Meet Nathanael in the Bible, the 'True Israelite'

Scholars believe Nathanael and Bartholomew were the same person

Nathanael under the Fig Tree
Nathanael under the Fig Tree by James Tissot.

duncan1890 / Getty Images

Nathanael was one of the original twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. Very little is written about him in the Gospels and the book of Acts. What we do learn about him comes primarily from an unusual encounter with Jesus Christ in which the Lord declared that Nathanael was a model Jew and a man of integrity open to the work of God.

Nathanael in the Bible

Also Known as: Bartholomew

Known for: Nathanael has the distinction of being the first recorded person to confess belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior. When Nathanael accepted Jesus' call, he became his disciple. He was a witness to the resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus Christ and became a missionary, spreading the
gospel.

Bible References: Nathanael’s story in the Bible can be found in Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14; John 1:45-49, 21:2; and Acts 1:13.

Hometown: Nathanael was from Cana in Galilee.

Father: Tolmai

Occupation: Nathanael's early life is unknown. Later he became a disciple of Jesus Christ, an evangelist, and missionary.

Was Nathanael the Apostle Bartholomew?

Most Bible scholars believe Nathanael and Bartholomew were one and the same. The name Bartholomew is a family designation, meaning "son of Tolmai," which implies that he had another name. Nathanael means "gift of God" or "giver of God."

In the synoptic Gospels, the name Bartholomew always follows Philip in lists of the Twelve. In the Gospel of John, Bartholomew is not mentioned at all; Nathanael is listed instead, after Philip. Likewise, Nathanael's presence with other disciples at the Sea of Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection suggests that he was one of the original Twelve (John 21:2) and a witness to the resurrection.

The Calling of Nathanael

The Gospel of John describes Nathanael's call by Philip. The two disciples may have been friends, for Nathanael was brought by Philip to Jesus:

Philip found Nathanael and told him, "We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." (John 1:45)

At first, Nathaneal was skeptical about the idea of a Messiah from Nazareth. He scoffed at Philip, "Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?" (John 1:46). But Philip encouraged him, "Come and see."

As the two men approached, Jesus called Nathanael a "true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false," then revealed that he had seen Nathanael sitting under a fig tree before Philip called him.

When Jesus called Nathanael a "true Israelite," the Lord affirmed his character as a godly man, receptive to the Lord's work. Then Jesus astonished Nathanael, demonstrating supernatural power by referring to Nathanael's experience under the fig tree.

Jesus’ greeting not only to capture Nathanael's attention but also, by its penetrating insight, threw him off guard. Nathanael was stunned to learn that the Lord already knew him and that he was aware of his movements.

Jesus' personal knowledge of Nathanael and the recent event under the fig tree caused Nathanael to respond with an amazing confession of faith, proclaiming Jesus to be the divine Son of God, the King of Israel. Finally, Jesus promised Nathanael that he would see a stunning vision of the Son of Man:

He then added, "Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man." (John 1:51)

Church tradition says Nathanael carried a translation of Matthew's Gospel to northern India. Legend claims he was crucified upside down in Albania.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Upon meeting Jesus for the first time, Nathanael overcame his initial skepticism about the insignificance of Nazareth and left his past behind.

Jesus affirmed that Nathanael was a man of integrity and openness to the work of God. Calling him a "true Israelite," Jesus identified Nathanael with Jacob, the father of the Israelite nation. Also, the Lord's reference to "angels ascending and descending" (John 1:51), strengthened the association with Jacob.

Nathanael died a martyr's death for Christ. However, like most of the other disciples, Nathanael abandoned Jesus during his trial and crucifixion.

Life Lessons from Nathanael

Through the story of Nathanael in the Bible, we see that our personal prejudices can skew our judgment. But by being open to God's word, we come to know the truth.

In Judaism, the mention of the fig tree is a symbol for the study of Law (Torah). In rabbinic literature, the proper place to study the Torah is under a fig tree.

Nathanael's story endures as an ideal example of how a true believer responds to Jesus Christ.

Key Bible Verses

  • When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, "Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false." (John 1:47, NIV)
  • Then Nathanael declared, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel." (John 1:49)

Sources:

  • The Message of John: here is your king!: with study guide (p. 60).
  • Nathanael. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised (Vol. 3, p. 492).