Bookmark and Share

St Bartholomew, the Apostle (aka Nathaniel)

Born 1st century AD at Cana in Galilee
Chosen by Jesus as one of the Twelve Apostles
Flayed & then crucified in 1st century AD in Armenia
Feast day - 24 August (11 June in Eastern Christianity)
Patron saint of Armenia

Catechesis by Papa Benedict XVI      
General Audience, 4 October 2006 - in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the series on the Apostles called by Jesus during his earthly life, today it is the Apostle Bartholomew who attracts our attention. In the ancient lists of the Twelve he always comes before Matthew, while the name of the apostle who precedes him varies and it may be Philip (cf Mt 10, 3; Mk 3, 18; Lk 6, 14) or Thomas (cf Acts 1, 13). His name is clearly a patronymic, since it is formulated with an explicit reference to the name of his father. Indeed, it is probably a name with an Aramaic stamp, bar Talmay, which means precisely "son of Talmay".

We have no special information about Bartholomew; indeed, his name always and only appears in the lists of the Twelve cited above and thus is never at the centre of any narrative. Traditionally, however, it has been identified with Nathanael: a name that means "God has given". This Nathanael came from Cana (cf Jn 21, 2) and he may therefore have witnessed the great "sign" accomplished by Jesus in that place (cf Jn 2, 1-11). The identification of the two characters is probably motivated by the fact that, in the vocation scene recounted in John's Gospel, this Nathanael is placed next to Philip, that is, in the place that Bartholomew occupies in the lists of the Apostles reported in the other Gospels. To this Nathanael, Philip had announced that he had found "the one about whom Moses in the Law and the Prophets had written: Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth" (Jn 1, 45). As we know, Nathanael's retort was rather strongly prejudiced: "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" (Jn 1, 46). This sort of protestation is, in its own way, important for us. Indeed, it makes us see that, according to Judaic expectations, the Messiah could not come from a village as obscure as, precisely, Nazareth (see also Jn 7, 42). At the same time, however, it emphasises the freedom of God, who surprises our expectations by being found exactly there where we do not expect him. On the other hand, we know that Jesus in reality was not exclusively "from Nazareth", but was born in Bethlehem (cf Mt 2, 1; Lk 2, 4) and that ultimately he came from Heaven, from the Father who is in heaven.

The story of Nathanael suggests another reflection to us: in our relationship with Jesus we must not settle with words alone. Philip, in his reply, offers Nathanael a significant invitation: "Come and see!" (Jn 1, 46). Our knowledge of Jesus needs above all a living experience: someone else's testimony is certainly important, for normally the whole of our Christian life begins with the announcement which comes down to us by the works of one or more witnesses. But then we ourselves must be personally involved in a close and deep relationship with Jesus; in an analogous way the Samaritans, when they had heard the testimony of their fellow citizen whom Jesus had met at Jacob's well, wanted to talk directly with Him and, after this colloquy, they told the woman: "It is no longer through your words that we believe, but because we ourselves have heard and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world" (Jn 4, 42).

Returning to the scene of the vocation, the Evangelist tells us that, when Jesus sees Nathanael approaching him, he exclaims: "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile!" (Jn 1, 47). This is a eulogy that recalls the text of a Psalm: "Blessed is the man... in whose spirit there is no deceit" (Ps 32, 2), but provokes the curiosity of Nathanael who replies in amazement: "How do you know me?" (Jn 1, 48). Jesus' response is not immediately comprehensible. He says: "Before Philip called you, I saw you when you were under the fig tree" (Jn 1, 48). We do not know what had happened under this fig tree. It is evident that this was a decisive moment in Nathanael's life. He feels touched in his heart by Jesus' words, he feels understood and he understands: this man knows everything about me, He knows and understands the road of life, this man I can really trust. And so he answers with a clear and beautiful confession of faith, saying: "Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are the King of Israel" (Jn 1, 49). In this is delivered a first, important step on the journey of attachment to Jesus. Nathanael's words shed light on a twofold, complementary aspect of Jesus' identity: He is recognized both in his special relationship with God the Father, of whom he is the Only-begotten Son, and in his relationship with the people of Israel, of whom he is the declared King, precisely the description of the awaited Messiah. We must never lose sight of either one or other of these two components, because if we only proclaim Jesus' heavenly dimension we risk making him an ethereal and evanescent being, and if, on the contrary, we recognize only his concrete location in history, we end up by neglecting the divine dimension that properly qualifies him.

We do not have precise information about the subsequent apostolic activity of Bartholomew-Nathanael. According to information reported by the historian Eusebius in the 4th century, a certain Pantaenus found signs of Bartholomew's presence even in India (cf Hist Eccl V, 10, 3). In later tradition, starting from the Middle Ages, the account of his death by flaying prevailed, which then became very popular. Think of the famous scene of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, in which Michelangelo painted St Bartholomew holding his own skin in his left hand, on which the artist left his self-portrait. His relics are venerated here in Rome in the Church dedicated to him on the Tiber Island, where it is said they were brought by the German Emperor Otto III in the year 983. To conclude, we can say that, despite the scarcity of information about him, the figure of St Bartholomew remains before us to tell us that attachment to Jesus can be lived and witnessed to without the accomplishment of sensational works. It is Jesus himself, to whom each one of us is called to consecrate our own life and death, who is and remains extraordinary."