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Epistle of Barnabas

BARNABAS, EPISTLE OF bär’ nə bəs (Βαρνάβα). A writing of the early church. This document is in the form of a general address to Christian “Son|sons and Daughter|daughters.” The name “Barnabas” appears only in the title and the subscription.


It is highly unlikely that this exhortation has any connection with the Barnabas who is recorded in the Book of Acts as a fellow missionary of the Apostle Paul. The date of its origin (cf. infra) is probably too late. But more important than that is the fact that the type of teaching of this epistle is utterly different from the message of Paul. Salvation is the object of a quest by which works bring righteousness. Special insights are helpful. The Pentateuch is full of figures representing spiritual teaching. It was not intended to be understood literally, but was designed to convey spiritual meanings. The law was not to be understood as fulfilled by Jesus Christ|Christ, but as spiritually binding for Christians. “My soul hopes that none of the things which are necessary for salvation have been omitted” (XVII, 1).

If not Barnabas, who? No answer can be given.

Place of origin

There are elements in Barnabas that are reminiscent of Asia Minor. The millennial period after the coming of the Son is one (cf. Papias and Irenaeus). Another is the idea of building again spiritually what has been destroyed physically (XVI). The story of the Two Ways, the way of light and the way of darkness, is common to both Barnabas and the Didaché. A similar passage is found in the Qumran Manual of Discipline III, 18-IV, 26. The story was probably widely circulated and is not of much help in determining a place of origin.

The only evidences of the use of Barnabas in the 2nd and 3rd centuries are connected with Alexandria. Clement of Alexandria quoted it as canonical, and Origen appeared to have had the same view of it. Its method of interpreting the Old Testament is distinctly in accord with Alexandrian traditions, and with the view of the Old Testament current among many there. Probably, therefore, it should be suspected of having an Alexandrian origin.


The use of Barnabas by Clement of Alexandria in the late 2nd cent. furnishes a date before which its composition must have occurred. There is, however, a passage bearing more directly upon the subject: “Furthermore he says again, ‘Lo, they who destroyed this temple shall themselves build it.’ That is happening. For on account of the war it was destroyed by the enemy; now even the servants of the enemy will build it up again” (XVI, 3, 4). It seems highly probable that this refers to the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem during the revolt against the Rome|Romans put down by Titus in a.d. 70. The rebuilding referred to as in progress must have reference to rumors of a rebuilding in the middle days of Hadrian, or to the building later in Hadrian’s time of a pagan temple on the site. The date of writing is probably, therefore, in the neighborhood of a.d. 130.


An extensive amount of the text of Barnabas is made up of quotations, largely from the LXX of Isaiah, but also from other canonical and non-canonical books. Second Esdras is quoted as “another prophet” (XII). “The Scripture says” introduces a quotation from 1 Enoch (XVI, 5). There are other instances of similar phenomena.

After a general salutation to Christians Barnabas talked about three dogmas. The text is not in good condition but they seem to be the hope of life, righteousness, and the love of joy and gladness. Sacrifice|Sacrifices are not needed, but rather righteousness. The care of the hungry and the doing of righteousness are what is now necessary, for the end is at hand. The covenant of Jesus is to be sealed in men’s hearts, but they must not be indolent because they are called. The sprinkled blood of Christ is for man’s sanctification. Jesus chose wicked apostles to demonstrate what He could do with evil men. His suffering was foretold by the prophets. A new creation is now in process. When men have been made perfect, they will rule the earth. Jesus suffered and mankind must lay hold of Him through pain and suffering. Circumcision must be of the heart and the hearing, not of the body. An evil angel led the fathers astray on bodily circumcision. The dietary regulations of the law were to teach ethical truth concerning fellowship with others and concerning sex|sexual relationships. Baptism and the cross were described allegorically in the Old Testament. As Jacob supplanted Esau, so the Christians supplanted the Jews. Christians have inherited the covenant that the Jews have rejected. After six thousand years the wicked will be destroyed and the true rest of the people of God will come. The true temple of God is His people.

The last four chapters of Barnabas recount the story of the two ways, the way of light and the way of darkness. The former is love, simplicity, humility, purity, meekness, generosity, peacefulness. The latter is idolatry, hypocrisy, adultery, murder, pride, and the like. “May you gain salvation, children of love and peace” (XXI, 9).

Theology and ethics

Barnabas taught the attainment of salvation by the suffering of the Lord and man’s obedience to the commandments spiritually interpreted. Baptism and the hope of the cross bring eternal life (XI, 11). The Son of God came in the flesh (V, 11). After the millennial sabbath there will be another world, the eighth day (XV, 8).


The Aleph of the New Testament includes the Greek text of Barnabas, immediately after the Book of Revelation and before the Shepherd of Hermas. The text is also in the manuscript discovered by Bryennios in 1873 which was the manuscript which brought the Didaché to the attention of the modern world. There are a number of defective manuscripts which contain part of Barnabas and part of Polycarp’s letter to the Philippi|Philippians. A Latin VS is probably as old as the 3rd, possibly the 2nd, century. This omits the story of the Two Ways.


H. Windisch, Der Barnabasbrief (Handbuch zum neuen Testament, Ergänzungs-Band, Die apostolischen Vater, III) (1920); J. Muilenberg, The Literary Relations of the Epistle of Barnabas and the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (1929); J. A. Kleist, The Didaché, The Epistle of Barnabas, etc. (Ancient Christian Writers, 6, 1948); P. Prigent, Les testimonia dans le christianisme primitif, l’épitre de Barnabé IXVI et ses sources (1961); R. A. Kraft, Barnabas and the Didaché (ed. R. M. Grant, The Apostolic Fathers III) (1965). See also Apostolic Fathers, esp. for texts and trs.

See also

  • Apocryphal Epistles