I love the stories of the first disciples, but, sadly, after we leave the pages of the New Testament, their tales are often clouded by myths and legends. Some of them are truly bizarre. For example, it is said that Nathanael Bartholomew was martyred by being skinned alive before he was beheaded. In the sacred art of the Middle Ages, Michelangelo pictured Nathanael with a beard, curly hair, and holding his flayed skin! (Worse, because he was flayed, Nathanael is the patron saint of leather workers.)
The first three Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, only give us Bartholomew’s name, and it’s his last name at that. “Bar-” means “son of,” and “Talmai” means “farmer.” Thus, Bartholomew means “son of the furrows.” Bartholomew is never mentioned in John, and Nathanael is never mentioned in the Synoptics. Therefore, most scholars refer both names to the same apostle. Nathanael and Philip were great friends and are always associated together in the Bible.
In John’s gospel, Jesus calls Philip to follow him, and Philip goes to find his friend Nathanael.
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.”
Rather than arguing with Nathanael, Philip invites his friend to see for himself.
“Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?”
What tone do you use as you read Nathanael’s words? Is he smug? “Yes, that’s me, an honest Israelite!” Is he suspicious? “I’ve never met you before. How can you make such a statement about me?” However you read those words, it is Jesus’ explanation that is intriguing:
Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.”
What was so special about that fig tree? William Barclay speculated Nathanael was praying under the fig tree. Thus, Jesus is saying, “I heard your prayers, Nathanael.” Fig trees have leaves the size of your hand. (Remember: Adam and Eve used the leaves to make their clothing.) The branches bow down like a Weeping Willow tree leaving a private space shaded next to the trunk. That would be an excellent place for personal prayer.
Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:43 – 51)
Perhaps we won’t fully understand Nathanael’s response until we meet him in heaven, but we know Philip and Nathanael were faithful witnesses to the Messiah. The best traditions have them planting churches in India and Armenia which was probably the scene of his martyrdom.