Can Any Good Thing Come From Nazareth?
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
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
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!
By Ethan R. Longhenry
From Expository Files 19.7; July 2012