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Charles Bigg [1840-1908], The Origins of Christianity. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1909. Hbk. pp.58-62.

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CHAPTER VI

BARNABAS


In the latter years of the first century, and at the beginning of the second, we meet with three Christian writers who will most conveniently be taken together.

The first is Barnabas. Who he was and where he lived we do not know; the most likely guess is that he was an Alexandrian. Even as to his date critics are not quite agreed. But on this point he himself gives us indications. He mentions the destruction of Jerusalem, and it is therefbre certain that his Epistle was not written before 70 A. D. But further, he regards this calamity as the fulfilment of the prophecies of Daniel. Let us look at his words:-

'For the prophet also saith this: Ten kingdoms shall bear rule upon the earth, and behind them shall arise a little king who shall bring low three of the kings under one. Likewise about the same thing Daniel saith: And I saw the Fourth Beast, evil and strong and fiercer than all the beasts of the earth, and how out of it arose ten horns, and of them a little side horn, and how he brought low three of the great horns under one.'

The fourth beast is the fourth Empire, the Roman; the ten horns are ten Caesars. The tenth Caesar reckoned from Julius is Vespasian, who is ‘little’ because of low origin, and a ‘side horn’ because neither by birth nor by adoption did he belong to the direct line of the patrician Emperors. The three ‘great horns’ whom he ‘brought low under one’ are Galba, Otho, and Vitellius. We may place the Epistle then with tolerable confidence between the fall of Jerusalem and the death of Vespasian, that is to say between 70 and 79, and perhaps not long after the earlier of these two dates. For the author appears to regard Vespasian as destined to be the last of the Emperors. Barnabas is a chiliast. The world, he believed, had already lasted for 6,000 years. Six great days had already passed away; the seventh was already dawning. Christ was coming to reign upon earth for a sabbath of 1,000 years, during which the Temple was

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to be rebuilt by the servants of God’s enemies, by the people whom Christ had redeemed from bondage to evil demons - not another house of stones, but a ‘spiritual temple’, that is to say a clean heart in which God can truly dwell. When this sabbath rest is over, the eighth day, on which Jesus rose, the eternal Sunday will appear, another world will begin, and all things be made new.

He directs his Epistle to some church unnamed - which he had visited shortly before. ‘My Sons and daughters,’ he calls them, and he bids them ‘Rejoice in the name of the Lord who loved us in peace’. ‘Children of joy,’ he calls them in another place. He himself had rejoiced in his brief communion with them; he thought their spirits blessed and noble, and could see nothing that they wanted except to add perfect knowledge to their faith. As we read the Epistle we learn that this knowledge is in the main Allegorism. What Barnabas desires to show is that the old scriptures by innumerable dark hints had prepared the Church for that very catastrophe which had occurred. The same thought had been present to the mind of the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews not many years before, but there is a woful contrast in the intelligence of the two writers. The latter deals broadly and finely with the difference between the shadow and the substance, and leads us up to the great idea of progress, of a revelation which, though divine in all its stages, is always reaching forward to its final consummation in Christ. Barnabas writes like a converted Rabbi; he finds his knowledge in foolish juggling with words, letters, numbers, or in obscure Rabbinical traditions; he has no philosophy or history, and leaves the Law as great a puzzle as he found it. As a teacher he is of little interest. But as a witness to the beliefs of his time he is considerable. And his character, his humility, his amiability and cheerfulness, his genuine devotion to the Lord, more than atone for his ruggedness, his odd notions, and his lack of culture. Simple Barnabas, we may call him.

We ought to begin with what he says about the dignities and work of our Lord, especially in the fifth chapter.

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Christ was Lord of all the world’, and to Him God said at the Creation, ‘Let us make man in our image and likeness.’ The prophets ‘derived their grace of Him and prophesied of Him’. It was necessary that He should come in the flesh, for the Psalmist foretold that He should be crucified. The flesh was needful as a veil to His majesty; without that screen man could not have been saved by beholding Him, ‘for they cannot bear to look with naked eyes even upon the sun, that sun which shall one day be quenched, which is the work of His hands.’ Nor without a body could He have overcome death or assured us of the Resurrection, or healed us by His scars, or sanctified us by the remission of sins which is ‘in the blood of His sprinkling’. He is also the future Judge. All this might be illustrated freely from the New Testament, and it is certain that Barnabas had read the Gospel of St. Matthew. But there is one curious point on which he attaches a very peculiar interpretation to the Gospel. David, says Barnabas, tells us himself that Christ was not his Son.’[1] Tatian reproduced the same opinion in the second century, and it may be discovered even in the later Didache. He was Son of God, but not Son of David. We are to understand firstly, that Joseph, who sprang from the house of David, was not the father of Jesus, and that Mary was really of the tribe of Levi, as is perhaps implied in the Gospel of St. Luke. Partly, also, the idea may have been suggested by the desire to find a material basis for the High Priesthood of our Lord. In the Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs Jesus is said to have been descended from both Levi and Judah, and thus to have been really both Priest and King.[2] Hegesippus tells us that James, the Lord’s brother, enjoyed the priestly right of entrance into the Holy Place,[3] and Polycrates believed that even John the Apostle was a priest, and wore the petalon.[4] Thus was introduced finally a tortuous argument for the claim of the Christian hierarchy to be regarded as successor in title to the levitical.

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It is in connexion with our Lord that Barnabas plunges into his wildest allegorisms. Three of them deserve a passing notice. One possible etymology of the name Adam is that which makes it signify Earth. Hence our Lord, Adam’s archetype, is the Good Land, and in this way is explained the use of milk and honey in baptism, a rite which already existed in the time of Barnabas. Again, the number of the armed servants of Abraham, three hundred and eighteen, is expressed in Greek by the letters T I H. Of these the first was taken to represent the Cross, the other two the initials of the name Jesus. This fancy struck root, and was applied to determine the rather uncertain number of the Fathers of Nicaea and to enhance the dignity of that great council. But Barnabas also develops with much detail the typical significance of the Scapegoat, displaying a curious acquaintance with Rabbinical writings or traditions otherwise quite unknown. It is a tempting and probable inference that he was himself a Jew, possibly a priest.

We see here the first essays of Christian allegorism, and further, on comparing the Epistle of Barnabas with the Epistle to the Hebrews, we discover a difference between two kinds of Allegorism, the Allegorism of Types and the Allegorism of Ideas. The former is Jewish, and, though not without a certain element of truth, was upon the whole arbitrary and childish. It was this mode of Allegorism which endured, and it wrought much mischief, not so much in doctrine, for in this direction it was used mainly to prove that which was sufficiently proved already, as in discipline. It was the main support of nearly the whole of the practical system of the mediaeval Church. The latter mode was Greek and philosophical, and this lay asleep from the time of Origen to the Reformation. It furnished Origen with some whims and some great truths; it taught him in particular the meaning of the words Priest, Sacrifice, and Altar. Origen’s whims were rejected, not improperly; but with them also was condemned his protest against the judaizing of the Church. In the third century the tendency towards legalism was universal and irresistible. We are now to see the germs of this bias in Barnabas and his contemporaries.

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What was the Law? This was the problem forced upon the Christian world by the fall of the Sacred City. It involves two questions. Is there any law at all for the Christian man? St. Paul held that there was not. ‘He that is spiritual,’ says the Apostle, ‘judgeth all things, and he himself is judged of no man’; and again, ‘Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.’ Conscience is sovereign. Like the Stoics, St. Paul throws everything upon the man’s own inner conviction; this is his guide, and he can have no other. Nor would he have admitted that this guide can mislead. He means not that the man is law unto himself, but that if he is a Christian he has within him that Spirit whose voice is law.

In this high mysticism the great Apostle had few followers, and even those few soon disappeared. The great body of the Church held with the Platonists that conscience itself is dormant or diseased that it must be awakened by God, but that this awakening does not give knowledge though it does give docility; that therefore the convert needs training and discipline, which come to him from God not directly but indirectly through the society of believers. Hence at starting the Christian must do many things which are not of faith, because he cannot as yet see the reason for them. Thus he is still under law, under teachers and guides.

Here there arises the second question. What then are the contents of the Christian law? Were they such fragments of the Levitical law as had survived the destruction of the Temple? Were they the Covenant of Moses or the Covenant of Noah? Almost everybody would have answered this last question in the affirmative, for abstinence from blood was almost universal. But what more? Did the new Law include a priesthood, or sacrifice, and if so, in what sense? There was no doubt that it embraced any precepts which had been given by Christ Himself the two sacraments, prayer, and the Decalogue. Did it include also fasting and celibacy? And above all, Did the power of legislation pass from Christ to the Church? and if so, to what extent?

Barnabas begins by declaring himself a follower of St. Paul. In a striking passage which reproduces the sense

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if not the exact words of the Epistle to the Romans, he speaks of Abraham as justified not by obedience but by faith. Yet he says that the Gospel is the New Law of our Lord Jesus Christ,[5] a significant and ominous phrase derived rather from St. James than from St. Paul.

But when Barnabas comes to explain the contents of the Now Law, he takes a broad and purely spiritual view. He is not indeed historical, but he is free from any touch of formalism. He condemns circumcision, fasting, bloody sacrifices, distinctions of meat, the sabbath - indeed all the ceremonial precepts of Judaism. He goes so far as to maintain that the Temple never ought to have been built; the way in which the Jews adored God in that house of stone was hardly better than the worship of Gentiles.[6] He asserts that the Law was never meant to be taken in its literal sense. Unclean animals mean unclean vices; when God forbade His people to eat the flesh of swine, they ought to have understood the words to mean that they were not to associate with swinish men.[7] It was ‘an evil angel’ who misled the Jews into thinking that such carnal precepts, especially that of circumcision, a rite practised by heathen Syrians and Arabs, could be of any value to the soul.[8] But he has also another argument, not perhaps quite consistent with this. He distinguishes between a first and a second law.’[9] The first was the Ten Commandments written by God’s finger on two tables of stone. But when Moses came down from Sinai and found the people worshipping the calf, he dashed down the tables and broke them in pieces. The Decalogue, the primal and eternal Law of God, was thus not given to Jews because they were not worthy, ‘but the Lord Himself gave it to us.’ It would follow that the second law, the law of Leviticus, was imposed upon the Jews, as Irenaeus held, by way of chastisement. Barnabas does not expressly add this. He has only given us the first half of this remarkable theory, the work of some unknown Jewish or Christian doctor of whom Irenaeus also had probably heard.

The Christian law is further expanded in the account of

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the ‘Two Ways’ with which the Epistle closes.[10] The ‘Two Ways’ formed a useful and popular manual of Christian ethics, and were often republished apart from the Epistle to which they belong. They are almost entirely moral, and quite free from morbid introspection or asceticism or excessive scrupulosity. ‘So far as thou art able,’ says Barnabas, ‘thou shalt be pure for thy soul’s sake.’[11] The body is ‘the fair vessel of the spirit’, a phrase which embodies a Christian philosophy far above that of the Stoics and Platonists or the Fathers of the Desert.

Such is the ‘knowledge’ with which Barnabas comforted himself and his ‘sons and daughters’ over the thrilling news of the fall of Jerusalem. It is a remarkable thing that one who saw in this catastrophe a proof of the nearness of the day of judgement should have been able to write such an Epistle. He must have been a man of singularly calm, trustful, lenient, and sunny temper. Not to be a fanatic among circumstances so provocative of fanaticism is surely high merit.

In the Church of Barnabas there were clergy; he does not describe their orders or special functions. He insists upon the duty of attendance at public worship and of Christian sociability. ‘Cleave not to the wicked; cleave to them that fear the Lord; day by day thou shalt seek the faces of the saints.’ He lays little stress upon the word Church, but the idea is never absent from his mind. Baptism he dwells upon with emphasis; the Eucharist is not mentioned. The former is still regarded as much the greater sacrament of the two. Water and the Cross are the two emblems of Christianity. Lastly, we must notice that Barnabas knows of no prophets in the Church of his time. Or rather we should say he regards all Christians as prophets. ‘God Himself prophesies in us and dwells in us.’ The faithful become prophets in the same sense as Barnabas himself, able by ‘knowledge’ to understand the inner meaning of all Scripture, but there is no revelation beyond Scripture. Thus ‘prophecy’ is coming to mean exegesis as exegesis is coming to mean allegorism.


[1] Ep. Barn. xii. 10, 11

[2] e. g. Test. Sim. e. vii, ed. Charles, p. 25.

[3] Eus. H. E. ii. 23.

[4] lb. iii. 31.

[5] c. 1.

[6] Ep. c. xvi.

[7] chs. iv, ix.

[8] lb.

[9] c. xiv.

[10] chs. xviii-xxi.

[11] c. xix.


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