Barnabas (who died around 60 AD) is a crucial figure in the early history of Christianity, both for launching St Paul’s missionary career and for his early support of preaching to the Gentiles.
A Cypriot by birth, and a Jew of the tribe of Levi, he had originally been named Joseph. One of the first converts after the Crucifixion, he had immediately demonstrated the seriousness of his intent by selling his estate and laying the proceeds at the Apostles’ feet.
The Apostles re-named him Barnabas, which means “the man of encouragement”. Although he was never officially one of the Twelve, he was sometimes called an Apostle.
Certainly Barnabas carried authority. When Saul (as Paul was still known) appeared in Jerusalem after his conversion, he was spurned by the Christians he had persecuted. Yet when Barnabas “took him by the hand, and brought him to the Apostles”, and spoke up for him, Paul was immediately accepted (Acts 9:27).
After reports reached the disciples in Jerusalem that Christians had been preaching successfully – even to Greeks – in Antioch, it was Barnabas who was sent to investigate. He joyfully accepted the new converts. “For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit, full of faith” (Acts 11:24).
Then, in one of the critical moments of Christian history, Barnabas personally fetched Paul from Tarsus to help him continue the good work in Antioch. Subsequently they preached together in Cyprus, and faced many dangers and adventures together during missionary journeys in Asia Minor.
In Psidian Antioch, Paul and Barnabas aroused the hostility of the Jews who objected to their preaching to all and sundry. “Whereupon Paul and Barnabas told them roundly, We were bound to preach God’s words to you first; but now, since you reject it … we will turn our thoughts to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:46).
At Lystra the crowds were initially so enthused by their healing powers that they called Paul Mercury and Barnabas Jupiter – further evidence of Barnabas’s impressive carriage.
Around 49, at a council in Jerusalem, St Peter helped to carry the argument of Paul and Barnabas that Gentile Christians need not be circumcised.
It is odd, therefore, to discover Barnabas and Peter siding against Paul in refusing to eat with the Gentiles (Gal 2:13). Was this a matter of personal sympathy? The last we hear of Barnabas is of his falling out with Paul over the latter’s refusal to accept John Mark as a travelling companion.
“So sharp was their disagreement, that they separated from each other; Barnabas took Mark with him, and sailed off to Cyprus.” (Acts 15:36-40)
So Barnabas passes from the written record. Tradition holds that he preached in Alexandria and Rome, before being martyred at Salamis.