There is no ready explanation why John used the name of Nathanael when speaking of this apostle, whereas the Synoptic used his father's name, bar-Tholmai. Yet it is clear from many biblical examples that it was a custom among the Jews either to name a son after his father or call him by his own name, Simon Bar-Tholmai. Yet it is clear from many biblical examples that it was a custom among the Jews wither to name a son after his father or to call him his own name: Simon-Jona, Bartimeus, Barnabas, Barsabbas, and many more.
Bartholomew, the Cheerful Apostle
It was necessary, first of all, to point out and to prove the identity of Bartholomew and Nathanael. The little that is known about this apostle is found only in the two verses that St. John recorded. The other evangelists gave no information about Nathanael save the name of his father. Perhaps this father, the old Tholma-the name means a "drill-blough" was such a well known and influential person that his son was simply called by his name. A legend concerning Bartholomew, recorded by Peter de Natalibus around the year 1372, corroborates such a supposition. According to this legend Bartholomew was a Syrian from a distinguished, royal family. But in this form the legend contradicts the Gospel.
A much earlier writing, from between the middle of the fifth and sixth centuries, the "History of the Sufferings of Bartholomew," paid special attention to externals. It noted this apostle's physical appearance and his refined clothing.
Bartholomew had black, curly hair, which covered his ears. His complexion was fair. He had big eyes and a rather large nose. His stature was well-balanced, not too small and not too large. He wore a white robe trimmed in crimson, and also a white cloak, the hem of which was embellished with red jewels.
Other passage recounted that Bartholomew kept his costly garment and even dared to wear it when he followed Christ.
It can easily be understood that such accounts, and others similar to this, from apocryphal and legendary literature, are certainly not trustworthy. They prove nothing, nor can they themselves be proved. Yet perhaps at times they may reflect a kernel of truth. One may conjecture that Bartholomew came from a wealthy family. This apostle was seemingly reared in a very wealthy atmosphere.
Legend and conjecture to the contrary notwithstanding, St John noted that Nathanael Bartholomew came "from Cana in Galilee." With no further apparent reason, many commentators immediately concluded that Bartholomew was the bridegroom at the wedding feast of Cana.
This apostle was probably a fisherman by profession. for as Simon Peter stood on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias after the Resurrection and said he was going out to fish, Nathanael called out with the other apostles, "' We also are going with thee.' "
St Augustine conjectured that Nathanael was a teacher of the law. He based his judgment on the manner in which Philip spoke to him . Philip wanted to persuade Bartholomew to go and meet the Messias: " ' 'We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and the Prophets wrote, Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth.' " Yet it is a bit difficult to conclude so much merely from this one passage. Still other commentators took for granted that Nathanael was one of the followers of John the Baptist, but such a conclusion can scarcely be proved by the Gospel.
The evangelist John wrote only a few lines-but what precious ones they are!-concerning Bartholomew. These brief statements do give an insight into the soul of this apostle. The Church has chosen this small segment of Scripture, which reflects a certain charm of the apostle, for the closing prayer of the Votive Mass of the Holy Angels. One might even wish that the Liturgy on the feast day of the apostle Bartholomew would also be taken from this cherished and solemn part of the Gospel.
"Philip found Nathanael...." It was not an accidental meeting; our Lord had intended that it happen thus. He himself said, " ' Before Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.' " Christ called Nathanael through Philip, and He had called Peter through his brother Andrew. It is the way of Divine Providence to call and guide us through others. God does not want to labor alone; in His wisdom and goodness He graciously grants man a share in the creation and guidance of things.
When Nathanael made his appearance in the Gospels, he did so with a touch of friendly sarcasm and smiling irony. Philip was advising Nathanael somewhat in detail and dogmatically, " ' We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and the Prophets wrote, Jesus the son of Joseph of Nazareth.'" Philip's friend objected to this way of putting it. The mischievous Nathanael replied discreetly, " ' Can anything good come out of Nazareth?' " Perhaps Nathanael spoke these words of mockery about Nazareth with certain contempt of familiarity that is so often found between two neighboring villages. Cana, the home of this apostle, lay only about nine miles from Nazareth.
Nazareth must indeed have been despised, however, and apparently it had an evil reputation. For that very reason the evangelist Matthew saw the prophesied abasement and humiliation of the Messias fulfilled in Jesus, because Jesus was reared in Nazareth . In all the books of the Old Testament the town of Nazareth was never mentioned. It was only a small, unimportant village. Its very name-literally "watch-tower"-indicates its size in contrast to a large market town.
A passage in Matthew's Gospel serves as an expressive example of the rude character of the inhabitants of Nazareth. When Jesus came
to his own country, he began to teach them in their synagogues, so that thy were astonished, and said "Where did he get this wisdom and these miracles? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary, and his brethren James and Joseph and Simon and Jude? And his sisters, are they not all with us? Then where did he get all this?" And they took offense at him. but Jesus said to the, " A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, and in his own house." And because of their unbelief, he did not work many miracles there.
Giving his account of this incident, St. Luke pointed out how these people of Jesus' own home town wanted to murder Him:
And all in the synagogue, as they heard these things, were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him forth out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill, on which their town was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But he, passing through their midst, went his way.
After Mary and Joseph returned from the flight into Egypt, they did not go back to Bethlehem. Divine Providence had directed them to Nazareth. In this village Jesus was reared, a village about which nothing good could be said, a village from which no good was expected. This is a thought of consolation to the many people who must remain and work in unimportant and disdained places, or in forsaken posts.
The welcome which Jesus nevertheless extended to Nathanael Bartholomew is surprising. No one of all the other apostles did our Lord receive so warmly and cordially.
Jesus could forget this cautious discipline's judgment against Nazareth and his prejudice against the Messias Himself. As He saw Nathanael coming, joyfully He could say, "'Behold a true Israelite in whom there is no guile. '" St. Augustine made the remark about this passage: ""A great testimony! That which was said neither to Andrew nor to Peter nor to Philip was said of Nathanael. How highly the Jews esteemed the honor of being an Israelite is easily seen in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans and in his second Epistle to the Corinthians.
Still when our Lord greeted Nathanael, He did not say this disciple was merely an Iaraelite. He stressed that He was an Israelite without guile. It was not often that an Israelite received such praise. Even Jacob, the father of the tribe of Israelite, was no more than a man "without guile." Frankness and sincerity had ceased to be universal virtues of the Israelites; nevertheless, Nathanael was a simple and candid person. He did not act as others and pretend. He did not have "two-hearts, a fold in his heart where he saw the truth, and another fold where he engendered lies."
The few words of Nathanael recorded in the Gospel, then, were spoken from a true heart, and remain as fresh and clear as a spring. There was nothing artifical or affected in this follower of Christ, nothing made up or thought up on the spur of the moment. Jesus, the eternal truth, readily and gladly accepted this Isrelite who was without a shadow of pretense.
Nathanael was more surprised than flattered by Christ's words of praise. Startled, he immediately asked, "' Whence knowest thou me?'" Then our Lord cast a second, even brighter, ray of His infinite wisdom into the happy and perhaps too carefree soul of this fisherman. He wanted to rouse him from his contentment, to stir the very depths of his soul. "Jesus answered and said to him. 'Before Philip called thee, when thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee.'"
What happened under that fig tree remained a secret between Jesus and Nathanael. Maybe it was a triumphant struggle. Maybe it was a decisive resolution. Maybe it was a brilliant confession. In any case, under that fig tree-Palestinians loved to plant fig trees around their homes-a profound, personal experience must have occurred.
The revelation of the Messias so stirred Nathanael that he was inspired to cry enthusiastically, "'Rabbi, thou art the Son of God, thou art King of Israel.'" Only an hour before he was laughing to think that Jesus from Nazareth was supposed to be the Messias, and now, after hearing only a few words of His infinite wisdom, he was paying Him homage. His confession far surpassed the blustering, joyful confessions of Andrew and Philip. Truly, Nathanael Bartholomew, the cheerful apostle, was an Isralite" without guile," without "a fold in his heart."
The meaning of this homage should not be overestimated. Yet it appears to be as great as Peter's confession of the Messias in Caesarea Philippi: "'Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.'" Nevertheless, in reality it was a long way between the Jordan and Caesarea Philippi, between the happy calling of the warm spring and the first belief of the hot summer. To the disciples on the Jordan, Jesus was the Messias, but their expectations of an earthly Messias were anything but spirtually refined. The apostles still had to withstand many difficulties, doubts, and conflicts before they were to reach their pure and unconditioned credo. The Lord said to Peter, "'Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona...'" But He did not say, "Blessed art thou, Nathanael Bar-Tholmai..." Bartholomew's confession on the Jordan was the first spring, beautiful but frail. Jesus called him to mold him and to strengthen him.
"Answering, Jesus said to him, 'Because I said to thee that I saw thee under the fig tree, thou dost believe. Greater things than these shalt thou see.'" Then He turned also in the other, and continued, "'Amen, amen, I say to you, you shall see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.'" Once before, the patriarch Jacob, the father of all Israelites, saw an angel ascending and descending. Nathanael and his companions, these Israelites without guile, were from then on to await the lasting, spiritual fulfillment of that vision of Jacob: Jesus in constant communication with heaven. The power of His words and miracles began and reached its completion in heaven. Jesus on earth and the Father in heaven were together, united, one in an eternal exchange of power and love.
Jesus is not, as Philip, so well, but wrongly, believed, "the son of Joseph of Nazareth." He is the "Son of God." "King of Isarel.""Knower of Hearts," as Nathanael praised Him. He is the Lord of Heaven and the Master of Angels. Nonetheless, one is glad to hear this practical confession which flows like a glittering mountain stream in spring in the first chapter of John's Gospel. Solemnly had this first chapter been opened: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God." And now the earthly echo of these words resounded triumphantly upon the eternal seething of waves: "'Rabbi, thou art the Son God, thou are King of Israel.'"
It is a pity that the evangelist John did not give a fuller picture of Nathanael in the first Chapter of his Gospel. With the exception of the brief mention of this apostle in the twenty-first chapter of the fourth Gospel, there is no other mention of him through the wide span between the first and last chapter. The evangelists, inspired by the Holy Spirit, limited themselves to a fuller account of the life of Jesus. The very fact that these comments were made so brief is already an indication of the direction in which their inspired thoughts were to venture.
One cannot go wrong if he keeps that happy meeting between Jesus and Nathanael before his eyes. Thoroughly honest, happy, cheerful, and inspired, he has been an inspiration to men of all ages. He was popular and much liked by the other apostles; his colleagues eagerly sought his friendship. Clear, truthful, and frank in everything, he was so simple that anyone could see through him. He was really the apostle without guile or deceit.
At the Last Supper revealed, "'One of you will betray me.'" No one thought of Bartholomew. Not even a slight suspicion was raised against him. Only sunshine and spring surrounded this apostle. When the disciples walked along the long, hot roads, with the Lord, tired and stickly with dust, and when the pressing of a crowd was so taxing that they could not find time even to eat, when they, along with the Lord, had no place to lay their head at night, there was Bartholomew, cheerful, tireless, and happy as ever. He alone of the followers of Christ could lift up their sinking spirits. Then the eyes of the Lord would benevolently fall upon this disciples as they had in the hour of their first meeting. Nathanael Bartholomew was called because of his natural ability to reflect the goodness, kindness, mercy, and love of the Savior.
For the melancholy Thomas, for the sober Philip, for the objective Matthew, it was a real blessing that Bartholomew occasionally led this second group of apostles to look at the brighter side of life. He put some cheer and life into this melancholy, sober and objective group. He brought the fragrance of spring and a bit of poetry into this somewhat too cool, somewhat too dry, somewhat too gloomy atmosphere. With his keen natural perceptiveness, he could brighten and enliven Thomas, tease and animate Philip, transfigure and perfect-Matthew. He could rub against all three of their natures and get away with it three times as often as any other apostle. It is good to stand to the sunshine, but it is better to be the sunshine for others. In doing all this, Nathanael did not overstep the fine border of tact. It is very striking how old legends again and again allude to this apostle's distinguished origin and refined speech. The silence of the Gospels also gives an indication of his quiet reserve. He could hold back his happiness lest he becomes too frolicsome, or even loud and boisterous.
This noble harmony of directness and reserve, of gaiety and courtesy, suggest the symbolism of the full name of this apostles, Nathanael Bartholomew. Literally the Hebrew name, Nathanael means "gift of God." Ever cheerful person is a gift of God to a friendship. Bartholomew means "son of a drill-plougher." A "Nathanael" must also be a "Bartholomew," a man who goes below the surface of things. And a "Bartholomew" must be a "Nathanael," a sunny gift of God that penetrates to the depths of life, but remains on the outside also, so that, once buried in these depths, it does not lose sight of the blue heavens from where it came, where the angels of God ascend and descend.