Barnabas was a native of the island of Cyprus. His birthplace makes him a Jew of the Diaspora, the dispersion of Jews outside Palestine or modern Israel. He was originally named Joseph but the apostles called him Barnabas, he probably acquired this name because of his ability as a preacher. The name Barnabas was understood by Luke to mean “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36). Barnabas was an apostle of the secondary group, companion of Paul on his mission to Cyprus and the Pisidian mainland.
Barnabas first appears in Luke’s account of communal living in the Jerusalem church, as a man of some means who gave to the church the proceeds from the sale of a piece land, “Barnabas sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 4:36-37). After the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7:54-8:1, the church was persecuted and scattered, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison” Acts 8:1-3. In Acts 9:26-27, “Saul tries to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.
He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus.” Barnabas thus belongs to the company of first converts in Jerusalem who were won by the apostolic preaching, if not by Jesus himself.
Though not a native, Barnabas had the confidence of the apostles. Later he was sent to join the company of workers at Antioch, to preach to Jews, Hellenists, and Greeks (Acts 11:19-22). As the work of the Antioch church expanded and more workers were needed, Barnabas went over to Tarsus and brought back with him Saul. It seems that Barnabas was the leader of the Antioch church, and the order which Luke gives, “Barnabas and Saul,” indicates the pre-eminence. It was “Barnabas and Saul” who carried relief funds from Antioch to the famine-stricken Jerusalem (Acts 11:30).
Barnabas was commissioned by the Antioch church, along with Saul and John Mark, to undertake the missionary journey which led them to Cyprus and later to the provinces of the mainland. While on the island of Cyprus, two major changes occur, Saul is now called Paul and the leadership role changes from Barnabas to Paul (Acts 13:9). Once on the mainland, the group would be referred to as “Paul and his company” (Acts 13:13).
In Lystra, there was a wave of enthusiasm on the part of the natives, and Barnabas was given the title “Zeus”, while Paul was only “Hermes” the spokesman (Acts 14:12). The reason for the fanfare in honor of Barnabas and Paul was occasioned by an ancient legend that told of a supposed visit to the same general area by Zeus and Hermes.
They were, however, not recognized by anyone except an old couple. So the people of Lystra were determined not to allow such an oversight to happen again. Leadership again changes back to Barnabas after the stoning of Paul in Lystra and “he and Barnabas left for Derbe” (Acts 14:19-20). Luke’s account of the conference at Jerusalem (Acts 15) again places Barnabas at the front, indicating that Barnabas was in better standing than Paul in Jerusalem. “Barnabas and Paul” made the report in the conference relating to the work which had been done among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12).
The document which was sent by the conference recommending “Barnabas and Paul” to the Syrian and Cilician churches again shows Luke’s knowledge of the relative standing of the two men in Jerusalem. The separation of Barnabas from Paul and their divergent missionary activity began in Antioch after the Jerusalem conference.
The issue which Luke gives was the taking of John Mark on another journey (Acts 15:36). John Mark’s defection at Cyprus (Acts 13:13) seemed to Paul to be sufficient grounds for dropping him from the party. Barnabas was extremely devoted to John Mark because they were cousins (Col 4:10), and leaving Paul, Barnabas took John Mark on a separate mission again to Cyprus. Luke’s cryptic words “sailed away to Cyprus” (Acts 15:39) are his farewell to Barnabas.
The testimony of the later church gives Barnabas a role as a writer. Tertullian assigned to him the authorship of the Letter to the Hebrews. Both Clement of Alexandria and Origen gave him credit for the epistle which bears his name and they gave it canonical standing because they rated its author as an apostle. However, the nature of both Hebrews and the Epistle of Barnabas is hard to reconcile with the conservative tendencies of Barnabas as indicated in Galatians, and the identification of Barnabas with Jerusalem in the book of Acts.
Moreover, the Epistle of Barnabas seems to be dated A.D. 130 on internal evidence, and too late for our Barnabas. An exact date for the death of Barnabas was not found, Luke ends the book of Acts around A.D. 67 so Barnabas must have died sometime after this. However, Barnabas died by martyrdom in Cyprus.
- Scriptures from the Holy Bible, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962) 356
- Scriptures taken from the Holy Bible, The NIV Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995) 1654.
- Scriptures from the Holy Bible, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1962) 356.