Saint Barnabas

From New World Encyclopedia

Icon of Saint Barnabas
Saint, Apostle to Antioch and Cyprus
Born unknown in Cyprus
Died 61 in Salamis, Cyprus
Canonized pre-congregation
Major shrine Monastery in Salamis, Cyprus
Feast June 11
Attributes Pilgrim's staff, olive branch, holding St. Matthew's Gospel
Patronage Cyprus, Antioch, against hailstorms, invoked as peacemaker

Saint Barnabas was an early Christian whose dramatic conversion and missionary activity are described in detail in the Acts of the Apostles (in the Christian New Testament). In the biblical sources, he is described as a Levite who renounced his worldly possessions in order to follow in the footsteps of the apostles (cf., Acts 4:36-37). After traveling and preaching extensively with Saint Paul in Antioch, he is said to have proceeded on his own to Cyprus, all the while continuing to extol the message of Jesus of Nazareth. Though no historical accounts confirm this, he is traditionally thought to have been martyred in Salamis in 61 C.E.[1]

In Acts 14:14, he is listed ahead of Paul ("Barnabas and Paul"), instead of the usual reverse ordering of their names, and both are called ἀπόστολοι, apostoloi, 'Apostles'. Whether Barnabas was, in fact, an apostle became an important political issue, engendering considerable debate in the Middle Ages (see below).

Saint Barnabas' feast day is celebrated by most Christian denominations on June 11.

Etymology of "Barnabas"

The saint's Hellenic Jewish parents called him Joseph (although the Byzantine text-type calls him Ιὠσης, Iōsēs, 'Joses,' a Greek variant of 'Joseph'), but when he sold all his goods and gave the money to the apostles in Jerusalem, they gave him a new name: Barnabas.[2] This name appears to be from the Aramaic בר נביא, meaning 'the (son of the) prophet'. However, the Greek text of the Acts of the Apostles 4.36 explains the name as υἱός παρακλήσεως, hyios paraklēseōs, meaning 'son of exhortation/encouragement'. From the evidence of Acts 13.1 and 15.32, this wording can be seen as suggesting someone who exercises a prophetic ministry.[3]

Biography / Hagiography

Barnabas is notable among the Christian saints for his extensive presence in the biblical record, where his missionary efforts are described in considerable detail. This being said, other historical evidence is fairly scant, meaning that the following excursus is largely based on scriptural materials.

Early life and conversion

Though little is known of the life of Barnabas prior to his conversion, the Epistles contain the following biographical data. He was born of Jewish parents of the tribe of Levi. His aunt was the mother of John, surnamed Mark (Colossians 4:10), widely assumed to be the author of the eponymous synoptic gospel. He was a land-owning native of Cyprus, though he divested himself of all mortal wealth upon his conversion to Christianity: "Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet" (NIV).

When Paul returned to Jerusalem after his conversion, Barnabas took him and introduced him to the apostles (9:27); it is possible that they had been fellow students in the school of Gamaliel. Regardless of their potential historical connection, the biblical record suggests to readers that Barnabas was responsible for encouraging the early community to accept their former persecutor into their ranks, as it describes how he "'took him [Paul] by the hand' and vouched for him among the other apostles."[4]

Missionary activity: Barnabas and Paul

The prosperity of the church at Antioch led the apostles and brethren at Jerusalem to send Barnabas there to superintend the movement, which provides indirect evidence of his position within the early Christian community. While there, he met tremendous success in his missionary efforts, largely due to the overweening spiritual commitments of many of the region's residents:

News of this [the nascent Antiochene church] reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord (Acts 11:22-24 (NIV)).

Though he experienced considerable success, he found the work so extensive that he sought the aid of Paul, who returned with him to Antioch and labored with him for a whole year (Acts 11:25-26). At the end of this period, the two returned to Jerusalem (44 C.E.) bearing with them the contributions that the church at Antioch had made for the poorer members of the Jerusalem church (11:28-30).

Shortly after they returned, bringing John Mark with them, they were appointed as missionaries to Asia Minor, and in this capacity visited Cyprus and some of the principal cities of Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia (Acts 13:14). During their travels in Asia Minor, the spiritual charisma of the duo was such that they were mistaken for Hellenic deities by the native Lystrans, who saw Paul as Hermes and Barnabas as Zeus, and attempted to offer sacrifice to them (14:12).[5] Returning from this first missionary journey to Antioch, they were again sent up to Jerusalem to consult with the church there regarding the role of Gentiles in the inchoate ecclesiastical order (Acts 15:2; Galatians 2:1). According to Gal. 2:9-10, the earliest church leaders (James, Peter, and John) decreed that they would continue to preach to the Jews, with Barnabas and Paul serving the needs of the Gentiles—with the proviso that neither contingent could renege on Jesus' commitment to the poor.[6] This matter having been settled, they returned again to Antioch, buoyed by the council's decision that Gentiles were to be admitted into the church.

Missionary activity: the post-Pauline period

With the conversion of Sergius Paulus, Paul begins to gain prominence over Barnabas from the point where the name "Paul" is substituted for "Saul" (13:9); instead of "Barnabas and Saul" as heretofore (11:30; 12:25; 13:2, 7) we now read "Paul and Barnabas" (13:43, 46, 50; 14:20; 15:2, 22, 35); only in 14:14 and 15:12, 25 does Barnabas again occupy the first place, in the first passage with recollection of 14:12, in the last two, because Barnabas stood in closer relation to the Jerusalem church than Paul.

Having returned to Antioch and spent some time there (15:35), Paul asked Barnabas to accompany him on another journey (15:36). Barnabas wished to take John Mark along, but Paul did not, as he had left them on the former journey (15:37-38). The dispute ended by Paul and Barnabas taking separate routes. Paul took Silas as his companion, and journeyed through Syria and Cilicia; while Barnabas took his younger cousin, John Mark, to visit Cyprus (15:36-41).

He is not again mentioned in the Acts. However, in Gal. 2:13 a little more is learned about him, with this particular passage detailing the difficulties in ministering to a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles.[7] Finally, Paul mentions him tangentially in 1 Corinthians 9:6 as an example of a hard-working missionary.

Martyrdom and veneration

Though the biblical record does not describe the circumstances of the saint's demise, early Christian legends contend that he was ultimately undone in his attempts to minister to the Jews of Salamis (in Cyprus). Specifically, these sources suggest that these Jews, being highly exasperated at the saint's extraordinary success, fell upon him as he was disputing in the synagogue, dragged him out, and, after the most inhumane tortures, burned him to death. After these events transpired, his kinsman, John Mark, who was a spectator of this barbarous action, privately interred his body in a cave, where it remained till the time of the Emperor Zeno, in the year 485 C.E.[8] [9] [10][11] These events are perhaps most evocatively described in the "The Golden Legend":

"On a time that Barnabas and John issued out of Cyprus and found an enchanter named Elymas, which by his enchantment had taken away the sight from some and after given it to them again, he was much contrary to them and would not suffer them enter into the temple. After this, Barnabas saw on a day men and women, being all naked, running through the town, and made then great feast, whereof he was much angry and gave his malediction and curse to the temple, and suddenly a great part thereof fell down and slew a great part of the people. At the last Saint Barnabas came into the city of Salome, but this enchanter aforesaid moved the people greatly against him, so much that the Jews came and took him and led him through the city with great shame, and would have delivered him to the judge of the city for to punish him and to put him to death. But when they heard say that a great and a puissant man was come in to the city, which was named Euseblus, and was of the lineage of the emperor Nero, the Jews had doubt that he would take him out of their hands and let him go, and therefore anon they bound a cord about his neck, and drew him out of the city, and there anon burnt him, but yet the felon Jews were not satisfied to martyr him so, for they took the bones of him and put them in a vessel of lead, and would have cast them into the sea, but John, his disciple, with two other of his disciples went by night into the place and took the holy bones and buried them in an holy place." [12]

In the centuries after Barnabas' death, a monastery was built in his name at Salamis, Cyprus, over the tomb reputed to hold his remains (ca. 488 C.E.). In commemoration of his extensive missionary labors in his home country, Barnabas is venerated as the Patron Saint of Cyprus.[13]

Other Historical Accounts and Controversies

Other sources bring Barnabas to Rome and Alexandria. In the "Clementine Recognitions" (i, 7) he is depicted as preaching in Rome even during Christ's lifetime, and Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, ii, 20) makes him one of the Seventy Disciples that are mentioned in the Gospel of Luke. Likewise, other traditions describe the saint traveling to the Italian peninsula and serving as the first bishop of Milan.[14]

Barnabas' provisional status as an apostle rendered him an important figure in the legitimation of various factional churches throughout Christian history. For instance, the Cypriot Orthodox Church claimed Barnabas as its founder in order to rid itself of the supremacy of the Patriarch of Antioch, just as did the Milanese church afterward, in its quest to become more independent of Rome. In this context, the question whether Barnabas was an apostle became important, and was often discussed during the Middle Ages[15]

Alleged writings

In addition to his tremendous proselytic importance, Barnabas has also been credited with the author of various foundational Christian texts. Tertullian and other Western writers regard Barnabas as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. According to Photius (Quaest. in Amphil., 123), Barnabas wrote the Acts of the Apostles. He is also traditionally associated with the Epistle of Barnabas, although modern scholars think it more likely that that epistle was written in Alexandria in the 130s.[16] Finally, the early missionary is also associated with a text named the "Gospel of Barnabas", which is listed in two early catalogs of apocryphal texts.

Another book using that same title, Gospel of Barnabas survives in two post-medieval manuscripts in Italian and Spanish[17]. Although the book is ascribed to Barnabas, close examination of its text suggests that the book was written either by a 14th century Italian or a sixteenth century "Morisco" (with the later term describing a Moor who was forcibly converted to Christianity). Contrary to the canonical Christian Gospels, and in accordance with the Islamic view of Jesus, this later Gospel of Barnabas states that Jesus was not the son of God, but a prophet, and calls Paul "the deceived." The book also says Jesus rose alive into heaven without having been crucified, and that Judas Iscariot was crucified in his place.[18]


  1. Farmer, 40.
  2. Cf. Acts 4:36-37 (quoted below).
  3. See "Barnabas" in the Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved November 29, 2007.
  4. Butler, 522.
  5. Butler, 523.
  6. "James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do" (Galatians 2:9-10).
  7. "Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
    When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?" (Galatians 2:12-14).
  8. name=PFS> C.E. Miller. The Life of our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: And the Lives and Sufferings of His Holy Evangelists and Apostles. (New York: Orton & Co., 1857), 455
  9. Farmer, 40
  10. Butler, 524
  11. The Acts of Barnabaswww.NewAdvent...Retrieved March 11, 2008.
  12. Golden LegendRetrieved November 30, 2007.
  13. Wilfrid Bonser, "The Cult of Relics in the Middle Ages," Folklore 73:4 (Winter 1962): 234-256. 250.
  14. Farmer, 40.
  15. Compare C. J. Hefele, Das Sendschreiben des Apostels Barnabas, Tübingen, 1840; O. Braunsberger, Der Apostel Barnabas, Mainz, 1876; Farmer, 40; Montague Summers, "On Some Sixteenth-Century References to Religious Orders and Saints," The Modern Language Review 12:3 (July 1917): 345-349, 345-346.
  16. Butler, 524.
  17. Compare T. Zahn, Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons, ii, 292, Leipsig, 1890.
  18. Jan Joosten, "The Gospel of Barnabas and the Diatessaron," Harvard Theological Review 95:1 (January 2002): 73-96; Oddbjørn Leirvik, "History as a literary weapon: the Gospel of Barnabas in Muslim-Christian polemics," Studia theologica 56:1 (2002): 4-26. See, for example, Leirvik (4): "In the Gospel of Barnabas, Jesus vehemently denies that he is the Son of God, and repeatedly foretells the coming of Muhammad. In consonance with dominant interpretations of the Qur’an, he is substituted on the cross by Judas."

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Attwater, Donald and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints, 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0140513124.
  • Bonser, Wilfrid, "The Cult of Relics in the Middle Ages," Folklore 73:4 (Winter 1962): 234-256.
  • Bulfinch Press. "One Hundred Saints: Their Lives and Likenesses Drawn from Butler's "Lives of the Saints" and Great Works of Western Art" Bulfinch Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0821228166
  • Fenlon, John Francis. "Saint Barnabas" in in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.
  • Ford, Jesse Hill. The Feast of Saint Barnabas. Boston: Atlantic/Little Brown, 1969. ISBN 978-0370014029
  • Joosten, Jan, "The Gospel of Barnabas and the Diatessaron," Harvard Theological Review 95:1 (January 2002).
  • Miller, C.E. The Life of our Blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ: And the Lives and Sufferings of His Holy Evangelists and Apostles. New York: Orton & Co., 1857.
  • Stevens, Clifford. The One Year Book of Saints. Our Sunday Visitor, 1989. ISBN 978-0879734176
  • Summers, Montague, "On Some Sixteenth-Century References to Religious Orders and Saints," The Modern Language Review 12:3 (July 1917).

This entry incorporates text from the public domain Easton's Bible Dictionary, originally published in 1897.

This article includes content derived from the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, 1914, which is in the public domain.


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.