Barnabas was born of Jewish parents in Cyprus about the beginning of the Christian Era. A Levite, he naturally spent much time in Jerusalem, and appears to have settled there where his relatives, the family of Mark the Evangelist, likewise had their homes — Acts 12:12; 4:36-37). Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius say that he was one of the 70 Disciples; but Acts (4:36-37) favors the opinion that he was converted to Christianity shortly after Pentecost (about A.D. 29 or 30).
When Saul the persecutor (later Paul the Apostle) made his first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem, the Church there was understandably suspicious. Barnabas stood up for him and introduced him to the Apostles (Acts 9:27). Barnabas later rejoined Saul in Antioch, where the men worked together for the conversion of the Gentiles.
From Antioch, the two men set out on a missionary journey — to Cyprus, Perge in Pamphylia, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, and other cities. At every step they met misunderstanding, opposition, and even persecution. At Lystra, after Paul cured a lame man, a mob proclaimed the Apostles to be the pagan gods Hermes and Jupiter. They wanted to sacrifice a bull to Paul and Baranabas, but, mob-like, they soon turned on them and almost succeeded in killing them. In any event, Paul and Barnabas made many converts on this journey and returned by the same route to Perge, organizing churches, ordaining priests and placing them over the faithful. When they got back to Antioch in Syria, they felt God had “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 13:13-14:27).
Some time afterward, they faced an intra-Church problem. Men came from Jerusalem preaching that circumcision was necessary for salvation, even for the Gentiles. The Apostles went up to Jerusalem to fight back; the older Apostles received them kindly and, at what is called the Council of Jerusalem (c. 50 A.D.), ruled in their favor (Acts 14:27-15:30). The problem arose again when Peter visited Antioch (Gal 2:11-15), and Barnabas joined the Prince of Apostles in holding aloof from the Gentiles. But Paul prevailed and the mission to the Gentiles continued, respecting the Gentiles as Gentiles. Shortly afterward, Paul and Barnabas decided to revisit their missions. Barnabas wanted to take John Mark along, but on account of a previous defection Paul objected. A sharp contention arose, and the Apostles agreed to separate. Barnabas sailed with John Mark to Cyprus.
Little is known of the subsequent career of Barnabas. He was still working as an Apostle in 56 or 57, when Paul wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians (9:5-6). St. Barnabas is credited by Tertullian (probably falsely) with the authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the so-called Epistle of Barnabas is ascribed to him by many Fathers. His authorship of that letter, too, is doubtful.
The Epistle of Barnabas – usually included among the works of the “Apostolic Fathers” – is certainly one of the earliest Christian texts, apart from the New Testament, to have survived to our day. Dating estimates range from 70 A.D. to 200 A.D. The document itself, however, contains no clue about its author or its intended audience. Its aim is to give readers the perfect and exact knowledge (gnosis) of the economy of salvation. It’s made up of two parts. The first part (chapters 1-5) is an exhortation; the end of the world and the judgment are now at hand, so the faithful, freed from the bonds of the Jewish ceremonial law, should practice the virtues and flee from sin. The second part (chapters 5-17) is more speculative, although it tends to draw sharp contrasts between Christianity and the religion of the Old Testament. The author argues that the ordinances of the Law refer allegorically to the Christian virtues and institutions, and he goes on to explain how the Old Testament prefigures Christ, His Passion, His Church, etc. Before concluding (chapter 21) the author incorporates from another document (the Didache or its source) the description of the “two ways,” the way of light and that of darkness (18-20). The epistle is characterized by the extreme use of allegory.