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Epistle of Barnabas

The epistle of Barnabas is often looked to as a source for some of the church's most virulent anti-Judaism. And, in fact, this early text does contain language which excludes Judaism from God's Covenant. The idea of Covenant is one of its main themes. The document as a whole, however, is characterized more by disparity than consistency. Themes which are explored in a cluster of chapters are immediately dropped and a new topic is picked up without any apparent concern to whether it is cogent to the previous section. For example, Barnabas contains a block of material on the Two Ways (18-21) which is almost certainly lifted from the Didache or a common source (The two documents are roughly contemporary so there is some question of primacy and dependence), yet it has little or no bearing on the previous section. In this way, it can be seen as complicating his view of Judaism because the Two Ways teaching is certainly of Jewish origin.

The occasion of the document appears to be that of a past teacher writing to a group of followers on several issues that he is compelled to expound for their edification (1.5). The raison d'etre of the document appears to be the author's fear that some members of this group are being swayed by teachings which emphasize the lasting quality of the Jewish Covenant with God. Much of the document, therefore, is taken up with dismantling this idea.

Barnabas does this by relating the story of the giving of the Law to Moses at Sinai (Exod. 24 ff). The point of this is to discover "whether he has given it [to the Jews]"(14.1). Barnabas then gives his own interpretation of the Sinai event. The Jews never received the Covenant because when Moses descended from Sinai he found them worshiping a golden calf. He threw down the tablets and, for Barnabas, the Covenant was forever broken (14.4). It is implied that the covenant then becomes hidden in Jesus and later given to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ. This is the reason he came to earth in the first place (14.5). There is no Christian precedent for making the claim that the Jewish people never received the Covenant at Sinai. (It is in direct contradiction to the Biblical account in Exodus 34.10.) Barnabas' radical stance on the Covenant may indicate that there were Christians who thought quite the opposite. It is likely that Barnabas was attempting to redress any claims that Jews still held a covenant with God, or even that there might be two Covenants - one for Jews and one for Gentiles. Barnabas draws a single line that does not allow for dual covenants. The teaching of the Two ways (18-21) reinforces this dichotomy but only in a general way.

Barnabas also devotes several chapters to Jewish themes he is suspicious of. In chapter 10 he allegories all the food laws by pairing each prohibited animal with a particular vice. This was not an unusual idea in Jewish circles (see esp. Philo), but Barnabas takes the additional step which radically separated him from any Jewish interpretation. He advocates abandonment of food laws. (This may have been one of the ways early Christians separated themselves from other Jews. It is certainly a preoccupation with Paul). It is somewhat ironic that while he sees Judaism as never getting out of the gates he uses Jewish religious paradigms: Temple sacrifices, allegorized food laws, circumcision of the ears instead of the genitals (so that Christians can hear and understand the Scripture), the younger serving the elder, the stories of Rebecca's children, and Ephraim and Mannasse (13). The most poignant example of this is Barnabas' appropriation of the symbol of the Temple. Barnabas used typology to infuse Temple sacrifices with Christology e.g. Jesus is like the goat that takes the sins of the people and is sacrificed to remove them. He does not, however, believe the Temple was ever meant to be physical. (It is worth noting that Barnabas does not take the view, which became popular in later writings, that the temple was destroyed (70CE) as a punishment for the crucifixion of Jesus). Barnabas views its destruction as a necessary step (16.6). He explains that the true Temple of the Lord will be built one heart at a time. "Before we believed in God the habitation of our heart was corrupt and weak, like a temple really built with hands because it was full of idolatry, and was the house of daemons through doing things which were contrary to God...Now give heed, in order that the temple of the Lord may be built gloriously...This is a spiritual temple being built for the Lord" (Barn. 16.7-8,10) Barnabas then goes on explain the two ways of living: that of light and of darkness. There is a strong theme of regeneration and newness undergirding this theme. "Since then he made us new by the remission of sins he made us another type, that we should have the soul of children, as though he were creating us afresh" (Barn. 6.11 see also v.19 for eating milk and honey like children and coming into perfection).

In this epistle, there is a dichotomizing of us and them: us being the Christians and them being Jews, us being in, them being out. Barnabas is unambiguous about the fate the Covenant at Sinai and sees no room for two competing covenants. There is one covenant and it belongs to the Christians. Moreover, the Temple and all the commandments are not to be interpreted literally. But this is a far as the anti-Judaism seems to go (although this may be far enough). On every other point of exegesis the worst that could be inferred about the Jewish understanding of the Covenant or of Jewish ritual and practices is that they are misguided or misinterpreted. There are no accusations of deicide, the Law is not condemned as inherently evil or imposed on the Jewish people to curb idolatry. Although it is idolatry that causes the covenant to be destroyed Barnabas makes no effort to extend the accusation beyond Sinai. Barnabas is far more concerned with combating the idea of dual covenants (an idea unlikely to have been generated from within Jewish circles).

In Barnabas we see the seeds of themes which later writers would take up and expand (typological explanations for baptism, the cross, dietary laws, etc). But there are also themes that are not picked up. Barn. 15.7-8 implies that the Sabbath should not be observed until the coming of Jesus, because then "we will be able to keep it holy". There is also an incredibly strained, if not amusing, explanation (Barn 9.6) of why Abraham circumcised his household of 318. Barnabas is an early example of the process of an early Christian writer trying to distance Christians from Judaism. Its existence is a window into the kinds of teachings which might have been circulating amongst Christians of the second century. Perhaps the dual covenant represents a part of Christianity that lived beneath orthodoxy as this passage from Pseudo- Clementine Homilies (c. III Century CE) may indicate. For on this account Jesus is concealed from the Jews, who have taken Moses as their teacher, and Moses is hidden from those who have believed in Jesus. For, there being one teaching by both, God accepts him who has believed either of these...Neither, therefore, are the Hebrews condemned on account of their ignorance of Jesus, by reason of Him who has concealed him, if, doing the things commanded by Moses, they do not hate him whom they do not know. Neither are those Gentiles condemned, who know not Moses on account of Him who has concealed him, provided that these also, doing these things spoken by Jesus, do not hate him whom they do not know."(Ps.-Clem.Hom. 8:6-7 in Wilson 1995, 151-152)

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Kirby, Peter. "Epistle of Barnabas." Early Christian Writings. <>.