MICHAEL R. COSBY. Creation of History: The Transformation of Barnabas from Peacemaker to Warrior Saint. Eugene OR: Cascade Books, 2017. Pp. 210.
This compelling account of Saint Barnabas’ complex connections with the island of Cyprus and its political struggles will be of interest to a wide range of readers. Cosby, New Testament professor and author of Apostle on the Edge: An Inductive Approach to Paul, narrates his search for clues about how the biblical character known as Joseph Barnabas develops into Saint Barnabas, the political liberator and protector of the Orthodox Church in Cyprus. Readers follow Cosby through a journey of discovery as he and his wife plunge into the complicated blend of nationalistic fervor and religion that permeates contemporary Cyprus. We learn that, for most Cypriots, Saint Barnabas is a living and active presence who protects the island and who will, they pray, help drive out the Turks from occupied regions in the north. However, according to Cosby, most Greek Cypriots know very little about the Barnabas of the New Testament and his leadership role in the first century.
Cosby devotes an entire chapter to the New Testament evidence for Barnabas, working through relevant passages in the book of Acts and Paul’s letters to portray him as an effective mediator who was eventually eclipsed by the apostle Paul. Some of Cosby’s interpretive suggestions challenge the current scholarly consensus. For example, since the Hebrew original for the name given by the apostles (according to Acts 4:36) is most likely “bar-nabi” (son of prophet), Cosby prefers the translation of “Son of Exhortation” rather than “Son of Encouragement.” More controversial is Cosby’s view that Barnabas had good reasons for supporting Cephas (Peter) and opposing Paul in the Antioch incident as recounted in Galatians 2. According to Cosby, Paul was inflexible whereas Barnabas sought compromise. As a bridge-builder seeking to resolve conflict, Barnabas was sensitive to Peter’s dilemma regarding the way in which eating with Gentiles could have jeopardized his relationship with the more conservative Jewish Christians. Cosby therefore portrays the New Testament Barnabas as having the qualities, such as sensitivity, empathy and pragmatism, which could be useful in resolving the current conflict between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.
But how did Barnabas become the warrior saint and deliverer as portrayed by Orthodox Christians today? Although the figure of Barnabas was largely neglected for over four centuries, Cosby notes that he reemerges in the fifth century when Cyprus’ ecclesiastical independence was being threatened. According to tradition, St. Barnabas appeared in the year 478 to the Archbishop Anthemios of Cyprus and told him where to find his body. In addition to relics of the saint, the archbishop recovered a copy of the Gospel of Matthew purportedly copied by Barnabas himself. The current emperor (Zeno) was impressed and, due to Barnabas’ patronage, the church in Cyprus was granted “autocephalous” status, meaning they could choose clergy and make other local decisions apart from the bishop in Antioch. Even more, the archbishop of Cyprus was granted three imperial privileges that signified local political power held by the church, namely the privilege to sign his name in red ink, the privilege of wearing purple instead of traditional black robes and the privilege of holding an imperial scepter. The Archbishop Anthemios even returned to Cyprus with funds to build a church and monastery to honor Barnabas.
It is this account of Saint Barnabas’ support of the Cypriot cause with its many embellishments that Cosby describes as “created history.” An anonymous text known as the Acts of Barnabaswritten in the late fifth century strengthened the case for Barnabas as a legitimate apostolic founder who reportedly ordained the first bishops on the island of Cyprus. A longer oration composed in the sixth century by a monk named Alexander and known as theLaudatio Barnabae (which Cosby translates and includes in an appendix to this book) added additional details both to the life of Barnabas and to the miracles allegedly performed after his death. However, since these documents provide no evidence of the imperial privileges given by the emperor to the Cyprian archbishop Anthemios, Cosby continues his exploration. After careful investigation, he concludes that the first direct literary reference to these imperial privileges was not until the sixteenth century when Cyprus was threatened and eventually conquered by the Ottoman Turks. Iconographic evidence from the seventeenth century and further literary evidence from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shows that these privileges eventually became an established way to demonstrate the archbishop’s power in both religious and political realms.
In his concluding chapter, Cosby returns to the need for conflict resolution in contemporary Cyprus. He shares about a favorable encounter with Sufi Muslims visiting Barnabas’ tomb in northern Cyprus as an example of respectful interfaith dialogue that is far too rare. He reflects upon how the current tensions seem intractable and then minces no words when expressing his view that “Greek Cypriots need to reject the legend [of Barnabas as a warrior saint] and to resurrect the model of Barnabas as bridge builder—a leader who listens sympathetically to both sides of the conflict and helps opponents to understand the viewpoints held by their adversaries” (145).
Generous readers of this volume will appreciate both Cosby’s narrative approach and his refreshingly honest reflections about his encounters with Orthodox Christians and their beliefs. Although skeptical of the miraculous interventions credited to Saint Barnabas after his death, Cosby nevertheless remains respectful as he makes the case that this beloved saint has repeatedly been co-opted for political purposes throughout Cyprus’ troubled history. Cosby’s repeated appeals for mutual understanding and negotiation skills are well-intentioned but more critical readers might ask why Cosby’s reconstruction of the first century Barnabas as bridge-builder and peacemaker is more reliable than the traditional Orthodox view of him as protector and defender of the faith. Perhaps one must, as a scholarly monk once cautioned Cosby, “quit thinking like a Westerner” in order to create a new history for the island of Cyprus.