The Gospel of Barnabas—Chps. 73–75

[Click HERE for the color coding scheme.
Opens a separate tab.]        

36. “The flesh of man loves sin as he who has fever loves water.”        [LXXIII:75a, p. 169]

COMMENT: An encratite saying (< Gk. egkrates, “continence”). Encratism does not exist in noarmative Judaism, as defined by the writings in the Tanakh (the “Old Testament,” in which the enjoyment of all of God’s creation—including of the body and of sexuality—is celebrated). However, encratism came to the Levant about the turn of the era and, indeed, it arrived at about the same time as the origins of Christianity. To understand the roots of encratism is most instructive, for those roots are clearly in far distant Buddhism. After all, nothing in the Levant—neither Judaism nor Hellenism (which also celebrates the body)—leads to the uncompromising encratism of works such as the Gospel of Thomas, of the Christian apocryphal acts of the apostles, and of myriad encratite groups and writings soon marginalized by the Great Church and now long forgotten (Sethians, Ophites, Naasenes, Manichaeans, Severians, etc). However, even the canonical gospels preserve unmistakable encratite strains (cf. Mt 5:28, 10:11-12; Lk 20:34-35; 23:29).
     We can trace the first manifestations of encratism in the West to communal celibate groups such as the Dead Sea Sect (Essenes) and the Therapeutae. Both groups predated the turn of the era, and they signal something very new and radically different not only in the western world but also in Judaism. Now, many scholars suspect that the Dead Sea Sect somehow informed Christianity (perhaps via John the Baptist), and the Therapeutae were long considered to be early Christians—impossible if Jesus of Nazareth were the founder of Christianity, for the Therapeutae predated Jesus. However, this chronological difficulty evaporates if Yeshu ha-Notsri is seen as Christianity’s true founding figure, as I have argued.
     While GBar belongs to the widespread movements of early Christianity in which the flesh/body is prone to evil unless reined in through asceticism and careful attention, we learn in other passages that GBar does not profess the radical dualism of Marcionism, or of many Gnostic groups—which held that the creation is itself evil. The Jewish-Christian Gospel of Barnabas adopts a middle road whereby Yahweh is creator and good, but the creation itself has ‘fallen.’ That is, post-lapsarian man/Adam is irretrievably given over to sinfulness and requires the intervention of God to be saved. This would essentially become the Catholic position too. But GBar differs from the Great Church in viewing Jesus as thoroughly human and in no way divine.
     The fact that we find encratism in the Gospel of Barnabas signals that this work belongs to the same broad and marginalized stream as the Dead Sea Sect, the Therapeutae, and ultimately Buddhism, which arrived in the West c. 250 BCE with Ashoka’s missionaries.
     In short, encratism is a unique clue pointing to the ultimately Buddhist origins of Christianity.

37. “Through David did our God promise to keep us, saying ‘I give you understanding, which will teach you; and in the ways wherein you will walk will I cause my eye to rest upon you.’”        [LXXIII:75b, p. 171]

COMMENT: Again, GBar espouses a middle path between gnosticism and normative Judaism. As in much Jewish sapiential scripture, understanding/wisdom saves. The more radical gnostics went a step farther and claimed that wisdom is attainable by man alone, without the agency of God. As with the Dead Sea Scriptures, however, GBar admits that wisdom saves but also insists that wisdom is given by God. For GBar as also for the Jewish wisdom tradition, man can do nothing on his own.

★ 38. “Truly I say to you, that a man ought to examine his thoughts with as much care as a banker examines his money, that he sin not against God his creator.
        …“Observe therefore that the banker considers the money, whether the image of Caesar is right [i.e. whether the money is counterfeit], whether the silver is good, whether it is of due weight, turning the money over and over in his hand… Tell me now, where is the one who examines a thought as carefully as the banker examines a silver coin?”        [LXXIII:76a, p. 171; and 77a, p. 173]

COMMENT: The first clause clearly betrays Buddhist influence, while the second clause (in brown font) is Jewish. Thus, this logion is a clear and concise example of the meeting of Buddhism and Judaism—the fundamental dynamic behind the birth of Christianity.
        In Buddhism, unwholesome thoughts (akusala ditthi) are a primary hindrance that must be rooted out:

        What taints, brethren, should be abandoned by removing? Here an aspirant, reflecting wisely, does not tolerate an arisen thought of sensual desire; he abandons it, removes it, does away with it, and annihilates it.
        What taints, brethren, should be abandoned by removing? Here an aspirant, reflecting wisely, does not tolerate an arisen thought of ill will; he abandons it, removes it, does away with it, and annihilates it…
        While taints, vexation, and fever might arise in one who does not remove these thoughts, there are no taints, vexation, or fever in one who removes them.        [Maj. Nik. 2.20]

‘Right thought’ is one of the steps along the Noble Eightfold Path, and also a key to entrance into jhána (Skt. dhyána), fruitful contemplation.
        In my opinion, it is likely that the first words of this saying go back to Yeshu ha-Notsri, the Jewish prophet turned Buddhist (NazarethGate pp. 419 ff), who returned from Egypt to his native land c. 75 BCE and, several years later, was stoned and hung up for preaching heresy and inciting the people.
        The second clause may be the work of a Jewish-Christian editor/compiler. Yet those words, too, could go back to Yeshu, for he might well have couched his unfamiliar Buddhist dictums in language that his Jewish hearers would understand—such as “sin,” “God,” and “creator.”

39. a “As God lives, in whose presence my soul b stands, all condemnation should be leveled against the evil thoughts by which sin is committed. c For it is not possible to sin without thinking beforehand.
        d “Now hear this: When the husbandman plants a vineyard, does he not set the roots deep in the ground? Assuredly yes. Even so does Satan, who in planting sin does not stop at the eye or at the ear, but does his mischief deep within the heart itself, which is God’s very dwelling place.”
(Paraphrased.)        [LXXIV:76b, p. 173]

COMMENT: This passage betrays Buddhist, Jewish, as well as Jewish-Christian elements.
a “As God lives, in whose presence my soul stands.” The presence of the living God is Jewish, as also the concept of standing in the presence of God (see the use of Heb. amad in the OT).
b stands. Patriarchs (Abraham, Moses), prophets, and Rechabites all stand before the Lord in the OT. Standing in His presence shows their worthiness to receive notice by God. However, this use of “stand” was spiritualized by Jewish Christians—note that it is the soul here that “stands” (not the body, which ascetics and encratites considered of no account). Indeed, the great revolution of Jewish Christianity was that it spiritualized Judaism: the Promised Land is now heavenly; Jesus is a conqueror in spirit but a failure in the flesh (after all, he was crucified), and Jesus even taught that “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn 18:36)—a radically un-Jewish saying.
        Simon Magus, the early Gnostic heretic, was known as “The Standing One” (Gk ho estos). In the Pseudo-Clemetine account, “the Standing One” is a euphemism for the Christ/Messiah, and both Simon and Dositheus (both pupils of John the Baptist) exclusively claim that title for themselves and even fight over it—showing the great importance that “stand” had in Jewish Christianity.
c For it is not possible to sin without thinking beforehand. Buddhism is emphatic that no karmic action occurs without previous thought. The intention (cetana) that precedes an act is what forms good or bad karma—not the act itself. In fact, it is possible to earn bad karma (akusala kamma) even if one only intends to do the act but is unable to carry it out. The statement here in the Gospel of Barnabas is a weak echo of this Buddhist concept.
d This new and beautiful analogy has no obvious Buddhist precursor (see Burlingame, Buddhist Parables 1922/91). This suggests to me that it is an original formulation by Yeshu ha-Notsri, the I BCE Pharisee turned Buddhist prophet.

40. “Now tell me, if a king should place in your care a house in which he desired to dwell, would you suffer his enemy to enter therein or to store his goods there? Assuredly not. Then how much less ought you to suffer Satan to enter into your heart, or to place his thoughts therein, seeing that our God has given your heart into your care, which is His dwelling place.” (Paraphrased)        [LXXIV:76b, p. 173]

COMMENT: Another beautiful parable, this time in the form of a question. The first part (in red) is Buddhist, and its terms can be interpreted as follows: (a) the “house” is the mind/heart of the aspirant; (b) the “king” is enlightenment/gnosis; (c) the “enemy” is pleasure and attachment to the senses/materiality; (d) the “goods” stored by the enemy are riches, reputation, and worldly success.

41. “I give you an example: There once was a miser who owned some vineyards. But everyone who knew him would not go to till his fields, because they knew that he paid poorly. So the miser, being a wicked man, said to himself, ‘I will go to the marketplace and there find idlers who are nothing and have nothing. They will come tend my vines.’ So the miser went forth from his house and found many idlers who were standing about and had no money. He contracted with them for a pittance and led them to his vineyard. But no one who knew him and who had the ability to work went there.
        “And what is the meaning of this parable? The miser is Satan, who has gone forth from paradise in search of laborers. Satan gives heavy labor while the hireling in his service receives the eternal fires of hell. Satan puts into his hard service those who stand in idleness, whoever they are, but most of all those who do not understand him. And so the teaching is this: It is necessary to understand evil in order to escape it. And to understand evil it is necessary not to stand in idleness but to work at the good, in order to overcome what is evil.”
(Paraphrased)        [LXXV:78a, p. 175]

COMMENT: Yet another original and very beautiful parable. The concluding teaching is related to a number of Jesus’ known ‘parables of accomplishment’: the Parable of the Talents (Mt 13:47–48), the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Mt 13:31–32), the Parable of the Leaven (Mt 13:33), the Parable of the Fishnet (GTh 8), the Parable of the Hidden Treasure (Mt 13:44), and the Parable of the Merchant (GTh 76). All these parables teach that it is not sufficient to remain idle—regardless of one’s assets. It is necessary to turn a profit from what one has—and the ultimate profit is to transform ignorance into understanding, gnosis. (On this teaching, see also the long Parable of the Three Vinedressers in the next post.)

← Previous                    Next →


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *