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The Church of the Apostle Nathanael (Bartholomew)

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We always walk past this locked church on our live Octagon Tour.

Location - Nazareth

Map Coordinates - 32.748029, 35.338035

Merged Gospels story - 24

Just a stones-throw from the Franciscan Wedding Chapel in Cana is the Church of the Apostle Nathanael, also called Bartholomew. This church was built, allegedly, on the site of Nathanael’s first-century home, although no archeological ruins beneath the church give any credibility to this legend. However, in Jesus’ day, Cana was a small village in Galilee, and so the notion that Nathanael’s home was near the place where Jesus turned water into wine is a safe assumption.

Built in 1885, the church is rarely open, but on this particular visit to Cana we were able to acquire the key to gain access.

The Apostle is known by two names. In the Gospel of John he is called Nathanael (meaning given by God). In the other Gospels he is referred to as Bartholomew (meaning son of Talmai).

We know at least four things about Nathanael prior to him becoming an Apostle:

1. He was the first skeptic in the Gospels. In John 1:45 Philip said to Nathanael, “We have found Him of Whom Moses wrote in the Law, and the prophets – Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” Nathanael replied by saying “Is any good thing able to come from Nazareth”. While it is commonly believed that this response meant that Nazareth was a poor and backwoods community, recent archeological excavations suggest that Nathanael was referencing the strong Roman influence in Nazareth, evidenced by the late discovery of an extremely large Roman bathhouse in the city.

2. Nathanael was the only person whom Christ complimented upon meeting him. Jesus said, “Behold, truly an Israelite in Whom there is no deceit.” Apparently, Nathanael was an honorable and upstanding Jewish man, and Jesus knew it without any direct evidence leading Him to this assumption. This brings us to the next thing we know.

3. Nathanael was the subject of Jesus’ first miracle. While many commentators reference Jesus’ turning water into wine in Cana as Christ’s first miraculous act (John 2:9), I beg to differ. Prior to the wedding feast in Cana Jesus told Nathanael, “Before Philip called you, you were under the fig tree. I saw you.” Jesus’ knowledge could not have been just intuition or empirical observation. Jesus was revealing His omniscience, evidenced by Nathanael’s reaction, which brings us to the fourth thing we know.

4. Nathanael was the first mortal in the Gospels to declare that Jesus was the Son of God. In John 1:49 he said, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God. You are the King of Israel.”

On the altar there is a sculpture of Philip, Jesus and Nathanael. The Latin Scripture verse from John 1:48,9 is translated, “Jesus said to him, ‘I saw you under the fig tree.’ Nathanael answered Him and said, ’Rabbi, you are the Son of God.’”.

Nathanael is said to have traveled as a missionary to various countries, but later to the area of Armenia, being joined by another Apostle, Judas Thaddeus. There, in 71 AD he was subsequently martyred for having converted the King of Armenia to Christianity. Ironically, 232 years later Armenia ultimately became the first nation in the world to officially adopt Christianity as its official religion.

According to legend, Nathanael was skinned alive and beheaded, often being artistically depicted holding his flayed skin and/or a curved knife with which he was skinned. On the traditional site of his martyrdom, a monastery in Armenia (now in ruins) was named in his honor. Both Nathanael and Judas Thaddeus are considered patron saints of the Armenian church.

A painting in the apse of the Church of Nathanael depicting his martyrdom.

Nathanael is often presumed by some to be the only one of Jesus’ twelve Apostles who was from the town of Cana. However, there is a statue of another Apostle in this church – Simon the Zealot. There are a few traditions that claim that Simon was also from Cana, which explains the inclusion of his statue in this church. In both art and sculpture, Simon is often shown with his attribute, a saw, reflecting the tradition that he was martyred by being sawn in half. (An attribute of a saint is generally a physical object, one commonly associated with the saint, and is usually included as a symbol in paintings or sculptures. In this case the attribute of Simon the Zealot is a saw.)

A statue of the Apostle Simon the Zealot inside the Church of Nathanael

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