St. Stephen a true Israelite
Damien F. Mackey
Stephen of the New Testament’s Book of Acts is tentatively identified here with Nathanael of Cana who appears in the Gospel of John.
Achior, a leading player in the Book of Judith, was not, as I argued in my article:
a pagan Ammonite, as he is generally thought to have been, but was none other than Ahikar (Vulgate “Achior”) of the Book of Tobit – the very nephew of Tobit, of the tribe of Naphtali.
Achior was thus a northern Israelite, an Ephraïmite.
St. Stephen, for his part, is typically taken to have been a Greek-speaking Jew, a Hellenist. And so we read for instance at: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-Stephen
The name Stephen is Greek, and Acts 6 tells us that he was a Hellenist; that is, a foreign-born Jew who spoke Greek. He lived in Jerusalem and had become a Christian. The Hellenists, who probably formed a minority in the Christian community, complained that the care of their elderly widows was neglected. The apostles presented the matter to the congregation and, pleading the press of responsibilities, instructed it to select seven deacons for this community service. They were chosen and ordained, and Stephen, who became the best known of the seven, was recognized as a man with special gifts as an evangelist. He engaged in religious discussions among the adherents of synagogues of Diaspora Jews in the capital. Growth in the number of Jewish converts, including “many of the priests,” provoked a reaction; he was summoned before the Sanhedrin, the supreme rabbinic court in Jerusalem, and charged with speaking against “this holy place and the law.” The charge is very general; the report of his defense before the Sanhedrin is the primary resource for learning what Stephen stood for.
[End of quote]
Whilst “Stephen” (Steven) is indeed a Greek name, from Στέφανος (Stéphanos), meaning “wreath, crown, honour”, Acts 6 does not specifically tell us that Stephen “was a Hellenist”. It merely says that (v. 6): “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraïc Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food”.
The apostolic solution to this problem (vv. 2-4):
So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word’.
Stephen appears to have been the foremost amongst the subsequently chosen “seven men” (vv. 5-6):
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
Was he the oldest? According to Orthodox belief, Stephen was indeed the oldest of these seven and was therefore called “archdeacon”.
The Book of Acts is our only primary source for information about Stephen, qua Stephen.
Jews with Greco-Roman Names
From a reading through of this New Testament book, Acts, one will find that most of the names it contains are Greco-Roman.
Paul appears therein as both “Paul” and “Saul”; Simon Peter, as “Peter”.
EWTN’s article on St. Stephen (https://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/STEPMART.HTM) is adamant, however, that he “was a Jew”:
|ST STEPHEN, THE FIRST MARTYR|
|Feast: December 26|
|[See Acts vi. vii., and Tillemont,, t.. ii. p.. I, Cave, &c.]
That St. Stephen was a Jew is unquestionable, himself owning that relation in his apology to the people. But whether he was of Hebrew extraction and descended of the stock of Abraham, or whether he was of foreign parents incorporated and brought into that nation by the gate of proselytism, is uncertain. ….
[End of quote]
In Acts 18, Paul will meet a Jew with the Roman name of Aquila (“Eagle”).
Vv. 1-2: “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them …”.
Just as Achior’s detailed account of the history of Israel – which I provided in full in the above article, “Achior the Ephraïmite” – would most unlikely have arisen from a pagan Ammonite, so, too, would I agree with EWTN that St. Stephen’s “apology” would identify him as “a Jew” (though possibly hailing, like Achior, from northern Israel).
Achior’s speech often gets compared to Stephen’s. For example, Robert Hall has written (Revealed Histories: Techniques for Ancient Jewish and Christian Historiography, p. 28):
…. Achior the Ammonite [sic] makes just such a speech before Holofernes in Judith 5.5-21, and Holofernes rebukes him for prophesying on behalf of the Israelites (Jud. 6.2). …. Stephen, a man full of wisdom and the Spirit (Acts 6.10), makes just such a speech in Acts 7.
Here is Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in full (Acts 7:1-53):
Then the high priest asked Stephen, ‘Are these charges true?’
To this he replied: Brothers and fathers, listen to me! The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran. ‘Leave your country and your people,’ God said, ‘and go to the land I will show you.’ So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Harran. After the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. He gave him no inheritance here, not even enough ground to set his foot on. But God promised him that he and his descendants after him would possess the land, even though at that time Abraham had no child. God spoke to him in this way: ‘For four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves,’ God said, ‘and afterward they will come out of that country and worship me in this place.’ Then he gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac and circumcised him eight days after his birth. Later Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs. Because the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph, they sold him as a slave into Egypt. But God was with him and rescued him from all his troubles. He gave Joseph wisdom and enabled him to gain the goodwill of Pharaoh king of Egypt. So Pharaoh made him ruler over Egypt and all his palace.
Then a famine struck all Egypt and Canaan, bringing great suffering, and our ancestors could not find food. When Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent our forefathers on their first visit. On their second visit, Joseph told his brothers who he was, and Pharaoh learned about Joseph’s family. After this, Joseph sent for his father Jacob and his whole family, seventy-five in all. Then Jacob went down to Egypt, where he and our ancestors died. Their bodies were brought back to Shechem and placed in the tomb that Abraham had bought from the sons of Hamor at Shechem for a certain sum of money.
As the time drew near for God to fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt had greatly increased. Then ‘a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.’ He dealt treacherously with our people and oppressed our ancestors by forcing them to throw out their newborn babies so that they would die.
At that time Moses was born, and he was no ordinary child. For three months he was cared for by his family. When he was placed outside, Pharaoh’s daughter took him and brought him up as her own son. Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was powerful in speech and action.
When Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites. He saw one of them being mistreated by an Egyptian, so he went to his defense and avenged him by killing the Egyptian. Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. The next day Moses came upon two Israelites who were fighting. He tried to reconcile them by saying, ‘Men, you are brothers; why do you want to hurt each other?’
But the man who was mistreating the other pushed Moses aside and said, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ When Moses heard this, he fled to Midian, where he settled as a foreigner and had two sons.
After forty years had passed, an angel appeared to Moses in the flames of a burning bush in the desert near Mount Sinai. When he saw this, he was amazed at the sight. As he went over to get a closer look, he heard the Lord say: ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.’ Moses trembled with fear and did not dare to look.
Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. I have indeed seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groaning and have come down to set them free. Now come, I will send you back to Egypt.’
This is the same Moses they had rejected with the words, ‘Who made you ruler and judge?’ He was sent to be their ruler and deliverer by God himself, through the angel who appeared to him in the bush. He led them out of Egypt and performed wonders and signs in Egypt, at the Red Sea and for forty years in the wilderness.
This is the Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.’ He was in the assembly in the wilderness, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our ancestors; and he received living words to pass on to us.
But our ancestors refused to obey him. Instead, they rejected him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt. They told Aaron, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who led us out of Egypt—we don’t know what has happened to him!’ That was the time they made an idol in the form of a calf. They brought sacrifices to it and reveled in what their own hands had made. But God turned away from them and gave them over to the worship of the sun, moon and stars. This agrees with what is written in the book of the prophets:
‘Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel? You have taken up the tabernacle of Molek and the star of your god Rephan, the idols you made to worship.
Therefore I will send you into exile’ beyond Babylon.
Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen. After receiving the tabernacle, our ancestors under Joshua brought it with them when they took the land from the nations God drove out before them. It remained in the land until the time of David, who enjoyed God’s favor and asked that he might provide a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for him.
However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says:
‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of House will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?’
You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him — you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.
Did St. Stephen also
have a Hebrew name?
Nathanael of Cana is commonly thought to have been the same as the Apostle Bartholomew – a view also with some Church tradition in support of it. Indeed, the Gospel account of the call of Nathanael (John 1:45-51) is customarily read on the feast of St. Bartholomew.
St. Augustine, however, did not share this view. In his seventh tractate on St. John’s Gospel, Augustine argues against Nathanael’s bring Bartholomew. (And, from memory, one of the popes Gregory also rejected the view that Nathanael was Bartholomew).
To the question:
As posed at: http://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/23458/are-bartholomew-and-nathanael-the-same we are given the following pros and cons:
Popular thought on the subject agree that Bartholomew and Nathanael are the same person. While there is no passage in the Bible that directly says “Bartholomew is Nathanael,” circumstantial evidence points in that direction. Arguments can be made either way; church tradition points toward them being one and the same.
First, regarding the names themselves. Bartholomew seems like a family name or last name. In Hebrew, the name would be Bar-Tholmai, or Son of Tholmai. Nathanael seems like a first name, meaning Gift of God.
Second, Bartholomew and Nathanael seem to be mutually exclusive. Bartholomew makes appearances in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. Each reference is in a list of the 12 Disciples. Nathanael makes appearances in the book of John, which has no formal list of the 12 Disciples. In John chapter 21, Nathanael is included in a list of disciples (John 21:2 “There were together Simon Peter, and Thomas called Didymus, and Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, and the sons of Zebedee, and two other of his disciples.”) In John, Nathanael does what one of the 12 Disciples might be expected to do: he goes fishing with some of the others in the 12 Disciples.
Third, there is a relationship between Philip and Bartholomew in the lists of disciples in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts. There is also a relationship between Philip and Nathanael in John (Nathanael is the friend Philip brings to Jesus when Philip first learns of Him).
First, Bartholomew is a perfectly reasonable first name. It has been used many times since.
Second, Nathanael is never listed in a formal list of the 12 Disciples. Certainly, there were many disciples of Jesus who are not included in the 12 Disciples. This was one of the requirements to be considered for Judas’ replacement in the 12 Disciples after Judas betrayed Jesus.
Third, the link between Philip and Bartholomew in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts is hardly strong — their names are simply grouped together. Even if the link were strong, it’s not as if Philip cannot have two good friends. ….
[End of quote]
John’s Account of Nathanael
We read in John 1:43-51:
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me’. Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 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’. ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked.
‘Come and see’, said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, ‘Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit’. ‘How do you know me?’ Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, ‘I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you’. Then Nathanael declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel’.
Jesus said, ‘You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that’. 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’.
This last verse (v. 51): ‘Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man’, is what has triggered in my mind the possibility that Nathanael, promised this Jacob-like vision with a Divine certainty (‘Very truly I tell you’), was the same as Stephen ‘Protomartyr’, who would receive this very vision as he was dying (Acts 7:55-56): “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look’, he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’.”
If this deduction is correct, then Stephen’s Hebrew name was Nathanael (Nathaniel), meaning “God has given”.
This Nathanael was, geographically speaking at least, a northern Israelite, from Cana in Galilee (John 21:2), Cana being situated some 13.5 km. from Nazareth where Jesus had grown up.
Both Cana and Nazareth lay in the territory of Zebulun.
It would appear from the narrative in John 1 (above), however, that Nathanael – who would have been a disciple of John the Baptist – was, up to that point in time, little aware of his Galilean ‘neighbour’, Jesus.
Progression from Nathanael to Stephen
John the Baptist might well remind one of David’s bosom friend, Jonathan, who, despite his greatness, was prepared to accept David as the truly anointed king of Israel.
The Baptist, who had accumulated many disciples, knew that he was merely preparing the way for the true King of Israel, Jesus: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease’.
Isaac’s question: ‘But where is the lamb?’ (Genesis 22:7) resounded down through the centuries until it was taken up by John the Baptist when he “saw Jesus coming towards him” (John 1:29): ‘Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’
John the Baptist is the head of the Old Testament.
Greater than all of his predecessors (Luke 7:28): ‘I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John’, he was foretold by the prophet Malachi as the new Elijah (4:5-6): “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.” An angel told John’s father, Zechariah, that his son would be a new Elijah (Luke 1:17): ‘And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord’.
But he was not the actual Elijah having returned.
Nor was he the Messiah. All of this John made abundantly clear when he was questioned as to his identity by the priests and Levites (John 1:19-27):
Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, ‘I am not the Messiah’.
They asked him, ‘Then who are you? Are you Elijah?’
He said, ‘I am not’.
‘Are you the Prophet?’
He answered, ‘No’.
Finally they said, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?’
John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, ‘I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord’.’
Now the Pharisees who had been sent questioned him, ‘Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?’
‘I baptize with water’, John replied, ‘but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie’.
So John’s mission was entirely to prepare the way for the One who was to come, and who had indeed now come. Far from being jealous, John the Baptist – just like Jonathan the son of Saul (I Samuel 18:1): “… the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” – rejoiced in his friend’s office of Chosen One.
They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him’. To this John replied, ‘A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete’.
Disciples of the Baptist
Formerly disciples of John the Baptist, many of those who would become Apostles and disciples of Jesus, including Nathanael of Cana, were steered in the direction of Jesus by the Baptist himself.
John knew that that was his designated task on earth (John 1:30-34):
‘This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me’. I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel’. Then John gave this testimony: ‘I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit’. I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One’.
Nathanael of Cana was amongst those former disciples of John the Baptist, those who hailed from the region of Galilee. Yet he apparently, too, like John the Baptist, “did not know him”. Two disciples who were with John when he had proclaimed: ‘Behold! The Lamb of God!” immediately left John and followed after Jesus. Here is the account of it in John 1:37-46, including the scriptural introduction of Nathanael:
When the two disciples heard [John] say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, ‘What do you want?’
They said, ‘Rabbi’ (which means “Teacher”), ‘where are you staying?’
‘Come’, he replied, ‘and you will see’.
So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him. It was about four in the afternoon.
Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, ‘We have found the Messiah’ (that is, the Christ). And he brought him to Jesus.
Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas’ (which, when translated, is Peter).
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, ‘Follow me’.
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 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’.
‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked.
‘Come and see’, said Philip.
This already tells us something about Nathanael, apart from his prejudice towards the town of Nazareth. He must have been one whom Philip knew to have been a searcher of the Scriptures, a student of Moses and the prophets, striving to ascertain the identity of the One to whom they were all pointing.
No doubt John the Baptist had helped to school Nathanael in his quest for the truth.
The Baptist’s rôle was now finished, his joy complete.
The Old Testament was also complete. And so it was only fitting, symbolically speaking, that John the Baptist, the head of the Old Testament, should now be beheaded.
A disciple of Jesus Christ
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, He said of him, ‘Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit’.
‘How do you know me?’ Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, ‘I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you’.
Then Nathanael declared, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel’.
Why would the fact that Jesus had seen Nathanael under a fig tree prompt the latter to make so bold a statement of faith: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel’ [?]
Surely Nathanael’s positive response was due in large part to the fact that John the Baptist, whom the likes of Philip and Nathanael had been following (refer back to Part Three (a)), had recently identified Jesus as the “Lamb of God”, the ‘One who was to come and who would take away the sins of the world’.
And there were probably other reasons as well, pertaining to the significance of the fig tree.
The Fig Tree
The fig tree is highly meaningful in the Scriptures, beginning with Adam and Eve, and Jesus’s seemingly strange cursing of the barren fig tree at a later date is actually loaded with symbolical import in relation to the Garden of Eden and the Fall.
On this, see my:
Jesus Curses the Barren Fig Tree
which is heavily based upon the insights of Dr. Ernest L. Martin.
Jesus identifies Nathanael firstly as “an Israelite”, and secondly as one “in whom there is no deceit”, or guile.
The serpent in the Garden was, by comparison, full of guile or deceit. He was utterly “crafty” (Heb. עָרוּם).
Some commentators have suggested that Jesus regarded Nathanael as a new Jacob (or Israel), by way of contrast with his wayward brother, Esau. A Jacob connection seems to be intended by the ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ imagery of John 1:50-51: “‘You will see greater things than that’. 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’.”
Others point to Jacob’s own deceptions and craftiness, and refer in this regard to Jeremiah 9:3’s apparently unfavourable estimation of the patriarch.
Nathanael, on the other hand, is without deceit or guile. He is what an Israelite ought to be. He is “truly an Israelite”.
Likewise, Achior (or Ahikar) – with whom I am making some comparisons with Nathanael (Stephen) in this series – praised by his uncle Tobit for his almsgiving (“Ahikar escaped the deadly trap which Nadin had set for him, because Ahikar had given generously to the poor”: Tobit 14:10), will promise to give “Holofernes” a truthful report (Judith 5:5): ‘Sir, if you will please be so kind as to listen to me, I will tell you the truth about these people who live in the mountains near your camp. I will not lie to you’.
Later, Stephen (Nathanael) will be identified as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5).
What was Nathanael actually doing under that fig tree, perhaps in his own home, when Jesus had first spotted him?
We are not told.
The following flowery estimation by C. H. Spurgeon may not be too far from the mark:
- Nathanael and the Fig Tree
by C. H. Spurgeon on December 16, 2011
…. We are told that he was a guileless man, “an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile,” that is to say, like Jacob, “he was a plain man,” and not like Esau, “a cunning hunter.” Some minds are naturally serpentine, tortuous, (b) and slippery; they can only think in curves; their motives are involved and intricate, and they are of a double heart. These are the men who look one way and row the other; they worship the god Janus with two faces …. They cannot speak a thing plainly or look you in the face while they talk, for they are full of mental reservations and prudent cautions. They guard their speech; they dare not send abroad their own thoughts until they have mailed them with armour up to the throat with double meanings. Nathanael was just the very opposite of all this, he was no hypocrite and no crafty deceiver. He wore his heart upon his sleeve; if he spoke, you might know that he said what he meant and that he meant what he said. He was a childlike, simple hearted man, transparent as glass. He was not one of those fools who believe everything, but on the other hand, he was not of that other type of fools so much admired in these days, who will believe nothing, but who find it necessary to doubt the most self-evident truth in order to maintain their credit for profound philosophy. These “thinkers” of this enlightened age are great at quibbles, mighty in feigning or feeling mistrust concerning matters which common sense has no doubts about. They will profess to doubt whether there is a God, though that is as plain as the sun at noonday. No, Nathanael was neither credulous nor mistrustful; he was honestly ready to yield to the force of truth; he was willing to receive testimony and to be swayed by evidence. He was not suspicious, because he was not a man who himself would be suspected; he was true hearted and straightforward; a plain dealer and plain speaker. Cana did not have within her gates a more thoroughly honest man. Philip seems to have known this, for he went to him directly, concerning a man who was likely to be convinced and worth winning to the good cause.
- In addition to being thus a simple hearted man, Nathanael was an earnest seeker. Philip found him because he felt that the good news would interest him. “We have found the Messiah,” would be no glad news to anyone who had not looked for the Messiah; but Nathanael had been expecting the Christ, and perhaps had so well understood Moses and the prophets, that he had been led to look for his speedy coming. The time when the Messiah would suddenly come in his temple had certainly arrived, and he was day and night with prayer, like all the faithful of the twelve tribes, watching and waiting for the appearing of their salvation. He had not as yet heard that the glory of Israel had indeed come, but he was on the tiptoe of expectation. What a hopeful state of heart is yours, my dear hearer, if you are now honestly desirous to know the truth, and intensely anxious to be saved by it! It is well indeed for you if your soul is ready, like the photographer’s sensitive plate, to receive the impression of the divine light, if you are anxiously desiring to be informed if there is indeed a Saviour, if there is a gospel, if there is hope for you, if there is such a thing as purity and a way to reach it; it is well, I say, if you are anxiously, earnestly desiring to know how and when and where, and determinately resolved, by God’s grace, that no exertion shall be spared on your part to run in the way that shall be marked out, and to submit yourself to the will of God. This was the state of Nathanael, an honest hearted lover of plain truth, seeking to find the Christ.
- It is also true that he was ignorant up to a certain point. He was not ignorant of Moses and the prophets, these he had well considered, but he did not know that Christ had come as yet. There was considerable distance between Nazareth and Cana, and the news of the Messiah’s coming had not travelled there; if it had been bad news, it would have flown on eagles’ wings, but being good news, its flight was slower, for few people are so anxious to tell the good as much as the evil. He had not therefore heard of Jesus of Nazareth until Philip came to him. And how many there are even in this country who still do not know what the gospel means, but are anxious to know it, and if they only knew it would receive it! ….
[End of quote]
If Nathanael had been praying and/or searching the Scriptures under the fig tree – perhaps even teaching there as the great Deborah had formerly done under a tree (Judges 4:5) – specifically in order to know about the Messiah, then Jesus’s reference to the fig tree would have had further significance for him.
Marriage Feast at Cana
Immediately after the account of the call of Nathanael, who was from Cana, John the Evangelist proceeds to tell (3:1): “On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee”. Undoubtedly Nathanael, who had just proclaimed his belief in Jesus as “the Son of God”, would have been amongst those “disciples” said to be attending that wedding (vv. 1, 2): “Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding”.
For a wonderful explanation of this famous New Testament event according to a Marian context, see Rev. Stephen Hartdegen (OFM)’s Marian Significance of Cana (John 2: 1-11): http://ecommons.udayton.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2513&context=marian_studies
This, Jesus Christ’s first miracle of nature, famously turning the water into wine, would only have served to have strengthen the belief in Him of Nathanael and the other disciples (John 2:11): “What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him”.
And that “first of the signs” was given in Nathanael’s own home town of Cana.
Nathanael, having witnessed the many “signs” worked by Jesus, would later, as Stephen, perform his own marvels (Acts 6:8): “Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people”.
And, as it was with Jesus, the authorities, instead of recognising these signs for what they were, as a manifestation of “the finger of God” (cf. Exodus 8:19), would instead, just like the hard-hearted pharaoh before whom Moses stood, utterly reject the worth of them.
In the case of Stephen (Acts 6:9-10):
Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
So, once again (cf. Mark 14:57-58), false witnesses had to be introduced.
Acts 6:11: “Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God’.”
Stephen, who had once, as Nathanael, retorted to Philip’s (John 1:45): ‘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’. (v. 46) “‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked”, was now, according to his accusers, acclaiming “this Jesus of Nazareth” (Acts 6:12-15):
So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the Law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, ‘This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us’.
All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
It was at this point that (7:1) “… the high priest asked Stephen, ‘Are these charges true?’”
Achior had promised to tell the chief authority confronting him, ‘I will tell you the truth about these people who live in the mountains near your camp. I will not lie to you’. But Stephen, instead, proceeds to do what Achior had done immediately after that, to give an abbreviated account of the history of Israel – Stephen, for his part, connecting Jesus to Moses and the prophets. (Recall Philip’s words to Nathanael in John 1:45: ‘We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law …’).
The reaction to the historical account was the same in both cases:
Judith 5:22: “When Achior had finished his speech, all the people standing around the tent began to protest. Holofernes’ own senior officers, as well as the Moabites and those from the Mediterranean coast, demanded that Achior be put to death”.
Acts 7:54: “When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him”.
Both were seized and taken “out of the camp/city”:
Judith 6:10-11: “Then Holofernes ordered his men, who were waiting in his tent, to seize Achior, take him to Bethulia, and hand him over to the Israelites. So the men seized Achior and took him out of the camp into the valley”.
Acts 7:57-58: “At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him”.
“At this” – at what? At this (vv. 55-56): “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look’, he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’.”
Had not Stephen once, as Nathanael, been given this very promise [?]: