AMONG the many distinctive bits of information that John recorded for us in his Gospel are his references to Nathanael. None of the other Gospel writers, known as the synoptists, mention the name; yet he appears prominently in John, chapter one, and in chapter twenty-one he is mentioned with the apostles of Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias or the Sea of Galilee. Who was Nathanael?
John introduces Nathanael at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, right after Jesus had called Philip to be his follower: “Now Philip was from Bethsaida, from the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael,” apparently at once looking up his special friend to impart to him the good news: “‘We have found the one of whom Moses, in the Law, and the Prophets wrote, Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Nazareth.’ But Nathanael said to him: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him: ‘Come and see.’”
It seems that Jesus recognized Nathanael first, saying to him: “See, an Israelite for a certainty, in whom there is no deceit.” This greeting caused Nathanael to wonder and to say: “‘How does it come that you know me?’ Jesus in answer said to him: ‘Before Philip called you, while you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him: ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are King of Israel.’ Jesus in answer said to him: ‘Because I told you I saw you underneath the fig tree do you believe? You will see things greater than these.’”—John 1:43-50.
Nathanael must have been an outstanding Israelite for Jesus to address him thus. That he was well versed in the Scriptures also appears from Philip’s remark to him.
Nathanael is best known for his question, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” After all, he may have reasoned, the city of Nazareth was not mentioned in his Scriptures. But he was openminded, as seen in his willingness to “come and see.” And upon seeing and hearing for himself Nathanael at once confessed, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, you are King of Israel”—no doubt being among the first to do so.
It is noteworthy that, when telling of those who were with Jesus on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias on one post-resurrection morning, John only mentions Nathanael in the midst of four others who are apostles, and he adds that Nathanael was “from Cana of Galilee.” It was from Galilee that eleven of Jesus’ apostles came, and, remember, it was early in his ministry, when he was calling those who became his apostles, that Jesus met Nathanael.—John 21:2.
If Nathanael was indeed an apostle, then under what name do the other Gospel writers list him, since they do not mention a Nathanael? All the evidence points to Bartholomew—a view shared by nearly all the leading English Bible reference works. Why so? From John’s record it appears that Philip and Nathanael were close friends, and it is meaningful that the other Gospel writers always list Philip and Bartholomew together when naming the twelve. Further, we find that just as they do not mention Nathanael, neither does John mention Bartholomew.—Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:14.
Then how do we account for the two names, Nathanael and Bartholomew? Nathanael is evidently his proper name, the one given to him by his parents, whereas Bartholomew is the one by which he usually was called. Why? Because Bartholomew literally means “son of Tolmai.” This is in keeping with the way Jesus addressed Peter on occasion, either as “Simon son of Jonah” or “Simon son of John.” Also, note how the record introduces the traveling companion of Paul: “Joseph, who was surnamed Barnabas [or bar of Nabas] by the apostles, which means, when translated, ‘Son of Comfort.’” Nor may we overlook the fact that Matthew was also known as Levi and Thomas as Didymus or The Twin.—Matt. 16:17; John 21:15; Acts 4:36.
Thus it is evident that Nathanael was an apostle, the one appearing in all the lists of the apostles, including the one at Acts 1:13, as Bartholomew.