Barnabas was an early Christian mentioned in the New Testament. According to Acts 4:36, his original name was Joseph (although the Byzantine text-type calls him Joses, the Aramaic version of Joseph); he was surnamed by the apostles (in Aramaic) Barnebhuah, which is explained by the Greek huios parakleseos ("son of exhortation," and connotes a prophet in the primitive Christian sense of the word (see Acts 13:1; 15:32). His feast day is June 11.
In many English translations of the Bible, including the New International Version (NIV), King James Version (KJV), and New American Standard Bible (NASB), Barnabas is called an apostle. In Acts 14:14 of these translations, he is listed ahead of Paul, "Barnabas and Paul," instead of "Paul and Barnabas;" both men being described as apostles. Whether Barnabas was an apostle became an important political issue, which was debated in the Middle Ages (see below).
Barnabas is one of the first prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1). Luke speaks of him as a "good man" (11:24). 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 same Mark as the person traditionally believed to be the author of the Gospel of Mark. He was a native of Cyprus, where he possessed land (Acts 4:36, 37), which he sold, and gave the proceeds to the church in Jerusalem. 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.
The prosperity of the church at Antioch led the apostles and brethren at Jerusalem to send Barnabas there to superintend the movement. He found the work so extensive and weighty that he went to Tarsus in search of Paul to assist him. Paul 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 were sent up to Jerusalem (AD 44) with the contributions 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). 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. Paul appears as the preaching missionary (13:16; 14:8-9, 19-20), whence the Lystrans regarded him as Hermes, Barnabas as Zeus (14:12). Returning from this first missionary journey to Antioch, they were again sent up to Jerusalem to consult with the church there regarding the relation of Gentiles to the church (Acts 15:2: Galatians 2:1). According to Gal. 2:9-10, Barnabas was included with Paul in the agreement made between them, on the one hand, and James, Peter, and John, on the other, that the two former should in the future preach to the pagans, not forgetting the poor at Jerusalem. This matter having been settled, they returned again to Antioch, bringing the agreement of the council that Gentiles were to be admitted into the church.
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).
Barnabas is not again mentioned by Luke in the Acts. However, in Gal. 2:13 a little more is learned about him, and his weakness under the taunts of the Jewish Christians is evident; and from 1 Corinthians 9:6 it may be gathered that he continued to labor as missionary.
Other sources bring Barnabas to Rome and Alexandria. Not older than the 3rd century is the tradition of the later activity and martyrdom of Barnabas in Cyprus, where his remains are said to have been discovered under the Emperor Zeno. The Cypriot church claimed Barnabas as its founder in order to rid itself of the supremacy of the Antiochian bishop. In this connection, the question whether Barnabas was an apostle became important, and was often discussed during the Middle Ages (compare C. J. Hefele, Das Sendschreiben des Apostels Barnabas, Tübingen, 1840; O. Braunsberger, Der Apostel Barnabas, Mainz, 1876). The statements as to the year of Barnabas's death are discrepant and untrustworthy.
Tertullian and other Western writers regard Barnabas as the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. This may have been the Roman tradition -- which Tertullian usually follows -- and in Rome the epistle may have had its first readers. But the tradition has weighty considerations against it.
According to Photius (Quaest. in Amphil., 123), Barnabas wrote the Acts of the Apostles. (Current consensus ascribes the book to Luke.)
He is also traditionally assocatiated with the Epistle of Barnabas, although modern scholars think it more likely that that epistle was written in Alexandria in the 130s.
A book named the "Gospel of Barnabas" is listed in two early catalogs of apocryphal texts.
Literature: Epistle of Barnabas
- Die Apostolischen Väter. Griechisch-deutsche Parallelausgabe. J.C.B. Mohr Tübingen 1992. ISBN 3-16-145887-7
- Der Barnabasbrief. Übersetzt und erklärt von Ferdinand R. Prostmeier. Series: Kommentar zu den Apostolischen Vätern (KAV, Vol. 8). Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht: Göttingen 1999. ISBN 3-525-51683-5