Jesus and the Gospel of Barnabas: What Do We Know?

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The Gospel of Barnabas (GB) is a medieval apocryphal text attributed to Barnabas, an important figure in the emerging Christian community shortly after Christ’s death for sedition against the Roman Empire. This article will examine some of its central teachings and claims relating to the historical Jesus, as well as its probable date of composition and reliability.

The Apostle of Barnabas

The Christian New Testament says that Barnabas was an apostle among the other apostles after Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven (Acts 4:36). As a figure of history, Barnabas comes down to us in two independent sources, in Acts and in letters penned by the Apostle Paul, which suggests a prominent role in the emerging Christian movement. He is integral to the early Christian movement of which he is responsible (Acts 11:20-22), notably in Jerusalem (Acts 36). We also learn that he met Paul and acquainted him with the apostles (Acts 9:27) while Paul states that Barnabas traveled alongside him on his missionary journeys (see Galatians 2:1 and 2:9 and First Corinthians 9:6 and 9:11). That there was a historical Barnabas who was an apostle is uncontroversial on historical grounds. What is controversial is an apocryphal gospel text bearing his name, the GB (not to be confused with another text called the Epistle of Barnabas), which will be our focus here.

Manuscripts and Authorship of GB

What we have for the GB are just two manuscripts: an Italian manuscript from the sixteenth century CE and a Spanish one from the eighteenth century CE (1). Two manuscripts is far from ideal leaving textual critics with little choice but to use them to reconstruct what the original GB might have read like. Further, despite the GB’s claims, there is academic consensus that the original apostle of Barnabas did not author this text. It appears that it was written well over a thousand years later (probably more than 1300 years) in the fourteenth century CE by a Muslim seemingly acquainted with the Bible and who wished to create a Muslim gospel that could find use in anti-Christian polemics (2).

Dating the GB

There are strong reasons for dating the GB to the fourteenth century CE. Strongest is a detail it records concerning the year of Jubilee, which we learn from the Old Testament (Leviticus 25:11) occurred every 50 years. However, around the year 1300 CE, Pope Boniface XIII (r. 1294-1303) declared that the year of Jubilee would be held every 100 years (this was changed again in 1343 when Pope Clement VI (1291-1352) returned it back to every 50 years). It is then interesting that the GB refers to the year of Jubilee being every 100 years, which suggests that it was probably written between the year 1300 and 1343.

Numerous anachronisms also point to a medieval, European date. For example, the spelling of Muhammad’s name in the GB is Machometo, which was the spelling used in Europe until fairly recently (3). There are pointers to the feudal system typical of medieval Europe as in the GB we read of barons (ch. 171) and New Testament persons, such as Lazarus (and his sisters), being presented as wealthy landlords (ch. 192). In one episode, Christ pronounced the divine name Adonai Sabaoth and in response “the soldiers were rolled out of the Temple as one rolleth casks of wood when they are washed to refill them with wine; insomuch that now their head and now their feet struck the ground, and that without anyone touching them” (ch. 152). This comparison to wooden wine casks suggests a medieval European date and at the very least suggests that the author was not familiar with the customs of first-century Palestine (the accepted time and place in which Christ’s ministry occurred historically) when animal skins were used for keeping wine. The author’s phrase that King Herod adores “false and lying gods” (ch. 217) is one we find used in the works of Dante, an Italian author of the fourteenth century CE.

Moreover, according to the GB, Christ’s mother, Mary, is called by the title “the Virgin.” However, this title only came into general use during the fourth century CE along with the notion of Mary’s “perpetual virginity” (4). The GB’s claims that Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise ultimately “condemned all their progeny” (ch. 50), that even a day-old child is not clean, and that the flesh sucks up iniquity like a sponge (ch. 66) are all strikingly similar to Christian theological doctrine as formulated by Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century CE.

One might also note some hard-to-ignore issues between events in the New Testament from the book of Acts and the GB. For example, Acts informs its readers that the Apostle Barnabas actually had the name Joseph, but was given the name “Barnabas”, which means “Son of encouragement”, by the other apostles. This renaming apparently happened after Christ is said to have been resurrected and ascended to heaven. However, in an anecdote in the GB we find Christ speaking to Barnabas and referring to him by this name, Barnabas (ch. 19). Not only does Acts suggest that Christ and Barnabas never interacted, but Acts says he was given his name by the other apostles after Christ was no longer around, not before Christ left. The GB and the book of Acts from the New Testament seem irreconcilable.

In light of these anachronisms, the GB could not have been authored by the original apostle of the title’s name and it certainly was not written in the region Christ himself ministered.

The Historical Jesus and the GB as a Muslim Polemic

Although the author includes much extraneous material, the GB does seem to follow the basic narrative thread found within the canonical gospels, which tells of Christ’s birth and events leading up to his crucifixion. Some miracles and events in this text will be familiar to readers of the gospels, such as, although not limited to, the healing of a leaper (ch. 11), choosing of the twelve disciples (ch. 14), turning water into wine (ch. 15), the religious authorities attempting to catch Christ out with his own words (ch. 42), Christ’s weeping at the unbelief of others (ch. 82), Christ sending out his disciples to preach (ch. 126), Christ outwitting the Pharisees (ch. 154), and more.

However, the GB does change numerous important details found in the earlier canonical gospels. Particularly prominent in this regard is the GB‘s account of Christ’s arrest. While being arrested, God changed Judas’ physical appearance to look like Christ. Judas was then arrested in his place and crucified. It is strongly suggested by a detail like this and others that the GB is the work of a Muslim author. It functions as an Islamic polemic and apologetic, and although not all contemporary Muslim apologists will use the GB in their work, it is still popular and the source of numerous sensationalist claims. Some Muslims use this text to argue that it presents the true Jesus of history, which they contend supports later Qur’anic claims, one of which is that Christ was not crucified but that God made it appear that he was (Qur’an 4:157-158).

Islamic influence is evidenced in several other areas too. Most obvious is that Christ denies that he is “the Son of God” or “God” (ch. 93), which is what the Qur’an teaches (5:116). The GB’s author tries to explain the origin of Christian belief in Christ’s God-status on account of the “operation of Satan” that was spread by the Roman soldiers (ch. 91). One of the reasons Christ could not have been God’s son is because “God has no body to beget” (ch. 48 and 112) and “God hath no human similitude, and therefore begetteth not sons” (ch. 91). This view holds that Christian belief in Christ being the son of God is a literal sexual begetting and therefore blasphemy. Although this mistakes the orthodox Christian position, it is nonetheless a fundamental claim of the Qur’an (19:31-35). Christ also purportedly predicts the coming of the Prophet Muhammad: “I am indeed sent to the house of Israel as a prophet of salvation; but after me shall come the Messiah, sent of God to all the world; for whom God hath made the world” (ch. 82, this is also the chapter in which the author refers to the year of jubilee occurring every 100 years). The future will witness the coming of Mohammed, “the sacred messenger of God” (ch. 112.). This is taught in the Qur’an (61:6). In this sura, Christ purportedly teaches that he is a messenger of Allah who brought the Children of Israel “good tidings of a messenger to come after me, whose name is Ahmad.” Further, Christ will ascend to heaven from the Earth and the one who betrays him, who we’ve noted to be Judas, will be slain in his place (ch. 112 and 215). Christ will therefore avoid the fate of crucifixion through his ascending to heaven, a view we noted is proposed by the Qur’an (4:157-159). The Qur’anic expression that Christ’s crucifixion was “made to appear to them” and that it was the betrayer Judas who took Christ’s place is a popular Islamic claim, although it is not the only one.

However, despite these clear Islamic influences, the GB does appear to conflict with several Qur’anic claims. For example, the Qur’an’s claim that there are seven heavens (2:29) is in opposition to the GB’s nine (ch. 105 and 178). That Mary had pain when she gave birth to Christ (Qur’an 19:23) is inconsistent with the GB’s claim she experienced no pain while giving birth (ch. 3). What is also odd, although probably explicable due to the author’s lack of linguistic knowledge, is that the GB rejects that Christ was the Messiah (ch. 42 and 82) yet still uses the Greek term “Christ” to refer to him on several occasions (ch. 1 and 6). Christ is the Greek word for Messiah, which the author seems not to have known.

These details strongly suggest that the GB was not written by the Greek-speaking Jew of the title’s name in the first century. What is far clearer is that this text is an Islamic polemic that attempts to present a historical Jesus that conforms to the Qur’anic and orthodox Islamic view.

The Historical Jesus, Reliability, and Value of the GB

It is uncontroversial to say that GB cannot be used as an independent source for the life and ministry of the historical Jesus. The consensus is that Christ died by crucifixion around 30 CE, but if the GB was indeed written in the fourteenth century then that makes it 1300 years removed from his life. It is therefore much too late to ever be considered a valuable source attesting to events that occurred in the first century. By way of comparison, most scholars would even avoid using other much earlier apocryphal texts such as the Gospel of Judas as a source for the historical Jesus because it is at least 150 years removed from Christ’s death and evidences invention to make the historical Jesus cohere with a later ideology. That later ideology in the case of the Gospel of Judas being Gnosticism while for the GB this is Islam. Further, the GB was authored in a European location (possibly Spain) far removed from Palestine. This is evident in the lack of accurate knowledge one might expect its author to have should he have been familiar with first-century Palestinian territory.

It must also be said that these criticisms do not suggest that the GB has no value. It does and its value lies in its use as an Islamic polemic against Christians. It was likely the product of tensions between Christians and Muslims, perhaps occurring between these groups. The GB could have been composed in opposition to Christianity around the time of the Spanish Inquisition.

References

1. Joosten, Jan. 2010. “The Date and Provenance of the “Gospel of Barnabas.”” The Journal of Theological Studies 61(1):200-215. p. 201-202.

2. Kritzinger, J. N. J. 1980. “A Critical Study of the Gospel of Barnabas.” Religion in Southern Africa 1(1):49-65.

3. Kritzinger, J. N. J. 1980. p. 55.

4. Miegge, Giovanni. 1955. The Virgin Mary: The Roman Catholic Marian Doctrine. Claudiana. p.40.

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