St. Nathanael (or Bartholomew for short)

The Call of Nathanael
The Call of Nathanael

This week’s apostle is St. Bartholomew. Well, actually, he’s only called “Bartholomew” in the lists of the apostles in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In the Gospel of John, which tells us the most about him, he is named “Nathanael”. I guess they called him “Bartholomew” for short…

So Nathanael was from Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding feast, and he was summoned to Jesus by St. Philip, who we discussed last week. Upon meeting Jesus, Nathanael asked Jesus how he knew him, to which Jesus responded “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Now, I’m guessing that Jesus wasn’t ten feet away from the fig tree at the time, because this had a huge effect on Nathanael. We don’t know the significance of the fig tree, but apparently, it was a decisive moment in Nathanael’s life. He exclaimed, “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus responds in a way fitting for the beginning of Nathanael’s journey: “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.”

And indeed that was true. St. Bartholomew/Nathanael was a witness to the Resurrection, when Jesus appeared near the Sea of Tiberius while they were fishing. After that, things get a little confusing.

What did St. Bartholomew do after the Resurrection? It depends who you ask. Two ancient sources, Eusebius of Caesarea and St. Jerome, had Bartholomew preaching in India. Whereas St. Thomas went to the southeast of India near Mylapore, tradition says that St. Bartholomew went to the western coast of India, near the present-day Mumbai. It was there that he supposedly left a copy of the Gospel of Matthew.

Other traditions hold that St. Bartholomew went to Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Parthia (present-day Iran), and Lycaonia (central Turkey). And apparently, he went to Hierapolis with St. Philip, as we heard last week. One of the more popular and widespread traditions of St. Bartholomew is that he went to Armenia (in present-day…Armenia), an area that is traditionally very strongly Christian. He converted Polymius, who was the king of Armenia, but this wasn’t popular with the king’s brother, who ordered Bartholomew to be tortured and executed.

Michelangelo's "The Last Judgment" Look at him!  He's holding his own skin!!!
Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgment”
Look at him! He’s holding his own skin!!!

Tradition holds that St. Bartholomew was martyred by being flayed alive and crucified. In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo depicts St. Bartholomew with the other apostles, holding his own skin in his left hand! His relics were eventually moved to the Church of St. Bartholomew on the Tiber Island in Rome, where they can be venerated today.

Back to his call, one of the first things that Bartholomew/Nathanael said when Philip tried to introduce him to Jesus was, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Basically, he was making fun of Jesus for being a hillbilly from the country! The great Messiah couldn’t possibly be from there, could he? But Jesus was found in the very place he least expected him. How true is that for us? Many times we place our own expectations of Jesus in the way of our faith – what he should do for us, what we should receive from him, how he is supposed to work in our lives. It takes a real act of faith and docility to put aside our own expectations and follow, but that is what a disciple does. Let’s pray for the intercession of St. Bartholomew to be able to follow Jesus more closely, even when he does what we least expect!