What is the Epistle of Barnabas?

The Epistle of Barnabas is a Greek epistle written between AD 70–132 (after the destruction of the Second Temple and before the Bar Kochba Revolt). The place of origin is generally taken to be Alexandria in Egypt. The Epistle was possibly written not by the same Barnabas of the New Testament. Although it is named for Barnabas, the letter itself does not mention its author. Now, it is generally accredited to an unknown early Christian teacher, perhaps of the same name.

Not canonical

The Epistle of Barnabas was never considered canonical by the early church leaders. For it contained theological and doctrinal errors. For this reason it was excluded from the “accepted books.” Eusebius (260/265 – 339/340) considered it among the “rejected” or “spurious” (νόθοι) writings (H.E. iii.25.4). He called it “the disputed books.”

The first full list of New Testament books, by Athanasius of Alexandria (367 C.E.), did not include the epistle of Barnabas. It also was left out form the authorized list of the Third Synod of Carthage in 397. And, the epistle eventually vanished from the scriptural canon.

In comparison, the NT books were all recorded before A.D. 100. And they were written by faithful eyewitnesses or by leaders that spoke directly with those that have seen Jesus (1 John 1:1-5; Luke 1:1-4).

However, some of the early church Fathers insisted on considering the epistle one of the “antilegomena” books and viewed it as sacred scripture. And they accredited it to the Barnabas, the associate of Paul who is mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. Of those are Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215) and Origen (c. 184 – c. 253). Clement quoted it with phrases such as “the Apostle Barnabas says.” And Origen spoke of it as the General Epistle of Barnabas.

Manuscript tradition

This epistle is preserved complete in the 4th-century Codex Sinaiticus. This was found by Constantin von Tischendorf in 1859 and published by him in 1862. The Codex Sinaiticus contains a full transcript of the Epistle which is located immediately after the canonical New Testament and before the Shepherd of Hermas. It is mentioned in a perhaps third-century list in the sixth-century Codex Claromontanus and in the later Stichometry of Nicephorus appended to the ninth-century Chronography of Nikephoros I of Constantinople.

Content

The epistle contains 21 brief chapters. It was written in an era when the degree of antagonism between the church and Judaism was high. So, it displayed a radically anti-Jewish sentiment. Although the work is not Gnostic in a heritical sense, the author intended to impart to his readers the type of perfect gnosis (special knowledge).

The writer showed that the characteristic enactments of the Mosaic Law, sacrifices, and the temple, were errors rising from Jewish blindness and reliance upon an evil angel (9.4). And by allegory, he enacted upon the Old Testament a meaning that was not intended by the original writers.

The writer of the epistle tried to state that only Christians are the ones that can comprehend the real meaning of the Scriptures (10.12). Therefore, he concluded, they are the real inheritors of God’s covenant. Thus, the author’s view of God’s covenant with the Jews is not in harmony the Scriptures. Also, the author used a highly questionable system of “numerology.”

In His service,

BibleAsk Team

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