If you can’t see the jokes in the Bible, maybe you’re not taking it seriously. The Gospel According to a Sitcom Writer by James Cary (who’s had a hand in writing for Miranda, Bluestone 42, Hut 33, and Milton Jones) is a riotous but reverent examination of the Gospels, where the joke is very much on us. James writes here about the opening joke in John’s Gospel.
I have a lot of sympathy with Nathanael. He’s a disciple of Jesus only mentioned in John’s Gospel. Many Bible scholars believe that Nathanael was also known as Bartholomew, but maybe he went into obscurity precisely because he attempted a joke early in the Gospel.
The joke passes by so quickly, most people miss it. It’s understandable. Few people are expecting to find jokes in John’s Gospel. At first glance, it doesn’t promise many laughs. The ‘In the beginning’ beginning makes it feel very austere, but once you get into the meat of the Gospel, especially the first 11 chapters, you find quite a lot of comic incidents.
So let’s take a closer look at some material that may have been cut from the early versions of John’s Gospel to see why Nathanael is not the household name he might have been. Heres’s how his story starts in John chapter 1…
On the next day, Jesus was determined to go out into Galilee, and he found Philip. Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael, and said to him, ‘We have found him, of whom Moses in the law, and the prophets, wrote: Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’
Nathanael said to him, ‘Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?’
Early manuscripts do not include the following.
Philip said to him, ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘Well, Nazareth?’ said Nathanael. ‘This messianic figure comes from Nazareth? I don’t think so.’
Philip said to him, ‘What’s wrong with Nazareth?’
Nathanael said to him, ‘What’s right with Nazareth? Am I right?’
Nathanael raised a hand for Philip to high-five. But Philip high-fived him not.
‘Don’t leave me hanging,’ said Nathanael.
‘I’m not seeing it. Seriously, Nate. What is wrong with Nazareth?’
‘Oh, don’t be like this,’ said Nathanael. ‘It’s just a joke. Honestly, you can’t say anything these days.’
‘Is this the place for jokes? I really don’t think so. Especially about the people of Nazareth. During a time of political unrest? These stereotypes just aren’t helpful. You wanna have a long, hard look at yourself, Nate.’
‘You wanna do this?’ said Nathanael. ‘Fine. Answer me this. What happened in Nazareth hundreds of years ago which gives the place huge historical significance in the history of our people?’
‘NOTHING! That’s what!’ said Nathanael. ‘No thing. It’s a backwater. A no place. A new town. It’s the Milton Keynes of Israel.’
‘What’s Milton Keynes?’
‘I don’t know. That must have been prophetic,’ said Nathanael. ‘Hey, maybe I’m a prophet. The beard needs work, but I could work on the wild-eyed stare.’
‘Nate. You’re not a prophet. You’re just a bloke who’s prejudiced about people from Nazare— Hey, wait a minute. You’re from the town next door, aren’t you? Cana?’
There was a long pause. Nathanael looked away.
‘I might be,’ said Nathanael.
‘Daaah!’ said Philip. ‘Pathetic local rivalry. You can’t bear the thought of your neighbour being home to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’
‘You what?’ said Nathanael. ‘What does that mean?’
‘No idea. Looks like I’m prophetic too.’
Philip raised a hand for Nathanael to high-five. And Nathanael did not high-five him.
‘Look,’ said Nathanael, ‘all I’m saying is that everything happens for a reason.’
‘Okay, you are definitely not a prophet. That’s just faux folk philosophy.’
‘I’m talking about the sovereignty of God, and putting it in layman’s terms! I’m a man of the people,’ said Nathanael.
Philip looked around.
‘I tell you one thing that’s for sure,’ said Philip. ‘You know where the Messiah won’t be from? Samaria.’
‘Ha!’ Nathanael laughed. ‘Yeah, Samaritans are the WORST.’
Philip raised a hand for Nathanael to high-five. And Nathanael did high-five him.
Then… Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’
And they went. And saw.
This is not the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God
Buy your copy of James Cary’s The Gospel According to a Sitcom Writer for £9.99 (SPCK, June 2021) and read what James has to say about the book here. James is also the author of The Sacred Art of Joking (SPCK, 2019).
Also see James’s YouTube channel, where he”s running a video series, The Sacred Art of Joking.