Rick Strelan, «Who Was Bar Jesus (Acts 13,6-12)?», Vol. 85 (2004) 65-81
In Acts 13, Bar Jesus is confronted by Paul and cursed by him. This false prophet is generally thought to have been syncretistic and virtually pagan in his magical practices. This article argues that he was in fact very much within the synagogue and that he had been teaching the ways of the Lord. He was also a threat to the Christian community of Paphos and may even have belonged inside of it. Luke regards him as a serious threat to the faith because of his false teaching about righteousness and the ways of the Lord.
66 Rick Strelan
1. A Magos
The first description given of Bar Jesus is that he was a magos
(mavgo"). Much has been written about the magoi and there is no need
to repeat the results of that scholarship (5). The term, of course,
originally referred to a Persian caste; but there is no doubt that in later
usage it came to be used almost adjectivally of those who had ideas
and customs that were foreign to traditional Greek views and customs.
To give just one example, Strabo reports that the magoi â€˜even consort
with their mothersâ€™ (Geog. 15.3.20). Pliny wanted to â€œexpose their
untruthsâ€ (N.H. 30.1). Not surprisingly, then, among the Greeks, a
mavgo" became synonymous with a gohv", a charlatan and trickster (Dio
Chrysostom, Disc. 39.41). From Lukeâ€™s perspective, Bar Jesus is a
prophet whose interpretation of the will of God is false, and therefore
whose authority is foreign to that of the legitimate prophetic circle as
represented by Barnabas and Saul. The latter two have been set apart
by the Holy Spirit (13,2), sent out by the Holy Spirit (13,4) and are
filled with the Holy Spirit (13,9). Bar Jesus, however, has his authority
from the adversary. He is, from Lukeâ€™s perspective, uiJo;" diabovlou
On the other hand, the identification as magos could mean little
more than that Bar Jesus was associated with the court of the proconsul
as a religious adviser, a position some Jews are known to have held (6).
Josephus makes the specific Jew-magos link when referring to a
certain Simon, co-incidentally also a Cypriot, and one who, like Bar
Jesus, had friends in the Roman consular system (Ant. 20.7.2). In
addition, the role and function of a magos and those of a rabbi, at least
in later times, were not at all dissimilar. Both were â€˜holy menâ€™, both
were men of power and special knowledge, both were involved in
decision-making within their respective communities (7). However, for
Luke, the point of the term seems to be that Bar Jesus, despite his
name, certainly does not belong to Jesus, but is an outsider, having a
(5) In New Testament studies, this work focuses largely on Simon Magus.
For a useful bibliography, see J. JERVELL, Die Apostelgeschichte (GÃ¶ttingen 1998)
258-259. See also the recent work of S. HAAR, Simon Magus. The first Gnostic?
(Berlin â€“ New York, forthcoming). The understanding of Simon as a magos
strongly colours the understanding of Bar Jesus as such in many commentaries.
(6) Joseph, Daniel, and Ahikar are well-known examples of Jews holding
such positions. Compare also Josephus, Ant. 8.2.5; 20.7.2.
(7) See J. NEUSNER, â€œRabbi and Magus in Third-Century Sasanian
Babyloniaâ€, History of Religions 6 (1966/7) 169-178.