|The east window at St Barnabas Church, Oldham|
St Barnabas never met or knew Jesus, but was a later convert to Christianity. The principal Christian influence in his life was the great evangelist St Paul. Barnabas learnt his faith from St Paul and, following St Paul’s martyrdom (in 64 AD), became a Christian leader in his own right.
Like many of the early Christian leaders, Barnabas sought to transmit the faith he had inherited from his own teachers. To those ends, he wrote to other Christians.
The Letter of St Barnabas
Christians have known about and discussed the Letter of St Barnabas from the earliest years of the Christian era. It was probably written between AD 70 and 135, though some scholars think it was written earlier and maybe just a couple of decades after Jesus’ death and Resurrection, so about 55 AD.
The letter is often referred to as the ‘Epistle’ of St Barnabas’, which is merely a Latin title. The Letter is short and its text has rarely been discussed. It says very little that adds to our knowledge of early Christianity, which may explain why the Church authorities did not choose to include it in the canon of the Bible. In other words, while useful, it should not be regarded as uniquely inspired by the Holy Spirit of God.
The Acts of St Barnabas
The Acts of Barnabas says its author was St Paul’s early companion ‘John Mark’.
We do not know when the Acts of Barnabas was written, but its language and its internal ecclesiastical politics suggest it was probably written in the fifth century. If so, why was it written as though by St Barnabas? In context, the Church in Cyprus had just been granted its own independence by the First Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, but the decision was widely ignored. The island’s independence was re-affirmed by Emperor Zeno in 488 AD, but again ignored. The author of the Acts of Barnabas claimed the island was the site of St Barnabas’ grave and therefore an apostolic foundation. In this way, the author sought to promote the independence of the Church of Cyprus and protect its bishops from the authority of the Patriarch of Antioch.
The Gospel of St Barnabas
The Acts of Barnabas often refers to Barnabas preaching from the Gospels. These verses led to the idea that Barnabas wrote his own Gospel — the so-called ‘Gospel of Barnabas’— though the context clearly refutes this idea.
A later document known as ‘The Gospel of Barnabas’ is a very different text from either the Epistle or the Acts of Barnabas. It is a very long book describing the life of Jesus, and claiming to be the work of Jesus’ disciple Barnabas who, in this work, is made one of the twelve apostles. In no other document contemporary with early Christianity is Barnabas ever described as an ‘apostle’.
Two manuscripts of the Gospel of St Barnabas are known to have existed. Both date from the late 16th century and are written in Italian and Spanish respectively. The Spanish manuscript is now lost, its text surviving only in a partial 18th-century transcript.
The Gospel of Barnabas is about the same length as our current four gospels put together (the Italian manuscript has 222 chapters, compared with a mere 16 in Mark). The bulk of the book is devoted to an account of Jesus’ ministry, much of it harmonised from material from our four gospels. In key respects, it contradicts the New Testament teachings of Christianity.
Today, most scholars think the Gospel of Barnabas may contain remnants of an earlier, apocryphal, work but it was written in the sixteenth century as a deliberate forgery to bring it more in line with Islamic doctrine. That being said, it also contradicts the Quran in many key areas of doctrine.
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