"Barnabas was a good man, full of faith and of the Holy Spirit"! And he is one of the rather neglected heroes of the New Testament Church.
The following essay was a little booklet called "The Life and Work of St. Barnabas". It was written a number of years ago by the Reverend Stanley R. Sinclair, then Rector of St. Barnabas Anglican Church in Calgary, Canada.
Barnabas is first mentioned in the story of the young Church when he sold his property and gave it to the disciples for the good of the Christian community.(1) This was in sharp contrast to Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who concealed part of their wealth and both died suddenly after their deception was discovered, apparently under the spell of guilt and fear.(2)
Barnabas was born in Cyprus to Jews of Diaspora, people who had been carried far from their homeland by persecution, but who managed at last to return to Jerusalem. This indicates that they were people of means. (Travel alone was expensive.) They were Hellenized Jews, because Barnabas is "son of Nebo", and that is a Greek form of a Hebrew name. It means "son of Encouragement", or "Consolation".(3) (That was a happy accident, and certainly appropriate.) But his first name was Joses. The Apostles called him Barnabas.(4)
His father, like many Jewish people who lived within the Gentile world, also had another Greco-Roman name, Aristobulus; and this was the name of a younger brother of Barnabas also.
Barnabas had connections to the royal family of Israel - meaning the family of our Lord;(5) because Mark was his cousin,(6) and this Mark, who later became Peter's assistant, the writer of the Gospel, and first Bishop of Alexandria, had as parents Mary and Clopas, kinsmen of the blessed Virgin Mary.
Some historians relate Barnabas to the Herodians as well, because the name Aristobulus was common among them. However, this seems unlikely to have escaped the notice of that indefatigable historian, St. Luke, who does record the role of Manaean,(7) foster-brother of Herod the Tetrarch, in the Antiochean Church, and would have delighted to "name drop" just a little.
Aristobulus, the brother of Barnabas, was among the Seventy, or Seventy-two, sent out by Jesus, and corresponding to the full number of the Sanhedrin, high council of the Jews.(8) Since Barnabas was a Levite,(9) of prominent family, he probably studied at the temple in preparation for assuming his share of the administrative duties which the order of Levites carried on. (The Levites, 10,000 in number, "manned" the Temple operations, and were one grade below the Aaronic Priests.) It is not strange that the young Cypriot should meet the young man of Tarsus, a fellow student, pupil of the celebrated rabbi, Gamaliel. Very likely it was in the precincts of the Temple that a friendship was struck between Barnabas and Saul. Barnabas is called an "apostle".(10) Since it was in Antioch, not Jerusalem, that Barnabas was ordained by the laying on of hands,(11) he would probably not have been of the Seventy sent out by Jesus, the "second wave" of apostles (some scholars think that he was). There is no record of any further "ordination", of those whom Jesus personally called, by anyone else. As a servant of the Temple, he may have stayed loyal to the high priest for a while. Did Aristobulus finally convince him? Or did he hold out? Was he, in fact, a henchman of Paul bearing some complicity in the martyrdom of Stephen? Unlikely, considering the Church's trust in him. Probably he was among the three thousand converted in the excitement of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and they preached to thousands of pilgrims on holiday in Jerusalem, being heard in many languages.(12) Top of Page
A Follower of Jesus
His first recorded act as a follower of Jesus was to sell his land and give the proceeds to the Church, in fact we are told he "laid the money at the apostles' feet". The Jerusalem Church lived in community both for safety and in order to provide for the many widows and poor people among them.(13)
Trusted as he was, Barnabas then went to Damascus to check on the activities of Paul for the Jerusalem church leadership, notably James, the brother of the Lord, the bishop of the Christians.(14) This was the beginning of a long period of close collaboration between Barnabas and his friend, who became the immortal Apostle to the Gentiles.(15)
He took him to Jerusalem, where the Apostles extended the right hand of fellowship. The Christian community of Jerusalem, still the "headquarters" of the Church, in its first three years, had come through not only the Lord's passion and resurrection, but the martyrdoms of Stephen the Deacon, and James the son of Zebedee. It was no easy thing for a persecuted minority to trust the one-time leader of the campaign of terror against them as a brother, much less an "apostle". It is a measure of their esteem for Barnabas.
James and the others then directed Barnabas to establish the Church in Antioch, to which some of the already-dispersed Greek-speaking Christians had gone (they would have been mostly Jewish). It was a great city in Syria, almost a million people, founded three hundred years earlier by the Seleucid dynasty; renowned for the splendor of its public buildings, the third city of the Roman Empire. Later, on the foundations of Barnabas, the See of Antioch became one of the three original Patriarchates of Christendom. The Syrian Antiochian Church, a branch of the Eastern Orthodox faith, exists today all over the world as the survivor of those ancient foundations.
Barnabas chose Paul to go with him, and there they taught the Church for a year, molding it into a great organization whose missionary zeal resulted in the spread of the Gospel.(16) When famine hit Palestine, Barnabas and Paul went in person bearing what must have been a princely sum to relieve the distress of needy Christians there.(17) While in Jerusalem Barnabas inspired the young John Mark, his cousin, with the call of the Gospel, and Mark returned with the two men to Antioch.(18) Several more years passed, in which the Church grew in what must have been a period of relative tranquility.
Barnabas was an impressive man, a real leader, but not the golden-tongued orator nor the extremely strong personality which Paul had proven to be. In 46 A.D., a dozen years after Paul's conversion, the two men set sail for Cyprus, and there Paul's emergence as the real leader of the mission to the Gentiles begins to evidence itself in his dealings with Sergius Paulos, the roman pro-consul, and the shifty opportunist, Simon bar Jesus, called Elymas, ("Simon Magus", who later went on to Rome) with whom Peter had earlier had dealings in Samaria.(19) Cyprus was home ground for Barnabas in a way, and it was probably his contacts that made possible this confrontation with the governor,(20) which led to Sergius' conversion and the rapid spread of Christianity in the island, to which many Jewish Christian converts had already fled.
By the time that this party had reached Pisidia, a province of Asia Minor, and had undergone many difficulties, John Mark decided to return home. The neophyte had found this missionary business more than he in his youthful love of adventure had bargained for!(21) This departure would drive a wedge, at least temporarily, between Barnabas and Paul.
They covered fourteen hundred miles, visiting such places as Pisidian Antioch (not to be confused with the Syrian city), Iconium, and Lystra. In Lystra they were hailed as gods because of their spiritual gifts. Barnabas was dubbed "Jupiter", and honoured even by the priest of the Temple of Jupiter. Paul was called "Mercury", because of his oratorical gifts, but obviously it was Barnabas who was the commanding figure!(22) A stranger who must have been quite a man.
This journey concluded with a visit to Jerusalem where Barnabas and Paul reported on their mission.
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Mission to the Gentiles
Upon returning to Jerusalem from their journeys in Cyprus and Asis Minor, the reports of the two young missionaries about extensive inroads by the Christian faith into the Gentile world sharpened the difference of opinion already dividing the Church. There were those, still evidently imbued with the tenets of the Pharisees, who saw Christian religion as the fulfillment of Judaism but not a replacement for it, in part no doubt an interpretation of Jesus' own words, "I come to fulfill, not to destroy ... Not one word of the Law shall pass away ...".(23)
But Jesus' call to a universal mission by his followers was also unequivocal,(24) and though he commanded that Baptism be administered, and his teachings made known, he certainly did not suggest much less give order that Jewish ritual and dietary laws be observed. Nevertheless, it would have been surprising if such a dispute had not arisen, since Jesus himself had observed the Jewish holy days in the Temple and had lived as a good Jew, and the distinctive practices of Jewish religious culture had not only been perpetuated as a sign of faith, but as a way of binding together a subject and otherwise defenseless minority.
This was the immediate cause of the so-called "Council of Jerusalem", which met soon after Paul and Barnabas had arrived. Peter sided with Paul, and it was James, the Lord's brother, as presiding officer, who delivered the verdict of the apostolic leadership in favor of the Gentiles and of a broad-based, tolerant Christianity. The chief requirements for admission into the Church, other than faith in Christ, were to be moral decency and abstinence from food which had been offered to idols then sold in the meat markets attached to the pagan temples.(25)
This settled the question but did not end the differences entirely, and Paul recalls rather tartly the later occasion(26) when Peter - who had himself given up pharisaic religious customs - sat with the Jewish Christians at a meal, more-or-less snubbing the Gentiles. Barnabas was present and "cowardly", in Paul's eyes, went along with Peter. This is the one recorded instance of criticism being directed at Barnabas, who, in St. Luke's view, was "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith".(27) Nobody is perfect! But at the successful conclusion of the Jerusalem meeting, Paul was eager to get back on the mission trail with Barnabas. However, Barnabas wanted Mark to accompany them, and Paul refused, because of Mark's failure to stick out that first long journey.(28) We can well imagine the very human feelings involved, and how stubborn Paul must have seemed to the more steady and easygoing Barnabas.
The upshot of this was that Barnabas took John Mark with him to Cyprus, and Paul and Silas went off to Derbe and Lystra.(29) From this time, Barnabas apparently devoted much of his time to the Church in Cyprus, his island homeland.
Barnabas, according to Paul, always supported himself, as Paul also did, rather than receiving a stipend. We know that wealthy women followers of Jesus looked after the material needs of the apostles and their families, the principal ones being Mary Magdalene and Susanna. The circumstances of their lives strongly suggest that both Paul and Barnabas were wealthy men. Paul was a "tentmaker", which can best be understood as a supplier of tents on a fairly large scale. The unsupported travels of these two men could not have been financed by menial itinerant labor. Their entree into great houses and to great men cannot be explained, except by their social eminence. Nor did Jews obtain Roman citizenship, as their fathers had, without large contributions to the imperial coffers. If we want to find parallels to their positions, they would be like the Jewish merchant princes of Venice and Frankfurt many centuries later, people of enterprise, culture and riches. The Christian socialism of the nineteenth century romanticized the apostolic church as a "proletarian" band of the poor. The concern of Jesus for the poor is unquestionable. But the Gospel record strongly suggests that many of the early followers were quite well-off, prominent, well-placed and cultured Jews, Idumeans, and foreigners. Barnabas must be placed among the prosperous first Christians, with a "competence" that freed him from the necessity of holding down a job. Nothing in Luke's account of the missionary journeys leads us to believe that Barnabas and Paul "earned as they went".(30) Top of Page
Significance to Anglicans
Early Church sources, which, unfortunately, cannot be verified from other works, mention visits by Barnabas to Britain along with his brother Aristobulus.(31) At storied Glastonbury he is said to have baptized Beatus, first Bishop of the Helvetians. We, today, so remote from those events, are inclined to scoff at the romances about British Church origins. Some scholars point out that the extant historical references come from the 11th and 12th centuries and are not found in the extant works by writers from the earlier ages of the Church. Of course not! The British Church was remote and had been uprooted by the hordes of invading heathen tribes. Few documents of early Christian history survive as original source material. But Geoffrey of Monmouth, William of Malmesbury, Robert of Gloucester, all refer to a number of very ancient writers as their authorities. They are now lost to us (the manuscript copies would have been few in number; wars and fires such as that which destroyed the Saxon abbey of Glastonbury, took their toll of fragile and rare material). But that should not cause us to dismiss these ancient accounts out of hand. Cynics and skeptics "argue from silence". We may not say with certainty that St. Joseph, St. Paul, and St. Barnabas spent time in Britain, but early church sources confirm, and what we know of their activities, does not rule out such visits. Trade routes to Britain, especially the west, were regular and busy.
The frequency of the use of St. Barnabas' name for Anglican parishes is undoubtedly inspired by the notion of a strong link between British Christianity and the Apostle of Cyprus.
Barnabas was credited with an Epistle which by the time of the "Father of Church History", St. Eusebuis, in the late third - early fourth centuries, was certainly in doubt. But it was long accepted in Alexandria, for instance, as genuine.(32) The prevailing opinion of scholars today is that an Alexandrian Christian wrote this Epistle, attributing it to Barnabas, because he supported the idea of a universal Gospel not a Jewish one. But it was written very early, at the latest only a generation after Barnabas had died.
His death is usually dated 61 A.D., at Salamis, where he and Paul had begun their world travels nearly twenty years before. As with other details of his story, we cannot prove that it is so, but everything points to the truth of the account. He was stoned to death. Legend asserts that St. Mark placed a scroll of Matthew's Gospel on his breast. This is consistent with the known facts, that Mark and Barnabas served in Cyprus, and were close relations. The Gospel according to St. Matthew is widely believed to have been compiled at Antioch from an earlier and sketchier collection of the deeds and sayings of Jesus attributed to the Apostle.
St. Barnabas can fairly be called the "Fifteenth" Apostle - after Matthias (who replaced the traitorous suicide, Judas) and St. Paul himself. He can be claimed as founder of the Cypriot Christian community and as one of the founders of The Great Patriarchate of Antioch. He can fairly be claimed to be one of the apostolic founders of British Christianity which had such strong resemblance to the Eastern Orthodoxy whose roots are in Palestine, Asia Minor and Syria. He is a proud name in the annals of Christian history.
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1. Acts 4:37
2. Acts 5:1-11
3. Acts 4:36
5. Most authorities agree that St. Mary was of the Davidic family as well as Joseph. As foster-father, Joseph also bestowed his lineage on his adopted son.
7. Acts 13:1
8. Luke 10:1
9. Acts 4:36
10. By inference from N.T.
11. Acts 2:46
12. Acts 1:42
13. Acts 1:44
14. Acts 15:13H
15. Romans 11:13
16. Acts 13:3
17. Acts 11:29-30
18. Acts 12:25
19. Acts 13:6
20. Acts 13:7
21. Acts 13:13
22. Acts 14:12
23. Matt. 5:17
24. Matt. 5:18
25. Acts 15:19
26. Gal. 2:13
27. Acts 11:24
28. Acts 15:37
29. Acts 15:39-40
30. 1 Cor. 9:6
31. He was Bishop of Britain accordig to Dorotheus (writing 303). Gildas the historian (425) places the beginning of the Christian Mission there in 37 A.D.
32. The "canon" or authoritative list of New Testament books was established in 382, but a so-called "Muratorian Canon" of the 2nd century, lists most of those later recognized.