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.
76 Rick Strelan
prophets associated with Elijah or Elisha, probably as disciples (1 Kgs
20,35; 2 Kgs 2,3-15; 6,1; 9,1). Luke himself has used that expression
earlier in Acts. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter said, â€˜you are sons of
the prophets and of the covenantâ€™, and that was said in the context of
God raising up Jesus as the prophet promised by Moses (Acts 3,17-26).
Did Bar Jesus claim to be one of the sons of The Prophet?
According to Matthew, Jesus warned the Christian community
against calling anyone â€˜fatherâ€™ (23,9) in a context where clearly the
title refers to a teacher or leader of the community. If some Christians
called their teacher â€˜fatherâ€™, it is logical that they should call
themselves his â€˜sonsâ€™. In Luke 11,19, Jesus refers to the disciples of
the Pharisees as â€˜your sonsâ€™ (oiJ uiJoi; uJmw'n). Peter refers to Markos as
â€˜my sonâ€™ (oJ uiJov" mou, 1 Pet 5,13), and although that may be nothing
more than a term of endearment, teachers did address their disciples as
â€˜sonsâ€™ (compare Heb 12,5; Prov 1,8; 2,1; 3,1). The BDAG also gives a
number of examples from pagan literature in which the term â€˜sonâ€™ is
used of a follower or pupil, especially among various guilds (30). The
Syriac church father, Ephraem, calls Bardesanâ€™s followers, â€˜the sons of
Bardesanâ€™ (31). This is evidence enough to suggest that the name Bar
Jesus could indicate a teacher-disciple relationship. If that is a valid
understanding, then it certainly implies that Bar Jesus claimed to
belong inside the Jesus movement.
5. Elymas and Bar Jesus
But what does Luke mean when he refers to â€˜Elymas the magicianâ€™
and then adds, â€˜for so his name is interpretedâ€™ (ou|tw" ga;r
meqermhneuvetai to; onoma aujtou)? Elymas is a name whose meaning
has caused â€˜endless bewildermentâ€™ (32). I suggest that Luke is playing
both on the name Elymas and the name Bar Jesus. In addition, central
to understanding his word-play is his repetition of the noun o[noma
(13,6 and 8).
It is worth remembering that writers at the time delighted in
finding meanings for names that today we dismiss as far-fetched, if not
downright impossible. Three brief examples will illustrate. Philo
thought that the Essenes â€œderive their name from their pietyâ€,
(30) BDAG, 1024.
(31) See K. BROCKELMANN, Lexicon Syriacum (Hildesheim 1966) 89.
(32) DUNN, Acts, 176. Fitzmyer categorically says, â€˜No one knows what it
meansâ€™ (Acts, 502).