Who was Barnabas?
Our patron saint, St Barnabas, or Mar Bar-Naba as he is known in Aramaic, was a prominent leader in the formative days of the Church. His name is mentioned thirty times in the Scriptures, more often than most of the Twelve Apostles or even the Virgin Mary! St Barnabas is not a common saint in the Church of the East, nor are parishes named after him because he is considered a "Western Saint." However, he is certainly a Biblical saint and therefore universally accepted. Let's take a look at his life of service to the Lord.
St Barnabas was a Hebrew from the island of Cyprus. His Hebrew and Aramaic name was Yosip, or Joseph. Apostles saw in this Joseph from Cyprus a distinctive characteristic, one for which they renamed him "Bar-Naba," or Barnabas in English. Bar-Naba is an Aramaic name, the meaning of which is "Son of Prophecy."1 He was a Levite, a member of the tribe of Levi, the one tribe that did not inherit property in the Promised Land. Instead, their inheritance was God, for he said to Aaron, "You shall have no allotment in their land, nor shall you have any share among them; I am your share and your possession among the Israelites."2 The Levites were the administrators of the Old Covenant. One part of the Levites, the "Sons of Aaron," were the priests of the Old Covenant. The Levites served their cousins the priests in the Tabernacle, and later Temple, work. They were the gatekeepers, treasurers, groundskeepers and general assistants to the priests. They were supported by the tithes of the people. In turn, they tithed to the priests. We can see the similarities in this system to the New Covenant offices of deacons (shamashé) and the assistance they provide to the priests (qashishé) of the Church, although both are part of the "priesthood" (kahanutha).
Barnabas the Believer
We first encounter Barnabas in the fourth chapter of Acts. When he was converted and became a believer in Jesus as the Messiah, we cannot be sure. However, universal Eastern Christian tradition credits Barnabas as one of the "Seventy Disciples" who were sent out by Jesus in chapter 10 of St Luke's Gospel. In the Syriac work, "The Book of the Bee," Mar Solomon, Bishop of Basra (ca 1222) lists Barnabas as the seventh of the Seventy. Thus he was a member of the same group that included Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias. These were men who were with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry and some were even earlier with John the Baptist. Concerning these men, Peter said, "So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection."3
When we meet Barnabas, we find him already part of the Church. And what a dedicated Church it was! Upon becoming believers, the people regarded their possessions to be God's and viewed themselves as mere stewards of those possessions. It seems they sold their excess and gave the proceeds to the Apostles to further the Gospel by caring for the needs of the poor who had also became believers.4 All were cared for, every need was met. Barnabas too, sold a field that he had and laid the money at the feet of the Apostles.5 Although the Levites were not given a specific area for their tribe, they did have their own cities and individuals could own property.6
Times of Troubles
During the first days of the Church, there were many problems challenging the believers. Rapid growth led to financial need. An influx of foreign elements, the Gentiles, was part of this growth and added to the need for proper teaching from the mouth of the Apostles. There was distrust and disgust for these Gentiles, and their acceptance into the Church brought suspicion from the Jews, who only accepted Gentiles who converted to Judaism by circumcision.
The Church faced persecution from the Jews their kinsmen and from civil authorities as well. Within the first year of being born on the day of Pentecost, the Church yielded her first martyr, Stephen the Deacon, whose dukhrana, or memorial, we commemorate on Friday of the third week of Epiphany.7 Bitter persecution erupted against the believers in Jerusalem and Saul of Tarsus was breathing down the neck of the fledgling Church.8 The skies were darkened over the people of the "New Covenant." Saul even had permission to go to Damascus to arrest Christians there.
But on the way Saul of Tarsus received a revelation of Jesus while on the road to Damascus. Saul, the great persecutor of the Church, had now become a believer in the Messiah! He went to Damascus and there preached Jesus as the Messiah to the Jews. So hated was his message, that the Jews plotted to kill him. Upon discovering the plot, the disciples in Damascus "snuck" Saul out of town by letting him down the town walls in a basket. He made it out of Syria and all the way to Jerusalem, some 130 miles. Once there, Saul found that all the disciples of the Lord Jesus, whom he now served, were too frightened of him to have anything to do with him. All except Barnabas, that is.
Barnabas the Friend
Saul was in need of someone to introduce him to the Apostles. His previous work in Jerusalem was persecuting the Church, but now he came to meet with Kepa (Peter), perhaps to give his testimony. Only, who could he trust? Who would be willing to be the mediator for Saul before the believers of the Lord who he had persecuted? Saint Luke tells us that it was Barnabas who "took him, brought him to the Apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus."9 Thus, St Barnabas became Saul's "sponsor" (like a god-father) and he was brought into full fellowship because of the testimony of Barnabas and with the consent of the Church.
Barnabas and Saul Commissioned
We next encounter Barnabas still in Jerusalem when a number of men from Cyprus and Cyrene went to Antioch and preached Jesus as the Messiah to the Gentiles who lived there. This was about 41AD, and until that time the Gospel had only been brought to the Jews. But a number of these Gentiles came to believe in Jesus! So the Church in Jerusalem decided to send Barnabas to Antioch to investigate the conversions that had taken place.
Barnabas was a likely choice, being a native of Hellenized Cyprus himself. But this occasion also exhibits the great trust the Church had in Barnabas and his discernment. In fact, Luke tells us that Barnabas was "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith."10 He then went to Tarsus to tell Saul about the Gentiles coming to believe in Jesus. He found Saul and brought him to Antioch, where for an entire year the two of them met with the Church and instructed them in the Faith.
Likely during this time Saul became known as "Paul." It was also there in Antioch that the believers were first called "Christians," meaning "little anointed ones." And it was there in Antioch where St Ignatius, ministering as bishop, sixty years later first called the Church "Catholic" and eighty years after that, where St Theophilus, another faithful bishop, first spoke of God as "Trinity." Much of the development of Christian doctrine happened in Antioch.
Toward the end of that year, one day during liturgy (that's what the Greek says!), Barnabas and Saul were called by the Holy Spirit to be set apart for a special ministry.11 They were to go various cities and preach in the synagogues the truth about Jesus being the Messiah and about eternal life through believing in him. Thus Barnabas and Saul went on the first missionary tour, bringing many to belief in Jesus. It was at this time that Saul became known as "Paul."
The First Church Council
During their time working together, about ten years, Barnabas and Paul saw many non-Jews, called Gentiles, come to believe in Jesus. These people were not from the religion of the Old Covenant and their men had not received circumcision, the ceremonial surgical removal of the foreskin as prescribed by Moses. A debate arose among the Church; should a Gentile have to become a Jew and be circumcised before becoming a believer in the Messiah? This was a major question for the Church and one which gave opportunity for the Church to act in the authority given to it by Jesus when he said "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven."12
In order to answer this question the first council of the Church was called. Here we find Barnabas and Paul, testifying to the Apostles (Shlikhé) and Elders (Qashishé) what had happened to the Gentiles as they received the Gospel and came to believe in the Messiah. In private, Paul met with them and described the Gospel message he and Barnabas preached to the Gentiles. He submitted himself and his message to the Apostles and Elders, in order to make sure that he was not preaching in vain.13 They approved of Barnabas' and Paul's message and ministry because of, in part, a vision Peter had had earlier about the Lord making that which was formally unclean now clean.
It was to Peter that the Keys of the Kingdom had been given and his vision, accepted as a revelation from God, opened the Kingdom doors to the Gentiles without their needing to become Jews first. Barnabas and Paul, through the message they taught and the ministry they rendered, became the circumstance for Peter to use the authority and the vision Jesus had given him and all the Apostles and Elders agreed. Yakob (James) therefore, stood before all the Church and said, "I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood."14
Barnabas and Paul Separate
In 52AD Barnabas and Paul, along with Judas and Silas, were chosen to represent the decision of the Church in Jerusalem to the Church in Antioch and elsewhere. This representative role, or "ambassadorship," is the reason for their title of "Apostle." They were sent off to Antioch first, where Barnabas and Paul stayed and instructed the Church while Judas and Silas carried the decision to the other areas. After some time in Antioch, Paul wanted to go to all the places he and Barnabas had preached the Gospel, to inquire as to their spiritual growth. Barnabas was agreeable to his request, but he wanted to take John (called Mark or Marqos) with them. Paul would not hear of it! Mark, who seems to have been the cousin of Barnabas,15 had deserted them before in a place called Pamphylia and evidently Paul was not as forgiving as Barnabas. This disagreement caused a separation between Barnabas and Paul. Paul went on to visit the places he and Barnabas had preached in. Barnabas, who had taken the despised Saul and reconciled him to the believers years before, now took the deserter Mark and brought him to Cyprus to train him there to preach the Gospel.16 Barnabas was always the friend of the "underdog."
Barnabas, Son of Encouragement
After this, some twenty years of serving the Church, we loose sight of Barnabas in the Scriptures. Luke carries on with the story of Paul's ministry, but Barnabas is not mentioned again in Acts; he disappears as quietly as he appeared, a Levite from Cyprus, who encouraged others in their service to the Lord.
The "Rest of the Story"
The Book of the Bee mentioned earlier tells us Barnabas preached in Italy before returning to his native Cyprus. However, there are other two non-Biblical works that carry on the tradition of Barnabas and his importance to the early Church. The first is called "The Acts of Barnabas." It purports to be written by John Mark and begins with the separation of Barnabas and Paul and then moves on to their arrival in Cyprus. The brief work thrice mentions a scroll of the Gospel written by Matthew.
The Acts of Barnabas." also mentions one Aristoclianus, who was a leper who was cleansed in Antioch and who Barnabas and Paul had "sealed to be a bishop." The work concludes with Barnabas and John Mark going to Salamis, where there was a synagogue. Barnabas read to the Jews in the synagogue from the Gospel of Matthew, converting "not a few of the Jews." This angered a man named Bar-Jesus who two days later bound Barnabas by the neck and dragged him out of the synagogue to the local hippodrome and there burned him. Barnabas, bound and burned, finished the race in Faith, a saint, an apostle and a martyr. The year was 61AD.
This work is of great antiquity and is replete with geographical details that are consistent and accurate. It likely dates from before 478AD when the body of Barnabas was supposedly found on Cyprus. "The Acts of Barnabas" is a valuable and recommended work for our edification today.
The other work is called "The Epistle of Barnabas." Like the "Acts of Barnabas" it is a work of great antiquity. Clement of Alexandria quoted it as "Scripture" and attributed it to Barnabas, although it is actually anonymous. However, with the later circulation of the Christian Scriptures, this work fell out of favor and was forgotten about until the 1600's.
"The Epistle of Barnabas" is a rather long teaching in two parts, the first being devoted to allegorical interpretation of Old Testament passages and their relationship to their fulfillment in the life of the Messiah. This type of allegorical interpretation was popular in Alexandria and might explain Clement's quoting of this work. The Church of the East has historically used another method of interpretation, the literal, analytical and grammatical method of the School of Antioch.
The second part is a very Jewish teaching style, contrasting the "Way of Darkness" with the "Way of Light." In this, it is not unlike the Didache, another ancient work. These two parts would have made "The Epistle of Barnabas" a fine teaching for the early catechumens as a preparation for baptism. For us today, it is an insight into the teaching and expression of the Faith in the early Church.
Barnabas encouraged the Church
- by supporting it financially
- by visiting the believers in many locations
- by using his spiritual gifts, especially teaching & prophecy
Barnabas encouraged Paul
- by comprehending what God had done in his life
- by recognizing the potential in Paul
- by aiding Paul in using his gift for the Church
- by helping Paul develop his ministry
Barnabas encouraged Mark
- by forgiving his past mistakes
- by taking him "under his wing"
- by giving him a place in his ministry
Barnabas encourages us today
- by the example of his selfless giving
- by the example of his service to the leadership
- by the example of his ministry to fellow believers
- by the example of his martyrdom for the Gospel
1 Acts 4:36
2 Numbers 18:20
3 Acts 1:21&22
4 Acts 2:44&45, 4:32-35
5 Acts 4:36&37
6 Numbers 35:1-82
7 Acts 7:55-60
8 Acts 8:1-3
9 Acts 9:27
10 Acts 11:24
11 Acts 13:2
12 Matthew 18:18
13 Galatians 2:2
14 Acts 15:6-29
15 Colossians 4:10
16 Acts 15:36-41