Acts 4:36-27 – Who was Barnabas?

Luke gives an ideal example of a member of the early Christian community in Jerusalem: Joseph the Levite, also known as Barnabas (4:36). Barnabas is a significant figure in the book of Acts, introduced here as a member of the community at Jerusalem. The introduction of Barnabas at this point in the book is a typical Lukan literary style. He often introduces a character who will become significant later in the story (Saul in 8:1, John Mark and James, Jesus’ brother in chapter 12).

BarnabasJoseph is a common name in the first century, so his second name might be a nickname. Luke tells us the name means “son of encouragement” although this derivation is not particular obvious. The phrase “son of ” can mean “characterized by, such as calling James and John “sons of thunder.” The name may be related to Bar-nabi, which would mean “son of a prophet.”

While this seems the most likely explanation for the name, it is not exactly what Luke says the name means. The role of the prophet is not limited to future-telling or condemnation of sin. For example, the second half of Isaiah has been rightly described as a “book of comfort” or “consolation.” Perhaps Barnabas had a personality which could speak the truth with strength and clarity, but in such a way as to bring comfort and encouragement to people as well.

Barnabas was from Cyprus. We know a community of Jews was present on Cyprus as early as 330 B.C., but they were expelled in A.D. 117. It is possible that Barnabas was in Jerusalem to serve his time in the Temple, or he may have been living in the city more or less full time. If he was wealthy, then he may have owned property in Jerusalem and Cyprus.

Luke calls him a Levite. Not all Levites were priests, but typically they were wealthy and well educated regardless of their role in the Temple. Levites could be anything from priests to doorkeepers in the Temple, but they also might be scribes or teachers of the Law. We are not told that Barnabas actually functioned as a Levite in the Temple, he may have simply been from a Levitical family. On the other hand, it is possible that he had worked in the Temple and was quite “traditional” within the spectrum of Second Temple Period Judaism. What matters here is that Barnabas was from the Diaspora, but had deep roots in Jerusalem and perhaps the Temple.

Barnabas sells some property and turns the proceeds over to the apostles. This stands in contrast to Ananias in the next paragraph, who claims to do the same thing but is not telling the truth. We are not told what the property is, although he may have owned some property around Jerusalem which was a source of income for his family while he worked in the Temple.

I think that it is important to observe here that Jews living living outside of Judea are not automatically “more liberal” on matters of Law. In fact, it seems to me that the violent resistance to the preaching of the Gospel in Acts comes first from Diaspora Jews, not the Aramaic-speaking Jews. That Barnabas has two Hebrew names, hast the title of Levite, and had some property in Jerusalem implies that he was less Hellenized and more traditional with respect to his religion.

E. Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 1:788-790 for detailed information on Barnabas.

9 thoughts on “Acts 4:36-27 – Who was Barnabas?

  1. It is so important when reading the Bible to truly take time to let the words sink in and meditate on them. There are so many details that one would miss if you did not take time to find meaning behind them. When I read Acts 4 I thought it was interesting how Luke mentions a specific name of an individual who was of the Christian Community who sold his personal land for the benefit of people who were in need. Barnabas was the name that was specifically mentioned as this individual who selflessly gave to help others. While reading I remember thinking how it was interesting the description given for him and his name meaning “son of encouragement” This is so cool to see how through our actions we can encourage people in so many ways. I really liked learning more about Him through this Post. I like how our professor talked about the difference between Barnabas and Ananias who both sold property but for different reasons. Ananias for his own personal gain and Barnabas for those who were needy. It is not safe to assume that just because you are in the more secular places you will be more liberal. I think that we can see these two examples and clearly apply them to our own lives. We can choose to be someone who encourages like Barnabas and does things with pure motives or we can choose to do things for our own personal gain like Ananias. I have seen this so many times and it is a good reminder for me to check where my heart is in the things I choose to do. Many times our motives behind our actions counts more that the actions themselves and we see illustrated through Acts 4 and this post.

  2. this was a great article on Barnabas. I like how you explained what his name meant, and how the name could mean two different things. this is something that I need to remember as I read through the Bible that every word has meaning. so often I forget that each word of the Bible could be taken and used for an article like this. and have so many things be said about it. I love thinking how much sure weight Gods words have, this is something that I need to remind myself of every day.

  3. There is not a lot that is said about Barnabas in Acts 4, but after reading the little bit that it said, I became interested in learning more about him. Barnabas sticks out to me for a couple of reasons. First off, I think that it should not be overlooked that he sold a field that he owned and gave the money that he earned from it to the apostles. There were a lot of people that were giving money to the apostles to help them out, but it seems to me that selling your field and giving all of that money is a huge sacrifice that would be an extremely hard decision to make for some people. I do not know if I know anybody that would be willing to see their property and give the money to the church today. For me, this would be something that would require a lot of prayer unless God told me directly that He wanted me to do that. Another thing that really sticks out to me about Barnabas is the connections that this story has with Ananias and Sapphira in the next chapter. Both Barnabas and those two have some similarities but are actually very different from each other. Ananias also sold property and gave some to the apostles but lied and kept some of the earnings instead of giving all of it like Barnabas did. I think it is very interesting that these two stories are told so close to each other, but are still in different chapters. This seems to show how good of a person Barnabas was to make this sacrifice and tell the truth when others did not.

  4. Barnabas is a key figure in the New Testament, and is most famous for traveling with Paul on his first missionary journey. Although I knew the name, I had not released that Act 4:36 gave a great introduction to who Barnabas was. It was intriguing to learn more about the missionary who served with Paul. I grew up always hearing about the story of Ananias and Sapphira, but had not released the example of Barnabas selling his field preceded it. According to Polhill, it is important to note that the example that Barnabas gave when selling his field, would have only been recorded if the gift had been voluntary (2089). This is important to understand because of what happens in the next chapter, when Ananias and Sapphira lie about selling their own field.
    Reading Barnaba’s name meant ‘son of encouragement’ was interesting to me. Polhill also talks about how Barnabas was the first one to introduce Paul to the church and the first to vouch for him so to speak (2089). His nickname does seem to sum up what kind of a person Barnabas was. Because I had never read the passage closely before I had always missed the part about Barnabas being a Levite. The implications that come with that title are something that I had never considered before. The possibility that Barnabas worked in the temple or has some wealth is interesting considering his missionary position later on. Diving deeper into the character of Barnabas has been really cool, as it adds depth and context to his works in the future.

  5. I find Barnabas an interesting man. We do not know much of him but we can make some assumptions about him. He Definitely was a man of God. Barnabas displayed great faith in the Lord when he sold his land. By selling his land and giving it all to God he set a great example of what sacrificing and living for the Lord is and should look like. His act of faith is displayed to be strong and God centered. The article above provided a great potential description of Barnabas. He was described as someone who “could speak the truth with strength and clarity, but in such a way as to bring comfort and encouragement to people as well”. Although we have no real proof on who Barnabas was, we can definitely see this possible description of him through his great act of faith. More information that we should take notice is Barnabas is of Levite descent. We also know that his first name was Joseph and his nickname was Barnabas which means “son of encouragement”(P.Long). Joseph was a common name then so this nickname would be a way to recognize him from other Josephs. Knowing these things of Barnabas it gives us insight into more of who he was. Being a Levite usually means he most likely was a temple worker or just had deep roots in Jerusalem.

  6. To be honest, I did not think much of Barnabas. I have heard his name mentioned but did not think much about him. I find it interesting that this blog post mentions how Barnabas is a significant figure since he is not mentioned frequently. I did not know his real name was Joseph. I think his new nickname can tell a lot about his character. The ESV Study Bible says that his nickname meaning son of encouragement fits his personality well (Polhill, 2008, 2089). This phrase and the meaning of his nickname tells me that he encouraged people. He possibly often encouraged people in their faith since he was evidently a godly man. I also find it important to note that he is mentioned before the story of Ananias and Sapphira. He did the opposite of them by selling his land and giving the amount he said he would give to the apostles instead of lying to them. It is clear that he is a holy man who wants to please God.
    Polhill, John. (2008). The Book of Acts. Pages 2073-2145 in ESV Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway.

  7. Barnabas being introduced early on before his shining moment is definitely a literary choice on Luke’s end because it acts more like a foreshadowing for what is going to happen in the next coming chapters. The character of Barnabas is one you don’t normally think about him until you read about him; hence Acts 4. After hearing more about his background from this blog post, it is clear that there is going to be something important coming from his character (quite possibly like him going along on Paul’s first missionary journey!) You get a sense of what this man is about: being loving and compassionate while still giving out the truth, just like Long mentioned in his third paragraph about how Barnabas could perhaps have the personality of a caring individual. His nickname even supports it: son of encouragement. Even with the little information we were given about Barnabas just in chapter four, it is safe to assume that he was a man of God. He was a Levite, but like Long said, we cannot assume he was a ‘practicing Levite’, we can only assume he came from a long line of Levites but we will learn more about his development with the faith later on in the book of Acts.

  8. When reading the blog post titled “Who was Barnabas?” There were some points made that were new and many were consistent with the traits and stories that I grew up hearing about Barnabas. One thing that I learned during this post that I had never been taught was that Barnabas was a levite meaning that was a wealthy, therefore well educated individual but those are not the traits that defined him. Barnabas (Joseph) was remembered by the meaning of his name, son of encouragement. His character reflects one that al Christian’s should strive to emulate. So often the church and its people are marked by judgment, impatience, selfishness, The world is living and active, meant to be learned from and applied to our lives no matter the age of the Bible. Barnabas is someone that we can glean so much from. The way he uses his words to encourage and build others up. He also does not hesitate to sacrifice for others as we see in the word and learn in this post. Barnabas used the wealth he had been blessed with to sell some of his land and generously hand over the profits to the apostles to support their ministry in the same ways the the disciples of today should be sacrificing for ministries in order to see the Kingdom thrive.

  9. Having read through Acts before I never thought too deeply about the Character of Barnabas before his travels with Paul. His name literally meaning “son of encouragement” makes quite a bit of sense for his character as he appears later in the story. His defending people such as Paul and later John Mark is behavior fitting of his name as someone who would be a good companion for Paul to deliver the Gospel to the Gentiles (Polhill, 2089). Knowing more context of who Barnabas was as having owned property in Jerusalem as well as a Levite makes more sense as to why later on in the narrative he would be “lead astray” by Peter when refusing to eat with the Gentiles. Despite this I find his willingness to encourage and journey with people such as Paul and John Mark quite admirable and in line with a follower of Jesus Christ. It appears common that those who follow Christ are often renamed not just as there are “too many Josephs” but as to differentiate what each did in their characters. Simon became Peter, Saul became Paul, Jacob became Israel, Abram became Abraham, and Joseph the Levite became Barnabas. Perhaps Luke uses this nickname too in order to foreshadow that Barnabas would play a bigger role to come as he does when he introduces other characters throughout his storytelling.

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