A patronymic is an identifying designation derived from the name of one's father or other male ancestor (e.g. Johnson = son of John). Corresponding to the Hebrew בֵּן (ben), the Aramaic בַּר (bar) is a patronymic prefix meaning “son of” (cf. Ezra 5:1, 2; 6:14; Dan. 3:25; 5:22; 7:13).1 With reference to one’s paternity or other distinctive features, this prefix helped to differentiate among those who bore the same name in ancient Aramaic-speaking communities. For example, the name “Jesus” is the English transliteration of the Greek Iēsous, which is equivalent to the Hebrew Yehoshuah and its abbreviated form Yeshua (“Joshua”). Seeing that this was a fairly common name among first-century Palestinian Jews,2 our Lord would have been known in his home community as bar Yosef or “son of Joseph” (cf. Luke 4:22; John 6:42).
Bar- as a Family Surname
Bartholomew is listed among the 12 apostles in Matt. 10:3; Mark 3:18; and Luke 6:14 but is unnamed in John. While Bartholomew is paired with Philip in the Synoptic Gospels, John mentions Philip in association with Nathanael (1:43-49). Even though Nathanael is identified in the company of the apostles (John 21:2) and among the eyewitnesses of the risen Lord (John 21:3-14), he is unnamed in the Synoptics. Since the name Bartholomew is actually an Aramaic patronymic (bar Tôlmai = “son of Tolmai”) and would have normally been added to a given name, it stands to reason that the apostle known as Bartholomew was actually Nathanael bar Tolmai.3
Two of the Lord’s original apostles shared the personal name Simon (Matt. 10:2, 4). To distinguish between them, Jesus not only gave one the nickname “Cephas” (Aramaic) or “Peter” (Greek) (Mark 3:16; John 1:42), he also used the patronymic bar Iōna (bar Jonah) in Matt. 16:17, meaning “son of Jonah.”4 The same designation would have also applied to Simon’s brother Andrew.
Near the end of his earthly ministry the Lord encountered a blind beggar outside of Jericho called Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46), an appellation meaning “son of Timaeus.” We don’t know what this man’s given name was, as he was apparently more commonly known among the residents of Jericho (and/or Mark’s readers) in relation to his father’s name.
Bar- as an Ironic Play on Words
Barabbas was the notorious criminal whose death sentence was repealed as the Lord Jesus took his place at Golgatha (Matt. 27:16-26; Mark 15:7-15; Luke 23:18; John 18:40). The name Barabbas is the Graecized form of the Aramaic bar abbâ, which is a combination of bar (“son of”) and abbâ (“father”), meaning “son of [the] father.” The irony is that Jesus was the legitimate Son of the heavenly Father (John 8:16-29), treated and executed as a criminal, whereas the infamous Barabbas was set free though he manifested a very different spiritual paternity (cf. John 8:44).5
Bar-Jesus is the patronymic surname of Elymas, a Jewish false prophet and sorcerer mentioned in Acts 13:6-8. He opposed the preaching of Barnabas and Paul in Paphos on the island of Cyprus. As noted above, the Greek Iēsous (“Jesus”) is equivalent to the Hebrew Yeshua (“Joshua”) and was a common name among the Jews at the time, apparently worn by Elymas’ father. For Paul, however, this name had special significance,6 and instead of using it in reference to this deceitful antagonist, the apostle seems to make a play on words by addressing the sorcerer as “son of the devil” (v. 10).
Bar- as a Nickname with Special Meaning
Barnabas is the nickname given by the apostles to Joseph (or Joses), a Levite-Jewish convert from Cyprus (Acts 4:36) and cousin of John Mark (Col. 4:10). This moniker is a combination of the Aramaic bar (“son of”) and naba (to “prophesy”). Since prophesying involved communicating “edification and exhortation and comfort to men” (1 Cor. 14:3), the Greek rendering of the name signified “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36).7
The designation Barsabbas is a patronymic description meaning “son of [the] sabbath,” perhaps indicative of the day of birth of the one to whom it was applied. In the Acts narrative two Christians shared this name, viz. Joseph Justus Barsabbas and Judas Barsabbas.
Joseph Justus Barsabbas was a devoted follower of Jesus throughout the Lord’s entire earthly ministry and was an eyewitness of the resurrected Christ (Acts 1:15-23). He was assembled with around 120 fellow-believers in Jerusalem a few days before Pentecost, and he was one of two disciples considered to replace Judas Iscariot as an apostle but not the one chosen.
Another follower of Jesus who wore this name was Judas Barsabbas. He was a leader in the Jerusalem church (Acts 15:22), a skilled writer (vv. 22-23),8 a prophet (v. 32), a teacher (vv. 27, 32), and an encourager (v. 32b). When the apostles and elders met in Jerusalem to discuss the circumcision controversy, reaching a consensus through the Holy Spirit’s guidance, the decision was put into writing, and it was Judas Barsabbas and Silas who penned the document and subsequently delivered it to Gentile Christians in Syria (Acts 15:22-32).
The name a person wears is important, functioning to describe, distinguish and identify. And there is no greater honor than to be called the children of God (1 John 3:1) by wearing the name that is above all names (Phil. 2:9).9 May we live in a manner that is worthy of the precious name of our Lord Jesus Christ!
--Kevin L. Moore
1 This Aramaic prefix is not part of the Hebrew names Barachel (Job 32:2), Barachiah (Zech. 1:1), Barak (Judg. 4:6), Bariah (1 Chron. 3:22), Barkos (Ezra 2:53), Baruch (Neh. 3:20; 11:5; Jer. 32:12), Barzillai (2 Sam. 17:27; 21:8; Ezra 2:61), Barachias/Berechiah (Matt. 23:35), or Barhumite (2 Sam. 23:31; cf. 1 Chron. 11:33).
2 Cf. Acts 13:6; Col. 4:11; Heb. 4:8; Josephus, War 6.5.3. This name has been found by Israeli archaeologists no less than 71 times in ancient burial caves (see Ed Pilkington and Rory McCarthy, “Is this really the last resting place of Jesus…?” The Guardian [27-02-2007], <Link>).
3 See “Bartholomew,” <Link>.
4 An alternative reading in John 1:42 and 21:15-17 is [huios] Iōannou (“son of John”) (cf. B. Metzger, Textual Commentary [2nd ed.] 172, 220). But remember that in Matt. 16:17 Jesus was originally speaking in Aramaic to fellow-Aramaic speakers, and Matthew was an Aramaic-speaking Jew writing to fellow-Aramaic-speaking Jews (see Matthew's Audience). In contrast, John was writing to Greek-speaking Gentiles (see John's Audience). Seeing that Aramaic expressions have been translated into Greek by these different authors in different settings for different audiences, which in turn have been copied by hand plethoric times and then translated again into English, the difference in spelling of a couple of letters is hardly significant. See “Simon Peter,” <Link>.
5 See “Barabbas,” <Link>.
6 See Acts 9:20, 22; 13:23, 33; 15:26; 16:18, 31; 17:3, 7, 18; 18:5; 19:4, 5, 13; 20:21, 24, 35; 21:13; 25:19; 28:23, 31; Rom. 1:1, 3, 6, 8; et al.
7 See also Acts 9:27; 11:22-30; 12:25; 13:1-2, 7, 43, 46, 50; 14:12-20; 15:2, 12, 22, 25, 35-39; 1 Cor. 9:6; Gal. 2:1, 9, 13; 4:10.
8 The term graphō in Acts 15:23 literally means to “write.” See “Biblical Authorship 4,” <Link>.
9 Acts 2:38; 4:2, 10-12, 17-18; 5:28, 40, 41, 42; 8:5, 12, 35; 9:15, 27, 29; 10:43; 11:26; 26:28; 1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2; 3:11; Gal. 3:26-27; Eph. 1:20-21; Phil. 1:18; Col. 3:4; Heb. 1:1-4; Col. 3:11, 17; 1 Pet. 4:16; James 2:7.
Image credit: Photo of a 1st-century ossuary inscribed in Aramaic “James, son of Joseph [bar Yosef], brother of Jesus,” <http://hhenry47.home.insightbb.com/JamesOssuary.JPG>.