EARLY CHRISTIANITY: Barnabas the Anonymous Teacher

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The world is generally aware of only two people from ancient times with the name of Barnabas. First, there was the friend and traveling companion of Paul in the first century and a cousin of Mark the Gospel writer. The other was an unknown Alexandrian Jew in the times of Trajan and Hadrian of the second-century C.E.[1] who wrote a twenty-one chapter epistle. The reason for localizing the epistle’s origins to Alexandria is that up to the fourth century only the Alexandrian Christians were acquainted with the epistle, and it attained in their church the honor of being publicly read.[2]

The Church of Rome ascribed the epistle to the former Barnabas, friend and companion of the Apostle Paul, because they believed that he was the author of our biblical book Hebrews, and the epistle “has his style”, so they believed.[3] However, even though our New Testament Barnabas did not write the epistle ascribed to his name, the letter has become known as the Epistle of Barnabas. The writer’s name may, or may not have been Barnabas, but because the epistle that he wrote has become known as the “Epistle of Barnabas”, this anonymous teacher has been generally given the name “Barnabas” down through the ages, even though that may not have been the author’s real name. It will be observed in his “Epistle” that he nowhere claims to be the apostle Barnabas; indeed, his language is such as to suggest that he was wholly unconnected with the apostles.[4]

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

The Epistle of Barnabas is sometimes found in the canonical listing of New Testament books. Origen quotes it as Scripture in his “Commentary on Romans” (1.18), but apostolic fathers, Eusebius and Jerome regarded the letter as non-canonical.  Subsequent history demonstrated that it ultimately was not considered as part of the New Testament Scriptures. The Codex Sinaiticus[5], however, included the epistle among what was considered the canonical books at that time. Today, however, scholars commonly consider the epistle a pseudepigrapha[6] work, composed by a Gentile Christian of Alexandria rather than by the Barnabas mentioned in the New Testament.[7] The manner in which Clement of Alexandria refers to the letter gives confirmation to the belief that by about the year 200 C.E., even in Alexandria, not everyone regarded the Epistle of Barnabas as an inspired writing.[8]

Early Life and Ministry

Little is known of this writer of the second century. Historians are not even sure of his real name. It appears he was basically a layman because of the number of Scriptural errors in his writings, and it is believed he was an Alexandrian Jew in the times of Trajan and Hadrian[9] of the second century.[10] We know nothing certain of the region where the author lived, or where his first readers were to be found. The epistle does not give enough indications to permit confident identification of either the teacher’s location or the region to which he writes. His thought, hermeneutical methods, and style have many parallels throughout the known Jewish and Christian worlds. Most scholars have located the work’s origin in the area of Alexandria, because it has many affinities with Alexandrian Jewish and Christian thought and because its first witnesses are Alexandrian. Recently, Prigent (Prigent and Kraft 1971: 20-24), Wengst (1971: 114-18), and Scorza Barcellona (1975: 62-65) have suggested other origins based on affinities in Palestine, Syria, and Asia Minor. The place of origin must remain an open question, although the Greek-speaking Eastern Mediterranean appears most probable.[11]

The intention of the writer, as he himself states in the first chapter of his epistle, was “to perfect the knowledge” of those to whom he wrote. Although the work is not gnostic[12] in a theological sense, the author, who considers himself to be a teacher to the unidentified audience to which he writes (see e.g. 9.9), intends to impart to his readers the perfect gnosis (special knowledge), that they may perceive that the Christians, as opposed to the Jews, are God’s only true covenant people.[13]

Hilgenfeld, who has devoted much attention to this epistle, holds that “it was written toward the close of the first century at the Gentile Christian School of Alexandria, with the view of winning back, or guarding from a Judaic form of Christianity, those Christians belonging to the same class as himself.”[14] The raison d’etre of the document appears therefore, to be the author’s fear that some members of this group are being swayed by teachings, which emphasize the lasting quality of the Jewish Covenant with God. Much of the document, therefore, is taken up with dismantling this idea.[15] Barnabas is thus an early example of an early Christian writer trying to distance Christians from Judaism. Its existence is a window into the kinds of teachings that might have been circulating amongst Christians of the second century.

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In the epistle, there is a dividing into them and us: us being the Christians and them being Jews, us being in, them being out. Barnabas is unambiguous about the fate of the Covenant at Sinai and sees no room for two competing covenants. There is one covenant, and it belongs to the Christians. Moreover, the Temple and all the commandments are not to be interpreted literally. On every other point of exegesis the worst that could be inferred about the Jewish understanding of the Covenant or of Jewish ritual and practices is that they are misguided or misinterpreted. There are no accusations of deicide (death of a god), the Law is not condemned as inherently evil or imposed on the Jewish people to curb idolatry. Although it is idolatry that causes the covenant to be destroyed, Barnabas makes no effort to extend the accusation beyond Sinai. Barnabas is far more concerned with combating the idea of dual covenants (an idea unlikely to have been generated from within Jewish circles).[16]

Historical Setting

The date, object, and intended reader of the epistle can only be doubtfully inferred from some statements that it contains. It was clearly written after the destruction of Jerusalem, since reference is made to that event, but how long after is a matter of much dispute. In chapter 16, verses 3 & 4, the Epistle reads:

Furthermore he says again, ‘Behold, those who tore down this temple will themselves build it.’ It is happening. For because of their fighting it was torn down by the enemies. And now the very servants of the enemies will themselves rebuild it.

This passage clearly places the date of the epistle after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. However, it also places it before the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132 C.E., after which there could have been no hope that the Romans would help to rebuild the temple. The document must come from the period between the two revolts.[17] The rebuilding referred to may have reference to the building in Hadrian’s time (117-138 C.E.) of a pagan temple on the site of the destroyed Herod’s temple, and the date of writing is probably therefore, about 130-132 C.E.[18]

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Until 1843, eight manuscripts of the Epistle of Barnabas were known to be in Western libraries. These manuscripts were all derived from a common source, and no one of them contained chapters 1-5, & 7a. Since then two complete manuscripts of the texts have been discovered that are independent of each other and of the preceding group of texts, namely: the famous Codex Sinaiticus of the Bible (fourth century), in which the Epistle of Barnabas and “The Pastor” follow the books of the New Testament, and the Hierosolymitanus Codex, which includes the Didache.[19]

The epistle is found in the following authorities:

(1) The Codex Sinaiticus, an uncial of the fourth century, now at St. Petersburg, and published in photographic facsimile by the Clarendon Press.

(2) The 11th century Greek MS Codex Hierosolymitanus, found by Philotheos Byrennios[20] in 1873 in Constantinople, but now located in the library of the monastery of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

(3) In eight defective MSS., in which owing to some accident the ninth chapter of the epistle of Polycarp is continued without a break by the fifth chapter of Barnabas. These MSS. are clearly descended from a common archetype, copied from a MS. in which Barnabas followed Polycarp, but the pages containing the end of the latter and beginning of the former were lost, and a copyist who did not observe this merged the one into the other.

(4) A Latin version, extant in a single MS. at St. Petersburg, in which the text stops at the end of chap. xvii. It thus omits the “Two Ways” teaching[21], and the question (perhaps insoluble) arises whether the Latin has omitted it, or the Greek interpolated it. At present, the general opinion is in favour of the former view.

The epistle either is a general treatise, or was intended for some community in which Alexandrian ideas prevailed, though it is not possible to define either its destination, or the locality from which it was written with any greater accuracy. Its main object is to warn Christians against a Judaistic acceptance of the Old Testament, and the writer carries a symbolic exegesis as far as did Philo; indeed, he goes farther and apparently denies any literal significance at all to the commands of the Moral Law. The literal exegesis of the ceremonial law is to him a device of an evil angel who deceived the Jews.[22] He interpreted the Mosaic Law as if it were sheer allegory.

AN ENCOURAGING THOUGHT_01

Writings

There are two apocryphal works connected with this Alexandrian Jew, the Epistle of Barnabas and the Acts of Barnabas, however, further research has revealed that the latter work was written post fourth century C.E. by another writer, and which will not be considered further herein. Although Clement of Alexandria thought, Barnabas of the NT had written the Epistle of Barnabas, Kollmann suggests this document was produced in the second century, after Barnabas had died (Kollmann, Barnabas, 54).[23]

Kitto’s “Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge” (article Barnabas) says of the writer of this epistle:

He makes unauthorized additions to various parts of the Jewish Cultus; his views of the Old Economy are confused and erroneous; and he adopts a mode of interpretation countenanced by none of the inspired writers, and to the last degree puerile and absurd. The inference is unavoidable, that Barnabas, ‘the son of prophecy,’ ‘the man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith,’ was not the author of this epistle.

From a literary point of view, the Epistle of Barnabas has no merit. The style is tedious, poor in expression, deficient in clearness, elegance, and accuracy. The author’s logic is weak, and his matter is not under his control; from this fact arise numerous digressions.[24] On perusing the epistle, the reader will be afforded an opportunity to judge this matter for himself. An extensive amount of the text of Barnabas is made up of quotations, largely from the LXX of Isaiah, but also from other canonical and non-canonical books. 

On perusing the Epistle, the reader will … will consider the spirit and tone of the writing, as so decidedly opposed to all respect for Judaism—the numerous inaccuracies which it contains with respect to Mosaic enactments and observances—the absurd and trifling interpretations of Scripture which it suggests—and the many silly vaunts of superior knowledge in which its writer indulges.[25]

It is to be observed that this writer sometimes speaks as a Gentile, a fact which some have found it difficult to account for, on the supposition that he was a Hebrew, if not a Levite as well. But, so also did Paul sometimes speaks as a Roman, and sometimes as a Jew; and, owing to the mixed character of the early Church, he writes to the Romans (4:1) as if they were all Israelites, and again to the same Church (Rom. 11:13) as if they were all Gentiles. So this writer sometimes identifies himself with Jewish thought as a son of Abraham, and again speaks from the Christian position as if he were a Gentile, thus identifying himself with the catholicity of the Church.[26]

Young Christians

Teachings

The Epistle of Barnabas is significant because it is one of the earliest attempts on the part of the Christian Community, outside of the New Testament, to reconcile itself with the Jewish Scriptures. This epistle is an exploration of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism at a time when the antagonism between the two is obviously still quite high. Its solution is to read everything in the Old Testament in the light of Jesus’ life and teachings. Therefore, only the Christian understands the true meaning of the Scriptures [according to ch.10.12].  The sacrifice of Isaac, the goat that was led into the desert, Moses with his arms extended in the shape of the cross, and the serpent raised up in the desert are all figures, or “types” of Jesus Christ and his work of salvation. While all of these things are historically true, the deeper significance is what they teach us about Jesus and how they pointed ahead to him. In addition, they are an affirmation of the pre-existence of Christ and his role in creation [5.5].

It appears that the motive behind the writing of the epistle was the author’s fear that some Christian members were being swayed by teachings, which emphasize the lasting quality of the Jewish Covenant with God. Much of the document, therefore, is taken up with dismantling this idea and this so-called Barnabas does this by relating the story of the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai (Exod. 24 ff). The point of this is to discover “whether he has given it [to the Jews]”(14.1). The author of the epistle then gives his own interpretation of the Sinai event. The Jews never received the Covenant because when Moses descended from Sinai, he found them worshiping a golden calf. He threw down the tablets and, for the writer of Barnabas, the Covenant was forever broken (14.4). It is implied that the covenant then becomes hidden in Jesus and later given to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ. This is the reason he came to earth in the first place (14.5). There is no Christian precedent for making the claim that the Jewish people ever received the Covenant at Sinai. (It is in direct contradiction to the Biblical account in Exodus 34.10.) The author’s radical stance on the Covenant may indicate that there were Christians who thought quite the opposite. It is likely that so-called Barnabas epistle was attempting to redress any claims that Jews still held a covenant with God, or even that there might be two Covenants – one for Jews and one for Gentiles. Barnabas draws a single line that does not allow for dual covenants. The teaching of the Two Ways[27] (18-21) reinforces this dichotomy but only in a general way.[28]

Mosaic Authorship HOW RELIABLE ARE THE GOSPELS

According to many scholars, the writer of the epistle teaches that it was never intended that the precepts of the Moral Law should be observed in their literal sense, that the Jews never had a covenant with God, and that circumcision was the work of the Devil, etc. Thus, he represents a unique point of view in the struggle against Judaism. It might be said more exactly that he condemned Jewish worship in its entirety because in his opinion, the Jews did not know how to rise to the spiritual and typical meaning, which God had in view when giving them the Law. It is this purely materialistic observance of the ceremonial ordinances, of which the literal fulfilment was insufficient, that the author holds to be the work of the Devil, and, according to him, the Jews never received the divine Covenant because they never understood its nature (ch. vii, 3, 11, ix, 7; x, 10; xiv).[29]

The epistle reinterprets many of the laws of the Torah in an allegorical[30] manner. For example, the prohibition on eating pork is not to be taken literally, but rather forbids the people to live like swine, who supposedly grunt when hungry but are silent when full: likewise, the people are not to pray to God when they are in need but ignore him when they are satisfied. Similarly, the prohibition on eating rabbit means that the people are not to behave in a promiscuous manner, and the prohibition on eating weasel is actually to be interpreted as a prohibition of oral sex, based on the mistaken belief that weasels copulate via the mouth.[31]

From a Sabbath perspective, this epistle is important for two reasons: (1) It contains the first explicit references to the observance of Sunday as the “eighth day.” (2) It reveals the social and political factors that contributed to the devaluation of the Sabbath and the adoption of Sunday worship by many early-century Christians. Consequently, Sunday worshippers to support their choice of worship day often quote the relevant portions of this epistle.  In his attempt to defend the church from the influence of important Jewish institutions, Barnabas sets about emptying the Sabbath of all its validity for the present age. The great lengths to which he goes to repudiate the Sabbath expressly shows the continued influence the Sabbath had in Christianity at Alexandria during the time of his writing. This fact was somewhat problematical for those claiming that Christ and/or the Apostles issued direct commands to stop seventh-day Sabbath observance and start Sunday keeping. History shows clearly that most Christians kept the seventh-day Sabbath even as late as the fifth century C.E.[32]

Christian Publishing House is not in agreement with this writer. Christians are not under any obligation to keep a weekly Sabbath day. (1) The Sabbath observance was a sign between God and Israel (EX 31:16-17) (2) Christ was the end of the Law. (Rom 10:4; see also Gal 4:9-11; Eph. 2:13-16) (3) If you profaned the Sabbath, you were to be stoned to death. If the Sabbath is to be obeyed, this would still be in effect. (Col. 2:13-16; see also Ex 31:14 and Num. 15:32-35) (4) When the New Testament writers say the Mosaic Law was done away with, it is a reference also to the Ten Commandments, but not the principles. Many of the moral principles were restated in the New Testament. (Rom 7:6-7; 2 Cor. 3:7-11) (5) Doing away with the Mosaic Law, which includes the Ten Commandments, does not take away of all moral restraint? (Heb. 8:10; Rom 6:15-17; Gal 5:18-21) (6) Actually, in every seventh year, the Jews were to take the entire seventh year off from work. You do not hear the Christians who argue for the Sabbath, arguing this obligation. (Deut. 15:1, 2, 12; compare Deut. 14:28.)

THE CREATION DAYS OF GENESIS gift of prophecy

The final four chapters of the epistle spell out the writer’s teaching concerning the “Two Ways”, although the teaching does rate a mention in the earlier chapters (1-17). (We also find these at the beginning of the Didache, which may point to a common source for this teaching). There is the Way of Light and the Way of Darkness. The two ways are incompatible with each other and there can be no association between them. Light-giving angels guard one, the other by the angels of Satan. Those who follow the Way of Light will refrain from any sexual immorality, pride, lying, hatred or grudges. There is a specific prohibition against abortion and infanticide (19.5), and a strong admonition to discipline one’s children. It also teaches respect for slaves and counsels those of the light to have a generous spirit. The Way of Darkness leads to eternal death and punishment because it is filled with all the things that destroy souls: “idolatry, audacity, exaltation of power, hypocrisy, duplicity, adultery, murder, robbery, arrogance, transgression, deceit, malice stubbornness, sorcery, magic art, greed, lack of fear of God” (20.1). The Epistle leaves no doubt that this is no dualistic battle between two equal powers. The Light always overcomes the darkness (John 1:5).[33]

DEFENDING OLD TESTAMENT AUTHORSHIP Agabus Cover BIBLICAL CRITICISM

Conclusion

The epistle contains numerous Scriptural errors and should therefore not be considered as inspired. It was never referred to by any of the New Testament writers (if written early [70-98 C.E.] like some have suggested), as Scripture, and it was not included in the New Testament canon by the majority of apostolic fathers.

Even though the Epistle of Barnabas is clearly not inspired, it does contain some interesting concepts. For instance, the author speaks out against abortion. It says in chapter 19, verse 5: “thou shalt not kill a child by abortion, neither shalt thou destroy it after it is born…”

The famous essay on “Snakes in Ireland” consisted of but three words, namely, “There are none.” In like manner, so might we may dispose of the so-called “Epistle of Barnabas,” for there is no such thing. In support of this statement, the following testimony is offered:

An epistle has come down to us bearing the name of Barnabas, but clearly not written by him … The writer evidently was unacquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures, and has committed the blunder, among many others, of supposing that Abraham was familiar with the Greek alphabet some centuries before it existed.[34]

By Bruce Prince

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[1] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Roberts & Donaldson, Vol.1

[2] The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 11, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02299a.htm

[3] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.vi.i.html

[4] “The Apostolic Fathers”, J.B. Lightfoot p240

[5] “Codex Sinaiticus” literally means “the Sinai book” – a Greek hand-written document dating from the fourth century and discovered by students in a Greek Orthodox Monastery in the 19th century. Apart from the Epistle of Barnabas, it contains all the NT books as we have them today, but in a slightly different order, as well as all books of the OT.

[6] Pseudepigrapha were anonymous or pseudonymous writings professing to be biblical, but not included in any biblical canon

[7] Myers, A. C. (1987). The Eerdmans Bible dictionary (126). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[8] Catholic Encyclopedia 1907

[9] Roman Emperors in the second century.

[10] Ante-Nicene Fathers, Roberts & Donaldson, Vol.1

[11] Jay Curry (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, v. 1, pp. 613-614)

[12] Gnosticism relates to special mystical knowledge, especially knowledge of so-called spiritual truths of deep things unknown to everyday Christians.

[13] Kraft, Robert A., Barnabas and the Didache: Volume 3 of The Apostolic Fathers: A New Translation and Commentary, edited by Robert Grant. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965

[14] “The Ante-Nicene Fathers”, Roberts & Donaldson, Vol 1, Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company 1885. Introductory Note to the Epistle of Barnabas.

[15] Ecole Initiative – an attempt to create a hypertext encyclopedia of early Christian church history on the Web.

[16] Edwards, Mark (1995): “Ignatius, Judaism, and Judaizing” Eranos 93, 69-77

[17] “The Ante-Nicene Fathers”, Roberts & Donaldson, Vol 1, Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company 1885.

[18] However, it should be noted that the following Bible scholars have dated the epistle as follows. J. A. T. Robinson and J. B. Lightfoot dates it to the time of Emperor Vespasian (70-79 C.E.); P. Richardson and M. B. Shukster offer the time of Emperor Nero as the date of writing (96-98 C.E.); L. W. Barnard suggest the early part of Emperor Hadrian’s reign (117-138 C.E.).

[19] Catholic Encyclopedia 1907

[20] A Greek Orthodox metropolitan of Nicomedia, Constantinople.

[21] For a description of the “two ways” teaching, see under chapter heading, “Teachings”.

[22] Kirsopp Lake in The Apostolic Fathers (published London 1912), v. I, pp. 337-339.

[23] Tresham, A. K. (2012). Barnabas. In J. D. Barry & L. Wentz (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary (J. D. Barry & L. Wentz, Ed.). Bellingham, WA

[24] Catholic Encyclopaedia 1907

[25] “Introductory Note to the Epistle of Barnabas”, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume I: The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, 134 (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885).

[26] “The Ante-Nicene Fathers”, Roberts & Donaldson, Vol 1, Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company 1885.

[27] Regarding the “Two-Ways” teaching, see later under sub-heading, “Teachings”.

[28] Ecole Initiative – an attempt to create a hypertext encyclopedia of early Christian church history on the Web.

[29] The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 11, 2013 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02299a.htm

[30] Allegory is an interpretive approach to Scripture that tries to find a hidden meaning when the literal meaning seems to provide little enlightenment.

[31] Ehrman, Bart D. (2005). Lost Christianities: the battles for scripture and the faiths we never knew. Oxford University Press. p. 146. ISBN 0-19-518249-9.

[32] Christian Publishing House is not in agreement with this writer. Christians are not under any obligation to keep a weekly Sabbath day. (1) The Sabbath observance was a sign between God and Israel (EX 31:16-17) (2) Christ was the end of the Law. (Rom 10:4; see also Gal 4:9-11; Eph. 2:13-16) (3) If you profaned the Sabbath, you were to be stoned to death. If the Sabbath is to be obeyed, this would still be in effect. (Col. 2:13-16; see also Ex 31:14 and Num. 15:32-35) (4) When the New Testament writers say the Mosaic Law was done away with, it is a reference also to the Ten Commandments, but not the principles. Many of the moral principles were restated in the New Testament. (Rom 7:6-7; 2 Cor. 3:7-11) (5) Doing away with the Mosaic Law, which includes the Ten Commandments, does not taking away of all moral restraint? (Heb. 8:10; Rom 6:15-17; Gal 5:18-21) (6) Actually on every seventh year, the Jews were to take the entire seventh year off from work. You do not hear the Christians who argue for the Sabbath, arguing this obligation. (Deut. 15:1, 2, 12; compare Deut. 14:28.)

[33]  2011 American Bible Society, All Rights Reserved. 1865 Broadway, New York, NY 10023-7505

[34] McClintock and Strong’s Encyclopaedia, art. Barnabas, Epistle of.

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