Galatians 1: Where’s Barnabas?

The opening lines of Galatians are perhaps the most significant of all of Paul’s letters.  By comparing this introduction to the other letters of Paul, Bible students have usually focused on the absence of praise for the Galatian churches.  This is certainly true, but something else is missing from the introduction of this letter.  Paul normally includes others in the address of a letter (1 Thess 1:1, 1 Cor 1:1).  In this case Paul alone is writer of the letter.  Barnabas, the logical person to include, is missing.  Where is Barnabas?

Richard Bauckham wrote a short article on Barnabas in Galatians in which he suggests that Paul purposely did not include Barnabas because at the time of the writing of the letter, he was still estranged from Paul.  When Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch after planting several churches in Galatia, two things happened.  First, men from (allegedly) from James came to Antioch and complained about table fellowship.  Peter and Barnabas withdrew from eating with Gentiles, resulting in a stern condemnation from Paul (Gal 2:11-14).  Second, Paul hears a report that Gentiles in his Galatia churches are also being pressured to keep the Law, including circumcision.  (These events could be reversed chronologically, it does not matter for the point of this argument.)

While it appears that Barnabas and Paul reconcile before Acts 15, it may be that the rift goes deeper than either Galatians or Acts lets on.  By the end of Acts 15, immediately after the Jerusalem conference, Barnabas and Paul part company again.  The reason Luke gives is the presence of John Mark in a renewed mission to Gentiles.  While Bauckham does not say this, I think that the presence of John Mark indicates that Barnabas is unwilling to do Gentile ministry in the same way Paul does.  The Incident at Cyprus (Acts 13:4-12) is the key.  John Mark leaves after Paul’s dramatic condemnation of unbelieving Jews.  In my view, John Mark is reacting to Paul’s ministry to Gentiles who are not God-Fearing Gentiles within the context of a synagogue.  In addition, he may have disagreed with Paul over a gospel which did not require Gentiles to at least become God-Fearers, let alone not keep food laws or Sabbaths.

In addition, it is likely that Barnabas was the leader of the first mission effort to Cyprus and Asia Minor.  Remember that at Lystra he was thought to be Zeus, implying he was older and “in charge” while  Paul was Hermes, the spokesman for Zeus.  Paul’s actions on Cyprus and his sermon in Acts 13 make it clear that his theology was going beyond Gentiles in the Synagogue.   By taking John Mark back as a travel companion, Barnabas may be signaling his unwillingness to minister outside of the synagogue in quite the way Paul does in Acts 16 and following (balancing synagogue with marketplace ministry, engaging pagan philosophers, etc.)

Admittedly this is speculative, but Bauckham’s reconstruction (and my slight extension of it) seems to explain the absence of Barnabas from the introduction of the letter.  If Paul could say “even Barnabas agrees with me,” he would have since that would have silenced the opponents.  However, he cannot say this at the time Galatians was written.

Richard Bauckham, “Barnabas in Galatians,” JSNT 2 (1979): 61-70.

5 thoughts on “Galatians 1: Where’s Barnabas?

  1. Phillip, I agree on many points, including Barnabas’ likely preference for Synagogue focus, but I disagree on the event sequence. However, before I could even start arguing, in all sincerity, let me see if I’ve got this straight.

    If I understand correctly, the scenario is:

    (1) Paul and Barnabas become estranged while both are still in Antioch, largely because of legalistic men from Jerusalem, but these men are only causing controversy about table fellowship, and they’re not the same men from Acts 15:1, who came to Antioch preaching circumcision.

    (2) Paul and Barnabas remain estranged long enough for Paul to hear from and write back to the four churches in Southern Galatia, where legalistic men (from Jerusalem?) have caused controversy over both table fellowship AND circumcision. Paul writes Galatians without bringing in Barnabas, because Antioch is still divided over table fellowship. So then, Paul and Barnabas do not reconcile until some time after Paul sends the Galatian letter.

    (3) Men from Jerusalem arrive in Antioch (different men?) this time causing controversy about circumcision. Paul and Barnabas oppose them together. The Council of Acts 15 ensues. Later, back in Antioch, Paul and Barnabas part ways again over John Mark.

    (4) After all that, Paul goes back to Galatia in person.

    Is that right?

    If so, I think point (1) is where I’m most incredulous. It’s not even that men from Jerusalem (in Antioch) would seem at least as likely to cause both controversies at once. It’s the idea that full force ‘Judaizing’ got as far as Galatia before anything similar had reached Antioch.

    Another question: do you and/or Bauckham see a necessary contradiction between A.15:1 and G.2:13? Or could it not be as plausible to assume Barnabas was quickly won back to Paul’s side by Paul’s rebuke of Peter?

    • In Acts 14:21-24 Paul finishes the so-called First journey by traveling back through the churches he established earlier in that chapter. So the to passes through the region happen before Paul and Barnabas fall out over table fellowship, but my point above about John Mark means that Barnabas may have already become frustrated with Paul’s targeting non-God-Fearing Gentiles (Sergius Paulus and perhaps Lystra, with no synagogue, the speech in Acts 13 is rather dramatic as well). If that is the sort of thing Paul is going to be doing, the roots of Barnabas’ defection may run to the Paul’s “method” on that first trip.

      And yes, I am assuming that the Antioch Incident, as described in Gal 2:13 (and the shaming of Peter) is different than the event described in Acts 15:1, but they are related. It seems to me that Antioch incident is concerning table fellowship, while the problem in Acts 15 is circumcision of Gentile converts. They are not separated by much time, but if the Antioch Incident (Gal 2:11-14) was about circumcision, then Paul missed an opportunity to address the main problem of the letter. Peter and Barnabas separate from Gentile Christians, but there is no reference in Galatians to their insistence that Gentiles be circumcised.

      I do not think that Paul returns to Galatia again, for a third visit to each church, until Acts 16. Acts 15:36 is in the initial purpose statement, they want to go back to Lystra and Derbe, etc to “see how they are doing.” IMHO, they are going to make sure that that letter from James is read by the right people.

      Hope that clarifies things, I appreciate the comments. Helps sharpen what was apparently a weak explanation.

  2. if the Antioch Incident (Gal 2:11-14) was about circumcision, then Paul missed an opportunity to address the main problem of the letter

    I admit, that seems like a strong point. On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s accurate. The reason Jewish Christians weren’t eating with Gentile Christians (in Antioch) is precisely because those Gentile Christians weren’t circumcised.

    At any rate, I don’t think arguments based on what Paul “should” have written in certain circumstances bear as much weight as basic itineraries.

    Again: in your scenario, why would the full-on Judaizers get to Galatia before they got to Antioch?

  3. Hello just wanted to give you a quick heads up.

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