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Why was Nathaniel under the fig tree?

John 1:47-48 KJV

Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile! Nathanael saith unto him, Whence knowest thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.

Do any Christian authors or writers give a possible explication as to what Nathaniel was doing under the fig tree?

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    – agarza
    May 28 at 13:08
  • +1 The exchange at John 1:47-50 is indeed puzzling. Why did Jesus announcing He had seen Nathanael under a fig tree have such an effect? May 28 at 16:14
  • All of this question so far is primarily speculation. At the very least the sources in the answers need to be documented in the answers as fiction. Who is the author, Ellen White, why is her opinion more valuable than John Doe? Also, the question itself as currently stated may not have authoritative answers. A distinction between reasonable or plausible guesses and historically supported, archaelogically supported, or even a specific group wrote in the first century as to why.
    – nickalh
    May 28 at 18:37
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Why was Nathaniel under the fig tree?

Fr. Charles Grondin gives the following explanations as to a possibility of what Nathaniel was doing under the fig tree:

There are a few interpretations of this passage.

The first is to take it literally: that Nathanael thought that Jesus had some kind of special spiritual ability to have seen him even though he was not there. Jesus also appears taken aback that this minor miracle is so impressive to Nathanael. Perhaps Nathanael’s spiritual routine was to pray and meditate under a fig tree. Imagine if someone you never met told you he saw you doing something he was not present for. It would be shocking and make a great impression upon you.

A second understanding of this passage is that “under the fig tree” was an expression. The fig tree was symbolically connected to the coming messianic era (Mic. 4:4, Zec. 3:10, 1 Kgs. 4:25). Philip had gone to Nathanael to tell him he had found the messiah. Why did he run to tell Nathanael this? Perhaps it was because Nathanael was eagerly awaiting the messiah. When Jesus says he saw him under the fig tree, he is saying that he knows Nathanael has been waiting for the day he would encounter the messiah. Nathanael realizes that Jesus has seen into his innermost longings and takes this as a divine sign.

A third interpretation is that while Nathanael was in prayer and reflection under a fig tree, he received a revelation that he would live to see the messiah. When Jesus mentions the fig tree, Nathanael realizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of what was revealed to him. -What Is Nathaniel and the Fig Tree About?

The following articles may be of interest:

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The fig tree in Israel is an important symbol, a metaphor expressed physically. We know of Jesus' cursing of the fig tree for not producing fruit.

And when he saw a fig tree in the way, he came to it, and found nothing thereon, but leaves only, and said unto it, Let no fruit grow on thee henceforward for ever. And presently the fig tree withered away. Mt 21:19, (Mk 11:13-20)

Regarding Jesus, the BRANCH, there was a prophecy in Zechariah 3:8-10

Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, thou, and thy fellows that sit before thee: for they are men wondered at: for, behold, I will bring forth my servant the BRANCH. For behold the stone that I have laid before Joshua; upon one stone shall be seven eyes: behold, I will engrave the graving thereof, saith the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day. In that day, saith the LORD of hosts, shall ye call every man his neighbour under the vine and under the fig tree.

Here is how Jamieson, Fausset & Brown explains the fig metaphor.

  1. under. . . vine. . . fig tree--emblem of tranquil prosperity ( 1Ki 4:25 ). Type of spiritual peace with God through Christ ( Rom 5:1 ); and of millennial blessedness ( Mic 4:4 ). -source-

Lastly, the name Nathanial means "gift of God". He was the first to say, thou art the Son of God.

Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. John 1:49

So, why was Nathanial under the fig tree?

While it literally happened, he was under the fig tree and Jesus saw him and called him, it was the beginning of the fulfillment of Zechariah's prophesy, of the metaphoric expectation of figs. Jesus' ministry was beginning.

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This is from John Gill's Exposition of the Entire Bible

It is said of Nathanael, in the Syriac dictionary (x); that his mother laid him under a fig tree, when the infants were slain, i.e. at Bethlehem; which, if it could be depended upon, must be to Nathanael a surprising and undeniable proof of the deity of Christ, and of his being the true Messiah; since, at that time, he was an infant of days himself, and was the person Herod was seeking to destroy, as the Messiah, and king of the Jews,

(t) T. Hieros. Beracot, fol. 5. 3. Vid. Shirhashirim Rabba, fol. 16. 4. (u) Ib Colossians 1. & T. Bab. Beracot, fol. 16. 1.((x) Bar Bahluli apud Castell. Lexic. Polyglott. col. 8437.

As Gill says, if this account can be trusted it makes much sense of Nathaniel's strong response to Jesus saying that

Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.

Nathaniel's response is

Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

This seems a strong response if Jesus meant that he had simply seen him sitting under a tree! However if Nathaniel understood Jesus to be saying that he saw Nathaniel's mother laying him under a fig tree in order to save him from Herod's slaughter of the innocents while Jesus himself was yet a child then the reaction is more reasonable.

This makes Jesus statement tantamount to an offhanded claim to deity and Nathaniel's response the acceptance of that claim.

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At the time when Philip called him, Nathanael had withdrawn to a quiet grove to meditate upon the announcement of John and the prophecies concerning the Messiah. He prayed that if the one announced by John was the deliverer, it might be made known to him, and the Holy Spirit rested upon him with assurance that God had visited His people and raised up a horn of salvation for them. Philip knew that his friend was searching the prophecies, and while Nathanael was praying under a fig tree, Philip discovered his retreat. They had often prayed together in this secluded spot hidden by the foliage.

The message, "We have found Him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, did write," seemed to Nathanael a direct answer to his prayer. But Philip had yet a trembling faith. He added doubtfully, "Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph." Again prejudice arose in Nathanael's heart. He exclaimed, "Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?"

Philip entered into no controversy. He said, "Come and see. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and saith of him, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!" In surprise Nathanael exclaimed, "Whence knowest Thou me? Jesus answered and said unto him, Before that Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee."

It was enough. The divine Spirit that had borne witness to Nathanael in his solitary prayer under the fig tree now spoke to him in the words of Jesus. - The Desire Of Ages 140.1 - DA 140.4

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    This is a work of fiction with no foundation in scripture.
    – Nigel J
    May 28 at 14:48
  • Interesting speculation by Ellen G. White. Does she give a reason for her believing this is the explanation? May 28 at 16:16
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    @NigelJ says "This is a work of fiction". Is that meant literally? Or is it a figure of speech to indicate disagreement with its content? May 28 at 20:18
  • @RayButterworth I meant it both literally and figuratively.
    – Nigel J
    May 29 at 15:01

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