Patrick Reardon on image and reality

Although the history of icons may give us an idea of what some early saints looked like (the very primitive sketch of Peter and Paul in the excavation under the Vatican, for example), it is generally hard to gain knowledge of this sort from the New Testament. True, unless the expression ‘of short stature’ in Luke 19.2 refers to Jesus (which is grammatically possible), we know that Zacchaeus the tax collector was not tall, and we are probably justified in suspecting that Mary of Bethany was blest with ample tresses (cf John 11.2; 12.3). On the whole, however, the New Testament is not a copious source for such information.

It differs, in this respect, from the Old Testament, which more often remarks on the physical characteristics of this or that individual. We are told, for example, of David’s handsome complexion (1 Samuel 16.12; 17.42), Saul’s unusual height (9.2; 10.23), and the density of Absalom’s hair (14.26; 18.9). Indeed, with respect to the women of the Old Testament, the reader may lose track of how many are described as beautiful. We also learn, with no little distress, that Esau’s skin felt like a goat’s (Genesis 27.16–23).

If the New Testament is less satisfactory in providing these engaging details, there is a major exception in the case of Barnabas. We really do have a good idea of what Barnabas looked like, because some ancient devotees of Zeus mistook him for the object of their devotion.

It happened in the city of Lystra, where Paul had just healed a life-long cripple. In immediate response to this marvel, the citizens of the city ‘raised their voices, saying in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men!’’ After that, matters got very much out of hand. In the enthusiasm of the moment, ‘the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes.’ Because of the language barrier, which apparently required them to speak through an interpreter, it took several minutes for the two apostles to put a stop to the business, but they eventually did so, proceeding then to preach one of the shortest sermons in history (three verses). Even then, says the text, ‘with such sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them’ (Acts 14.8–18).

Now the curious point here is that the crowd, persuaded that the gods had just arrived in town, took Barnabas for Zeus. It was somewhat natural, given their premise, that they thought Paul to be Hermes, the messenger god, ‘because he was the chief speaker.’ Indeed, it was Paul who had healed the lame man with a simple command. But why Barnabas as Zeus? It must have had something to do with his appearance. These folks would never have taken an average-looking guy to be Zeus.

Now it happens that we know exactly what sort of fellow those people thought Zeus, should he ever come to visit his temple, would look like, because Zeus is portrayed in dozens of extant old art works and described in scores of ancient texts. This ‘father of gods and men’ was massive in height and powerfully muscular in bulk. His great brow extended broad and serene over clear, far-seeing eyes, and a full majestic beard lay upon his barrel chest. Brother to Poseidon, god of the sea, Zeus, when he condescended to speak, spoke with the deep rumblings of oceanic authority. Now this … this is what the citizens of Lystra saw in Barnabas! No wonder they were impressed.

In fact, they never quite lost their awe in the presence of Barnabas. A few days later, when some Jews from Iconium arrived and stirred up the crowd against the two apostles, it was Paul that they stoned, nearly to death. Nobody dared throw a stone at Barnabas! (14.19f)

The impressive appearance of Barnabas was matched by his generosity and nobility of soul. He made one of the first large financial donations to the Christian Church, and it was the trusted Barnabas who could introduce the recently converted Saul of Tarsus to the frightened Jerusalem church, oversee the new ministry at Antioch, lead the first mission to Cyprus and Pisidia, and later restore young John Mark to the mission field (4.36f; 11.22-25; 13.2-14; 15.36-39). Reassured even to be in the presence of this huge, competent, and gentle human being, all Christians knew Barnabas as the ‘Son of Consolation’.

Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.