International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
bar-je'-zus (Bariesous): "A certain sorcerer (Greek magos), a false prophet, a Jew" whom Paul and Silas found at Paphos in Cyprus in the train of Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul (Acts 13:6 ff). The proconsul was "a man of understanding" (literally, a prudent or sagacious man), of an inquiring mind, interested in the thought and magic of his times. This characteristic explains the presence of a magos among his staff and his desire to hear Barnabas and Saul. Bar-Jesus was the magician's Jewish name. Elymas is said to be the interpretation of his name (Acts 13:8). It is the Greek transliteration of an Aramaic or Arabic word equivalent to Greek magos. From Arabic `alama, "to know" is derived `alim, "a wise" or "learned man." In Koran, Sur note 106, Moses is called Sachir `alim, "wise magician." Elymas therefore means "sorcerer" (compare Simon "Magus").
The East was flooding the Roman Empire with its new and wonderful religious systems, which, culminating in neo-Platonism, were the great rivals of Christianity both in their cruder and in their more strictly religious forms. Superstition was extremely prevalent, and wonder-workers of all kinds, whether imposters or honest exponents of some new faith, found their task easy through the credulity of the public. Babylonia was the home of magic, for charms are found on the oldest tablets. "Magos" was originally applied to the priests of the Persians who overran Babylonia, but the title degenerated when it was assumed by baser persons for baser articles Juvenal (vi.562, etc.), Horace (Sat. i.2.1) and other Latin authors mention Chaldean astrologers and impostors, probably Babylonian Jews. Many of the Magians, however, were the scientists of their day, the heirs of the science of Babylon and the lore of Persia, and not merely pretenders or conjurers (see MAGIC). It may have been as the representative of some oriental system, a compound of "science" and religion, that Bar-Jesus was attached to the train of Sergius Paulus.
Both Sergius and Elymas had heard about the teaching of the apostles, and this aroused the curiosity of Sergius and the fear of Elymas. When the apostles came, obedient to the command of the proconsul, their doctrine visibly produced on him a considerable impression. Fearing lest his position of influence and gain would be taken by the new teachers, Elymas "withstood them, seeking to turn aside the proconsul from the faith" (Acts 13:8). Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, worked a wonder on the wonder-worker by striking him blind with his word, thus revealing to the proconsul that behind him was Divine power. Sergius Paulus believed, "being astonished at the teaching of the Lord" (Acts 13:12).
S. F. Hunter
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. "Definition for 'BAR-JESUS'". "International Standard Bible Encyclopedia". bible-history.com - ISBE
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