Christian History

Cyrpus: The Land Of Barnabas

So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John to assist them. 6 When they had gone through the whole island as far as Paphos, they came upon a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet named Bar-Jesus. 7 He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, a man of intelligence, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the magician (for that is the meaning of his name) opposed them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him 10 and said, “You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.” Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had occurred, for he was astonished at the teaching of the Lord.” - Acts (13:5-12)

Cyprus was the "Chittim" of the Old Testament (Numbers 24:24). The Greek colonists gave it the name of Kypros, from the cyprus, i.e., the henna, which grew on this island. It was originally inhabited by Phoenicians. In B.C. 477 it fell under the dominion of the Greeks; and became a Roman province B.C. 58. In ancient times it was a center of great commercial activity. Corn and wine and oil were produced here in the greatest perfection. It was rich also in timber and in mineral wealth.

It is first mentioned in the New Testament ( Acts 4:36 ) as the native place of Barnabas. It was the scene of Paul's first missionary labours ( 13:4-13 ), when he and Barnabas and John Mark were sent forth by the church of Antioch. It was afterwards visited by Barnabas and Mark alone ( 15:39 ). Mnason, an "old disciple," probably one of the converts of the day of Pentecost belonging to this island, is mentioned ( 21:16 ). It is also mentioned in connection with the voyages of Paul ( Acts 21:3 ; 27:4 ).

saint barnabas Above: St. Barnabas Monastery In Cyprus


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.

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.

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

saint barnabas Above: St. Barnabas

The Significance Of The Name 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. 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.

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.

Barnabas' Life

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."

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)).

saint barnabas Above: The Sacrifce at Lystra, The work is a design for a tapestry in the Sistine Chapel, Raphael

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). 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. 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.

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. Finally, Paul mentions him tangentially in 1 Corinthians 9:6 as an example of a hard-working missionary.

Barnabas' Martyrdom & Death

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. 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."

saint barnabas Above left: The Martyrdom of St. Barnabas, Jacques Callot, 1630 Above right: Barnabas healing the sick, Paolo Veronese, 1566

Barnabas & Christianity

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.

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.

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.

saint barnabas tomb Above: St. Barnabas tomb, Cyprus

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. 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. 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.