Q: #437. Why did Paul and Barnabas split (Acts 15:36-41)?
By: Steve Shirley
A: This is an interesting story, which begins in Acts chapter 13. Here, we see the church at Antioch preparing to send Paul, along with Barnabas, on the first of his three missionary trips. We can see in (Acts 13:13) that Mark (John Mark) had accompanied Paul and Barnabas on this trip. However, when they arrived at "Perga in Pamphylia," Mark (John) "departed from them and returned to Jerusalem."
We are not told why Mark made this decision to leave. It has been speculated it may have been because Paul was offering salvation to the Gentiles on the basis of faith alone, or perhaps it was a family matter, or perhaps something else. (It is interesting to note that after Mark's return to Jerusalem, but before Paul's second missionary trip, the Jerusalem Council convened to determine if Gentiles had to become Jews to be saved, and if they had to obey Mosaic law.)
Now, we come to (Acts 15:36-41), and the beginning of Paul's second missionary trip (app. 48 or 49 A.D. - about 3 years after the end of the 1st trip). We see in verse 36, that this trip was again to be with Barnabas accompanying him. However, when Barnabas suggested that Mark should go as well, Paul disagreed because of Mark's abandonment on the first missionary trip. The "contention became so sharp" between Paul and Barnabas on this issue that they decided to go their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus (his hometown: Acts 4:36). Paul took Silas and went in another direction to Syria and Cilicia.
Who was right on this issue: Paul or Barnabas? Luke (the author of Acts) does not tell us, nor does he choose a side. As such, of course, commentators try to make their own decisions. On the side of Paul, three thoughts are generally proposed. First, we see in (Acts 15:40), Paul and Silas being "commissioned by the brethren" before being sent out, while we do not see this with Barnabas and Mark. Second, we never see Barnabas and Mark mentioned again the the book of Acts. Third, by most accounts, Paul was at this time pretty much considered to be Barnabas' superior, so Barnabas should have submitted to his authority.
It is also worth noting that according to some scholars, shortly before the split, we may have had the event in (Gal 2:11-21) (Galatians was written in app. 48 or 49 A.D.) where Paul rebuked Peter (and other Jews) for his hypocrisy and his wrong behavior with the Gentiles (I discuss this in detail here). In (Gal 2:13), we see that "even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy." There is "speculation" that perhaps this event also might have lead to some tension between Paul and Barnabas.
On the other hand, we have Barnabas' side. Barnabas means "son of encouragement." His given name was "Joses" ("Joseph"), but the disciples changed his name to fit who he was (Acts 4:36). He was an encourager. (Acts 11:24) also adds, "... he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith." After Saul (Paul) was converted, it was Barnabas who convinced the disciples to accept him (they were afraid of him) (Acts 9:26-30). Here are some other examples where he offered encouragement (Acts 4:37)(Acts 11:23)(Acts 13:15)(Acts 14:22). It is believed that he also did this with Mark. Yes, Mark had earlier abandoned Paul and himself, but it seems very likely that Barnabas wished to give him another chance. A chance to redeem himself. To encourage him. It should also be noted that Mark was "the cousin of Barnabas."
On some kind of spiritual test I took a few years ago, I was labeled as a "defender." In short, I feel a strong calling to help, defend, and teach the weak, especially in spiritual matters. I can see Barnabas with this same desire. Therefore, I tend to think I would have been a Barnabas on this issue too.
And, it looks like Barnabas may well have made the right decision. Check out what Paul later has to say about Mark.
In (Phile 1:23-24) (written about 60-62 A.D., app. 10 years after the split in Acts 15), we see Paul calling Mark a "fellowlabourer," who was apparently with Paul while he was in prison. (Paul wrote Philemon during his 1st imprisonment at Rome.)
In (Col 4:10) (written about 60-62 A.D., app. 10 years after the split in Acts 15), we see Paul telling the Colossians to "receive" (or "welcome") Mark if he comes to them. (Paul also wrote Colossians during his 1st imprisonment at Rome.)
In (2 Tim 4:11) (written about 67 A.D., app. 17 years after the split in Acts 15), in the last book Paul wrote, we see perhaps Paul's greatest compliment of Mark when he says, "Take Mark, and bring him with thee (to visit Paul during his final imprisonment): for he is profitable to me for the ministry."
Paul had GREAT things to say about Mark, and commended him! How did this come about? It seems that Barnabas' faith in Mark was well-placed. Barnabas had "encouraged" and helped train Mark to be a great man of God. Where would Mark have ended up without this encouragement? (And, where would Paul have ended up without the earlier encouragement and support of Barnabas?)
In addition, Peter had a VERY strong bond with Mark. Peter calls him his "son" in (1 Pet 5:13). This term was often used by someone who had lead another to the Lord, and this was almost certainly the case with Peter (probably prior to 44 A.D.). Of course, Mark also ended up authoring the Book of Mark, perhaps the first Gospel written (app. 55 - 68 A.D.). Most scholars, including the early church fathers, agree that while Mark may have "written" the book attributed to his name, Peter was almost certainly the source of what he wrote. (This would give it apostolic credibility since Mark was likely not an apostle.) (I speak much more on this in my New Testament Survey on Mark.)
Finally, it also appears that Paul and Barnabas did make up. In (1 Cor 9:6), written around 55 - 57 A.D. (app. 5 years after the split in Acts 15), we see Paul linking himself to Barnabas, saying that they both had the right to be supported while preaching the Gospel.
*** Note: Tradition tells us that after the death of Barnabas in Cyprus, Mark went to Alexandria, Egypt where he founded a church, becoming its first bishop. Foxe says that Mark was martyred there, being "dragged to pieces by the people of Alexandria." This occurred about the 8th year of Nero.
Related: Who was Barnabas in the Bible?