The Epistle of Barnabas

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Scholars agree that the purpose of this book was to address the relationship between traditional Judaism and the mostly Gentile Christian church. There were still those who believed one must be obedient to the law in all its aspects in order to be a true Christian. Nonetheless, by the turn of the century, there existed a huge rift between Jews and Christians.

Note that neither the disciple referenced in the book of Acts nor the namesake of this gospel is the author. This is another case where an individual (or a group of individuals) used a name pseudonymously in order to give his work more credibility. Nor is it possible to discern his intended audience, though scholars think the author hailed from Alexandria, due to his pronounced use of allegory. Regardless, he is forthright about saying that Judaic rituals have no place in the worship of God. To that end, there are over 100 references to the Scriptures (mostly from the Septuagint) and the apocryphal writings. Scholars have noted that the author was very selective in choosing his quotations and, in so doing, he was able to make a strong case against Judaism. Truth be told, however, by this time there was no temple in Jerusalem and many Jewish schools had also moved beyond these rituals. This fact also caused a lot of division among Jews, with some of them insisting upon adherence to a strict code and others preaching greater flexibility. It was hardly a new argument created by someone promoting Christianity.

Nonetheless, with this as his main thrust, it is noteworthy that Barnabas ignores many traditional points of Christianity. He rarely mentions anything about the words and works of Jesus. The Holy Spirit holds no interest for him, nor does the organization of the early church. He does, however, address the issue of God's covenant in light of Christianity. Abraham was the father of all nations and both he and Moses foreshadowed the coming of Jesus and the cross. According to this writing, the Old Testament promises found their fulfillment in Jesus. The arrival to the real "Promised Land" is a future event for which Gentiles still await.

If salvation is the ultimate goal, then the path to getting there becomes very important. The Epistle of Barnabas hopes to provide the needed guidance. He argues that the teachings of the Law were not meant to be practiced literally; God's covenant was with all people (not just the Jews), and circumcision was "the work of the devil." In their worship of God, the Jews were simply focused on the wrong things. They were literal when they should have been spiritual, and that included the requirement of circumcision. This Epistle takes no notice of other heresies, including the Gnostics, though scholars think they were already quite influential at this point. It does not seem to be addressing a specific situation. Therefore scholars have suggested that it is more like the musings of a scholar than the preachings of a pastor.

After an initial greeting, Barnabas endeavors to communicate to them what he had learned about Christianity. In addition to their faith, they would then have perfect knowledge. The doctrine of the Lord had three aspects: the hope of life, its beginning, and its completion. These things were made known by the prophets who also gave the first-fruits of the knowledge of things to come.

The Lord had revealed to the prophets that he did not need sacrifices, or burnt offerings, or oblations. Indeed, all these things were abolished with the new law of Jesus Christ. He also claims, with quotes from Jeremiah and Zechariah, that the Lord did not ask for sacrifices from the people he brought out of the land of Egypt. So how does God want to be approached in worship? By coming to him with broken spirits or hearts ready to glorify him. One's very salvation is at stake and at risk through the deceptions of the wicked one.

Take, for example, the fasting of the Jews. A quote from Isaiah is used to say that God didn't mean for them to fast in a literal sense. He intended them to fast by loosening the bands of iniquity, stopping harsh disagreements, restoring all to liberty, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, giving shelter to the homeless, and not turning away from one's family. The one who does these things will exude righteousness and the glory of God will encompass him or her. These are the intangible things that one should follow—not the minutiae of the law.

This is made clear by recounting what happened at Mount Sinai. While Moses was fasting, the people were making golden idols. When he came down the mountain, he smashed the tablets. This is the point at which the Jews went astray and why they lost the covenant. They should think on these things—that despite the many signs given to them, the Jews were "abandoned." He, then, exhorts them to be spiritually-minded and a perfect temple to God. Interspersed are many warnings about the prince of this world, the son of darkness, etc. In contrast to the old covenant, the new covenant was founded on the sufferings of Christ. They should all be grateful for having been given the wisdom and the knowledge of the past, present, and future. Christ abolished death, revealed the resurrection from the dead, and fulfilled the promises made to the fathers. These sufferings had all been prophesied. He illustrates this with a long list of selective quotes.

In the next several chapters, he spiritualizes some of the more salient aspects of Judaism. The following is one illustration. He recognized that Abraham circumcised all the men of his household. He circumcised ten, eight, and three hundred. Ten is denoted by I and eight by H – the initials of Jesus' name. The cross expresses grace by the letter T, i.e. three hundred. In this manner, Abraham foreshadowed both the Christ and the cross. He then quotes passages saying that the Lord "circumcised their ears and hearts" so that people might understand these things. He treats dietary restrictions in a similar manner. It's not that people shouldn't eat swine—it's that they shouldn't act like swine.

Many citations follow, illustrating how baptism and the cross had been prefigured in the Old Testament. One of his points referenced Moses and the raising of the bronze serpent in the wilderness. The bottom line is that the Christians are the true heirs of the covenant. He reminds them that the Lord gave Moses the covenant, but then it was broken because the people were not worthy of receiving it.

The Sabbath is reworked to mean the eighth day, i.e., the first day of the week. The Jews confined God to the temple, whereas he repeatedly stated that heaven was his throne and the earth was his footstool. As it is, Christians are well aware that God "dwells within us."

To sum up, there are basically two forms of doctrine and authority. One is the way of light; the other is darkness. The qualities of each way are spelled out in great detail over two chapters. Those who have learned the judgments of the Lord should walk in them. They will be glorified in the kingdom of God. Those who do not will be destroyed. The followers of the way of light will experience resurrection; the followers of the other will experience retribution. He signs off by saying how earnest he has been in writing to them that he might cheer them. Then, "farewell, you children of love and peace."

These teachings certainly were in conflict with the teachings of Paul and the book of Acts. Paul was clear that God covenanted with the Jews first, but then extended it to the Christians. He also insisted that Timothy be physically circumcised because he had a Jewish mother. Barnabas presented quite a contrasting view. This epistle was never labeled heretical per se, but it was not included in the canon. Early on, the Church Fathers considered it to be authoritative, but by the fourth century, it was relegated to the apocryphal writings.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha