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He 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 Mark (Colossians 4:10). He was a native of Cyprus, where he had a possession of 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 brethren there (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). In the narrative of this journey, 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 nephew 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 Historical Records
According to other sources, Barnabas later visited Rome and Alexandria. In the "Clementine Recognitions" (i, 7) he is depicted as preaching in Rome during Christ's lifetime, and Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, ii, 20) makes him one of the seventy disciples. Not older than the third 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, just as did the Milan church afterward, to become more independent of Rome. In this connection, the question whether Barnabas was an apostle became important, and was often discussed during the Middle Ages (cf. C. J. Hefele, Das Sendschreiben des Apostels Barnabas, Tubingen, 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 Book of Acts, and a gospel is ascribed to him (cf. T. Zahn, Geschichte des neutestamentlichen Kanons, ii, 292, Leipsig, 1890).
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.
This article uses text from Easton's Bible Dictionary, 1897, and the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religion.