Pictures of a Dead, Eastern Orthodox Monk

In 2011, I interviewed the abbot of the Monastery of Archangel Michael in Cyprus to ask about his beliefs regarding Saint Barnabas. Prominently displayed on his office wall were photos of a smiling monk in a casket. My wife commented that the man had a pleasant look on his face. Delighted that we noticed, our host—a monk from Mt. Athos—explained that shortly after his friend died he got the beaming smile because of what he was experiencing. I could not help but think I had never seen pictures of smiling dead preachers on the office walls of pastors in the United States, although tortured depictions of a dead Jesus on a cross are plentiful.

After our interview of the monk ended, our translator further explained Eastern Orthodox beliefs about joy and suffering: “The more you approach Jesus, who is Love, the closer you come to the cross. The more you love, the more you suffer. When you see others suffering, if you love them, you also suffer. Yet suffering brings happiness. It is not logical, but it is true. Monks are happy people. People may prosper but not be happy. In society, the loneliest people are those in the crowds of the city, not those in the isolation of the monastery. Monks do not suffer from loneliness.” He said that we should not avoid suffering but rather embrace it, for the more we share in Christ’s sufferings the more like him we become. He added that this view fundamentally differs from the health and prosperity preaching of many T.V. evangelists in America. So very true.

Left to right: Me, the abbot of Archangel Michael Monastery, and Dafnis Panagides, our translator.

What got me so interested in Saint Barnabas?

While writing a textbook on the Apostle Paul, Apostle on the Edge (2009), I became increasingly aware that his mentor, Barnabas, was one of the most significant leaders of the early Christian movement. Two things intrigued me about Barnabas. First, very little scholarship exists on the man. Second, his identity has changed radically over the centuries. The New Testament depicts Barnabas as a man skilled in resolving ethnic conflicts in the early church; but today in Cyprus, the island of his birth, Greek Orthodox Cypriots view him as a warrior saint. How could his identity be so totally altered?

In 2011, I journeyed to Cyprus as a Senior Fulbright Fellow to conduct research on Barnabas. I did not know what I would discover, and I had no thesis that I was trying to prove. I set out to determine how, over the centuries of the Church, traditions about Barnabas morphed his identity from a bridge-building conflict negotiator to a bridge-burning nationalist. Slowly, I pieced together the evidence I gathered from two millennia of Christian history. But how would I tell the complicated story with all its twists and turns? I decided not to publish a technical monograph for scholars. The implications of the history of how church traditions slowly transformed Barnabas were too significant to be available to a small audience. I chose to write a lively account that any intelligent reader could enjoy. If you are interested in the intersection of religion and politics, are concerned about resolution of ethnic conflicts, and relish a good “Who done it?” you will enjoy the recently released, second edition of Creation of History: The Transformation of Barnabas from Peacemaker to Warrior Saint.