A letter has passed down through two millennia which bears the name of Barnabas. The letter is confidently attributed to the man who worked with the Apostle Paul, since people close to that time were confident in his authorship.
In the first part of this investigation of the epistle we saw many of the weaknesses which are evident in the text. It was not considered worthy of being included in the Canon of New Testament books, and there is good reason for that. One obvious reason is the scientific inaccuracy of some statements, such as that hyenas change sex regularly. This notion came directly from Greek mythology. No text with such inaccuracies and drawing from so unworthy a source could be considered inspired.
However, all is not bad news for this epistle. We can gain much from it.
The epistle shows how much early Christianity was polluted by Hellenistic influences. Greek mythology and allegory invaded the preaching of a man who worked alongside the Apostle Paul. Thus we see how valuable the canon of scripture is and how vulnerable the church is to invasive thought.
We see the heavy reliance on Old Testament scripture as a vital source book for the early church. That fact is clear in the New Testament writings, and is confirmed here as well.
We see a topical preaching style, as opposed to an exegetical stye which is prescribed by some churches today. The apostolic writers were perfectly comfortable with addressing issues and drawing from the breadth of scripture to bring their case together.
We see reference to “sons and daughters” in the opening verse. This is a new form of address. While Paul addressed his letters to the “church” or “saints” he spoke in his letters to the “brethren”, not to the brothers and sisters.
The letter quotes Jesus and refers to the quote as “scripture”. This shows how the early church saw the teachings of Christ as of the same authority as the Old Testament scriptures which they knew to be the Word of God.
The letter gives us some insight into the experiences and attitudes of early Christians.
It confirms the on-going outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as Paul encountered it through his ministry. In the opening remarks Barnabas, who was with Paul and would have participated in laying on hands on people to receive the Holy Spirit, declared that he saw the Spirit on these people. “I truly see the Spirit poured out among you from the riches of the fount of the Lord.” The outpouring of the Holy Spirit continued after the early apostles were passed on.
We also see that some Christians in that day, as we see today, expected that they could continue in a life of sin and still be saved. He warns his readers “not to liken yourselves to certain persons who pile up sin upon sin, saying that our covenant remains to them also“. This is the same idea addressed by Paul, who challenged the idea that we could continue in sin, since God’s grace covered it all.
Barnabas also confesses a sense that it is up to the Christian to maintain their own salvation. This, I perceive, is a wrong teaching which he had embraced, through fear. He warns that, “if we relax as men that are called, we should slumber over our sins, and the prince of evil receive power against us and thrust us out from the kingdom of the Lord.”
This suggestion is that if we are not diligent the devil will automatically have power to destroy our salvation. This flies in the face of Jude’s assertion that God is able to keep us from falling. Jude trusted the Lord, while Barnabas put trust in his own diligence.
In the centuries which followed, the church moved increasingly toward prescribed practices, creeds, liturgy and catechism. The Letter of Barnabas, chapter 19, reveals an inclination in that direction. Barnabas lists about 50 “thou shalt” instructions, covering a wide ranger of practical and attitudinal issues.
“Thou shall not hesitate to give, neither shalt thou murmur when giving, but thou shalt know who is the good paymaster of thy reward. Thou shalt keep those things which thou hast received, neither adding to them nor taking away from them. Thou shalt utterly hate the Evil One. Thou shalt judge righteously.” (Note that the translator has put this in King James English – but it was originally in the common man’s Greek)
Paul and Barnabas Compared
Paul and Barnabas are linked together for several reasons. It was Barnabas who sought Paul to enlist him into ministry to the church at Antioch. Barnabas and Paul were both prophets in that church and were named together by the Holy Spirit when they were called to go on Paul’s first missionary journey. The pair then ministered together very effectively.
Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem together to represent the interests of the gentile converts throughout Asia Minor.
We also know that the pair separated prior to Paul’s second missionary journey, due to disagreement over Barnabas’ plans to take John Mark with them. Paul opposed the idea and the disagreement was so sharp that they went separate ways.
From that time Barnabas slips from the New Testament record. Paul continued to grow in significance within the New Testament churches, while Barnabas appears to have much smaller impact. Barnabas was held in honour among the churches but does not appear to have become a bishop, or to have any other lasting significance.
Barnabas Lacked Authority
The Epistle of Barnabas reveals a man who lacks authority, both within himself and within the ecclesiastical realm. He does not write with the commanding force of Paul, nor from a position of authority. Rather, he writes and commends his letter, based on his heart for his audience. He speaks several times of his great love for them.
The teachings which he conveys come across as the thoughts of a man, rather than revelations from God. He does not speak clearly from the Old Testament scriptures, but moulds them to his liking. He does not speak of things revealed to him, but instead concocts notions which prove to be unrealistic and based on false information (such as his hyena reference).
He was not caught up into heaven, as Paul was, nor shown divine secrets, as Paul. He did not command his audience to copy him, as Paul did, nor could he authenticate his directives with spiritual insights which resonate with a person’s spirit.
The epistle comes up empty, suggesting a man who was lacking in personal authority.
If this observation is correct, the basis seems to be his poor handling of the Word of God, coupled with his willingness to give value to earthly and unworthy sources. The role of the Word of God in Barnabas’ ministry has been diminished, by lack of diligent commitment, sloppy translation and application, and mixture with human sources.
The Influence of Barnabas
The teachings of Barnabas could not have the fruitful impact which we readily see in Paul. Barnabas would lead his hearers to a weaker hold of the Word of God and to a predisposition to allegorical interpretation, with forced meanings.
Such fanciful teaching might appeal to those with “itching ears” but it would not feed a man’s spirit and build him strong in faith. The followers would end up standing on the thoughts of man, rather than the powerful and life-giving truth from God.
The Epistle of Barnabas reveals that not all New Testament characters were of the calibre of Paul. The privilege of being close to the life of Christ and the early apostles did not guarantee a special spiritual outcome. Men of that day were as likely to be seduced and distracted to other things as anyone is today.