Who Was Bar Jesus (Acts 13,6-12)?1
According to Acts 13, Paul and Barnabas found in Paphos on
Cyprus 'a certain man who was a magos, a false prophet, and a Jew, whose
name was Bar Jesus' (a!ndra
tina_ ma/gon yeudoprofh/thn
o!noma Barihsou=). This
man was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, whom
Luke calls 'an intelligent (suneto/j) man' (13,6-7).
Fitzmyer believes the description of Bar Jesus 'borders on the fantastic'2, and
scholarship in general has tended to see him in very negative terms. He is
depicted as being as far removed from the straight paths of the Lord as any
pagan magician or any Jewish opponent to the Christian Way. Haenchen, typically,
understands this episode as demonstrating "the superiority of Christianity over
magic"3. However, I will suggest that the point of this episode is not a
struggle between Christianity and paganism, but a struggle either within a
synagogue community to which some Christians belonged or within the Christian
movement itself. At issue between Paul and Bar Jesus were the contradictory
understandings of righteousness and the way of God. I propose that it was not
his magical practices, but his position on these issues that made him, from
Luke's perspective, a threatening opponent of the faith4.
1. A Magos
The first description given of Bar Jesus is that he was a
magos (ma/goj). Much has been written about the
magoi and there is no need to repeat the results of that scholarship5.
The term, of course, originally referred to a Persian caste; but there is no
doubt that in later usage it came to be used almost adjectivally of those who
had ideas and customs that were foreign to traditional Greek views and customs.
To give just one example, Strabo reports that the magoi 'even consort
with their mothers' (Geog. 15.3.20). Pliny wanted to "expose their
untruths" (N.H. 30.1). Not surprisingly, then, among the Greeks, a
ma/goj became synonymous with a
goh/j, a charlatan and trickster (Dio Chrysostom, Disc. 39.41).
From Luke's perspective, Bar Jesus is a prophet whose interpretation of the will
of God is false, and therefore whose authority is foreign to that of the
legitimate prophetic circle as represented by Barnabas and Saul. The latter two
have been set apart by the Holy Spirit (13,2), sent out by the Holy Spirit
(13,4) and are filled with the Holy Spirit (13,9). Bar Jesus, however, has his
authority from the adversary. He is, from Luke's perspective,
On the other hand, the identification as magos could
mean little more than that Bar Jesus was associated with the court of the
proconsul as a religious adviser, a position some Jews are known to have held6.
Josephus makes the specific Jew-magos link when referring to a certain
Simon, co-incidentally also a Cypriot, and one who, like Bar Jesus, had friends
in the Roman consular system (Ant. 20.7.2). In addition, the role and
function of a magos and those of a rabbi, at least in later times, were
not at all dissimilar. Both were 'holy men', both were men of power and special
knowledge, both were involved in decision-making within their respective
communities7. However, for Luke, the point of the term seems to be that Bar
Jesus, despite his name, certainly does not belong to Jesus, but is an outsider,
having a foreign, and therefore invalid, source of authority. The term is used
in 13,6 is to characterise Bar Jesus as a serious opponent of Paul.
2. A Jew
Bar Jesus is also said to be a Jew ('Ioudai=oj).
Scholars tend to understand this negatively — even as an example of a Lukan
anti-Jewish polemic. So J.T. Sanders claims Luke thinks of Bar Jesus as an "evil
Jew" who opposes the mission to the gentiles8. Barrett includes the term in
"everything that Luke did not like"9. Bruce calls him "a renegade Jew"10
because he is a magos; and Garrett says he is someone "who by practicing
magic commits what Luke regarded as the worst sort of idolatry"11. In other
words, the man is consistently portrayed as being completely outside the pale.
That, as will be shown, is questionable, but for now it is sufficient to say
that an individual being 'a Jew' is not always, if ever, viewed negatively by
Luke. It is true that Luke uses the plural 'Jews' to refer to those who are not
Christian, and he uses it precisely in that way in 13,5 where Paul is said to be
proclaiming the word of God 'in the synagogues of the Jews'. However, the fact
is that on the great majority of occasions in Acts when Luke identifies an
individual as 'a Jew', he does so of a Christian. Such is the case with Peter
(10,28), Timothy's mother (16,1), Aquila (18,2), Apollos (18,24), of course with
Paul himself (21,39; 22,3), and possibly also with Alexander (19,34). The only
exceptions are Scaeva (19,14; but even his sons operate with the name of Jesus)
and Drusilla, the wife of Felix, who is quite keen to hear Paul 'speak about the
faith in Jesus Christ' (24,24). So I doubt that identifying Bar Jesus as a Jew
is meant at all to be an anti-Jewish depiction. Nor is it meant to cast him in
the outsider category; to the contrary, since Luke commonly uses the category 'a
Jew' of a Christian individual, one could theoretically understand that
Bar Jesus was a Christian. It is possible to think of him as an 'incomplete'
Christian, as indeed was Apollos, a Jew who needed to be instructed more
accurately in the way of God (18,26), and were the disciples of Acts 19,1-7. In
any case, Bar Jesus was a serious threat, partly because he was so very close to
the Jesus movement, and possibly even had an impact on it.
3. A False Prophet
The argument that Bar Jesus was someone bordering closely on
the Christian community, if not actually within it, gains momentum from the
term, 'false prophet'. However, rather than seeing this term as identifying him
as a genuine prophet, the great majority of scholars read this as an association
with paganism and magic. Haenchen, for example, says Luke "must have imagined
Bar-Jesus as the proconsul's court-astrologer, who at the same time claimed to
know the magic formulae by which the bonds of fate can be broken"12. Thus he is
understood to be not only outside of the Christian pale but even also of the
Jewish. Pesch also thinks he is representative of a Jewish-heathen syncretism13,
a view supported by Barrett who thinks that the double description of him as
false prophet and magos suggests "that he stood on the boundary between
Judaism and heathenism"14. Jervell is one of the few who rejects this notion and
insists that he was associated with the synagogue, and was "ein jüdischer
Wundertäter; das Wort ma/goj reicht nicht aus für
die Bezeichnung 'Synkretismus'"15. And Schille at least considers the
possibility that 'false prophet' might be used in the same way as it is used in
the Didache, that is, as referring to early Christian charismatic prophets. But
he then rejects that idea and prefers to interpret 'false prophet' in the sense
of a goh/j. He does so because he identifies Bar
Jesus as a magician16.
Fitzmyer understands the description 'false prophet' to mean
that Bar Jesus "posed as a prophet"17. This is misleading and reduces the full
impact of this episode. Bar Jesus did not pose as a prophet — he was indeed a
prophet, but in Luke's opinion, a false one. A false prophet made the same
claims as the true prophet — both appealed to a divine authority for their
pronouncements. It must also be remembered that the claim of Luke and other
Christian writers that prophecy was alive and active was basically a Christian
claim. Most non-Christian Jews believed that prophecy had ceased altogether in
the Second Temple period18. Josephus, for example, reserved the word 'prophet'
for the biblical prophets, and had no hesitation in calling those who in his own
day claimed to be God's messengers 'false prophets' (for example, War
6.5.2). For all that, in Jewish tradition, a prophet claimed to have stood in
the council of the Lord; he is one who claims to reveal the will of God. Both
true and false prophet claimed this status and function. That the word/will of
God and its interpretation was at issue in this Bar Jesus episode is implied by
13,7 as Sergius Paulus "sought to hear the word of God". This little sentence is
crucial in this episode. It indicates the point of conflict between Paul and Bar
Jesus — the understanding of "the word of God". Hearing the word of God is
important for Luke (Luke 5,1; Acts 13,44; 15,7) and has blessing attached to it
(Luke 8,21; 11,28). It is also characteristic of the prophets of Israel to
challenge their audiences with, "Hear the word of God..." (for example, Isa
1,10; Jer 19,3; Ezek 6,3; Hos 4,1).
Relevant in this context is Deut 18,20-22:
But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name
which I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other
gods, that same prophet shall die. And if you say in your heart, 'How may we
know the word which the Lord has not spoken?' — when a prophet speaks in the
name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a
word which the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it
presumptuously, you need not be afraid of him.
This is particularly relevant because of the link between
prophet and Name. All prophets speak in the name of the Lord, but the false
prophet speaks words that he has not been commanded to speak, and his word does
not come to pass. This is the case of with Bar Jesus. He claims to speak with
the authority of the name of Jesus (as his very name indicates), but he does not
speak what the Lord has commanded. He perverts it. It is Barnabas and Saul who
speak rightly the teaching of the Lord, and that results in believing (13,12).
It is curious that the term
yeudoprofh/thj is used in the Septuagint almost exclusively in Jeremiah.
There, the false prophets are those who seize Jeremiah for saying that Yahweh
will abandon the Temple (Jer 33,7.8.11 [LXX]). In Jer 27,9 [LXX], the false
prophets are linked with the manteuo/menoi
kai_ oi( farmakoi/, not
unlike the way Bar Jesus is here linked with thema/goi.
And Hananiah is a typical false prophet (Jer 35,1 [LXX]) because he stood in the
Temple, but proclaimed falsely the intention of Yahweh. Bar Jesus has been
proclaiming the word and will of God in Paphos, but from Luke's perspective, he
has interpreted the ways of God falsely. That is the point of this whole
episode. The authoritative prophetic word of God comes to Cyprus, according to
Luke, only through Paul and Barnabas, the true prophets (13,1). Only they have
been validly commissioned by the holy spirit to announce the word of God
(13,2-3). And so the 'teaching of the Lord' (13,12) is seen in its full power
and authority only when it comes through prophets and teachers validated by the
holy spirit (13,9). Without that validation, one is a son of the opponent, the
slanderer (dia/boloj, 13,10), not a son of Jesus,
despite the man's name.
Secondly, while early Christian writers used the term 'false
prophet' of those outside the Christian pale (presumably in Rev 16,13; 19,20;
and 20,10, for example), they also used it quite clearly to refer to someone
within the broad Christian tradition. Christian communities were warned to be on
their guard against false prophets who come in sheep's clothing (Matt 7,15;
compare also 24,11; 24,24). Both 2 Pet 2,1 and 1 John 4,1 imply that the false
teachers and prophets come from within the community. Paul does not refer
specifically to false prophets, but he is well aware of false apostles (yeudapo/stoloi,
2 Cor 11,13) and false brethren (yeudade/lfoi, 2 Cor
11,26; Gal 2,4), again, obviously internal to the communities concerned. The
same is also true of the prophets in Rev 2,2, and of the false teachers of the
Pastorals (e.g. 2 Tim 3,6-8). And when the term 'false prophet' is used in the
Didache, it distinctly refers to those within the Christian communities
(11,5-10; 16,3). The only other time Luke himself uses the word 'false prophet'
is in his Gospel (6,26) where he refers to those prophets who are clearly
'insiders' to Israel, not outsiders.
In Acts 13,8, the false prophet is said to have withstood (a)nqi/stato)
Barnabas and Saul. It is precisely that verb that is used in 2 Tim 3,8 to
describe the opposition of Jannes and Jambres to Moses, and that of the false
teachers to the truth of the Pauline tradition. Those men are described as 'men
of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith', a description not dissimilar to that
given by the Lukan Paul of Bar Jesus (13,10). The same verb is used again in 2
Tim 4,15, where Alexander is said to have 'strongly opposed our message' (li/an
a)nte/sth toi=j h(mete/roij
lo/goij), and, as with other false teachers, 'the
Lord will requite him for his deeds'. In other words, the verb
a)nqi/sthmi is used almost technically for those who
oppose someone's teaching or prophecy (see also Gal 2,11; Acts 6,10). In
addition, the strong judgment that Luke, through the mouth of Paul, passes on
Bar Jesus parallels closely similar judgments made throughout the New Testament
on false teachers, false prophets, false brethren and the like (Matt 7,15; 2 Cor
11,13; Gal 1,9; 2 Thess 2,11; 2 Pet 2,1; Rev 19,20). In all cases, if these
opponents are not actually within the communities, they are very close to them,
and that is what makes them dangerous. And in this episode in Acts 13, Luke
appears to be using terminology commonly used in Christian circles when writing
about conflicts between false and true teachers or prophets19.
It is reasonable to conclude that Bar Jesus was a Jewish
prophet, and one seen to be a serious threat to the Christian community, and
therefore one in some contact with that community. He was a serious threat
because he represented the word of God falsely and opposed the understanding of
it by others coming from outside and also claiming to be prophets, namely, Saul
and Barnabas (13,7-8). This episode, then, tells of a battle between prophets,
in much the same way as 'orthodox' prophets of Israel stood in opposition to
those 'false' prophets who also claimed authority to teach and reveal the ways
of God. Klauck is close to the mark when he says that Luke tells this story to
warn against an 'all-devouring syncretism that at its worst even usurps
Christian substance such as the name of Jesus, and hence threatens the Church
from within'20. Klauck at least implies that Bar Jesus represented an internal
threat. I doubt, however, that syncretism is the real problem for Luke; it is
rather that this man interprets the way of the Lord wrongly, and so his
authority is questionable. Valid authority only comes from those who have been
given it by Jesus through the legitimate apostles, teachers, and prophets who
through prayer and fasting and the laying on of hands, have been set apart by
the Holy Spirit for such work (13,1-3). The acceptable prophets and teachers at
Antioch are named by Luke (13,1); their teaching and prophecy are authoritative
in Lukan circles.
Further support for this understanding of Bar Jesus comes
from the charge brought against him by Paul that the prophet was 'making crooked
the straight paths of the Lord', and so was 'an enemy of all righteousness'
(13,10). These two expressions are virtually synonymous. The straight paths of
the Lord lead to righteousness (compare Ps 23,3); crooked paths, conversely,
pervert righteousness. It is very common for scholars to think that Paul refers
in this charge to Bar Jesus' magical practices and his financial profit from
such practices. So, on these charges, Barrett says, "Luke has no love for those
who have illicit, and probably profitable, dealings with the supernatural. The
magus is roundly cursed"21. But I suggest his opposition to the faith (13,8) was
more sophisticated and potentially more dangerous than that. Bar Jesus claims to
be teaching the straight paths of the Lord, but Luke thinks he has made them
crooked by his false understanding of righteousness. The strong language used by
Paul, filled with biblical terms22, suggests this man is a real threat, and that
is possibly because he is was having influence inside the fold. By calling Bar
Jesus a 'son of the devil' (ui(o_j
diabo/lou), Luke has Paul expose the prophet for
what he really is. He is the adversary (dia/boloj)
who 'comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they might not
believe and be saved' (Luke 8,12).
The links between false claimants, Satan, deceit, and
unrighteousness, interestingly enough, are also found in Paul's writings. In 2
Cor 11,13-15, he writes,
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen,
disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan
disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is not strange if his servants
also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will
correspond to their deeds.
And similar links are found in 2 Thess 2,11-12,
Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make
them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe
the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness.
Bar Jesus in Acts fits the same bill. He is not a 'son of
Jesus', as he is named, but rather is on the side of the opposition. But the
adversary comes to those within like a wolf in sheep's clothing.. That is why
Luke calls him 'false' and a magos. Even the non-Septuagintal term,
r(a|diourgi/a, used by Luke in Acts 13,10, refers to
deceit and chicanery, and unscrupulous fraud23, and is indicative of an insider
rather than of an outsider. It is his teaching about the way of the Lord that is
delusional, not his magical powers or pagan syncretism.
Some of the Septuagintal terms used in this condemnation of
Bar Jesus are worth further comment. To pervert (diastre/fein)
the right ways is a feature of false prophets and of false behavior in general
(compare Mic 3,9; Ezek 13,18; Prov 10,9; Ps. Sol. 10,3; Philo,
Sob. 10), and this is what Bar Jesus is charged with doing. Scholars often
point to Hos 14,9 (LXX 14,10) and see it as paralleling Paul's charge24. Barrett
also notes the parallel but thinks "it is unlikely that the passage is
specifically referred to, since Hosea says that the transgressors shall stumble
... in them (sc. the paths), not that they will pervert them"25. But that is an
unnecessary distinction. From Luke's perspective, Bar Jesus perverts the
straight paths of Yahweh; he does not walk in Yahweh's straight paths. This
causes him to stumble and so to grope for someone to lead him by the hand
The Hosea 14 passage is worth citing in full,
Whoever is wise, let him understand these things; whoever
is discerning (suneto/j), let him know them; for
the ways of the Lord are right (eu)qei=ai
ai( o(doi_ tou=
kuri/ou), and the upright (di/kaioi)
walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.
According to Hosea, the righteous (di/kaioi)
walk the straight paths. Bar Jesus, however, is an 'enemy of all righteousness'
dikaiosu/nhj) because he has made those straight
paths crooked (diastre/fwn ta_j
o(dou_j tou= kuri/ou
ta_j eu)qei/aj). He
belongs to the sinners and so stumbles. On the other hand, Luke says that the
proconsul Sergius was suneto/j, precisely the
adjective used by Hosea of the wise man who follows the straight paths of the
Lord. Sergius Paulus recognised the straight path of the word of God brought by
Paul and Barnabas, and believed (13,12)26. One might also note the connection
between being suneto/j and believing made in Sir
33,3: 'A man of understanding will trust in the law' (a!nqrwpoj
no/mw|). If Luke is implicitly referring to this
passage, then the suggestion again is that the no/moj
and its interpretation is at stake in this conflict with Bar Jesus.
Jervell is right to claim that the use of Septuagintal terms
suggests that Paul's charge "sind Worte gegen einen Juden"27. After all, Bar
Jesus has already been identified as a Jew (13,6). But more importantly, it
suggests that the conflict between Bar Jesus and Paul has been on scriptural
matters, not on such things as magic or dream interpretation. If the word or law
of God, and its interpretation, has been the centre of the debate, as 13,7
suggests, then again it makes sense to understand Bar Jesus as being familiar
with that word and as having a particular teaching based on that word. In other
words, Bar Jesus belongs close to the tradition, at the very least of the
synagogue, if not actually within a Christian community at Paphos. In addition,
the fact that it is the teaching of the Lord (didaxh_
tou= kuri/ou, 13,12)
that astonishes the proconsul and leads to his believing is further evidence
that this whole episode is not about magic versus Christianity, but about one
teaching (namely, that of Paul) being truly derived from the Lord and based on
the word of God versus another teaching (that of Bar Jesus) that has its
authentication, as Luke would have it, from elsewhere.
4. Bar Jesus
One reason for thinking that this Jewish prophet was actually
within the Christian community is found in his name. It is possible, of course,
that Bar Jesus was the man's real name and that he was biologically the son of a
man named Jesus. After all, it was common practice for prophets to be identified
as the 'son of'. So, for example, Jehu is 'the son of Hanani' (1 Kgs 15,33),
Elisha is 'the son of Shaphat (1 Kgs 19,19), Isaiah is the 'son of Amoz' (2 Kgs
19,2) and Zechariah, the 'son of Iddo' (Ezra 6,14). So in order to bolster his
claim as a prophet, this man used the self-designation, 'son of Jesus'. That is
possible, but given the context and the significance of the name 'Jesus' in
Acts, this seems too much of a coincidence. I suggest that we consider the
possibility that the man called himself Bar Jesus because he thought himself to
be a disciple of Jesus. Or, at the very least, he was like the 'sons of' Scaeva
(a term which also might refer to Scaeva's students or apprentices rather than
to his biological sons) who exorcised in the name of Jesus even though, in
Luke's judgment, they did not belong to him (19,13-15). In other words, Bar
Jesus claimed to be a follower of Jesus and to operate in his name and with his
authority, but from Luke's perspective, he has perverted the truth. Just as the
sons of Scaeva had no authority to exorcise in the name of Jesus (19,13-16), so
also this man has no authority to call himself a son of Jesus.
That the very name Bar Jesus could mean 'a disciple of Jesus'
is not a new suggestion. According to Schmiedel, W.C. van Manen suggested it
over one hundred years ago28. However, it seems that van Manen argued on the
assumption that the name Bar Jesus first appeared in a primary document
available to Luke that did not include the qualifiers, 'Jew', 'false prophet'
and 'magos'. That speculation certainly weakened, rather than
strengthened, his argument, and, I suggest, such an uncontrollable theory was
unnecessary. As I have already indicated, one could claim to be a 'disciple of
Jesus' and also be a Jew and a prophet.
It is well known that the expression 'son of' does not always
refer to one's paternity. It is often used idiomatically in Hebrew, Aramaic, and
in Greek to indicate that one belongs to a particular group, or that one has
particular characteristics29. The expressions 'sons of God' or 'sons of Israel'
are obvious examples. Joseph, who was given the name Barnabas, which Luke
interprets as 'son of encouragement' (Acts 4,36), is an example of the
association of name and character, as also is the name Boanerges, 'the sons of
thunder' (Mark 3,17). Bar Cochba, the name taken by the Jewish revolutionary of
about 120CE, is an example of the name indicating what was expected or hoped. It
is possible that Bar Jesus derived his name from an eponymous use of Jesus'
name. A group of singers might call themselves 'sons of Korah' or 'sons of
Asaph' (Ps 42,1; 44,1; 2 Chr 35,15, for example), and priestly groups might call
themselves 'sons of Aaron' or 'sons of Zadok' (Lev 1,5; 2 Chr 35,14; Ezek 40,46,
for example). The Jewish Scriptures also occasionally refer to the 'sons of the
prophets', meaning a group of prophets associated with Elijah or Elisha,
probably as disciples (1 Kgs 20,35; 2 Kgs 2,3-15; 6,1; 9,1). Luke himself has
used that expression earlier in Acts. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter said,
'you are sons of the prophets and of the covenant', and that was said in the
context of God raising up Jesus as the prophet promised by Moses (Acts 3,17-26).
Did Bar Jesus claim to be one of the sons of The Prophet?
According to Matthew, Jesus warned the Christian community
against calling anyone 'father' (23,9) in a context where clearly the title
refers to a teacher or leader of the community. If some Christians called their
teacher 'father', it is logical that they should call themselves his 'sons'. In
Luke 11,19, Jesus refers to the disciples of the Pharisees as 'your sons' (oi(
ui(oi_ u(mw=n). Peter
refers to Markos as 'my son' (o(
ui(o/j mou, 1 Pet 5,13),
and although that may be nothing more than a term of endearment, teachers did
address their disciples as 'sons' (compare Heb 12,5; Prov 1,8; 2,1; 3,1). The
BDAG also gives a number of examples from pagan literature in which the term
'son' is used of a follower or pupil, especially among various guilds30. The
Syriac church father, Ephraem, calls Bardesan's followers, 'the sons of
Bardesan'31. This is evidence enough to suggest that the name Bar Jesus could
indicate a teacher-disciple relationship. If that is a valid understanding, then
it certainly implies that Bar Jesus claimed to belong inside the Jesus movement.
5. Elymas and Bar Jesus
But what does Luke mean when he refers to 'Elymas the
magician' and then adds, 'for so his name is interpreted' (ou|twj
au)tou=)? Elymas is a name whose meaning has caused
'endless bewilderment'32. I suggest that Luke is playing both on the name Elymas
and the name Bar Jesus. In addition, central to understanding his word-play is
his repetition of the noun o!noma (13,6 and 8).
It is worth remembering that writers at the time delighted in
finding meanings for names that today we dismiss as far-fetched, if not
downright impossible. Three brief examples will illustrate. Philo thought that
the Essenes "derive their name from their piety", believing their name was a
variation of o(sio/thj (Quod Omnis 75). Luke
himself says that Barnabas means 'son of consolation' (4,36), a derivation to
which very few modern scholars would give their assent. For a curious logic,
Clement of Alexandria is classic. He claims that when the bacchanals shriek
'evoe' (eu)oi=) they are calling out the name Eva
"by whom error came into the world. The symbol of the Bacchic orgies is a
consecrated serpent. Moreover, according to the strict interpretation of the
Hebrew term, the name Hevia, aspirated, signifies a female serpent" (Exhortation
to the Heathen 2). I suggest that a key to understanding this baffling link
between Elymas and Bar Jesus and the word magos is Luke's use of this
kind of etymological argument.
In 13,8, the choice is between understanding
ma/goj as a translation of Elymas, and understanding
Elymas as a translation of the name (o!noma)
mentioned in 13,6, namely Bar Jesus. As suggested, the use of the word
o!noma in both 13,6 and 13,8 might not be at all
coincidental. The issue of the sacred Name lurks. After all, the man is called
Bar Jesus. Without exception, every time in Acts that Luke introduces a new
character into the narrative, he does so by using the dative case,
o!nomati (5,1.34; 8,9; 9,10.11.33.36; 10,1; 11,28;
12,13; 16,1.14; 17,34; 18,2.7.24; 19,24; 20,9; 21,10; 27,1). Only with Bar Jesus
is the nominative case used; elsewhere, Luke uses the nominative
o!noma exclusively of Jesus. By using the nominative
in this episode to describe Bar Jesus, Luke draws sharp attention to the
significance of the man's name, of the Name, and of the relation between the
Among recent scholars, it is almost unanimously thought that
ma/goj in 13,8 is a translation of Elymas. It is
suggested that the name Elymas derived either from the Aramaic word hlm or the
Arabic alim, both meaning a 'diviner' or 'dream-interpreter'. So Jervell says, "o(
ma/goj wird als Übersetzung des Namens Elymas bezeichnet ... Elymas ist
wahrscheinlich die gräzisierte Form des aramäischen: haloma, 'der Magier'"33.
Schille likewise says, "Lukas hat ... zu entlasten versucht, daß er
ma/goj als Übersetzung für Elymas versteht ...
Tatsächlich kommt aramäisch )myl) = stark bzw.
Arabisch alim = gelehrt der Bedeutung 'Traumdeuter' nahe"34. This too is an old
suggestion. The seventeenth century scholars, Edmund Castell and John Lightfoot,
had already suggested the Arabic derivation35 and it was certainly still
supported by some at the beginning of the twentieth century36.
This explanation is held largely because the translation, Bar
Jesus = Elymas, is believed to be impossible. Bruce states categorically:
"Elymas ... is probably a Semitic word with a similar meaning to magos;
it cannot be an interpretation of 'Barjesus'"37. Likewise, Dunn says that Bar
Jesus and Elymas have nothing to do with each other. He suggests that maybe
Elymas was a nickname, "but if so, its point is too obscure for us"38. Barrett
also thinks it is impossible to translate Bar Jesus as Elymas, because the
latter seems not to be a Greek name. He suggests we agree with Bengel who said:
"nescio quomodo, synonyma sunt", but he himself then adds,
Failing this, the simplest and probably correct solution
is that both names were, in the tradition (or traditions) that Luke used,
applied to the man in question, and that Luke assumed that the form that
appeared to be Greek must be a translation of the Semitic; cf. 4.36. The
assumption is a natural one, though Luke might have reflected that the Latin
Paul is not a translation of the Semitic Saul (v. 9)
In another attempt to solve this puzzle, some have seized on
the alternative reading Etoimaj that appears in D
and similarly in some Old Latin manuscripts. While Kirsopp Lake favoured this
solution, he was well aware of its weakness: "This seems the best suggestion yet
made, but the combination of a doubtful reading with a somewhat strained
etymology is not quite convincing"40. More recent scholarship has seen a number
of problems with the hypothesis and so has abandoned it 41.
There are other variant readings on the name of this man
among which are barihsou=,
barihsou=an. As Barrett suggests, barihsou=
and barihsou=an may be regarded as alternative
transliterations of (w#$y-rb and
barihsou=j and barihsou=n
may be taken as attempts to improve the grammar42. All of these suggest the
man's name means 'son of Jesus/Jeshua'. However, some other variants read, 'son
of the Name'. The Syriac Peshitta, for example, reads bar
s]u0ma0 (in some
Greek manuscripts, transliterated, barsouma) and
some other Greek manuscripts read barihsou=m.
Professor S. Brock (Oxford) says that Bars]u0ma0
is not a normal Syriac name, and that -s]u0ma0
implies a Palestinian Aramaic pronunciation43. In any case, these variants
indicate that the man is called 'son of the Name'. It is not difficult to see
how 'son of Jesus' might be altered to 'son of the Name'. After all, in Acts,
Jesus is the Name given for salvation (4,12); it is the name of the heavenly
being who speaks to Paul near Damascus (9,5); and it the name into which people
are baptised (2,38) and upon whom believers call (2,14). So there is a close
relation between Jesus and the Name, so close that it is not unexpected that
some might out of devotion to Jesus, in fact call him The Name. As Barrett
notes, 'in rabbinic use M#$ (name) may stand for
God; a Syriac translator who could not bring himself to say bar yesu might make
the corresponding substitution'44. Haenchen claims, "Now anybody with the
faintest knowledge of Aramaic knew that Bar-Jesus meant 'son of Jesus', and Luke
carefully refrains from alerting other readers also to the fact that this rascal
bore the sacred name of Jesus as part of his own"45. I suggest that Luke is
doing precisely the opposite. He wants to show that not only is Bar Jesus a
false prophet, but that his very name illustrates his falseness. He is not a son
of Jesus. Luke draws attention to the name factor by repeating, in v 8, the noun
o!noma that he had already used in v 6. The Syriac
translations appear to have picked up on this repetition by repeating the name
in v 6, in v 8. In addition, by translating the name, Luke is drawing further
attention to it. The point for now is that there is a conceptual link between
Jesus and The Name, a link made by Luke himself in Acts (4,12). So if one is a
son of Jesus, one is also a son of the Name. But, Luke wants to show, the
etymology of this man's name is to be found not in Jesus the Name but elsewhere.
To explain this other etymology, Luke constructs word-play
links between Bar Jesus and Elymas. The latter appears not to be a Greek name;
however, it might be a contracted form of a longer name46. Indeed, according to
Schmiedel, G. Dalman thought that it is a contracted form of
'Elumai=oj and that the name has something to do with the Elamites (associated in Acts 2,9 with the Parthians and Medes).
Schmiedel responded to this suggestion by saying, "Philologically this
derivation is the simplest of all; but it contributes nothing towards the
solution of the riddle"47. But I propose that Dalman's philological suggestion
does, indeed, provide a clue, if not the solution.
The key is found with Josephus, probably a contemporary of
Luke. According to him, Elymos ( 1Elumoj) was the son
of Shem, and the ancestor of the Persians. He writes, "For Elymos left behind
him the Elamites, the ancestors of the Persians" ( 1Elumoj
me_n ga_r 'Elumai_ouj,
Ant 1.6.4). As noted earlier, the magoi were commonly associated
with the Persians. This is significant because with this datum we now have a
link between 1Elumaj and ma/goj
without going via the Aramaic or Arabic route.
Josephus' information also helps in understanding how Luke
can say that Bar Jesus is translated or interpreted as Elymas. Elymas is the son
of Shem (cf Gen 10,22; 10,31; 1 Chr 1,17). The Hebrew name Shem (M#$)
and the Hebrew word for the Name (M#$) provide an
ideal opportunity for Luke to play on them. Both names, Elymas and Bar Jesus,
can be interpreted to mean 'the son of M#$'. By
playing on the name of the father of Elymos (Shem) and the sacred Name (Heb
M#$), Luke understands Elymas to be an
interpretation of (meqermhneu/etai) Bar Jesus. By
this word-play, Luke is in effect wanting to say that the meaning of Bar Jesus
is not 'son of Jesus' [= the Name], but 'son of Shem', the ancestor of the
magoi. The son of Shem and the ancestor of the magoi = Persians is
Elymos. So, logically it seems to me, Luke can say that the name Elymas is an
interpretation of the name Bar Jesus. It might be argued that Luke's
Greek-speaking audience would not catch Hebrew word-plays. But there is only one
Hebrew word that I am suggesting Luke is playing with, and that is the word
M#$ (Name). It is indeed feasible to assume that
Greek-speakers would know that one Hebrew word, if they knew no other.
The point is that this man does not belong to the true
followers of Jesus nor is he a member of the valid, authentic prophetic circle.
Paul and Barnabas are the true exponents of the will and word of God, especially
in the matter of righteousness. Bar Jesus, therefore, is not the son of the
Name, but the son of Shem, the ancestor of the Persians and of the magoi,
and so he is a magos, a foreigner to the true Christian community and an
opponent of the truth.
Finally, I draw attention to the fact that Luke was aware of
other false claimants in the communities he knew. In Acts 19,13-16, he exposes
the sons of Scaeva who use the Name to exorcise. In his Gospel, he repeats
Mark's report that there was a man casting out demons 'in the name of Jesus',
but he was forbidden by the disciples because he was not 'following with us'
(Luke 9,49-50//Mark 9,38-40). In addition, even Apollos, already a Christian,
needed to have the way of God expounded to him more accurately (18,26). Bar
Jesus belonged to a category somewhere between Apollos and the sons of Scaeva.
He had the name, 'son of Jesus', but he did not follow the correct understanding
of the way of God as taught by Paul and Barnabas.
In summary, I have proposed an alternative understanding of
Bar Jesus to that given in scholarship. I have argued that Luke represents Bar
Jesus in Acts 13 as a serious opponent of the Christian faith, not because he
taught or practiced heathen magic, nor because he practiced some kind of
syncretism, but because he taught the righteous ways of God in a false way. Bar
Jesus claimed to be a prophet, he claimed to live up to his name as a 'son of
Jesus' who correctly understood the way of the Lord, but the Lukan Paul exposed
him as a false exponent of that way. Testing the spirit, and distinguishing true
prophecy from false were difficult issues in many early Christian communities.
But Luke was not afraid to make that judgment. For him, it was Paul, a man
filled with a holy spirit who had authority in the teaching of the Lord, and his
true exposition of the righteous ways of God convinced the intelligent proconsul
who then believed.
1 I wish to thank my colleague, Professor Michael Lattke
(University of Queensland), and the Rev. Drs Stephen Haar and John Strelan, for
their helpful comments on various drafts of this article.
2 J. FITZMYER, The Acts of the Apostles. A new
translation with introduction and commentary (New York 1998) 501.
3 E. HAENCHEN, The Acts of the Apostles (Oxford 1971)
398. Dunn says the episode illustrates 'the recognition by one who prized
magical powers that he stood before one possessed of greater powers' (J.G.D.
DUNN, Jesus and the Spirit. A study of the religious and charismatic
experience of Jesus and the first Christians as reflected in the New Testament
[Grand Rapids, MI 1975] 166).
4 It could be argued that Bar Jesus in fact was won over to
Paul's side. The similarities noticed by scholars between Paul's conversion and
what happens to Bar Jesus might support this reading. Both are depicted as
opponents of the way of God, both are confronted with an unassailable word, both
are rendered blind for a short time, both are led by the hand. See S. GARRETT,
The Demise of the Devil. Magic and the demonic in Luke's writings
(Minneapolis 1989) 84.
5 In New Testament studies, this work focuses largely on
Simon Magus. For a useful bibliography, see J. JERVELL, Die Apostelgeschichte
(Göttingen 1998) 258-259. See also the recent work of S. HAAR, Simon Magus.
The first Gnostic? (Berlin – New York, forthcoming). The understanding of
Simon as a magos strongly colours the understanding of Bar Jesus as such
in many commentaries.
6 Joseph, Daniel, and Ahikar are well-known examples of Jews
holding such positions. Compare also Josephus, Ant. 8.2.5; 20.7.2.
7 See J. NEUSNER, "Rabbi and Magus in Third-Century Sasanian
Babylonia", History of Religions 6 (1966/7) 169-178.
8 J.T. SANDERS, The Jews in Luke-Acts (London 1987)
9 C.K BARRETT, The Acts of the Apostles (Edinburgh
1994) I, 613.
10 F.F. BRUCE, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids, MI
11 GARRETT, Demise, 81.
12 HAENCHEN, Acts, 398.
13 R. PESCH, Die Apostelgeschichte (Zürich –
Neukirchen-Vluyn 1986) II, 21 and 26.
14 BARRETT, Acts, I, 613. Compare also G. STÄHLIN,
Die Apostelgeschichte (Göttingen 1975) 176; for others, see JERVELL,
Apostelgeschichte, 346, n. 416.
15 JERVELL, Apostelgeschichte, 346, n. 416.
16 G. SCHILLE, Die Apostelgeschichte des Lukas (Berlin
17 FITZMYER, Acts, 499.
18 See J. LEVISON, "Did the Spirit Withdraw from Israel? An
evaluation of the earliest Jewish data", NTS 43 (1997) 35-57.
19 Clearly, Bar Jesus is both a prophet and a teacher. The
link is commonly made; indeed, Luke has made it in 13,1 (Compare also 1 Cor
12,28; Did 13,2; 15,1-1).
20 H.-J KLAUCK, Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity.
The World of the Acts of the Apostles (Translated by Brian McNeil)
(Edinburgh 2000) 54.
21 BARRETT, Acts, I, 617.
22 For the Septuagintal language used here, see JERVELL,
23 See BDAG, 902.
24 For example, G. SCHNEIDER, Die Apostelgeschichte
(Freiburg et al 1982) 123, n. 48.
25 BARRETT, Acts, I, 617.
26 It is possible to read Sergius Paulus as similar to
Cornelius, that is, as a god-fearer who already belonged to the faith (compare
13,8). In any case, Luke seems to be following the usual pattern: Paul goes
first to the synagogues (13,5), he meets opposition from Jews, but some
god-fearers believe. Jervell thinks the proconsul belongs to the god fearers (Apostelgeschichte,
27 JERVELL, Apostelgeschichte, 347.
28 P. SCHMIEDEL, "Barjesus", Encyclopedia Biblica. A
dictionary of the Bible (London 1899) 478-483; here, 480.
29 See, for example, F. BROWN – S. DRIVER – C. BRIGGS,
Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (Oxford 1962) 120-121; J.A.
PAYNE SMITH, Compendious Syriac Dictionary. Founded upon the Thesaurus
Syriacus of R. Payne Smith (Oxford 1903) 53.
30 BDAG, 1024.
31 See K. BROCKELMANN, Lexicon Syriacum (Hildesheim
32 DUNN, Acts, 176. Fitzmyer categorically says, 'No
one knows what it means' (Acts, 502).
33 JERVELL, Apostelgeschichte, 346 and 346, n. 424.
34 SCHILLE, Apostelgeschichte, 287; compare also
SCHNEIDER, Apostelgeschichte, 122; L. YAURE, "Elymas-Nehelemite-Pethor",
JBL 79 (1960) 297-314; C. HEMER, The Book of Acts in the Setting of
Hellenistic History (Tübingen 1989) 227; KLAUCK, Magic, 50.
35 SCHMIEDEL, "Barjesus", 480.
36 See K. LAKE, The Acts of the Apostles (London 1933)
37 BRUCE, Acts, 249.
38 DUNN, Acts, 176.
39 BARRETT, Acts, I, 615.
40 LAKE, Acts, IV, 144.
41 See BARRETT, Acts, I, 615; and HAENCHEN, Acts,
398, n. 2.
42 BARRETT, Acts, I, 613.
43 In personal e-mail communication, 14.10.02.
44 BARRETT, Acts, I, 613.
45 HAENCHEN, Acts, 402.
46 See F. BLASS – A. DEBRUNNER – R. FUNK, A Greek Grammar
of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago – London
47 SCHMIEDEL, "Barjesus", 480.