When the Holy Spirit set apart Barnabas and Saul for the work he had planned for them, it is almost a double-take to find them first preaching in Cyprus. What? Wasn’t Antioch evangelized by believers who had come from Cyprus and Cyrene? Why would the Holy Spirit have the team begin here, especially when Paul says later that he desired to preach only where Christ was not yet named (cp. Romans 15:20)? Other questions that come to mind are why does Saul change his name to Paul during the team’s evangelistic outreach in Cyprus? Why did Mark leave after the team evangelized the island, and, finally, why does it seem like Luke shows Paul became the leader of the team (Acts 13:13) at this point? Is that a correct assumption, since in Acts 13:1 Paul is not only listed behind Barnabas, but fifth, behind Simeon (called Niger), Lucius of Cyrene and Manaen?
These are some of the questions I hope to address in the next few blogs. We don’t know how many men made up the evangelistic team, but it did include Barnabas, Saul and John Mark (Acts 13:2, 5). They left Antioch for the harbor at Seleucia and from there sailed to Cyprus. The plan was to preach Christ in the synagogues, and John Mark, Barnabas’ nephew (Colossians 4:10), acted as their ‘minister’ or helper. Most likely he served as a follow-up teacher or someone who further elaborated upon what Barnabas and Saul had preached; and perhaps he oversaw the baptisms, for Paul, as a rule, did not baptize anyone (1Corinthians 1:14-17).
Luke doesn’t tell us of any problems the team may have faced on Cyprus until they came to the capital of New Paphos on its northwestern shore. It seems odd to me that Luke would record nothing until then. This causes me wonder about the translators rendering of the Greek word in Acts 13:6 saying ‘when they had gone through’(G1330), meaning: when they had gone through ‘the island’. This gives the impression that Barnabas and Saul evangelized each city’s synagogues from east to west until they came to New Paphos. Is this what occurred? Just a few verses later in Acts 13:14 the translators render the very same Greek word (G1330) as ‘departed’, meaning the team departed Perga and went directly to Pisidian Antioch. There the translators give no impression that the team evangelized every city as they went. They simply left Perga and traveled directly to Pisidian Antioch. I submit that Barnabas and Saul did exactly that on Cyprus. After they preached Jesus in the synagogue at Salimas, the major city on the east coast of Cyprus, they sailed to New Paphos, the major city and capital on the west coast of Cyprus. They may have intended to evangelize the whole island, but they began with Cyprus’ two major cities.
Nevertheless, when they reached the northwestern coast, they encountered a problem with a man who apparently had the ear of the Roman governor. What seems to have occurred is, Barnabas and Saul spoke in the synagogue at Paphos, and a God-fearer named Sergius Paulus heard them and invited the team to his residence, so he could hear more about the word of God.
Luke tells us that a certain Jew that he identifies as Bar Jesus (Acts 13:6) and says his name means or is interpreted as Elymas, the magos (G3097; cp. Acts 13:8). Most scholars believe this is a renegade Jewish sorcerer and try to make a case that the word Elymas is his name and magos (G3097—sorcerer) is the meaning of the name, but the fact is, they really don’t know for certain, and some admit this is so. One is able to understand that the interpretation is on shaky ground, because many scholars disagree among themselves about the meaning of Elymas and how that word relates to magos, the Greek word translated sorcerer in most Bibles.
I have recently discovered a very interesting scholarly thesis, ‘Who is Bar Jesus?’ (found HERE). It is written by Dr. Rick Strelan of the University of Queensland, located in Brisbane, Australia. Dr. Strelan attempts to make the case that Elymas—Bar Jesus is a false prophet who is connected with the Jesus Movement or at least connects himself with Jesus as his disciple (i.e. Bar Jesus). The Greek word, magos (G3097), translated ‘sorcerer’ or ‘magician’ in most bibles and ‘astrologer’ in some others is also translated ‘wise men’ in Matthew 2 of those men from the east who came to Jerusalem, bearing gifts for the infant Jesus. Daniel would also have been considered a magos (Daniel 1:17; 2:13).So, sorcerer-magician-astrologer etc. is more like an interpretation of the translator rather than a solid, concrete rendering of the meaning of the Greek, magos (G3097). This Jewish man may very well have been considered a wise man by his peers and was probably well received by the upper class Jewish society of that day.
Personally, I find this idea much more attractive than the traditional hocus-pocus rendering I read in most commentaries. As Dr. Strelan says in his scholarly thesis, if Luke’s Elymas passes himself off as, or considers himself to be, a disciple of Jesus, he presents a much more dangerous threat to the Jesus Movement than a sorcerer would. His being considered to be a disciple of Jesus may even be a key to understanding why the Holy Spirit sent the missionary team first to Cyprus. This man could have been seen as a legitimate Christian, but had been giving everyone who knew him a false impression about Jesus and the Gospel. I believe understanding who he was, not necessarily his historical identity but what sort of character he may have been, is key to understanding the questions I proposed at the beginning of this post.
As I see it, therefore, Luke’s Elymas, a wise man and a disciple of Jesus, was spreading a wrong Gospel about Jesus—probably throughout Cyprus. This will be how I approach my next few blogs. The idea, of course, has been inspired by the excellent argument Dr. Strelan makes in his thesis mentioned above. Whether or not he would agree with the conclusions I draw, I don’t know, but anyone who reads his 18 page thesis should be able to see that I am drawing heavily upon the argument he makes there.