Dr IAN ELMER…
In today's commentary Dr Ian Elmer shifts the focus from Paul to his lesser-known colleague, Barnabas. There are anomolies in the Scriptural accounts that Dr Elmer explores in this continuing endeavour we are engaged in of seeking to both better understand the nature of the early Church and the nature of Jesus' ongoing mission.
Taking a look at the lesser-know companion to Paul, Barnabas…
At this point in our exploration of the career of Paul, we must consider Paul's relationship with Barnabas, the man with whom he would embark on the first missions amongst the Gentiles. Joseph Barnabas was a key figure in the development of the earliest communities, both at Jerusalem (Acts 4:36-37; 9:27) and Antioch (Acts 11:22-26, 30; 13:1; 15:2-4), and he probably also played a formative role in Paul's commitment to the Gentile mission.
When we left off our story last week, we did so by noting that during the intervening years between Paul's first two visits to Jerusalem, he seems to have exercised his ministry in Antioch, where he quickly became a leading member of that community.
Acts (11:25-26) credits Barnabas with having sought out Paul in Tarsus to enlist his help with the Gentile mission at Antioch. While some scholars are prepared to accept the veracity of this information, it must be seen that the historicity of this episode depends heavily upon the historical worth of Barnabas' earlier association with Paul at Jerusalem in Acts 9:26-30 (Becker, 1993: 85; Holmburg, 1978: 63). Moreover, there remains some contention regarding the manner in which Barnabas himself came to be involved in the affairs of the church at Antioch.
In the prior episode concerning Paul's visit (Acts 9:27) Barnabas is seen as the only member of the Jerusalem church to offer his assistance and encouragement to the newly converted Saul (Paul), introducing Saul (Paul) to the Apostles and supporting Saul's cause.
Trying to piece together the anomolies in the Scriptural accounts…
The story serves not only to present Barnabas as the champion of the newly converted Paul (9:27), but also to explain how Paul was forced to escape to Tarsus following a series of disputes with, and threats made on his life by, certain Greek-speaking Jews in Jerusalem (9:29-30).
This entire episode, however, conflicts with Paul's own statements in Galatians (1:16-24) regarding his initial career in the Jesus' movement, which says nothing of any association with Barnabas or of any attempt on his part to join the apostolic mission in Jerusalem (Painter, 1997).
Similarly, there are anomalies with the Acts account of Barnabas' arrival in Antioch as an envoy of the Jerusalem church (Acts 11:22-23). It may be true that Barnabas did initially travel north from Jerusalem at the behest of the Jerusalem Apostles, Luke implies, however, Barnabas, apparently impressed by the success of the Gentile mission, promptly joined the Antiochene community and quickly became one of the foremost figures in the Gentile mission (Acts 13:1; 15:2-4).
In view of these anomalies, it seems difficult to maintain that either Paul's initial encounter with Barnabas in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-30) or Barnabas' later sponsorship of Paul at Antioch (Acts 11:25-26) represents solid historical information. J. Painter (1997: 46) is doubtless correct in dismissing these episodes as yet another attempt by Luke to gloss over the ongoing dispute between the Hebrews and the Hellenists.
By having Paul join the work of the Hellenists at Antioch only at the request of Barnabas acting as the representative of the Jerusalem church, Luke both distances Paul from the Hellenists and averts any notion of a sustained conflict between the leaders of the churches in Jerusalem and Antioch.
The more likely scenario is that Barnabas and Paul met when Paul made his way independently to Antioch following his visit to Cephas (Peter) in the year 36 C.E. when, as Paul himself states, he went to Syria and Cilicia (Gal 1:21). Moreover, it was in Antioch that Barnabas and Paul became both fast friends and convinced allies of the Gentile mission initiated by the Hellenists.
Two distinct and independent movements in the primitive Church…
It is at this point that we can properly speak of two distinct and independent movements within the primitive Church. On the one hand, we have a Law-observant Christian Judaism persisting in Jerusalem following the expulsion of the Hellenists, and on the other, a Law-Free Christianity developing in Antioch under the aegis of the Hellenist refugees who fled north in the wake of Stephen's martyrdom.
With the defection of Barnabas, the conversion of the once zealous persecutor Paul, and the continuing success of the Law-free mission to the Gentiles in Antioch, the battle lines between the Law-free Christians and their Law-observant, Christian Jewish opponents were now clearly drawn and further skirmishes were soon to break out.
Bibliography and Further Reading:
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©2008 Ian Elmer