October 20, 2018

Friday with the Fathers (5)

The Church Fathers, Kievan Miniature (11th c)

By Chaplain Mike

The Epistle of Barnabas is next on our list as we consider the works of the Apostolic Fathers, which are the earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament itself. The main guide we are using for these studies is The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, by Michael W. Holmes. An edition with just the English text is also available.

Despite its name, The Epistle of Barnabas is a polemical essay set into the literary framework of a letter, rather than being real correspondence. And it is, in fact, an anonymous work, not the writing of St. Barnabas. It may be that the author’s name was actually Barnabas, and that he was confused with Paul’s associate. Or, as some have suggested, it may be that those who held that the NT book of Hebrews was written by St. Barnabas also attributed this tract to him, since it bears some similarities with the canonical book. It is widely thought to have originated in Alexandria, since the author’s hermeneutical approach and style reflects the manner of interpretation that was common in that region, and since the earliest witness of this document is Clement of Alexandria, who gave Barnabas equal authority with the General Epistles of the NT. Holmes dates it generally between the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the rebuilding of the city by Hadrian (c. 135 AD). Certain possible allusions, such as 9:4, which refers to the abolishing of circumcision, and 16:4, which may point to Hadrian’s decree to reconstruct the temple, would place it closer to the latter date.

The Epistle of Barnabas attempts to deal with a “hot-button” issue in early Christianity—the relationship between Christianity and the Judaism out of which it was birthed.

Writing at a time when the the level of competition between church and synagogue still ran high (and perhaps Jewish Messianic expectations), the anonymous author deals with both of these questions as he seeks to show by means of an allegorical interpretation of scripture that Christians are the true and intended heirs of God’s covenant. (Holmes, p. 370)

The Epistle of Barnabas is made up of four parts:

  1. An introduction (ch. 1)—“I have hastened to send you a brief note, so that along with your faith you might have perfect knowledge as well.” (1:5)
  2. An exhortation to true knowledge and righteousness in the last days (2-17)—“Inasmuch as the days are evil and the one who is at work is in power, we ought to be on our guard and seek out the righteous requirements of the Lord.” (2:1)
  3. An exposition of the Way of Light and the Way of Darkness (18-20)—“There are two ways of teaching and power, one of light and one of darkness, and there is a great difference between these two ways.” (18:1)
  4. A conclusion (ch. 21)—“It is good, therefore, to learn all the Lord’s righteous requirements that are written here and to walk in them.” (21:1)

Here are some observations of this early Christian writing.

“Special Knowledge” for Christians?
Though Barnabas is not a “gnostic” work, per se, it does seek to impart a type of “perfect knowledge” to its recipients. This knowledge is communicated through a rather exaggerated use of allegory and directed to Christians, who have been granted the spiritual capacity to receive what the “fleshly” Jews did not. “In short, he circumcised our ears in order that when we hear the world we might believe.” (9:4) In one place, the author refers to the Mosaic food laws, saying that they were meant to be understood in a spiritual sense, “but because of their fleshly desires the people accepted them as though they referred to actual food.” (10:9).

For the author of this epistle, Israel had it wrong from the beginning. Nothing—not circumcision, sacrifices, food laws, the Promised Land, the covenant, temple, or Sabbath—was ever meant to be understood in its literal sense. It all pointed to Jesus, the cross, baptism, the forgiveness of sins, and the new creation. Grasping this true, spiritual sense is given to those who have responded in faith to the truth of Christ. “So, therefore, the things that happened in this way are clear to us but to them are quite obscure, because they did not listen to the voice of the Lord.” (8:7)

The following excerpt will give you a sense of the author’s approach:

Learn abundantly, therefore, children of love, about everything: Abraham, who first instituted circumcision, looked forward in the spirit to Jesus when he circumcised, having received the teaching of the three letters. For it says, “And Abraham circumcised ten and eight and three hundred men of his own household.” What, then, is the knowledge that was given to him? Observe that it mentions the “ten and eight” first, and then after an interval the “three hundred.” As for the “ten and eight,” the I is ten and the H is eight; thus you have “Jesus.” And because the cross, which is shaped like the T, was destined to convey grace, it mentions also the “three hundred.” So he reveals Jesus in the two letters, and the cross in the other one. The one who implanted within us the implanted gift of his covenant understands. No one has ever learned from me a more reliable word, but I know that you are worthy of it. (9:7-9)

The Epistle of Barnabas represents a way of Biblical interpretation and spiritual perception with which most Christians are uncomfortable today. And for good reason, in my view. The author’s uncontrolled imagination allows him to find meaning in the Greek letters that are used to represent numbers in the Greek O.T., to say that Psalm 1 pictures the cross and baptism because it speaks of a tree by streams of water, and to make some truly bizarre remarks about sexual behaviors attributed to hares, hyenas, and weasels that Christians should avoid, and that therefore are represented in the O.T. food laws.

There are few, if any, controls on this approach. In my opinion, this comes perilously close to a “gnostic” methodology that exalts those with “inside” knowledge and denies the fact that God worked through actual historical circumstances and made his will known in words that can be understood according to normal rules of literary intepretation. Even when Barnabas gets it right, one should be wary of how he got there.

Living from the Heart in the Last Days
The entire epistle is set in the context of living in the last days, being aware of the judgment to come, and recognizing that there is therefore a need for increased vigilance in our faith. “The day is near when everything will perish together with the Evil One. The Lord, and his reward, is near.” (21:3)

One of the refreshing characteristics of this work is that Barnabas urges a New Covenant obedience on himself and his readers in the light of the approaching Day. “Therefore he has abolished these things, in order that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is free from the yoke of compulsion, might have its offering, one not made by humans.” (2:6)

He is well-acquainted with the O.T. passages that speak of the true meaning of sacrifice and other religious observances, and he always encourages his readers to render heart-obedience rather than mere religious activity.

An Ongoing Theological Challenge
The main theological issues raised by The Epistle of Barnabas involve the relationship between the Old Testament and New Testament, the covenants with Abraham and Moses and their relationship to the New Covenant in Christ, the progression of salvation-history and how its various eras and recipients of God’s revelation and grace fit together in God’s plan.

These issues have been raised, discussed, and debated throughout church history. One’s interpretation matters a great deal in forming the way one understands and teaches various Biblical doctrines. How one approaches the Christian’s life and mission in the world now and anticipates God’s plan for the future grow out of how one interprets these matters.

Barnabas takes a rather extreme position. Israel misunderstood and failed from the beginning and the covenant never really was theirs. It was always about Jesus and the new community that would arise with him. He gets some of it right. But in my view he downplays the earthly, historical, “fleshly” (if you will) development of God’s plan. He over-spiritualizes what has always been an embodied faith with its feet on the ground.

We live in a day when we are tempted to do the same. “Epistles of Barnabas” are being composed throughout Christendom, encouraging God’s people to seek a kind of knowledge and identity that only tells part of the story. There is much truth to be gleaned here, but a great deal to be concerned about as well.


  1. Odd that Barnabas would would have missed on this one. It seems so fundamental an aspect of God’s plan, as detailed at length in Hebrews and elsewhere, that the fleshly would come first and then the spiritual. Born of water, born of spirit. The first Adam, the second Adam. The temple made with hands, the temple made by the spirit. The water struck from the rock……
    We are all vulnerable to error. That is one of the dangers of walking in the ongoing revelation of the Spirit (Counselor). With the scripture as our framework of sound doctrine, our stop signs, yield signs and green lights, we must be open to what ‘the Spirit is saying to the churches’. In dreams and visions of the night – ‘your old men will dream dreams and your young men will see visions’. The word of God is living and sharper than any two edged sword. It would be tidier if it were not alive and active but then it would not be alive and active. I find myself constantly fine tuning my perception of the truth and earnestly listening for the Shepherd’s voice through the blare and clamor. Testing the spirits….I occasionally find I have listened to the wrong one. It is usually in fellowship that those errors come to light. In that way we hone one another. A love for Jesus, humility of spirit and a zeal for truth are basic prerequisites for the journey. Without those we end up all over the map.

  2. It’s the same attitude that led to Marcion, who eviscerated the Old Testament and the New to create his ‘perfected’ Gospel, where he took the opposite tack and read the Old Testament completely literally to create an anthropomorphic deity in Yahweh who was not the same as the Father of Jesus. In response to this, the first moves to draw up a Canon of Scripture were instituted.

    We tend to forget that the early years of the Church saw Christians regarded as an off-shoot of Judaism or one more crazy little revolutionary sect out of Palestine, with the Jews eager to disassociate themselves from the Christians who were regarded as heretics, atheists, troublemakers and general disturbers of the peace. And on the Christian side, there were plenty who were equally glad to denounce the Jews as having completely misunderstood the purpose and word of God.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says:

      And there was apparently a tendency for folks to leave Christianity for Judaism. In my days in the Messianic Movement, I saw a lot of that. Let me tell you, seeing many friends and family renounce Christ for acceptance in Judaism can breed a hostility toward Judaism. I must confess, that’s something with which God has had to deal with me over the years.

      An irony of Barnabas’ interpretation is that he’s using techniques that were very popular in more mystical circles of Judaism at the time, especially with his using gematria on the Greek text!