Barnabas and Paul or Paul and Barnabas?
By Gerd Lüdemann
Professor Emeritus, Theological Faculty of the University of Göttingen
Visiting Scholar at Vanderbilt University
According to Acts 13–14, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and at the instigation of the church of Antioch, Paul and Barnabas undertook the so-called First Missionary Journey in the area of Cyprus and Southern Anatolia (Acts 13:2). Upon their triumphal return (14:27), the Antiochene church again sent them off, this time to Jerusalem (15:2), to confront the leaders of the church there because some people from Judea had demanded the circumcision of new brothers (Acts 15:1). For the reconstruction of what happened at the ensuing Jerusalem Conference only Paul’s narrative in Gal 2 can serve as a primary source.
Acting on a revelation, Paul tells us (Gal 2:2), the Apostle goes to Jerusalem with Barnabas and acquaints the Jerusalem community with his gospel message. In a provocative act, he takes along with him the Gentile Christian Titus in order to obtain in principle the assent of the Jerusalem leaders and the community there to his practice of the “law-free” mission among Gentiles. Paul’s wish is fulfilled. Titus need not be circumcised, and the Jerusalem leaders acknowledge Paul’s apostleship.
Paul has left us fragments of the protocol of the agreement in Gal 2:9:
When they perceived the grace that was given to me,
James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be the pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, [agreeing] that
9bwe should go to the Gentiles
and they to the circumcised;
Paul makes it clear that he was the principal party to the agreement and that Barnabas played a secondary role. Yet those who remember Barnabas’ important role in the First Missionary Journey and before are wont to harmonize Acts with Galatians at this point, and thus they miss the point Paul is trying to make.
This blunder appears in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible which, due in large part to the influence of the Nation Council of the Churches of Christ, has become a sort of canonical text. Its version of Gal 2:9 reads thus: “…[they] gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship….”
I suspect that the story in Acts has led the NRSV translator astray, for to understand this passage correctly it is important to recognize that Paul places himself ahead of Barnabas at the time of the Jerusalem Council. Thus the sequence “Paul, then Barnabas” matters distinctly if we wish to express what Paul intended. That the order of naming is significant can be seen in the list of the three Jerusalem leaders: James and Cephas and John (Gal 2:9). Note that James and not Cephas is accorded priority. I am concerned that users of NRSV at this point may also reverse the priority order “Paul, Barnabas” to “Barnabas, Paul.”
Here are four translations of Gal 2:9. All of them except NRSV get the sequence “Paul, Barnabas” right.
The King James Version, Gal 2:9: And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision.
RSV, Gal 2:9: And when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.
Common English Bible, Gal 2:9: James, Cephas, and John, who are considered to be key leaders, shook hands with me and Barnabas as equals when they recognized the grace that was given to me.
NRSV, Gal 2:9: And when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.