You’ve probably heard of the actor who was so modest that, when he wrote his autobiography, he didn’t even get a mention in it.
Today (24th August) is St Bartholomew’s day and if you read the gospel set for today (Luke 22:24-30), you will find no mention of Bartholomew. In Matthew, Mark and Luke we see Bartholomew’s name listed as one of the twelve apostles, but that’s it. Nothing else. John’s gospel doesn’t mention Bartholomew at all. Instead, John speaks of a Nathaniel (John 1:43-end) and it is suggested that this Nathaniel is the same person. Matthew, Mark, and Luke name Bartholomew as one of the twelve apostles. John doesn’t, but does name Nathaniel. ‘Bartholomew’ is not a personal name but means ‘son of Tolmar/Talmai’, a bit like someone whose surname is Robertson or MacDonald. Or possibly it means that he was a ploughman, ‘son of the furrows’… Matthew, Mark and Luke list Bartholomew’s name next to Philip and in the John passage (John 1:45), it is Philip who finds Nathaniel and brings him to Jesus.
Bartholomew (or Nathaniel) was a fisherman from Cana in Galilee (John 21:1, 2). He is one of the seven disciples to whom the Risen Christ appears while they are fishing without success. Jesus invites them to have breakfast on the beach.
And, finally, Nathaniel is with the other disciples after the Ascension (Acts 1:13). And that’s it. No other references to Bartholomew or Nathaniel. Tradition has it that he travelled to India (possibly Arabia or Ethiopia) and to Armenia. He is said to have been flayed alive and is depicted in art holding his own skin and the instruments of torture (including by Damien Hurst, in his ‘Exquisite Pain’, currently at Chatsworth House). He is, therefore, patron saint of tanners, leather-workers and bookbinders.
In the John passage (1:43-end), Jesus is in Galilee and finds Philip and says to him, ‘Follow me’. Philip finds Nathaniel and says, ‘We’ve found him! The one promised in the law and the prophets.’ Nathaniel is not convinced that anything good can come out of Nazareth. Philip says, ‘Come and see’. Jesus is about to impress him: he describes Nathaniel as someone without guile or deceit. ‘How do you know?’, asks Nathaniel. Jesus says, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you’. This supernatural insight is enough to convince Nathaniel that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah. Jesus says, ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’ and gives this slightly strange picture in which heaven is open and the angels ascend and descend on the Son of Man. Behind this is the story of Jacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:10-22). Jacob dreams of a ladder which reaches from earth to heaven, with angels moving up and down. When Jacob wakes he says:
“How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”
Jesus is God’s ‘ladder’, the one who connects us to God. The place where God is made known, the place where earth connects with heaven; Jesus is the mediator who makes God known, the one in whom heaven and earth, God and humanity connect.
We know very little about Bartholomew – almost nothing if we don’t accept the identification with Nathaniel. But like us, he finds in Jesus the one mediator between God and humanity, the stairway to heaven.