The Authorship of the Epistle of Barnabas

Also called Letter of Barnabas.

Bart D. Ehrman writes in his introduction to the letter in the Loeb Classical Library: “The Epistle of Barnabas was a popular writing in some circles of early Christianity. Although anonymous, it came to be ascribed to the companion of the apostle Paul mentioned in Acts, and was treated as Scripture by church Fathers as early as Clement of Alexandria. It eventually came to be included among the writings of the New Testament (along with the Shepherd of Hermas) in one of the most important early New Testament manuscripts, Codex Sinaiticus.”  (Note: These two works appear last in Codex Sinaiticus – that is, after Revelation – thus leaving unclear whether or not they were being presented as canonical or merely as edifying.)

Eusebius (263-339) considered it unworthy of the canon:  “Among spurious books must be placed…the alleged Epistle of Barnabas…” (Eccclesiastical History, 3.25)

R. Laird Harris (Bibliography):  “[The Epistle of Barnabas] was held in high regard in antiquity and even declared by a few as from the pen of Paul’s companion, although this is rather clearly erroneous.  But that it was written at an early date seems clear.  Westcott says that it was a product ‘of the first age’ [70-120 A.D.].  Lightfoot sets the date at 70-132 A.D.  Gregory places the date at 130 A.D.  Goodspeed says that it was written about 130 in its earliest form but was expanded between 150 and 175, though there is no historical witness for this.” (p. 208)

See also p. 242, 254-255, 265-266

P. Ladeuze in the Catholic Encyclopedia at www.earlychristianwritings.com says:

The extremely allegorical character of the exegesis leads to the supposition that the author of the letter was an Alexandrian. His way of constantly placing himself and his readers in opposition to the Jews makes it impossible to believe that either he or the larger part of his readers were of Jewish origin. Besides, he is not always familiar with the Mosaic rites (cf. ch. vii). The history of the epistle confirms its Alexandrine origin. Up to the fourth century only the Alexandrians were acquainted with it, and in their Church the epistle attained to the honour of being publicly read. The manner in which Clement of Alexandria and Origen refer to the letter gives confirmation to the belief that, about the year A.D. 200, even in Alexandria the Epistle of Barnabas was not regarded by everyone as an inspired writing.

Kirsopp Lake (1872-1946) in his introduction to the letter in The Apostolic Fathers (1912) wrote “Barnabas, like I. Clement and Hermas, became canonical in some circles: it is quoted by Clement of Alexandria as Scripture, and is referred to by Origen as a Catholic Epistle, while it is included in the Codex Sinaiticus among the books of the New Testament, not, as is sometimes said, as an appendix, but following immediately after the Apocalypse, without any suggestion that it belonged to a different category of books.”  (a page from www.earlychristianwritings.com).

Lee Martin McDonald, in an appendix to The Biblical Canon see (Bibliography), shows Letter of Barnabas appearing in one of three early canonical lists (Clement of Alexandria, but not Irenaeus or Origen), none of 17 canonical lists from the 4th Century, none of five canonical lists from the 5th and 6th centuries, and two of five biblical manuscripts from the 4th and 5th Centuries (Sinaiticus and Claromontanus).

Robertson-Donaldson in the introduction to their translation of the letter for the Ante-Nicene Christian Library write:

Nothing certain is known as to the author of the following epistle. The writer’s name is Barnabas, but scarcely any scholars now ascribe it to the illustrious friend and companion of St Paul. External and internal evidence here come into direct collision. The ancient writers who refer to this epistle unanimously attribute it to Barnabas the Levite, of Cyprus, who held such an honourable place in the infant church. Clement of Alexandria does so again and again (Strom. ii. 6, ii. 7, etc.). Origen describes it as “a catholic epistle” (Cont. Cels, i. 63), and seems to rank it among the sacred Scriptures (Comm. in Rom. i. 24). Other statements have been quoted from the fathers, to show that they held this to be an authentic production of the apostolic Barnabas; and certainly no other name is ever hinted at in Christian antiquity as that of the writer. But notwithstanding this, the internal evidence is now generally regarded as conclusive against this opinion. On perusing the epistle, the reader will be in circumstances to judge of this matter for himself. He will be led to consider whether the spirit and tone of the writing, as so decidedly opposed to all respect for Judaism—the numerous inaccuracies which it contains with respect to Mosaic enactments and observances—the absurd and trifling interpretations of Scripture which it suggests—and the many silly vaunts of superior knowledge in which its writer indulges—can possibly comport with its ascription to the fellow-labourer of St Paul. When it is remembered that no one ascribes the epistle to the apostolic Barnabas till the times of Clement of Alexandria, and that it is ranked by Eusebius among the “spurious” writings, which, however much known and read in the church, were never regarded as authoritative, little doubt can remain that the external evidence is of itself weak, and should not make us hesitate for a moment in refusing to ascribe this writing to Barnabas the apostle.

J. Tixeront in A Handbook of Patrology (2nd English edition, 1923) writes:

Under the name of St. Barnabas we have a letter preserved in two principal codices, the Sinaiticus (IVth century) and the Hierosolymitanus (1056). With one voice Christian antiquity indicated as the author of this letter Barnabas, the companion of St. Paul, although it placed it among the antilegomenai grafai, that is to say, contested its canonicity. Modern critics unanimously deny the genuineness of the letter. When the Epistle was written, St. Barnabas was certainly no longer alive and, even if he had been, he would not have adopted the violent and severe attitude evinced throughout this document.  [Note: “With one voice Christian antiquity indicated as the author of this letter Barnabas, the companion of St. Paul,” does not seem to square with Eusebius who called it “the alleged Epistle of Barnabas” when assigning it the label of “spurious.”]

Geoff Trowbridge at www.earlychristianwritings.com writes:

c. 100-150 C.E.  The Epistle of Barnabas appears to have been written in response to a Jewish resurgence in the first half of the second century, no doubt kindled by Emperor Hadrian’s sympathy toward the vanquished nation. The author, perhaps fearing a loss of Jewish converts, goes to great lengths to explain the Judaistic misconceptions about Old Testament scripture.

Nearly all of the Jewish customs have been allegorically interpreted in relation to Christ and the New Covenant. The sacrificing of animals was a representation of the suffering Christ; now, sacrifices should only occur in your lives and hearts. Fasting should be an abstention not from food but from sin and injustice. The temple is not a building but the body of the Church. And the Sabbath is held in expectation of the Parousia. The letter ends with an explanation of Christian lifestyle, most likely borrowed from the Didache.

The epistle was highly regarded in the early church, included in the Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Hierosolymitanus, and believed authentic and canonical by Clement, Origen and Jerome, though Eusebius regarded it as apocryphal. However, the general message of the epistle was largely supplanted by the Epistle to the Hebrews, which has also been attributed to Barnabas. The companion of Paul was most likely not the author of the Epistle of Barnabas, given its date of composition and hostility toward Mosaic law.

B. F. Westcott (see Bibliography) has an entire section on it (p. 40-46), using much of that space to compare and contrast its place in the Apostolic Fathers with the place of the Epistle to the Hebrews in the NT canon.  Generally, Westcott speaks favorably of the letter and describes it on page xlvi as “genuine, but not apostolic or canonical.”

“[I]t is probable that Barnabas died before A.D. 62; and the letter contains not only an allusion to the destruction of the Jewish Temple, but also affirms the abrogation of the Sabbath, and the general celebration of the Lord’s Day, which seems to show that it could not have been written before the beginning of the second century.” (p. 41)

 Questions and Observations

Like Hebrews, Letter of Barnabas enjoyed initial canonical support in the East; but, unlike Hebrews, that never translated into canonical support in the West.

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