Who Was Elymas—Bar Jesus? ~ Part 1

11 Nov

For quite some time I had been looking for a better explanation of what occurred on Cyprus when Barnabas and Saul came there to evangelize the island in the name of Jesus. After all, it is here where Saul changed his name to Paul, and it is here where Mark seems to get upset and leaves the group after they leave the island. Luke is conspicuously silent over the reasons for these seemingly important issues. He states what occurred without commentary and leaves the reader to figure things out through the wording he uses and his placement of the events.

I recently discovered a fascinating scholarly thesis written by Rick Strelan of Queensland University in Australia. Dr. Strelan’s thesis, Who Was Bar Jesus?, has helped me to clarify in my own mind, at least, why Paul changed his name and why Mark left the evangelistic team. It all has to do with how we understand the identity of Elymas, Bar Jesus.

Dr. Strelan argues, and I quite agree, that Bar Jesus saw himself as a disciple of Jesus, and this is how the term, Bar Jesus, should be understood. Jesus, himself, referred to his disciples as his own sons in Mark 9:15, and referred to the disciples of the Pharisees as their sons in Matthew 12:27. It, therefore, should not be a great leap to understand Bar Jesus to mean ‘a disciple of Jesus’. Certainly, it may refer to a son of a person called Jesus or Joshua (Jesus = Joshua; cp Hebrews 4:8 in the KJV), but the New Testament also shows that it is perfectly appropriate to use the term for a disciple of a rabbi or teacher of the scriptures.

Traditionally, it is presumed that Bar Jesus was attached to Sergius Paulus, the governor as an adviser or something similar, but all the text says is that he was **with** the governor. The Greek uses this word for the six men who ‘accompanied’ Peter to the home of Cornelius and again in Luke 24:21 where the two on the way to Emmaus recounted all that occurred concerning Jesus and concluded with ‘beside’ all that—this was the third day since the crucifixion. Therefore, since all Acts 13:7 says about their relationship is that Bar Jesus was **with** the governor, I believe it may mean merely that he was invited to the residence of Sergius Paulus with Barnabas and Saul. I don’t doubt that, as far as the governor was concerned, Bar Jesus was a celebrity figure of sorts. He may have been the ruler of the local synagogue. He may even have been an important visitor from Jerusalem and was invited to the governor’s residence after the synagogue worship service was complete. However, I don’t believe he was the ‘court adviser’ or ‘court astrologer” etc.

Luke refers to Bar Jesus as a ‘false prophet’ in Acts 13:6, and Jesus warned the disciples of the infiltration of false prophets among the disciples (Matthew 7:15; 24:11; 24:24; Mark 13:22). He also recalls how false prophets deceived and led the Jews astray (Luke 6:26), as does Peter in 2Peter 2:1, and Peter says likewise that false teachers would be among the believers and divide the flock into destructive sects (heresy). Finally, in 1John 4:1 we are warned that we must test what we are told, because many false prophets are gone out into the world. Moreover, speaking of these same individuals and referring to them as antichrists, we are told in 1John 2:19 that “they went out from us but were not of us…” Thus, we see that in all of these references the false prophet is someone who had been identified with or identifies himself with the believing community. Therefore, Bar Jesus either considers himself a believer, or is thought by many to be a believer, but he is really a charlatan, a false prophet.

Looking back in Luke’s records, he tells us in Acts 5 about how Ananias and Sapphira had lied about how much they contributed to the poor among the believing community. They were false brethren seeking to attach themselves to the Apostles and the leaders of the Messianic community, and this is known, because God’s judgment upon them curtailed the intentions of the **rest** who wished to join themselves with the Apostles (cp. Acts 5:13). Therefore, Luke shows when these false teachers like ‘Bar Jesus’ began to infiltrate the Messianic community and they were doing it in Jerusalem, probably according to the design of the Jewish authorities there. Notice of their presence comes between the failure of the Jerusalem authorities to keep the Apostles from preaching the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 4:1-6, 21), and the failure of the Annas family of priests to do the same in Acts 5:17 and following. Moreover, just as their first detection by Peter, the Lord’s ‘true teacher’, warranted an example being made of Ananias and Sapphira, so it is when Luke first records Paul’s meeting a false prophet (Acts 13:6); ‘Elymas-Bar Jesus’, must also  be discerned from the true prophet of the Lord.

Luke continues in Acts 13 to identify Bar Jesus as ‘Elymas’ and a magos (G3097), which is translated in most Bibles as a ‘sorcerer’. I have already addressed the term magos in a previous blog, but will address it again and why Luke calls him Elymas in another blog to complete this study of how I believe we should understand the identity of this man.


Related Posts:

Why Did the Outreach Begin in Cyprus?


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4 responses to “Who Was Elymas—Bar Jesus? ~ Part 1

  1. Richard Fellows

    November 11, 2012 at 22:20

    Ed, I have also discussed Bar-Jesus, building on Strelan’s work. See my blog post here:

    I think Paul chose that Luke contrasts Elymas/BarJesus’s presumptuous names with Paul’s humble name in Acts 13:6-10. See my blog post here:

    • Ed Bromfield

      November 12, 2012 at 00:43

      Hi Richard, yes I read both of your posts that you linked to. I was really intrigued with the one about Paul’s name. I wondered, since the name ‘Saul’ was given him, according to your blog-post, when he began his studies at Jerusalem as a boy, and the fact that ‘Paul’ sounds like ‘Saul’, it was probably acquired later. Since Paul was evangelizing in Antioch where we acquired our name ‘Christian’ (presumably with derogatory intent), I wondered if ‘Paul’ wasn’t also acquired there from Romans wanting to belittle his evangelistic activity. I blogged about it HERE with a link and credit to you, and will re-post that blog here sometime this week.

      Thanks again for stopping by and offering the info on your website.

      Lord bless you,


  2. somepcguy

    November 11, 2012 at 09:23

    I find what you write interesting. i have never given much thought to who Elymas was. However, I would like to point out that we have no evidence that Saul changed his name to Paul here. This is just the point where Luke starts calling him Paul. As a matter of fact when I read this passage earlier this year I looked up what the name Paul meant. It means “small, or humble”. At the time and in this context it suggested to me that Elymas was a tall man and Luke pointed out that Saul was called Paul (probably because he was short, I have seen other references that suggest that Paul was short). This suggested to me that Luke was presenting a picture of small, diminutive Paul confronting tall, physically imposing Elymas. That image combines nicely in my mind with your suggestion that Elymas claimed to be a disciple of Christ.

    • Ed Bromfield

      November 11, 2012 at 12:30

      Greetings, and thank you for reading and for your comment. I’m glad you find my thoughts interesting, but remember that they were excited by what I read in Rick Stralen’s thesis. I wouldn’t have seen this, had I not read his commentary on this passage first.

      Concerning the name ‘Paul’, I agree with everything you say except that Saul didn’t begin calling himself by Paul until here. I’ll be posting a blog about that later this week. ‘Paul’ does mean small, and I think, since it is a Roman name, it was given him as a put-down by Romans at Antioch. Of course, I cannot prove this, but it fits the context if it is true, and a lot of what I am saying is supposition, and cannot be proved with certainty. I am merely offering a different perspective on how I have always read God’s word–not trying to remove the Spirit’s inspiration or the understanding that all of God’s word is true–but I am trying to see how that might look like in another context. I’ll be posting more about Elymas as well, but I’ll deal with the name ‘Paul’ a little later, probably within a week from now.

      Lord bless you,



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