Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Confession of Faith of a True Israelite

Nathanael functions in the narrative of John 1 as an example of a true, new covenant Israelite. Nathanael was surprised that Jesus could speak about him as if knowing him, without having met him previously. In response to Nathanel’s question “from where do you know me?” Jesus answered Nathanael: “Before Philip called you, while you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1:48).

The detail about seeing Nathanael “under the fig tree” is enigmatic until Jewish cultural presuppositions are brought into the interpretative process. Sitting under a fig tree was a common Jewish image of the ideal location for students studying torah. This metaphor was most likely derived from the Old Testament texts that use living under one’s fig tree, or eating from one’s own fig tree, as an image of a person or people experiencing God’s blessing and peace (see 1 Kgs 4:25; 2 Kgs 18:31; Isa 36:16). The concept of sitting under a fig tree here is also significant in light of the prophecies of Mic 4:4 and Zech 3:10, where peace in the new covenant age is pictured in terms of sitting under one’s vine and fig tree. By saying that he saw Nathanael sitting under the fig tree, Jesus was expressing that he knew that Nathanael was a keen student of torah. Studying torah is an important part of what it means to be a true Israelite, according to the Old Testament (see Exod 19:5–6; Deut 6:5–9, 25; Josh 1:8; Ps 1:1–3; Ezra 7:10). It was only through the study of torah that obedience to torah could be achieved.

Nathanael was impressed by Jesus’ supernatural knowledge of his character. This evidence of supernatural knowledge, along with Philip’s previous testimony about Jesus (see John 1:45), led Nathanael to faith in Jesus Christ. Nathanael’s confession of faith is found in John 1:49: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.” This confession stands as the paradigmatic confession of a true Israelite. This confession acknowledges that Jesus is a rabbi, a teacher; but he is more than just that. Jesus is also “the Son of God, the king of Israel.” The terms the Son of God and the king of Israel stand in parallel, and are both Messianic designations (see Ps 2:6–7 in particular).

Jesus’ testimony about Nathanael in John 1:47–48 (for a discussion of the significance of Jesus’ testimony about Nathanael in John 1:47, see “Jesus’ Description of Nathanael as a True Israelite in John 1:47”), and Nathanael’s confession about Jesus, both function in the narrative of John’s Gospel to express the idea that true torah-keeping Israelites recognize that Jesus is the Messiah. This was a controversial idea in its day. The fundamental issue that existed between Judaism and Christianity in the first century was the issue of whether or not Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. This is still the fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity today.

The character of Nathanael functions, therefore, in the Gospel of John to assert the Christian claim that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, and the idea that that all covenant-keeping Israelites in the new covenant age must necessarily acknowledge this fact. As the Apostle Paul has also argued, the true Jew is the one whose heart has been circumcised by the Holy Spirit (Rom 2:28–29), who does not stumble over the Messiah but “believes in him” (Rom 9:30–33), confessing that “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9–13), which is the equivalent (in a Gentile context) of saying that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ (in a Jewish context). The character of Nathanael, and the content of his confession, therefore, exhibit a sharp polemical edge that is as relevant today as it was back in Jesus’ day.


Jenny said...

Thanks for this insightful lesson. I vaguely recall as a child being taught something about the "fig tree" image in the story symbolizing Israel, but I don't think it ever drove the point home about Nathanael's character and schooling as you did.

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks, Jenny, for your comment.

John probably had Greek-speaking Jews in mind as part of his intended readership. Such readers would clearly have understood the implication of this episode involving Nathanael: now that the new covenant age has begun, and the Messiah has come, true torah-keeping Israelites must/will acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.

God bless!

Unknown said...

Dear Steve, thanks for the well-written post about Nathanael under the fig tree. I was watching an episode of 1st century Foundations this morning when they mentioned in passing the rabbinic tradition that said, "the best place to study Torah is under a fig tree". A little search of the phrase led me to your site and a lot more to think about, ... so I think I'll go out onto my shade-canopied deck here in the Rocky Mountains and think about this passage in John some more.

Blessings to you!

Steven Coxhead said...

Thanks for that, Drew! Many blessings in your study of the Word!