Arguing through a preconceived notion can be tricky. Just ask Philip…
Chapter One of the Gospel of John records the events of Jesus in the province of Galilee calling into service some of the Apostles.
Beginning in verse 43:
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.
Preconceived notions. We’ve all had them. Some of them blew up in our faces when we discovered that a thing or a person turned out to be different than what we had expected.
We, as English-speaking people, read the Bible in our native tongue. Of course, it wasn’t written in 21st century common American English (nor was it written in the 17th century King’s English). The Gospel of John was written in 1st century Greek, and to no specific people group (whereas each of the synoptic gospels were written to specific groups). John’s Gospel, like the Synoptics, describes events as they occurred in Israel. John wrote of things that would have been understood by the people who knew the region, and who were at least familiar with the events he described.
We understand the things written by the Apostle, in part, because of the colloquialisms included in John’s writing. You and I speak in colloquialisms, or we use them in our writings. We use them when we believe that our hearers/readers will know of what we speak. We don’t write or speak to be misunderstood; we write and speak for clarity, and in some cases the use of a colloquial word or phrase helps. It isn’t far-fetched to say that John used some in his gospel.
While John inserted the intimate details of an eyewitness into the events he described, he also used common phraseology that a 1st-century dweller of the region would have understood (even if they weren’t Jewish). For instance, John’s description of the date of Jesus’ trail and subsequent crucifixion can confuse English readers of various translations, since it appears that John’s describing the preparation day for the Passover meal, which would have placed those events on Thursday.
However, John used a common phrase which, at that time and place, was understood to have referred to the day of preparation for the Passover week, which placed the events on Friday, coinciding with the day described in the Synoptic Gospels. That’s what I mean when I say that John used colloquialisms. John believed his readers would have understood his common usage of the shared language, and it doesn’t come through clearly in 21st century English.
And, so, what preconceived notions might be expressed in Nathanael’s response to Philip’s announcement that the Messiah had been found?
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”
Archaeological evidence demonstrates that a Roman garrison had been stationed in the area where the village of Nazareth was located. Debate as to the actual date of the garrison being stationed there continues, with no clear conclusion (although the evidence appears to favor a later date sometime after the 70 AD destruction of Jerusalem). While it’s possible that a smaller unit of Roman soldiers occupied the high hills very close to the old town of Nazareth during the time Jesus walked those dusty streets, it’s just as possible that at the time when Jesus was calling His apostles, there was no garrison in Nazareth.
The debate over the garrison tends to throw us off the primary point: That Nathanael expressed a preconceived notion of Jesus based on a common belief held by those Israelites who lived outside of Nazareth about those who lived within the town: They were “less-than” Jews.
In one of our recent Bible studies in church, we discussed how, at the time of Jesus, the nation of Israel was no longer the unified keeper of the knowledge of God that they had been created to be. Israel had become a fractional nation and culture. Among the primary points of exclusion, from one fraction to the others, was how each interpreted who THEY were as Israelites. In other words, they all thought of themselves as “True Israelites” while denigrating all others to a “less-than” status.
Nazareth was a very small town in the hills of Galilee. Although only an hour’s walk from the main Roman roads in the region, it was quite isolated. Furthering the isolation, Nazareth had its own spring. Nazarene women did not have to leave town to collect the daily water needed in their homes. This prevented their participation in a very common social network: The sharing of news at the well.
Nazarene women didn’t have to walk far for their water. But, because they had water right there in their own small town, they missed the participatory milieu that afforded other women a sense of community with their neighbors. Nazarene women didn’t have that.
In such a fragmented nation, the somewhat isolated condition of Nazareth was really all that was necessary for neighboring Israelites to view Nazarenes with derision.
Now, to add more information to the context, I note that the Greek for Nazareth (or Nazarene – someone from Nazareth), and the variants thereto, occur in the New Testament twenty-five times. Of the twenty-five, nine refer to the location or to a person from that town with direct reference to Jesus’ birth. Fifteen times the location is used alongside the name “Jesus” to refer to the specific person of Jesus Christ, the Messiah. Once, the variant meaning “Nazarene” is used apart from both identifying Jesus Christ or his place of birth.
It’s noteworthy, I think, that in the characterization of each of the twenty-five uses, the only time the mere location of Nazareth is mentioned without direct reference to Jesus or His parents (which occurs in the text we’re examining herein, John 1:46) it is said in a negative manner. Likewise, the only time a variant of “Nazarene” is used apart from direct reference to Jesus it is also used in a negative way (Acts 24:5, when the lawyer Tertullus refers to Christians as members of the Nazarene sect).
Regardless, then, as to the existence of a Roman garrison (or smaller unit) in Nazareth during Jesus’ day, it’s clear that being associated with the village of Nazareth had a negative connotation in that time.
Maybe, then, Nathanael’s response to Philip saying that the promised Messiah had come from Nazareth in understandable. If the polls regarding the character of politicians are any indication of the low esteem most Americans hold for them, then Philip’s pronouncement might be said to be like someone standing up and saying, “I’ve found the most honest person in America: So-and-so, from the U.S. Congress.”
In the case presented in John’s gospel, we should imagine the incredulity to have far surpassed what might be conjured up by my above comparison. For, in the case of the coming Messiah; the Promised One, Savior of Israel; how much more would the expectation be that He should come from a higher elevation on the slope of Jewish society than the lowly, isolated Nazareth.
Nazareth, it turns out, was a place from which nothing good could be expected.
Philip knew everything Nathanael knew of lowly Nazareth, and his reply to Nathanael reveals nothing approaching surprise. Instead, his response was as elegant and powerful as it was brief:
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
Not a long tirade against social shaming. Not a thesis on the dangers of profiling. Just a call to Nathanael – personally – to investigate for himself who this person was. To see with his own eyes, hear with his own ears.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
Come and see…
A difficulty faced by people today, and especially in America, isn’t that we’ve not heard of Jesus. It’s that we’ve heard of too many Jesus’. The same Apostle John who wrote the Gospel bearing his name also wrote other books of the New Testament. Among them is the book of 1st John in which the Apostle wrote that “many” antichrists had already come into the world during the few decades between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the end of John’s life.
How many more have come in the centuries since?
We’ve got a lot of Jesus’ to choose from, and many that sure look authentic. We have the Mormon Jesus, the Jesus of the Course in Miracles, the Jesus discussed by Mohammed, the Jesus of the Jesus Seminar, the Jesus of the reduced Bible presented to the students in more than one “Christian” denomination’s seminary. We have the cool Jesus (just a good teacher) who would have gotten along well with the Buddha himself. We have Jesus’s who do things for us at our call; Jesus’s who either heal or won’t heal us or our loved ones; who either hate gay people or love them; who either want us to have abortions or not have them; who either vote democrat or republican; and, perhaps worst of all, we have legions of Jesus’s who work perfectly for us, whatever our positions on socio-political topics – the awesome Jesus’s who never fail to not take our side.
In a song titled “Standing outside a broken phone booth with money in my hand” the band Primitive Radio Gods sing these words:
We sit outside and argue all night long
About a god we’ve never seen
But never fails to side with me
I find nothing in the song that would suggest the author encourages anyone to find such a god; rather, I see in those lines, and in the greater context of the song itself, that the author bemoans the state of society in which we might choose for ourselves such wholly agreeable gods. Regardless of PRG’s stance, their words are accurate: We have enough Jesus’s out there today in America that anyone can find one that fits their own unique lifestyle.
That may be the worst case of all possible cases.
As a quick aside: At the end of the exchange between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, Jesus didn’t say,
“You go do you, Boo.”
What He said was,
“Go now and leave your life of sin.”
It’s very important to note that after essentially rescuing the woman from being stoned to death (which was the right of the Israelites to do), Jesus gave her that admonition.
The real Jesus, then, won’t always agree with our sentiments, with our way of life. A sign that you’ve got the wrong Jesus may be that that he agrees with everything you say. But, I’ve digressed…
OK, before too many loose ends emerge to derail this essay’s train of thought, let me suggest this right now: Who is Jesus Christ?
That’s not a quiz. It’s the most important question Jesus asked of anyone during his three-year active ministry on planet Earth. Matthew 16:15 records it for us:
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
What about you? What about… you.
Jesus reaches across the fabric of time and space to ask you that question, and it’s a question we cannot avoid. Every hour we put off responding, we draw one hour closer to our death. And, if the question remains unanswered at that moment, then the lack of an answer is the answer.
Which Jesus, then? Which among the many? That’s the easy part: He has disclosed of Himself everything we need to know of Him through the words found in the Bible. You won’t find what exactly what He wants you to know of Him anywhere else (including in this poor essay).
While people like me may tell you of our experiences with Christ, share our testimony, share verses from the Bible, give our thoughts on what we read; nothing compares to you
finding out for yourself who Jesus was; who Jesus is.
That’s something only you can do.
Pick up your Bible and read the Gospel of John. Not that it’s the only book with anything meaningful about Jesus – All of the Bible is meaningful! But, if I only get you to agree to read objectively one book of the Bible, then I offer the Gospel of John. Read it through. Write down questions, thoughts, comments you have as you read. Then, read it a second time. Then, read it a third time. That’s all I ask of you today, and you can do it in less than a week.
Read John three times. See if your preconceived notions about Jesus are correct. Or, will you find a different Jesus than you had imagined you’d find. That’s what happened to me. I looked for the Jesus I’d been taught was real, and I found someone completely different!
Answer Philips simple call to “Come and see.” Answer it for yourself. Come and see. Read the Gospel of John. Read it three times. Then, answer the question that Jesus Himself asked,
“But what about you… Who do you say I am?”
His peace to you.