St. Barnabas, Pray For Us!

SAINTS & ART: St. Barnabas shows us that to be Christian is to be a missionary.

Jacob Jordaens, “The Apostles, St. Paul and St. Barnabas at Lystra,” 1645
Jacob Jordaens, “The Apostles, St. Paul and St. Barnabas at Lystra,” 1645 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Barnabas plays a prominent role in the New Testament, just right after the Apostles and as St. Paul’s primary colleague. John Fenlon wrote that “with the exception of St. Paul and certain of the Twelve, Barnabas appears to have been the most esteemed man of the first Christian generation.” So who was he?

He was a Jew, probably originally named Joseph. He came from Cyprus but, as a Levite (Levites exercised certain religious functions in the Judaism of Jesus’ day) spent much time in Jerusalem. Most of tradition holds that he was converted to Christianity around the time of Pentecost.

Tradition also holds that he had early successes as a preacher for Christianity. When Paul came to Jerusalem, Barnabas advocated his acceptance by the early Christian community, even though many remembered him as Saul the fierce persecutor and were suspicious of his conversion. As Barnabas saw the successes of the Church’s outreach to Gentiles in Antioch in Syria, one of the most important cities in the ancient Near East. The auspicious work of conversion begun there led to Barnabas and Paul preaching in Antioch, and then the inauguration of their missionary journeys throughout the Near East, including Barnabas’s native Cyprus and a variety of provinces in what is today Turkey. 

After their return to Antioch, St. Peter joined them. It is then that a controversy between Paul and Peter breaks out. Peter initially adhered to the dispensation of the Gentile Christian converts from the Old Testament dietary laws. However, under the influence of the Judaizers (a group of early Christians of Jewish origin who sought to require Gentile converts to observe Jewish dietary and other rituals, including circumcision), Peter began refusing to eat with the Gentiles and Barnabas joined him. This resulted in Paul calling Peter out to his face (Galatians 2:12-13) and Peter’s subsequent retraction of his behavior.

We know from the New Testament that shortly afterward, Paul (with Silas in train) and Barnabas each set out on separate missionary journeys. Though their collaboration appeared to have ended at that time, they remained friends, as 1 Corinthians 9:5-6 suggests. It is likely that Barnabas died between the writing of First Corinthians in the late 50s and Paul’s being taken as a prisoner to Rome in the early 60s.

A late tradition holds that Barnabas died a martyr by being burned alive in Cyprus, but Fenlon questions it as being of late origin. Among the attributes of St. Barnabas in Christian art are a book, indicative of his preaching, and fire. 

Jacob Jordaens was a Flemish Baroque painter active in the first three quarters of the 17th century. Rubens had a great influence on him, but Jordaens eventually became a Protestant. In 1645, he painted “St. Paul and St. Barnabas at Lystra.”

Lystra was a city in today’s southeast Turkey, which Paul and Barnabas visited on their first missionary journey. The account of their sojourn appears in Acts 14:8-20. 

One of Paul’s listeners in Lystra was a man crippled from birth. Listening devoutly to Paul, the latter commanded him to walk. He rose up and walked. 

The Lystrian crowd concluded that “the gods have come down to us in human form,” naming Barnabas “Zeus” and Paul — because he was chief speaker — “Hermes,” the Greek messenger god. The priests of the temple of Zeus in Lystra were ready to offer sacrifices to them. 

St. Peter had healed a lame man in the name of Christ and encountered a similar kind of awe and wonder (Acts 3:1-26). The difference was that Peter healed the man in Jerusalem: Jews and Jewish-origin Christians were unlikely to attribute healing to anyone else but God nor to confuse him with men. Sts. Paul and Barnabas healed a lame man in pagan Lystra which, under Hellenic cultural influence, was ready to accept a multiplicity of gods whom mythology claimed occasionally visited men. That is why Sts. Peter and Barnabas have to preach actively against the efforts of the crowds to divinize and apotheosize them (Acts 14:15-17). Yet, despite their efforts, “they had difficulty from keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them” (14:18). 

Jordaens captures that moment. Paul and Barnabas, standing at the top of the temple steps on the center-right, are trying to put down the frenzy ensuing around them. Paul seems to be the one with his hands in the air, trying to seize the crowd’s attention to hear him. Barnabas seems to be the one scandalized by what the crowd thinks of them. People are pressing in on all sides. The people on the lower right in front of Paul and Barnabas have hands raised in supplication, as if they are invoking gods. A bull (center left) has been dragged to the scene, to be readied to sacrifice to the pair. A statue to the gods with offerings burning before it already perches over to the left of presumably Barnabas’s head. The bold colors, the suggestions of moment, the attention to physiology and powerful body types are all indicative of Baroque art style.

So what lessons can we draw for today? Barnabas shows us that being a Christian is an “all-in” investment: his faith was not superficial. He also shows us that to be Christian is to be a missionary, to spread the Good News of Jesus and to refute error vigorously.

Are we ready to follow in Barnabas’s footsteps?