(Died c. A.D. 60)
St. Paul is called the “Apostle to the Gentiles”. It is too often forgotten that his colleague in his early mission to the Gentiles was St. Barnabas.
Barnabas’s given name was Joseph. He was a Jew of the Tribe of Levi, a tribe whose male members were dedicated to divine service. Although he was a native of Cyprus, he moved to the Holy Land, and it was there that he became one of the early disciples of the living Christ.
The Acts of the Apostles tell us that the earliest followers of Christ in Jerusalem showed wonderful charity to each other, even selling their property to provide for their needy members. Acts mentions one such donor by name: Joseph Barnabas. (The disciples had probably given him the nickname Barnabas because he had a special gift of inspiring other people. Barnabas means “son of Encouragement”.)
Before long St. Peter received a special heavenly revelation that the preachers of the Word needed no longer to restrict their message to Jews, but could now approach Gentiles as well. Soon the report came back to the Church in Jerusalem that some Christian teachers in Antioch had made converts of a number of pagans. Barnabas, as “a good man, full of the Holy Ghost and faith”, was sent to Antioch to study the new development. He was enthusiastic about it. Able to make converts himself of a number of non-Jews, he went off to Tarsus to seek the assistance of Saul, who from an anti-Christian, Jewish persecutor had become a zealous champion of the Christian faith. Barnabas and Saul spent a very successful year evangelizing at Antioch. But note well that it was Barnabas who first defended the genuinity of Saul’s conversion, and who first welcomed him to the official apostolate.
While they were at Antioch, the Holy Spirit ordered the Christian leaders there to impose hands upon the pair and commission them to travel west on their new mission to both Gentiles and Jews. Taking with them John Mark (the future St. Mark the evangelist), they first went to Barnabas’s homeland, Cyprus, where they began a fruitful preaching career. (This was where Saul changed his name to Paul.) Then they turned back to Asia Minor, again with remarkable missionary success, although not without persecution. They ended up back in Antioch.
St. Paul, with the approval of the church leaders in Jerusalem, now charted a second missionary journey, planning to revisit the churches already established and to carry the Gospel still farther afield. This time Paul took over the leadership. After a disagreement between them, Barnabas went back to Cyprus and continued there the work he had earlier begun.
The Acts of the Apostles tell us nothing further about Joseph Barnabas. Legend says that he died a martyr in Cyprus, presumably before AD 60. He left no writings: the famous so-called “Epistle of Barnabas” was not his but another’s, for it was not written until AD 130.
The Church honors St. Barnabas with the title “apostle”. That word, which means “one sent”, was first used in the New Testament of any Christian missionary, and only later restricted to “The Twelve” who had been chosen especially by Our Lord, (plus St. Paul, because of his special calling). The title is applied to Barnabas in the broader sense.
There can be no doubt, however, that St. Barnaby (as he is called in English), was “a good man”. He spent his wealth to help the poor and his lifeblood to spread the Gospel. Truly he was “one sent by God”.
–Father Robert F. McNamara