The Pope: The Apostle Bartholomew

Dear Brothers and Sisters:

In the series of apostles called by Jesus during his earthly life, today our attention is caught by the Apostle Bartholomew. In the early lists of the Twelve he always appears before Matthew, while the name of the one who precedes him changes: in some cases it is Philip (cf. Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14) or Thomas (cf. Acts 1:13).

His name is evidently patronymic, as it makes explicit reference to the father’s name. It is a name probably of Aramaic characteristics, “bar Talmay,” which means “son of Talmay.”

We do not have important information about Bartholomew. In fact, his name appears always and only within the lists of the Twelve that I have mentioned before; therefore, he is not the protagonist of any narration. Traditionally, however, he is identified with Nathanael: a name that means “God-given.” This Nathanael was a native of Cana (cf. John 21:2); therefore, it is possible that he was witness of some great “sign” wrought by Jesus in that place (cf. John 2:1-11).

The identification of the two personages is probably due to the fact that Nathanael, in the scene of the vocation narrated by John’s Gospel, is placed next to Philip, that is, in the place that Bartholomew has in the lists of the apostles referred to by the other Gospels. It was to this Nathanael that Philip had said that he had “found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth” (John 1:45).

As we know, Nathanael posed a weighty prejudice to him: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46a). This expression is important for us. It allows us to see that, according to the Jewish expectations, the Messiah could not come from such an obscure village, as was the case of Nazareth (cf. also John 7:42).

At the same time, however, it shows the freedom of God, who surprises our expectations, manifesting himself precisely there, where we least expect him. Moreover, we know that, in reality, Jesus was not exclusively “from Nazareth,” but that he was born in Bethlehem (cf. Matthew 2:1; Luke 2:4). Nathanael’s objection, therefore, had no value, as it was founded, as often happens, on incomplete information.

Nathanael’s case suggests to us another reflection: In our relationship with Jesus, we must not only be content with words. Philip, in his reply, presents a significant invitation to Nathanael: “Come and see” (John 1:46b). Our knowledge of Jesus is in need above all of a living experience: Another person’s testimony is certainly important, as in general the whole of our Christian life begins with the proclamation that comes to us from one or several witnesses. But we ourselves must be personally involved in an intimate and profound relationship with Jesus.

In a similar way, the Samaritans, after having heard the testimony of the compatriot whom Jesus had met at Jacob’s well, wished to speak directly with him and, after that conversation, they said to the woman: “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world” (John 4:42).

Returning to the scene of the vocation, the evangelist tells us that, when Jesus sees Nathanael approaching, he exclaims: “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him” (John 1:47). It was praise that recalls the text of a psalm: “Happy those to whom the Lord imputes no guilt, in whose spirit is no deceit” (Psalm 32:2), but which arouses Nathanael’s curiosity, who, surprised, replies: ” How do you know me?” (John 1:48a). Jesus’ answer at first is not understood. He said to him: “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree” (John 1:48b).

Today it is difficult to realize with precision the meaning of these last words. According to what the specialists say, it is possible that, given that at times the fig tree is mentioned as the tree under which the doctors of the law sat to read and teach the Bible, he is alluding to that type of occupation carried out by Nathanael at the moment of his calling.

Anyway, what counts most in John’s narration is the confession of faith that Nathanael professes at the end in a limpid way: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49). Although it does not reach the intensity of Thomas’ confession with which John’s Gospel ends: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28), Nathanael’s confession has the function to open the terrain to the fourth Gospel.

In the latter a first and important step is taken on the path of adherence to Christ. Nathanael’s words present a double and complementary aspect of Jesus’ identity: He is recognized both by his special relationship with God the Father, of whom he is the only-begotten Son, as well as by his relationship with the people of Israel, of whom he is called King, an attribution proper of the awaited Messiah.

We must never lose sight of either of these two elements, since if we only proclaim the heavenly dimension of Jesus we run the risk of making him an ethereal and evanescent being, while if we only recognize his concrete role in history, we run the risk of neglecting his divine dimension, which is his proper description.

We do not have precise information on the subsequent apostolic activity of Bartholomew-Nathanael. According to information referred to by the historian Eusebius in the fourth century, a certain Panteno found in India signs of Bartholomew’s presence (cf. “Ecclesiastical History,” V, 10,3).

In the later tradition, beginning in the Middle Ages, the account of his death by flaying was imposed, which later became extremely popular. Suffice it to think of the very famous scene of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, in which Michelangelo presented St. Bartholomew holding his own skin in his left hand, in which the artist left his self-portrait.

His relics are venerated here, in Rome, in the church dedicated to him on the Island of the Tiber, where they were brought by the German Emperor Otto III in the year 983.

Concluding, we can say that the figure of St. Bartholomew, despite the lack of information, tells us that adherence to Jesus can be lived and witnessed even without doing sensational works. Jesus is the extraordinary one, to whom each one of us is called to consecrate his life and death.

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~ by Rob on October 5, 2006.

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