The Apostle Bartholomew

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Christian tradition grants the Twelve Apostles the closest, most day-to-day relationships to Jesus Christ of anyone alive during His lifetime, save His mother (and perhaps Mary Magdalene, depending on which particular traditions you choose to study):

And going up into a mountain, He called unto Him whom He would Himself: and they came to Him. And He made that twelve should be with Him, and that He might send them to preach. And He gave them power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils. And to Simon He gave the name Peter: And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and He named them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder. And Andrew and Philip, and Bartholomew and Matthew, and Thomas and James of Alpheus, and Thaddeus and Simon the Cananean: And Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him. (Mark 3: 13-19)

After Christ's resurrection and ascension into heaven, the Twelve spread out among all the countries of the world to spread the message of the Gospel. Despite the Apostles' attendance on Christ's ministry, and their traditional importance in the establishment and diffusion of Christianity, we know relatively little about these men, other than St. Peter, whose importance to the Apostolic succession in Roman Catholicism has helped to preserve information about his life.

Who was Bartholomew? How was he portrayed in Anglo-Norman England, and how did he come to inspire the devoted affection shown by Rahere, who founded St. Bartholomew's Priory and Hospital in his name?

Bartholomew's existence in the books of the New Testament is shadowy, at best; so shadowy, in fact, that his name is mentioned in only three of the four gospels. Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention Bartholomew in their lists of the twelve, where he is generally associated with Philip:

And He called to Him His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and infirmity. The names of the twelve apostles are these: first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Him. (Matthew 10: 1-4)

What little we know about Bartholomew from this matter of fact statement is based on the etymology of his name. Bar- is the Hebrew prefix indicating a patronymic name, a name based on one's father (such as Jackson in modern English; FitzWilliam in the English of the Middle Ages; or Ivanovich in modern Russian). The word tolmai or talmai is Hebrew for "one abounding in furrows," that is, a farmer. Tholmai occurs in the Old Testament as the name of the King of Gessur, whose daughter became one of the wives of King David (2 Samuel 3:3). We conclude that Bartholomew was the son of a farmer.

No mention of Bartholomew enters John's gospel. Instead John describes an apostle named Nathanael, recruited during the visit to Galilee that also added Philip to the group:
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. And He found Philip and said to Him, "Follow me." Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. 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." Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Philip said to him, "Come and see." Jesus saw Nathanael coming to Him, and said of him, "Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile!" Nathanael said to Him, "How do you know me?" Jesus answered him, "Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you." Nathanael answered Him, "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!" Jesus answered him, "Because I said to you, I saw you under the fig tree, do you believe? You shall see greater things than these." And He said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man."
Whoever Nathanael is, he lived in Bethsaida, where Andrew, Peter and Philip were called to follow Christ; and Philip introduced Nathanael to Jesus. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Philip and Bartholomew are strongly associated, as shown in the verses above. Most scholars resolve this apparent discrepancy by concluding that Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person. For some long-lost reason, Nathanael son of Tholmai, Nathanael Bar Tholmai, became known by his surname, Bartholomew, in most later Church writings. If this conclusion is correct, John's description provides several valuable clues to Bartholomew's character:

Each of these characteristics is embroidered into later stories about Bartholomew. These stories do not enter the canonical New Testament, but they form the basis of much later belief in the apostle, as well as framing the nature of Bartholomew's mediation between men on earth and Christ.

(Image of St. Bartholomew, from a 1567 edition of the English Book of Common Prayer. The small figures in the background appear to be enacting the Apostle's martyrdom by flaying.)
Bartholomew from the 1567 English Book of Common Prayer 

Bartholomew in the Roman Martyrology

In the Roman Catholic church, saints and martyrs are commemorated on their feast days through the daily reading of the Roman Martyrology. The entry for 24 August, St. Bartholomew's feast day, reads as follows:

The apostle St. Bartholomew, who preached the Gospel of Christ in India.  Passing thence into the Greater Armenia where, after converting many to the faith, he was flayed alive by the barbarians, and having his head cut off by order of King Astyages, he fulfilled his martyrdom.  His holy body was first carried to the island of Lipara, then to Benevento, and finally to Rome in the Island of the Tiber, where it is venerated by the pious faithful.

(taken from

The Apostle's Creed

During the Middle Ages, the apostles themselves were believed to have written the earliest form of the Christian creed, under the influence of the Holy Spirit -- the Paraclete -- on or about Pentecost.
The medieval version of the origin of this late Apostles' Creed read:

"On the tenth day after the ascension when the disciples were gathered for fear of the Jews, the Lord sent the promised Paraclete. And when he had come as a flaming fire and they were filled with the knowledge of all tongues, they composed this symbol. Peter said: I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth. Andrew said: And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord. James said: Who was conceived by the holy Spirit, born of Mary the virgin. John said: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. Thomas said: Descended into Hades, on the third day rose from the dead. James said: Ascended into heaven, sitteth at the right hand of God the Father almighty. Philip said: Thence he is about to come to judge quick and dead. Bartholomew said: I believe in the holy Spirit. Matthew said: Holy catholic church, communion of saints. Simon said: Remission of sins. Thaddeus said: Resurrection of the flesh. Matthias said: Life eternal." (From A. C. McGiffert's The Apostle's Creed, 1902, cited by Conrad Henry Moehrman in The Origin of the Apostle's Creed, published in the Journal of Religion, Vol. 13, Issue 3 (July 1933), pgs. 301-319)
Scholars believe that the apostles were "assigned" segments of the Creed based on the lists provided in Matthew and the Acts of the Apostles, rather than being associated based on personal characteristics of the individuals, with the exception of James and Thomas:
Whatever the method of dividing the text into articles, the ascription of these articles to the various Apostles does not seem, with two possible exceptions, to have been established primarily with reference to their personal characteristics. ... One significant variation of the Canon sequence reverses the positions of James and John; and in the resulting assignment of ... the clause "...born of Mary the virgin" to John, St. Albert, who follows this order, clearly alludes to John's relation to Mary after the crucifixion as narrated in the Fourth Gospel (xix 26-27). Also, in the two most common sequences the name of Thomas occurs earlier than in the others, thus facilitating the ascription to him of the article of the resurrection. For that reason it is tempting to suppose that the obvious propriety of assigning this article to the Apostle for whom the resurrection had to be proved determined the choice. (From James D. Gordon's The Articles of the Creed and the Apostles, published in Speculum, Vol. 40 (October 1965), pgs. 634-640).
From the scholarly point of view, therefore, we are not to assume that Bartholomew's presumed authorship of the line "I believe in the holy Spirit" has any relationship at all to his immediate and deep profession of faith in Jesus Christ as described in the Gospel of John (cited above).

St. Bartholomew's crest
The crest of St. Bartholomew, located on the church-facing side of the Smithfield Gate, the entrance into the churchyard of St. Bartholomew-the-Great. The flaying knife represents Bartholomew's martyrdom; the image is surrounded with a banner containing the Latin phrase credo in spiritum sanctum, "I believe in the holy Spirit."

(photo taken by tbird, October 2004)

Creating Bartholomew: Biography by Accretion

During the first several centuries after Christ, stories about Him, the apostles, and their lives -- not to mention writings on the meaning of Christ's life, the duties of a Christian, and predictions about the end of the world -- exploded into existence. Very little of this material became integrated into the canonical writings of the New Testament. But a great deal of it filtered into saints' lives, hymns, and specific prayers for feast days, personalizing the men and women of the early church and creating the common Christian's often colorful understanding of his or her religion.
But while the early Church exercised proper discernment, and the Canon of the New Testament was soon definitely recognised and universally accepted, the apocryphal writings were not without influence. The sacred legends, the ecclesiastical traditions, all too potent in their effect, are in many cases to be traced to these writings. Much that Rome inculcates is derived from these books, which the Western Church constantly rejected.

...we all know how much fabulous matter is apt to gather round the names of popular heroes even in modern times.

It is not to be wondered at, then, that round the names of Christ and His apostles, who had brought about social changes greater than those effected by the exploits of any hero of old, there should gather, as the result of the wondering awe of simple-minded men, a growth of the romantic and the fabulous.

These stories came at length to form a sort of apostolic cycle, of which the documents following are portions. (from M. B. Riddle's Introductory Notice to Apocrypha of the New Testament, 1870) 

The Martyrdom of the Holy and Glorious Apostle Bartholomew

The apocryphal document which seems to have contributed the most to medieval beliefs about St. Bartholomew is The Martyrdom of the Holy and Glorious Apostle Bartholomew, also available at the New Advent website. Both copies of the text appear to have been taken from the same source, probably The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Latin Christianity), by Roberts et al., most recently published by Eerdmans in 1951. M. R. James translated the document independently for his Apocryphal New Testament, published by Clarendon Press (Oxford) in 1924. 

St. Bartholomew's mission and martyrdom, unlike the travels of more prominent apostles, such as St. Peter and St. James, does not appear in surviving Christian documents before the works of Eusebius, the so-called Father of Church History, who lived in the latter part of the third century. Eusebius quotes the teacher and missionary Pantænus (died approximately 200CE), who travelled to India and was told there that Bartholomew had brought the Gospel of St. Matthew to them. The Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Bartholomew, written by John Fenlon, states the following without specific citation:
Other traditions represent St. Bartholomew as preaching in Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Armenia, Lycaonia, Phrygia, and on the shores of the Black Sea; one legend, it is interesting to note, identifies him with Nathanael. The manner of his death, said to have occurred at Albanopolis in Armenia, is equally uncertain; according to some, he was beheaded, according to others, flayed alive and crucified, head downward, by order of Astyages, for having converted his brother, Polymius, King of Armenia.
These "other" traditions apparently coalesce into the story of Bartholomew's martyrdom, published as an anonymous chapter in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, and summarized here. [For more detailed information about the document, including the parts most relevant to the history of St. Bartholomew the Great, please consult my discussion of the Martyrdom of Bartholomew.]

The Apostle Bartholomew travelled far from Jerusalem, into the most distant parts of the region of India, carrying the word of Christ's resurrection, the need for baptism and repentance, and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Like many pilgrims and the poor of the area, he took up residence in the temple of a local idol called Astaruth. But his presence immediately began disrupting "normal" life at the temple.

Apparently, Astaruth convinced his followers of his power by first making them physically ill (without their knowledge). When the sick travelled to his temple and offered the appropriate sacrifices, Astaruth removed their afflictions and gained their worship. But when Bartholomew entered the area, Astaruth's apparent ability to cure the sick failed, because the presence of Christ's apostle robbed the demon of his power:
And having there sacrificed, they demanded, asking why their god Astaruth had not responded to them. And the demon Becher answered and said to them: From the day and hour that the true God, who dwelleth in the heavens, sent his apostle Bartholomew into the regions here, your god Astaruth is held fast by chains of fire, and can no longer either speak or breathe. They said to him: And who is this Bartholomew? He answered: He is the friend of the Almighty God, and has just come into these parts, that he may take away all the worship of the idols in the name of his God.
The news of Bartholomew's power spread quickly, as his ability to control Astaruth and Beliar became more apparent. Finally the king of the region, a man named Polymius, brought his daughter to the Apostle for healing.
And Polymius, the king of that country, happened to be standing opposite the apostle; and he had a daughter a demoniac, that is to say, a lunatic. And he heard about the demoniac that had been healed, and sent messengers to the apostle, saying: My daughter is grievously torn; I implore thee, therefore, as thou hast delivered him who suffered for many years, so also to order my daughter to be set free. And the apostle rose up, and went with them. And he sees the king's daughter bound with chains, for she used to tear in pieces all her limbs; and if any one came near her, she used to bite, and no one dared to come near her. The servants say to him: And who is it that dares to touch her? The apostle answered them: Loose her, and let her go. They say to him again: We have her in our power when she is bound with all our force, and dost thou bid us loose her? The apostle says to them: Behold, I keep her enemy bound, and are you even now afraid of her? Go and loose her; and when she has partaken of food, let her rest, and early to-morrow bring her to me. And they went and did as the apostle had commanded them; and thereafter the demon was not able to come near her.
This excerpt from an early hymn, originally published in F. J. Mone's Latin Hymns of the Middle Ages (Leipzig, 1855), praises Bartholomew for driving the demon out of Polymius' daughter. Dr. Norman Moore describes it as "A hymn contained in a manuscript old enough to have been read by our founder thus sums up the medical powers of our patron saint [Rahere]" (A Brief Relation of the Past and Present State of the Royal and Religious Foundation of St. Bartholomew's, (London: Adlard and Son) 1895).

Mundat leprosos
saluti pristinæ
et reddit ægros,

Vestivit cæcos
præsenti lumine
fecitque sanos.

Oratio ejus
paralyticos erigit
atque curat energumenos.

Nam Indici natam
regis diu lunaticam
sola prece salvam fecerat.
He cleanses the lepers
and restores the infirm to pristine good health,

He clothes the blind
in the light of their surroundings
and makes them see

His prayers
raise the paralyzed
and heal those possessed by devils.

For by his sole prayer
he saved the king's daughter,
who had long been insane.

(Translated with much assistance from Daniel Police.)

In his joy at his daughter's recovery, Polymius attempted to reward Bartholomew with all the riches of the East. But the only reward Bartholomew wanted was the conversion of Polymius and his family and followers to the True Faith. In The Martyrdom, Bartholomew recounted tale after tale of Christ's life to the king, including the virgin birth -- Mary's redemption of Eve's sin -- and Christ's sacrifice on the Cross as the redemption of Adam's fall and the sins of all mankind. Finally, he emphasized the lesson in this way:
And when the Lord had conquered the tyrant [Satan], He sent His apostles into all the world, that He might redeem His people from the deception of the devil; and one of these I am, an apostle of Christ. On this account we seek not after gold or silver, but rather despise them, because we labour to be rich in that place where the kingdom of Him alone endures forever...

... At the same time hear also by what means he injures all those who are lying sick in the temple. The devil himself by his own art causes the men to be sick, and again to be healed, in order that they may the more believe in the idols, and in order that he may place the more in their souls, in order that they may say to the stock and the stone, You are our God. But that demon who dwells in the idol is held in subjection, conquered by me, and is able to give no response to those who sacrifice and pray there. And if you wish to prove that it is so, I order him to return into the idol, and I will make him confess with his own mouth that he is bound, and able to give no response.
Ironically, the argument which makes Bartholomew's final point, and converts Polymius, is offered by the demon Astaruth himself. Astaruth described the harrowing of Hell and Christ's resurrection, crying out "And he [Christ] put to death Death himself, our king, and he bound our prince [Satan] in chains of fire; and on the third day, having conquered death and the devil, rose in glory, and gave the sign of the cross to his apostles, and sent them out into the four quarters of the world; and one of them is here just now, who has bound me, and keeps me in subjection."

Polymius and his people converted to Christianity and tore down the idols and temples of their false worship. So far so good: Bartholomew gained the patronage of the king, and all seemed promising for the flourishing of the True Faith in this distant land. But we have failed to reckon with the priests of the false gods. Described only as Greeks, they fled to Polymius' brother, another king, named Astreges. Unfortunately the document fails to explain the political relationship between these two kings, which proves to be an important detail. Astreges questioned Bartholomew about his actions with regard to Astaruth, and incurs the apostle's wrath on his own patron diety, known as Baldad or Vualdath. At this point, Astreges orders his soldiers to beat the apostle with rods, and then behead him; as far as we know, Polymius had no way to prevent this punishment from being carried out:
The apostle says to him: If I have bound and kept in subjection the god which thy brother worshipped, and at my order the idols were broken in pieces, if thou also art able to do the same to my God, thou canst persuade me also to sacrifice to thy gods; but if thou canst do nothing to my God, I will break all thy gods in pieces; but do thou believe in my God.

And when he had thus spoken, the king was informed that this god Baldad and all the other idols had fallen down, and were broken in pieces. Then the king rent the purple in which he was clothed, and ordered the holy apostle Bartholomew to be beaten with rods; and after having been thus scourged, to be beheaded.

And innumerable multitudes came from all the cities, to the number of twelve thousand, who had believed in him along with the king; and they took up the remains of the apostle with singing of praise and with all glory, and they laid them in the royal tomb, and glorified God. And the king Astreges having heard of this, ordered him to be thrown into the sea; and his remains were carried into the island of Liparis.

In later epochs the form of the martyrdom changed from beheading to flaying, which has lead to the adoption of the flaying knife as Bartholomew's most characteristic icon.
Bartholomew's martyrdom by flaying

Shortly after the apostle died, Astreges met an untimely end, being overpowered by a demon and strangled, as were his Greek priests. Polymius becomes a bishop and rules his people wisely for twenty years, having gained the power of healing himself.

Bartholomew in Early Texts 

A more detailed presentation of the early documents I used to prepare this summary.

Bartholomew in the time of Rahere: the Legenda Aurea

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Photographs and text copyright Tina Bird, 2003-2019
Last modified 15 February 2019
St. Bart's coat of arms

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