"...under the fig tree..."
Judeo-Christian Research


July 24, 1999
Updated: March, 2003


(John 1:48-50) "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. {49} Nathanael answered and saith unto him, Rabbi, thou art the Son of God; thou art the King of Israel. {50} Jesus answered and said unto him, Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig tree, believest thou? thou shalt see greater things than these."


From The Parable of Joy by Michael Card, pages 20-21

Nathanael's tone sounds a bit uneasy. 'How do You know me?'

Jesus knows him to the extent that it makes him uncomfortable, but His answer could not seem more ordinary. 'I saw you under the fig tree.'

What happens next is remarkable, though it is rarely seen as being so. In a flash the skeptic becomes a saint. Jesus' seemingly mundane response sets off nothing less than an explosion of faith: 'Rabbi, You are the Son of God. You are King of Israel!'

What could have possibly happened inside Nathanael's heart and mind to result in such a dramatic change? Here is where background and an understanding of life situation is vital.

The key to unlocking the mystery is Jesus' reference to the fig tree, which had symbolic significance in Israel as a sign of the nation. But Jesus' words have more than symbolic meaning. The fig tree was a common place for prayer, especially for young rabbinic students, which Nathanael may well have been. If he was specifically under a fig tree when Philip called him, chances are he was in prayer. This is an interesting fact, but it still does not fully explain the drama of the story. 'So what?' we might say. 'His prayers were interrupted. After all, he did seem a bit irritated at first.'

The final piece of the puzzle involves first-century rabbis' teaching about prayer. The Jewish believer was taught that 'he who, when he prays, does not pray for the coming of the Messiah, has not prayed at all.' With the rise of the pharisaic movement, basically a 'back-to-the-Bible' group, the hope for the coming of Christ had been reawakened. It was on everyone's mind and in everyone's prayers.

Thus, if Nathanael had been at prayer, chances are he was praying for the Messiah. Perhaps this is why Jesus refers to him as a true Israelite; his faith was focused on waiting for the Coming. When Jesus tells Nathanael He saw him under the fig tree the implication is (and it is just an implication) that Nathanael put two and two together in his mind. Only one person could have known, could have heard his solitary prayer for the Messiah: the Messiah Himself! As the pieces fall together in his heart and mind Nathanael finds himself on his knees. The true Israelite declares Jesus is the King.


Chapter 4: The Fig Tree and Israel's Religious History

AS WITH THE vine and the olive, so with the fig: it is a symbol. There is a peculiar suitability in the use of the fig tree to symbolize Israel's religious history.

Unlike all other trees, the fig has this unique feature about it, that its fruit appears before its leaves. It is as though the clothing of the tree, the outward show of religious observance, the ceremony and the regalia of formal worship, is really the aftermath only of the bearing of a real fruit. Earlier in this paper we proposed that all religion is descended from an earlier true spiritual understanding. Many people reverse this, enamored as they are with evolutionary philosophy, holding the view that religion gives rise to spiritual life. James says otherwise: "Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries?" (3:12). Religion is a vestige of the real thing. This circumstance lies behind the symbolic action of the Lord when He saw a fig tree in the distance with leaves, but upon approaching it found no fruit upon it--and cursed it (Matt. 21:18-20).

In a somewhat similar way, the Lord meant more than His actual words are usually taken to mean when He said of Nathanael, "Behold, an Israelite indeed": and to Nathanael, "When thou wast under the fig tree I saw thee" (John 1:48). Within the framework of Israel's religious life--involving as it did the whole complex of education, religious orders, temple worship, and so forth--there were those here and there who were truly spiritual. Under the fig tree one might now and then discover an olive.


"'I saw you while you were still under the fig tree' ... refers to life and study of Torah in the millennium...The millennial concept of the fig tree is found throughout the Tanakh including Z'kharyah:"

(Zechariah 3:10)  In that day, [the millennium] saith the LORD of hosts, shall ye call every man his neighbour under the vine and under the fig tree.

Signs in the Heavens, Avi ben Mordechai, pp. 295-6.


"Plenitude of fruitful vines and fig-trees, specially individual ownership, thus came to be emblematical of long-continued peace and prosperity. In the days of Solomon 'Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig-tree' (1 Ki 4:25)."

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia 


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