Epistle of Barnabas (1): Overview

BarnabasI figured it’s past time I share a bit about what I’m currently working on. The Epistle of Barnabas is an early Christian text I find uniquely fascinating, and so it’s been fun to work on an Barnabas-related article that will hopefully find a publisher some time in the future. In any event, I recognize that Barnabas is foreign to a lot of Christians, so before I share the argument of my article, here’s a quick overview of Barnabas.

Barnabas is included in most collections of the so-called “Apostolic Fathers.” It represents one of the earliest attempts to address the question of how Christians should interpret the Jewish Scriptures in light of the troubled relationship between the two groups. The work employs a consistent allegorical interpretation to the OT (e.g., the Mosaic food laws were actually instructions about people with whom you should not associate; the Jews had incorrectly read this literally when the allegorical meaning was the true intention from the beginning!) to demonstrate that Christians are the true heirs of the promises to Israel.

The author is unknown, as it is almost universally held that Barnabas, the ministry associate of Paul, was not its writer. Nothing in the text, apart from the title (presumably attached to the epistle at a later date) would suggest that Barnabas was the author, and the theology of the work seems to be too different from what one would expect of Paul’s closest ally. The date is notoriously difficult to pin down; given a reference to the destruction of the Temple, it must postdate 70. Most scholars have placed it during the reign of either Vespasian (69-79) or Hadrian (117-138), but Carleton Paget advances a strong case for the Nervan period (96-98). Despite some scholars who hold to a provenance of Syria-Palestine or Asia Minor, the best case can be made for Alexandria.

The full text of Barnabas is found in two important Greek codices (Sinaiticus, 4th c.; Hierosolymitanus, 11th c.). A Latin translation includes the bulk of the epistle (ch. 1-17), and Clement of Alexandria also attests to the early text of Barnabas by quoting extensively from it. The case of Codex Sinaiticus, perhaps our most important biblical manuscript, is particularly interesting: following Revelation, this codex then includes Barnabas (and then the Shepherd of Hermas), a testimony to the fact that, for many in the early church, Barnabas was viewed as Scripture on par with the New Testament writings (Clement of Alexandria, for instance, included it among the catholic epistles).

Barnabas can be accessed in any print addition of the Apostolic Fathers, or online here. Most scholarly work on Barnabas is in German, including the most recent and thorough commentary (F. Prostmeier, Der Barnabasbrief. KAV 8. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 1999). Probably the best English work available is a revised doctoral dissertation on the epistle (J. Carleton Paget, The Epistle of Barnabas: Outlook and Background. WUNT 2/64. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1994).


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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