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LESSON 12: THE CALLING OF NATHANAEL (John 1:45-51): SPIRITUAL SENSE
by John F. McCarthy
78. The spiritual sense in general of John 1:45-51. Having examined in the previous lesson and reached an idea of the literal and historical sense of this episode (no. 77 above), we now consider possible spiritual meanings that may be embedded in the text, it being understood that whether or not a particular spiritual meaning is contained in a passage depends very much upon insight and is, therefore, usually open to discussion. In our search for spiritual meanings we use the mental framework of the Four Senses. Beyond the literal sense we seek the spiritual sense, divided into the allegorical, the tropological (moral), and anagogical (final) senses.
79. Can anything good come from Nazareth? The study of this episode begins with a search for possible symbolic meanings of the names narrated. We noted in the previous lesson (no. 77) that Nathanael seems to have assumed that the name Nazareth was derived from the Hebrew verb nazar, meaning "to set apart" or "to consecrate" and, therefore, "to make holy." But philological studies in our time indicate both nazar and netser ("budding," "flowering," "branch," or "shoot") as likely root-sources of the name. The possible root nazar (or nazir, meaning in some sense a "holy man," even if not in the full sense intended by Christians) is, of course, more obvious, but, as William Foxwell Albright points out, because of the linguistic phenomenon of "consonant shift," the root could equally be netser.1 And both ideas appear in prophesy. Thus, the Nazirites, as men consecrated to God even from their mother's womb (cf. Judges 13:5), were figures of Christ. That the Messiah would be a holy man is prophesied, for instance, in Dan 9:24: "Seventy weeks are shortened upon thy people ..." until "the saint of saints may be anointed." And that the Messiah would be a branch from the root of Jesse is prophesied in Isaiah 11:1: "And there shall come forth a shoot from the root of Jesse, and a branch (netser) shall grow out of his root" (Isaiah 11:1).2 These prophesies fit Jesus perfectly. He is a most holy man: in his divine Person, He is God most holy (John 1:1); He is the Word of God made flesh, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). And Jesus is a most holy branch or shoot (the fruit of non-gametic conception) for He is the only-begotten Son of the Father (John 1:14) and He was virginally conceived of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom the Angel Gabriel said: "and, therefore, the Holy who will be born of you will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). Thus, Jesus is the holiest of beings and He has sprung from the holiest of sources, both in his divine Person and in his created human nature. Hence, while the very fact that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph had Nazareth as their home town is proof that "something good can come from Nazareth," there is additional insight into this fact on the level of the Allegory of Christ.
80. Behold indeed an Israelite in whom there is no guile. Not only the names of individuals but also their deeds are clues to the allegorical sense of Sacred Scripture. An Israelite is a descendent of Israel, that is, of Jacob, and by "guile" is meant "clever or crafty character or behavior" (Collins). And, granted that the Patriarch Jacob was one of the most crafty persons that ever lived, we can readily say that a "true Israelite" in this ironical sense is a very crafty person, while Jesus is the true Israelite in the most positive sense. For Jacob was also a man of desires who prayed for graces and received them, and he received the promise of the Redeemer: "in you and in your seed shall all the tribes of the earth be blessed" (Gen 28:14). Jesus Himself is the seed of Jacob in whom all the tribes of the earth have been blessed, and, therefore, every other true Israelite is the man or woman who has been blessed in Jesus. And this opens up the full meaning of the riposte of Jesus to Nathanael, because Jesus is ironically implying, not only that Nathanael has guile in him, but also that he is not a true Israelite in the prophetic sense of the word. And yet there is a certain quality of slyness even in the preaching of Jesus in the sense that its meaning is often hidden in parables, just as the fascinating spiritual senses of the Scriptures are hidden behind allegories and enigmas, which may be the reason for which Jesus was not so much offended by Nathanael's quip as He was desirous to bring him to humility.
81. Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you. Jesus reminds Nathanael that he is an Adamite, a descendent of Adam and Eve and an inheritor of their original sin (see no. 77 above). He is calling Nathanael to abandon some of his conceitedness, to acknowledge the lowliness of his state, and to recognize his need for conversion. Nathanael needs conversion of manners, but in addition he needs to be converted from a mentality that confuses the sacred with the secular to a Christian outlook which clearly distinguishes the secular from the sacred. Not only was Jesus "set apart" from this world in a secular sense, but He preached the radical distinction of the Kingdom of God from the kingdoms of this world. And Nathanael was being called to abandon his attachment to the kingdom of this world in order to take up a vocation apart from this world and centered upon the next. This conversion is the tropological sense of the episode, and we can see traces of further tropological meaning, especially if Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew the Apostle.
82. Nathanael son of Tholomew? It has been disputed over the ages whether this Nathanael is to be identified with Bartholomew the Apostle. In a thoroughgoing review of the question in 1940, Urban Holzmeister concluded that Nathanael was Bartholomew.3 St. Augustine felt that he was not Bartholomew for the reason that Nathanael was versed in the Scriptures, whereas Jesus chose unlettered men to be his Apostles. This could be true for the most part without necessarily applying to all of the Apostles. In fact, Matthew too seems to have had some formal education. But looking at the origins of names in relation to the idea of being "indeed an Israelite," Nathanael tropologically fares not well. The name Nathanael, meaning "God has given," seems to have been, not of Hebrew, but of Babylonian origin. And Bartholomew means "son of Tolmai (or Tholmai)," a Canaanite name (cf. Num 13:23) meaning "covered with furrows," while the name "Canaan" itself means "low (ground)." In addition, Nathanael was "from Cana in Galilee" (John 21:2), and the name "Cana" means "a place of reeds," a tall grass that grows usually in low and swampy waters. Hence, in any play on the origin of names, this Nathanael comes off in very low estate. While in fact he was probably a descendent of Israel, he comes out pagan in both his name and his surname, while he lies flat on the ground (covered with furrows) or close to it (in low and swampy waters). Now, the word "humility" comes from the Latin word humus ("ground"), and it was to humility that Jesus was calling Nathanael in this deep reply. Humility is the "ground," or mental condition, for the infusion of sanctifying grace, and it is the foundation on which the supernatural virtues can grow. Jesus saw Nathanael when he was still in the physical ground from which Adam was formed, and Jesus here invites Nathanael to recognize the lowness of his origin in order that he may receive the true "Gift of God," which is Jesus Himself and his sanctifying grace.
83. Greater things than these shall you see. Nathanael has begun to turn away from pride in himself and pride in his race; he has begun to feel the power of the intelligence of Jesus and to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. This is a moment of grace and of conversion, and Jesus leads him and the other disciples present to hope for even more. Israel (Jacob) was a man of hope chosen by God for an eternal destiny. After wrestling one night with a mysterious opponent he was able to say: "I have seen God face to face, and my life has been spared" (Gen 32:30). Those who would enter the gate of Heaven, soon to be opened by Jesus, would see God face to face, and their lives would be saved for all eternity. Jesus refers to this in the following verse.
84. You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. This promise is an obvious reference to the famous vision of Jacob in which "he saw in his sleep a ladder standing upon the earth, and the top thereof touching heaven: the angels also of God ascending and descending upon it; and the Lord leaning upon the ladder, saying to him: 'I am the Lord God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land whereon you sleep I will give to you and to your seed ....'" (Gen 28:12-13). The Lord went on to promise to Jacob that "in you and your seed all the tribes of the earth will be blessed" (Gen 28:14). And Jacob trembling said: "How terrible is this place! This is no other than the house of God and the gate of Heaven" (Gen 28:17). The seed of Jacob in whom all the tribes of the earth would be blessed is Jesus in his humanity (cf. Gal 3:16), and the ladder extending from earth to heaven is a prophetic figure of the humanity of Jesus, which is a bridge from Heaven to earth and from earth to Heaven. Thus, the ladder pertains to the Allegory of Christ. But the reference to the "gate of Heaven" pertains to the Four Last Things, and, therefore, to the anagogical sense of the passage. Here, the anagogical sense is also the literal sense, and this is confirmed by the words of Jesus: you will see heaven opened. Jacob had once declared that he had "seen God face to face" (Gen 32:30), but this was not yet the Beatific Vision. Philip had said to Nathanael: "Come and see." And Nathanael did come and see. And he saw then the power of Jesus, and he heard a promise by Jesus of a greater vision that would be fulfilled only in the next life. This promise of Jesus that they would "see Heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man," this direct reference to Heaven in the literal sense is one of the textual bases of the anagogical sense. And there is also an anagogical reference in verse 45 to God the Father, where Philip calls Jesus the "son of Joseph." The name Joseph means "increaser," and God the Father is the absolute Increaser of all good things. He is the infinite Increaser in the Blessed Trinity in that he eternally begets God the Son and with the Son spirates God the Holy Spirit. He has sent his Son to bring the increase of grace and truth to mankind. He has sent the Holy Spirit to sanctify the members of Christ's Mystical Body. So, on the level of the allegory of words, Jesus, who was the adopted son of Joseph, the husband of Mary, is really the Son of the ultimate and most absolute Increaser, namely, of God the Father Himself.4
85. Summary of the spiritual senses of John 1:45-51. The spiritual meanings presented in this lesson are open to discussion and to correction. But the search for allegorical meanings is a need of our times. On the level of the lower allegory, that is, the Allegory of Christ and his Church, Jesus is "from Nazareth" in the sense that his human nature was conceived virginally "from the root" (netser) of Jesse and David in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And the humanity of Jesus is the Ladder of Jacob, the bridge between earth and Heaven. On the level of the higher allegory, that is, the anagogy of the Trinity and of the Four Last Things, the reference to "heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man" is the literal and historical meaning of the words, to the extent that this is one of the texts which literally underpin allegorical references to Heaven elsewhere in Sacred Scripture. Also on the level of the allegory of words, Jesus is the Son of Joseph, that is, the Son of the "Increaser", in that He is the Son of God the Father, who is the absolute Increaser of all things. On the level of tropology, the moral allegory, Nathanael accepts the invitation to "come and see," and, over and above his geographical journey to Jesus, he has an experience of conversion from conceitedness over his birth and his academic education to an awareness of the lowliness of his human birth and the highness of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. So Nathanael becomes a follower of Jesus. His exchange of irony with Jesus is like his forebear Jacob's wrestling with an angel: but Nathanael comes away with only his pride wounded and he walks thereafter in humility, as he also receives the blessing of a promise of eternal life. And his guile is no longer personal conceit, but rather a growing understanding of the deeper meaning of divine revelation and an increasing love for Jesus, the Bridegroom of souls.
1. Cf. W.F.Albright, "The Names 'Nazareth' and 'Nazoraean,'" in the Journal of Biblical Literature 65 (1946), pp. 399-400.
2. Cf. T. Aquinas, Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, at Matt 2:23.
3. U. Holzmeister, "Nathanael fuitne idem ac S. Bartholomaeus Apostolus?" in Biblica 21 (1940), pp.28-39.
4. For a further discussion of the spiritual senses of John 1:45-51, see J.F. McCarthy, "A Neo-Patristic Return to the Calling of Nathanael," in Living Tradition, no. 42 (July 1992), pp. 11-14.
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