Cyprus: the Story of Barnabas
“When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews. And they had John also to assist them. ” Acts 13:5
Paul’s First Missionary Journey: Paul and Barnabas landed on Cyprus and preached in Jewish synagogues for several months. Cyprus was a Roman Province and the home of Barnabas.
Now let us become familiar with the story of Barnabas, the way people in Cyprus like to tell it.
The Cypriot-born St. Barnabas figures prominently in Acts of the Apostles. He brought Christianity to Cyprus in the first century. He came to Cyprus with Paul during his first missionary journey. He returned later after he and Paul had decided to go their separate ways. “Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus” (Acts 15:39) Tradition says that Barnabas also preached in Alexandria and Rome.
Barnabas was stoned to death at Salamis in 61 CE. His bones are believed to be located in the monastery at Salamis.
According to the local tradition, St Barnabas’ body is in this small church.
In the fourth century the Cypriot church pleaded to be ‘apostolic’ because of Barnabas. A century later, the bishop of Salamis, Anthemius, had a dream in which Barnabas appeared to him and revealed where his corpse had been buried – under a carob tree.
Here is the carob tree in front of the little church:
Upon excavating the next day, a corpse was duly found clutching a Hebrew version of the Gospel of Matthew. The Cypriots immediately took these relics to Constantinople where the emperor Zeno (474-491), suitably impressed, granted some special privileges to the island.
Here is his tomb in the crypt under the little church:
Not far from the small church is St Barnabas Monastery.
The most fascinating were the frescoes depicting the story of discovering Barnabas’ body. First the bishop of Salamis having a dream:
Then the discovery of the body:
The relics of St Barnabas together with the gospel of St Matthew are taken to Constantinople and presented to the emperor Zeno:
The emperor officially declares the church of Cyprus as autocephalous meaning autonomous or independent church with its own Patriarch:
Today the church is an icon museum with a wide selection of Greek Orthodox icons and some frescoes on display but it is the stunningly well-preserved architecture of the building that is the true star.
A small reflection on this story:
It is accepted that Barnabas died in the year 61 AD. The Gospel of Matthew was written in 85. It was then impossible for Barnabas to be buried with a copy of the Gospel because it hadn’t been written yet.
It is possible that he died in Cyprus but there is no proof of it.
When you hear stories of this kind or religious legends it is important to make a distinction between what is historically true and what was created with the use of sacred imagination.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has many popular religious legends like this one. Tomorrow we will learn about St Lazarus and his life in Cyprus.
Let’s finish this post with some local specialties:
Source: Lonely Planet Cyprus (Travel Guide), by Lonely Planet (Author), Josephine Quintero (Author), Jessica Lee (Author)
and some thoughts shared by our local guide and by one of our professor – Scott Lewis.