The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew
Nathanael’s most memorable Bible moment would certainly be labeled a tactless faux-pas by some. Yet Jesus compliments him for it.
Philip, already called by Jesus, goes to find his good friend, Nathanael. Philip was so excited that he boldly declared that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the one spoken of by Moses and the prophets. We don’t know if Philip was a person who typically became exuberant about new causes, or exactly what sparked Nathanael’s response. But, he blurted out, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Nazareth was a small town of no consequence. It was never even mentioned by non-Scriptural historians until the 4th Century AD, and if archaeological finds have correctly located it, it was a farm village defined by silos and olive presses, with one synagogue. Nathanael was scornfully asking something akin to, “Can a world-class champion come from Podunk?”
But Philip is undeterred, and the friends go to find Jesus. Jesus takes one look at Nathanael and says, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
Can’t you just picture Nathanael looking over his shoulder to see who else has appeared, while thinking, “Who, me?” But he realizes that Jesus has discerned what he is thinking, and suspiciously counters (can’t you see him squinting his eyes?), “How do you know me?”
Apparently, Jesus reveals some of his divine power in the response, “I saw you under the fig tree, even before Philip started talking to you.”
We can only surmise that Nathanael realized that no human could have seen him in that location, and we are given no clues as to what he was thinking or doing, but he immediately loses his suspicions, and declares, “Teacher, you are the Son of God, You are the king of Israel!” And he becomes one of the twelve disciples of Jesus.
Most scholars believe that Nathanael , spoken of by John, is the same person as Bartholomew, named by Matthew, Mark and Luke. Bar-Tolmai is more of a title, Hebrew for “son of Tolmai,” so his full name might have been Nathanael Bartholomew.
Nathanael is one of the disciples who saw the risen Christ, and if he is the same person as Bartholomew, then he was also present when Jesus returned to heaven from the Mount of Olives.
Early Christian tradition has Nathanael Bartholomew traveling to India, Ethiopia, Turkey, Iran, and eventually Armenia. There he is said to have been skinned alive, and finally beheaded on the order of the Armenian king Astyages.
If you thought that you would be remembered for one, only one, character trait for 2000 or more years, what do you think it would be? Does absolute honesty come to mind in regard to you? And how secure are you in your belief that Jesus is the Son of God? Could you accept a death, such as those experienced by many early Christians, for telling the truth of what you know about Jesus?
These are tough questions that we must each answer in our own heart. But there’s Nathanael Bartholomew, a shining example of one who shows us the way.