Barnabas, in the New Testament, the surname, according to Acts iv. 36, given by the apostles (possibly in contrast to Joseph Barsabbas, Acts i. 23) to Joseph, "a Levite, a man of Cyprus by birth," who, though like Paul not of the Twelve, came like him to rank as an apostle (Acts xiv. 4, 14, 1 Cor. ix. 6; see Apostle). The Greek rendering of this Semitic name υἱὸς παρακλήσεως) may be translated "son of consolation" (as in the A.V.), or "son of exhortation" (as in the R.V.). But there is an initial difficulty about the Greek rendering itself, as no satisfactory etymology of Bar-nabas in this sense has as yet been suggested. The one at present in favour on the ground of philological analogy (see Z.N.T.W., 1906, p. 91 for a fresh instance), viz. Bar-Nebo, lacks intrinsic fitness for a Jew and a Levite, and of course does not accord with the statement in Acts itself. Hence it still seems best to assume some unknown Aramaic form equivalent to παράκλησις, and then to take the latter in the sense of comfort or encouragement.
This rendering, rather than "exhortation" in the sense of eloquence, best suits the usage of Acts, which suggests such comfort as is given by encouraging rather than rousing words (ix. 31, xi. 23, xiii. 15, xv. 31 f.; cf. Luke ii. 25, vi. 24). All we hear of Barnabas points to goodness of heart ("a good man," xi. 24) as his distinctive quality, giving fineness of perception (ix. 27, xi. 25 f.) and large insight into essentials (xi. 23 f.). It was probably the practically helpful and encouraging form that his gift as a "prophet" took (Acts xiii. i, with 1 Cor. xiv. 3). It is perhaps significant that his first appearance is of the generously helpful kind described in Acts iv. 36 f. Yet we must beware of regarding Barnabas as merely a fine character; he plays too prominent a part in the New Testament for any such limitation. Thus, he next appears as braving the suspicions which dogged the ex-persecutor Saul (Paul) - possibly an old acquaintance in Hellenist circles at Jerusalem (cf. vi. 9, ix. 29) - and introducing him to the older apostles (ix. 27). More suggestive still of high repute as a man of insight and authority is his mission from the Jerusalem Church to inspect and judge of the new departure in the Gospel at Antioch, in Acts xi. 22. This means very much, though his modesty led him to call in the aid of his friend Saul to cope with the new and expanding situation (25 f.). After their brief joint visit to Judaea and Jerusalem (xi. 30, xii. 25) we next get a glimpse of Barnabas as still chief among the spiritual leaders of the Antiochene Church, and as called by the Spirit, along with Saul, to initiate the wider mission of the Gospel, outside Syria even, in regions beyond (xiii. 2, 4). He led the way to his native Cyprus; but in the crucial struggle with the magician Bar-Jesus, in the presence of the governor of the island (xiii. 7 ff.), Saul seems to have come so decisively to the front, that henceforth, for the author of Acts he takes the lead, and Barnabas appears as his colleague (see xiii. 13, "Paul and his company," and note the turning back of Mark, the kinsman of Barnabas). The fact that at Lystra the natives styled Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, while suggesting that Barnabas was the man of nobler mien, proves that Paul was the chief speaker (xiv. 12); and the notices in the Pauline epistles fully bear out the view that "the gospel of the Gentiles" which they preached was in conception Paul's (Gal. ii. 1-9). Indeed, Barnabas's vacillation at Antioch, as recorded in Gal. ii. 11 ff. (whether it preceded or followed their mission in Acts xiii.-xiv.), shows that, while gifted with true intuitions, he was not strong in thinking out his position to all its issues on principle, and that it was here that Paul was so immensely his superior.
But what Barnabas did see with full reasoned conviction, he was staunch in upholding; thus he upheld the general cause of Gentile freedom from the obligation of circumcision (as distinct from perfect religious equality with Jewish believers) at the Jerusalem conference (Acts xv.). With this stand for principle, however, his main work, as a great link in the transition of the Gospel from its Jewish to its universal mission, reached its climax; and Acts transfers its attention wholly to Paul, after explaining how their roads parted under rather painful circumstances (xv. 37 ff.).
When Barnabas sails away with Mark to resume work in Cyprus, the mists of history hide him from our sight. Only now and again do we catch fugitive and increasingly doubtful glimpses of him and his work. We learn from 1 Cor. ix. 6 that he adhered to Paul's principle of self-support in his mission work, and from Col. iv. 10 that his name was well known and respected at Colossae about A.D. 60. Tradition, which early regards him as one of the seventy (Clem. Alex.), carries him, plausibly enough, to Alexandria (Clem. Hom. i. 8, ii. 4; cf. the ascription to him of the Alexandrine Epistle of Barnabas). But the evidence for his having visited Rome (later tradition says also Milan) is stronger because more varied (Clem. Recog. i. 7, cf. Hom. i. 7; the early Actus Petri Vercellenses; and the late Cypriot Encomium), especially if we might trust the Western ascription to him of the epistle to the Hebrews, which begins with Tertullian (De Pud. 20). But this may itself be mere inference from its self-description (xiii. 22), as a "word of exhortation," to the "son of exhortation" (Acts iv. 36) as its author. The legend of his missionary labours in Cyprus, including martyrdom at Salamis, is quite late and untrustworthy.
The date of his death is uncertain, but he was probably no longer living when Acts was written (c. A.D. 75-80).
His was essentially a mediating role. He filled a position intermediate between Jewish and Pauline Christianity - one characteristic of Christian Hellenists generally. Hence he is spoken of with respect in the Clementines; while Paul, as a radical in relation to the Law, is discountenanced. If we could confidently credit him with the authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews, we could conceive his theological standpoint more exactly. But, in any case, the Barnabas of history was a greater man than the Barnabas of modern tradition.