Theories About Nathanael
As we stated earlier in this chapter, while most Bible scholars agree than Nathanael and Bartholomew are the same person, others disagree.
The Armenian and Syriac translations of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History use the name “Tolmai” or “Bartholomew” (“Son of Tolmai”) every place where the Greek uses the name “Matthias.” This has led to some people holding the position that Bartholomew is another name for Matthias. Of course, that causes its own confusions, since Bartholomew was already one of the apostles when Matthias was chosen to replace Judas.1
Some have suggested that Nathanael (which means “gift of God”) and Matthew (which means “gift of God”) are two names for the same person. However, as Barclay points out, those men in the Bible who were known by multiple names generally had a Jewish name and a Greek name (or a first name and a surname). Nathanael and Matthew are both Jewish names, which, while not impossible, goes against the general rule regarding names.2
It’s been said that Nathanael wasn’t a real person at all, but that he was an ideal representation of the true Israelite who would accept the gospel (some have said it specifically pictures Saul of Tarsus). In other words, Andrew, Peter, and Philip were all real people, but Nathanael was figurative, representing those who the apostles would call. There is nothing at all in the text, nor common sense, to suggest that Nathanael wasn’t a real individual who was really searched for by Philip, and who really came to Jesus, and who really went fishing with the disciples after the resurrection.3
Various interpreters, with differing levels of evidence, have tried to identify Nathanael as John, the son of Zebedee (though that makes John 21:2 ridiculous), as Stephen, as Paul, as Matthew, as Matthias,4 and as Simon the Zealot.5
Each of these theories presents difficulties, while the identification of Nathanael as Bartholomew presents none.
-Bradley S. Cobb
1 See Dr. E. Nestle’s “Matthias=Bartholomew” in Expository Times, Vol. 9 (1898), pages 566-567.
2 See William Barclay’s Daily Study Bible notes on John 1:45.
3 Again, see Barclay’s notes on this passage. He does not accept this interpretation, but does present it as what others have said.
4 See the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia entry on “Nathanael.”
5 See the “Genealogies of the Twelve Apostles” in E.A. Wallace Budge’s The Contendings of the Apostles, Vol. 2, page 50. Here, Nathanael is said to be the same as Simon (the son of Cleopas), one of the twelve.