The Epistle of Barnabas

The Epistle of Barnabas is an odd and frustrating letter.  The author’s intent is primarily to show Christ’s fulfillment of various Old Testament passages, images, and types.  He does this by employing allegory and numerology in ways that will likely tax the modern reader.  There are quasi-Gnostic overtones in his appeal to secret knowledge which is appealed to as an evidentiary key to the allegorical interpretations (i.e., “No one has been admitted by me to a more excellent piece of knowledge than this, but I know that ye are worthy.” [ch.6]) and possibly in the light/dark motif as well (chs.19 & 20).

To be sure, this kind of thing is burdensome on this side of the Enlightenment, though we have no doubt traded one set of errors for another in the opposite direction.  (Note as well that I am not trying to laugh off the entire allegorical enterprise.  It is an interesting and complex question that posseses two extremes…like most other complex questions!  The allegorical eisegesis in The Epistle of Barnabas, however, seems forced.)

Furthermore, there are various translation issues with the epistle that make it, at times, difficult to navigate and understand.  The modern reader is also likely to find the epistle’s not-infrequent use of apocryphal writings to be challenging.

There are occasional moments of inspiration, I think.  “Take heed,” the author tells us near the end of chapter 4, “lest resting at our ease, as those who are the called [of God], we should fall asleep in our sins, and the wicked prince, acquiring power over us, should thrust us away from the kingdom of the Lord” (p.139).

I found this sentence from chapter 6 strangely moving:  “For man is earth in a suffering state, for the formation of Adam was from the face of the earth” (p.140).  “Earth in a suffering state” indeed.  Also, the discussion of belief and baptism in chapter 11 is quite interesting and thought provoking.

Finally, the modern reader will likely be interested in the epistle’s condemnation of abortion in chapter 19:  “Thou shalt not slay the child by procuring abortion; nor, again, shalt thou destroy it after it is born” (p.148).  Likewise, chapter 20:  “…who are murderers of children, destroyers of the workmanship of God” (p.149).

Altogether, this is an interesting and deeply flawed epistle that is equal parts useful and useless.

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