When you get right down to it, it can be surprising to see just how little concrete, scriptural information we have about the Apostles of Jesus. Yes, Peter and John both feature prominently across the four Gospels, and Paul became extremely central in helping govern the early Church after his conversion. But we know many of the other apostles by little more than their names. And in some cases, even their names can be difficult to pin down.
Bartholomew or Nathanael?
There are a few verses in the New Testament where all of the Savior’s original twelve apostles are mentioned by name. Mark 3: 16-19 lists these disciples as follows: Simon (Peter), James (son of Zebedee), John, Andrew, Phillip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James (son of Alphaeus), Thaddaeus, Simon (the Zealot), and Judas Iscariot. Matthew and Luke contain the same list. However, while the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke include Bartholomew the Apostle when discussing Jesus’ key followers, the Gospel of John makes no mention of anyone by that name.
Instead, John describes a disciple by the name of Nathanael. Although not directly listed as an Apostle, Nathanael is mentioned in conjunction with several of the other apostles, and has the privilege of seeing the Resurrected Jesus when he appeared to his followers on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, as described in John 21. So, how does Nathanael relate to Bartholomew?
Biblical scholars have long assumed that Nathanael is simply another name belonging to Bartholomew. This isn’t too difficult of a logical leap; John never talks about the Apostle Bartholomew, and the other Gospels don’t mention Nathanael. Additionally, Nathanael’s presence among the most trusted of Jesus’ apostles when he visited them after his death and resurrection suggests that he likewise held a position among the 12 apostles in the young Christian church.
Another evidence to support this theory is that the name Bartholomew may have been a designation rather than a birth name. Bartholomew in Hebrew means son of Tolmai. If this is the case, then it’s likely that Bartholomew would have had another name, as Son of Tolmai would have been more like a title. And given what we know about how fluid certain names, titles, and designations were during the time of Jesus, it’s not unlikely that Nathanael might have been widely known as Bartholomew, except to John who preferred to use his other name.
Who Was Bartholomew?
If we — like most Christians and biblical scholars — accept that Nathanael from the Gospel of John is actually Bartholomew, then we can piece together more information about this enigmatic Apostle.
Before he ever met the Savior, the man who would become Bartholomew was searching for the Messiah. What form this search took, we cannot guess, and we have no information regarding Nathanael’s prior occupation. But it seems likely that Nathanael was an honest and faithful man, who looked forward with great anticipation to the day when Jesus would come to redeem his people. This spiritual interest must have been well known among Nathanael’s friends; when Jesus found and called Phillip to the work, one of the first things that Phillip did was to go find Nathanael.
Upon hearing that the Messiah had come out of Nazareth, Nathanael was initially skeptical, responding with “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1: 46). Nevertheless, he knew that he had to see for himself what it was that had convinced Phillip. Nathanael went and found Jesus, who immediately identified him as an honest and righteous Israelite. Jesus went further, sharing information with Nathanael that could only have been gleaned through the spirit. And in turn, the spirit confirmed to Nathanael that Jesus truly was the Son of God. From that point on Nathanael was a dedicated disciple.
Bartholomew during and after Jesus' Mortal Ministry
Unfortunately, aside from his name being mentioned among the other Apostles in Mark 3, Matthew 10, and Luke 6, and the few accounts of Nathanael from the Gospel of John that most likely (but might not) describe Bartholomew by a different name, there simply are not any other direct scriptural references to this apostle. That said, there is still a great deal that we can conclude about this disciple and his relationship with the Savior.
For one, we know that Bartholomew was unfailingly honest. This is expressed quite clearly when Jesus himself described Nathanael/Bartholomew as “an Israelite in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47). And this honesty of Bartholomew’s must have extended beyond his dealings with others. When the future Bartholomew saw irrefutable evidence of the Savior’s divinity, he had the self-sincerity to accept it with all of his heart. He didn’t look for excuses. He didn’t try to explain away what he knew was true. Instead, he exclaimed “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel” (John 1: 49).
Bartholomew’s complete lack of deceit guided him well, and probably helped him remain faithful even when times were difficult. We can assume that Bartholomew was dedicated to fulfilling his apostolic calling. He was among the apostles who were blessed by Jesus and sent forth as missionaries among the lost sheep of Israel, and were blessed and charged by the Savior to “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons…” (Matthew 10: 8).
It can likewise be assumed that Bartholomew attended Jesus' final supper with the other Apostles before Jesus was arrested, tried, and crucified. He also journeyed with Jesus and the other Apostles to Gethsemane, though was not among the small group that was invited to enter into the heart of the garden to watch while Jesus prayed. Unfortunately, when Christ was arrested that same evening, Bartholomew’s courage must have failed him. And in his despair, he fled along with the other Apostles (Mark 14: 50).
But this was not to be the end of Bartholomew’s service. Bartholomew was among the remaining eleven apostles when the resurrected Savior appeared to them and charged them to go into the world and preach his gospel (Matthew 28: 16-20; Mark 16: 14-15; Luke 24: 36-49; John 20: 19-21). In the Gospel of John, it is also recorded that Nathanael was fishing with Peter, Thomas, James, and John when Jesus again came to them. Bartholomew would have also been present for the Savior’s ascension into heaven (Luke 24: 50).
What Does Tradition Say about Bartholomew?
Given Bartholomew’s honesty and commitment, it may be assumed that he continued to do the Lord’s work after Jesus had ascended to heaven. Tradition suggests that he went on to become a great missionary, spreading the Gospel far and wide, and establishing the Christain Church in Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Parthia, Lycaonia, and Armenia. A 4th-century account by Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea claims that Saint Pantaenus of Alexandria actually found a Hebrew copy of the Gospel of Matthew in India that had once belonged to Saint Batholomew. But whether these traditions can be taken factually or not, it seems clear that Bartholomew’s devotion to Jesus probably carried him onward to the end of his days.
How Did Bartholomew Die?
Although there are no scriptural accounts depicting the death of Bartholomew, it is traditionally believed that he was martyred for his faith. As the story goes, the Armenian King Astyages ordered that he be skinned alive and then beheaded. If true, this makes Bartholomew another among the great followers of Jesus who had the courage and conviction to seal their missionary work and their testimony of the savior with their own lives.
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