Question: "Why did Nathaniel ask, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth" (John 1:46)?"
Answer: In John 1:46, Nathanael asks the question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” At first, it seems like an odd question, but it reveals much about the Jewish view of both the town of Nazareth and the region of Galilee.
Starting in John 1:35, Jesus begins calling His first disciples, including Nathanael. The day after Jesus is baptized, He is with John the Baptist and John’s disciples. John makes the proclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36). After this proclamation, two of John’s disciples begin following Jesus. One of those disciples is Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. Andrew retrieves Peter so he can follow Jesus as well. Jesus then enters the region of Galilee and calls Philip who then finds Nathanael. Philip proclaims to Nathanael, “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” (John 1:45). Nathanael’s skeptical response is that found in John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nazareth was a city roughly 55 miles north of Jerusalem. During the time of Jesus, the Jews held those from Nazareth, a city within the region of Galilee, in low esteem. This isn’t seen better anywhere else in Scripture than through Nathanael’s question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
The low view of Nazareth is important in understanding Matthew’s claim that Jesus “fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that He would be called a Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23). Nothing in the Old Testament explicitly says that Jesus would be from Nazareth, so what is Matthew talking about? Most likely, Matthew is referring to those prophecies regarding Christ that reveal how others will despise Him and treat Him poorly—Psalm 22:6–7 and Isaiah 53:3, for example.
Psalm 22:6–7 describes the Christ as being “scorned by everyone, despised by the people” as “they hurl insults, shaking their heads.” Isaiah 53:3 describes the Christ as “despised and rejected by mankind.” It is possible these passages are the prophecies to which Matthew alludes in his statement “He would be called a Nazarene.”
Nathanael’s mocking question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” foreshadows the fact that Jesus would be mocked more earnestly by others (cf. John 7:42). Nathanael asks the question because the Christ was seen as being the one who would deliver Israel from oppression. The long-awaited Messiah was to be held in the highest esteem. So why would He come from a place like Nazareth?
“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The surprising answer is “yes.” God chose to have His Son, the Savior of the world, live in Nazareth. “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:27–28). We see this often in Scripture: Joseph, Ruth, Gideon, and David all began in lowly, despised places, but God chose them and used them in great ways.
Jesus was foolish and weak and lowly and despised in the estimation of this world (cf. John 19:1–5), and to top it off, He was from Nazareth. Jesus is the ultimate example of God utilizing the weak (according to human standards) to shame the wise (also according to human standards) for the purpose of glorifying Himself.
Nathanael begins his time with Jesus with a gently derisive question: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But his tone soon changes. After an opportunity to speak with Jesus, Nathanael proclaims, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (John 1:49).