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THE EPISTLE OF BARNABAS

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Originally appearing in Volume V03, Page 409 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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THE EPISTLE OF BARNABAS iS one of the apocryphal books of the New Testament. At the end of the Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th century, as a sort of appendix to the New Testament, there stands an " Epistle of Barnabas." Here it is followed by the Shepherd of Hernias, while in an zrth-century MS., which contains also the Didache, it is followed by two writings which themselves form an appendix to the New Testament in the Codex Alexandrinus. This means that it once enjoyed quasi-canonical authority, a fact amply borne out by what Eusebius (H. E. iii. 25) says as to its standing in the ancient Church. It was at Alexandria that its authority was greatest. Clement comments on it, as on the canonical scriptures, in his Hypoty poses; Origen cites it in the same spirit as scripture (C. Celsum, is 63, De Princ. iii. 2, 4, 7). Clement, too, ascribes it to " the apostle " or " the prophet " Barnabas (Strom. ii. 6, 31, cf. ii. 2o, 116), with explicit reference to Paul's fellow-apostle. Internal evidence makes this ascription impossible, nor does the epistle itself lay any claim to such authorship. Lightfoot, indeed, suggests that its author was " some unknown namesake " of the famous Barnabas: but it is simpler to suppose that it was fathered upon the latter by the Alexandrian Church, ready to believe that so favourite a writing was of apostolic origin. " That Alexandria, the place of its earliest reception, was also the place of its birth, is borne out by the internal evidence of style and interpretation, which is Alexandrian throughout " (Lightfoot). The picture,, too, which it gives of the danger lest the Christianity of its readers should be unduly Judaic in feeling and practice, suits well the experiences of a writer living in Alexandria, where Judaism was immensely strong. Further, he shows an " astonishing familiarity with the Jewish rites," in the opinion of a modern Jew (Kohler in the Jewish Encycl.) ; so much so, that the latter agrees with another Jewish scholar in saying that " the writer seems to have been a converted Jew, whose fanatic zeal rendered him a bitter opponent of Judaism within the Christian Church." These opinidns must overrule the view of some Christian scholars that the writer often blunders in Jewish matters, the fact being that his knowledge is derived from the Judaism of Alexandria' rather than Palestine. But we. need not therefore regard the author as of Jewish birth. It is enough, and more in keeping with the thought as a whole, to regard him as having been in close contact with Judaism, possibly as a proselyte. He now uses his knowledge to warn his readers, with intense passion, against all compromise between Judaism and the Gospel. In this he goes so far as to deny any historical connexion between the two, maintaining with all the devices of an extravagant allegorism, including the Rabbinic Gematria based on the numerical values of letters (ix. 7 f.), that the Law and Prophecy, as meant by God, had never been given to Israel as a people. The Divine oracles had ever pointed to the Christian Covenant, and had been so understood by the men of God in Israel, whereas the apostate people had turned aside to keep the ceremonial letter of the Law at the instigation of an evil angel (ix. 4). In this way he takes in succession the typical Jewish institutions—Circumcision, Foods, Ablutions, Covenant, Sabbath, Temple—showing their spiritual counterpart in the New People and its ordinances, and. that the Cross was prefigured from the first. Such insight (gnosis) into the reality of the case he regards as the natural issue of Christian faith; and it is his main object to help his readers to attain such spirituality=the more so that, by similar insight applied to the signs of the times, he knows and can show that the end of the present age is imminent (i. 5, 7-iv.). The burden of his epistle, then, is, " Let us become ' His reference to the wide prevalence of circumcision beyond Israel (ix. 6) is perhaps simply an exaggeration, more or less conscious. spiritual, a perfect temple unto God " (iv. 1I); and that not only by theoretic insight, but also by practical wisdom of life. In order to enforce this moral, he passes to " another sort of gnosis and instruction " (xviii. I), viz. the precepts of the " Two Ways," cited in a slightly different form from that found in the first part of the Teaching of the Apostles. The modifications, however, are all in a more spiritual direction, in keeping with the genuinely evangelic spirit which underlies and pervades even the allegorical ingenuities of the epistle. Its opening shows it to have been addressed to a Church, or rather a group of Churches, recently visited by the writer, who, while not wishing to write as an authoritative " teacher " so much as one who has come to love them as a friend (i. 8, cf. ix. 9), yet belongs to the class of " teachers " with a recognized spiritual gift (charisma), referred•to e.g. in the Didache. He evidently feels in a position to give his gnosis with some claim to a deferential hearing. This being so, the epistle was probably written, not to Alexandria, but rather by a " teacher " of the Alexandrine Church to some body of Christians in Lower Egypt among whom he had recently been visiting. This would explain the absence of specific address, so that it appears as in form a " general epistle," as Origen styles it. Its date has been much debated. But Lightfoot's reading of the apocalyptic passage in ch. iv.—with a slight modification suggested by Sir W. M. Ramsay—is really conclusive for the reign of Vespasian (A.D. 70-79). The main counter-view, in favour of a date about A.D. 130, can give no natural account of this passage, while it misconstrues the reference in ch. xvi. to the building of the spiritual temple, the Christian Church. Thus this epistle is the earliest of the Apostolic Fathers, and as such of special interest. Its central problem, the relation of Judaism and Christianity—of the Old and the New forms of a Covenant which, as Divine, must in a sense abide the same—was one which gave the early Church much trouble; nor, in absence of a due theory of the education of the race by gradual development, was it able to solve it satisfactorily.
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