Sunday, January 7, 2018

John 1.43-51: By Any Other Name

The Gospel reading for Epiphany 1B (John 1:43-51) offers us a glimpse of one of the lesser-known disciples: Nathanael. In John's gospel, Jesus is in Galilee and calls Philip, who shares a hometown with Peter and Andrew. Philip then meets up with a friend and tells him about Jesus. Nathanael' s response is one of those sentences that has lived long after he spoke the words. Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Jesus (yes, of Nazareth!) then proceeds to impress Nathanael with his knowledge.

And we never hear from Nathanael again.

Sort of.

Nathanael is named only in John's gospel. He is believed to be the disciple called Bartholomew in the other gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. In the other gospels' lists of disciples, Bartholomew is paired with Philip (who is an actor in Nathanael's call story). It may be that Bartholomew is a "son of" construction (remember Peter is Simon son of [bar] Jonah).

Even as Bartholomew, this disciple doesn't get a lot of camera time. He is included in several lists but we don't hear any further stories about him. The episode of Bartholomew's life that captures the most attention is his death. Tradition tells us he was flayed alive in Armenia. When we see him in art, he is usually holding a flaying knife or even his own skin.

Among the most famous depictions is Michelangelo's Bartholomew in the Sistine Chapel's Last Judgement. The artist has put the knife in the disciple's right hand and his skin in the left hand. As an added twist, the face on the skin is purported to be a self-portrait of the artist.
(Left) Michelangelo. Last Judgement (detail). 1533-1541. Sistine Chapel, Vatican. (Right) Calling of Nathanael. Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England.
Depictions of Nathanael are characterized by a fig tree (though sometimes the figs are at a distance and barely visible) and one, two or three men. Because the action in the passage is conversation, there is not particular action, but it is usually depicted as a sunny day with green leaves on the tree and a blue sky.

We have, then, two stories of the probably same person. One that tells the beginning of the story. The other that focuses on the end of the story. In between there is some unknown, some mystery. Which name, and which story, do you think this disciple would find most meaningful?

This week on Facebook...the last verse of the Gospel reading offers a connection to a story from Hebrew scripture. Click here or on the link below to read more.

For other thoughts on the Epiphany 1B reading, click here.

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