For quite some time I had been looking for a better explanation of what occurred on Cyprus when Barnabas and Saul came there to evangelize the island in the name of Jesus. After all, it is here where Saul changed his name to Paul, and it is here where Mark seems to get upset and leaves the group after they leave the island. Luke is conspicuously silent over the reasons for these seemingly important issues. He states what occurred without commentary and leaves the reader to figure things out through the wording he uses and his placement of the events.
I recently discovered a fascinating scholarly thesis written by Rick Strelan of Queensland University in Australia. Dr. Strelan’s thesis, Who Was Bar Jesus?, has helped me to clarify in my own mind, at least, why Paul changed his name and why Mark left the evangelistic team. It all has to do with how we understand the identity of Elymas, Bar Jesus.
Dr. Strelan argues, and I quite agree, that Bar Jesus saw himself as a disciple of Jesus, and this is how the term, Bar Jesus, should be understood. Jesus, himself, referred to his disciples as his own sons in Mark 9:15, and referred to the disciples of the Pharisees as their sons in Matthew 12:27. It, therefore, should not be a great leap to understand Bar Jesus to mean ‘a disciple of Jesus’. Certainly, it may refer to a son of a person called Jesus or Joshua (Jesus = Joshua; cp Hebrews 4:8 in the KJV), but the New Testament also shows that it is perfectly appropriate to use the term for a disciple of a rabbi or teacher of the scriptures.
Traditionally, it is presumed that Bar Jesus was attached to Sergius Paulus, the governor as an adviser or something similar, but all the text says is that he was **with** the governor. The Greek uses this word for the six men who ‘accompanied’ Peter to the home of Cornelius and again in Luke 24:21 where the two on the way to Emmaus recounted all that occurred concerning Jesus and concluded with ‘beside’ all that—this was the third day since the crucifixion. Therefore, since all Acts 13:7 says about their relationship is that Bar Jesus was **with** the governor, I believe it may mean merely that he was invited to the residence of Sergius Paulus with Barnabas and Saul. I don’t doubt that, as far as the governor was concerned, Bar Jesus was a celebrity figure of sorts. He may have been the ruler of the local synagogue. He may even have been an important visitor from Jerusalem and was invited to the governor’s residence after the synagogue worship service was complete. However, I don’t believe he was the ‘court adviser’ or ‘court astrologer” etc.
Luke refers to Bar Jesus as a ‘false prophet’ in Acts 13:6, and Jesus warned the disciples of the infiltration of false prophets among the disciples (Matthew 7:15; 24:11; 24:24; Mark 13:22). He also recalls how false prophets deceived and led the Jews astray (Luke 6:26), as does Peter in 2Peter 2:1, and Peter says likewise that false teachers would be among the believers and divide the flock into destructive sects (heresy). Finally, in 1John 4:1 we are warned that we must test what we are told, because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Moreover, speaking of these same individuals and referring to them as antichrists, we are told in 1John 2:19 that “they went out from us but were not of us…” Thus, we see that in all of these references the false prophet is someone who had been identified with or identifies himself with the believing community. Therefore, Bar Jesus either considers himself a believer, or is thought by many to be a believer, but he is really a charlatan, a false prophet.
Looking back in Luke’s records, he tells us in Acts 5 about how Ananias and Sapphira had lied about how much they contributed to the poor among the believing community. They were false brethren seeking to attach themselves to the Apostles and the leaders of the Messianic community, and this is known, because God’s judgment upon them curtailed the intentions of the **rest** who wished to join themselves with the Apostles (cp. Acts 5:13). Therefore, Luke shows when these false teachers like ‘Bar Jesus’ began to infiltrate the Messianic community and they were doing it in Jerusalem, probably according to the design of the Jewish authorities there. Notice of their presence comes between the failure of the Jerusalem authorities to keep the Apostles from preaching the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 4:1-6, 21), and the failure of the Annas family of priests to do the same in Acts 5:17 and following. Moreover, just as their first detection by Peter, the Lord’s ‘true teacher’, warranted an example being made of Ananias and Sapphira, so it is when Luke first records Paul’s meeting a false prophet (Acts 13:6); ‘Elymas-Bar Jesus’, must also be discerned from the true prophet of the Lord.
Luke continues in Acts 13 to identify Bar Jesus as ‘Elymas’ and a magos (G3097), which is translated in most Bibles as a ‘sorcerer’. I have already addressed the term magos in a previous blog, but will address it again and why Luke calls him Elymas in another blog to complete this study of how I believe we should understand the identity of this man.