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Sunday, March 17, 2013

A Genuine Epistle of Barnabas? Part I

(I) Introduction

Students of early Christian literature know of an Epistle of Barnabas written, most likely, some time in the early second century A.D. Its date makes it highly unlikely that it was written by the Joseph Barnabas, the "son of encouragement", mentioned in Acts 4:36-37. A so-called "Gospel of Barnabas" has gained currency in Islamic circles, but it is clearly a medieval forgery, most likely produced by an educated apostate Latin Christian who was utterly unfamiliar with the geography of 'Eretz Yisrael.

However, it is possible that Barnabas has left us a genuine literary monument in the Epistle to the Hebrews.  This work is in the form of a sermon rather than a letter, and does not identify its author save that he is associated with Timothy and certain persons from Italy.  Its author is rightly said to be known only to God, but scholars ancient and modern have suggested a number of authors, especially Paul.  This essay, however, seeks to make a case that Barnabas may have been the author of Hebrews. 

Virtually all we know of the Barnabas to whom these works are attributed is found in the Book of Acts and Epistles of Paul in the New Testament. His introduction in Acts 4: 36-37 reads:

And Joseph, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas (which is, being interpreted, Con of exhortation), a Levite, a man of Cyprus by race, having a field, sold it, and laid it at the apostles' feet (ASV).

Later, he appears as he brings the newly converted Saul of Tarsus (Paul), the former persecutor of the church, into the circle of the disciples at Jerusalem. When Paul is sent out to preach the Gospel to the nations--the true meaning of "Gentiles"--Barnabas accompanies him from Antioch to Cyprus and southern Asia Minor before returning to their base at Antioch.  However, Paul and Barnabas fall out with each other over Barnabas' wanting to take his nephew Mark on the next missionary journey; for Paul apparently decided that Mark's having earlier left them in Pamphylia meant that he was unreliable. 

Barnabas also gets some mention in Paul's letters of First Corinthians, Galatians, and Colossians.  The last-mentioned is perhaps the most significant, for there Mark is described as Barnabas' nephew, and, apparently, reconciled to Paul prior to Paul's imprisonment.

(II) The Problem of the Authorship of Hebrews

Readers of the King James Bible are familiar with the superscription to the epistle, which identifies it as having been written by Paul.  Further, numerous others have supported its Pauline authorship.  But writing in the fourth century, but dependent on a wide range of earlier sources, Eusebius of Caesarea states:

...And the fourteen letters of Paul re obvious and plain, yet it is not right to ignore that some dispute the Epistle to the Hebrews, saying that it was rejected by the church of Rome, as not being by Paul, and I will expound at the proper time what was said about it by our predecessors (1).

Clearly, Eusebius accepted the Pauline authorship of Hebrews, but nonetheless noted the doubts which placed it among the Antilegomena, those books of the New Testament whose apsotolicity was questioned. Of Origen's (184/85-253/54 A.D.) opinion, he writes:

...he discusses the Epistle to the Hebrews in his Homilies upon it: "That the character of the diction  of the epistle entitled To the Hebrews has not the apostle's [Paul's] rudeness in speech, who confessed himself rude in speech, that is, in style, but that the epistle is better Greek in the framing of its diction, will be admitted by everyone who is able to discern differences in style.  but again, on the other hand, that the thoughts of the epistle are admirable, and not inferior to the acknowledged writings of the apostle, to this everyone will cocnsent as true who has given attention to the reading of the apostle...But as for myself, if I were to state my opinion, I should say that the thoughts are the apostle's, but that the style and composition belong to one who called to mind the apostles teaching..."(2)

Questions about the authorship of Hebrews, then, have been around for about as long as it has been read.

During the Reformation,Calvin writes:

As to its author, we need not be greatly worried.  Some think that the author was Paul, others Like, others Barnabas, and others Clement, as Jerome says...I can adduce no reason to show that Paul was its author; for those who say that he designedly suppressed his name because it was haateful to the Jews, make no relevant case (3).

Calvin wrote as a careful student of New Testament Greek and the early church fathers. In his opinion, he follows Desiderius Erasmus, Cardinal Cajetan, and Martin Luther, other 16th century writers representing respectively Renaissance humanism, Roman Catholicism, and the Reformation in reviving ancient doubts about Paul's authorship of Hebrews. Luther went so far as to suggest Apollos, a learned Jewish Christian of Alexandrian associated with Paul, as the author.

However, a point that stands out among all the doubts cast on the Pauline authorship of the letter is that its thought is close to that of Paul and the other apostles as expressed elsewhere in the New Testament. While such other antilegomena (as opposed to the notha, or spurious works) such as the Shepherd of Hermas and Epistle of Barnabas were excluded from the canon, Hebrews came to occupy an important place.  Edgar Goodspeed notes that it is listed as second of the Pauline epistles in a recently discovered canon dated to roughly 200 B.C.  But, more importantly, the First Letter of Clement, probably the earliest Christian writing outside those that make up the New Testament, echoes its thought and language in its thirty-sixth chapter.  This work includes numerous echoes of other works of the Old and New Testaments, although its direct citations from the New Testament are few.  Clement's echoing of Hebrews suggests that by the end of the first century (or, perhaps, even before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.),Hebrews was held in high esteem, and probably recognized as coming from someone within the apostolic circle.

Tertullian (160-225 A.D.), the North African Latin lawyer who was among the first important Christian authors to use Latin, was an early witness to Barnabas' being the author of Hebrews (On Sexual Modesty/Pudicity), albeit only in passing, mentioning that Paul and Barnabas were examples of sexual abstinence. 

However, the information about Barnabas himself and the character of the Epistle to the Hebrews are perhaps the most important hints that Barnabas may have been the author. These include his Cypriot origins, levitical background, and the attention which Hebrews pays to the Temple cult.

(to be continued)



(1) Eusebius,1975.  Ecclesiastical History. ed. and trans. Kirsopp Lake. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, vol. I, 193.

(2) ibid., II,77.

(3) Calvin, Jean. 1974. The Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews. trans. William B. Johnston.  Grand Rapids, MI, Wm. B. Eerdmans. 1.

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