Q: #493. Who was Barnabas in the Bible?
A: Most all that we know of Barnabas is found in the book of Acts in the New Testament. He is mentioned by name 24 times between (Acts 4:36) and (Acts 15:39), and 5 more times in 3 other books. His actual name was not “Barnabas,” but rather Joseph (Acts 4:36). However, he was given the name Barnabas by the apostles, because it means “son of encouragement.” As we read about him in Acts, we find that this perfectly describes Barnabas, because he was constantly encouraging people. Following, I will list some things we know about Barnabas in the 4 books in which he is mentioned.
He was from Cyprus, and was a Levite (descended from the priestly tribe of Levi) (Acts 4:36).
At one time (likely soon after Pentecost), he owned some property and sold it, laying all of the proceeds “at the apostle’s feet” (Acts 4:37).
After Paul’s conversion, he tried to join the disciples in Jerusalem. However, because of his past of persecuting Christians, the disciples did not believe he had become a Christian, and they feared him. It was Barnabas who helped the disciples to accept Paul (Acts 9:26-30).
Later, we seen Barnabas being sent from Jerusalem to Antioch, where we see him “encouraging” the believers there (Acts 11:23). After being there for a short time, he went to Tarsus and brought Paul back to Antioch to help him (Acts 11:25-26). (They stayed for a year.)
(Acts 11:24) says this of Barnabas, “For he was a good man, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith…” (Acts 13:1) numbers him with some other men as a “prophet and teacher.” He is called an “apostle” in (Acts 14:14). (Acts 15:35) says he was “teaching and preaching the word of the Lord.”
Barnabas accompanied Paul during his first missionary journey (Acts Ch. 13 & 14) (app. 46-48 A.D.).
At one point during this trip, while in Lystra, Paul healed a crippled man. When the people saw this, they believed that Paul and Barnabas were gods, and wanted to sacrifice to them. They called Paul “Hermes” and Barnabas “Zeus.” In response to this, Paul and Barnabas “tore their clothes,” and begged them not to do so (Acts 14:8-18).
Following the first missionary trip, we see Paul and Barnabas attending the Jerusalem Council (held to determine if Gentile converts to Christianity had to observe the Mosaic Law), in (Acts Ch. 15), and speaking in (Acts 15:12).
Shortly after the Jerusalem Council, Paul began making plans for his second missionary journey, and he desired to go with Barnabas again. However, they got into a dispute about whether or not to take (John) Mark with them. Mark had accompanied them on their first missionary trip, but he left in the middle of it for unknown reasons (Acts 13:13). Apparently, this did not make Paul happy, therefore, he did not want to take Mark on a second trip. The dispute between Paul and Barnabas over this issue became so great that they decided to go their separate ways. Paul took Silas, and went to Syria and Cilicia. Barnabas took Mark and went to Cyprus (Acts 15:36-41). (I discuss this split in much greater detail here.)
***Note: The Bible does not tell us who was right in this dispute. However, we do later see that Paul clearly forgave Mark, and even came to rely heavily on him (2 Tim 4:11)(Phile 1:24)(Col 4:10). We also learn in (Col 4:10) that Mark was “the cousin of Barnabas.”
After this incident, we do not hear about Barnabas again in the book of Acts. However, Paul does mention him again in a few other writings.
In (Gal 2:13), Paul mentions that Barnabas was also guilty of Peter’s sin of hypocrisy. (I explain this here.)
In (1 Cor 9:6), Paul notes that he, as well as Barnabas, worked to support themselves while ministering.
Let me end with a few interesting, but unprovable theories about Barnabas.
There are some (i.e. Tertullian) who believe that Barnabas was the author of the book of Hebrews, however, there is no clear evidence for this.
There are several apocryphal books attributed to Barnabas: “The Acts Of Barnabas,” “The Epistle Of Barnabas,” and “The Gospel Of Barnabas,” however, the evidence is very strong that Barnabas did not author any of them.
Some (i.e. Clement of Alexandria – Stromata, ii, 20) believe that perhaps Barnabas was one of “the 70” that Jesus sent out in (Lk 10:1). Some (i.e. Easton – Dictionary) believe that Paul and Barnabas may have sat under the teaching of Gamaliel at the same time. Again, both are unprovable.
While we do not know for sure how Barnabas died, a number of scholars believe he was martyred around 61 A.D. in Cyprus. Tradition says that he founded, and was the bishop of the church in Cyprus until his death. (He is still venerated in Cyprus today.)