This is the first of two posts written by Dr. Robin Branch on Barnabas, an early church leader. The blogs are condensed from a longer article by Dr. Branch titled, “Barnabas: Early Church leader and model of encouragement,” In die Skriflig 41.2 (2007): pp. 295-322. To read part two, click here.
Acts presents the evangelizing apostle and church leader Barnabas as a model of integrity and character. Calling him a good man (Acts 11:24), a prophet and teacher (13:1), an apostle (14:14) and one through whom God worked miracles (15:12), Acts loads him with accolades. Acts recounts the times he faced persecution (13:45; 14:19) and risked his life for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (15:26). Barnabas believed Saul truly had been converted (9:27), saw the potential of his kinsman John Mark (12:25), and championed them both at different times (11:25-26; 15:36-41). 1 Corinthians 9:6 affirms his character by noting he worked while serving congregations in order not to burden them. The apostles nicknamed him Barnabas, Son of Encouragement (4:36), and it seems like he earned it!
Yet despite the many times Barnabas appears in the Biblical text, he lacks the scholarly attention accorded to his evangelist and writing colleague, Saul/Paul.
According to early traditions that are not recorded in the Bible, Barnabas was taught by Gamaliel and became a follower of Jesus. Among his first converts was Mary, his kinswoman and John Mark’s mother. Barnabas accompanied Jesus during his travels in Galilee and Jesus chose him as one of the Seventy Apostles. Evidently he tried to convert Saul, also Gamaliel’s pupil, but Saul rejected his teaching and chose instead to persecute the new believers.
Barnabas was born on Cyprus, and he travels there with Saul, whose name changes to Paul during the trip. The free eBook Island Jewels: Understanding Ancient Cyprus and Crete takes you on a journey to two stunning, history-laden islands in the Mediterranean. Visit historical places on both islands and discover what archaeologists have unearthed there.
The Bible typically remains silent about physical descriptions. Yet clues provide boundaries for the imagination. On a missionary journey with Paul to Lystra, a miracle takes place – a lame man walks! – and the astonished people call Barnabas Zeus and Paul Hermes, because Paul was the chief speaker (Acts 14:11-13). Busts of Zeus, the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus, depict a middle-aged but physically powerful and muscular man who is both regal and commanding. Perhaps that describes Barnabas.
Acts introduces Barnabas as Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, with a story about money and giving (Acts 4:36-37). In this first mention of Barnabas, Luke, traditionally regarded as the writer of both Luke and Acts, recounts his generosity: Barnabas sells a field and places the money at the apostles’ feet. This public gesture and his humbleness stand in sharp contrast to the subsequent Lucan example regarding money: the conniving, lying, hording attitude of Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11).
The text gives no indication that Barnabas’ gift responded to a call from church leadership for money. Unlike other New Testament situations (1 Cor. 16:1, 3), there seems to have been no pressing need for a large financial contribution. Instead, Barnabas’ gesture sparkles with spontaneity and joy. Barnabas gives the gift without stipulations and for the use of the community.
Evidently the field’s sale and the donation of its proceeds put Barnabas in an immediate leadership position, even though he is not part of the original Twelve disciples or a member of the Seven, the Greek-speaking servants of the widows who dealt with the daily distribution of food (Acts 6:1-2, 5).
However, his single act of generosity unquestionably earned him lifelong favor and standing in the community. Through his action, he acknowledges the apostles’ authority and submits to it.
Read about Paul’s First Missionary Journey through Perga and Pisidian Antioch and explore the route with a web-exclusive slideshow in Bible History Daily.
Robin Gallaher Branch is professor of Biblical studies at Victory University (formerly Crichton College) in Memphis, Tennessee, and Extraordinary Associate Professor in the Faculty of Theology at North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa. She received her Ph.D. in Hebrew Studies from the University of Texas in Austin in 2000. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for the 2002–2003 academic year to the Faculty of Theology at North-West University. Her most recent book is Jereboam’s Wife: The Enduring Contributions of the Old Testament’s Least-Known Women (Hendrickson, 2009).