The Epistle of Barnabas is a curious epistle that surprisingly has some messages that ring true with modern Christians. This epistle was likely written just after most of the books of the Bible, and was considered by some Christian communities as inspirational. Eusebius in his early History of the Church says the Epistle of Barnabas was “not canonical but disputed, yet familiar to most churchmen,” but not to be rejected as the writings of the Gnostics and heretics.
FROM THE TRANSLATOR’S PREFACE
Not many copies of the Epistle of Barnabas have survived, scholars had the partial Latin text until a longer Greek version was discovered as an appendix to the Codex Sinaiticus, an early copy of the Bible. Like many churchmen in ancient times he often quoted Scripture from memory, and occasionally he quotes from sources either long lost or mangled. His memory is not as precise as other ancient authors, and occasionally he alters or adds to a scriptural quotation to strengthen his argument.
Modern authors say he started the church down an anti-Semitic path, and his views of Jews were extreme. As the translator notes, Barnabas “denies flatly there is any historic link between Judaism and the Gospel. All the rites and ceremonies of the Law, he tells us, had been intended by God simply as mystical pointers to Christ; but the Jewish people had been seduced by an evil angel into a literal instead of a spiritual understanding of them, leading them to regard the observance of the ordinances as a sufficient end in itself.”
To be accepted in the canon, a work had to have apostolic authorship, be in wide use in the Church, be quoted by many Church Fathers, and proclaim the Good News with right teachings. Many in the early Church believed it was apostolic, though only the title and little in the text leads you to that conclusion, but it was not widely used in the local liturgies of the church, nor did many patristic Church Fathers quote from the Epistle of Barnabas. But one Church Father did quote extensively from the Epistle of Barnabas, Clement of Alexandria. These problems stemmed from the problems inherent in the text itself. Although it is not scripture, reading Barnabas is like reading the words of a second century Billy Graham, it still speaks to both the ancient and modern Christian.
READING THE EPISTLE OF BARNABAS
St Paul in 1 Corinthians 13 exhorts that “faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love,” and Barnabas echoes this Scripture in his epistle: “The divine principles are three in number. Faith begins and ends with Hope, hope of life; judgement begins and ends with Holiness; and the works of holiness are evidenced by Love, and the joy and gladness it brings.”
David exhorts Psalm 51 that an acceptable sacrifice to God is a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Barnabas recalls the many Old Testament passages that tells us God has no need for sacrifices and whole burnt offerings, that God seeks first the sacrifice from the heart. Barnabas quotes from Isaiah 58 passages that many conservative Christians today would disown for fear of creating dependency among the poor:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
If you offer your food to the hungry,
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
Barnabas urges, “Let us be men of the spirit,
Let us make ourselves into a real temple of God,
Let us devote ourselves to practicing the fear of the Lord,
Let us strive earnestly to keep his commandments,
Then following the Law of the Lord will be our delight.”
Barnabas finds spiritual meaning in the Old Testament. The Law of Moses states you can eat any animal who has a cloven hoof and who chews the cud. The cloven hoof is likened to the man who lives in this world but anticipates the holiness of eternity, and the chewing of the cud is like those “who seek the company of men who fear the Lord, who muse in their hearts the meaning of the Word of God,” who follow the statutes of the Lord in their life and in their heart, who find the meditation on the Word of God to be a delight, “who chew the cud of the Lord’s Word.”
Likewise, although Moses had forbidden the people of Israel to make images, Moses himself made an image that was a symbol of Jesus and the Cross, a serpent of brass that he hung on a pole, so when any of the Israelites were bitten by serpents, they might gaze up the serpent of brass in a spirit of hope and live.(210-11)
There are other passages in Barnabas that are troubling, such as when he states that when Moses carrying the tablets containing the Decalogue saw the riotous celebrations of the Jews dancing around the golden calf he hurled them to the ground, smashing them, and so, Barnabas tells us, the Jews lost their right to the Covenant of God.(213) This is not a very interesting interpretation, is there salvation in finding fault in others, not seeing the Bible stories as warnings to ourselves, but rather imagining we would of course would never be like those who reject God, that we are not the ones who need to change. A more interesting way to read the story is to imagine that we are the ones who live to dance, who seek to live to be entertained, we are the ones who without thought watch any movie that comes out, that we are the ones who dance wildly around the golden calf, that we should repent lest we please rather than anger God, for perhaps the breaking of the tablets of the Decalogue foresees the teaching that there are unforgivable sins against the Spirit. Theologians debate what this unforgivable sin could be, but perhaps the message is simply that it is possible to sin and sin a sin so dire that it is unforgivable, that God will tolerate only so much mockery and disrespect and impatience before the tables are dashed on the rocks.
Barnabas closes his epistle with the two ways, the way of light, and the way of darkness. The Way of Light covers two pages, here is a sampling of what it says:
“Love your Maker, fear your Creator, give glory to Him who redeemed you from death.”
“Abhor anything that is displeasing to God,” does this include objectionable movies and TV shows?
“Do not exaggerate your own importance, but be modest at all points, and never claim credit for yourself.”
Do not covet, “do not be greedy for gain.”
“Do not set your heart on being intimate with the great, but look for the company of those who are humble and virtuous.”
Barnabas counsels that we should be generous to the poor:
“Never hesitate to give, and when you give, give without grumbling.”
“Give your neighbor a share of all you have, and do not call anything your own.”
Those who persist in the way of darkness are those who steal from the poor:
“The widow and orphan are nothing to them, and their sleepless nights are spent not in fearing God but in the pursuit of vice.”
“They have no pity for the poor, no ever trouble their heads about any poor soul in distress.”
“They turn the needy from their doors, they deal harshly with the afflicted.”
“While they aid and abet the rich, they are brutal in their judgement of the poor.”
“In a word, those who follow the way of darkness are utterly and altogether sunk in sin.”
 “The Epistle of Barnabas,” in Early Christian Writings – The Apostolic Fathers, translated by Maxwell Staniforth (New York: Dorset Press, 1968), pp. 227-237