Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why read about Nathanael on the feast of St. Bartholomew?

August 24th, Feast of St. Bartholomew
“St. Bartholomew the Apostle, who preached the Gospel of Christ in India; thence he went into Greater Armenia, and when he had converted many folk there to faith, he was flayed alive by the barbarians, and by command of King Astyages fulfilled his martyrdom by beheading. His holy body was translated first to the Isle of Lipari, then to Benevento, and finally to Rome, to the island in the Tiber, where it is honoured with loving veneration by the faithful.” (Roman Martyrology)
The name “Bartholomew” does not seem to be the proper name of this Apostle, but is more of a title – for it means only “son of Tholmai”. Indeed, little is known about this great man. However, if we consider the Gospel which the Roman Church reads on the feast, we gain an insight into his identity. The Gospel does not mention St. Bartholomew, but is the calling of St. Nathanael through the cooperation of St. Philip.

The Greek tradition
It seems that Nathanael must be a significant figure in the life of the Church, since he receives a special calling from the Lord and is honored by our Savior as “an Israelite without guile”. However, he does not at first seem to be one of the Apostles.
Some of the Greeks hold that Nathanael is the Apostle St. Simon Zelotes, and this is commemorated in the Greek Menaea on the 22nd of April as follows: “The Holy Apostle Nathanael, which is Simon Zelotes, of Cana in Galilee, where Christ at the marriage feast turned the water into wine.”
The Latin tradition
It is worth noting that Bartholomew is not mentioned in John’s Gospel, while Nathanael is not mentioned by the Synoptics. Moreover, while Nathanael is connected with Philip in John’s Gospel, Bartholomew is mentioned always next to Philip by the Synoptic writers.
Hence, based on this close connection with Philip – as well as an ancient tradition which connects Bartholomew with Nathanael – the Latin tradition affirms that “Nathanael” is simply the proper name of Bartholomew.
For this reason, the Roman Church reads the Gospel of the call of Nathanael on the feast of St. Bartholomew: The two are indeed one and the same Apostle.
Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide defends the identification of Bartholomew with Nathanael
“Rupertus and Jansen in this passage think Nathanael is the Apostle Bartholomew. They show this, firstly, because the other Evangelists always join together Philip and Bartholomew, as John here joins Philip and Nathanael.
“Secondly, because we nowhere read of Christ’s calling Bartholomew, unless it were this call of Nathanael.
“Thirdly, because the other three Evangelists who make mention of Bartholomew make no mention of Nathanael, and vice versâ with S. John.
“Fourthly, because S. John (xxi. 2) associates Nathanael with the Apostles Peter, Thomas, James, and John in fishing, and the vision of Jesus. It would seem therefore that he was an Apostle, and yet it is not apparent who else he could be if he were not Bartholomew.
“Fifthly, because Bartholomew does not seem to be a proper name, but only to signify that he was the son of Tolmai; and his proper name seems to have been Nathanael.
“Sixthly, because Christ said of Nathanael, Behold an Israelite indeed, it whom is no guile. And then Christ promises him a vision of angels ascending and descending upon Himself. Christ therefore seems to have specially loved him, and to have chosen him for a friend and Apostle.”

St. Bartholomew, Pray for us!


Angela said...

Thank you for this article, Fr. Ryan. It has answered my question why the Gospel reading of the Feast of St. Bartholomew is about Philip and Nathanael. However, I do have another question that has vexed me for sometime (I hope I am not out of line), and it is about the interaction between Jesus and Nathanael:

Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, and said, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile!" Nathanael said to him, "How do you know me?" Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Nathanael answered him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" (Jn 1:47-49).

I feel that there seems to be an understanding between Jesus and Nathanael in these passages. Is it merely because Jesus saw him under the fig tree that Nathanael made him declare Jesus to be the Son of God? I don't think that this is not just the kind that people get awed, nowadays, by psychics who claim to have the ability to see the future, or is it? It seems that there is more to the dialogue than for Nathanael being seen under a fig tree.

Thank you, Father Ryan.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

It is a difficult passage to interpret ... it seems that Jesus is telling us that he knows all things and "sees" all things through his power as God illuminating his human mind.

Here are the words of Fr. Cornelius a' Lapide,
"Jesus answered, &c. “When thou wast alone under the fig tree, and thoughtest that no one saw thee, I saw thee, and know what thou wast doing in secret there. Hence thou mayest gather that I am greater than man, even Messiah, the Son of God.” So S. Cyril, S. Augustine, and others.

Mystically, S. Gregory (Moral. l. 18, c. 20), Under the fig tree, i.e., beneath the shadow of the Law, I saw thee, that I might transfer thee to the vine of My Gospel.

Tropologically, learn from hence that God and Christ are everywhere present, and are to be feared, when thou art alone in thy chamber; yea, when thou secretly thinkest and desirest anything in thy heart, Christ is looking at thee, and beholding thy thoughts and desires. Take heed therefore lest thou do anything, or desire, or think anything, which will offend the eyes of His majesty. For so He beheld Nathanael, and what he was doing under the fig tree. So also God saw Adam under a fig tree eating its forbidden fruit."

Peace and blessings to you! +

Chatto said...


the fig tree seems to play an usually prominent role in a number of passage of Scripture. I like St. Gregory's interpretation - I suppose it also fits well with Adam & Eve covering themselves with fig leaves.

Is there a connection here as well with Christ whithering the fig tree that refused to bear fruit? It seems as if the fig tree is taken to represent something quite specific in Biblical imagery.

Angela said...

Thank you so much,Fr. Ryan. The metaphorical explanation has given me new insights, and I will pray and keep to heart Psalm 139 because it expresses what you have just said, and will serve as a beautiful reminder of God's presence in my life.

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Yes the fig tree is an important image in the Scriptures.
"Everyone living under his own fig tree" is used in the early books (1Kings, for example ) to show the prosperity of the Nation.
The destruction of the fig tree and the vine is a sign of God's wrath in the Prophets (esp Hosea and Joel).

The fig tree can be sign for what is good among the people, or for a strong and just ruler (cf. Judges 9, the parable against Abimeleck)

Finally the promise of salvation again uses the idea of siting under the fig tree -- Micah 4:4 and Zechariah 3:10 (which hearkens back to the rule of Solomon, cf 1 Kings 4:25)

Indeed, there is much to meditate upon here!

Micah 4:3-4,
"And he shall judge among many people, and rebuke strong nations afar off: and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into spades: nation shall not take sword against nation: neither shall they learn war any more. AND EVERY MAN SHALL SIT under his vine, and UNDER HIS FIG TREE, and there shall be none to make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken."

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