In a summary statement at the conclusion of its fourth chapter, Acts communicates how the earliest Christians are in one accord and share their possessions (Acts 4:32-35). The book then offers a brief concrete example in the form of a Cyprian Levite named Joseph whom the apostles dub Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37).
Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. (Acts 4:36-37 NASB)Barnabas liquidates his assets and donates the funds to the apostles (Acts 4:37). Even though Barnabas’ act matches the community description (Acts 4:32-35), his is still an exceptional gesture, an exemplar of Christian generosity. The notation also functions as a segue as Barnabas’ model behavior contrasts sharply with the duplicity of Ananias and Sapphira that immediately follows (Acts 5:1-11).
The apostles affectionately bestow Joseph with the added cognomen Barnabas (Acts 4:36). David J. Williams (1933-2008) records:
Literally, “Joseph who was called Barnabas from the apostles.” The preposition “from” used in the sense of “by” is odd but not without precedent. Luke employs it in this sense in Acts 2:22. Arnold Ehrhardt [1903-1965]’s suggestion that he was called “Barnabas of the apostles,” having purchased from them his right to this office is hardly convincing. (Williams, Acts (New International Biblical Commentary), 95)Luke Timothy Johnson (b. 1943) interprets:
His introduction at precisely this point in the narrative is not accidental...In the biblical idiom, the giving of a name to others signifies having authority over them (see e.g., Genesis 2:19, 17:5, 19:39, 25:26, 36; also Joseph and Aseneth 15:7). Barnabas is therefore shown to be doubly submissive to the apostles: he receives a new name from them and lays his possessions at their feet. (Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles (Sacra Pagina), 87)The apostles may have felt the need to give the Cyprian disciple a nickname to distinguish him from Joseph Barsabbas (Acts 1:23). Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) considers:
Joseph is a very common name, which may explain why the apostles called him Barnabas. It is also not unusual for a person to bear two names (e.g., Saul, Paul; Peter, Simon). The meaning of the less-common name, “son of encouragement” (υἱὸς παρακλήσεως, huois parakleseos) well summarizes the way Barnabas will function in the book, as he will embrace Paul’s conversion, minister with him, and be an evangelist. (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 216)The name Barnabas sticks as Acts never again refers to Joseph.
Acts glosses the sobriquet for the reader, noting that Barnabas means son of “encouragement” (CEV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV), “comfort” (MSG), “consolation” (KJV) or “exhortation” (ASV). The Greek employed is paráklesis.
Douglas A. Hume (b. 1969) informs:
ρακαλέω means literally “calling to one’s side.” Barnabas is repeatedly portrayed as metaphorically “calling to his side” characters who, like Paul before the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9:28), need his advocacy to gain acceptance with others or, like the church in Antioch (Acts 11:23), need encouragement to grow in new found faith. (Hume, The Early Christian Community: A Narrative Analysis of Acts 2:41-47 and 4:32-35, 141)Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) comments:
The term παρακλησεως refers to some sort of speech activity, and to judge from Luke’s use elsewhere (cf. Luke 5:34, 10:6, 16:8, 20:34, 36 and, especially of Barnabas, Acts 11:23) the translation “encouragement” can be argued to have the edge...Since Luke does indeed have a concern to portray Barnabas not just as an encourager but perhaps even more as a preacher and missionary, on the whole the translation “son of exhortation” (=preacher) seems preferable. (Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, 209)Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) and Martin M. Culy (b. 1963) counter:
It is unclear whether this term refers to “encouragement” (cf. Philippians 2:1) or “exhortation” (II Corinthians 8:4). In the latter case, the description “son of exhortation” would probably indicate that Barnabas was a noted preacher...Such a view, however, does not seem consistent with the fact that Paul was the primary speaker when he and Barnabas worked as a team (Acts 14:12). (Parsons and Culy, Acts: A Handbook on the Greek Text, 84)John Phillips (b. 1927) embraces the ambiguity:
The name means either Son of Consolation, which would indicate something of the man’s grace, or it means Son of Exhortation, which would indicate something of this man’s gift—he had the gift of prophecy. Perhaps the vagueness is deliberate. From what we learn later of this man, he was both a son of consolation and a son of exhortation. Grace and gift were well wedded in his soul. (Phillips, Exploring Acts: An Expository Commentary, 92)It is fortunate that Acts supplies the name’s meaning as it is doubtful that this particular interpretation would have been derived otherwise. Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) and Richard I. Pervo (b. 1942) evaluate:
The narrator of Acts translates the names of characters as a means of identifying them. This technique conforms to Greek practice, and the fact that the Third Gospel does not employ it is another point of differentiation...In Acts, the narrator is willing to exploit this technique...The narrator glosses “Barnabas” as “Son of encouragement” (=“one who encourages,” Acts 4:36). In actual fact this is wrong. (Parsons and Pervo, Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts, 69)Acts’ translation is faulty on strictly linguistic grounds. While bar unequivocally means “son”, the second part of the compound is problematic. There is no decisive explanation as to its etymology.
Bernd Kollmann (b. 1959) acknowledges:
Etymologically the name Barnabas, unknown outside the New Testament, presents considerable problems, including its purported definition, “son of encouragement.” While bar is obviously traceable to the Aramaic...son...it is unclear from which Semitic word the second part of the name, nabas, derives. Barnabas is occasionally considered a version of Bar nebuah (“son of prophecy”), but this is not synonymous with “son of encouragement.” (Kollmann, Joseph Barnabas: His Life and Legacy, 13)C.K. Barrett (1917-2011) researches:
It is not...clear how this meaning is to be derived from the name Barnabas. The simplest suggestion is that ‘ναβας’ is derived from the name א’בנ (son of a prophet or from אחא’בנ (or אחאו’בנ), son of prophecy, inspiration. This may well have been in Luke’s mind, or perhaps in the mind of the apostles...It is however a piece of popular rather than scientific etymology; this makes it no less probable as a popular opinion. The name is familiar in Palmyrene inscriptions (see H.J. Cadbury, [1883-1974] in FS J. Rendel Harris [1852-1941], 47f., and on the whole question Sebastian P. Brock [b. 1938] in JTS 25 (1974) 93-8)...and there seems to be little doubt that there it was originally Bar nebo, Son of Nebo (the Babylonian god). One may be confident that the apostles did not rename Joseph in this sense, and Brock...suggests that ‘Luke analysed Βαρναβας as br + nby’ (nbayya) meaning, “Son of Comfort”...A further suggestion with little to commend it is that ‘ναβας’ may be derived from נוחא, consolation; it is not clear that this word exists in Aramaic (it is not to be found in the dictionaries of Marcus Jastrow [1829-1903] and of Gustaf Dalman [1855-1941]), or how, if it does, it could give rise to the Greek letters in question. A more important observation is that Son of consolation, or comfort, could well be the meaning of the name Manaen (Acts 13:1) which is derived from the Hebrew name Menahem...Manaen shares with Barnabas a connection with Antioch; is it possible that there has been confusion between the two men? This is not impossible but can be nothing but a guess. (Barrett, Acts 1-14 (International Critical Commentary), 259)F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) traces:
“Barnabas” might be the adaptation of a form like Palmyrene Bar-Nebo (cf. G.A. Deissman [1866-1937], Bible Studies, E.T. [Edinburgh, 1909], p. 188); another suggestion is that it represents Aram. bar newāhā’ (literally, “son of soothing”); cf. August Klostermann [1837-1915], Probleme im Aposteltexte (Gotha 1883), pp. 8-14. See Theodor Zahn [1838-1933], Die Apostelgeschichte des Lucas pp. 183-88; Sebastian P. Brock [b. 1938], ΒΑΡΝΑΒΑΣ...JTS N.S. 25 (1974) pp. 93-98. (Bruce, The Book of the Acts (New International Commentary on the New Testament), 101)Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) reasons:
The name may be closer to a nickname. Barnabas can be seen as a “son of a prophet,” whose function is given encouragement (Alfons Weiser [b. 1934] 1981: 138). The origin of the name is disputed. A literal rendering of the name is said by some to be “son of Nebo” (e.g., Hans Conzelmann [1915-1989] 1987:36, who says Luke is simply incorrect). On the other hand, a popular wordplay can be at work here, as often is the case in the giving of names. Such a nickname rooted in a wordplay on nabi’ would make the name’s sense “son of a prophet” (that is, a prophet, on analogy with the phrase “son of man,” meaning a human being. By extension, then, the name refers to what the prophet does by way of encouragement...Which option is likely? Against “son of Nebo” is the unlikelihood that a Jewish Levite would carry the name of a Babylonian god, which is what Nebo is (Ernst Haenchen [1894-1975] 1987: 232n2). Haenchen (1987: 232n1) rejects the connection to “son of prophet” as not possible because this expression does not equal “son of consolation.” But this ignores the connection between the prophet, what he does, and the likely wordplay nature of the name. Sebastian P. Brock [b. 1938] (1974) appeals to Syriac and the more direct idea of a “son of comfort,” which also is possible although not without linguistic obstacles of its own. Joseph A. Fitzmyer [b. 1920] (1998:321)...rejects any connection to “son of a prophet” or any other alternative, offering no elucidation of the explanation given in Acts 4:36 for the name (also John B. Polhill [b. 1939] 1992:154n80). He regards the connection simply as problematic. One wonders, however, if nicknames hold to firm linguistic rules, so that the etymology may well be a wordplay rooted in Barnabas’s prophetic function or in his established role as a comforter. (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 217)In this instance, the scientific etymology is far less significant than the intended meaning which Acts provides. Anthony B. Robinson (b. 1948) and Robert W. Wall (b. 1947) determine:
Even though Barnabas does not literally mean “son of encouragement,” Luke’s purpose is to stipulate the subtext of Joseph’s name change to Barnabas: according to Scripture, name changes indicate God’s favor (Matthew 16:17-20). (Robinson and Wall, Called to Be Church: The Book of Acts for a New Day, 75)Mikeal C. Parsons (b. 1957) concludes:
That the apostles have given this name is another indication that Barnabas has submitted himself to the authority of the apostles. Peter is the only other apostle to receive a new name, and his is given by Jesus. The name itself is also interesting, or more specifically the translation that the narrator provides for this name, son of encouragement (Acts 4:36b; on the rhetorical figure of appositio [Quintilian [35-100], Institutio Oratoria 8.6.40-43])...The significance lies less in the etymology of the aramaic bar-anaba than in the role Barnabas will play later in the story. Here is an interesting character study; the same spirit of submission and liberality—“of encouragement”—is seen throughout the subsequent scenes in which Barnabas appears. (Parsons, Acts (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 74)Regardless of how his name is contrived, Barnabas, is without a doubt a “son of encouragement.”
Who would you put forward as an exemplar of the values that your community stresses? What is a child of encouragement? If you had to apply this moniker to one person you know, who would it be? Who has given you a nickname? Did it suit you?
Barnabas will become a major player in Acts’ narrative, including becoming Paul’s first missionary partner (Acts 11:19-30). Darrell L. Bock (b. 1953) probes:
He is referred twenty-three times in the book (Acts 4:36-37, 9:27; in Antioch: Acts 11:22, 29-30, 12:25-13:2; in mission with Paul: Acts 13:7, 43, 46, 50, 14:11-12, 14-15, 20; at the Jerusalem Council: Acts 15:2, 12, 22-26, 35-40). Barnabas will be well qualified for a mission to Gentiles, since he came from one of these Gentile areas. Part of the function of the unit is to introduce him to Luke’s audience. He surely is one of Luke’s heroes. (Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 216)Introducing a future member of the full-time cast with a cameo appearance is characteristic of Acts. Robert C. Tannehill (b. 1934) notifies:
In Acts 4:36-37 a certain Joseph Barnabas is introduced as a concrete illustration of those who sold property and brought the money to the apostles for distribution. The two verses give no indication that Barnabas will later play an important role in the story. Barnabas is a first example in Acts of the tendency to introduce an important new character first as a minor character, one who appears and quickly disappears. Philip (Acts 6:5) and Saul (Acts 7:58, 8:1, 3) are similarly introduced before they assume important roles in the narrative. This procedure ties the narrative together, and in each case the introductory scene contributes something significant to the portrait of the person. (Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Volume 2: The Acts of the Apostles, 78)Barnabas proves to be a true son of encouragement. William J. Larkin, Jr. (b. 1945) portrays:
Luke translates the nickname for us: Son of Encouragement, that is one who habitually manifests this quality...Barnabas is a “bridge person,” bringing diverse parties together so that the cause of Christ advances and both older and newer believers are encouraged (Acts 9:27 11:22-23, 25, 15:3, 12, 15, 30-35). For Luke he embodies the fully integrated life of external witness and care for the church’s internal needs of “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (Acts 11:24). (Larkin, Acts (IVP New Testament Commentary), 83-84)Steven M. Sheeley [b. 1956] encapsulates:
Each time the reader encounters Barnabas in the narrative, Barnabas is living up to his name by encouraging or exhorting those around him.” (Sheeley, Narrative Asides in Luke-Acts, 11-13)As such, Barnabas is the son of encouragement both by identification and characterization. R. Kent Hughes (b. 1942) praises:
Barnabas was named after his spiritual gift — “Son of Encouragement,” son of exhortation, son of consolation! Every mention of Barnabas in Acts pictures him as an encourager. For example, when Paul dropped poor John Mark, Barnabas came alongside and patched him up, so that he went on to live a productive Christian life [Acts 15:36–41]. (Hughes, Acts: The Church Afire (Preaching the Word), 72)C. Peter Wagner (b. 1930) agrees:
Barnabas was an encourager. The apostles thought so highly of this man, whose original name was Joses, that they give him a nickname, Barnabas, meaning Son of Encouragement. William LaSor [1911-1991] says, “Barnabas was good at exhorting, encouraging, comforting. He must have been a wonderful man to have been given such a wonderful name!” It seems that Barnabas had a pastor’s heart and was a phlegmatic personality type; quite a contrast from Paul, with whom a significant conflict arises almost 20 years later. (Wagner, The Book of Acts: A Commentary, 107)Encouragement is not a trait typically listed high on most people’s preferred list of skills but it defines Barnabas and through him subsequently shapes the early church.
Who do you know whose name fits them? Does yours? What organizations can you think of who live up (or down) to their names? How would Paul and the early church have been different without Barnabas’ encouragement? If you were named for your spiritual gift, what would you be called?
“Instruction does much, but encouragement everything.” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), “Letter to A.F. Oeser [1717-1799], November 9, 1768)”, Early and Miscellaneous Letters of J. W. Goethe: Including Letters to His Mother, with Notes and a Short Biography, p. 27