The Problem Of Anti-Semitism In The Didache And The Epistle Of Barnabas

We have previously noted [1] the issue of hostility to the Jews in the Didache and its ominous implications for Christian-Jewish relations going back to the late first and early second centuries AD.  Having just looked at the way in which the dualism of both the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas connects the two books together [2], it is worthwhile to notice as well the way that the two books share a context of rising hostility between Jews and Christians about their shared heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures, which remain a subject of considerable tension between the two faiths, which were diverging rapidly and portentously during the first couple of centuries of Christianity’s existence.  Let us begin by briefly restating the anti-Jewish mood we can read in the Didache, and then we will continue on with the vastly more substantial amount of anti-Jewish material in the Epistle of Barnabas, much of it is reflective with the way that Hellenistic Christians continue to view the Hebrew scriptures even to this day.

In the Didache, as we have previously noted, there is some anti-Semitic material that reflects early conflict between Christians and Jews from the apostasizing Christian perspective.  Section 8 tells the followers of the Didache:  “Do not keep the same fast days as the hypocrites.  Mondays and Thursdays are their days for fasting, so yours should be Wednesdays and Fridays (194).”  Likewise, when we discuss Sabbath observance there is the ominous reference to the Lord’s day we have discussed at length above in section fourteen:  “Assembly on the Lord’s Day, and break bred and offer the Eucharist; but first make confession of your faults, so that your sacrifice may be a pure one (197).”  Even at the early date in which the Didache was written, therefore, we see some marked tendency to call Jews hypocrites and to call the day of worship that this congregation was engaging in as the Lord’s Day, even though Jesus Christ has only ever been the Lord of the Sabbath.

The evidence for anti-Semitism in the Epistle of Barnabas, however, is of a much more pervasive and thorough nature, and it is to that which we will turn for the remainder of our present discussion.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Epistle of Barnabas opens up anti-Sabbath arguments that continue to be used by Calvinists like North, et al who wish to be seen as being in favor of God’s law without being obedient to its literal commands.  Witness the tortured eisegesis of Barnabas concerning Sabbath observance and compare it with the 90-odd page appendix to North’s book on the Ten Commandments on the same subject and you will see that these two are antinomian kin:  “You shall keep it holy, says He, with clean hands and a pure heart.  We are very much mistaken if there is anybody at the present time with a heart pure enough to keep holy the day which God has sanctified.  Observe, though, that a time is coming when we shall indeed rest and keep it holy – though not until our final justification has enabled us to do so; that is, when the promise has at last become ours, when iniquity is no more, and when the Lord has made all things knew.  Then we shall be able to keep it holy, because we ourselves will have been made holy first.  He also tells them, I have no patience with your new moons and sabbaths.  You can see what He is saying there:  ‘It is not these sabbaths of the present age that I find acceptable, but the one of my own appointment:  the one that, after I have set all things at rest, is to user in the Eighth Day, the commencement of a new world.’ (And we too rejoice in celebrating the eighth day; because that was when Jesus rose from the dead, and showed Himself again, and ascended into heaven.) (177-178)”

There is a great deal about this interpretation that is greatly mistaken, but its mistakes are worth considering in some depth because they are mirrored in contemporary misguided interpretations about the Sabbath and holy days.  Witness, for example, the antinomian logic of Barnabas when he says that because we cannot keep the Sabbath perfectly in the present world as imperfect human beings, even if redeemed and justified ones, that we should not bother to keep it at all.  Barnabas seeks to pit the perfect as the enemy of the good, and to justify his disobedience by pointing to his imperfection even if he tried.  This is the same sort of logic we see from the children of disobedience in this present evil age in other matters as well.  We then see Barnabas shifting to an argument for a supposed eighth day that happens to be the first day.  This argument is flawed on a variety of grounds.  For one, the eighth day that is symbolic of the new heavens and new earth is already a part of the biblical holy day system at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles, which is the only eighth day that believers are commanded to worship [3].  Additionally, Jesus Christ was in the tomb for three days and three nights and had already risen before the beginning of the first day, and his ascension to His father took place on Feast of the Firstfruits, itself spoken of in Leviticus 23 along with the remainder of the holy days commanded by God.  In like manner the only day that God commanded to be celebrated and remembered was the Sabbath Day, not a heathen substitute like that championed by Barnabas and many other since them.  From the foregoing we may see that Barnabas greatly errs in his reasoning, and that he completely misses the critique of the practices of some Israelites and Jews in the scriptures in order to attack biblical religion itself.

Barnabas also shows himself to be anti-Semitic as an early proponent of supercessionism, as we can see from the beginning of his discussion of the people of the covenant:  “Let us now see whether it is our own people or the earlier folk who are the true inheritors, and whether the Covenant is meant for us or for them.  LIsten to what Scripture has to say about ‘the People.’  Isaac entreated the Lord for his wife Rebecca, because she was barren; and she conceived.  Then Rebecca went to inquire of the Lord, and the Lord said to her, Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples in your bowels; one people shall be stronger than the other people, and the elder shall be servant to the younger.  Now then; it is for you to realize who Isaac is, and who Rebecca is, and to which people this prophecy of the superiority of the one to the other refers (175).”  Here again we see an ancestral argument to replacement theology, by which the Jews are supposed to be no longer the Israel of God.  This is in stark contrast to the view of the apostle Paul, for example, expressed in Romans, that all Israel will again be grafted to their own native olive tree and thus be a part of God’s people after this present period of estrangement from God because of a rejection of Christ.  There is no such expectation of a restoration of physical Israel to God’s graces upon repentance and an acceptance of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior in the perspective of Barnabas.

Similar to the anti-Semitism we have seen above, the viewpoint of Barnabas on biblical law is often to pit the spiritual level of interpretation against the physical, an illegitimate dialectic that we see continued in a great deal of antinomian literature from Hellenistic Christians who deceive themselves into thinking that they follow Christ.  We may see an example of this in the beginning of Barnabas’ discussion of dietary laws in section ten of his work:  “And now for that saying of Moses, You are not to eat of swine; nor yet of eagle, hawk or crow; nor of any fish that has not got scales.  In this there are three distinct moral precepts which he had received and understood.  (For God says in Deuteronomy, I will make a covenant with this people that will embody my rules for holiness; so, you see, the Divine command is in no sense a literal ban on eating, and Moses was speaking spiritually.)  Here again we see the Hellenistic tendency to view a spiritual level of meaning as implying a denial of any physical level of application.  Who is to say that God was not speaking to Moses both physically and spiritually in terms of the defilement that comes from that which is unclean, be it animal or behavior?  Does the spiritual level of meaning of adultery and fornication referring to the ungodly and idolatrous worship practices of Israel and Judah spoken of by the prophets deny the physical meaning of such matters in our own personal conduct?  Heaven forbid!  And yet from such terrible reasoning and the pitting of spirit against flesh rather than the obedience and understanding of both levels a great deal of so-called Christian thought about God’s law springs.

From the foregoing we may see therefore that the anti-Semitism of Barnabas and those who have followed after him springs from a variety of roots.  For one, there was the initial struggle between Jews and Christians over the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In an atmosphere of rising hostility between Jews and Christians, it was natural for Jews to libel Jesus and Paul and others in the Mishnah and Talmud, as they did, and it was equally natural for those who claimed to be followers of Christ from moving beyond a critique of the gap between the faith and practice of Jews to an attack on that faith and those practices and a transference of God’s promised blessings and favor onto themselves without seeing any need to be followers of God and practitioners of His way in any physical sense as Jesus Christ and the earliest believers were.  We may see in the Epistle of Barnabas and similar writings an early example of the parting of the ways that left many who professed to follow Christ to behave and believe in ways that marked them not as followers of God at all, but of a false antinominan Gospel that remains commonly professed and practiced in our day as fiercely and incorrectly as it may be found in the early Epistle of Barnabas.

[1] See, for example:


[3] See, for example:

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10 Responses to The Problem Of Anti-Semitism In The Didache And The Epistle Of Barnabas

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