing Nathanael coming and then speaking about him follows the pattern of John the Baptist in John 1:29, 36; and also Jesus himself previously in John 1:42. Seeing and saying are significant motifs in John 1 (see 1:18, 33, 34, 39, 46, 47, 48, 50, 51; and 1:15, 21, 22, 26, 29, 32, 36, 38, 39, 41, 43, 45, 46, 47, 48 respectively). This highlights the concern with testimony in John 1. People testify about Jesus’ Messianic status, and Jesus also testifies about true righteousness. That Jesus’ assessment of Nathanael commences with the word ἴδε (behold or look) recalls the use of the same word by John the Baptist in 1:29, 36.

Jesus’ testimony identifying Nathanael as being “truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” is significant. According to Jesus, Nathanael is a true Israelite. In what sense he is a true Israelite is unpacked in the rest of John 1:47–49. The expression in whom there is no δόλος deceit is effectively a conceptual play on the name Jacob, which literally means heel grabber, meaning supplanter, usurper, hence deceiver. Indeed the word δόλος in used by Isaac in reference to Jacob’s deception when stealing Esau’s blessing in Gen 27:35 in the LXX, to which Esau replies, “Isn’t he rightly named Jacob?” (Gen 27:36). The teaching in Ps 32:2, that the person whose sin is forgiven, and in whose spirit there is no deceit, is blessed (see also Ps 10:7; 24:4; 34:13; 35:20; 36:3; 52:2) is also relevant to Jesus’ description of Nathanael.

Putting all of this together, it is clear that, through the example of Nathanael, Jesus was testifying to the nature of true covenant righteousness now that the new covenant age had dawned. Nathanael stands as a righteous or covenant-keeping Israelite in contrast to the default situation in old covenant Israel, where the majority were covenant breakers. Jesus’ identification of Nathanael as being a true Israelite is highly significant, particularly in relation to Nathanael’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah in John 1:49, and introduces what is a significant theme in the context of the Jewish argument of John’s Gospel, that the true (i.e., righteous) Jew will recognize and receive the Messiah when he comes (e.g., John 3:21; 10:3–4, 25–27), in accordance with the teaching of the law of Moses itself as per Deut 18:15–19 (see Acts 3:22–23; 7:37, 52–53). At the heart of the new covenant restoration of Israel stands the confession of faith that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.

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