Who was Nathaniel?
Nathanael, who was probably a fisherman, belonged to Cana in Galilee ( John 21:2 ). According to the "Genealogies of the Twelve Apostles" (compare Budge, Contendings of the Apostles , II, 50), Nathanael was the same as Simon, the son of Cleopas, and was one of the Twelve. He was among those who met and conversed with Jesus during the preaching of John the Baptist at Bethany beyond Jordan (compare John 1:28 ). From the manner of the invitation extended to him by Philip (John 1:45 ), it is evident that Nathanael was well versed in ancient Scripture, and that in him also the preaching of John had aroused a certain expectancy.
His reply to Philip, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? (John 1:46 ), was prompted, not by any ill repute of the place, but by its petty insignificance and familiarity in Nathanael's eyes. To this question Philip made no direct answer, but replied, "Come and see." It was the answer best fitted to the man and the occasion; it appealed to Nathanael's fair-mindedness and sincerity of purpose. He responded nobly to the call, and on approaching Jesus was received with the words: "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" (John 1:47 ).
It was a tribute to that singleness of heart which enabled him to overcome his initial prejudice. The same candor and openness distinguished the after-interview of Nathanael with Jesus, as is evident by his question, "Whence knowest thou me?" (John 1:48 ).
The reply of Jesus was not what he expected. It concerned the time he had spent under the fig tree, kneeling, no doubt, in silent prayer and communion with God, and brought to mind all the sacred hopes and aspirations of that hour. It taught him that here was One who read on the instant the inmost secrets of his heart, and was Himself the ideal for whom he was seeking; and it drew from him the confession, "Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art King of Israel" (John 1:49).
Although Nathanael is mentioned by name only once again in the New Testament, where he is one of the seven who witnessed the appearance of the risen Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21:2 ), it is evident that the connection and companionship of Nathanael with Jesus must have been much closer than those two incidents would lead us to suppose. Accordingly, attempts have been made to identify him with other New Testament characters, the most commonly accepted being Bartholomew.
The principal arguments in support of this identification are: (1) Nathanael is never mentioned by the synoptists, and Bartholomew is never mentioned by John, who further implies that Nathanael was one of the twelve disciples (compare John 20:24-26 ; John 21:2 ); (2) in the Synoptists, Philip is closely connected with Bartholomew (compare lists of the apostles), and in John with Nathaniel (compare John 1:45 ff); (3) the fact that most of the other apostles bear two names.
Arguments are also adduced to identify him wit h Simon the Cananen. Nathanael has also been identified with Matthew and Mattbias (based on the similarity of name-meanings), with John the son of Zebedee, with Stephen, and even with Paul.
The following article is excerpted from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, which is in the public domain.