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Barnabas, Epistle of

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

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1. Object.-The chief object of the author of this Epistle was to impart to his readers a knowledge of what pertains to salvation that they might be saved in the Day of Jesus Christ (ii. 10, iv. 1, 9). The two lessons he impresses upon them are: (1) that the literal observance of the Mosaic Law is useless for salvation; (2) the necessity and duty of a moral life. This is the letter of a true Christian pastor of much moral and spiritual earnestness; he is deeply concerned for the salvation of his flock and desirous of imparting to them the best that he has.

2. Moral interest.-It is only right to emphasize our author’s moral and spiritual aims because a large part of what he says, consisting of allegorical interpretations of the Mosaic Law, appears to modern minds strangely unreal and fantastic. But if his letter abounds in allegory, it is only because he is deeply impressed with the idea that the Law, if literally observed, will make shipwreck of men’s salvation (iii. 6). His earnest advice is: ‘Let us flee from all vanity, let us entirely hate the works of the evil way’ (iv. 10; cf. 9). In his closing chapters (xix-xxi.) he forsakes the allegorical method entirely, and devotes himself to a setting forth of ‘the two ways,’ the way of light and the way of darkness. The duties of loving, fearing, praising, and obeying God are named first. Then follows a series of injunctions, some negative and some positive in form, concerned chiefly with one’s relations to others. A man’s neighbour must be loved more than his own soul. The way of the ‘Black One’ is set forth in the form of a catalogue of vices and evil actions. Only two Commandments are quoted from the Decalogue-the third and the seventh. There is no direct appeal to either the teaching or the example of our Lord.

3. Attitude towards Judaism.-The main interest which the Epistle has for us to-day lies in the light which it throws upon the relations between Judaism and the Church. In order to appreciate the position of this Epistle in early Christian literature, it is necessary to make a brief review of the transition from Judaism to Christianity. Christianity did not come into the world at a point where there was a religious vacuum. It was founded by One who claimed to be the Anointed One of a definite national religion, which had existed for many centuries. He and His apostles believed in the Jewish religion, as the only true religion, used the Jewish Scriptures as the very word of God, and observed the national forms of worship as the Divinely-appointed mode of serving God. How then did His followers ever come to abandon the Law? Did they at any point make a complete break with all that was Jewish and begin afresh on an entirely new basis? By no means; there was no break, but merely a reorganization. The followers of Jesus believed that He, as Messiah, had authority from God to institute a new Covenant between God and His people Israel, and that He actually did so when He offered Himself on the cross as a sacrifice for sin. The logical consequences of this belief were not perceived all at once, but were bound to come to light as time went on.

(1) If the death of Jesus is sufficient to obtain salvation, the observance of the Law cannot be essential any longer. Hence, though believing Jews may continue to observe the Law if they will, there is not sufficient ground for compelling Gentiles who turn to God and believe on Jesus to do so also. This recognition of the Gentiles is the first step in the process, and is the position reached at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). The next step was to admit that it was not necessary for believing Jews to observe the Law, when such observance caused them to separate from their Gentile brethren. This step was being taken during the lifetime of St. Paul (Galatians 2:14 ff., 1 Corinthians 9:21). The last step was to condemn all observance of the Law, whether by Jewish or by Gentile believers.

This last step is reflected in the pages of our Epistle. There is, however, this peculiarity about its position: the main stream of Christian thought believed that the Mosaic Law had been given by God to the Jews to be literally fulfilled. Our author, however, does not believe that the Law ever was intended to be taken literally; he says it was uttered in a spiritual sense which the Jews did not understand (x. 9). This error of the Jews was the work of an evil angel (ix. 4; cf. viii. 7); the true spiritual interpretation is known to Christians because God circumcised their ears (ix. 4). This spiritual interpretation of the Law is nothing more or less than a series of allegories. The scapegoat of the Day of Atonement is the type of Jesus who was to suffer (ch. vii). The prescription that certain animals must not be eaten is explained as meaning that one must have no dealings with certain kinds of evil persons (ch. x). If Abraham is said to have circumcised 318 men, the real meaning is Jesus and the Cross, because ‘in the number 18, I stands for ten, H for eight. Here thou hast Jesus (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ). And because the cross in the T was to have grace, he saith also three hundred. So be revealeth Jesus in the two letters and in the remaining one the Cross’ (ix. 8; cf. his treatment of the Red Heifer of Numbers 19 in ch. viii).

This position is supported by citing the prophetic condemnation of the idea that sacrifice and ritual can be made a substitute for a moral life (chs. 2 and 3). In dealing with circumcision, our author seizes on those passages which speak of a circumcision of the heart (Jeremiah 4:4, Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 9:26), and argues that the Jewish circumcision ‘is abolished, for he hath said that a circumcision not of the flesh should be practised’ (9:4). The six days of creation are in reality 6000 years; hence the true Sabbath cannot be observed until the coming of the Son of God (ch. 15). Similarly the building of a material Temple was a mistake; the true Temple is a spiritual Temple-the hearts of those with whom God dwells (ch. 16); thus all that is outwardly distinctive of the Jewish religion is interpreted in a spiritual sense: distinctions of clean and unclean, circumcision, the Sabbath and the Temple.

(2) Another logical consequence of belief in Jesus as Messiah will further illustrate the mind of our writer. If the Messiah has indeed come in the person of Jesus, then the national religion of the Jews is not destroyed but proved to be the true service of the Living God, and its claim that it had received a direct Divine revelation is not exploded but vindicated by God Himself. Every one who believed in Jesus, believed that He came in fulfilment of promises made by God to the Jewish fathers; hence a Christian believer could not but regard the ancient Jewish Scriptures as the record of a unique revelation and treat them as the very word of God. This, too, is the position of our author; for, though he regards the literal observance of the Law as having been from the very first a fatal mistake, yet all his proofs of this are drawn from the OT itself and from what he believes to be its true exegesis. ‘The Lord has made known to us by His prophets, things past and present.’ The words of Scripture he constantly quotes as words spoken from the mouth of God (ii. 4, 5, 7, iii. 1, iv. 8, v. 5, 12, etc.; cf. iv. 7, 11, v. 4, etc). Moreover, he uses the Scriptures to explain the mystery of the suffering of the Son of God. ‘How did He endure to suffer at the hand of men? Understand ye. The Prophets receiving grace from Him, prophesied concerning Him’ (v. 5, 6, 13, 14; cf. vi. 6, 7, 10, 11). The OT was his only source of authority in religion; ho does not appeal to any Christian writing, or even to the words of Jesus; he feels he has fully proved his point if he can show that his doctrine is grounded in the Jewish Scriptures.

(3) If Jesus was the Messiah, He was clothed with full authority to mould the national religious life according to the will of God. Those who refused to believe and obey Him refused to obey and believe God, and by this act of disobedience cut themselves off from the Covenant and the mercies of God, On the other hand, those who did believe God and were obedient to His Messiah, became the true people of God, the New Israel, the present possessors of all the privileges that once belonged to the Jewish nation, and the recipients of all the Messianic blessings. If the purpose of God in creating the world and in calling Abraham had been fulfilled in Jesus, then it was not for the sake of unbelieving Jews but for the sake of the believers in the Messiah that the world had been created and Abraham called. They are the new People and yet the old, for they have been latent in God’s intention since the Creation. Thus the Christians denied to the Jews any share whatever in the glorious heritage of the Jewish nation, and claimed it entirely for themselves.

This position throws light upon the mind of our writer. He is sure that the patriarchs from Abraham to Moses stood in a special relation to God and received special promises from Him (v. 7, v. 7, xiv. 1). But, whereas St. Paul would say that the physical descendants of Abraham were not cut off from this special relationship until they out themselves off when they refused to believe in Jesus (Romans 11), our author thinks that they were cut off long before this, as long ago as the day of Aaron’s golden calf. A Covenant, he says, was given to Moses to deliver to the Jews, but it was never really received. ‘He hath given it (the Covenant), but they themselves were not found worthy to receive it by reason of their sins’ (xiv. 1); for, when Moses perceived their idolatry, he cast out of his hands the two tables which he had received in the Mount, and they were broken in pieces (14:1-4, iv. 6-8). St. Paul and the Epistle to the Hebrews know of two Covenants-an old and a new; and the old was in force until the coming of the Messiah (Romans 7:2 ff., Galatians 3:24 f.; 4:24, Hebrews 8:13). The Epistle of Barnabas says that only one Covenant was over in force-the Covenant of Jesus.

Our author does not cut Christianity away from all historic connexion with the Jewish past; on the contrary, he denies a place of privilege to the Jews after Mount Sinai, in order to show that that place really belonged to the Christians. There are two peoples-the Jews and the Christians. Of these, the Jews, the elder, are in the position of Esau and of Manasseh, who, though the first-born of their respective fathers, did not inherit the blessing; the Christians, like Jacob and Ephraim, though in each case the younger, have been made the recipients of the promise (ch. 13). Accordingly, to our author, the Christians have now come into what was always their own and had never belonged to the nation of Israel. ‘Do not then say, “Our covenant remains to them also,” Ours it is, but they have lost it in this way for over, when Moses had just received it’ (iv. 6; cf. 8). The Christians are ‘the new people’ of God (v. 7, vii. 5; cf. xiii. 6), a holy people (xiv. 6), who have been cleansed, forgiven (vi. 11), whose hearts have been redeemed out; of darkness (xiv. 5), ‘created afresh from the beginning’ (xvi. 8), ‘a new type’ (vi. 11); ‘He Himself prophesying in us, He Himself dwelling in us, opening for us who had been in bondage unto death.… This is the spiritual temple built up to the Lord’ (xvi. 9, 10; cf. vi. 15).

It is not correct, then, to say with Krüger (Hist. of Early Christian Lit., New York, 1897, p. 21) that to the writer of this Epistle ‘Judaism was an error with which Christianity could have nothing to do, but which it must reject.’ Our author accepts the Jewish Scriptures, the patriarchs, the promises, Moses, and the Law in its (to his mind) correct spiritual interpretation. His animus is against the Jews, not against the Jewish religion; from Sinai onwards they have in reality stood outside that religion; its privileges were always the peculiar property of the Christians, held in reserve for them until the coming of the Messiah.

4. Christology.-In the facts of the earthly life of our Lord the Epistle of Barnabas has but little interest. from incidental notices one gathers that Jesus had performed wonders and miracles (v. 8); that He had chosen twelve apostles to preach His gospel (v. 9, viii. 3); that He was crucified, set at naught and spit upon (vii. 9); that He was given vinegar and gall to drink (vii. 3). It is evident that the writer did not think that his readers stood in need of instruction in the details of the life of Christ.

Nor does he aim at expounding a doctrine of Christ’s Person and work; but when one gathers together from different parts of his work the passages which refer to our Lord, one can see that his teaching is in line with that of the Catholic Church. Christ is ‘the Beloved’ of God (iii. 6, iv. 3, 8). He ‘manifested Himself as the Son of God’ (v. 9, 11, vii. 9), who was pre-existent, being present at and taking an active part in the Creation (v. 5, 10, vi. 12); One who came among men in the flesh (v. 6, 10, 11, vi. 7, 9, 14, xii. 10); who should not be called Son of David but Son of God, for David himself called him not son, but Lord (xii. 10, 11); who is about to come again, and that quickly, to judge both the quick and the dead (v. 7, vii. 2, xxi. 3).

His teaching on the Atonement belongs to the same early period of Christian teaching. He knows that Christ suffered for us (v. 5, vii. 2) and as a sacrifice for our sins (vii. 3, 5, v. 2), that we might be forgiven, sanctified (v. 1), and saved (v. 10); and that we may reign with Him hereafter when we have been made perfect (vi. 18, 19); that He might annul death, show the resurrection (v. 6) and give ns life (vii. 2, xii. 5); that He might sum up the tale of the sins of those who persecuted His prophets (v. 11; cf. xiv. 5). He has no theory of the Atonement and no definition of sacrifice; he is content to show that according to the Scriptures Christ died for our sins and that we are thereby saved.

5. Authorship.-The Epistle is anonymous. Tradition, however, has ascribed it to Barnabas the fellow-worker of St. Paul. Clement of Alexandria quotes it as the work of ‘the Apostolic Barnabas, who was one of the seventy and a fellow-worker of Paul’ (Strom. ii. 20; cf. ii. 6, 7, 15, 18, v. 8, 10). Origen speaks of ‘the Catholic Epistle of Barnabas’ (c. Cels. i. 63). Eusebius calls it ‘the Epistle of Barnabas,’ i.e. the Apostle (HE [Note: E Historia Ecclesiastica (Eusebius, etc.).] vi. 14, iii. 25). It seems to have been held in high esteem in Alexandria towards the end of the 2nd cent.; and, since it is found in Codex Sinaiticus beginning on the leaf where Revelation ends, one may conclude that it was once read in churches. In the West it was never regarded as canonical. Eusebius objected to it, and finally its connexion with the NT was severed entirely.

The external evidence is thus wholly in favour of the apostolic authorship. But, coming as it does from a period as late as the closing years of the 2nd cent., this testimony cannot overbalance the weighty considerations drawn from internal evidence which make it impossible to ascribe it to the companion of St. Paul. What we know of the apostolic Barnabas indicates that he took a view of the Mosaic Law wholly different from that reflected in this Epistle. The ‘Son of Consolation’ belonged to the earliest stage of the Jewish Christian controversy; he was ready to give the Gentiles liberty, but by no means ready to say that the Jews might abandon the Law altogether (Galatians 2:13). It is, of course, quite possible that, after the incident of Galatians 2, Barnabas might have come to acknowledge the entire freedom of the Jews, but even this would not bring him into the atmosphere of our Epistle; for here there is no question as to whether a believing Jew may or may not abandon the Law; the main idea is that no Jew, believing or unbelieving, ought ever to have observed the Law at any time, even before Christ came. Such an attitude as this lay altogether outside the purview of the thoughts of St. Paul’s companion, if we may judge from what St. Paul tells us of him. And it is difficult to think that any Jew, born under the Law, and nurtured in the stirring traditions of its maintenance in the face of cruel persecution, could come to feel so little enthusiasm for and interest in the national struggles and heroisms that he could sweep them all away as things which never ought to have been. A soul so dead to patriotism was no true Jew. None but an alien could be so unsympathetic to the national history of the Jews.

Not very much more can be added to this. The author was probably one of the class distinguished by a charisma or ‘gift’ of teaching. Though he disclaims any intention of writing professionally, yet he was conscious of possessing ‘some claim to a deferential hearing’ (Bartlet, Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 iii. 409). Two theories are advanced to account for the ascription of the Epistle to Barnabas. It was the work of a namesake of St. Paul’s companion; or, it was known as coming from Alexandria, and hence was ascribed to Barnabas as to one prominent in the early history of that Church.

6. Place.-There is a general agreement among scholars that Alexandria is the probable scene of its composition. The general style and the use of the allegorical method are thoroughly Alexandrian. At Alexandria, again, the Jews were particularly strong, and in constant conflict with the Christians. Hence the bitter opposition to the Jews as a nation, and the anxiety to cut off all sympathy with Jewish practices. It has been observed that there are serious blunders in the descriptions of Jewish rites; our author agrees neither with the OT nor with the Talmud. But possibly his knowledge is derived from Alexandria rather than from Palestine. Kohler, in Jewish Encyclopedia ii. 537, remarks that the letter shows an astonishing familiarity with Jewish rites.

7. Date.-There is much less agreement on the question of the date of the Epistle. It is plainly later than the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in a.d. 70, for it alludes to that event (xvi. 4). Again, it is earlier than the second destruction under Hadrian in a.d. 132; otherwise, as Lightfoot remarks, some reference to this event would have been found.

A closer determination of the date depends mainly on the interpretation of a passage from ch. iv. This chapter contains a warning that ‘the last offence’ is at hand; for the Lord has shortened the times and the days that His beloved may come quickly. As a proof that the last offence, i.e. the Antichrist, is at hand, the writer quotes a prophecy from the Book of Daniel (Daniel 7:7; Daniel 7:24) to the effect that ten kings shall reign, and after them shall arise a little king who shall subdue three of the kings in one (ὑφʼ ἕν). It is evident that the writer thinks that this prophecy has been, in part at least, fulfilled; he has seen something in recent history which corresponds with this vision. Thus much then seems clear; when he wrote this, there had been ten Caesars on the Imperial throne. Unless we are to omit some of the Emperors from the list-a proceeding for which there seems no justification-the tenth Emperor brings us to the reign of Vespasian. If the ‘little horn’ had already appeared when the Epistle was written, then we must look for three Emperors subdued by the successor of Vespasian. And this, of course, Titus did not do. Hence it seems better to interpret the little horn as Antichrist, who has not yet been revealed, for this gets rid of the difficulty of finding one Emperor who had already subdued three. The writer found this reference to three kings in his text of the prophecy, and meant to leave it to the future to show who the three were and how they would be overthrown. But no matter how this point is settled, the tenth horn can scarcely be other than Vespasian, and this fixes the date of the Epistle at between a.d. 70 and 79. Another chapter (xvi.) is sometimes referred to as having a bearing on this question. This chapter speaks of a building of the Temple of God. Many commentators, including Harnack, take this as referring to the material Temple at Jerusalem, which they say the Jews expected Hadrian to rebuild. Hence they place this Epistle c. [Note: . circa, about.] a.d. 120. But this rests on a misinterpretation of ch. xvi. It seems certain that the writer has in view the spiritual Temple built up in the hearts of believers, and hence the passage has no bearing on the question of date (cf. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, 241). Certain other considerations, such as the absence of a reference to Gnosticism and the apparent possibility of a relapse into Judaism, have also been brought forward. Suffice it to say that none of these is incompatible with the date given above.

8. Text.-Until the discovery of the famous Codex Sinaiticus (א) in 1862, this Epistle was known only in a Latin translation and in eight Greek Manuscripts . The Latin Version is found in a manuscript of the 8th cent., but the translation was made from a text supposed by Müller to be earlier than א. It does not contain the last four chapters. The Greek Manuscripts all lacked exactly the same portion of the Epistle-the first five and a half chapters-and joined the remainder of Barnabas on to the end of the Epistle of Polycarp as though it were all one letter. Being thus plainly descended from a common source, they are not independent witnesses for the text. With the publication of א by Tischendorf in 1862 a complete Greek text appeared for the first time. In this Codex our Epistle follows Revelation, and is followed by the Shepherd of Hermas. Another complete Greek manuscript was discovered in Constantinople by Bryennios in 1875. A good account of the Manuscripts will be found in Harnack’s Altchristl. Litteratur, i. 58-61, and in Gebhardt-Harnack’s Pat. Apost. Op. i. 2, pp. vii-xx.

9. Integrity.-Attempts have been made by Schenkel, Heydecke, J. Weiss, and others to show that the Epistle contains many interpolations. Hefele, Hilgenfeld, and Gebhardt-Harnack have maintained the opposite. Of special interest is the relation of our Epistle to the Didache (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ); for both set forth much the same moral teaching under the title of ‘The Two Ways.’ Rendel Harris (Teaching of the Apostles, Cambridge, 1888, pp. 17-20) maintains that the writer of Barnabas knew the Didache and quoted it from memory. Harnack, however, seems more successful in showing that the writer of the Didache used and improved upon our Epistle (cf. Die Lehre der zwölf Apostel, Leipzig, 1884, pp. 81-87).

Literature.-English translations will be found in J. B. Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, 1 vol., London, 1891; The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers, translation Roberts, Donaldson, and Crombie (= Ante-Nicene Christian Library, i.), 97ff.; K. Lake, Apostolic Fathers, London, 1912. Reference should also be made to Gebhardt-Harnack, Patrum Apost. Op. i. 2 [Leipzig, 1878], who given complete list of titles down to 1878 on pp. xlii-xliv; A. Harnack, Gesch. der altchristl. Litteratur, Leipzig 1893; A. Bardenhewer, Gesch. der altkirchl. Litteratur, Freiburg i. B., 1902-03; J. Donaldson, Apostolical Fathers, London, 1874 (= new ed. of vol. i. of Crit. Hist. of Christ. Lit. and Doct.); W. Cunningham, A Dissertation on the Epistle of St. Barnabas, do. 1877; C. J. Hefele, Pat. Apost. Op. iv. 8 [Tübingen, 1855]; S. Sharpe, Epistle of Barnabas, London, 1880; G. Salmon, Introd. to the NT6, London, 1892, pp. 513-519; K. Kohler in Jewish Encyclopedia ii. [1902] 537f.; W. Milligan in DCB [Note: CB Dict. of Christian Biography.] i. [1877] 260ff.; J. Vernon Bartlet in Encyclopaedia Britannica 11 iii. [1910] 408f.; J. G. Müller, Erklärung des Barnabasbriefes, Leipzig, 1869.

Harold Hamilton.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Barnabas, Epistle of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdn/​b/barnabas-epistle-of.html. 1906-1918.
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