I do not know if I have ever heard of parish named “St. Nathaniel’s,” but I know there are St. Bartholomew’s parishes all over the world. That is amusing to me since they are most likely the same person and he seems to be better known, or at least more celebrated, by what we would call his last name.
In each of the three synoptic Gospels (Saints Matthew’s, Mark’s, and Luke’s), we see Saint Bartholomew paired up with St. Philip. Besides being listed among the twelve Apostles in the synoptic Gospels, and being mentioned in the upper room after Our Lord’s Ascension, the Gospels say nothing else about St. Bartholomew. The Apostle is never even named in St. John’s Gospel. Of course, that gives us a hint about his other name. St. Philip also appears on those lists of the Apostles in the synoptic Gospels, but those Evangelists never record the Apostle saying or doing anything else. On the other hand, St. John narrates Our Lord’s call to St. Philip and the subsequent event quite clearly. St. John tells us, “The following day Jesus wanted to go to Galilee, and He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow Me.’” (1:43) Immediately thereafter we learn that,
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.” And Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward Him, and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no deceit!” Nathanael said to Him, “How do You know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered and said to 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, “Most assuredly, I say to you, hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (1:45-51)
St. John gives no list of the Apostles in his own account of the life of Christ, but neither does he ever mention St. Bartholomew. St. Philip, who is always mentioned alongside St. Bartholomew, figures prominently into the call of (Saint) Nathaniel in St. John’s Gospel. What else would suggest they were the same person?
“Bartholomew” is what is called a “patronym,” a name which is derived from one’s father. Modern examples might be names like Stevenson, which, in a bygone day, would have meant that the bearer of this name was actually Steven’s son. The prefixes Mac and Mc in Scottish and Irish names convey the same meaning. MacDouglas would have been Douglas’s son, while McDonald would have been Donald’s son. In Hebrew, “son of” is signified by the word “bar.” We see this in St. Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus refers to St. Peter as “Simon Bar-Jonah,” meaning “Simon, the son of Jonah.” (16:17) Similarly, sometimes the sons of Zebedee are referred to as John Bar-Zebedee or James Bar-Zebedee.
Though we think of it as a somewhat outdated first name, Bartholomew is a partronymic name which means “Son of Ptolemy.” Ptolemy was a popular Greek name made famous by one of the generals and successors of Alexander the Great. The most commonly held belief regarding Bartholomew and Nathaniel is that the Apostle was named Nathaniel (a Hebrew name meaning “Gift of God”) and that his father was called Ptolemy. That would have made his full name Nathaniel Bar-Tolemy, which has become today Nathaniel Bartholomew.
So, why would someone choose to be known by their father’s name rather than their own? Sometimes it is for clarity’s sake. Most of us have been at a family reunion and introduced ourselves as “Greg’s son” or “Joe’s grandson.” We do this because the person we are meeting is really looking for a family connection more than just a name. At those occasions, giving your last name might not be all that helpful. The room could be full of people with that last name; it is a family reunion after all. At other times, identifying yourself in terms of your father or mother is a sign of respect. By referring to yourself in terms of your father, you acknowledge their prestige and your position in relation to them.
There is a lesson in this for fathers: your children will be known by what you do. Before they ever really establish their own identity, they will be known as your child. That legacy can either be a blessing to them based on your reputation and integrity or it can be a burden to them because of scandals and choices you have made. Likewise, children, your actions carry over to the reputation of your fathers. It is like your mother always said, “What you do and how you dress reflects on your father and me.”
But, more to the point, St. Paul tell us in his Epistle to the Ephesians that there is “One God and Father of all.” (4:6) We are all His sons and daughters and we are all called by His name. As such, our actions reflect not only on our earthly parents, but on our Heavenly Father as well. When we identify ourselves as Christians, we are claiming God as Our Father and, in doing so, we are putting His name before ours. His name is great and glorious and can only bring us blessings and salvation. What do our actions bring to His name? How do we represent Our Father in Heaven?
Whether he is called Bartholomew or Nathaniel matters very little. I prefer Nathaniel since it is my oldest son’s name. Whatever name he went by, the Apostle brought honor to both his father on earth and his Father in Heaven. He is reported to have spread the Gospel as far as Ethiopia and India. According to tradition, he was martyred in Armenia, where he was flayed, skinned alive and crucified for upholding his Father’s name.
Almighty and everlasting God, who gave to 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 Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever. Amen.