The Issue Of Identity And Pseudonymity In The Epistle Of Barnabas

Would the Epistle of Barnabas be known or cared about at all aside from those who like obscure ancient literature if its reputed author did not have the same name as one of the Bible’s most beloved apostles?  Although the author of the Epistle of Barnabas nowhere directly connects himself with Paul’s famous associate by that name, who appears as a very praiseworthy and compassionate person in the Bible, it is unlikely that without the connection in name that the Epistle of Barnabas would be relatively well-known and well-regarded or to have been considered by any professed Christians as being worthy of consideration as part of the Christian canon.  After all, one of the rules for inclusion in the Bible is that the book was written either by an Apostle or by a known associate of the Apostles (like Mark and Luke), and one of the rules for inclusion in the Apostolic Fathers as a collection is a connection to the Apostles as well.

Is the Barnabas of the Epistle of Barnabas connected to the apostles at all?  It would not appear so, although the Epistle of Barnabas was probably written in the early 2nd Century AD around the time of Trajan or Hadrian, although it is difficult to be more specific in the absence of specific information about the author or about the circumstances of his time.  It is clear from reading the Epistle of Barnabas [1] that the author and his associates were engaged in some pretty ugly controversy with the Jews and possibly with genuine believers who kept the Sabbath and Holy Days over legitimacy.  Such concerns remain of importance as there is a noticeable tendency within Hellenistic Christianity to review the obedience to the Sabbath and Holy Days as well as the Food Laws, all of which are discussed in this book, as being signs of having succumbed to a Judaizing tendency, just as it is very easy in response to see the anti-law and anti-Semitic approach of the Epistle of Barnabas as indicating a corrupt form of Christianity that has already fallen away from the true way, regardless of its protestations to be genuine in nature.

When we look at the question of the identity of the Barnabas of the Epistle of Barnabas, we are faced with two questions.  First, is he named Barnabas at all?  The author includes very little information, however, his introduction does indicate that he viewed himself or was viewed by others as an authority, despite the dubious value of much of what he says:  “Greetings to you, my sons and my daughters.  In the name of the Lord who loved us, peace (159).”  From this opening, we can see that the author of the Epistle of Barnabas describes his audience as sons and daughters, placing himself on the level of some sort of authority as an apostle or minister or prophet.  As we have examined earlier, the harsh and even profane message of Barnabas bears no resemblance to the generosity of spirit and concern for Jewish law and custom that we find from the biblical Barnabas, who was himself a Levite from Cyprus and maintained excellent relations with both Jewish and Gentile converts to Christianity and their leadership throughout his loyal ministry.

This leaves us with the conundrum of understanding who it is that wrote the Epistle of Barnabas.  If he was a leader, who recognized him?  Was he one of those self-appointed antinomian leaders who rise up from time to time who received a great deal of popularity and respect in the ancient world (and today) for his hostility to the Biblical law and for his highly quotable if grossly inaccurate understanding of animals?  Did he seek to use the name of Barnabas as a way of gaining goodwill, or was he just simply a different Barnabas than the biblical one for whom the similarity of name was done in order to increase the authority of what he said?  The question of identity is a major one, especially since we know that during the Middle Ages (and beyond) there has been an immense tendency to conflate biblical personages together, so that Mary Magdalene is associated with Mary of Bethany and the the notorious but anonymous female sinner whose tears prompted Jesus Christ’s comment about those who are forgiven much loving much more than those who are forgiven comparatively little.

The question of pseudonymity in the Bible and in related words is important too for those who engage with textual criticism.  It is popular among many nonbelievers who nonetheless which to consider themselves interpreters of scripture to argue against Paul’s authorship of Ephesians or the pastoral epistles because it is inconvenient for them to consider that a model of formal church authority involving elders and deacons existed in the first generation of the Church of God.  Likewise, we know from Paul’s writings that others wrote false epistles under his name seeking to corrupt the Gospel, and that is precisely the sort of material we see in the Epistle of Barnabas, a corruption of the genuine Gospel of Jesus Christ and the early Apostles, all of whom kept God’s food laws and worshiped on the Sabbath and Holy Days whether attending Jewish synagogues or organizing early Christian congregations, as can be demonstrated from extensive biblical evidence [2].  Likewise, post-biblical Church history gives us the story of the early Hellenistic Church punishing someone for pseudonymity in writing the Acts of Paul and Thecla, showing that this was a problem that was viewed seriously even by those who had ceased to follow Jesus Christ and obey the commandments in their religious practice.

How, then, should we treat Barnabas?  It is clearly an ancient work, but a work about which there are many problems and concerns.  The religious worldview of its author suggests that the author is part of an early but nonetheless already antonomian part of those who professed Christianity, and his harshness towards God’s laws and towards the Jews echoed throughout the history of the Hellenistic Church long after his own time.  If the author was named Barnabas, he was not tied to the pronomian Barnabas of the Bible, and it is possible that he falsely took on this name to write a false Gospel with a greater authority than he would have possessed apart from the leadership mantle that he claimed for himself as a religious “father” to his audience.  Whoever gave him that authority, it was not for his devotion to God’s ways or for his Christian charity towards others, making this a book that demonstrates the earliness of Hellenistic Christianity in many of its characteristic forms rather than a fitting demonstration of the persistence of the preaching and doctrine of the Apostles among those who professed Christianity.  It did not take long for massive corruption within Christianity and its message about God’s ways to set in, as the Epistle of Barnabas makes abundantly plain.

[1] See, for example:

[2] 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.
This entry was posted in Bible, Christianity, Church of God, History, Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Issue Of Identity And Pseudonymity In The Epistle Of Barnabas

  1. Pingback: An Imaginary Conversation Between Barnabas And A Publisher | Edge Induced Cohesion

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