Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Worthy But Not Chosen (Part 1): Joseph Barsabbas Justus

Two individuals in the NT are called Barsabbas (variant spelling Barsabas).1 This is not a personal name but a supplemental descriptor ascribed to Joseph Barsabbas Justus (Acts 1:23) and Judas Barsabbas (Acts 15:22). The names Joseph and Judas are Hebraic, common among ethnic Jews in antiquity, while Justus is of Latin origin.


The Aramaic prefix בַּר [bar], meaning “son,” is used to form an identifying moniker that helps differentiate among those who share the same personal name in Aramaic-speaking environments (e.g. Bartholomew, Bartimaeus, Barnabas, etc.).2 A patronymic or patronym, from the Greek πατήρ [patēr, “father”] + ὄνομα [ónoma,  “name”], is a designation usually derived from one’s father, other male ancestor, or a distinctive feature. In Latin circles, a cognomen (nickname) is added to one’s praenomen (given name) and nomen (family name).


While the function of the prefix Bar- is to designate a “son,” the question is whose son? One possibility is the Greek name  Σάββας [Sabbas, or a variant form], of Hebrew or Aramaic derivation, meaning “elder” or “old man.” If this alludes to the father of each of these men, Joseph and Judas may have been brothers.3 Alternatively, the Aramaic שַׁבְּתָא [šabbṯā, “sabbath”] would be applicable to a son of [the] sabbath, referring to one in a Jewish context born on the 7th day of the week, thus descriptive rather than showing paternal linkage.4


Introducing Joseph Barsabbas Justus


Not long after the Lord’s ascension into heaven and prior to the establishment of his church, in view of Judas Iscariot’s demise and the prophetic petition of Psalm 109:8, it was necessary to fill the apostolic void. Two prospects were put forward for consideration: Matthias and a man called Joseph (Acts 1:23).


To distinguish this particular Joseph from so many others with the same name,5 he is also called Justus, a Latin cognomen descriptive of a person of integrity, one who is just or fair.Not only is this indicative of his noble character, it also reveals his association with and influence from Romanized society. The Romans had been in control of Judea for decades.Having more than one ethnic name was not uncommon during this period (Acts 9:36; 12:12; 13:6-9; etc.), making it easier to function in the Jewish, Roman, and Hellenistic worlds. 


Seeing that the names Joseph (in Jewish society) and Justus (in Roman society) were fairly common, the appellation Barsabbas was also added. It is interesting that he is listed first, before the other prospective apostle, and all three of his names are given in contrast to the single name of Matthias. This might suggest he was the more prominent figure in the local community, with higher standing among the brethren.


Conversely, from the standpoint of Luke’s original readership, recording the single name of Matthias would be sufficient if he were the better known to them.8 Although neither is mentioned again by name beyond this text, whenever “the apostles” are collectively referenced in the documented history of the early church, Matthias is implicitly included.9


What Happened to Joseph Barsabbas Justus?


Joseph Barsabbas Justus was gathered with about 120 fellow believers in Jerusalem after Christ’s ascension and a few days before Pentecost. He had been a devoted follower of Jesus since the time of John the baptizer’s ministry and was an eyewitness of the risen Lord (Acts 1:15-22). He and Matthias were purportedly among the seventy or seventy-two10 disciples of Luke 10:1-17, according to the 4th-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea, based on sources available to him at the time (Eccl. Hist. 1.12.3).11


In finding a replacement for Judas Iscariot, seeing that the Holy Spirit had not yet been poured out (Acts 1:2-5), the group of disciples nominated candidates and left it to the Lord to providentially make the selection. It would appear that only two were qualified.12 The casting of lots on this occasion was not a mere game of blind chance but the means through which the Lord was to make his decision known. Although the name of Joseph Barsabbas Justus was submitted first, the second nominee got picked (vv. 23-26). 


Joseph Barsabbas Justus was not being spurned by the congregation or by the apostles. It was the Lord himself who skipped over him in deference to another. In the biblical record nothing else is known of him outside the present text. He is simply remembered as the one not having been chosen by the Lord. 


Since he was not counted as one of the 12 apostles (Acts 1:26), when persecution later forced “all” the disciples to flee from Jerusalem “except the apostles” (Acts 8:1), he was most likely among the exiles. Later tradition places him in the village of Beth Gabra (a.k.a. Beth Gubrin or Betaris) about 33 miles (53 km) southwest of Jerusalem in the Judean foothills. As Flavius Josephus recounts, in the year 68 during the Jewish War, Vespasian killed more than 10,000 inhabitants of this and a neighboring village, enslaved over 1,000, and expelled the rest (Wars 4.8.1). Joseph Barsabbas Justus reportedly died as a martyr.


Other Traditions


In the account of Paul’s martyrdom in the 2nd-century pseudepigraphal Acts of PaulBarsabbas Justus was among those imprisoned by Nero but released when the ruthless emperor saw a post-mortem appearance of the apostle.13 Papias of Hierapolis (ca. 60-140) claims to have learned from the daughters of the apostle Philip that Justus Barsabas, “though he drank a deadly poison, experienced nothing injurious through the grace of the Lord” (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.39.9-10).


Venerated in some religious circles as Saint Justus of Eleutheropolis, he allegedly became bishop of Eleutheropolis (modern-day Beit Jibrin) after leaving Jerusalem. However, the Romans did not name the city Eleutheropolis (“Free City”) until the early third century, and its first historical bishop only dates back to the 4th century. While the anachronistic filter of Roman Catholic historians has no doubt distorted the seeds of historical truth, it is plausible that he was among a plurality of ἐπισκόποι  [episkópoi, “overseers”] in the local church.




What an honor it must have been for Joseph Barsabbas Justus to be considered by his peers and prospective colleagues as worthy of the apostleship, only to be denied by the Lord. Was the public rejection an embarrassment? Did he feel dejected, or was he relieved? As dedicated, qualified, and capable as he appears to have been, it was apparently not meant to be. 


Each of us has likely experienced at certain stages of life having been overlooked, turned down, or passed over. The story of Joseph Barsabbas Justus teaches us that not being picked for one thing frees us up for other opportunities. In fact, God often has something much better in store (cf. Jer. 29:11-13). His purpose and plans are far beyond our short-sighted human reasoning (1 Sam. 16:7; Isa. 55:8-9), so trusting him is the best antidote for rejection and disappointment (Prov. 3:5-6; 2 Cor. 3:4-5).


Not everyone can be an apostle, or fill other important positions in the church, but every member of the body is necessary and has a valuable contribution to make (1 Cor. 12:12-31). While others walked away from the Lord because of hard teachings and hard times (John 6:60-66), Joseph Barsabbas Justus remained loyal. The variety of names by which he was known indicates his willingness to adapt to his surroundings to broaden his influence as an ambassador of Jesus (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-22).


Despite not being chosen to serve as an apostolic leader, he was still counted among the Lord’s chosen, as are all faithful followers of Christ (Col. 3:12; 1 Pet. 2:9; Rev. 17:14). Let us learn from this humble servant to eagerly look for other doors of opportunity when the anticipated ones slam shut.


--Kevin L. Moore



     1 With textual variation in spelling, the favored reading seems to be Βαρσαββᾶς. See B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek NT, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: GBS, 1994): 384. The Byzantine Majority Text is split between Βαρσαβᾶς (Acts 1:23) and Βαρσαββᾶς (Acts 15:22), the Textus Receptus reads Βαρσαβᾶς in each passage, while the NA/UBS reading is Βαρσαββᾶς in both.

     2 See K. L. Moore, “The Aramaic Patronymic Bar-,” Moore Perspective (29 May 2015), <Link>.

     3 The names Joseph Barsabbas (Acts 1:23), Joseph Barnabas (Acts 4:36), and Judas Barsabbas (Acts 15:22) are different enough to preclude identifying these men as the same person. 

     4 See F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, Rev. Ed. NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988): 46 n. 75. A. Barnes posits as alternative renderings, “an oath, rest, quiet, or captivity,” but thinks Barsabbas was probably a family name and is open to the possibility that Joseph and Judas were brothers or even the same person (Notes on the NT, ed. I. Cobbin [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980]: 375, 472).

     5 The Hebrew name יוֹסֵף [Yosef], meaning “he increases,” and its Greek counterpart Ἰωσήφ [Iōsēph] or alternative Ἰωσῆς [Iōsēs], is applied to multiple persons in the biblical record (Gen. 30:24; 1 Chron. 25:2; Ezra 10:42; Neh. 12:14; Matt. 1:16; 13:55; 27:57; Luke 3:24, 26, 30; Acts 1:23; 4:36).

     6 This was not a proper surname (suggested by N/KJV) but something he was simply “called” (employing the verbal ἐπικαλέω). Three different men in the NT are referred to as Justus (Acts 1:23; 18:7; Col. 4:11). The third son of the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also wore this moniker, as did a rival of Josephus and associate of Herod Agrippa II, the historian Justus of Tiberias. In the Jewish catacombs of Rome this was a not an uncommon name. The Lord’s brother James was called “the Just” because his “elevated virtue and piety was deemed the most just of men” (Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.23.1-4). A number of others in history wore this epithet as well.

     7 See K. L. Moore, “Historical Background (Part 3): Roman Period,” Moore Perspective (26 March 2019), <Link>.

     8 The name Ματθίας [Matthías] (Acts 1:23, 26) is a shortened form of Ματταθίας [Mattathías] (Luke 3:25-26) and variant of Ματθαῖος [Matthaîos] (Matt. 10:3; Acts 1:13), the Greek version of the Hebrew מַתַּנְיָה [Mattanyā́hū] (2 Kings 24:17; 1 Chron. 9:15; 25:4, 16; 2 Chron. 20:14; 29:13; Ezra 10:26, 27, 30, 37; Neh. 11:17, 22; 12:8, 25, 35; 13:13), or variant forms (1 Chron. 9:31; 15:18, 21; 16:5; 25:3, 21; Ezra 10:43; Neh. 8:4), meaning “gift of Yahweh.”

     9 See K. L. Moore, “Matthias: the Forgotten Apostle,” Moore Perspective (12 July 2013), <Link>.

     10 The stated number is fairly evenly divided in the manuscript evidence between seventy and seventy-two (Luke 10:1, 17). Seventy could be a rounded-off figure, as well as having greater symbolic, historical, and traditional significance. While the correct reading may be “impossible to decide” (N. Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke NICNT [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993]: 303 n. 2), there seems to be more scholarly support for seventy-two. See P. W. Comfort, A Commentary on the Manuscripts and Texts of the NT (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015): 220-21; also B. M. Metzger, op. cit. (with added comment by Kurt Aland): 126-27.

     11 It has been suggested that Joseph Barsabbas Justus might have been a half-brother of Jesus, along with James, Judas, and Simon (Matt. 13:55; Mark 6:3), through an alleged previous marriage of Salome and Jesus’ step-father Joseph. On the unlikelihood of this connection, see K. L. Moore, “Harmonizing Luke and Paul (Part 1),” Moore Perspective (12 August 2015), <Link>.

     12 “Each man’s life, to date, was his resume” (John Staiger, “Bible Profiles: Matthias and Barabbas,” Facebook, 28 Sept. 2020).

     13 See M. R. James, “The Acts of Paul,” in The Apocryphal NT (Oxford: Clarendon, 1924), <Link>.


Related PostsWorthy But Not Chosen (Part 2): Judas Barsabbas


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