The Epistle Of Barnabas And The Perils Of The Allegorical Approach To God’s Laws

We have already spent some time discussing some of the issues and shortcomings of the Epistle of Barnabas [1], but it is worthwhile to discuss one additional element of this book which has created problems for many professed Christians and deserves special mention.  When we are faced with a knowledge of God’s laws that we are not obedient to, our response can take several forms.  We can attack those laws as barbaric or strange so as to assert a claim that God has no authority over us in terms of regulating our conduct and behavior.  We can seek to obey God and ask His help to do so as best as we can, or seek to understand how His laws may apply in our lives given that the conditions of those lives are different than conditions were when those laws were first given.  Alternatively, if we neither wish to straightforwardly obey those laws, whatever other layer of application the laws have, nor to reject the laws outright as having no importance, we are left in a sort of mediating position where we honor some sort of spiritual layer of meaning to the law but without any sort of physical obedience.  This is a common attitude towards God’s laws among antinomian Hellenistic Christians, and we see this approach taken by early Hellenistic believers, including the author of the Epistle of Barnabas.  Today I would like to look at some passages from the Epistle of Barnabas to show how this approach can lead the unwary interpreter into considerable difficulties.

We can see some of these problems when we look at what the Epistle of Barnabas has to say about not eating certain animals, like hares:  “(Among other things, he also says, you are not to eat of the hare, by which he means you are not to debauch young boys, or become like those who do; because the hare grows a fresh orifice in its backside every year, and has as many of these holes as the years of its life.  And you are not to eat the hyena signifies that you are to be no lecher or libertine, or copy their ways; for that creature changes its sex annually and is a male at one time and a female at another.  The weasel too, he speaks of with abhorrence, and not without good reason; his implication being that you are not to imitate those who, we are told, are filthy enough to use their mouths for the practice of vice, nor to frequent the abandoned women who do the same–since it is through its mouth that this animal is impregnated.) (171)”  Immediately after this, Barnabas makes the following misstatement that demonstrates how fully he has fallen into the trap of viewing God’s laws as only symbolic:  “In these dietary laws, then, Moses was taking three moral maxims and expounding them spiritually; though the Jews, with their carnal instincts, took him to be referring literally to foodstuffs (171).”

We may not agree with every interpretation of the law that we find among the Jews in the Mishnah or Talmud or another one of their writings, or as it is recorded in the New Testament.  Yet no one who reads the law or of the Christian view of the law as expounded in the New Testament will be content to view things with the same mindset as Barnabas.  After all, when God gave a vision to Peter in Acts 10 concerning unclean animals, he readily understood that God was telling him to call no person unclean and continued not to eat unclean animals as well.  For Peter, the spiritual meaning that God had for the law of clean and unclean animals did not abrogate the physical level of meaning regarding not eating what was unclean.  Genuine Christianity does not consist in pitting one layer of a passage against another, but in obeying the law and also appreciating the spirit of the law as well.  Yet for Hellenistic Christians, there is a characteristic dualism in their view of the law, in that a recognition of spiritual levels of application implies a hostility to the physical obedience of that law, as if an understanding of the spirit of the law meant that the physical level had no more importance or application.

There are several problems with this approach, as the passages we have discussed from the Epistle of Barnabas make plain.  For one, someone seeking to draw a spiritual layer can simply be incorrect about what a passage means, as we see from Barnabas’ rather fanciful and inaccurate descriptions of the behavior of various animals and the sexual immorality that Barnabas reads into them as they apply to his audience.  Even where an allegorical approach gives some insight, though, the pitting of the layers against each other means that the insight gained by such Hellenistic believers is abstract and intellectual in nature and is not connected in any way with the insights one gains from obeying the law and seeking to understand it through one’s practice.  In this way the intellectual understanding gained through mere allegorization of the law is quite shallow and superficial, which describes the understanding of Hellenistic Christians about the law even today, after nearly two millennia of adopting this approach towards God’s laws.  Finally, we may see that the attitude of Hellenistic believers towards those who do seek to follow God’s laws is one of superiority and accusations against the character and understanding of those who seek to obey God, making such people simultaneously evildoers themselves by virtue of their disobedience as well as arrogant and hostile towards obedience, as a result of their misguided dualism.

Obviously, these matters are of high importance to contemporary believers.  There is still a marked tendency on the part of many people to view physical obedience of God’s laws and a following of God’s ways in one’s life as missing the mark, contrary to scripture’s view of disobedience as missing the mark.  If spiritual and intellectual understanding is viewed as being completely antithetical to obedience, one cannot be seen to understand deeper meanings if one holds any importance to the plain surface meaning of the text.  In such ways the scripture is broken and those who profess to follow Christ end up being children of disobedience and error.  In order to avoid falling into these errors we must see the various layers of scripture in harmony with each other, and seeing spiritual or allegorical meaning or deeper application as adding layers of depth to the surface meaning rather than taking away the importance of the surface meaning.  Ultimately, we can only understand the mind of God through obedience as well as thorough application of God’s laws and ways, meditating and reflecting upon God’s ways as we go about living them, as it is written, for example, in Psalm 119:97-104:  “Oh, how I love Your law!  It is my meditation all the day.  You, through Your commandments, make me wiser than my enemies; for they are ever with me.  I have more understanding than all my teachers, for Your testimonies are my meditation.  I understand more than the ancients,
because I keep Your precepts.  I have restrained my feet from every evil way, that I may keep Your word.  I have not departed from Your judgments, for You Yourself have taught me.  How sweet are Your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!  Through Your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.”  Oh, would that Barnabas and those who followed him in misunderstanding God’s law had grasped this profound truth!

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to The Epistle Of Barnabas And The Perils Of The Allegorical Approach To God’s Laws

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