Both St. Peter and St. Bartholomew are apostles, but only the former is familiar to us. Why is that? Why do we know so little about one of the first followers of Jesus? First, scripture has little to say about Bartholomew (whose name is a patronymic, or, a name derived from one’s ancestor’s name, which means “son of Tolomai.”) He’s mentioned three times in the gospels (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14.) But none of those mentions is part of a narrative; we don’t hear Bartholomew talking with Jesus or any of the other disciples. We find his name included in the list of apostles, of which he is one, and a silent one at that.
Some scholars argue that Bartholomew is the same as the man called Nathanael in John’s gospel. If that is true, then we know a good deal more about the apostle. In John 1: 45-51, the gospel writer tells of Jesus and Bartholomew/Nathanael’s first meeting. When the story begins we learn that Bartholomew/Nathanael already knows Philip, who has become a follower of Jesus. Philip tells his friend, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.”
Bartholomew/Nathanael, sounding like a New Yorker who has heard that the messiah hails from Fargo, asks Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Some scholars argue that Bartholomew is the same as the man called Nathanael in John’s gospel. If that is true, then we know a good deal more about the apostle.
Philip doesn’t argue. He says, “Come and see.”
Jesus sees Bartholomew/Nathanael coming towards him and says, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
This is an intriguing encounter. Read one way, we glimpse Jesus’ wit and good humor. He has heard Bartholomew/Nathanael’s low opinion of Nazarenes and he is neither offended nor angered. Maybe he’s smiling. Maybe he appreciates Bartholomew/Nathanael’s caution before yet another “promised one.”
Bartholomew/Nathanael seems surprised and asks Jesus, “Where did you get to know me?”
Jesus answers in a way that reveals little to the reader, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
But the skeptic before Jesus is utterly changed. A flippant man at the beginning of the encounter, Bartholomew/Nathanael sees or hears or experiences something we do not share, something that brings him to say, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
Then Jesus asks the man if he believes simply because Jesus saw him under the fig tree. Does that mean Jesus saw him in a way impossible to the human eye? Saw him though he shouldn’t have been visible to Jesus? We don’t know, but Jesus tells him not to be too impressed with that. Jesus says, “You will see greater things than these.”
Indeed. The tradition tells us that this apostle, who was initially impressed by being seen under a fig tree, travelled to India and Armenia, preaching there and establishing churches. According to the Roman martyrology, he died in Armenia, flayed and beheaded at the order of King Astyages.