St. Bartholomew, an apostle and early martyr of the Church, is recognized for his missionary zeal especially in Armenia for whom he is their patron saint. And in some traditions, Bartholomew is also honored as a missionary to the Bombay India region on the Konkan coast, a region which may have been known as the ancient city Kalyan.
Bartholomew’s name sometimes creates confusion. The name is not a proper name per se, but means “son of Tolmai” similar to Barjona = “son of Jona”. Just the son of Jona had a proper name, so too the son of Tolmai – Nathaniel.
Bartholomew is listed among the Twelve Apostles of Jesus in the three synoptic gospels: Matthew (10:1–4), Mark (3:13–19) and Luke (6:12–16) and also appears as one of the witnesses of the Ascension (Acts 1:4, 12, 13. On each occasion he is named in the company of Philip. Bartholomew is not mentioned by the name “Bartholomew” in the Gospel of John, however “Nathaniel” appears with Philip in John 1:45-51 – our gospel reading for today. It is generally accepted that Nathaniel and Bartholomew are one in the same person.
The gospel reading offers a little regional trash-talk, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” The passage also offers Jesus’ response to Bartholomew’s inquiry as to how Jesus knew him to be a man of honesty, Jesus enigmatically responded: “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.”
There is no further explanation and no other reference to the incident. We are left to conjecture. The fig tree was almost a symbol of home (cf. Isa. 36:16; Mic. 4:4; Zech. 3:10). Its shade was used as a place for prayer and meditation and study. It seems probable that Nathanael had some outstanding experience of communion with God in the privacy of his own home, and that it is this to which Jesus refers. Whatever it was, Nathanael was able to recognize the allusion. The effect on Nathanael of these simple words is more than surprising. His immediate response is to salute Jesus in terms implying divinity: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
One lesson from this gospel is that Bartholomew is like the pearl merchant who has prepared his entire life to find the pearl of great price (Mt 13:45-46). Bartholomew was grounded in Scripture, had meditated upon its meaning, and when he came to his “pearl of great price” he was able to instantly connect to Jesus as Son of God, Messiah.
Would it be that each of us is so prepared to come to our moment in which we are asked to be all in.
Image: Public Domain, The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera (1634). Tradition holds that Bartholomew was martyred by being skinned alive. The paintings and imagery of the saint often shows his flayed skin or the curved flensing knife with which he was skinned. Somewhat ironically, he is the patron saint of leather makers.