The story of the christian faith can sometimes be a very narrow story, especially when Tradition is overlooked in light of the written word. In the ancient church, the word wasn’t something confined to just the Bible but to the apostolic authority passed on from Christ Himself. In fact the very reason we even have a Bible is because of Tradition in this sense, and the rejection of tradition in many ways has left us in the dark about much of the christian faith. I would bet that if you asked a person on the street about St. Peter, Paul, Mary, or even John, they would at least recognize the name as one surrounding the story of Jesus Christ; but if you asked the same person about St. Bartholomew, they would probably not even know that he was one of the very apostles of Christ. This is because there is not much said about him in the Bible; but if we look into tradition, even tradition that isn’t dogmatic, there is a tale to be told about this Saint.
St. Bartholomew’s tale, like most of the apostles, ends in martyrdom, that ideal which was essential in the early church and would be considered insane today. An ideal that leaves many christians who must at the least see the whole foundation of their faith resting on the shoulders of the One Crucified, cringing at the consequences of holding the faith to the point of death, but was desired by many in those early years of the church and to this day. His story begins where all the stories of the apostles really begin, and that is with Christ “sending them out” in the great commission. The word apostle translates to “one who is sent” in Greek, and it is here that the transition from disciple to apostle occurs, and where the story of Bartholomew begins.
Bartholomew is said to have travelled as far as India, and may have left a copy of the Gospel of Matthew there, written in Hebrew. This comes from Eusebius and also from Jerome, both writers from the 4th century. In other stories He is said to have preached in Mesopotamia, Persia and Armenia of which he is considered the patron saint and where he was martyred.
One tradition holds that his martyrdom was by beheading and another that he was flayed alive and crucified. This later tradition can be seen in the art and iconography surrounding the Saint as he is shown holding his skin or wearing it like a stole, a priestly garment. I was reminded of the parable of Jesus concerning wineskins, and thought how this would play into such symbology. As mentioned earlier, the idea of martyrdom isn’t a popular one today, but in ancient times even the most gruesome deaths were seen as almost a badge of honor, and grounds for instant sainthood, but I think the point is that the such stories are meant to shock us. The traditions grew to remind us, to make us consider, to speak for those who’s voices were silenced. The fact that a story is grotesque may cause us to cringe, but it is certain to cause us to listen.