Nathanael son of Tolmai (Hebrew: barTolmai; Greek: Bartholomaios, "Bartholomew") was born c. AD 15 (3775–3776 in the Hebrew calendar) in the Roman district of Galilee. The synoptic gospel writers Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18) and Luke (6:14; Acts 1:13) called him Bartholomew (G918, "son of Tolmai," from H1247 and H8526), while John referred to him by his first name, Nathanaēl (G3482, from H5417; Nethanel, "gift from God"; cf. 21:1-2). He was from the Galilean village of Cana, where Jesus turned water into a wine (John 2:1-12; 4:46a). Many biblical scholars consider Nathanael and Bartholomew to be two different men. However, their strict criticism methods rule out the obvious process of elimination between the synoptic lists of Jesus' apostles and that of John. It is clear by the etymology of both names that Nathanael was his first while Bartholomew was his patronymic last name. Nathanael was a close friend of Philip of Bethsaida, who introduced him to Jesus (John 1:45).
A True Israelite
Nathanael Bartholomew is a very minor character in the gospels. Nevertheless, his fifteen minutes of fame in John's gospel was significant (cf. 1:43-50). When Jesus met Nathanael, he remarked, "Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!" (v. 47c). Why did he announce this? Was Jesus being sarcastic? The comment was sincere, as it referred to Nathanael's enthusiasm while he waited for the Messiah. He was genuinely surprised when Jesus noticed him under the fig tree (v. 48). The fig tree was no mere coincidence, but many contemporary readers may not understand the reference. The prophet Micah foresaw God's messianic kingdom:
He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken (4:3-4; emp. added).
Nathanael was a "true Israelite" because he still hoped in the Messiah, diligently preserving the fig tree of his faith. In the narrative, Jesus alluded to Nathanael being a responsible tree farmer. It takes many years of patience and care to grow a fig tree, especially one that could provide shade. Nathanael was taken aback when Jesus observed his long-awaited hope under his own fig tree. When he asked, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (John 1:46), Philip knew Nathanael was about to have an answer for his lifelong existential hope. Only the true Messiah could have the knowledge of a true Israelite. Therefore, Nathanael confessed, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" (v. 49). True to form, Jesus responded, "Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these" (v. 50).
Missionary to India
In his book Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea (AD 260–340) wrote, "Pantaenus was one of these [philosophers], and is said to have gone to India. It is reported that among persons there who knew of Christ, he found the gospel according to Matthew, which had anticipated his own arrival. For Bartholomew, one of the apostles, had preached to them, and left with them the writing of Matthew in the Hebrew language, which they had preserved till that time" (Eccl. Hist. 5.10.3).
Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the universe, you gave your apostle Bartholomew grace truly to believe and to preach your Word: Grant that your church may love what he believed and preach what he taught; through Jesus the Messiah our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
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