The Gospel of Barnabas—Introduction (cont.)

Is the Gospel of Barnabas early?

While mainline Christian scholarship considers GBar as a medieval work, muslims generally date it to the first centuries CE. Yet, both views may be too general. GBar is a complex work, and I will be presenting the thesis that the gospel is a composite of numerous layers (see below), some of which do not fully agree with others. As regards the Islamic elements, for example, some passages show clear knowledge of the Koran (the name Muhammad appears several times). Primarily on this basis, some scholars quickly conclude that the entire gospel postdates the seventh century and is an Islamic forgery. However, that conclusion is hasty, for numerous passages also betray little understanding of Islam. In one passage (103b), not Jesus but Muhammad is the messiah. This is contrary to Islamic teaching in which Mohammed is the last and greatest prophet, but in no way an atoning or redeeming messiah (“anointed one”). Commenting on this passage, Leirvik writes (p. 8): “This is unprecedented in Islamic tradition.” It is as if two different editors, at different stages, manipulated the text of GBar: one was a Muslim well-informed on Christianity, the other a Christian poorly informed on Islam.

GBar, according to the two surviving 16th century versions, clearly knows the canonical gospels. Yet it also makes elementary errors, conflating verses, citing the wrong book, or mangling Palestine geography. Even the Gospel of Mark, however, mangles Palestinian geography, and it is too facile to conclude that what appear to be ‘errors’ in GBar are not, in fact, more authentic versions. For example, GBar locates Nazareth on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. This is quite interesting in light of my own work. Not only did Nazareth not exist at the turn of the era, but an unbiased reading of the canonical gospels also shows that the hometown of Jesus was in fact on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (Mt 4:13; cf. Mk 6:1 ff). A deeper view of this matter—one that takes into account GMk’s penchant for allegory—is the insight that Jesus’ hometown was associated with water (= gnosis) and, particularly, with the water of the Jordan River (= that which must be crossed over) issuing from the Sea of Galilee and, ultimately, from the fabled area around Mt. Hermon.

The conclusion that best fits the internally-conflicting elements in GBar is that the gospel has undergone a long history with numerous stages of editing—accretions, changes, and deletions. I discussed a related situation on this website with the Acts of Mark, a text that is generally considered late simply because it has features that date to the 5th-6th centuries. In the above linked post, however, I viewed the text as a continually changing entity, some elements being older and some newer. I used the analogy of a bus that continually takes on and lets off passengers. By examining the ridership when the bus arrives at its final destination one cannot infer the ridership earlier in the trip—much less when the bus originally left the station (i.e., the Urtext). Some riders may have gotten on the bus at the very start of the trip (these would be the earliest elements in a text), and some (or all) of them may not be present at its final destination (that is, in the final text as it comes down to us). Yet, though many of the earliest elements may no longer exist, it would be incorrect to label an entire text ‘late’ simply because a number of later elements do exist in it.

GBar, as it presently stands, is certainly a Renaissance work. In this I agree with the scholarly consensus. It appears to me, however, that the gospel presents the reader with the accumulated (and not always mutually compatible) results of five principal strata:

(1) Unique logia and parables that go back to the founding prophet (1st century BCE)
(2) An Ebionite, pre-canonical core (1st century CE)
(3) Elements assimilated from the New Testament, including the canonical gospels, Acts, and the Pauline epistles (later 2nd-5th cent.)
(4) Muslim elements brought into the gospel after the Islamic conquests (7th-9th cent.)
(5) Medieval-Renaissance elements (mostly contrived: miracles, extensions, embellishments—14th-16th cent.)

In these posts I will be focusing on what I consider the most important stratum (1)—sayings that I believe go back to the founding prophet, whom I identify as Yeshu ha-Notsri (d. ca. 66 BCE). Those sayings will be in red type. I will also try to furnish notable elements from stratum (2)—the Jewish Christian core of this long gospel. Such elements will be in brown type. Stratum (2) is still precanonical and dates to I CE—contemporary with texts such as the Didache and the Gospel of Thomas. The New Testament, as readers of this website know, dates to mid-II CE, after the Bar Kochba Revolt.

Because Muslims also view Jesus as a strictly human figure, the Ebionite elements have been emphasized in Islamic treatments of the gospel. At the same time, they are downplayed by most Christian scholars who simply deny that the extant Gospel of Barnabas predates the Renaissance. Notable exceptions are Drs. Cirillo and Frémaux. They argue that the Gospel of Barnabas is probably based on an early Judeo-Christian document, while the existing version dates as far back as the fourteenth century (Evangile de Barnabé; Paris 1977—discussion at Leirvik 14). Thus, the view of these two scholars is campatible with the strata outlined above.

Dr. Rod Blackhirst is arguably the most published writer today on GBar. His viewpoint is equivocal, but instructive. Blackhirst asserts that the gospel “is, no doubt, the product of the late Middle Ages.” Yet he acknowledges that a “Gospel of Barnabas” is mentioned in earlier Christian history (the Gelasian Decree and the List of Sixty Books). Blackhirst considers that our medieval text by that name is an entirely different work that shares only the name. He speculates: “Someone encountered a notice of an early Gospel of Barnabas, and knowing it to be lost, invented a copy.” Time and again, however, Blackhirst has to make exceptions to his thesis of a late Gospel of Barnabas. He writes:

Several scholars have been struck by the work’s recreation of early Ebionite points of view. In the 1960s [Schlomo] Pines suggested that the medieval work may contain residues of early Ebionite writings. Those that see traces of early material in the medieval text are naturally intrigued by the possibility that an ancient Gospel of Barnabas is now buried in the medieval work of the same name. (Blackhirst, “Barnabas and the Gospels,” p. 1)

Blackhirst is also not able to explain an important piece of circumstantial evidence: all the prohibited works listed in the Gelasian Decree and the List of Sixty Books have been accounted for—with the single exception of the Gospel of Barnabas (“Barnabas and the Gospels,” p. 3). To me, this is strong evidence that the ‘lost’ gospel is indeed embedded in the work by that name—otherwise, we should have at least some vestige of another “Gospel of Barnabas.” But we don’t.

GBar surprisingly fills in many lacunae in early Christian scholarship. For example, we recall the famous claim of Papias: “Therefore Matthew put the logia in an ordered arrangement in the Hebrew language, but each person interpreted them as best he could.” Scholars have ever been mystified by this claim of an early Hebrew Matthew. Yet, the early witnesses link Barnabas to this tradition:

Barnabas, in fact, is credited with an important role in the transmission of Matthew’s gospel. It was through Barnabas, it was said, that Matthew’s Gospel—the “Jewish Gospel” of the Orthodox Church—was preserved and transmitted…. Barnabas, we are told, supposedly used “documents from Matthew”—noting the plural—for the purposes of both preaching and healing. (Blackhirst, “Barnabas and the Gospels,” p. 5).

The early role of Barnabas in relation to Matthew is veiled in mystery:

And Timon was afflicted by much fever. And having laid our hands upon him, we straightway removed his fever, having called upon the name of the Lord Jesus. And Barnabas had received documents from Matthew, a book of the word of God, and a narrative of miracles and doctrines… And having gone into Salamis, we came to the synagogue near the place called Biblia; and when we had gone into it, Barnabas, having unrolled the Gospel which he had received from Matthew his fellow-labourer, began to teach the Jews… (From the Acts of Barnabas)

In my view, internal evidence confirms that GBar has very early elements, including a wealth of logia and parables not known from the canonical gospels. The settings to these sayings, while secondary, may also be potentially more authentic than the canonical versions.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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