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LESSON 11: THE CALLING OF NATHANAEL (John 1:45-51): LITERAL SENSE
by John F. McCarthy
71. The text of John 1:45-51. The text of the calling of Nathanael in an English translation reads as follows:
45Philip finds Nathanael and says to him: "We have found him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth."
46And Nathanael said to him: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" Philip says to him: "Come and see."
47Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and he says concerning him: "Behold indeed an Israelite in whom there is no guile!"
48Nathanael says to him: "From where do you know me? Jesus answered and said to him: "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you."
49Nathanael answered him: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!"
50Jesus answered and said to him: "Because I said to you that I saw you under the fig tree, you believe. Greater things than these shall you see."
51And he says to him: "Amen, amen, I say to you [plural], you [plural] will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man."
72. Rudolf Bultmann's approach. As a leading historical-critic of the rationalist school and as a founder of the form-criticism of the Gospels, Rudolf Bultmann, in his celebrated commentary entitled The Gospel of John1, begins from the assumption that God does not exist in objective reality. Thus, the belief shown in the Gospel of St. John that God the Father is (by appropriation) the Creator of all things and that God the Son became incarnate to save us from our sins must be traced to mere figments of the religious imagination that arose among primitive dreamers in the past. For Bultmann, Jesus of Nazareth was a mere man, relatively uneducated and limited to the knowledge that he might have gained from the local culture that surrounded him. Neither he nor his disciples could have imagined him as a divine Person become incarnate, and so this idea, which pervades the Gospel of St. John, came into Christianity only after it had spread into the pagan Hellenistic world and had adopted this idea from the Gnostic Redeemer-myth.2 This myth "provides the terminology for the christology of John."3 Thus, while the expression "son of God" originally applied to the expected human Messiah in the Hebrew tradition, it is transposed in John to refer to Jesus as a divine Person.4 For instance, in John 1:51 the "Johannine Jesus" speaks of the angels of God ascending and descending upon himself as the "Son of Man," whereas the "historical Jesus" never called upon people to believe in his person, nor did he ever refer to himself as the "Son of Man."5 Hence, the episode of the calling of Nathanael is an invention of the Hellenistic Church, cast back into the life of the historical Jesus in order to ascribe divinity to his person. As far as historical truth is concerned, Bultmann allows that "it is possible that the Johannine narrative contains reliable historical tradition, namely, the fact that there were erstwhile disciples of the Baptist among Jesus' first disciples, who perhaps joined him when he broke away from the Baptist."6 But that is as much real history as Bultmann sees in it.
73. Bultmann's error. Bultmann's interpretation of the calling of Nathanael stems ultimately from his disbelief in the objective existence of God and of supernatural reality in general, with particular emphasis upon his disbelief in the divinity of Jesus. From this viewpoint any other interpretation is preferable to the true one, although the more plausible the substitute interpretation, so much the better. But Bultmann does not use historical science correctly. The Gnostic Redeemer-myth arose as a heresy of Christianity after the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Jesus were already known to have taken place; it arose from demonic suggestion aimed at twisting the historical truth about Jesus. The refutation of Bultmann's interpretation of this episode is given by straightening out the twisted notion of Gnostic influence upon the Gospel which he presents and by approaching the text of the episode with valid historical method.7
74. A Catholic historical-critical approach. Catholic historical-critics, as Catholic believers, do not consciously accept Bultmann's denial of the real existence of God and of the divinity of Jesus, but neither do they effectively refute this denial, even though it is the ultimate presupposition of rationalist exegetical method. Thus, when they use the "headless wonder" of an historical-critical method bereft of its naturalist presuppositions, and when they accept many of the conclusions of rationalist form-critical method as being "scientific" without realizing the extent to which these conclusions logically depend upon the rationalist assumption that the wonderful events narrated in the Gospels could not really have taken place (inasmuch as for rationalists nothing supernatural could really exist or have happened), Catholic historical-critics tend to be haunted by temptations to doubt the realities of Christian faith. For instance, prominent Catholic historical-critic Raymond Brown (now deceased), in his well-known commentary, The Gospel according to John, closely parallels the interpretation of Bultmann where he says: "Thus, we cannot treat John 1:35-51 simply as a historical narrative. John may well be correct in preserving the memory, lost in the Synoptics, that the first disciples had been disciples of John the Baptist and were called in the Jordan valley just after Jesus' baptism. But John has placed on their lips at this moment a synopsis of the gradual increase of understanding that took place throughout the ministry of Jesus and after the resurrection. John has used the occasion of the call of the disciples to summarize discipleship in its whole development.8 Father Brown thus sees this episode as a scene invented in order to place on the lips of Jesus and of his disciples titles of Jesus that reflect how the Person of Jesus was understood at the later time when the episode was composed, and not how Jesus understood Himself or how these disciples understood Him at the moment depicted in the Gospel. In taking this position, Brown displays a lack of the technical apparatus needed to deal with the approach of Bultmann and other rationalist critics. But Brown does challenge Bultmann's claim that the Gnostic Redeemer-myth is the source of John's idea that Jesus is the God-Man. Brown notes that classic Gnosticism as we know it did not appear in fully developed form until the second century A.D., that is, until after the Gospel according to John had already been composed, and the form of the Gnostic Redeemer-myth cited by Bultmann comes from that later era, so that Bultmann illogically assumes that it existed in the same form even before John's Gospel was written. And the extant Gnostic documents indicate to Brown that it was the figure of Christ that shaped the Gnostic Redeemer-myth rather than vice versa. But Brown weakens his case considerably when he concludes, nevertheless, that "one cannot claim that the dependence of John on a postulated early Oriental Gnosticism has been disproved," although "the hypothesis remains very tenuous and in many ways unnecessary," with the result that "the existence of Bultmann's proto-Mandean Gnostic source remains dubious."9 Thus, Brown leaves us with the thought that the Incarnation of the divine Word of God, the Resurrection, and the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven could after all possibly be just fantasies derived from Gnostic mythology, as Bultmann affirms, and this conclusion opens to doubt the object of Christian faith.10
75. The neo-Patristic approach. The neo-Patristic approach begins from the realization that Jesus of Nazareth is really and in the most objective historical sense the Messiah sent from God the Father, that He is the God-Man, the second divine Person of the Most Holy Trinity become incarnate in this man. Its act of faith is as follows: O my God, I firmly believe that Thou art one God in three divine Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I believe that thy divine Son became man and died for our sins, and that He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe these and all the truths which the holy Catholic Church teaches, because Thou hast revealed them, who canst neither deceive nor be deceived. When the neo-Patristic exegete says "I firmly believe ...," he means "I historically and scientifically know, on the evidence of what God has told us." And on the basis of this act of faith, the neo-Patristic interpreter undertakes two things: to study the interpretations of the Fathers of the Church and of the faithful exegetes who have followed their method over the centuries and to examine critically the attacks upon these interpretations by rationalist critics like Rudolf Bultmann. The neo-Patristic interpreter seeks in prayer the strength of mind and will to resist the kind of diabolical temptations that led Gnostic dreamers into their Gnostic errors and which continue to lead unwary scholars into erroneous interpretations of the Holy Scriptures. As a case in point, neo-Patristic interpreters critically examine Bultmann's reasoning and find the flaws in his arguments. Bultmann's desire to attack the historical truth of St. John's Gospel led him to turn history around by making the Gospel depend upon a Gnostic myth, when, in fact, the myth was just a distortion of the previous historical events being reported in Christian preaching.
76. The Patristic approach. All of the Fathers of the Church understood the passage about the calling of Nathanael to be an exact historical description of what actually took place. Regarding the text, St. Augustine points out that Nathanael's reply to Philip in verse 46 can be read in the Greek original either as an interrogative sentence, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" or as a declarative sentence, "Something good can come from Nazareth." The declarative reading would eliminate the somewhat guileful irony in Nathanael's remark, but it is the common opinion that the interrogative reading seems more in keeping with the context. In verse 47 Jesus calls Nathanael "an Israelite in whom there is no guile." Augustine says that Nathanael was without guile, not as implying that he was not a sinner, but inasmuch as he admitted his sins and did not pretend to be more righteous than he actually was. Regarding verse 50, in which Nathanael says to Jesus: "You are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel," St. John Chrysostom notes that many have been puzzled to learn that Peter was called blessed (Matt 16:17) for calling Jesus the Son of God after having experienced the miracles and the teaching of Jesus, while Nathanael was not called blessed for using the same title before he had had this experience. The reason is, Chrysostom says, that Nathanael intended the expression "Son of God" to mean a merely human savior, whereas Peter understood Jesus to be the God-Man. In fact, the Messiah is sometimes referred to in the Old Testament as the Son of God without specifying the divinity of his Person (cf. 2 Sam 7:14; Psalms 2:67; 88 :27-28). Coming to verse 51, Chrysostom points out how Jesus elevates the mind of Nathanael above the natural horizon to consider Him no longer as merely human but rather as the Lord of the angels and the King's own Son to whom the servants of the King ascend and upon whom they descend.11
77. The literal and historical sense of John 1:45-51. Beneath the simple literal and historical sense of this passage, expressed in the interpretation of the Fathers given above, there seems to be a more subtle historical happening that completes the meaning on the level of the literal sense. Regarding Nathanael's ironical reply to Philip in verse 46, Bultmann misses the point when he says: "It seems incredible to Nathanael that obscure Nazareth could be the home of the promised one."12 And Brown also misses the point where he adds: "The saying may be a local proverb reflecting jealousy between Nathanael's town of Cana and nearby Nazareth."13 To understand fully Nathanael's remark from a neo-Patristic point of view it is necessary to realize what is hinted at in the text, namely, that Philip and Nathanael had some knowledge of the Scriptures, and that part of this knowledge had to do with the origins of names. Now it was easy for Nathanael to conjecture on the spur of the moment that the name Nazareth comes from the Hebrew verb nazar, meaning "to set apart,""to consecrate," and, therefore, "to make holy." So Nathanael made a witty remark, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" meaning "Can anything good come from the town named holy?" This was only a facetious remark, but it did cast a humorous aspersion on the origin of Jesus. Now, Jesus outdid the wit of Nathanael as He quipped: "Behold a true Israelite in whom there is no guile," for Nathanael knew that Israel, that is, the Patriarch Jacob, was one of the most guileful persons who ever lived, and this witty and ironical riposte of Jesus caught Nathanael in his own conceit. Surprised by this spirited opening of Jesus, Nathanael asks: "From where do you know me?" - thus bringing up the question of origins, and Jesus refers to the origin of Nathanael as He replies: "I saw you when you were under the fig tree." A contemporary writer has noted that Jesus must have been referring to some previous occasion, since fig trees were not in foliage at that time of year,14 but St. Augustine long ago suggested the answer, when he said: "Adam and Eve, after sinning, made themselves aprons of fig leaves. Fig leaves, then, signify sins, and Nathanael, when he was under the fig tree, was under the shadow of death." So, on the level of the literal and historical sense, the implication of this observation of Jesus is that Jesus saw Nathanael when he was still in the seed of his first parents Adam and Eve, who stood shamefully under the fig tree after their sin. Thus, in answer to Nathanael's quip, "Can anything good come from Nazareth? Jesus replies in effect: "You joked about my supposed place of origin, but I saw you when you were still in the seed of your first-parents Adam and Eve, as they stood naked and ashamed under the fig tree." Nathanael, aided by grace, understands this, and he exclaims: "Master, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel." Nathanael probably intended the title "Son of God" in a human rather than in a Trinitarian or Incarnational sense,15 but he did thereby correct his witty remark and attribute to Jesus the highest and holiest of origins, being the son of the most holy God and having the social status of a king. Jesus approves this insight and then elevates it as he turns to the group of his disciples and says: "You shall see Heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man." When would they see Heaven opened? Ultimately and completely after their death when they would be accorded the Beatific Vision. In Heaven they would see the good angels ascending in thought and in prayer to the divinity of Jesus and descending in service upon his humanity, to which He is specifically referring when He calls Himself the Son of Man. The Heaven to which we refer is, then, not a religious fantasy; it is the ultimate reality attainable by man.
1. R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971) - translated from the 1964 printing of Das Evangelium des Johannes with the Supplement of 1966 - original German edition: 1943).
2. R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John, p. 61: "Just as the ancient world and the Orient tell of gods and divine beings who appear in human form, so too the central theme of the gnostic Redeemer-myth is that a divine being, the Son of the Highest, assumed human form, put on human flesh and blood, in order to bring revelation and redemption."
3. R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament (Eng. ed., New York: Scribner's Sons, 1951), vol. 1, p. 175.
4. Cf. R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 130.
5. "Yet the historical Jesus of the synoptics does not, like the Johannine Jesus, summon men to acknowledge or 'believe in' his person. He does not proclaim himself as the Messiah, i.e., the king of the time of salvation, but he points ahead to the Son of Man as another than himself" (R. Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, vol. 1, p. 9).
6. R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John, p. 108.
7. For a more detailed analysis of Bultmann's interpretation of this event, see J.F. McCarthy, "A Neo-Patristic Return to the Calling of Nathanael," in Living Tradition, no. 42 (July 1992), pp. 1-3.
8. R.E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (in The Anchor Bible: Garden City: Doubleday, 1966), p. 78.
9. R. Brown, The Gospel according to John, pp. LII-LVI.
10. For a more detailed analysis of Brown's interpretation of this episode, see J.F. McCarthy, "A Neo-Patristic Return to the Calling of Nathanael," pp. 5-7.
11. For these references to the Fathers, see Aquinas, Catena Aurea at Jn 1:45-51.
12. R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John, p. 103.
13. R. Brown, The Gospel according to John, p. 83.
14. W. Leonard, in the Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, p. 983, no. 785d.
15. "Nathanael may indeed have vaguely confessed his divine origin, but Our Lord's subsequent words show that he could not have realized its full import. He certainly confessed his Messiahship, for St. John regards 'King of Israel' as a Messianic title" (W. Leonard, ibid.).
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