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A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

Barnabas, Epistle of

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Barnabas, Epistle of .—I. Authenticity. —Is this epistle the production of the Barnabas so often associated with St. Paul; or has it been falsely connected with his name? The question is one of deep interest, bearing on the historical and critical spirit of the early Christian church.

It is admitted on all sides that the external evidence is decidedly in favour of the idea that the epistle is authentic. Clement of Alexandria bears witness to it as the work of "Barnabas the apostle"—"Barnabas who was one of the seventy disciples and the fellow-labourer of Paul"—"Barnabas who also preached the Gospel along with the apostle according to the dispensation of the Gentiles" ( Strom. ii. 7, 35; ii. 20, 116; v. 10, 64. Cf. also ii. 6, 31 ; ii. 15, 67; ii 18, 84; v. 8, 52). The same may be said of Origen, who speaks of it as "the Catholic Ep. of Barnabas" (c. Cels. i. 63). Eusebius disputes its canonicity, but is hardly less decided in favour of its authenticity. It is included by him at one time among the disputed, at another among the spurious books; yet there is no reason to doubt that when, in both passages, he calls it the Ep. of Barnabas, he under stands not an unknown person of that name but the Barnabas of Scripture (vi. 14, iii. 25). Jerome must be understood to refer to it when he tells us of an Ep. read among the apocryphal books, and written by Barnabas of Cyprus, who was ordained along with Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles ( de Vir. Ill. c. vi.). In the Stichometria of Nicephorus, in the 5th cent., it is enumerated among the uncanonical books; and, at the close of that cent., a similar place is assigned to it by Anastasius Sinaita. Since it is, moreover, found in Codex א attached to the books of N.T., there is no doubt the early Christian church considered it authentic. That she refused to allow its canonicity is little to the purpose. The very fact that many thought it entitled to a place in the canon is a conclusive proof of the opinion that had been formed of its authorship. The early Church drew a line between apostles and companions of apostles; and, although writings of the latter, such as the Gospels of St. Mark and St. Luke, and the Ep. to the Hebrews, were received into the canon, the connexion between the writers of these books and one or other of the apostles was believed to be such that the authority of the latter could be transferred to the former. Such a transference would be more difficult in the case of Barnabas, because, although associated at one time with St. Paul in his labours, the two had differed in opinion and separated.

It is on internal evidence that many distinguished critics have denied its authenticity. That there is great force in some at least of the arguments adduced by them from this source it is impossible to deny yet they do not seem so irresistible as to forbid renewed consideration. They have been summed up by Hefele (Patr. Apost. p. 14) and succeeding writers have added little to his statement. Of his eight arguments five may be at once rejected: The first that the words of Augustine regarding the Apocrypha of Andrew and John si illorum essent recepta essent ab ecclesia show that our epistle would have been placed in the canon had it been deemed authentic; for Andrew and John were apostles Barnabas was not. The second that Barnabas had died before the destruction of Jerusalem while the epistle bears clear marks of not having been written until after that date; for this idea is no just inference from the texts referred to Col_4:10 1Pe_5:13 2 Timothy 3 (4 ?) 11 and the authority of a monk of the 6th or 9th cent. is not to be relied on. The third that the apostles chosen by our Lord are described in c. v. as ὑπὲρ πᾶσαν ἁμαρτίαν ἀνομώτεροι; for these words are simply introduced to magnify the grace of Christ in calling not the righteous but sinners to repentance. It was an undoubted fact that the Saviour had associated with publicans and sinners and Barnabas may mean no more than that out of that class were the apostles chosen. He may even have had the career of Saul previous to his call to the apostleship mainly in view. The fourth argument of Hefele that the epistle betrays in c. x. so much ignorance of the habits of various animals is not valid; for natural history was then but little known. The fifth argument of the same writer to be set aside is that Barnabas who had travelled in Asia Minor and lived at Antioch in Syria could not have asserted in c. ix. that the Syrians were circumcised when we know from Josephus (contr. Ap. i. 22; Antiq. viii. 10 3) that they were not; for however frequently this statement has been repeated Josephus says nothing of the kind. What he says is that a remark of Herodotus to the effect that the Syrians who live in Palestine are circumcised proves that historian's acquaintance with the Jews because the Jews were the only inhabitants of Palestine by whom that rite was practised and it must have been of them therefore that he was speaking and he quotes Herodotus and without any word of dissent as saying that the Syrians about the rivers Thermodon and Parthenius that is in the northern parts of Syria did submit to circumcision. He may thus be even said to confirm the statement of our epistle.

The three remaining arguments of Hefele are more important.

(1) That the many trifling allegories of cc. v.–xi. are unworthy of one who was named the "Son of Consolation." It is true that it is difficult to conceive how such a one could find in the numeral letters of the Greek version of the O.T. an indication of the will of Him Who had given that Testament in Hebrew to His ancient people. Yet, after all, is it not the time rather than the writer that is here in fault? It is unfair to take as our standard of judgment the principles of interpretation just now prevailing. We must transfer ourselves into the early Christian age, and remember the spirit of interpretation that then prevailed. We must call to mind the allegorical explanations of both Jewish and heathen schools, whose influence passed largely into the Christian church. Above all, we must think of the estimation in which the epistle was held for centuries, e.g. by Clement and Origen; that some would have assigned it a place in the canon; and that, even by those who denied it that place, it was regarded as a most useful and edifying work. In judging, therefore, of the ability of our author, we must turn from the form to the substance of his argument, from the shell in which he encloses his kernel of truth to that truth itself. When we do so his epistle will appear in no small degree worthy of approbation. It exhibits a high appreciation of many of the cardinal truths of Christianity, of the incarnation and death of Christ, of the practical aims of the Gospel, of the freedom and spirituality of Christian living; while the general conception of the relation of the N. T. to the Old, although in some respects grievously at fault, embodies the important principle that the Old is but the shadow of the New, and that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." Throughout the epistle there are many sentences of great beauty and warmth of Christian feeling, and the description of the rebuilding of the spiritual temple in c. xvi. is most eloquent.

(2) Against its authenticity are urged, next, the numerous mistakes committed by the writer in cc. vii, viii. with regard to the rites and ceremonies of Judaism, mistakes to all appearance inconsistent with the idea that he could be a Jew, a Levite, who had lived long in Jerusalem, and must have been acquainted with the ceremonial institutions of the Jews. It is impossible not to feel the great force of the objection, or even to complain of one who, upon this ground alone, should reject the authorship of Barnabas. Let it only be remembered that these mistakes are almost equally inexplicable on the supposition that the author was not Barnabas. If such rites were not actually practised, whence did he learn their supposed existence? It is out of the question to think that they were a mere fancy of his own. And how came the great Fathers whose names have been already mentioned, how came the church at large, to value the epistle as it did if in the mention of them we have nothing but absurdity and error? We are hardly less puzzled to account for such inaccuracies if the writer was an Alexandrian Christian of heathen origin than if he were a Jew and a Levite.

(3) The third and last important argument adduced by Hefele is founded upon the unjust notions with regard to Judaism which are presented in our epistle. They are correctly so described. But it is not so clear that they might not have been entertained by one who, educated in the school of St. Paul and animated by a high sense of the spirituality and universality of the Christian faith, would be easily led, in the heat of the Judaic controversies of his day, to depreciate a system which was threatening to overthrow the distinctiveness and power of the Gospel of Christ.

To these arguments recent writers have added that the strong anti-Judaistic tendency of the epistle is inconsistent with its ascription to Barnabas inasmuch as he erred in too great attachment to the Jewish party (Gal_2:13). But the incident thus referred to reveals no such trait in the character of Barnabas. His conduct on that occasion was a momentary weakness by which the best may be overtaken; and it rather shews us that his position on the side of the freer party had been previously a decided one "insomuch that even Barnabas was carried away by their dissimulation." The incident may also have made him in time to come ashamed of his weakness firmer and more determined than before.

To sum up the evidence, it seems to the present writer that its balance favours its composition by Barnabas more than critics have been generally willing to allow. The bearing of the external evidence upon this result is unquestionable; and, where we have such evidence, it is a sound principle that nothing but the strongest internal evidence should be permitted to overcome it. The traditions of the early church with regard to historical facts do not appear to have been so loose as is often alleged. It is difficult also to imagine how a generally accepted and firmly held tradition could arise without some really good foundation.

Finally, we are too prone to forget that the substance of Christian truth may be held by others in connexion with misapprehensions, imperfections, misinterpretations, of Scripture, absurd and foolish views, in connexion with which it would be wholly impossible for us to hold it. The authorship of Barnabas is rejected by, among others, Neander, Ullman, Hug, Baur, Hefele, Winer, Hilgenfeld, Donaldson, Westcott, Mühler, while it is maintained by Gieseler, Credner, Guericke, Bleek, Möhler, and, though with hesitation, De Wette. [The weighty judgment of bp. Lightfoot must now (1911) be added to the list in favour, and will generally be considered as decisive: see Apost. Fathers, pt. i, vol. ii. pp. 503-512.]

II. The Date of the Epistle. —External evidence does not help us here. We are thrown wholly upon the internal. Two limits are allowed by all, the destruction of Jerusalem on the one hand, and the time of Clement of Alexandria on the other—that is, from a.d.70 to the last years of the 2nd cent. Between these two limits the most various dates have been assigned to it; the general opinion, however, being that it is not to be placed earlier than towards the close of the 1st, nor later than early in the 2nd cent. Most probably it was written only a very few years after the destruction of Jerusalem.

III. Object of the Epistle, and Line of Argument pursued in it. —Two points are especially insisted on by the writer: first, that Judaism, in its outward and fleshly form, had never been commended by the Almighty to man, had never been the expression of God's covenant; secondly, that that covenant had never belonged to the Jews at all.

In carrying out his argument upon the first point, the writer everywhere proceeds on the idea that the worship which God requires, which alone corresponds to His nature, and which therefore can alone please Him, is spiritual, not a worship of rites and ceremonies, of places and seasons, but a worship of the heart and life. It is not by sacrifices and oblations that we approach God, Who will have no offerings thus made by man (c. ii.); it is not by keeping Sabbaths that we honour Him (c. xv.); nor is it in any temple made with hands that He is to be found (c. xvi.). The true helpers of our faith are not such things, but fear, patience, long-suffering, continence; and the "way of light" is found wholly in the exhibition of moral and spiritual virtues (c. xix.). But how was it possible to reconcile with such an idea the facts of history? Judaism had had, in time past, and still had, an actual existence. Its fasts and sacrifices, its sabbaths and temple, seemed to have been ordained by God Himself. How could it be pleaded that these things were not the expression of God's covenant, were not to be always binding and honoured? It is to the manner in which such questions are answered that the peculiar interest in our epistle belongs. They are not answered as they would have been by St. Paul. The Apostle of the Gentiles recognized the value of Judaism and of all the institutions of the law as a great preparatory discipline for the coming of the Messiah, as "a schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ." There is nothing of this kind in the argument of Barnabas. Judaism has in it nothing preparatory, nothing disciplinary, in the sense of training men for higher truths. It has two aspects—the one outward and carnal, the other inward and spiritual. The first was never intended by God; they who satisfy themselves with it are rather deceived by "an evil angel." The second is Christianity itself, Christianity before Christ (c. ix. and passim ). This view of the matter is made good partly by shewing that, side by side with the institutions of Israel, there were many passages of the Prophets in which God even condemned in strong language the outward ceremony, whether sacrifice, or fasting, or circumcision, or the temple worship (cc. ii. iii. ix. xvi.); that these things, in their formal meaning, were positively rejected by Him; and that the most important of them all, circumcision, was fully as much a heathen as a divine rite (c. ix.). This line of argument, however, is not that upon which the writer mainly depends. His chief trust is in the γνῶσις , that deeper, that typical and allegorical, method of interpreting Scripture which proceeded upon the principle that the letter was a mere shell, and had never been intended to be understood literally. By the application of this principle the whole actual history of Israel loses its validity as history, and we see as the true meaning of its facts nothing but Christ, His cross, His covenant, and the spiritual life to which He summons His disciples. It is unnecessary to give illustrations. What is said of Moses, that he spoke ἐν πνεύματι , is evidently to be applied to the whole O. T. The literal meaning is nowhere what was really intended. The Almighty had always had a deeper meaning in what was said. He had been always thinking, not of Judaism, but of Christ and Christianity. The conclusion, therefore, could not be mistaken; Judaism in its outward and carnal form had never been the expression of God's covenant. To whom, then, does God's covenant belong? It is indeed a legitimate conclusion from, the previous argument that the Jews cannot claim the covenant as theirs. By the importance they always attached, and still attach, to outward rites they prove that they have never entered into the mind of God; that they are the miserable victims of the wiles of Satan (cc. iv. ix. xvi.). But the same thing is shewn both by Scripture and by fact—by Scripture, for in the cases of the children of Rebekah, and of the blessing of Ephraim and Manasseh, we learn that the last shall be first and the first last (c. xiii.); by fact, for when Moses broke the two tables of stone on his way down from the mount, the covenant which was at that moment about to be bestowed upon Israel was dissolved and transferred to Christians (c. xiv.).

This line of argument clearly indicates what was the special object of the epistle, the special danger against which it was designed to guard. It was no mere Judaizing tendency that was threatening the readers for whom it was intended. It was a tendency to lapse into Judaism itself. The argument of those who were endeavouring to seduce them was, "The covenant is ours" (c. iv.). These men, as appears from the tenor of the whole chapter, must have been Jews, and their statement could have no other meaning than that Judaism, as the Jews understood and lived it, was God's covenant, that it was to be preferred to Christianity, and that the observance of its rites and ceremonies was the true divine life to which men ought to be called. Yet Christians were shewing a disposition to listen to such teaching, and many of them were running the serious risk of being shattered against the Jewish law (c. iii.). With this the errors of a coarsely Judaistic life naturally connected themselves, together with those many sins of the "evil way" in which, when we take the details given of them in c. xx., we can hardly fail to recognize the old features of Pharisaism. In short, those to whom Barnabas writes are in danger of falling away from Christian faith altogether; or, if not in actual danger of this, they have to contend with those who are striving to bring about such a result, who are exalting the ancient oeconomy, boasting of Israel's nearness to God, and praising the legal offerings and fastings of the O.T. as the true way by which the Almighty is to be approached. It is the spirit of a Pharisaic self-righteousness in the strictest sense of the words, not of a Judaizing Christianity, that is before us. Here is at once an explanation of all the most peculiar phenomena of our epistle, of its polemical zeal pointed so directly against Judaism that, as Weizäcker has observed, it might seem to be directed as much against Jews as against Judaizers ; of its effort to shew that the whole O. T. cultus had its meaning only in Christ; of its denial of all value to outward Judaism; of its aim to prove that the inward meaning of that ancient faith was really Christian; of its exclusion of Jews, as such, from all part in God's covenant; and of its dwelling precisely upon those doctrines of the Christian faith which were the greatest stumbling-block to the Jewish mind, and those graces of the Christian life to the importance of which it had most need to be awakened.

IV. Authorities for the Text .—These consist of MSS. of the Greek text, of the old Latin version, and of citations in early Christian writings. The MSS. are tolerably numerous, but the fact that, except the Sinaiticus (א ), which deserves separate mention, they all lack exactly the same portion of the epistle, the first five and a half chapters, seems to shew that they had been taken from a common source and cannot be reckoned as independent witnesses. Since the discovery of Codex א by Tischendorf a new era in the construction of the text has begun. Besides bringing to light the portion previously wanting, valuable readings were suggested by it throughout, and it is now our chief authority for the text. The old Latin version is of high value. The MS. from which it is taken is probably as old as the 8th cent., but the translation itself is supposed by Müller to have been made from a text older even than that of Codex א . It wants the last 4 chapters of the epistle. Citations in early Christian writings are extensive.

Editions and Literature. —Valuable editions are those of Hefele, 1855 (4th ed.); Dressel, 1863; Hilgenfeld, 1866; and Müller, 1869. Dressel was the first to make use of Codex א , but of all these editors Müller seems to have constructed his text upon the most thoroughly scientific principles. The literature is very extensive. Notices of the Epistle will be found in the writings of Dorner, Baur, Schwegler, Ritschl, Lechler, Reuss, and others. The following monographs are especially worthy of notice; Hefele, Das Sendschreiben des Apostels Barnabas aufs neue untersucht, übersetzt und erklärt (Tübingen, 1840); Hilgenfeld in his Die Apostolischen Väter (Halle, 1853); Weizäcker, Zur Kritik des Barnabasbriefes aus dem Codex Sinaiticus (Tübingen, 1863); J. G. Müller's Erklärung des Barnabasbriefes, Ein Anhang zu de Wette's Exegetischem Handbuch zum neuen Testament (Leipz. 1869), contains general prolegomena to the epistle, a critically constructed text, and an elaborate commentary, together with careful Excursus on all the most important difficulties. W. Cunningham, A Dissertation. on the Ep. of B. (Lond. 1877). A trans. of the epistle is contained in the vol. of the Apost. Fathers in the Ante-Nicene Christian Lib. (T. & T. Clark, 10 s. 6 d. ). The ed. princeps by archbp. Ussher (Oxf. 1642) has been reprinted by the Clarendon Press with a dissertation by J. H. Backhouse. The best text for English scholars is given in Lightfoot, Apostolic Fathers, ed. by bp. Harmer (Lond. 1991), pp. 237-242.


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Bibliography Information
Wace, Henry. Entry for 'Barnabas, Epistle of'. A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography. 1911.

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Wednesday, November 25th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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