Friends provide a glimpse into the life of Christ

People of the Book – Philip and Bartholomew

Philip and Bartholomew (or Nathanial) are paired together throughout the New Testament. While the synoptic Gospels call the latter Bartholomew (from the Aramaic for “son of the furrows” and thus a ploughman or farmer), the Gospel of John refers to this figure by what is believed to be his given name, Nathanial. These two close friends provide a glimpse into the life of Christ and teach us some rather dense theological truths.

We know that Philip was from Bethsaida on Lake Tiberias in Galilee, as were Peter and Andrew. He was a follower of John the Baptist and, with Bartholomew, is always numbered among the Twelve (Mt 10:3, Mk 3:18, Lk 6:14, etc.). The day after the more famous call of Peter from his nets to be a fisher of men, Jesus approaches Philip and asks him to “Follow me” (Jn 1:43-6). His response is to find his close friend Nathanial and tell him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and about whom the prophets spoke.” It is this act of faith in the coming Anointed One (or Christ) that frees Philip to unhesitatingly leave the comforts of his familiar life to follow the Lord.

Nathanial is not so easily convinced. He quips, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” to which Philip replies, “Come and see.” After the latter (perhaps skeptically) gives in to his friend’s notions of grandeur about Israel’s recently arrived savior and goes to investigate, Nathanial is recognized by Jesus, whom he has never met. The Lord tells him, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanial is obviously thunderstruck by such a claim, and professes Jesus the Son of God and the King of Israel. Jesus’ calm but incisive reply continues to resound down through the centuries: “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that. Truly I tell you, you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This is, of course, an allusion to Jacob’s ladder, the patriarch’s dream recorded in Gen 28:12 predicting the one who would serve as the gateway to the Father, and upon whom heavenly graces would descend and humanity ascend into the very life of the divine. Jesus’ statement would not have been lost on the pair of devout Jews well-versed in the Torah.

This notion of the mediatorship of Jesus between God and humanity is reiterated in Christ’s conversation with Philip at the Last Supper. He tells Philip, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (Jn 14 6-9). To which the pragmatist Philip requests, “Master, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus’ response is one of the most profound lines in all of Scripture. His gentle but incredulous words resonate with us each time we look back upon the wandering paths of our lives: “Have I been with you for so long a time, and yet you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”

This is one of the clearest and yet most intellectually challenging notions of the entire Gospel, the mystery of the eternal co-indwelling of the Godhead which we call the Trinity and his tangible presence with us his handiwork.

After the Resurrection, Philip travelled north to relay to others his experiences with the Christ. He died violently, like so many of Jesus’ followers, being buried at Hierapolis, today Pamukkale, in modern Turkey.

Nathanial, on the other hand, traveled east to India and eventually Armenia, where he was martyred by being flayed alive. In Michelangelo’s famed painting of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, St. Bartholomew’s glorious risen body holding the sagging skin that serves as remnant of this world’s tribulations is said to contain the artist’s self-portrait in the drooping folds of flesh.

Both apostles are memorialized in Rome — Bartholomew at San Bartolomeo all’Isola, a basilica on an island in the Tiber which was once a temple to the Greek god of healing Asclepius (famously mentioned in Socrates’ dying words in Plato’s Phaedo); Philip at the Basilica Santi Dodici Apostoli, which was originally named for him and St. James, before being rededicated to all 12 apostles in the Middle Ages.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life and is on the faculty for the Department of Philosophy, Theology, and Religious Studies at Sacred Heart University.

Categories: Growing in Faith

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