Brandon's Notepad

April 25, 2014

The Epistle of Saint Barnabas

Home > My Research > Christianity > Early Church Fathers > The Epistle of Saint Barnabas


Synopsis

This letter by an unnamed author is written to a community of Gentile believers from the perspective of one who has the authority to teach that which has been passed down to him, thus an Apostle or a bishop. The primary purpose is to distinguish Christian thought from Jewish Tradition, which the author believes to be in great error.

Authorship

This epistle is attributed to, but probably not authored by, Barnabas the Apostle by other writers in the Patristic period.

Summary

I chose to summarize this text by rewriting it in condensed and simplified language. The bracketed numbers indicate the transition between chapters as defined in the English Translation found at New Advent.

[1] Beloved brethren,

You are a testimony to the workings of the Holy Spirit. Your great faith and love in the Lord bring me great joy, and by them am I obliged to love you over my own soul. I am honored, therefore, to share with you what I have learned.

[2] Lest we be deceived in this evil age, let us understand what the Lord truly asks of us. The Lord has spoken through the prophets that he does not need the sacrifices of men as prescribed in the Law of the Jews, and has abolished them in favor of the new law of Jesus Christ. A pleasing sacrifice is a broken spirit and a heart that gives praise to God. [3] Likewise, Jewish fasts are not acceptable. The fast he has chosen is that man reject sin and show love to neighbor through works of mercy. [4] Do not claim that the Jewish Law belongs also to you, the Gentiles, for God’s first covenant with the Jews was broken by them before Moses could even deliver it.

The end of days is near, and a life of faith will be of no value unless you persevere to the end. Thus you should reject all wickedness and live in love as a community, not alone like you are already justified. Keep his commandments joyfully! Remember that the Lord will judge the whole of mankind and not individual persons, though each will receive according to what he has done in life, beit righteousness or wickedness. [5] For the Lord Jesus offered his own body and blood as our sacrifice for sin, by which we may be made holy. He who chooses another way of life dies justly. Indeed, the Lord chose to suffer in this way to put away death and reveal the resurrection of the body, but also to tell all of his coming judgment. For this did he gather and teach a chosen people. For this he graced the prophets to foretell of him. And for this did he make friends with sinners, that all sinners may be called to repent. How fitting is it that the Son of God himself come to man?

[6] The Prophets and the Patriarchs foretold of Jesus. From them, we learn of his might and steadfastness. We learn too that the benefit of his sacrifice is to be made anew and to be given hearts wherein he might reside that we may be made perfect in time. He is often called (metaphorically) a stone, and [7] he is foreshadowed by the scapegoat [8] and the red heifer. By these images we know that they who seek him must themselves endure some suffering. [9] So also, the circumcision of Abraham binds the chosen people not only to God by the seal, but also to Jesus by symbols, for both the ears and the heart must be circumcised for one to hear and believe. [10] Even the restrictions imposed by Moses on which animals may be used for food contain symbols of how he calls us to live. For example, we must not associate with men who live as they please (swine), or with men who steal for a living (birds of prey), or with accursed men (bottom-feeding fish), but instead with men who walk this world in anticipation of the future (cloven-footed animals) and with those who fear God and give him thanks. [11] Finally, in the words of the Prophets we find references to fruitful trees near flowing water, making a clear connection between the cross and baptism, and also [12] references to the cross in various other forms.

[13] That the heirs of the covenant with God are the followers of Jesus and not the Jews is also revealed in Scripture, for in many stories about the family of Abraham, those in which two sons were present, it is always the elder that serves the younger. [14] Indeed, it is we who have received the first covenant that was given to Moses, instead of the Jews who were found unworthy to enter into it and to whom was given the Law instead. It was not enough to belong to the chosen people, but to the people redeemed by the sufferings of Christ who are now being perfected.

[15] Know too that it can be derived from Scripture that all things will be finished in six thousand years. The Christ will return on the seventh day (i.e. the seventh millennium since the beginning) and establish peace for a thousand years. The beginning of the eighth day will mark the beginning of a new world. Thus, just as the Jews keep holy the Sabbath, so we keep holy the Eighth Day, the day whereupon Jesus rose from the dead.

[16] The Jews were idolaters, trusting in the temple and not in the power of God. The temple has since been destroyed and God no longer lives there. He lives in the hearts of those whom he has redeemed; thus, the heart is a spiritual temple.

[17] I sincerely hope that I have not omitted anything here that is necessary for your salvation. I won’t write of future things, for they are hidden in parables. [18] Instead, I wish to convey knowledge about doctrine and authority. [19] The way of light, which is the way of God and his angels, leads to eternal reward. It requires one to be zealous in his works, to love and glorify God for the gifts of creation and redemption, to have a humble heart and a rich spirit, to be honest and a good steward, to hate sin and avoid associating with sinners, to obey the Lord’s commandments and to love one’s neighbor, to accept suffering, to confess one’s sins, and to strive to be pure of soul. [20] The way of darkness, which is the way of Satan and his angels, leads to eternal death and punishment. It includes those things that destroy the soul: wickedness, idolatry, pride, hypocrisy, adultery, murder, deceit, avarice, as well as all affronts against that which is good and true. [21] It is best to walk in the ways of the Lord and be glorified by him. So, show kindness and mercy to one another (those in power amongst you), be honest and avoid hypocrisy, and I pray that God grace you with the knowledge required to do his will. Meditate on all that I have told you, that I may be of some good to you.

Farewell, children of love and peace! May the Lord be with your spirit!

Observations

  • The basic layout of the epistle is as follows: Chapter 1 is a salutation and opening, Chapters 2-17 is a response to the threat of the Judaizers, Chapters 18-20 is a short version of the same material found in the Didache, and Chapter 21 is a conclusion.
  • Chapter 2 is a rehash of excerpts from Isaiah 1, Jeremiah 7, Zechariah 8, and Psalm 51.
  • Chapter 3 is taken almost entirely from Isaiah 58, which the author sees as a warning to avoid acceptance of the yoke of the Law.
  • Chapter 4 mentions prophecy found in Daniel 7, but also in the Book of Enoch, which is considered canonical only by a minority of Eastern Orthodox churches.
  • The author also mentions in Chapter 4 that he writes out of concern for his readers’ purification, and that temporary faith is insufficient for salvation.
  • Sanctification and the remission of sins is effected by Jesus’ blood of sprinkling. These words in Chapter 5 evoke images of OT sacrifices as described in the first chapters of Leviticus.
  • Chapter 6 includes a very interesting reference to the suffering earth. Man is in a suffering state, and because he was made from the dust of the ground, the whole earth shares in this state. In contrast, man is invited to enter a good land flowing with milk and honey. Given this symbology, it stands to reason that man must be perfectly clean before entering the good land, lest he contaminate it. In both the old and the new creation, man enters the land and is given dominion. [Gn 1:26; Lv 20:24; c.f. Ex 33:3]
  • Most references to the Lord as a stone come from Isaiah.
  • The story of the scapegoat can be found in Leviticus 16.
  • The story of the red heifer can be found in Numbers 19.
  • The link between circumcision and Jesus in Chapter 9 is derived from a numeric code applied to Genesis 14:14. Abram had 318 men in his household, implying that they were joined in circumcision. The numbers 10 and 8 refer to Greek letters used in a short form of Jesus’ name(IH; c.f. the IHS monogram). Likewise, 300 refers to the letter T which was a symbol for the cross.
  • Near the end of Chapter 12, the author draws a distinction between Son of God and the Son of man, declaring that Jesus was one but not the other. This treatment of terms may have been a material stumbling block to the inclusion of this epistle in the Canon of Sacred Scripture.
  • Chapter 15 is undoubtedly the origin of various Rapture theories, most of which claim that the Lord will reign in the Seventh Millenium. Ironically, those who hold fast to these theories are the same people who reject all non-Biblical literature as heresy.
  • The Way of light discussed in Chapter 19 includes a lot of provisions that most modern Christians would recognize, plus some that sound somewhat scrupulous. Abortion is expressly forbidden.
  • This epistle cannot be considered a Gnostic text. Though the author does mention the desire to make his readers knowledgable about things material to their salvation (Chapters 1, 5, 17, 19, etc.), and even speaks several times of secret or hidden knowledge (Chapters 6, 11, 17), he never claims that the possession of such knowledge is the source of salvation. If anything, the author writes to make things once hidden known more plainly.

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