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Bar-Jesus

Act_13:1-8

Barnabas and Saul having fulfilled their


commission at Jerusalem, returned to
Antioch, taking with them that John,
otherwise called Mark, the house of whose
mother, Mary, was first visited by Peter on his
deliverance from prison. Mark was nephew to
Barnabas, and as his father seems to have
been dead, the care of him necessarily
devolved upon his uncle, who probably
wished to introduce the young man into the
labors of the Gospel under his own eye, with
probably an ulterior intention of making him
acquainted with his relations in Cyprus.

It is to be noted that, from this time forward,


the sacred historian confines himself almost
exclusively to the proceedings of Saul.

Soon after their return, it was intimated to


the Church at Antioch by the Spirit, on a day
which had been set apart for prayer and
fasting, that Saul and Barnabas were to go
forth upon a missionary expedition. They
were accordingly set apart for this service;
and we soon find them, still accompanied by
Mark, proceeding down the Orontes, unless
they preferred the shorter route by land to
Seleucia, which was lately mentioned as the
port of Antioch. They went to Seleucia in
order to take passage for the island of
Cyprus, which, in a clear day, is visible, from
this place, and with a fair wind might be
reached in a few hours. They landed at
Salamis, which had formerly, under the
Greeks, been the metropolis of the island,
and was still its chief port and commercial
town, though the seat of government seems
to have been removed to Paphos, at its
opposite extremity. There, and throughout
this journey, it seems that the Gospel was
only preached in the Jewish synagogues; and
indeed it appears to have been the general
practice to make to the Jews the first offer of
its blessings. As a maritime commercial town,
the Jews probably formed a large proportion
of the population of Salamis.

From Salamis the apostles travelled the whole


length of the island to Paphos, a place famous
for its splendid temple to Venus, who was
worshipped throughout the island, whence
her designation of Cyprian goddess, and
Paphian goddess. Here was the seat of the
Roman governor, who at this time was
Sergius Paulus, described as a prudent, or
rather, an intelligent or open-minded man.
Notwithstanding this, he had given his
confidence to a Jewish impostor, named Bar-
Jesus, who had taken upon him the Arabian
title of Elymas, magian, or wise man. This
title, originally, and then still properly,
applicable to sages, learned men, and
philosophers, was also affected by charlatans
and pretenders to occult knowledge, just as,
at this day, quacks in medicine call
themselves by the goodly names of doctors
and professors. The term is hence used in a
good, an indifferent, or a bad sense in
Scripture, just as, even in our own language,
a wise man, which is the highest of
characters, does also, in a popular
acceptation, denote a fortune-tellerone who
professes by his arts to be able to disclose
hidden things. This latter sense seems to be
reflected from that of wizard (wise-ard), a
word of similarly equivocal import with that of
wise man, and together illustrating well the
indefinite sense of the term magus, which, in
both senses, has exactly the same meaning.
The Scriptural sense is usually indicated by
the context; and in the present instance the
bad sense appears from the fact that Bar-
Jesus is expressly designated as a false
prophet.

But it may well be asked how a man of this


sort could acquire such influence and close
connection, as Bar-Jesus possessed, with a
Roman of the rank and character of Sergius
Paulus?

To explain this, it is necessary to point out


that such hold upon the Gentile mind, as the
old systems of heathen philosophy, and the
old customs of heathen belief, may have once
possessed, had at this time been broken up,
for all practical uses of comfort or confidence,
and a general disbelief and unrest pervaded
the public thought. Cast adrift from their old
stays, which gave way before the pressure of
advancing intelligence and cultivation, the
minds of men floated listlessly upon the dark
waters of skepticism, or sank in sullen despair
into their depths. But it was not thus with all.
Very many minds, still craving for the rest not
to be found at home, sought it among foreign
gods, and occult rites, and fertile
superstitions; and since the ancient oracles
were dumb, they sought light for their feet in
the astrologies, the necromancies, the
soothsayings, the various strange and
marvellous beliefs and systems offered in
large profusion by the prolific East, so
recently opened up to Western knowledge by
the Roman conquests and consolidations.
Hence the writings of this period abound in
painful disclosures of the most deadening
skepticism, and the most lurid superstition
not always separated, but often united in the
same individuals: for let men say what they
will, and however great may seem the
contradiction, skepticism has always been
more superstitious than faith. In this state of
things grew up a number of impostors and
pretenders, of various descriptions and
qualities suited to all classes of people, who
swarmed in all the chief places of human
concourse. The East poured them forth in
abundance, avenging its conquest by material
arms by enslaving the minds of the
conquerors. Palestine claimed its share of the
prey. Very many runagate Jews, trading in
the reputation of their ancient prophets, came
forth as foretellers of things to come, and
disclosers of mysteries. And these too were of
all sortsfrom the grave and scholarly
persons who, like Bar-Jesus, made emperors
and proconsuls their prey; down to the gipsy
like Jewess who whispers in the ear of the
Roman lady that she will tell her fortune, for
that she being a high-priests daughter, Note:
She might make this claimbut no Jewess
could make that claim which, in true Roman
haughty ignorance of Judaism, the satirist
ascribes to her, of being high priestess of the
tree. Conscious of this, Dryden translates

A high-priests daughter she.

But Gifford

A priestess she,
An hierarch of the consecrated tree. is
versed in the arcana of the Jewish law, and
well able, therefore, to interpret the will of
heaven; for this she needs but to have her
hand crossed with money, however sparingly,
for the Jews, adds the satirist, Note:
Juvenal. Sat. vi. 540-546. to whom we owe
this latter description, will, for the smallest
coin, sell you what fortunes you desire.

For the confirmation of these positions, and of


the picture of the state of the heathen world
which Paul himself gives at the
commencement of his Epistle to the Romans,
a large collection of positive facts and
authentic declarations is given in an able and
instructive essay by a German theologian of
high name, Note: Professor Tholuck On the
Nature and Moral Influence of Heathenism,
especially among the Greeks and Romans,
viewed in the light of Christianity. Translated
by Dr. Emerson, in the American Biblical
Repository for 1852. from which we may
condense a few particulars.

Already, before the birth of Christ, the belief


in a future state appears to have been lost
among the cultivated Romans. Cato and
Caesar confessed in the senate, that the
belief in a future existence was fabulous, and
that beyond the grave neither joy nor sorrow
were to be expected. Caesar declaredUltra
nec curae neque gaudio locum esse. Cato
highly approved of these words; for he said
Caius Caesar has just spoken in this
assembly well and strikingly concerning life
and death, declaring those things to be false,
as I also think them, which are related of the
infernal world, that the wicked are separated
from the virtuous, and inhabit terrific,
loathsome, shocking uncultivated places.

A still more melancholy declaration of


despairing unbelief is given by the elder Pliny,
who, after scouting the idea of a providence
in human affairs, goes on thusStill, it is of
use in human life to believe that God takes
care of human things and that punishments,
though sometimes late (since God is so much
occupied in his vast cares, will never fail of
being inflicted on crimes; and that man is not
therefore the most nearly allied by birth to
the Deity, in order that he should be next to
the brutes in debasement. But it is the special
consolation of imperfect human nature, that
God cannot indeed do all things. For neither
can he call death to his own relief, should he
desire ita noble refuge which he has given
to man in the midst of so many evils; nor can
he endow man with immortality, etc.; by
which things the power of nature is doubtless
declared, and that is what we call God. Note:
Hist. Nat. Lib. ii. ch. 7.
It was impossible that the inferior multitude
should remain uninfected by this loosening of
all belief. Servius, in a note on Virgils Aeneid,
remarks, expressly, that unbelief is equally
spread among the high and the low. The
lines of Juvenal are well known:

Esse aliquos manes, et subterran


regna,
Et catum, et Stygio ranas in gurgite
nignas
Nee pueri credunt, nisi qui nondum
re lavantur. Note: Sat. ii. 149.
Thus rendered, or rather
paraphrased, by Gifford

That angry justice formed a


dreadful hell,
That ghosts in subterraneous
regions dwell,
That hateful Styx his sable current
rolls,
And Charon ferries oer unbodied
souls,
Are now as tales or idle fables
prized,
By children questioned, and by men
despised.

So Seneca says: No one is any longer so


much a child that he must be shown there is
no Cerberus nor Tartarus.

While now on the one hand the educated and


the uneducated suffered themselves to be
deceived by the infidelity of their times,
another and a larger portionand in some
measure the same portionof the people
threw themselves into the arms of the most
unbounded superstition, as had already been
done by the philosophers. The first effect of
this superstition was, that men were not
content with their own and the Grecian gods,
but brought to Rome the gods of all lands and
worshipped them. They gloomily felt the
incapacity of their own gods to satisfy; they
fancied they could supply the want by
increasing the number; and the more foreign
the deity, the more did their excited minds
promise themselves from it. To the unhappy
heathen, who were running, in the
disquietude of their hearts, now to the
heathen temple, now to the Jewish
synagogue, an affecting address was made by
Commodianus, a simple and unaffected
Christian of Africa: They must not, in the
disquietude of their hearts, seek for rest
there; the true and real peace of mind can be
imparted to them only through Christ.

Since the number of gods was in this manner


continually increasing, it was natural, too,
that the superstitious worship of them, and
the multitude of their priests, and temples,
and rites, should increase above all measure.
Thus in Lucian, Momus is made to say: Thou
Apollo, with thine oracles, art no longer alone
celebrated; but every stone and every alter
utter responses; every stone, at least, upon
which oil has been poured, and which is
crowned with a garland, and has beside it a
juggler, of which there are now so many.
The more abominable vice and licentiousness
became, on the one hand, the more did men
yield themselves up, on the other, to
superstition, in order to quiet conscience and
appease the gods. Indeed, why should we
wonder at the mass of superstition among the
common people, and in later ages, when such
man as Augustus, the Roman Emperor, could
dread to be alone in the night; when he was
afraid of thunder and lightning, like a child,
and carried about with him magical remedies
in order to avert these dangers; and when,
too, he was frightened, whenever he
happened in the morning, instead of his right
shoe, to put on his left shoe first. Note:
Suetonius, Vita Augusti. C. 78, 90, 91, 92.

Particularly pernicious under this state of


things was the influence of the enormous
multitude of soothsayers, interpreters of signs
and of lightning, astrologers, palmisters, and
necromancers. These all ministered to the
ungovernable passions of the populace, who
tormented by a thousand anxieties and cares
for the consequences of their own vices or the
wickedness of others, longed to penetrate the
darkness of futurity. In this form of
superstition, heathenism was particularly
distinguished. The Indians, Persians,
Egyptians, Gauls, and Germans, had their
soothsayers; and among the Greeks and
Romans this art had been carried to such an
extent, that a hundred different kinds of
divination are enumerated. The great kept
astrologers and soothsayers continually by
them in their palaces; and the case before us
is, therefore, very far from being a rare
instance of the practice.