Barnabas was an early Christian whose dramatic conversion and missionary activity are described in detail in the Acts of the Apostles. In the biblical sources, he is described as a Levite who renounced his worldly possessions in order to follow in the footsteps of the apostles (cf., Acts 4:36-37). After journeying and preaching extensively with Saint Paul in Antioch, he is said to have travelled on his own to Cyprus, all the while continuing to extol the message of Jesus of Nazareth. Though no historical accounts confirm this, he is traditionally thought to have been martyred in Salamis in 61 C.E. In Acts 14:14, he is listed ahead of Paul ("Barnabas and Paul"), instead of the usual reverse ordering of their names, and both are called ἀπόστολοι, apostoloi, 'Apostles'. Whether Barnabas was, in fact, an apostle became an important political issue, causing considerable debate during the Middle Ages.
Though little is known of the life of Barnabas prior to his conversion, the Epistles contain the following biographical data. He was born of Jewish parents of the tribe of Levi. His aunt was the mother of John, surnamed Mark (Colossians 4:10), widely assumed to be the author of the eponymous synoptic gospel. He was a land-owning native of Cyprus, though he divested himself of all mortal wealth upon his conversion to Christianity: "Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet" (NIV). When Paul returned to Jerusalem after his conversion, Barnabas took him and introduced him to the apostles (9:27); it is possible that they had been fellow students in the school of Gamaliel. Regardless of their potential historical connection, the biblical record suggests to readers that Barnabas was responsible for encouraging the early community to accept their former persecutor into their ranks, as it describes how he "'took him [Paul] by the hand' and vouched for him among the other apostles."
The prosperity of the church at Antioch led the apostles and brethren at Jerusalem to send Barnabas there to superintend the movement, which provides indirect evidence of his position within the early Christian community. While there, he met tremendous success in his missionary efforts, largely due to the overweening spiritual commitments of many of the region's residents. News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord (Acts 11:22-24 (NIV)).
Though he experienced notable success, he found the work so extensive that he sought the aid of the Apostle Paul, who returned with him to Antioch and labored with him for a year (Acts 11:25-26). At the end of this period, the two returned to Jerusalem (44 C.E.) bearing with them the contributions that the church at Antioch had made for the poorer members of the Jerusalem church (11:28-30). Shortly after they returned, bringing John Mark with them, they were appointed as missionaries to Asia Minor, and in this capacity visited Cyprus and some of the principal cities of Pamphylia, Pisidia, and Lycaonia (Acts 13:14). During their travels in Asia Minor, the spiritual charisma of the duo was such that they were mistaken for Hellenic deities by the native Lystrans, who saw Paul as Hermes and Barnabas as Zeus, and attempted to offer sacrifices to them (14:12). Coming back from this first missionary expedition to Antioch, they were again sent back to Jerusalem to consult with the church there regarding the role of Gentiles in the inchoate ecclesiastical order (Acts 15:2; Galatians 2:1). According to Galatians 2:9-10, the earliest church leaders (James, Peter, and John) decreed that they would continue to minister to the Jews, with Barnabas and Paul serving the needs of the Gentiles—with the agreement that neither would renege on Jesus' commitment to the poor. This matter having been settled, they returned again to Antioch, buoyed by the council's decision that Gentiles were to be admitted into the church.
With the conversion of Sergius Paulus, Paul begins to gain prominence over Barnabas from the point where the name "Paul" is substituted for "Saul" (13:9); instead of "Barnabas and Saul" as heretofore (11:30; 12:25; 13:2, 7) we now read "Paul and Barnabas" (13:43, 46, 50; 14:20; 15:2, 22, 35); only in 14:14 and 15:12, 25 does Barnabas again occupy the first place, in the first passage with recollection of 14:12, in the last two, because Barnabas stood in closer relation to the Jerusalem church than Paul. Having returned to Antioch and spent some time there (15:35), Paul asked Barnabas to accompany him on another journey (15:36). Barnabas wished to take John Mark along, but Paul did not, as he had left them on the former journey (15:37-38). The dispute ended by Paul and Barnabas taking separate routes. Paul took Silas as his companion, and journeyed through Syria and Cilicia; while Barnabas took his younger cousin, John Mark, to visit Cyprus (15:36-41). He is not again mentioned in the Acts. However, in Gal. 2:13 a little more is learned about him, with this particular passage detailing the difficulties in ministering to a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles. Finally, Paul mentions him in 1 Corinthians 9:6 as an example of a hard-working missionary. Though the biblical record does not describe the circumstances of the saint's demise, early Christian legends contend that he was ultimately undone in his attempts to minister to the Jews of Salamis (in Cyprus).
St. Barnabas tomb, Salamis, Cyprus