The synoptic gospels and the Acts of the Apostles mention Bartholomew as one of the Twelve, but offer no further information about him except to link his name with that of Philip. The Fourth Gospel, which has no explicit list of the Apostles although it names most of them and speaks frequently of 'the Twelve,' makes no reference to Bartholomew, but mentions an otherwise unknown Nathanael, linked with Philip in his call (John 1:43-51) and closely associated with the other Apostles after the Resurrection (John 21:1-14). Since the sixteenth century many scholars have identified Nathanael with Bartholomew, and have seen in the latter name merely the patronymic or 'surname' by which Nathanael is specified as the son (bar) of Tolmai (or possibly Ptolemy) in the same way as Simon Peter is specified as the son of Jona.
If the identification is accepted, we have more detail about the vocation of our saint than about that of any other Apostle (Luke 5:4-10 seems to be a doublet of John 21:4ff). The scene is not without humor. In his very first words in reply to Philip's invitation to come and recognize the awaited Messiah in the preacher from Nazareth. What can you expect from Nazareth? --Nathanael has expressed the universal rivalry between neighboring villages (he is from Cana, John 21:2) and has set the tone for what is to follow. For there is a smile behind Christ's own words as he greets this 'sincere son of Jacob' who has none of that 'double-dealing' which tradition had connected with the name; and there is guarded caution behind Nathanael's inquiry about the extent of Christ's knowledge of him. When he sees his deepest thoughts being read in Christ's second playful allusion to his kinship with Jacob the dreamer, he is sufficiently overcome to recognize Christ as the Messiah. But the last word goes to Christ as he smilingly promises that this Jacob will see in reality what the other only dreamed of--the coming of heaven to earth. Paradoxically, the messianic 'son of God' whom Nathanael is willing to recognize in this thought-reader is something less than the heavenly 'son of Man' whom Christ will reveal to him.
If the identification with Nathanael is rejected (and indeed many of the Fathers rejected it explicitly), Bartholomew remains a featureless figure. Later tradition has made the usual attempt to provide the missing details, and from the fourth century on there are conflicting accounts of his missionary activity in Asia Minor, Armenia, Mesopotamia, Persia, India and Egypt. Of these Armenia has the strongest support, and although its earliest writers make no mention of our saint he is honored as the Apostle of that country. A tradition that he was flayed alive lies behind the knife and the skin which have been adopted as his symbols. His body is reputed to have been later taken to Benevento. It remains disputed whether it was these alleged relics or others which were transported to Rome in the tenth century of the Emperor Otto III and which now lie in the church of 'St. Bartholomew-on-Tiber.' These surface features can offer us no precision, but behind them stands the figure of one who was an intimate friend of Christ, whose weakness was turned into strength by that close union, and who, like his Master, offered his life for love of the church. It is this aspect alone that the liturgy has chosen to underline, to remind us that it is upon such foundation stones that we are built.
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