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The Catholic Encyclopedia
Epistle of Barnabas
There is a triple tradition of the Greek text of this document. Up to 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 i-v, 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 Jerusalem Codex (eleventh century), which includes the Didache. There is also an old Latin version of the first seventeen chapters which is, perhaps, of the end of the fourth century (St. Petersburg, Q., I, 39). This version is a very free one and can hardly serve for the restoration of the text. The same is true for the citations from the epistle in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, or Origen, and others. The text authority for the text is the Codex Sinaiticus.
The Epistle of Barnabas contains no clue to its author nor to those for whom it was intended. Its aim is to impart to its readers the perfect wisdom (gnosis), that is an exact knowledge of the economy of salvation. It is made up of two parts, the subject of each being announced in verses 6 and 7 of the first chapter. The first part (ch. i-v, 4) is hortatory; in the evil days that are now at hand in which the end of the world and the Judgment shall appear, the faithful, freed from the bonds of the Jewish ceremonial law, are to practise the virtues and to flee from sin. The second part (ch. v, 5-xvii) is more speculative, although it tends, owing to the nature of the argument, to establish the freedom of Christians in respect to the Mosaic regulations. The author wishes to make his readers comprehend the real nature of the Old Testament. He shows how the ordinances of the Law should be understood as referring allegorically to the Christian virtues and institutions, and he pauses to make plain by a series of symbolical explanations, that are often singular, how the Old Testament prefigures Christ, His Passion, His Church, etc. Before concluding (ch. xxi) the author repeats and enlarges the exhortations of the first part of the epistle by borrowing from another document (the Didache or its source) the description of the two ways, the way of light and that of darkness (xviii-xx).
The epistle is characterized by the use of exaggerated allegory. In this particular the writer goes far beyond St. Paul the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, and St. Ignatius. Not content with regarding the history and institutions of the Jews as containing types of Christianity, he casts aside completely the transitory historical character of the old religion. According to many scholars he teaches that it was never intended that the precepts of the Law should be observed in their literal sense, that the Jews never had a covenant with God, 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 condemns the exercise of worship by the Jews in its entirety because in his opinion, the Jews did not know how to rise to the spiritual and typical meaning which God had mainly had in view in giving them the Law. It is this purely material observance of the ceremonial ordinances, of which the literal fulfilment was not sufficient, 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).
The Epistle of Barnabas is not a polemic. The author takes no notice of paganism. Although he touches on different points that had relations to the doctrines of the Gnostics, still he has no knowledge of these latter. The perfectly composed manner in which he expounds the wisdom he desires to impart shows that another, heretical wisdom (gnosis) is not in his thoughts. Moreover, the way in which he speaks of the Old Testament would not be explicable if he had known the wrong use that a Basilides or a Marcion could make of it. Besides, there was nothing in the Judaizing theories to alarm his faith. He speaks of Judaism only in the abstract, and nothing in the letter excites the suspicion that the members of his flock had been exposed to the peril of falling again under the yoke of the Law. No clear situation is described in the letter. In short, it should be regarded rather as the peaceful speculations of a catechist and not as the cries of alarm of a pastor. Consequently, it cannot be admitted that the author may have wished to take part in the struggle against the Judaizers either at Jerusalem or at Rome.
This abstract discussion of Judaism is the sign of an epoch when the Judaizing controversies were already a thing of the past in the main body of the Church. In settling the date of the letter reference is often made to verses 3-5 of chapter four, where the writer, it is believed, finds the fulfilment of the prophecy of Daniel (Dan. 7:7, sqq.) in the succession of the Roman Emperors of his time. Starting from this, some critics place the composition of the epistle in the reign of Vespasian, others in the reign of Domitian, and still others in the reign of Nerva. But there is nothing to prove that the author considers the prophecy to be already accomplished. Besides, he might have taken the words of the prophecy to mean a series of kingdoms instead of a line of kings. It is necessary, therefore, to fall back on verses 3-5 of chapter xvi. Reference is here made to the command given by Adrian in A.D. 130 for the reconstruction, in honour of Jupiter, of the Temple at Jerusalem, which had been destroyed by Titus. Adrian had also forbidden the Jews to practise circumcision. The writer of the letter makes allusion to this (ch. ix, 4). The epistle must, consequently, have been written in A.D. 130-131.
In what befell Jerusalem and the Temple the author saw the refutation by events of the errors of the Jews, or rather of the Ebionites, for it is the latter that he has in mind whenever his language grows more definite (ch. iv, 4, 6; v, 5; xii, 10; xvi, 1). His flock are not in danger of falling into these errors. Therefore, he never attacks them directly. He simply takes advantage of the opportunity that occurrences offer him to give his opinions as to the position and nature of Judaism and its Law. Hence the epistle, in its general character, is more like a treatise or a homily than a letter. However, the epistolary form is not entirely fictitious. The author is not writing to Christians in general, but to a particular church in which he has exercised the office of a didaskalos and from which he finds himself separated (ch. i, 2, 4; xxi, 7, 9).
From a literary point of view the Epistle of Barnabas has no merit. The style is tedious, poor in expression, deficient in clearness, in elegance, and incorrectness. The author's logic is weak, and his matter is not under his control; from this fact arise the numerous digressions. These digressions, however, afford no reason for doubting the integrity of the letter, or for regarding as interpolations either entire chapters, or a consecutive number of verses or parts of verses in each chapter. One scholar, Wehofer, thought that he had discovered, in the arrangement of the epistle, an adherence to the laws of the Semitic strophe. But the phenomena noted are found in all authors who work out their thought without being able to subordinate the argument to the rules of literary style.
From the dogmatic point of view the chief importance of the epistle is in its relation to the history of the Canon of the Scriptures. It cites, in fact, the Gospel of St. Matthew as Scripture (ch. 4:14), and even recognizes as in the Canon of the Sacred Books (gegraptai), along with the collection of Jewish writings, a collection of Christian ones (ch. v, 2), the contents of which, however, cannot be determined. The author regards several apocryphal books as belonging to the Old Testament--probably IV Esdras (ch. xii, l) and without doubt Henoch (ch. iv, 3; xvi, 5). In his Christology, his soteriology and his doctrine concerning justification the author develops the ideas of Paul with originality. It has been wrongly said that he regards the pre-existent Christ as only a spirit in the image of God. Without explicitly asserting the consubstantiality and the true sonship, he evidently acknowledges the Divine nature of Christ from before the Creation. The eschatological descriptions are decidedly moderate. He is a millenarian, but in speaking of the Judgment to come he simply expresses a vague belief that the end is approaching.
The extremely allegorical character of the exegesis leads to the supposition that the author of the letter was an Alexandrian. His way of constantly placing himself and his readers in opposition to the Jews makes it impossible to believe that either he or the larger part of his readers were of Jewish origin. Besides, he is not always familiar with the Mosaic rites (cf. ch. vii). The history of the epistle confirms its Alexandrine origin. Up to the fourth century only the Alexandrians were acquainted with it, and in their Church the epistle attained to the honour of being publicly read. The manner in which Clement of Alexandria and Origen refer to the letter gives confirmation to the belief that, about the year A.D. 200, even in Alexandria the Epistle of Barnabas was not regarded by everyone as an inspired writing.
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Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Epistle of Barnabas'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/e/epistle-of-barnabas.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.
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