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The Epistle of Barnabas

The text of the Epistle of Barnabas online

Authorship: technically anonymous rather than pseudonymous.

  • Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-210) seems to be the earliest known writer to cite the epistle and was familiar with its ascription to Barnabas (Strom. 2.10; Eccl. Hist. 6.14.1).
  • However, the epistle never claims to be by Paul’s co-worker Barnabas (cf. Acts 4:36; 9:27; 11:22-15:39; 1 Cor 9:6; Gal 2:1, 9, 13; Col 4:10).
  • The author appears to have a non-Jewish background. 3:6 warns against proselytizing to their law and 16:7 speaks of a time before “we” believed in God as idolaters.

Date: a general consensus dates the text after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 CE (Barn. 16:3-4) and before the end of the Bar Kochba revolt between 132-135 CE.

  • 4:4-5 refers to a succession of ten kings followed by a small horn who subdues three kings. This may fit Vespasian who established the Flavian dynasty after the year of three emperors in 69 CE (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) or Nerva who succeeded the Flavian rulers Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian and had a short reign from 96-98 CE. Or it may allude to scripture (Dan 7:7-8, 24) to predict a future Nero redivivus or anti-Christ figure.
  • 16:3-4 marvels at how “they” (=certain Jews) say that the very servants of the enemy (=Rome) who tore down their temple will build it again. It is unlikely that the enemies’ servants build the spiritual temple. Either it refers to the emperor Hadrian’s plans to build a pagan temple to Jupiter Capitolinus in the lead-up or aftermath of the Bar Kochba revolt or to possible Jewish hopes that the emperor Nerva would rebuild the Jerusalem temple after he suppressed the tax forced upon them (i.e. fiscus Iudaicus).

Provenance: Alexandria, Syro-Palestine, and Asia Minor have all been suggested as the place of origin.

  • The epistle shares an allegorical approach popular in Alexandria, speaks with contempt towards the circumcised priests of the idols and non-Greek Egyptians  (9:6), and receives early attestation from the Alexandrian theologians Clement (Strom. 2.6.31; 2.7.35; 2.20.116; 5.10.63) and Origen (C. Celsus 1.63).
  • The familiarity with Jewish and rabbinic traditions and exegesis and the positive reference to Syrians and Arabs in contrast to Egyptians (9:6) may point to an author located in Syria-Palestine.
  • The Pauline parallels to the Epistle, its lack of ecclesiastical organization, and its fierce debate with a local Jewish community along with its dismissal of literal Jewish interpretations could fit the location of Asia Minor.

Theology

  • The epistle shows clear signs of local Jewish influence from its apocalyptic orientation (4:1-5, 9-14; 12:9), use of midrash (6:8-19), familiarity with Jewish traditions about the Day of Atonement not included in Leviticus 16 (7-8), practice of gematria or assigning numerical value to letters (9:8), and employment of the “Two Ways” tradition (18-20; cf. Deuteronomy 30; Didaache 1-6).
  • The author, nevertheless, wants to sharply differentiate the two peoples (laoi); there is an in-group (“us”) and a Jewish out-group (“them”).
  • There was only one covenant that the Jews lost when they worshiped the Golden Calf and Moses broke the stone tablets containing the Decalogue (contra 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 3:7-18; Heb 8:1-13). There is some tension with the Deuteronomistic theology of the epistle in which the Jews are depicted as continuously rejecting the appeal of the prophets culminating with Jesus.
  • Christians have inherited the covenant, just as the Scriptures predicted that Abraham would be the father of the uncircumcised nations (13:7).
  • Literal Jewish practices are re-interpreted in a spiritual or typological manner.
    • The heart should be circumcised; an evil angel inspired fleshly circumcision (9:4). 9:7-9 uses gematria to show that Abraham’s circumcision of 318 men foreshadowed Christ (i.e. 10 = iota and 8 = eta to spell the name Iesous or Jesus, 300 = tau for the cross).
    • Acts of justice are preferred over fasting (3:1-6). The Jewish food laws signify the exclusion of certain types of people (10:3-8).
    • The Sabbath day foreshadows a future eschatological period of rest (15:4-5).
    • The promise of land is universalized in the new creation (9:9-19) and the church is to be the spiritual temple (16:1-10).

Significant Monographs or Books including Chapters on Barnabas

  • James Carleton Paget, The Epistle of Barnabas: Outlook and Background (WUNT 2.82; Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1994).
  • Clayton N. Jefford, The Apostolic Fathers and the New Testament (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 2006).
  • William Horbury, Jews and Christians in Contact and Controversy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998).
  • Michelle Murray, Playing a Jewish Game: Gentile Christian Judaizing in the First and Second Centuries CE (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2004).
  • Reidar Hvalvik, The Struggle for Scripture and Covenant: The Purpose of the Epistle of Barnabas and Jewish-Christian Competition in the Second Century (WUNT 2.82; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1996).
  • Stephen G. Wilson, Related Strangers:  Jews and Christians 70-170 CE [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).
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