On the next day Jesus was minded to go into Galilee. He found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me!”
Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “The man that Moses wrote about in the Torah, and the Prophets also, we have found him: Jesus the son of Joseph from Nazareth!”
“Can any good come from Nazareth?” Nathanael said to him.
Phulip said to him, “Come and see.”
Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him and said of him, “Open your eyes, here is a son of Jacob who plays no tricks!”
Nathanael said to him, “Where do you know me from?”
Jesus replied to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are God’s Son, the King of Israel!”
Jesus replied, “Do you believe in me beacuse I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You’ll see greater things than these!”
And he said to him, “Amen, Amen I tell you, you will see the heaven opened and the messengers of God ascending and descending on the Humane Ruler.”
It’s important when translating John’s Gospel to stay as literal as possible as he uses a simple vocabulary from which he develops his own theological language. This language is first of all one of encounter. People go and find, see and believe, speak and reply. As in the other Gospels, Jesus is at the centre of this activity, but often circumstantial details are lacking or have been pared down, so that only the most basic movement of people towards Jesus and his movement towards them are recounted. “Galilee” is named in this encounter, but the drama takes place on a stage whose reference points are earth, heaven, hell. In this incident we see people deciding on earth, for heaven, through Jesus.
The first disciples had followed Jesus without being summoned. Now Jesus “finds” Philip and issues his summons to discipleship, “Follow me.” Philip’s initial, positive response is not even mentioned, but his secondary response, that he in turn “finds” Nathanael, demonstrates the pattern of Christian discipleship: those who have been called by Jesus, “find” others and bring them to Jesus, so that they may encounter him also. The purpose of evangelism is to facilitate an encounter with Jesus.
Readers familiar with the Gospel may feel my translation of Jesus’ words to Nathanael is strange. After all the Greek says, “Israelite.” But it seems to me that John means us to take this word literally as “son of Israel” that is Jacob, whose name means ” a man who tricks others to get above them” and who was famous for the tricks he used to rise in the world. Perhaps John intends his readers to see in this description the typical orthodox Israelite who wanted that form of Judaism to succeed over the heretical Jews who followed Messiah Jesus. He may also be hinting at at the birth of a new kind of Israel.
In biblical language the heaven being shut means the dearth of prophecy and spiritual commerce between God and humanity.Jesus promises Nathanael that heaven is again open for business, the sign of which will be that the traffic that Jacob saw on the ladder of his vision will be resumed, but with a specific locus: the Humane Ruler (Son of Man) promised in Daniel 7, whom this Gospel identifies with Jesus, as Jesus himself may have done. It may be that the author intends the readers to take literally the preposition “epi” =”on”, so that Jesus/ The Humane Ruler takes the place of Jacob’s ladder as the link between heaven and earth. Israel under Jacob is replaced by a new Israel under The Humane Ruler, the exalted Jesus. This encounter which continues the theme of Jesus as Messiah clearly has a political as well as a spiritual dimension. The one who is the Wisdom of God present in flesh, is also the Humane Ruler anointed by God to transform the lives of flesh and blood people.
Nathanael’s question, which Jesus answers only in an oblique way, is the key to this encounter:
“Where do you know me from?”
We are to take the verb “to know” in its Hebrew sense as indicating intimate knowledge of persons. The real answer is the same as that to the earlier question of “where Jesus stays.” The place where he stays and from where his knowledge proceeds, is God.
Brilliant – except for “Humane Ruler”. (And I thought “Creative Wisdom” was hard to swallow!) You begin this post saying it’s important to stay as literal as possible in translating John’s language, and then you do this.
But everything else here is brilliant! I love your rationale for not using “Israelite” in your translation. The “son of Jacob who plays no tricks” cracked me up, and yet it is breathtaking in its accurate representation of Jesus’ innuendo. Superb! My goodness, you need to publish your own Study Bible or Bible Commentary some day. I have no benefited from anything else I’ve read on John in the way that I benefit from reading your comments.
[…] epi: ἐπὶ τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου. Heaven is once again open for business, as a friend of mine has put it. The ladder has been replaced by Jesus on earth, as the Son of Man, the Son of […]