This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Elymas-BarJesus named himself after Elam and Jesus

Here I reproduce some earlier thoughts in support of the work of Rick Strelan who argues that the false prophet, Elymas (Acts 13:6-11), took his name from Elam, the grandson of Noah, and that he became a Christian of sorts and named himself "BarJesus" accordingly.  See Strelan "Who Was Bar Jesus (Acts 13,6-12)?" Biblica 85 (2004) 65-81. Acts 13:6-11 reads:
"When they had gone though the whole island as far as Paphos, they met a certain magician, a Jewish false prophet, named Bar-Jesus. He was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man, who summoned Barnabas and Saul and wanted to hear the word of God. But Elymas the magician (for that is the translation of his name) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul away from the faith. But Saul, also known as Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, "You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now listen - the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind for a while, unable to see the sun. Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he went about groping for someone to lead him by the hand"
The name “Elymas”
Commentators have long been puzzled about how the name "Elymas" can be interpreted to mean "magician" in the passage above. However, Rick Strelan appears to have resolved the problem. In his paper he suggests that the magician had taken the name of Elam, the eldest son of Shem, the son of Noah, and that Elam was considered an archetypal magician. The name "Elymas" would then have signified "magician" and this would explain Acts 13:8. In support of his proposal Strelan quotes Josephus: "For Elymos left behind him the Elamites, the ancestors of the Persians" (Ant 1.6.4) and notes that the magoi were commonly associated with the Persians. There is also evidence, not mentioned by Strelan, that Shem was considered a magician. Firstly, in the Book of Jubilees a book of healing arts is given by Noah to his eldest son, Shem:
"And we explained to Noah all the medicines of their diseases, together with their seductions, how he might heal them with herbs of the earth. And Noah wrote down all things in a book as we instructed him concerning every kind of medicine. Thus the evil spirits were precluded from (hurting) the sons of Noah. And he gave all that he had written to Shem, his eldest son; for he loved him exceedingly above all his sons."
The Treatise of Shem is a Pseudepigraphic work, written in the name of Shem, probably in the first century BC. It is an astrological treatise and therefore shows that Shem was associated with astrology.

To sum up: Noah's eldest son was Shem, whose eldest son was Elam, whose name was written "Elymos" by Josephus in the first century. The evidence suggests that there was a tradition that the magical arts of astrology and perhaps healing passed down the Noah-Shem-Elam line. Therefore, by accepting the name "Elymas", Bar-Jesus was identifying himself as a magician in an ancient Jewish tradition.

The name "Bar-Jesus"
Strelan argues that Elymas was, like Simon Magus, a follower of Jesus, of sorts. He suggests that Elymas took the name "Bar-Jesus" because he considered himself to be a disciple of Jesus. Strelan cites several cases where the term "Bar" or "Son of" is used to mean "disciple of". While "Jesus" was a common name for Jews, Strelan is probably right. Someone who had named himself after Elam and had then started to perform his magic in the name of Jesus, might well have taken the name "Son of Jesus" to reflect the new source of his power or inspiration. Also, Paul's accusation, "You son of the Devil" seems to be a reference to the presumptuous name "BarJesus". Paul seems to be saying here, "you are not a son of Jesus but a son of the Devil". In a future post I hope to argue that Luke here is contrasting Saul's humble name "Paul", meaning "small", with the magician's arrogant self-naming.

Strelan goes on to suggest that Luke intended to suggest that the name "Bar-Jesus somehow represented the name "Elymas". This suggestion seems entirely unnecessary, given Strelan's own convincing explanation of the name "Elymas".

It is clear that "Elymas" was not his birth name. The name "Bar-Jesus", on any hypothesis, cannot have been his only name in infancy, so he must have had another name. Josephus describes a Jewish magician from Cyprus:
"At the time when Felix was procurator of Judaea, he beheld her; and, inasmuch as she surpassed all other women in beauty, he conceived a passion for the lady. He sent to her one of his friends, a Cyprian Jew named Atomus, who pretended to be a magician, in an effort to persuade her to leave her husband and to marry Felix." (Josephus Ant.20.142)
Both Atomus and Elymas were Jewish magicians from Cyprus who associated with high Roman officials. Felix was procurator from A.D. 52-59 so Atomus incident was only about a decade later than the Elymas incident. It is therefore chronologically possible that they were one and the same person. If, as seems likely, Elymas was employed by Sergius Paulus, he might well have lost his job after the encounter with Paul. If his other name, Bar-Jesus, indicates that he had been in contact with the Jesus movement, he may have had Judean connections. Thus it would not be surprising if Elymas left the employment of Sergius Paulus and attached himself to Felix in Judea.

The similarity in sound between "Atomus" and "Elymas" makes the identification more likely. The western text of Acts has "Etoimos", which may be a form of the name "Atomus". There are many examples of cases where Jews were given a new name, in part, because of its phonetic resemblance to the original name (Baucham, Gospel Women 182-4, lists Silvanus-Silas, Joseph-Justus-Barsabbas, Jesus-Justus, Saul-Paul, Symeon-Simon, Alkimos-Jakim/Eliakim, Aster-Esther, Cleopas-Clopas, Jason-Jesus, Mnason/Mnaseas-Manasseh, Mousaios-Moses, Annia-Hannah, Annianus-Hanina/Hananiah, Julius/Julanus-Judah, Lea-Leah, Maria-Mary, Rufus-Reuben and I would add BarKosiba/BarKokhba/BarKoziba, Titus-Timothy and Mary-Magdalene).


  1. There is definitely something "fishy" about the name Simon! Like the story of Jonah, Simon nets a whale of a catch numbering 153. Perhaps he is a Magus? Perhaps Simon is a prophet, a sorcerer with one or two fictitious names, false names that are like a millstone or an anchor that keeps him and people of "little" faith grounded firm and deep in the Saviour's love? When the mariners hoist the anchor and bring it up into the boat and the wind picks up...the boat puts out to sea and escape many Pauline perils with the faithful "little" mother of the faith at the helm.

    1. There is an incident where Simon Peter actually has a confrontation with Simon of Samaria, the sorcerer, in Acts 8:9.

    2. You need to understand what “alive from the dead” truly means. Seek the Word of God, (not man) and get true enlightenment. Seek as if for hidden treasure and you will find.

  2. Christianity is the religion of a false prophet called Paul.

    The only religion on earth that has a legitimate claim as the religion practiced and taught by Jesus (as) is Islam.

    God is ONE, Paul never knew Jesus (as) and no matter who tries to debate this with the Bible even, they will lose the debate, as there is myriad amounts of proof in the New Testament that the Apostles did not accept Paul and any intelligent mind who analyzes the New Testament is going to come to the same conclusion, as the Ebionites and their coreligionists (Epiphanius, Iranaeus) the Nazarenes, rejected Paul, the innovated by pagans Trinity or that Jesus (as) was a human sacrifice for their sins, an odious notion not at all supported by the law of the OT that declares each man responsible for his own sins, or the New Testament which teaches that obedience to the Law after repentance is the proper way to seek remission of sins.

    Dying for my sins is not something anyone can do. Jesus did not die, he ascended to Heaven, alive, in the flesh, and therefore there was no sacrifice. Because nobody died.

  3. Every knee shall bow. Every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord!