Philip findeth Nathanael, and saith unto him, “We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
And Nathanael said unto him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”
Philip saith unto him, “Come and see” (John 1:45-46).
Location factors heavily into our assumptions and judgments about people. Imagine you are told about a group of people: one person grew up in Appalachia, another in Manhattan in New York City, another in south Alabama, another in Texas, another in Wisconsin, and another from rural Nevada. In all likelihood you have already come up with some concept of who these people are based on their location of origin and raising. Yes, there will be times when those assumptions will prove false, yet how much more often do they prove true?
This tendency is nothing new; it went on in first century Israel as well. People would be judged based upon whether they grew up in Judea, Samaria, or Galilee (cf. Acts 2:7), whether in more urbanized areas or more rural areas. And, then as now, the more remote and less urban the location, the more likely people were to look down on those who came from there.
So it is with Nazareth in Galilee. Galilee itself was seen as remote, away from the epicenter of Judaism in Jerusalem, not known for erudition or much civilization. Within Galilee itself, Nazareth barely registers, receiving no mention from Jewish sources before the third century of our era. This insignificance led some skeptics to doubt whether Nazareth existed at all in the first century CE, but archaeological evidence does indicate the place was inhabited. It is now believed that Nazareth was a village of no more than 500 in the days when Jesus grew up there. Nazareth is about 16 miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee; it is not near the Mediterranean Sea and would not be on a lot of travel routes. It is evident why Nazareth would easily be despised in the eyes of others: it is in the backwoods or out in the sticks, a small village. In the eyes of more educated and urban Jews, the Nazarenes would have been judged as ignorant at best and perhaps as simple-minded sinners at worst.
Philip is a Galilean whom Jesus had called, hailing from Bethsaida on the coast of the Sea of Galilee (John 1:43-44). Based upon what he has seen and/or heard, he is immediately convinced regarding who Jesus is: he finds Nathanael and tells him how he has found the “him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote,” otherwise known as the Messiah, which was the hope of all Israel in these days. We can imagine how excited Nathanael would be at the prospect of meeting the One whom God had promised! And then Philip identifies who He is: Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:15).
For Philip, “of Nazareth” is not meant to be degrading or demeaning, but simply a way of identifying which Jesus is being described. Both “Jesus” and “Joseph” were quite popular names among the Jews of the first century; therefore, to say then that Jesus is the Messiah would likely prompt the response, “Which Jesus?”. “Jesus the son of Joseph” would likely accurately describe many other Jewish men of the day. Yet “Jesus of Nazareth” was unique: if nothing else, no other Jesus in Nazareth was known for doing anything that might make him to be considered a possible Messiah.
Nevertheless, all Nathanael now knows about Jesus is that his friend Philip thinks He is the One of whom Moses and the prophets wrote in the Hebrew Bible, and that He is from Nazareth. And so he asks his famous question: can any good thing come out of Nazareth (John 1:46)?
Nathanael’s reaction is honest; perhaps such is what partly prompts Jesus’ declaration that Nathanael is an Israelite “in whom is no guile” (John 1:47). There is some dispute as to whether Nathanael asks the question on account of Nazareth’s relative insignificance or possibly because Nazareth has a reputation for sinfulness or immorality. The answer depends on whether “good thing” should be understood in a “moral” sense or in a more “qualitative” sense. He also might have the prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem in view as well (cf. Micah 5:2, John 7:40-52): how can such a good thing as the Messiah come out of Nazareth or even Galilee, since the Messiah is to come from Bethlehem and ostensibly grow up in the environs of Jerusalem? Since we do not know a whole lot about Nazareth’s reputation in the first century, we cannot know for certain, but we can see clearly that Nathanael is judging the situation based upon the stereotype and/or geographic prejudice.
But Nathanael does not allow that prejudice to get in the way: he does not dismiss Philip’s claim out of hand, and he quickly ascertains how special Jesus is, to the point of making similar declarations regarding Him as Philip did (cf. John 1:47-51). Nathanael learned quickly that yes, a good thing can come from Nazareth; in fact, the greatest thing of all has come from Nazareth!
Nathanael’s story provides good reminders for us about judgment. It is easy to fall prey to snap judgments about people based upon many factors, including geography and the culture inherent in geography, but geography need not be destiny. It remains true that stereotypes exist for a reason, but not everyone fits the stereotype. Imagine if we had been in Nathanael’s place so long ago: if we strictly judged everyone by their place of origin, we would have rejected Jesus the Christ, confident in our misguided assumption that no good thing could come out of Nazareth. How terrible would have been our fate!
Jesus warns us about judgment (cf. Matthew 7:1-4), encouraging us not to judge by appearance but to render right judgment (John 7:24). We may not be able to resist every caricature or stereotype, but we have no right to condemn the lot of a group of people on account of superficial factors. Let us maintain a spirit like Nathanael’s, willing to judge on the merits and character of a person, and so honor and glorify God in Christ!
Ethan R. Longhenry