Acts 13:4 – Why Cyprus?

Barnabas and Saul set out from Antioch to Seulcia, a port about 16 miles from Antioch. From there they sail to Cyprus, an island in the Mediterranean about 100 miles from Selucia.

Why Cyprus? As Keener says, is simply makes sense for Barnabas to begin a mission by going to Cyprus since that was where he was from (2:1998). On the other hand, Cyprus had a large Jewish community dating to the second century B.C. (1 Mac 15:23).  Both Josephus (Antiq. 18.31) and Philo (Legat 282) describe a large and wealthy Jewish population.  Herod the Great was given half the income of Cyprus copper mines by Augustus (Antiq. 16.127-129).  The Talmud indicates that Cypriot Jews regularly donated wine used for the incense offering on the Day of Atonement (y.Yoma 4:5; Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2:1078).

Acts 11:19-20 indicates there were early Jewish Christians from Cyprus who began to do ministry in Antioch. Barnabas himself was from Cyprus (4:36-37). All this implies a Jewish-Christian presence on Cyprus before Acts 11:19, and possibly as early as Pentecost. Barnabas and Saul were going to an area already prepared for the Gospel.

Cyprus is also central to travel to the Mediterranean world. The island was a prosperous and many good harbors (Strabo 14.2.10, 14.6.6, Keener 2:1999). Salamis was a major port city on Cyprus.  It was destroyed by an earthquake in 15 B.C., and rebuilt by Augustus and renamed Sebaste Augusta. Paphos was about 93 miles (150 km) from Salamis and was the seat of the Roman government on the Island.  The old city was home to the most famous temple of Aphrodite in the ancient world, still attracting pilgrims even in the first century (ECM, 2:1082).

Luke tells us Barnabas and Saul visit synagogues in Salamis and Paphos, but they likely visited other locations as they traveled the length of the island. This is Paul’s regular missionary method, going to the synagogue first. While this may reflect Romans 1:16 (“to the Jew first, and then to the Greek,” it is also a practical strategy. By going to a synagogue first, Rabbi Saul will meet people who are already well-educated in the Scripture and (perhaps) anticipating the coming of the Messiah.

Paul will also find a few Gentile God-fearers in most of the synagogues. It is possible Paul targeted these Gentiles who want to worship the God of Israel without fully keeping the Law. His Gospel would have been very attractive to these Gentiles.

There is no report of success (or lack thereof), but we know that Barnabas and John Mark return to Cyprus later, perhaps indicating some churches had been established. A bishop from Cyprus attended the council of Nicea; by A.D. 400, Jerome reports that there are 15 bishops on Cyprus (ECM, 2:1080).

Are there any other motivations for this trip to Cyprus? What is Luke doing on a literary/theological level by describing a pair of missionaries going out from Antioch?


10 thoughts on “Acts 13:4 – Why Cyprus?

  1. I think there are a couple reasons for Barnabas and Saul going to Cyprus.
    First, I would agree in saying that the central travel location of Cyprus made it a prime spot to start Jesus communities. We see Paul doing the same thing in various cities; he wants to find places where the people in the town will be influenced by the Jesus movement, but also in places where those passing through would undoubtedly hear something about Jesus and then take that story with them wherever they were traveling.
    Second, on a more theological note, the primary story recorded of these two men in Cyprus was about a sorcerer. This story may have been included by Luke for the purpose of showing the supremacy of Jesus Christ over any sort of sorcery the pagan world could offer.

  2. Why Cyprus?

    I would agree that there is good reason to think they went to the island because it is the home of Barnabas. Naturally, if there was good news to share with people, one of the places most people would want to go is their home town. Furthermore, we see that there is a large Jewish population. Those Jew needed to be reach, and if not, they would have most likely received the gospel from a second hand version. Not that hear it from anyone but the apostles is bad, however, there would be a greater chance for people to confuse, change or relay the gospel poorly. Another reason for Cyprus to be important of the gospel message is that it is a major trading port. It makes sense that God would choose this land because of its strategic position and trading routes with the Roman world. Most people who would visit there would most likely hear about the new gospel, and from there, return with this message to their own home town. The city there was rich with history, and since it was a trading port, there is usually a good mix of various gods, and religious ideology. Cyprus is a great selection for God to direct the gospel to.

  3. It seems there are many very strong arguments for why Cyprus was chosen as the first stop of Barnabas and Saul’s first journey. Where the fact that it was Barnabas’ “hometown” appears proof enough to make it a first stop, I find the location and centrality of Cyprus made it a prime candidate as a beginning point to bring the message of the gospel. The fact that so many people from all over the Mediterranean would have stopped there on their way to other locations would naturally open so many doors for the message of salvation to be heard and consequently spread. This international aspect would also mean there would likely be many other religions and cults present. The temple of Aphrodite alone is evidence of the prevalence of the draw pilgrims from around the Mediterranean had to Cyprus. If the goal of Barnabas and Saul was to begin the spread of the gospel to ultimately the ends of the earth, then starting in a melting pot of ethnicities and religions would appear to be a natural starting off point. Polhill states, “places play a key role in Acts” (2077). With that in mind, it would appear that Luke intentionally describes these men going to Cyprus to remind the reader of the important role mission fields have on the spread of the gospel throughout the world.
    Polhill, John B. (Ed). Introduction to Acts. In ESV Study Bible. Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

  4. As I was reading this blog, I began to wonder what that call from the Holy Spirit must have been like. It is also interesting that they are called to spread the gospel and, by doing so, they are to leave their church and jobs. This echoes the events that took place when Jesus called the first disciples.
    It is also noteworthy that Luke is still referring to Saul by that name but noted that he was also called Paul. As mentioned in the blog post, it makes sense that this would be their first location simply because of the geographical area. But it also ties with the bigger themes of Luke as he portrays the outward spread of the gospel both geographically and culturally. So it fits that Paul and Barnabas would be going to a near by location to preach the gospel to the Jews. This is also another transition point because the Jews ultimately reject their message and Paul and Barnabas shake the dust off their shoes and “leave to preach to the Gentiles”.
    This missionary journey makes sense in that it fits in well with the overarching theme of Luke and the mission to spread the Gospel. However, I am a bit confused about John Mark’s presence in this story. It does not seem like he traveled to Cyprus with Paul and Barnabas. He just “appears” and is mentioned almost as an afterthought. I wonder if he was already doing ministry there and Paul and Barnabas came to help him… possibly it could have been the other way around. In the end the reason for John Mark also being there doesn’t matter much. The gospel is going out; first to Jerusalem and the Jews in the surrounding areas, and now to the Gentiles.

  5. I think the fact that Cyprus was Barnabas’s home is very significant (Phillip Long). I would mean that he would have knowledge of where the Gospel needed to be spread. Cyprus was also close in location and likely had a great population of people, along with the mentioned great Jewish population which is whom they wanted to minister to first and foremost as the chosen people of God (Phillip Long).
    I think that what Luke is doing here is basically saying, “they’re off folks!” and further telling Paul’s story as well. This is labeled as Paul’s first stop on his first missionary journey. That’s a big deal! On a literary level, he is progressing the story; the body of Christ is not just staying in this small area of Antioch and Jerusalem, it is beginning to spread across the known world through the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas. On a theological level, I think that it further proves the authority of the Holy Spirit over the body of Christ and is making it clear that the Holy Spirit is in fact a member of the Godhead when it says in Acts 13:2 that “the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (ESV). After that, the two missionaries are sent off proving that they took the Holy Spirit as the ultimate authority as they did with Jesus.

  6. A problem with reading about events that are so distant in the past, is that it is far too late to ask questions about specifics, or motivations. As for why Cyprus was the target of Barnabas and Saul’s work, we can never definitively know. However, there is no harm in speculating their motivation for heading this direction. At this point the gospel has not spread too incredibly far, and thus Barnabas and Saul could theoretically head in any direction and have an effective mission. Seeing as this is likely the case another question could be, why not Cyprus? If Cyprus is Barnabas’ hometown why not head this way and avoid some inconveniences such as lodging plans, and planning routes. Another factor is that verse two shows us that this whole mission was the design of the Holy Spirit and as such there is the possibility that the Spirit had specifically sent them to Cyprus, but that this information was never recorded. That and Cyprus had synagogues which according to Polhill would be a strategic advantage to the pair (p. 2109). What ever the motivations, be it familiarity, a specific divine calling, or strategy we can never know, regardless it worked out for God’s purpose.

  7. Going to Cyprus seemed to be the right decision for a variety of reasons. First off, Barnabas was from Cyprus so it may have been easier to find places to stay. Also, with the relationships that he may have had with some of the people in Cyprus from living there, those people could have helped to tell others that Barnabas and Paul should be listened to and know what they are talking about. If I were beginning a missionary journey, I think that it would be beneficial to start off somewhere familiar to get more comfortable before going to some places where there would possibly be more persecution and arguments. Another thing that makes me think that going to Cyprus was a good idea is that there were already a lot of believers that were living there. Similar to what I was saying about going somewhere where you are more comfortable teaching others, I think that it can be easier to practice talking to other believers about God before preaching to people who do not believe. It may not be easier in all cases, but it may be a lot of the time because you would not have to explain things in as much detail. Cyprus did have many people who were non-believers as well, which I think is another important part about going to Cyprus because I think that Paul and Barnabas needed to speak to the unbelievers as well so that they could help to advance the Kingdom.

  8. Other than convenience of going to a familiar place and all its great qualities as a center to preach the Gospel where it could flourish and spread from there, perhaps Luke is also confirming what Jesus said in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” As the Gospel has been progressively moving out of Jerusalem and spreading to other areas, Paul and Barnabas seem to be key instruments of God in continuing to spread the Gospel “to the ends of the earth”. This is also consistent with that the passage itself claims about the major driving force leading these men to go to Cyprus, the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:4). Perhaps, a second motif is that by moving away from Jerusalem, they were also moving away from its traditions and focusing of preaching to the Gentiles. Even though Paul always sought the synagogues to preach first, he also sought God-fearing gentiles and he eventually turns his ministry completely to the Gentiles. And, at the same time, he could still be fulfilling Acts 1:8 in a sense. After being rejected later in Pisidian Antioch, Paul says that the Lord declared, “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth”. And Paul and Barnabas keep moving onto the next city, preaching the Gospel, being a witness, and suffering for Christ’s sake.

  9. It is quite interesting to think about why God led his men to various locations and for what reasons. One reason that Phil long gave was that Cyprus was central to travel to the Meditrannian world and that would make sense because of all the new faces you would get traveling back and forth and people of all different backgrounds/beliefs; what a great ministry opportunity. I think a possible motivation for the trip was Bar Jesus who was a sorcerer and false prophet and Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul on Cyprus. Bar Jesus was known to be a very powerful man in government and we have even seen through our lives right now that government holds a lot of power and can directly affect people’s lives. So in this case Bar Jesus and Sergius Paulus had a lot of saying about what the people could or could not do and maybe what they could or could not believe in. In this case, it would make sense to have Barnabas and Saul go to Cyprus to reach the top two highest people in the area. Another reason that they may have decided to go to Cyprus was that it was where Barnabas grew up. It might be that a lot has changed since he was there last and he wanted to see what has changed because we know places and people can change drastically over time. There honestly could be so many reasons why they decided on this location and truthfully the only person that knows 100% is the Lord Jesus Christ, but these are a couple of predictions in why I think Barnabas and Saul chose Cyprus.

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