June 11 – Barnabas the Apostle

Apostle Barnabas of the Seventy (d. ca. 61) (né Joseph) was born on Cyprus into a Levite family (Dad had a long commute)—on these things, everyone agrees (it’s in Acts, and nobody wants to take on Luke). Then it gets cloudy. Clearly he lived somewhere in Palestine. He may have been related to John Mark, and he may have studied under Gamaliel with Saul/Paul. He may have been one of the Seventy Apostles sent out by our Lord in the Gospels, or he may have not been converted to Christianity until after the Pentecost. Finally, his nickname “Barnabas” may mean “Son of Encouragement,” but people who know more about Aramaic than I do (not a terribly difficult club to earn membership in) suggest it may just mean “Son of a prophet.” (Wait, I guess re-glossing the name is taking on Luke, isn’t it?)

When Barnabas shows up in the Acts of the Apostles, he is selling his land (in Cyprus? it doesn’t say so, but one of our sources takes it as a given) and giving the proceeds to the Church in Jerusalem. He then disappears for five chapters, graciously letting other players take the stage. When he returns, it is to run interference for the newly-repentant Paul (né Saul) with the Jerusalemites, who for some odd reason weren’t keen to take up with the rabbi who had been responsible for so many Christian deaths. (Spoiler alert: they get over it.)

We next see Barnabas when the church at Jerusalem sends him to Antioch to check out the reports of Gentiles being converted to the Christian faith. He is called “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith,” and I hope you’ll agree just about anybody’s mom would be pleased to have her offspring so described. He spoke with the new believers, then popped off to Tarsus, grabbed Paul, and dragged him back to Antioch. The two of them preached together there until they were hoarse and/or sent to Jerusalem with a gift from the Antiochian Christians to relieve the faminey situation in the Holy City. On their return flight they grabbed John Mark, for reasons not stated.

Once they were back in Antioch, the Holy Spirit sent them off sailing hither and yon (mostly yon), thus beginning the great apostolic journeys of the Apostle Paul. It’s really quite unfair how they’re called that, and not the apostolic journeys of the Apostle Barnabas, which they also were. For three chapters Barnabasandsaul and Saulandbarnabas become indistinguishable, until finally they split ways over John Mark, whom Barnabas defended, much as he had defended Paul six chapters earlier. Barnabas then falls out of Acts, and it becomes the Paul of Tarsus Show. (Interestingly, it is after Barnabas drops out that Luke begins to refer to Paul’s entourage in the first person.)

Barnabas is mentioned favorably in two Pauline letters, then drops out of Scripture entirely. Tradition says he was dragged out of the synagogue in Salamis (“dried sausages”)[1] and stoned. John Mark buried his body, placing a copy of Matthew’s gospel on his breast. Four hundred years later, Barnabas appeared in a dream to the archbishop of the district, who dug him up and gave the gospel to the emperor, who then granted the Church of Cyprus autocephaly (self-rule), ending a dispute with Antioch, which was asserting ecclesial control over the island. They both claim him as their patron, as do a city in each of Spain and Italy, and people suffering from hailstorms.

Barnabas is thought by some scholars to have written the apocryphal “Epistle of Barnabas,” although others think it was somebody with some other name, like maybe “Bob.” There are other works claiming Barnabian authorship, but nobody takes their claims seriously anymore, and they’ve mostly shut up about it.


[1] Not.