In a previous blog (HERE), I addressed the idea that Elymas, Bar Jesus, was associated in some way with the believing community. He either considered himself to be a Messianic Jew or was considered to be a disciple of Jesus by the believing community. Luke identified him as a false prophet (Acts 13:6), so he was probably not a true disciple of Jesus but was considered a disciple by many in the believing community. The conclusions I have drawn in these last few posts are the result of my reading and agreeing with Dr. Rick Strelan in his scholarly thesis (HERE) that Bar Jesus was considered to be a true disciple of Jesus before his encounter with Saul on Cyprus.
Luke identifies Bar Jesus, who was a false prophet and a Jew, as ‘Elymas’, a magos (G3097). As I concluded in a previous blog, the term magos is elsewhere translated ‘wise man’ and refers to the royalty from the East who came to pay homage to the infant, Jesus, born King of the Jews (see Matthew 2). The term refers us to Mesopotamia where many Jews still resided in the 1st century CE, not having returned to Palestine with the several groups of Jews who immigrated with Zerubbabel, Nehemiah and Ezra. In fact, probably more Jews resided in ancient Babylonian territories during this period than in Palestine. The Jews acknowledge in the Talmud that Babylon was responsible for the restoration of the Law each time the teaching in Palestine went into decay. Notice:
“For in ancient times when the Torah was forgotten from Israel, Ezra came up from Babylon and established it. [Some of] it was again forgotten and Hillel the Babylonian came up and established it. Yet again was [some of] it forgotten, and R. Hiyya and his sons came up and established it. (Babylonian Talmud; Sukkah 20a).
What Luke seems to be implying by referring to Bar Jesus as a magos is that his teachings come out of Babylon. It was part of the Second Law or that which the Jews used to interpret the Law of Moses, and Bar Jesus was using it to ‘interpret’ Jesus as well! Therefore, according to Bar Jesus, not only did the Second Law place a parameter around the Law of Moses to keep Jews from offending God, but it also put a parameter around Jesus and his Gospel to keep believers from sinning. Nevertheless, this is exactly opposite from what Jesus taught. When he was interrogated about some of his disciples transgressing the tradition of the elders, Jesus claimed that it was this same tradition (i.e. the Oral Law) that annulled the Law of God (Mark 7:5-13). In other words the Oral Law, which came out of Babylon, couldn’t interpret the scriptures, because at least some of what was taught from it annulled the authority of God’s word.
In Acts 13:8 Luke also refers to Bar Jesus as ‘Elymas’, and, because he also calls him magos, this reference should also refer us to Mesopotamia. According to Rick Strelan, ‘Elymas’ refers to Elam the son of Shem (Genesis 10:22) and the father of the Elamites (Acts 2:29), according to Josephus (Antiquities 1.6.4). It is under this condition that Luke intends to give us the ‘interpretation’ or ‘meaning’ of the name of Bar Jesus. Elam, according to Genesis 10:22 was the son of Shem. Luke conducts a play on words here. The Jews do not utter the name of God (YHWH). They always refer to the Lord as ha Shem which means “The Name”, and they, presumably, derive the practice from Leviticus 24:11. So, Elymas is Elam, son of Shem (the son of Noah), but Shem is also Hebrew for ‘name’ which Jews use when referring to God. Therefore, Luke says ‘Elymas’ is the meaning of this man’s name (Acts 13:8). The man’s real name is probably not mentioned in Acts 13, and that is not what is important. His name is not Bar Jesus, nor is it Elymas; Luke is telling us what the man is doing. He has the **name** of being a disciple of Jesus (Bar Jesus-Acts 13:6), and his **name** or character representation means or can be interpreted by Elymas the magos. By claiming the **name** to exalt his position before believers was the same as saying he was the son of ‘The Name’ or son of ha Shem.
Dr. Strelan’s thesis (mentioned above) claims that Luke is playing on the word ‘name’ which is mentioned in Acts 13:6 and again in verse-8. Since many of the first gentile Christians were God-fearers who worshiped with Jews in the synagogues throughout the Empire, the one thing they would know about Jewish tradition was the fact that Jews referred to God as ‘ha Shem’ or ‘The Name’. Certainly, Theophilus, to whom Luke addresses the Book of Acts, would not need to have Luke’s word play explained to him. In any event, most gentile Christians at the time of Luke’s writing probably understood the significance of his word play here in Acts 13:6, 8.
So, Bar Jesus, according to Luke, was a ‘false prophet’ who was known as a Messianic believer. He claimed to be a disciple—a son of Jesus or a son of ha Shem—but he was in fact teaching the false doctrines that came out of Babylon that from the beginning turned the Jews away from God. John the Baptist came to make the crooked ways straight, so the Jews would know the Messiah when he came. This man, this ‘wise man’ who taught the doctrines of Babylon, was accused by Paul to be the ‘son of a slanderer’ (meaning of the word devil in the text) and no son of Jesus (or ha Shem). He was an imposter who was making the ‘straight paths’ of the Lord crooked (cp. Acts 13:10). One cannot understand the Gospel of Jesus by interpreting it through the dubious wisdom of the Oral Law.