Who is Nathanael? And is John’s gospel historically reliable?

January 13, 2016

Early drafts of my sermons always include things that don’t make the final cut, not because I don’t find them interesting (I’m always immensely interested in what I write), but because I don’t have time to include them. Last Sunday’s sermon on John 1:35-51 was no exception.

I intended to include more information about the unnamed disciple in v. 40—whom I believe to be John himself, the author of the gospel—and Nathanael in vv. 45-51.

When I studied John’s gospel in seminary, at least one of my professors rejected the traditional understanding that Nathanael is the same person as Bartholomew (not mentioned in John) in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Why? Because, she believed, “John” (who in her mind wasn’t John the apostle) wasn’t interested in communicating history at all; John’s gospel was valuable as literature only, whose truth was communicated mostly through symbolism and myth. In which case, why bother reconciling or harmonizing John with the other three, more “historical” gospels? Nathanael is a symbol, alongside so many other characters in John.

Among many problems with this approach is that it assumes that those Christian thinkers who lived within one or two generations of John (Polycarp and Justin Martyr, for example), who believed that John, among its many other virtues, also told historical truth, weren’t nearly as smart as we are today. For some reason, these thinkers, who knew the language, the culture, and the Greco-Roman world better than any of us do, couldn’t figure out what the fourth Evangelist was up to when he wrote his “symbolic” and “spiritual” gospel.

It also ignores how easily discrepancies or omissions between John and the Synoptics can often be reconciled. The issue of Nathanael and Bartholomew is a case in point. As D.A. Carson points out in his commentary, the fact that Nathanael, as depicted by John, is a friend of Philip’s from the same hometown, Bethsaida, agrees with the what the Synoptics say about Bartholomew. Moreover, Bartholomew is a patronym only—a last name meaning “Son of Tholomaeus.” It stands to reason that the name he was given at birth was Nathanael. Moreover, Bartholomew is coupled with Philip in the Synoptics (Mt. 10:3; Mk 3:18; Lk. 6:14), just as Nathanael is here.

Of course, in defending John’s historicity, I’m completely ignoring our orthodox Christian belief that the Holy Spirit ultimately gives us the Bible that we have, and it is the Spirit who ensures its infallibility.

Regardless, here’s what I cut out of my sermon:

[Andrew and the unnamed disciple] were originally disciples of John the Baptist: Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of them, and an unnamed disciple who is likely John himself, the author of this gospel, was the other. Why do I think the unnamed disciple was John? Because John is always the unnamed in the gospel of John. He’s referred to as the “beloved disciple,” the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” The fact that he isn’t named is a sign of his humility. Another sign that it’s the author of this gospel is that curious little detail in verse 39: “So they came and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day, for it was about the tenth hour.” It was about the tenth hour. Ancient Jews counted the hour beginning at 6:00 a.m. So ten hours after that would make it four in the afternoon.

My point is, it’s an oddly specific time. It seems unlikely that if it didn’t happen to the author himself, he would have bothered to mention it. Whereas if this was the very moment at which the course of your life changed forever, well, it’s natural that you would remember it. All that to say, we’re not dealing with myths and legends here; we’re dealing with history passed on by eyewitnesses.

The third disciple, Philip, was a childhood friend of Peter and Andrew, and the fourth was Nathanael, who we know from other three gospels as Bartholomew. Why the different name? “Bartholomew” was a last name, meaning “son of Tholomaeus.” Nathanael would have been his first name.

And while I’m on the subject of “clearing up confusion,” if you’ve read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, you may wonder why the call of these four in John—especially Peter, Andrew, and John—seems different from the other three gospels. In the other three, Peter, Andrew, and John, along with John’s brother James, are in their boats fishing when Jesus walks by and says, “Follow me”—at which point they drop what they’re doing, leave behind their families and their fishing business, and follow Jesus. It seems like they follow Jesus without even knowing who he was. So John’s gospel actually makes sense of the other three by furnishing a key detail that’s missing there: they did already know Jesus before they they left their homes and families and livelihoods and decided to spend the next three years of their lives with him.

2 Responses to “Who is Nathanael? And is John’s gospel historically reliable?”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    What an excellent point at the last here! I have frequently wondered how to reconcile the synoptics’ recounting of the “call” of Peter, et al. and John’s recitation. What you say here, that the episode in John predates the later “call to follow” makes a lot of sense. Thanks!

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