Epistle of Barnabas Part 2

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.

Contribution

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.

Early Christians

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.

Toward Codification

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.

Epistle of Barnabas Part 1

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 Epistle

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.

Date

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.

Main Emphasis

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.

Weaknesses

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.

The Scholastic Myth Makers

Academic scholars researching the New Testament documents have created an intriguing mythology of their own, to assist them in the popular quest of turning Christianity into a mere human movement. This is not to say that all academics are atheists or that none of them has a living faith in Jesus Christ, but that the body of scholarly work is undergirded by a supposition that the New Testament events were not the supernatural happenings which Christianity celebrates.

Need For Invention

People who are antagonistic to Christianity and to the clear claims of Jesus Christ and His followers as provided to us in the canon of New Testament books, need to build a case for their doubts. The books of the New Testament have been put under intense scrutiny for centuries and keep rebounding as dynamic and living expressions of powerful truth that is able to impact the hearers far beyond any other works in human history.

The sheer potency and significance of the New Testament, including its historical track record and glowing endorsements, supported by the millions who live by its truths in each generation, boldly challenge all who would oppose those twenty-seven books.

Such a challenge does not deter the most determined, and one option open to them is “invention”. If something supportive of an antagonistic position could be created from what has passed to us from that time, then much might be made from it.

Spurious Documents

There is no shortage of doubtful material in New Testament times. Various, spurious claims were made in the first few centuries, and have passed to us in various documents. However, those documents were recognised as spurious from their own time. They are not reliable historically and lack sufficient authority to challenge the overwhelming body of evidence in support of the approved New Testament books.

That has not stopped people who are antagonistic to Christianity from pushing those documents and their spurious ideas into the headlines from time to time. But no on-going credibility has been attained, despite the most vigorous efforts of some.

The Invention Summarised

The breakthrough which antagonists sought ultimately required invention. In simplified form, what was lit upon was the idea that evidence could be ‘created’ to accuse early (nascent) Christianity of having ‘evolved’ into a religious belief system.

The key was to create the impression that at least two different streams of Christ-consciousness existed. The initial stream would be based on Jesus as a rabbi, who presented ‘wisdom teaching’ and gained a following. Later streams would deify Jesus, after his death, by interposing into his biography such things as miracles, a virgin birth and Christ’s resurrection from the dead.

If such a construct could be invented, even just hinted at with sufficient force, then Christianity would be reduced from the reverberations of a divine visitation, to a delusional man-made religion, based on fraudulent deification of a humble Galilean teacher.

Imagining and Inventing

Since the Gospels provide a compelling and cogent account of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it was necessary for detractors to devalue those writings. Initially it was suggested that the Gospels were created quite late in the picture and did not include eye-witness accounts, but fanciful inventions of supernatural events.

However, continued research has proven the opposite. The texts are remarkably reliable, strong in eye-witness elements and dated very close to the events they describe.

To overcome this obstacle, scholars came up with the notion that these Gospels were created late in the picture, but based on earlier eye-witness material. By careful review of what was included and excluded from the various historical records of Christ’s life (gospels), guesses were made about what a common source document would contain. The hope was that such an imagined source document would be devoid of supernatural elements.

Two source documents have been proposed, the Passion Narrative and The Lost Sayings Gospel Q.

The Q Document

The imagined Q Document suggests a text which brought together much of the wisdom teaching of Jesus. The value of that notion is that it suggests Jesus was really only a teacher, not a miracle worker, nor Son of God who rose from the dead.

Once the hypothesis of a Q Document was developed, it could then be hypothesised that the document was used by an early branch of Christianity, those who followed Jesus because of the wisdom teachings.

CM Tuckett, author of ‘The Anchor Bible Dictionary’ communicates something of these implications when he said that, “Q may also alert us to the great variety within primitive Christianity. It shows us a version of the Christian faith which is perhaps less cross centered than, say, Paul or Mark”. (emphasis added)

The Imagined Evolution

The invention of a Q document prompts the hypothesis of a community based on “wisdom” sentiment, living to celebrate divine insights, brought to them by their teacher, Jesus. This is then contrasted with the Pauline emphasis on the death and resurrection of Jesus, and “Bingo”, they have constructed an evolutionary continuum in which the man, Jesus, is deified after his death, and a mythology about his resurrection is added. Other enhancements to the life story of Jesus, such as the miracles, are thought to have been invented by the promoters of the new religion, to give their leader special significance and sell their package ahead of the competition.

Mythology versus Myth

It is amusing to note that those who insist that Christianity is based on a Christ myth are forced to create a mythology of their own.

Those who receive the New Testament writings as accurate and divinely overseen records of supernatural events full of moral potency and divine significance, have no problem with the New Testament. We do not need to invent anything. Our very own, personal encounter with the living Jesus Christ of the New Testament, and the living truths unpacked by Paul and the others, confirms to us that there is no myth involved or needed.

Reality triumphs over the myth-makers.

New Testament Writings

There are two general bodies of thought toward the writings which have remained from the New Testament, Apostolic times.

The standard Christian understanding is that certain writings were inspired by the Holy Spirit and should be respected as such, given place in the collection (canon) of texts which are regarded as Scripture. Other works, which are not canonised, are either helpful but not inspired, or are spurious, and to be ignored.

The standard secular understanding is that the writings of the New Testament era are simply human texts, reflecting the development of a religious belief system which is based on real people and real events, but which is ultimately an evolved human construct.

Scholarly Thought

As is the case in scientific circles today, scholarly, academic endeavour is meant to be devoid of faith elements which might bias the researcher. However, what prevails is a strong bias against the faith elements reflected in the scientific and scholarly work. God cannot be allowed in science, so the empty theory of evolution is promoted, with religious zeal, as if scientific. Such a state is foolish and contrary to true science, yet it is defended with evangelistic fervour by those who reject religious interpretation.

Similarly, scholars who investigate ancient Christian texts are bound to assume that they are nothing more than human writings. There is no place in the study for recognition of inspiration, revelation or divine qualities in the text or the writers.

Due to this blinkered approach the scholars are inclined to base their thinking on doubt and scepticism and to come up with conclusions which feed both as well. Hence the scholarly trail is decorated with constructs out of the imagination of the researcher – suggesting multiple authors, lost sources, deliberate embellishments, corrupted texts, evolving thought, suspect motives and so on. Further scholarship often mocks the scholarly constructs, but that does not heal the condition.

Expressions of Doubt

Scholarly discussion injects into the picture a range of thoughts which are counter to acceptance of the texts as divinely created resources for us.

One suggestion is that Jewish sources, which are now non-existent, were picked up by the early Christians and adopted for guiding their gatherings. These documents were then edited and ‘Christianised’ with insertions of references to Christ or quotes from Christ, to give the content a distinctly Christians flavour. This suggestion clearly exists around a notional “Two Way” document which is believed to have influenced such writings as the Epistle of Barnabas.

Non-canonical texts, with their various weaknesses and flaws, give scholars cause to smear the canonical writings with suspicion and to discredit the content as simply a refinement of poorer documents.

Terminology used by the scholars clearly expresses their academic contempt for the spiritual principles presented in the New Testament writings. Consider the implications of such terms as “the Christ myth”, “epic-apocalyptic mythology”, “narrative material that could easily be turned into a more eventful depiction of Jesus’ public appearance” (ie: fabricated additional content), “old Jesus-traditions” (meaning different notions of Jesus which were brought together to create the current religious myth we call Christianity), and “redaction” (the process by which various notions about Jesus were cooked together to create a cogent religious story.

Imaginary Texts

Further evidence of the inclination by scholars to doubt the canonical documents is their creation of imaginary texts. Lists of documents from the Apostolic age, also known as Apocryphal texts from the New Testament era, will most likely include such documents as the Passion Narrative and the Lost Sayings Gospel Q. These texts have never been referred to in the ancient literature and are purely imaginary.

Scholars, seeking to identify New Testament books such as the four Gospels as concocted works drawing on earlier material and editing it to suit their purposes, have suggested the existence of earlier texts from which the Gospel writers have drawn.

The purpose of these imagined documents is simply to suit scholastic scepticism about the divinity of Jesus, the miracles, supernatural phenomena and man’s moral accountability to a holy God, among other things.

Academic Study

Consideration of Biblical texts, therefore, either reflects a faith-based application of the texts as divine communication to us, or a scepticism-based academic analysis, intent on denigrating the text to expose human construction.

Many well-meaning Christians, intent on broadening their understanding of the Bible, try to take seriously the sceptical and antagonistic suggestions of the scholars, possibly to show that they are open minded and not blind believers. The two streams do not converge and confusion can result.

It is interesting, therefore, to take a look at the ground that is under question, and to approach the available source documents without feeling the need to cow-tow to academic constructions. This is my hope, and, given time, I am keen to rake over the ground and see what it yields.

Persecution in the Early Church

A review of Church History cannot escape the word ‘martyr’, which springs up in every age and in every place. The fact that untold millions have been killed for their faith in Christ is a staggering phenomenon, which will only continue, until Christ returns. As we consider the history of the early church it is appropriate to put some of that persecution into perspective.

Jewish Opposition

The world into which Jesus Christ was born was under Jewish administration, with Roman oversight. Rome had conquered Palestine, but they relied on the existing local systems and structures to maintain the local order and peace. Roman soldiers intervened when the will of the Emperor needed to be enforced, or to maintain Roman authority if the local leaders could not handle it.

The New Testament history reveals that the Jewish religious authorities were unsettled by the emergence of the new religious characters of John the Baptist and Jesus. We have accounts of their interrogation of John and their persistent opposition to Jesus.

So it is no wonder that, following Christ’s resurrection, Pentecost and the birth of the church, the Jewish religious hierarchy was quick to engage in opposition to the early church.

Saul of Tarsus

A prominent young man (I was going to say ‘zealot’ but that has a specific meaning in New Testament times), named Saul, gave increased impetus to the Jewish opposition to early Christians. He was instrumental in the death of the church’s first martyr, Stephen. He was also involved in seeing other Christians killed, imprisoned, pressured to blaspheme and so on.

When Saul was converted to Christianity, by miraculous encounter with the Risen Christ, some of the impetus against the Christians was probably diminished for a time. But it wasn’t long before there were Jewish plans to kill Saul (who we remember best by his name Paul).

Throughout Paul’s ministry he consistently faced opposition from the Jews. Reading the book of Acts we are left with the impression that the church’s main antagonists were the Jews.

Jewish Persecution

Initially Christianity was seen by the Roman authorities as an off-shoot of Judaism. Jewish leaders were often told to deal with Christianity themselves, as it was a matter of their own religion. This accounts for the energy which the Jews put into persecuting those who followed ‘the way’.

Jewish persecution of Christians in Rome became so intense that in 51AD the Roman authorities expelled Jews from the city, since they were behaving as disruptive trouble makers.

The Romans

Initially the Roman authorities functioned as protectors of the Christians, especially in the case of Paul, who was a Roman citizen due to his birth at Tarsus. The Roman leaders refused at times to hear the Jewish claims against Christians, seeing it as simply a matter of semantics and competing religious claims in their own localised religion.

Christians, however, became an increasing presence and concern to Rome, since the faith was spreading quickly and widely, and Christians refused to acknowledge any other deity, including the Emperor.

Roman persecution of Christians was first unleashed by Nero, following the Fire of Rome in 64AD which destroyed about three quarters of the city. Nero faced suspicion for having part in the fire, and so it seems he chose the Christians as his scapegoat. There is no reason to suggest that Christians had any connection with the devastating fire at all.

Roman Persecution

Nero attacked Christians with savagery, even using Christians doused in flammable liquids as torches to light up his gardens. While it cannot be confirmed it is understood that both Peter and Paul were killed in Rome at this time.

Roman persecution of Christians continued to varying degrees until the time of Constantine’s conversion. Toward the end of the first century Emperor Domitian came to power and persecuted both Jews and Christians. In 98AD Trajan became Emperor and instituted a policy of not hunting out the Christians, but putting them to death if they came to the attention of the authorities.

The symbols of early Christian persecution are usually those of the Colosseum, and the Roman catacombs. This is a worthy connection, since Roman Emperors delighted in making public sport of killing Christians.