One of the many non-Biblical texts surviving from Apostolic times is a theological tract which is credited to Barnabas, the man who travelled with the Apostle Paul on Paul’s first missionary journey.
Barnabas is well known from the New Testament, as a Levite from Cyprus who is known as a ‘son of consolation’. His original name was Joses, but he was surnamed Barnabas by the apostles, probably in reference to his character as an encourager (Acts 4:36). It was he who sought out Paul to engage him in helping the Christians at Antioch in Syria.
Barnabas the Apostle
There appears to be several uses of the term ‘apostle’ in the Apostolic age. The term is mostly used to refer to the original disciples of Jesus who became apostles. The term apostle means ‘sent one’ and so it could also be used to refer to what we would now call a missionary. The term is used of other people than the original disciples, but it could be in the sense of missionary or sent ones, rather than as an equivalent term as applied to the twelve.
Paul refers to apostles as a functional appointment within church life, suggesting in Ephesians 4:11,12 that there is an on-going role for apostles in the church.
Barnabas is referred to by Dr Luke as an apostle, along with Paul (see Acts 14:4,14).
The early writers who make mention of the Epistle of Barnabas unanimously recognise Barnabas as the author. This stands in contrast to today’s scholars who hold that question in doubt. Clement affirms Barnabas as the author and so too does Origen, who treats it as equal to scriptural texts.
The original letter was written in Greek and is seen as Alexandrian in its style. The author is not named, nor is the intended recipients.
The opening verses suggest that the writer has a specific and limited audience in mind. “So greatly did the much-desired sight of you astonish me respecting you.”
The text is presented in 21 chapters, though many are very short. Rather than being a letter in the sense of Paul’s letters, it is more like a tract, presenting a set of religious teachings. The very purpose is explained to be “to perfect the knowledge” of his readers.
The letter was written after the fall of Jerusalem in 70AD, but before the rebuilding of the city in 135AD. We know this because the fall is mentioned and yet Barnabas expects the Romans to rebuild the Temple, which expectation would have been nullified by the rebuilding of Jerusalem by Hadrian following the revolt of 132-135AD.
It is commonly thought that the letter was written before the end of the first century, before the Gospels were widely circulated.
While claiming to be a gift to the reader, assisting their understanding, the letter effectively spiritualises and allegorises the Old Testament law and other Biblical elements, to support the merits of Christ. However, Barnabas fails to deliver so rousing and glorious a celebration of Christ as we find in Paul’s writings, though he was Paul’s companion.
It seems that the determination to force Christological interpretations out of Old Testament and extra-biblical sources is energised by a desire to denigrate Judaism and separate it from Christianity. The repeated import is that the Jews focused on the tangible expression of their laws, sacrifices and temple, while those things were mere empty types of Christian truth.
While there are a number of interesting thoughts proposed by Barnabas (or the author) the letter falls well short of a divinely inspired work.
One weakness is in an overwhelming inclination to apply allegorical interpretation. One could wonder if the author took anything to be literal, since the insistence on prescribing allegorical meaning as the superior interpretation is abundant.
Another problem, following that inclination, is the very forced nature of some allegorical interpretation. There is almost a sense of the delusional about the rampant impetus to make a spiritual sounding application of something which may well only be worthy of literal interpretation.
While there is an abundance of Biblical quotation the author is loose with his translations and does not take care to give clear credit to his sources. Several of his quotes are quite free and creative, imposing content into the text which is not there in the Old Testament source.
Spurious sources are also used freely. Some quotations which are presented alongside his Biblical quotes are completely unfamiliar to the Bible student. They may be based on Old Testament passages which were so thoroughly paraphrased as to lose touch with their original source. Or they may be pseudo scriptural content which he has drawn from sources which we do not readily identify.
Much is made of a Jewish tradition related to the scapegoat. That tradition is extra-Biblical, not being prescribed in the Mosaic instructions. So it is unworthy of the place which Barnabas gives it.
Unscientific ideas based on Greek mythology also find place in the letter. Of particular note is the assertion that hyenas change sexuality each year, from male to female and back again. This ridiculous idea can be traced back to Aesop’s fables and were also quoted by Pliny the Elder in his first century AD ‘Natural History’.
In the Epistle of Barnabas we see a preacher of the gospel drawing from cultural notions, rather than divinely revealed truth. In so doing he has compromised his authority and shown that his work was not inspired but simply concocted from popular cultural thought.
Barnabas Offers Much
Despite these and other negatives associated with this epistle, there is still much to gain from it. In particular, it gives us a view of the prevailing times, from outside the New Testament. We also gain insights into the themes and thinking of some New Testament believers.
In Part 2 of this topic I will take you though a review of the Contribution made to us by the Epistle of Barnabas.