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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Bar-Jesus

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In Acts 13:6 Bar-Jesus is described as ‘a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew’ whom Barnabas and Paul found at Paphos in the retinue of the proconsul in Cyprus. The comparison of him with ‘the modern gipsy teller of fortunes’ is ‘misleading and gives a false idea of the influence exerted on the Roman world by Oriental person-ages like this Magian’ (Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller, 78); nor can he be called an impostor. He was a representative of a class of men, very numerous in that day, ‘skilled in the lore and uncanny arts and strange powers of the Median priests’ (cf. Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) , article ‘Barjesus’), who possessed a familiarity with the forces of Nature not shared by their fellows, and which was commonly regarded as supernatural in its origin. They were both magicians and men of science; moreover, their system presented a religious aspect to the world. The presence of an influential exponent of such a current religious and philosophical system in the train of the comites of a Roman governor was quite natural; nor is there any need to suppose that Sergius Paulus (who was ‘a man of understanding’) was dominated by the Magian in any other sense than that Bar-Jesus had considerable influence and credit with his patron-on influence he was able to turn to his own private advantage. Hearing of Barnabas and Paul as travelling teachers in the island, the governor, a highly educated man, interested in science and philosophy, invited them to his court. He listened with such pleasure to their exposition that it became clear to all his retinue that they were making a marked effect on him. This was a challenge to Bar-Jesus, who had been the dominant religious influence in the court. He took steps to minimize the effect and to retain the governor’s interest in himself and his system. The challenge was accepted by Paul, who superseded Barnabas as the chief Christian protagonist at this point. Special interest attached to the incident as an early but typical case of the meeting of two religious systems; it was the first collision of Christianity with the great religious force of Magianism. The result was a striking manifestation of the superior power residing in the Christian missionary, by which Bar-Jesus was struck blind for a season, and which deeply impressed the proconsul in favour of Christianity.

A phrase occurs in Acts 13:8 which has caused perplexity: ‘Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation).’ All attempts to explain Elymas as the interpretation of Bar-Jesus have failed. This has been used to discredit the historicity of the narrative. Thus Schmiedel says it suggests the ‘amalgamation of two sources,’ and illustrates the tendency of Acts to establish a ‘parallelism between Peter and Paul’ (Encyclopaedia Biblica i. 480f.)-a theory urged by Weizsäcker, who considers this portion of Acts ‘is far from being historical’ (i. 275, 239-240), and finds a proof of double authorship in the use of the two names ‘Saul who is also called Paul.’ But Ramsay has explained the latter usage most convincingly. It was the fashion in bilingual countries to have two names, the native and the Greek. Amongst Jewish surroundings Paul’s Jewish name ‘Saul’ was used naturally; but ‘by a marvellous stroke of historic brevity’ (Ramsay, 83) the author sets forth by a formula how in the court of the Roman governor, when the Apostle challenged the system represented by Bar-Jesus, he stood forth as Paul the Roman citizen, a freeborn member of that Greek-Roman world to which he carried his universal gospel. Does not the same explanation hold good for his opponent? Bar-Jesus is a Jewish name-the name of ‘a Jew, a false prophet.’ Elymas is the man’s Greek name. It is the Greek form of an Arab word alîm meaning ‘wise,’ and ὁ μάγος (‘the sorcerer,’ Authorized Version and Revised Version ) is its translation. From the Jewish point of view the encounter was between Saul the Jewish teacher and Bar-Jesus the Jewish prophet. From the wider point of view it was between Paul the Roman citizen who championed Christianity, and Elymas the Greek philosopher and magician. It was not only Bar-Jesus the Jewish false prophet whom Paul blinded, but Elymas the Magian, the representative of that Oriental theosophy which Christianity was destined to meet so often. Luke the historian has special interest in describing the first encounter between the systems, and the signal victory won by the Christian Apostle over one who practised the occult arts. Paul probably shared the opinion of educated Judaism, that magic was associated with idolatry and the realm of darkness, and was therefore to be shunned as demoniacal. This explains the vigour of his denunciation.

Literature.-articles in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) on ‘Barjesus’ (Massie) and ‘Magic’ (Whitehouse), and in Encyclopaedia Biblica (Schmiedel) on ‘Barjesus’; W. M. Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveller, London, 1895, pp. 73-88 (cf. Was Christ born in Bethlehem?, do. 1898, p. 54); C. v. Weizsäcker, Apostolic Age, i.2 do. 1897, pp. 80, 111, 240, 274; A. C. McGiffert, Apostolic Age, Edinburgh, 1897, pp. 174-176; Expositor’s Greek Testament on ‘Acts,’ 1900, p. 287.

J. E. Roberts.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Bar-Jesus'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/b/bar-jesus.html. 1906-1918.

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