John 1:45-51

The 24th August is the day we celebrate Bartholomew, one of the twelve Apostles and martyr. And we do so, referring to the one Gospel that doesn’t mention the name of Bartholomew at all. Now in a sense that may seem odd, but if you’re an avid reader of the Bible it is something that you’re probably quite used to. After all, how many people do we know in the bible that have more than one name?

Abram was renamed Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Joseph was renamed Zaphenath-Paneah, Hoshea became Joshua, Gideon became known as Jerub-Baal, and God called Solomon Jedidiah. In addition in New Testament times it was quite normal to have more than one name. Indeed Jews in New Testament times would have had a Greek name as well as their Hebrew or Aramaic name; and they would have had Latinised versions of their names too.

So Jesus (which is a Greek) would have been known as Yeshua (in Hebrew); and Paul (a Greek name) was also known as Saul (a Hebrew name). And Peter … well for Peter, it gets even more complicated. Because Peter (a Greek name) was also known as Simeon (Hebrew) or Simon (Greek) and Cephas (also Greek).

It shouldn’t surprise us then that Bartholomew (a Greek name) has also generally been considered to be the Nathanael (a Hebrew name) of John’s Gospel. And the primary reason for that is the connection with Philip, who introduced him to Jesus.

Now you might be wondering what’s all this about names? So what if people had several names. What’s that got to do with us? Well, like it or not even today we have several names. Indeed we are given at least two at our birth. And some of us have acquired quite a few other names since then too.

Monks and nuns, even today, take on a new name when making their vows. And the idea is to distinguish their new life from their old. And as Christians, the early tradition was that when you became a believer, you adopted a new name—a Christian name—a name that was different to name you were given at birth. Again the idea was to distinguish our new life from our old. But the practice is where we get the term “christening” from.

Of course, as you probably realise, something has gone terribly wrong with the idea of “Christian” names and “Christening”—and it probably went wrong in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless the idea of distinguishing our new life, our life of faith, from our old life still stands. After all, we are supposed to move away from the old, and to identify with a very different lifestyle—a lifestyle with God at the centre. We are supposed to live lives distinct and different to the kind of lives that we lived before we believed. And many, not all, of the changes of name in the Bible reflect that fact.

So what’s in a name? Well names can mean nothing, or they can mean everything. And we can thank Bartholomew (‘son of Talmai’), who was also known as Nathanael (‘gift of God’), a native of Cana of Galilee, an Apostle, and close friend of Philip for reminding us of that (Matthew 10:1–4; Mark 3:13–19; Luke 6:12–16; Acts 1:4, 12, 13).

Posted: 23rd August 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis