This week we celebrate the Feast of St Barnabas on Sunday 11 June.
We first are introduced to Barnabas in Acts, 4:36-37.
“There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”
This would ring bells for any early Jewish Christian reader, that Barnabas a Levite sold a field for the service of God’s kingdom. Because Levites were those who didn’t own land in the first place – Levites gave up land ownership in order to serve Israel’s spiritual well-being, and here is Barnabas, a Levite, selling land perhaps he shouldn’t own, to serve the Church’s well being.
But there is a real puzzle here in this short text: the name “Barnabas” doesn’t actually mean “son of encouragement”, but “son of Nebo”! Scholars have lots of theories about what’s happening here, but this is at best educated guesswork. Sometimes that’s as good as it gets.
But if we step back from the actual issue, what strikes me is that we can only have a debate about this textual oddity because of the vast amount of scholarly research on every aspect of the Biblical text.
And that in turn says something to us of profound importance about the task of theological education. Namely, we are in the business of careful and critical interpretation of ancient texts, considering their context, provenance, theology, history, and so forth. And this business also speaks volumes about who we are.
For this sort of scholarship requires a particular sort of culture, a certain “quality” of our life together. Think about it – one needs years – years, and not weeks or months, of language study, and years of training in critical methods – textual criticism, historical-critical methodology, theological reasoning, and so forth.
And one needs a veritable army of people who will support this endeavour, sponsor it, believe in it, pray with us to see it flourish. It requires teachers and mentors and supervisors, and conversation partners. It requires dialogue and dispute and attention to detail.
And hence it requires a church and its leadership – and thanks be to God that we have this in our diocese – to have the belief in the value of theological reasoning and Biblical scholarship.
Together we understand how theological research contributes to the public good, even at times when it is only part of a delicate yet expansive web of knowledge, even when sometimes one person’s work might provide a single link. (I for one know what this is like at times, given that my research is mostly on clause structure in Biblical Hebrew!)
And most importantly of all, we understand that the nurture of this web of knowledge – a nurture which is part of our stewardship of creation – requires a whole raft of habits and rhythms and patterns of life that generate a particular sort of culture in which this pursuit of theological knowledge and wisdom, in the context of prayer and faith, can be undertaken.
So, even reflecting on this single obscure remark about the meaning of the name “Barnabas”, mired as it is in textual uncertainty and dispute, speaks to us about the quality of theological education we must foster.
And that’s why I love the mission of St Barnabas College: encouraging people to know and love God through learning in community. Because it captures so much and so succinctly precisely this life together we are pursuing.
The Rev’d Canon Dr Matthew Anstey is Principal of St Barnabas College. He teaches and researches in Biblical Hebrew, Old Testament studies, theology, and homiletics. He is on the Doctrine Commission of the Anglican Church of Australia. Follow him on Facebook.