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The Apostle Bartholomew

by Lois Donahue

In writing this series about the Apostles, I know there have been several times when, in one way or another, I have had to make the point that 'not a great deal is actually known' about some of these men. In the case of poor Bartholomew that seems almost an understatement. Even when we turn to the Bible, little can be found.

BARTHOLOMEW (NATHANAEL) The four times his name, Bartholomew, appears -in Mt 10:3, Mk 3:18, Lk 6:14, and Acts 1:13 - it is no more than just that - his name - included with those of the other Apostles. It is in the 'fourth' Gospel that we learn what little bit Scripture has to tell us about this Apostle. John, in 21:21 (where he simply lists the names of the seven disciples to whom the risen Jesus appeared on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias) uses the name Nathanael but gives us a bit of additional information by adding "from Cana in Galilee". Also, John, in 1:45-51 gives us a very brief glimpse of the man, Nathanael.

Here I will try my best to explain the 'two' names. Evidently at one time it was thought that possibly Bartholomew and Nathanael of the Bible were separate individuals but it is now said that since the ninth century there has been agreement that both names belong to the same person. Bartholomew, meaning Son of Tolmai, appears to have been his last, family or 'sur' name and Nathanael, meaning 'God has given', his first name. Some feel John may have called him Nathanael because the two of them were friends and so it would be only natural to refer to 'a friend' by his first name.

As mentioned above, the Bible tells us, 'Nathanael 'was from Cana and, because of that, it has even been suggested that he may have been the one who invited Jesus and the disciples to the now famous wedding where Jesus performed His first miracle. Back to Jn 1:45-51, the Bible also leads us to believe that he and the Apostle Philip were quite likely friends since it was Philip who 'found Nathanael and told him', "We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law .." and Philip also invited Nathanael to "Come and see.". In that same Bible chapter Jesus speaks highly of Nathanael - calling him a "true Israelite" and saying there is no "duplicity" (deceitfulness) -some translations say "guile" (cunning) - "in him." Shortly after that He directly tells Nathanael "…you will see greater things than this." We should also note that it was in the conversation that Nathanael declared, making him perhaps one of the first to do so, that Jesus was the "Son of God" - the "King of Israel". (Jn 1:45-51)

I just can't leave this spot in Scripture without a few words about the comment Nathanael made to Philip when told that Jesus was from Nazareth. Nathanael's come back was, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (Jn 1:46) I always sense a hint of sarcasm in his words as if some rivalry may have existed between Cana and Nazareth or that Nathanael may have had an unpleasant encounter with some of the folks from that neighboring village. Perhaps that's the reason these words stick in my memory - because it's another example of how human the Apostles, now saints, were. We need to remember that when we trip over our own shortcomings.

Other bits and pieces of the opinion tell us he was raised by Jewish parents and was himself a devout Jew living in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah - that he was, like his friend, Philip, a follower of John the Baptist and a far-from-wealthy fisherman. (Although I must tell you one source told of the rather dubious speculation that he might just possibly have been of noble birth and another legend would have us believe he was a 'vine-dresser'.) Personally, my money is on 'plain folk fisherman'.

As to how you might have recognized Bartholomew if you had lived in his time, all I can offer you are a few imaginative 'maybe's' I gathered along the way..maybe dark hair and fair skin..maybe skin darkened and hair bleached by the sun..maybe of medium height..maybe handsome..maybe nose straight..maybe hair curly..maybe wearing 26 year old shoes and a white robe accented in purple of the same vintage..maybe a beard..maybe clean shaven. I'll let you make your own composite drawing.

Four of the one-word descriptions of Bartholomew I found are - honest, prayerful, friendly and cheerful. Here, too, seems a good place to mention the claim that Bartholomew was skilled in several languages.

Historians and various traditions say Bartholomew evangelized in places such as Ethiopia, Persia, India, Armenia and we still read of Catholics proudly laying claim to his role in bringing the Faith to that part of the world. While there were neither lengthy or detailed specifics about this period of his life, we can be certain he did 'above and beyond' the basics of 'evangelizing'. A few things did catch my attention. While still in Jerusalem evidently he, along with Philip, successfully debated against a Pharisee who portrayed Moses and Jesus as equals. On one occasion at least, it is said that he openly offered special prayers for some deaconesses and for that reason there is the belief that he might have been somewhat sensitive to women's issues. Legend has it that his cure of a young woman so 'mentally disturbed' she had to be kept in a cage, was in part responsible for the conversion of her father, King Polymius. (Unfortunately, Polymius' brother, Astriagis, -- also referred to as 'King', but obviously with more authority -- was so negatively impressed by Bartholomew and his message that he ordered the Apostle's death.)

Two final things, although certainly not as dramatic as the preceding, still tell us something about Bartholomew. Since more than one source made it a point to mention that he brought a copy of the Gospel of Mathew in Hebrew into these 'foreign' countries, it would seem to suggest this had not been done before and, to me, further imply that Bartholomew was either brave enough or thoughtful enough to do so. Also, there seems to be a strong possibility that there was, and might still be in existence somewhere, an apocryphal "Gospel of Bartholomew". Summing it up, I would say the years given Bartholomew to 'serve' were well spent.

It is thought that Bartholomew died in his late fifties. 'Where' seems to have been narrowed down to either India or Armenia. Just 'how' gets more complicated. Here's what has been said, -- put in a bag and thrown in the sea, crucified (some say with head up, others with head down), killed with the sword, beaten with clubs, beheaded, skinned alive. While, according to most accounts, the latter may not have been responsible for the actual moment of his death, it apparently was an agonizingly torturous part of his martyrdom possibly followed by being beheaded or crucified. One reason for the acceptance of that conclusion is that artists have portrayed him not only holding a knife but, in some cases, even holding his own skin. Less gruesome, but still symbolic, he is simply pictured with three knives. Just imagining how painfully he demonstrated his great faith we cannot help but admire and confidently seek the intercession of St. Bartholomew on August 24th, his Feast Day.

Not surprisingly, questions are raised as to the exact location of the remains of Bartholomew. We read of him being buried in Armenia - of his body being moved - of his bones in Rome. Two interesting tidbits…it is said that the Canterbury Cathedral received one of his arms and his skull went to Greece.

So it seems the last 'facts' we have about Bartholomew are as shadowy as the 'facts' about the beginning of his life; which prompts me to add one last thing. Perhaps, because of reading so few "facts" and so many "maybes" about Bartholomew, I must sadly confess that I don't as yet feel I have really gotten to 'know' him. My hope, my prayer and my belief is that I will - somewhere, sometime, somehow.

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"Nothing should
frighten or grieve you.
Let not your heart be troubled. Am I, your Mother,
not here with you?"

"Nothing should
frighten or grieve you.
Let not your heart be troubled. Am I, your Mother,
not here with you?"

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