Readings from the Early Church: The Epistle of Barnabas

Barnabas

St. Barnabas who may or may not have written the Epistle of Barnabas but certainly didn’t write the medieval forgery called The Gospel of Barnabas.

Author

This epistle was written by c. 130 AD, or possibly by the end of the first century, based on the internal evidence. It doesn’t quote any New Testament works and expects that the Temple will be rebuilt by the Romans. Many of the Church Fathers respected this book. It was even included in one old codex at the end of the New Testament.

Often it is attributed to the Barnabas who is Paul’s companion in the book of Acts. (cf. Acts 15:35-39) This may not be the case, but it seems reasonable to suppose that ‘Barnabas’ had some apostolic connection due to the time and content. Whoever he is, he writes ‘not as your teacher, but as one of yourselves.’ (Chapter I)

Summary

After the customary salutation, Barnabas jumps into the meat of his epistle right away: the relationship of Judaism and Christianity.  He reminds us that the sacrifices of the temple are abolished (Chapter II) and that Jewish fasts are not to be observed. (Chapter III) Barnabas declares that the antichrist is at hand and taking advantage of Jewish errors. (Chapter IV) He then goes on to explain the Gospel – Jesus’ suffering and passion and resurrection from the dead (Chapter V) and how the Old Testament prepared the way for Jesus. (Chapter VI-IX, XI – XII)

Barnabas gives a spiritual interpretation to many Old Testament precepts in Chapter X – some of which are quite hilarious and reflect a spotty understanding of biology. For instance, he believes that Moses forbid people to eat the hyena because he thought it changed its sex annually.  The weasel is to be despised because it apparently has intercourse with its mouth.  Regardless of biology, all of the forbidden foods of the Old Testament are likewise given symbolic interpretations. Pork is forbidden because we shouldn’t spend time with ‘swinish’ men and the hare because it has too much sex in too many different places.

Barnabas sees the Jewish covenant as something of the past, firmly teaching that Christians are heirs of that covenant. He quotes Genesis 25:23, ‘and the one people shall surpass the other, and the elder shall serve the younger.’ Barnabas sees this passage as an allegory, with the ‘elder’ as Judasim and the ‘younger’ as Christianity. (Chapter XIII-XIV)

Barnabas also advances the oldest defense of the Christian Sunday versus the Jewish Sabbath. He calls the Jewish Sabbath a ‘false Sabbath’ in keeping with his hard line on Jewish practices. After quoting the Old Testament he concludes with what he thinks is God’s thought process throughout all this:

Your present Sabbaths are not acceptable to Me, but that is which I have made [namely this,] when, giving rest to all things, I shall make a beginning of the eighth day, that is, a beginning of another world. Wherefore, also, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness, the day also on which Jesus rose again from the dead. And when he had manifested himself, He ascended into the heavens.

The Epistle of Barnabas, Chapter XV

He goes on to explain that the Jewish temple has been replaced by the new temple of the heart (Chapter XVI) and then tells about ‘the two ways… the one of light, and the other of darkness.’ (Chapters XVII – XVIII) This reminded me very much of the Didache. A follower of the way of light is ‘zealous in his works.’ Among other comments is the exhortation, ‘Thou shalt seek out every day the faces of the saints… or by the hands thou shalt labour for the redemption of thy sins.’ Barnabas also warns against schism and concludes, ‘Thou shalt confess thy sins, Thou shalt not go to prayer with an evil conscience. This is the way of light.’ (Chapter XIX) The chapter on the ‘way of darkness [which] is crooked, and full of cursing, for it is the way of eternal punishment…’ is much shorter. Those who follow this way are those ‘who know not Him that made them, who are murderers of children… who turn away him that is in want… who are advocates of the rich, who are unjust judges of the poor, and who are in every respect transgressors.’ (Chapter XX)

Barnabas concludes his letter with an exhortation to remember the resurrection and to follow God for ‘The Lord is near, and His reward… Farewell, ye children of love and peace. The Lord of glory and of all grace be with your spirit. Amen.’ (Chapter XXI)

Reactions

One thing I love about reading non-canonical writings like this is seeing the shallowness of some anti-Christian works (I’m thinking of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code right now). Many who are not properly educated about this period, including Christians, think, ‘Books that are not in the Bible are books that taught lies about Jesus.’ Some books do, but Barnabas talks about the resurrection and Jesus’ divinity.  Jesus is He ‘to whom God said at the foundation of the world, ‘Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness.” (Chapter V, cf. Genesis 1:26) The Old Testament prophets received ‘grace from Him, prophesied concerning Him.’ (Chapter V)

Barnabas is also interesting for further developing an allegorical reading of many Old Testament passages as pointing to Christ, the Cross and Baptism. Some of the parallels seem forced, others quite interesting. Another interesting thread is the strong emphasis on living a good and pure life and the isolated references to confession of sins before prayer, communion with saints and laboring for redemption. Barnabas’ defense of Christian Sunday is ancient support for the near-universal Christian practice of celebrating this throughout the ages.

Of course, the elephant in the room with readings like this are post-Holocaust sensitivities about racial hatred. It’s very important not to read Barnabas’ hostility to Judaism through a modern lens of anti-Semitism. Barnabas is writing about Jewish faith (not the Jewish race) in a time when Christians are a persecuted minority sect that is largely of Jewish ethnicity, and in a time when no one could have even imagined the horrors that the Nazis and others would invent for Jews in the modern era. Barnabas is simply honestly trying to wrestle with Christianity’s relationship to Judaism, and his rejection of the Jewish religion is no more anti-Semetic than Tertullian’s rejection of Greek philosophy is supposed to produce hatred of Greeks.

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