For Barnabas we praise You,
Who kept Your law of love
And, leaving earthly treasures,
Sought riches from above.
O Christ, our Lord and Savior,
Let gifts of grace descend,
That Your true consolation
May through the world extend.
The name Barnabas means “son of consolation” and was a surname given to him by the other Apostles (Like Boanerges, “sons of thunder” that Our Lord gave to Sts. James and John). His birth name was Joseph or Joses. He was a native of Cyprus and a member of the tribe of Levi. He sold a field that belonged to him and gave the proceeds to the Apostles. (Acts of the Apostles 4:36-37)
This is the point at which he first appears but he quickly becomes a prominent figure in the early Christian movement. He was apparently trusted well enough by the Apostles that he could vouch for Saul. Barnabas encourages Saul to share his experiences in Damascus. (Acts 9:27) It seems unlikely that the Twelve would have trusted a brand new convert to vouch for someone a former persecutor of the Church. Barnabas is included in some (non-canonical) lists of the Seventy-Two and it’s possible, even likely given his closeness to the Twelve, that he was one of them and thus a follower of Christ since the beginning.
Vouching for Saul
Like Paul, Barnabas was not one of the Twelve but is nevertheless considered an Apostle. Ironically, Paul became such an important personage in the Church that he is commemorated with a Solemnity along with St. Peter, the first pope, and along with him is one of three saints whose names must be mentioned in the First Intercessions of the Roman Canon. Meanwhile, Barnabas, who vouched for him to the Apostles, is relegated to second tier status in the Second Intercessions, along with St. Mathias, who was one the Twelve, albeit not originally.
Later in Acts, after the persecution following the martyrdom of St. Stephen forces many Christians to scatter throughout the larger region, some natives of Cyprus and Cyrene begin preaching to Gentiles in Antioch, whereas before the Gospel had only been preached to Jews. When the Apostles learn this, they send Barnabas to Antioch as an overseer (episcopus) of the mission, no doubt because Barnabas was also a native of Cyprus. The number of new converts became so large that Barnabas felt like he needed help and went to Tarsus to asked Saul to come assist him in Antioch. (Acts 11:19-26)
Companion of Paul
After the prophet Agabus foretells a future famine, the church at Antioch sends Barnabas and Saul back to Jerusalem with donations that they had taken up for the poor in Jerusalem. (Acts 11:28-30) They are apparently there for the sequence of events that include the martyrdom of St. James the Greater, imprisonment and angelically aided escape of St. Peter and the death of King Herod Agrippa. Afterward, they return to Antioch from Jerusalem, along with St. (John) Mark, who was the cousin of Barnabas. (12:25)
Upon arriving in Antioch, after a period of prayer and fasting, they are commissioned for their missionary journey by the laying on of hands. They first travel to Barnabas’ native Cyprus. There, they come into a conflict with a magician named Elymas Bar-Jesus, who is trying to prevent them from preaching to the proconsul Sergius Paulus. Saul, now known as Paul, prays and Elymas is temporarily struck blind. (13:4-12)
Paul and Barnabas then sail to Perga in Pamphylia, where Mark leaves them and returns to Jerusalem. Paul and Barnabas than continue on to Pisidia, where their successful preaching results in them being driven out of the city by the Jews. (13:13-50) They then travel to Iconium where they have a similar experience and flee to Lystra and Derbe in Lycaonia before they can be stoned. (14:1-6)
At Lystra, Paul heals a man who had been crippled from death, causing the people of the city to hail him as the god Hermes, because he was one who was speaking, and Barnabas as Zeus. Paul and Barnabas tear their garments and rush out to prevent the pagan priests and people from offering sacrifice to them by telling the people that they are not gods but merely human servants of the True God. (14:8-18)
At the Council of Jerusalem
After this, Paul is stoned and left for dead. Once he recovers, he and Barnabas travel back by the route on which they came and arrive back in Antioch. (14:24-26) There, they encounter some Judaizers, who insist that Gentile converts must follow the ritual prescriptions of the Torah, including circumcision, in order to be saved. Paul and Barnabas argued against them and the whole matter was referred to the Apostles, who convened a Council at Jerusalem, to which Paul and Barnabas went. After Peter’s opening address, Paul and Barnabas give their testimony regarding their mission to the Gentiles which prompts James, the bishop of Jerusalem and leader of the Judaizing faction, to rise and concede that Gentile converts should not be forced to keep the Torah.
Barnabas and Paul then return to Antioch carrying a letter from the Apostles explaining their decision. They are accompanied by Judas bar Sabas and Silas. At Antioch, Paul recommends that he and Barnabas return to the places where they had proclaimed the Gospel to check on the progress of the churches there. Barabbas wants to bring Mark with them, but Paul refuses, likely believing that he will abandon them again. This leads to the separation of Paul and Barnabas. Barnabas and Mark travel to Cyprus, while Paul continues on his missionary journeys with Silas as his new companion.
This is the last mention of Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles. According to tradition, Barnabas was martyred in his native Cyprus by being stoned to death. Paul mentions him by name in his first epistle to the Corinthians, in the present tense, so presumably he is still alive at the time of its writing (c. A.D. 56-57). In Paul’s epistle to the Colossians, which he wrote while a prisoner in Rome from A.D. 61-63, he mentions “Mark the cousin of Barnabas” (4:10) as being with him, indicating that Barnabas has likely died by this point. Thus it is possible to pinpoint the approximate date of the martyrdom of Barnabas to c. A.D. 57-61.
Sts. Joseph Barnabas and John Mark, orate pro nobis!