St. Nathanael is an apostle of Christ, one whom little is known of. He is referred to only in St. John’s gospel (1:45 and 21:2), the last of the four gospels of the New Testament. Although the ecclesial tradition wishes to identify him with the apostle Bartholomew [possibly, in order to justify the absence of his name in the synoptic gospels], it remains worth noting that St. John calls him Nathanael [despite the fact that John was familiar with the synoptic gospels and the particular references to Bartholomew: Matthew 10:1-4; Mark 3:13-19 and Luke 6:12-16].
In John’s gospel, Nathanael is referred by name twice, first in the beginning (1:45-51) and second in the last chapter of the gospel (21:2). In both of these instances there is a parallel reference to St. Peter; not necessarily a coincidence (as we shall see in the following paragraphs).
The gospel’s reader observes that Peter is one of the first called apostles of Christ (second to Andrew). On 1:42 the evangelist mentions how Peter received his name by Christ, an event showing Peter’s importance for the college of the apostles. A similar reference can be found in Matthew 16:13-20. However, although the importance of Peter is appreciated, the first chapter of the gospel emphasizes more the importance of Nathanael recording his dialogue with Christ (1:47-51).
This particular dialogue has many noteworthy points. First and foremost the compliment Christ made to Nathanael: “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (1:47). Similar comments, addressed by Christ to named apostles, cannot be found in the gospels; with the exception of the aforementioned passages referring to Peter.
Second, Nathanael is the apostle who confesses -for the first time, and at the first chapter of the gospel- the divinity of Christ: “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (1:49). The same confession will be made by Peter, but later (6:69).
The third noteworthy point is the emphasis on Nathanael’s spirituality. He was praying under the fig tree and his prayer was heard by Christ before Philip introducing Nathanael to Him (1:48).
The last point is the words Christ addressed to Nathanael: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (1:50-51). These words may be perceived as a calling to Nathanael to keep in his memory or to write notes of Christ’s signs.
The first such sign was performed in Cana of Galilee (2:1-11); Nathanael’s home town. A sign that revealed the Theanthropic identity of Christ, already confessed by Nathanael (1:49) before the performance of the miracle. [The biblical scholars consider this sign as a typos of the salvific Eucharistic sacrament].
Cana of Galilee, Nathanael and Peter are mentioned again at the gospel’s last chapter (21:1-2). Thus, the evangelical narrative is completed with a reference to all who became witnesses of Christ’s redemptive ministry, from the very beginning, including John himself.
In this chapter (21) as well as in previous chapters (16:32, 18:17 and 18:25) there is a kind of critique to Peter who is called by Christ three times [as many as he denied Christ] to confess his love for Him (21:15-17). On the other hand, the “beloved disciple” is mentioned (21:20) who contrary to Peter never denied the Lord [see also, 19:26-27].
This critique to Peter’s former behavior, his contrast to the “beloved disciple” and the fact that John’s Gospel contains narratives not found in the synoptics [who were influenced by Sts. Peter and Paul], led many scholars [e.g. Brown, Bultmann, Cullman] to claim either that the gospel was not written by John or that John was not the “beloved disciple” [or both]. Brown remarks that John had a close relationship with Peter making it impossible to be the “beloved disciple”; who is presented in contrast to Peter. Eisler considered the “beloved disciple” to be St. Lazarus, and Tabor believes him to be St. James the first bishop of Jerusalem. [These last two hypothesis fail to consider that the “beloved disciple” was an apostle present at the Mystical Supper who “was reclining next to Christ” (13:23) and therefore neither Lazarus nor James can claim this title].
If someone would like to hypothesize about the “beloved disciple” -based on the criteria offered by the aforementioned scholars- one could say [with more probability] that Nathanael was the “beloved disciple” since he is complimented by Christ (1:47) and is referred exclusively by John [with parallel references to Peter].
Nevertheless, the ecclesial tradition considers John to be both the author of the gospel and the “beloved disciple” [possibly because he was the beloved apostle of the Ephesian community]. Therefore, all the efforts to identify another “beloved disciple” are strictly academic in nature, as Agouridis and Karavidopoulos have observed.
However, it is not unreasonable to imagine that John has probably included in his gospel testimonies not found in the synoptic, some of which may have been offered by Nathanael (e.g. the miracle in Cana; Nathanael’s home town). Bultmann considers these testimonies as excerpts from a special book written by an unknown disciple; he calls it “the Book of Signs”. [Is Nathanael, Bultmann’s “unknown disciple”? Is this why Nathanael is mentioned only by John? Maybe someone could say “yes”, but it will be again an academic hypothesis- that no one has made as far as we know].
In the final analysis -and going beyond academic theories- Nathanael is a beloved disciple of Christ (not necessarily “the One“) who clearly and without hesitations expressed his faith in Christ, becoming a witness of His redemptive work and an example for every contemporary disciple of the Lord.
Fr. Vassilios Bebis, PhD
Senior Fellow of the Sophia Institute (NY)
Savas Agouridis. “Introduction to the New Testament”. 1971.
Ioannis D. Karavidopoulos. “Introduction to the New Testament”. 1983.
Raymond E. Brown. “The Community of the Beloved Disciple”. 1979.
Rudolph Bultmann. “Das Evangelium des Johannes”. 1941.
Oscar Culmann. “The Johannine Circle”. 1976.
Robert Eisler. “The Enigma of the Fourth Gospel”. 1938.
James D. Tabor. “The Jesus Dynasty”. 2006.
Rev.Fr.Dr.Vassilios Bebis is the Presiding Priest at Saint Nektarios Orthodox Church in Rosindale,Boston and a Senior Fellow of the Sophia Institute.