The writings of St Barnabas
St Barnabas never actually met or knew Jesus, but was a convert to Christianity. The principal Christian influence in his life was the great St Paul (see the page about St Barnabas). Barnabas learnt the faith from St Paul and, following the political killing of St Paul, became a Christian leader in his own right.
Like many of the early Christian leaders, Barnabas sought to transmit the faith he had inherited from his own teachers. To those ends, he wrote to other Christians.
The Epistle of St Barnabas
The full text of the Epistle of St Barnabas is available here.
We do not know an exact date when this letter was written, but it was probably between AD 70 and 135. Certainly, from the earliest years of the Christian era — and certainly within a couple of decades of the death and Resurrection of Jesus — Christians have known about and discussed the Letter of St Barnabas. (It is referred to as “the ‘Epistle’ of St Barnabas’’, which is merely a Latin-based description.)
The text of the Epistle of St Barnabas has never really been under discussion. It says very little that adds to our knowledge of early Christianity, which probably explains why the Church authorities did not choose to include it in the canon of the Bible. In other words, while useful, it should not be regarded as uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.
The Acts of Barnabas
The full text of the Acts of St Barnabas is available here. The first major translation into English was that of M R James. His version remains the standard text in English.
The text of the Acts of Barnabas claims to identify its author as ‘John Mark,’ who was a companion of St Paul. We do not know when the Acts was actually written but its language and the internal ecclesiastical politics suggest it was written in the fifth century. In context, the independence of the Church in Cyprus had been declared by the First Council of Ephesus in 431 CE and confirmed by Emperor Zeno in 488 CE, but was widely ignored. The author of the Acts of Barnabas therefore claimed the island was the site of St Barnabas’ grave and therefore an apostolic foundation. In this way, the author sought to promote the independence of the Church of Cyprus and its bishops from the Patriarch of Antioch.
Some readers have mistakenly assumed that the reference to a ‘Gospel’ used by Barnabas in the Acts of Barnabas refers to the Gospel of Barnabas (below). This reference is clearly false as the following quotation from the Acts reveals: ‘Barnabas, having unrolled the Gospel, which we have received from Matthew his fellow-labourer, began to teach the Jews.’ Only by omitting this phrase can the impression be given that there is a Gospel of Barnabas earlier than the so-called ‘Decretum’. Only by these means is it possible to claim the Gospel of St Barnabas was written before the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries.
The Gospel of St Barnabas
The full text of the Gospel of St Barnabas is available here.
The Gospel of St Barnabas is clearly a very different document from either the Epistle or the Acts. It is a very long book describing the life of Jesus, and claiming to be the work of Jesus’ disciple Barnabas, who in this work is one of the twelve apostles. In no other document contemporary with early Christianity is Barnabas described as an ‘apostle’.
Two manuscripts of the Gospel of St Barnabas are known to have existed. Both can be dated to the late 16th century and are written in Italian and Spanish. The Spanish manuscript is now lost, its text surviving only in a partial 18th-century transcript. The Gospel of Barnabas is about the same length as the four Canonical gospels put together (the Italian manuscript has 222 chapters, compared with 16 in Mark), with the bulk being devoted to an account of Jesus' ministry, much of it harmonised from accounts also found in the canonical gospels. In some key respects, it conforms to the Islamic interpretation of Christian origins and thereby contradicts the New Testament teachings of Christianity.
External evidence concerning its authenticity
The very first translators of this old manuscript were never convinced of its authenticity. Today, no main-stream Bible scholar or literary scholar believes the Gospel of St Barnabas is genuine. The reasons below comprehensively demolish any idea that it can be regarded as anything other than a late medieval forgery:
1. The earliest reference to a Gospel of Barnabas dates from a fifth-century work Decretum Gelasianum. This reference is usually doubted because it never mentions the content. Most scholars think this reference is a scribal error because the context seems similar to the Epistle of St Barnabas.
2. No Christian writer before the fifteenth century mentions the Gospel. It is inconceivable that a document dating from the same time as the four Gospels that Christians revere today should not be mentioned anywhere.
3. The only surviving manuscript dates from the 1700s. Early Christians were almost fanatical about copying their scriptures and sharing them with other Christians.
4. The text of the Gospel of St Barnabas says it was written by one of the twelve apostles of Jesus whereas St Barnabas was a disciple. If true, he was a later follower but never an apostle.
5. The Italian manuscript contained 222 chapters whereas the Gospel of St Mark is 16 chapters in length. Indeed, the size is much longer than the four gospels ‘canonical’ Gospels combined.
Internal evidence concerning its authenticity
The text as we have it today contains a great many anachronisms and historical incongruities:
1. It mentions Jesus sailing across the Sea of Galilee to Nazareth. Such a sailing is impossible because Nazareth lies inland.
2. It says that Jesus goes ‘up’ from Nazareth to Capernaum, which is again impossible because Capernaum is actually on the lakeside.
3. It also says that Jesus was born during the rule of Pontius Pilate which began after the year 26 ce. He would have been 7 years of age when crucified.
4. Barnabas appears not to realise that ‘Christ’ and ‘Messiah’ are synonyms: ‘Christ’ (khristos) is a Greek translation of the word Messiah (mashiach), both having the meaning of ‘the anointed one’. The Gospel of Barnabas therefore seems scrambled when it first describes Jesus as ‘Jesus Christ’ (literally ‘Messiah Jesus’ in Greek), yet claiming that ‘Jesus confessed and said the truth, “I am not the Messiah” ’ (Ch. 42).
5. The text refers to a jubilee that is to be held every hundred years (Ch. 82), rather than every fifty years as described in Leviticus 25. This anachronism appears to link the Gospel of Barnabas to the declaration of a Holy Year in 1300 by Pope Boniface VIII; a Jubilee which he then decreed should be repeated every hundred years. In 1343 the interval between Holy Years was reduced by Pope Clement VI to fifty years.
6. Adam and Eve eat an apple (Ch 40) whereas the traditional association of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:9,17; 3:5) is a fig. The tradition of an apple comes from a mis-translation of the Hebrew Bible into Latin where both ‘apple’ and ‘evil’ are both rendered ‘malum’. The first Latin translation occurred in the late fourth century.
7. The Gospel of St Barnabas describes storing wine in wooden casks (Ch. 152). Wooden casks were a characteristic of Gaul and Northern Italy and were not commonly used for wine in the Roman Empire until well after 300 CE. By stark contrast, wine in first-century Palestine was always stored in wineskins or pottery jars (amphorae). The Pedunculate or English Oak Quercus robur does not grow in Palestine; and the wood of other species is not sufficiently airtight to be used in wine casks.
8. In Chapter 91, the ‘Forty Days’ is referred to as an ‘annual fast’. This corresponds to the Christian tradition of fasting for forty days in Lent — a practice that is not witnessed earlier than the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE. Nor is there a forty days' fast in Judaism of the period.
9. Where the Gospel of Barnabas includes quotations from the Old Testament, they all correspond to readings as found in the Latin Vulgate rather than those as found in either the Greek Septuagint, or the Hebrew Masoretic texts. As noted already, the first Latin translation (the so-called ‘Vulgate’) was that of St Jerome who lived many centuries after the death of Barnabas.
10. In Ch. 54, the Gospel of St Barnabas says: ‘For he would get in change a piece of gold must have sixty mites’ (Italian minuti). In the New Testament period, the only golden coin, the aureus, was worth approximately 3,200 of the smallest bronze coin, the lepton (translated into Latin as minuti); while the Roman standard silver coin, the denarius, was worth 128 leptons. The rate of exchange of 1:60 implied in the Gospel of Barnabas was, however, a commonplace of late medieval interpretation of the counterpart passage in the canonical Gospels (Mark 12:42), arising from the standard medieval understanding of minuti as meaning 'a sixtieth part'.
11. Chapter 91 records three contending Jewish armies 200,000 strong at Mizpeh, totalling 600,000 men, at a time when the entire Roman army across the whole of the vast Roman Empire had a total strength estimated at no more than 300,000.
12. In Chapter 119, Jesus suggests that sugar and gold are substances of equivalent rarity and value. Although the properties of sugar had been known in India in antiquity, it was never traded as a sweetener until industrial-scale production developed in the 6th century. Between the 11th and 15th centuries, the sugar trade into Europe was an Arab monopoly, and its value was often compared with gold. From the mid-15th century, however, large-scale sugar estates were established in the Canary Islands and the Azores, and sugar, although still a luxury, ceased to be exceptionally rare.
Muslim uses of the Gospel of St Barnabas
Some readers seek to denounce Christianity by saying the Gospel of St Barnabas is genuine. Indeed, many Muslims are actually taught the Gospel is in fact the original Gospel and that Christians follow a corrupted version (or versions). Most interpretations of the Gospel of St Barnabas derive from the founder of the Ahmediyya movement, Ghulum Ahmed Mirza. They should note the following:
1. No Muslim writer before the fifteenth century even mentioned the Gospel of Barnabas. Some of the greatest Muslim apologists in dialogue with Christians never mention it. They include Ibn Hasm, Ibn Taimiyyah, Abu’l-Fadl al-Su’udi, and Hajji Khalifah.
2. Many Muslims say the Gospel of St Barnabas was the Gospel given by God to Jesus, as mentioned in the Acts of Barnabas. They employ a mis-quote. The actual line says ‘And Barnabas had received documents from Matthew, a book of the word of God, and a narrative of miracles and doctrines,’ which means that the Gospel he is referring to is one he received from St. Matthew!
3. The Gospel of St Barnabas contradicts the Quran which explains why several Muslim scholars don’t believe it is genuine.
4. Many Islamic elements appear in the text such as Jesus preacheing from a dikka which is a platform in a mosque.
Despite these devastating criticisms, sadly some readers persist in believing the Gospel of St Barnabas is true.
Page posted 8 May 2020