HomeHistoryThe ‘Letter of Barnabas’ — What does it tell us about what the earliest Christians believed?
August 1, 2018
The ‘Letter of Barnabas’ — What does it tell us about what the earliest Christians believed?
One of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament is the so-called ‘Letter (or Epistle) of Barnabas.’ Early Christian theologians such as Clement of Alexandria believed it to be written by the Barnabas who accompanied the Apostle Paul in New Testament times (Acts 9:26-27). What does this letter tell us about what the earliest Christians believed?
‘The Letter of Barnabas’
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 — c. 215 A.D.) described this letter as a production of ‘the Apostle Barnabas,’ thus:—
Rightly, therefore, the Apostle Barnabas says, “From the portion I have received I have done my diligence to send by little and little to you; that along with your faith you may also have perfect knowledge. Fear and patience are then helpers of your faith; and our allies are long-suffering and temperance. These, then,” he says, “in what respects the Lord, continuing in purity, there rejoice along with them, wisdom, understanding, intelligence, knowledge.” Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis (or Miscellanies) Book II, chapter 6
“Because of ancient testimony in favour of its being a production of the travelling companion of the Apostle Paul, the writing has come down to us under the name ‘the Letter of Barnabas.’ In spite of this, modern scholarship generally does not regard it as being his work.”
Origen (c. 185—254 A.D.) also referred to this writing as “the general Epistle of Barnabas,” again as though believing Barnabas himself to be the author thereof — and elsewhere, he apparently refers to it as though it were New Testament Scripture. (The canon of the New Testament books hadn’t yet been defined at this stage.)
Because of this ancient testimony in favour of its being a production of the travelling companion of the Apostle Paul, the writing has come down to us under the name ‘the Letter of Barnabas.’ In spite of this, modern scholarship generally does not regard it as being his work. Instead it is regarded as a writing of unknown authorship, albeit an extremely early one — it is generally assigned a date around 100 A.D.
An anti-semitic text?
For me, the ‘Letter of Barnabas’ is difficult reading. At times its tone verges on anti-semitic.
“With the ‘Letter of Barnabas,’ however, there is a definite undercurrent of hostility towards the Jewish people themselves. This comes out, for example, in chapter 9 where its author writes, ‘they [the Jews] transgressed because an evil angel deluded them.’”
The purpose of the letter is to show that Jesus Christ is everywhere foreshadowed in the Old Testament — more on how it does this later — and therefore Judaism is wrong. Its Christian readers are thus urged not to slip into the errors of Judaism.
Thus far, the letter is only doing what the anonymous Letter to the Hebrews does in the New Testament itself: its purpose also is to show that Jesus Christ is everywhere foreshadowed in the Old Testament, and thus to urge its readers (presumably Jews who had believed in Jesus as the promised Messiah) not to go back to the old ways of Judaism.
With the ‘Letter of Barnabas,’ however, there is a definite undercurrent of hostility towards the Jewish people themselves. This comes out, for example, in chapter 9 where, comparing Christians — those who are circumcised in their ears and their hearts — with Jews he writes,
Therefore he [the Lord] has circumcised our ears, that we might hear his word and believe, for the circumcision in which they trusted is abolished. For he declared that circumcision was not of the flesh, but they transgressed because an evil angel deluded them.
Or again, in chapter 16, he writes,
Moreover, I will also tell you concerning the temple, how the wretched [Jews], wandering in error, trusted not in God himself, but in the temple, as being the house of God. For almost after the manner of the Gentiles they worshipped him in the temple. But learn how the Lord speaks, when abolishing it: “Who hath measured out the heaven with a span, and the earth with his palm? Have not I?” [Isaiah 40:12] “Thus says the Lord, ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: what kind of house will you build for me, or what is the place of my rest?’” [Isaiah 66:1] You perceive that their hope is vain.
Granted, the word ‘Jews’ is not present in the original text (it is inserted for clarity in the Ante-Nicene Fathers translation quoted above); nevertheless, there is a clear hostility here toward the Jewish people. And in calling them ‘wretched,’ the writer seems not only to be applying these passages from Isaiah to the Jews of the time in which Isaiah wrote (who, after all, were condemned for their unbelief by the prophet himself), but to those of his own day.
In terms of its tone, it is all a far cry from the writings of the Apostle Paul who — although he himself and his companions had faced hostility and persecution from the Jewish people (see, e.g., 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16) — yet could write,
I am speaking the truth in Christ — I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit — that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. Romans 9:1-4
The ‘Letter of Barnabas’ was clearly written after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in A.D. 70 — in chapter 16 it refers to that as a past event. This was a time when Jewish Christians were being expelled from worship in the synagogues because of their belief in Jesus of Nazareth as divine. If the ‘Letter of Barnabas’ was written in the wake of this expulsion, this would account for — though not excuse — the strongly anti-Jewish tone of the letter.
A strange use of the Old Testament!
Having said the foregoing by way of introduction to the ‘Letter of Barnabas,’ what are some of the things we learn from it?
“One of the most striking characteristics of this letter is its odd use of the Old Testament. It repeatedly quotes passages from the Old Testament making use of details which don’t remotely occur in our copies!”
Firstly, one of the most striking characteristics of this letter is its odd use of the Old Testament.
This isn’t merely the classic early Christian tendency to allegorize — though it does plenty of that. More, though, it repeatedly quotes passages from the Old Testament making use of details which don’t remotely occur in our copies!
Now what do you suppose this to be a type of, that a command was given to Israel, that men of the greatest wickedness should offer a heifer, and slay and burn it, and that then boys should take the ashes, and put these into vessels, and bind round a stick purple wool along with hyssop; and that thus the boys should sprinkle the people one by one, in order that they might be purified from their sins?
Consider how he [God] speaks to you with simplicity. The calf is Jesus: the sinful men offering it are those who led him to the slaughter. But now the men are no longer guilty, are no longer regarded as sinners. And the boys that sprinkle are those who have proclaimed to us the remission of sins and purification of heart. To these he gave authority to preach the gospel, being twelve in number, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel.
But why are there three boys that sprinkle? To correspond to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, because these [men] were great [in the sight of] God. And why was the wool [placed] upon the wood? Because by wood Jesus holds his kingdom, so that [through the cross] those who believe in him shall live for ever.
But why was hyssop joined with the wool? Because in his kingdom the days in which we shall be saved will be evil and polluted, [and] because he who suffers in body is cured through the cleansing efficacy of hyssop. And on this account the things which stand thus are clear to us, but obscure to them because they did not hear the voice of the Lord.
“Now what do you suppose this to be a type of, that a command was given to Israel, that men of the greatest wickedness should offer a heifer, and slay and burn it, and that then boys should take the ashes, and put these into vessels, and bind round a stick purple wool along with hyssop; and that thus the boys should sprinkle the people one by one, in order that they might be purified from their sins?”
The ‘Letter of Barnabas,’ chapter 8
Anyone familiar with the passage about the red heifer will find the foregoing passage bizarre. It says nothing about “men of the greatest wickedness” offering the heifer, nor does it say a word about boys taking the heifer’s ashes and sprinkling the people. The placing of the wool on the wood is presumably a reference to Numbers 19:6 (where ‘wood’ = cedar wood, and ‘wool’ = scarlet yarn), but the writer of the ‘Letter of Barnabas’ makes probably more of it than is actually there.
We have similarly odd use of the Old Testament in chapter 7 (see here), which uses Leviticus chapter 16 as its base text.
Again, in another passage the ‘Letter of Barnabas’ quotes from another ‘scripture,’ thus:
In like manner he [God] points to the cross of Christ in another prophet, who says, “And when shall these things be accomplished? And the Lord says, ‘When a tree shall be bent down and again arise, and when blood shall flow out of wood.’” Here again you have an intimation of the cross, and of him who should be crucified.
The quotation referred to here can be found nowhere in our existing Old Testament texts; did it come from some apocryphal ‘Old Testament’ book, now lost?
How do we account for these strange Old Testament quotations?
How do we make sense of these odd citations of the Old Testament in the ‘Letter of Barnabas’?
“It may be that the writer of ‘Barnabas’ had before him one or more ‘midrashim’ (commentaries) on Numbers 19 and Leviticus 16, and used these (wittingly or unwittingly) as though they were the Old Testament itself.”
Its curiosities of this type are too significant and too intrinsic to the writer’s argument to be accounted for by corruption in transmission of the ‘Letter of Barnabas’ itself. The text of ‘Barnabas’ which we have in front of us today is, at least substantially, what its writer intended to say.
The only three explanations I can think of which account for these odd readings of the Old Testament are,
that the writer of ‘Barnabas’ had an extremely corrupt version of parts of the Old Testament (including Numbers 19 and Leviticus 16);
that the writer had the Hebrew text of these books before him accompanied by a very poor grasp of Hebrew, and therefore frequently missed the meaning (badly);
that the writer had before him one or more ‘midrashim’ (commentaries) on Numbers 19 and Leviticus 16, and used these (wittingly or unwittingly) as though they were the Old Testament itself.
However we account for these odd readings, one thing that is clear is that the canon of Old Testament books — if we can even speak of a ‘canon’ at this stage — was far from firmly defined or standardized; many Jewish texts, now no part of our Old Testament (and in some cases no longer extant), might have been quoted as if ‘scripture.’
An early witness to Christian belief in Father, Son and Holy Spirit
There is a great deal not to celebrate about the so-called ‘Letter of Barnabas.’ It is a text that opens up more questions than it answers. And in particular, its somewhat anti-semitic tone ought to make us shudder. I can’t say that strongly enough.
“For the Scripture says concerning us, while he speaks to the Son, ‘Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the beasts of the earth, and the birds of heaven, and the fish of the sea.’ And on beholding the fair creature Man, the Lord said, ‘Increase, and multiply, and replenish the earth.’ These things [were spoken] to the Son.”
The ‘Letter of Barnabas,’ chapter 6
Having said all that, however, we do have in the ‘Letter of Barnabas’ one of the earliest texts, outside of the New Testament itself, showing that Christians believed in Jesus of Nazareth both as human and divine.
Thus in chapter 5 we read:—
And further, my brothers: If the Lord endured to suffer for our soul — he being Lord of all the world; to whom God said at the foundation of the world, “Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness” [Genesis 1:26], understand how it came about that he endured to suffer at the hand of men.
The prophets, having obtained grace from him, prophesied about him. And he — since it was fitting for him to appear in flesh — that he might abolish death and reveal the resurrection from the dead, endured, so that he might fulfil the promise made to the fathers; and by preparing a new people for himself might show, while he dwelt on earth, that when he has raised mankind he will also judge them.
In this passage we see very clearly (i.) a belief in the humanity of Christ (“it was fitting for him to appear in flesh”); and (ii.) a belief in his eternal existence (“to whom God said at the foundation of the world”).
We also have here an early example of Trinitarian belief — God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In chapter 6 we read,
Blessed be our Lord, who has placed in us wisdom and understanding of secret things. For the prophet says, “Who shall understand the parable of the Lord, except him who is wise and prudent, and who loves his Lord?” [not found in Scripture] Since, therefore, having renewed us by the remission of our sins, he has made us after another pattern, [it is his purpose] that we should possess the soul of children, inasmuch as he has created us anew by his Spirit.
For the Scripture says concerning us, while he speaks to the Son, “Let us make man after our image, and after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the beasts of the earth, and the birds of heaven, and the fish of the sea” [Genesis 1:26]. And on beholding the fair creature Man, the Lord said, “Increase, and multiply, and replenish the earth” [Genesis 1:28]. These things [were spoken] to the Son.
Notice in the above quotation the references both to the Spirit who “creates anew;” and to the Son, to whom God the Father spoke at the foundation of the world.
Hence, in the ‘Letter of Barnabas’ we see very clearly — at around the end of the first century — the early Christian belief in God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The ‘Letter of Barnabas,’ therefore — for all its faults — is an important witness, independent of the New Testament, to the early Christians’ belief in this central tenet of our faith.
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The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I. T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, reprinted 1996 (henceforth referred to as ANF): p.142. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/anf01.vi.ii.ix.html. Note: I have slightly adapted this and subsequent quotations to make them more accessible to modern readers.
 These italicized Scripture references, in this and subsequent quotations of Barnabas, are mine; they are not in the original text.
Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.