Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator
Today is the Feast of St. Bartholomew. So why does the Gospel refer to someone named Nathanael? The answer is really quite simple; namely, people in the Middle East during Jesus' lifetime sometimes had two different names by which they were known. St. Bartholomew/Nathanael seems to be one of those people.
Bartholomew is the Hebrew form of "son of Ptolemy." The name "Ptolemy" is definitely of Gentile origin. It is a Greek name common among members of the upper class. One man by that name, a member of the army of Alexander the Great, made himself king of Egypt. For almost 300 years, every king of Egypt bore that name. "Bar" is the Hebrew word to designate paternal origins as in Simon bar Jonah, the apostle who became Simon Peter. In Scotland a similar prefix was used in the same way; thus, MacDonald means "son of Donald." There was a strong Jewish community in Egypt in the years just prior to Jesus' birth. So it is not unusual to find an Israelite who bears the Greek/Egyptian name of Bartholomew.
By the same token, many such people would have also used a Jewish or Hebrew name among their Jewish circle of friends and family. Nathanael is a Hebrew name which means "gift of God" – Nathan el. While the synoptic Gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, and Luke identify Bartholomew as one of the Twelve, St. John's Gospel identifies him by his Jewish name of Nathanael. He is not the only one of the Twelve Apostles to have two names as the Gospel of St. John also identifies St. Thomas as Didymus, another Greek name for a Jewish disciple.
Does any of this make any difference? While some may dismiss it as a minor detail in Bible history, I usually am of the opinion that such details emphasize a point which all of the evangelists strive to make about Jesus; namely, that God became human for the sake of the entire human family, Jew and Gentile alike.