Monday, August 24, 2009

Where's Bartholomew, a.k.a. Nathanael?!

I'm sure you're familiar with British illustrator Martin Handford's children's series, Where's Waldo? Nailing down the identity and activities of St. Bartholomew is about as difficult as finding Waldo in an illustration.

St. Theodore the Studite, 8th-9th century Byzantine monk and abbot of the monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople, and who had a great devotion to
Saint Bartholomew, addressed this prayer of praise to him:

"Hail, O blessèd of the blessèd, thrice-blessed Bartholomew! You are the splendor of Divine light, the fisherman of holy Church, expert catcher of fish which are endowed with reason, sweet fruit of the blooming palm tree! You wound the devil who wounds the world by his crimes! May you rejoice, O sun illumining the whole earth, mouth of God, tongue of fire that speaks wisdom, fountain ever flowing with health! You have sanctified the sea by your passage over it; you have purpled the earth with your blood; you have mounted to heaven, where you shine in the midst of the heavenly host, resplendent in the splendor of undimmable glory! Rejoice in the enjoyment of inexhaustible happiness!"

Not much there to shed any further light on Bartholomew, but it surely piques our interest!

What we do know is that Bartholomew is identified only in the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, as one of the Twelve. His name is literally Bar + Talmai = son of Talmai. Talmai, King of Geshur, was the father of Maacah, a wife to King David of Israel, and mother of Tamar and Absalom (2 Samuel 3:3). John's Gospel alone, not the others, identifies a "Nathanael" (Jn 1:45 ff.), brought by his buddy, Philip, to meet Jesus and, after several snarky comments to Philip about Nazareth, to become one of the Twelve. Bartholomew and Philip are also side-by-side in the scriptural listing of the Apostles. So, tradition has, understandably, figured that probably Bartholomew and Nathanael are one and the same: probably Nathanael Bar-Talmai, Nathanael, son of Talmai. Nathanael is also part of the gang, including Peter, Thomas, James and John (interestingly, all the "at-risk children" among the Twelve!), and two others, unnamed, who joined Peter on the beach of the Sea of Tiberias for a little post-resurrection fishing jaunt. Jesus appears on the beach just after daybreak and points out that they seem to be having a bad fish day. They acknowledge it, then Jesus suggests that they "cast the net to the right side of the boat". They do so and , voilà! -- the net becomes so full -- 153 big ones! -- that they can barely haul it in. Jesus, meanwhile, grabs a few filets and prepares an astounding beach breakast, complete with charcoal for cooking, the fish on it, and some bread, though John doesn't elaborate on how Jesus came by all the supplies.

Beyond that there is no reliable information as to what Bartholomew/Nathanael was up to in the years after this. The historian Eusebius (4th century) says that St. Pantaenus of Alexandria. about a century before Eusebius, claimed to have seen a Gospel according to Matthew in "India", "left by Bartholomew, one of the Apostles". Since Greek and Latin writers used to describe places such as Arabia, Ethiopia, Libya, Persia, or the land of the Medes as "India", and other sources speak of Bartholomew's presence in Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt, we have no way of accurately determining where he carried on his ministry. The great 4th-5th century preacher and Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, claimed that the traditions with which he was familiar told of Bartholomew and Philip ministering at Hierapolis in Phrygia and traveling into Lycaonia in Asia Minor where he “instructed the people in the Christian faith.

As to his martyrdom, Fr. John Julian, OJN notes: "The primary tradition holds that in his martyrdom, Saint Bartholomew was skinned alive and then beheaded by the pagan King Astyages in Albanopolis (modern Derbend on the west coast of the Caspian Sea in Armenia)...Bartholomew’s hagiography strikes us as particularly bizarre and distasteful to the modern eye in that very commonly he is shown carrying his skin over his arm like a cloak, and in some statues the anatomical details of muscles and ligaments are shown in detail on his flayed body. [See picture above, from the Duomo, Milan] Suffice it to say that he has long been taken as the patron saint of tanners and leather workers." (Fr. John Julian, OJN, Stars In a Dark World)

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