What Do We Know about Nathanael – the Disciple without Deceit?

Contributing Writer
What Do We Know about Nathanael – the Disciple without Deceit?

Nathanael, also referred to as Bartholomew in the gospels, was one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples. Though not much is known about Nathanael’s background or personality, the apostle is revealed in the gospels to be an honest, insightful, and faithful servant of Jesus Christ and student of the Old Testament. After the resurrection, Nathanael would go on to be a key leader in the early church, taking the gospel to the ends of the earth as commissioned by his lord and savior. 

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Where Is Nathanael Mentioned in the Bible?

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In most instances, Nathanael is listed among the twelve disciples as Bartholomew (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14; Acts 1:13). John, however, refers to the apostle almost exclusively as Nathanael in his gospel. There could be several reasons for this, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Why the two names?

Bartholomew would have been Nathanael’s Hebrew surname, meaning “son of Tolmai.” Nathanael, his first name, means “God has given.” Nathanael, therefore, would have been known formally as Nathanael, son of Tolmai, or Nathanael Bar-Tolmai.

But why does John refer to his fellow disciple as Nathanael while the other gospel writers list him as Bartholomew?

It’s worth noting that Nathanael is rarely mentioned apart from the listing of the twelve disciples. In fact, the only time Nathanael is featured is in John 1 when he is first called to follow Jesus, and John 21:2, where he is mentioned along with those who returned to Galilee to go fishing with Peter after the resurrection.

In that passage, Nathanael is said to have come from Cana in Galilee, the same town were Jesus performed his first miracle by turning water to wine at the wedding feast (John 2:11). Cana itself is located only a few miles north of Jesus’ hometown in Nazareth and just a few miles west of Bethsaida, where Nathanael’s good friend Philip was from (John 1:44).

Given the fact that Peter and Andrew were also from Bethsaida, and possibly even James and John, the sons of Zebedee, (John 1:44), the likelihood that many of the disciples knew each other, were close friends, and possibly even coworkers and fellow fisherman prior to meeting Jesus becomes more conceivable.

At the very least, Nathanael had become a close companion of Philip prior to meeting Jesus and had grown up in the same region as Peter, Andrew, James, John, and maybe even Thomas. In fact, Nathanael’s local knowledge and civic pride would come to light when called upon to follow Jesus.

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What Do We Know about Nathanael’s Character?

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In John’s gospel, the author mentions that Jesus had sought out Philip shortly after calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John to be His disciples (John 1:43). Similar to the way Andrew immediately went and found his brother Peter to tell him about Jesus, Philip swiftly approached his friend Nathanael with the good news.

John writes, “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘we have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and also the Prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45).

While it’s easy to gloss over this quick interaction, a few key insights into Nathanael’s character can be gleaned from this verse.

For one thing, it’s evident that both men had been students of the Old Testament prior to meeting Jesus. They had studied the Law of Moses and read the prophets. But rather than just being casual readers, Philip and Nathanael had become passionate about the Word of God, even developing an interest in the prophecies of the promised Messiah. Like many in Israel, this was something (or someone) they were eagerly waiting and even searching for.

Furthermore, both Philip and Nathanael had studied the Word of God on their own. Unlike the Pharisees and religious scholars of their day, these men were not academic elites. As common tradesmen (possibly fishermen), their study of the Old Testament would have been something they had undertaken as both a hobby and a passion, not a profession. That would have been left to the more academically “gifted” students at the time.

When Jesus appeared to Philip, Philip quickly identified Him as the chosen Messiah and the one he and Nathanael had read about in the Old Testament.

And what did Philip do? He immediately went to tell Nathanael that the Messiah had come.

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Why Did Jesus Call Nathanael “the One in Whom There Is No Deceit”?

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Following Philip’s breaking news, however, a second insight into Nathanael’s character is revealed. While it’s true that Nathanael had a heart to know God and an eager spirit, to Philip’s news, Nathanael responded, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Of course, this was not a racial or ethnic prejudice, as many Jews would have had for the Gentiles or, as we see from the disciples later in the gospels, the Samaritans. Rather, Nathanael had developed a regional prejudice and bias against those from a nearby town, perhaps in the same way crosstown rivals might deride each other, or residents of Los Angeles and San Francisco might disparage each other.

Though Cana itself was not a particularly remarkable village, Nathanael’s disdain for Nazareth indicates a certain civic pride and pretension on the part of the Nathanael.

Did the citizens of Nazareth hold the same view of those from Cana? We don’t know.

But while the Judeans often looked down on the Galileans, it seems even the Galileans had a particular disdain for the rough, uncultured, and uneducated people of Nazareth.

To challenge his friend’s blind bigotry, Philip responded with a simple invitation. “Come and see!” (John 1:46). In this instance, Nathanael’s prejudice was confronted with the obvious, observable, and undeniable truth of who Jesus was.

It is here that Jesus came to Nathanael.

Knowing Nathanael’s heart, Jesus greeted His would-be disciple, not with chastisement or contempt, but rather, with a remarkable compliment of his character. Of Nathanael, Jesus said, “behold, an Israelite, indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47). In other translations, Jesus refers to him as the one “in whom there is no guile.”

But what does this actually mean, and why would Jesus compliment someone who had expressed such obvious prejudice?

Even Nathanael, who was probably caught off guard by Christ’s compliment following a previously bigoted assumption, responded by asking Jesus, “how do You know me?” (John 1:48).

To this Jesus replied, “before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you” (John 1:49).

Saw Nathanael Jesus certainly did. The good. The bad. The ugly. Jesus knew Nathanael’s heart. He knew his passion. He knew his prejudice. He knew that he had longed to know God, sitting alone under the fig tree to study His Word.

Despite his flaws, if there was one thing Nathanael wasn’t, it was a hypocrite. He hadn’t put on a show or pretended to be something he was not to impress anyone, let alone Jesus. In Nathanael, Christ had found a genuine and authentic believer. There was nothing fake or insincere about him. What you saw was what you got.

Despite Nathanael’s initial prejudice, Jesus saw through the sinful, the imperfect, and the ordinary to the eager heart of one who was willing to leave everything behind to follow Him. This was one Jesus could transform and equip for His glory.

By the grace of God, Nathanael was chosen to follow Christ. The most remarkable thing about his calling was that he had simply said yes.

“Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49) Nathanael responded. It wouldn’t taken long for him to get past his prejudice and acknowledge Jesus for who He really was.

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What Happened to Nathanael after the Resurrection?

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After the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Nathanael was present with the other disciples in the upper room when Jesus first appeared to them (Matthew 28:9-10; Mark 16:14-20; Luke 24:36-49; John 20:19-29).

He would walk with Jesus during His subsequent forty days on earth, witness His miracle on the Sea of Galilee (John 21:1-8), eat breakfast with Jesus on the shores of Galilee (John 21:9-14), receive Christ’s great commission (Matthew 28:19-20), and observe Jesus’ final ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9-11).

After this, Nathanael would return with the remaining apostles to the upper room in Jerusalem, joining with them in prayer as they selected Matthias as a replacement for Judas Iscariot, who had recently hung himself (Acts 1:12-26). He was also present at the Day of Pentecost, where he and the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4).

Nathanael’s name is never directly mentioned again in the New Testament.

That being said, we know Nathanael went on to play an important role in the formation of the early church, taking the gospel to the ends of the earth, as Jesus had commissioned His disciples to do before His ascension (Matthew 28:19-20).

Though not much is known about Nathanael beyond the gospels, church history suggests that Nathanael traveled beyond Judea to minister to parts of Persia and India, perhaps going as far as Armenia, whose church claims him as their saint and founder to this day.

Of course, no reliable record exists of how Nathanael died. Some traditions tell of Nathanael being flayed alive in Armenia. Others hint of the apostle being tied up in a sack and thrown into the sea. Another suggests Nathanael died by crucifixion. How he really died, we don’t know. What is known is that Nathanael was almost certainly martyred for his faith like the rest of the apostles, with the exception of John.

Nathanael’s story may not be chronicled in much detail. However, from the beginning to the very end, Nathanael proved to be a faithful servant of Jesus Christ, a keen student of Scripture, and a bold witness to the power of God’s grace and forgiveness.

Though flawed, Nathanael was as honest and sincere as they come, and for his eagerness and willingness to embrace Jesus as his lord and king, Christ performed a mighty work in his life, taking an ordinary man and turning him into an outspoken leader and pillar of His church.

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Joel Ryan is a children’s book author, writing professor, and contributing writer for Crosswalk, Christianity.com, Stand Firm Men’s Magazine, and others. He is passionate about telling great stories, defending biblical truth, and helping writers of all ages develop their craft. Joel discusses, analyzes, and appreciates the great writings of the past and present on his website, Perspectives off the Page.