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The Letter of Barnabas

The Letter of Barnabas was one of the most important writings for proto­ orthodox Christianity.1 Some churches regarded it as part of the New Testament canon; it is included among the books of the New Testament in the fourth-century Greek manuscript, codex Sinaiticus. The book has traditionally been called an epistle, even though its opening contains only a greeting, with neither its author nor its recipients named (the latter features were consistently found in ancient letters). The writing appears, therefore, to be a theological treatise sent out to interested readers. The second- and third-century Christians who refer to the book attribute it to Barnabas, the companion of the apostle Paul. But this may have involved little more than guesswork on the part of Christians who were eager to have the book read and accepted as “apostolic.” The book in fact was written long after Barnabas himself would have died: it mentions, for example, the destruction of the Temple (70 ce) and refers to the possibility of its soon being rebuilt (16:3–4). This possibility was very much alive in the early decades of the second century, but evaporated when the Emperor Hadrian (117–38 ce) had a Roman shrine constructed over the Temple’s ruins. Most scholars have concluded, on these grounds, that the book was written sometime during the first half of the second century, possibly around 130 ce. The book is principally concerned with the relationship of Judaism and Christianity. Its basic thrust is that Judaism is, and always has been, a false religion. According to this author, Jews violated God’s covenant from the very beginning (4:6–8); they have, as a result, never been God’s people or understood their own Scriptures. For this author, the Jewish Scriptures can be understood only in light of Christ; indeed, for him, the Old Testament is a Christian, not a Jewish, book. As a corollary, Jews who claim that their religion was given by God have been misled by an evil angel, who persuaded them to take the laws of Moses literally (9:5). In fact, claims the author, the laws of sabbath obser­

1

See Ehrman, Lost Christianities, 145–48.

Translation by Bart D. Ehrman, in The Apostolic Fathers, vol. 1 (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003); used with permission.

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