The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

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Irish1975
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The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

Post by Irish1975 »

The Epistle of Barnabas is a remarkable piece of evidence. As I have argued in the case of 1 John, this epistle seems to fall into a special category of transitional texts between original Christianity and the later canonical story.

Based on 16:4, this text appears to date from the first third of the 2nd century. It says a lot about Jesus, his divinity, lordship, redemptive death, and resurrection. But everything that it says is based on private revelation and strange, fanciful readings of the Jewish Bible; no Gospel traditions are cited. The Jesus who appears in this epistle is not a recent historical man, but a revealed "son of God."
Barnabas 5:3
We ought therefore to be very thankful unto the Lord, for that He
both revealed unto us the past, and made us wise in the present, and
as regards the future we are not without understanding.

What the author says about Jesus:

1) Son of God and Lord of creation, to whom the Father speaks in Genesis 1:26.
2) Judge of the living and the dead
3) Not a "son of man," nor a son of David (12:10)
4) He "came in the flesh" (5:11) and was "manifest in the flesh" (5:6) and "dwelt among us" (6:14)
5) He came to earth to prepare a new people for himself
6) He taught Israel, performed signs and wonders, preached and showed love
7) He selected apostles, 12 of them "as a witness to the tribes" (8:3) to preach his gospel "who were altogether lawless beyond all sin"
8) He allowed himself to suffer by human hands "for our salvation," but also "to total up the sins" of those who killed the prophets (5:11)
9) When he was crucified he was given vinegar and gall to drink (7:3)
10) "The kingdom of Jesus is on the tree" and "blood flows from a tree"
11) He destroyed death and showed that there is a resurrection of the dead
12) He arose from the dead "on the 8th day," appeared, and ascended into heaven

All of these affirmations about Jesus are truths revealed to holy prophets such as the author, but obscure to the Jews.
Barnabas 8:7
Now to us indeed it is manifest that these things so befell for this
reason, but to them they were dark, because they heard not the voice
of the Lord.
The Lord dwells in the hearts of the believers and thus reveals his mysteries to them. But events past and future are understood obscurely even by the believers, because they are given in parables:
Barnabas 16:8
But [the temple] shall be built in the name of the Lord. Give heed then that
the temple of the Lord may be built gloriously.

Barnabas 16:9
How? Understand ye. By receiving the remission of our sins and
hoping on the Name we became new, created afresh from the beginning.
Wherefore God dwelleth truly in our habitation within us. How? The
word of his faith, the calling of his promise, the wisdom of the
ordinances, the commandments of the teaching, He Himself prophesying
in us, He Himself dwelling in us, opening for us who had been in
bondage unto death the door of the temple, which is the mouth, and
giving us repentance leadeth us to the incorruptible temple.

Barnabas 16:10
For he that desireth to be saved looketh not to the man, but to Him
that dwelleth and speaketh in him, being amazed at this that he has
never at any time heard these words from the mouth of the speaker,
nor himself ever desired to hear them. This is the spiritual temple
built up to the Lord.
...

Barnabas 17:2
For if I should write to you concerning things immediate or future,
ye would not understand them, because they are put in parables
. So
much then for this.
Thus the basic outline of a story is presented, of the Son of God who assumes flesh and comes to earth and dies at the hands of sinners. Peculiar details like the vinegar and gall appear, but are derived from older and sometimes unknown scriptures.

What to make of all this? The story of Jesus is plainly and unequivocally given through revelation to the author, who performs midrash on the OT. There is no trace of "historical traditions" or "oral traditions" connected to the written Gospels (although Ehrman in his translation puts certain verses in quotation as though the author knew that he was quoting one of the Gospels: a historicist presumption). On the other hand, the story is remarkably close to the canonical Gospel history, despite odd details like the utterly depraved apostles, and resurrection-plus-ascension on the 8th day. The author appears to be aware of the Pauline tradition, and speaks in a language and manner highly reminiscent of Paul ("we have been justified" 15:8). But, strangely, he does not identify himself to his readers. Is this a real letter at all, or an early draft by some anonymous scribe?

He assumes Paul's doctrine of redemption, but talks at length about suffering, why the Lord had to suffer, and why the believer too must suffer in order to inherit the kingdom. These themes are not difficult to associate with the Pauline tradition. But now we also have the outline of an incarnation-redemption story, not even a story but the idea of a story.

The Epistle of Barnabas is some kind of link between the Pauline tradition and the Gospel History. Had he known anything of the supposed traditions about Jesus of Nazareth that historicists so confidently assert must have existed in Christian circles circa 120 CE, why would this author, who writes with such authority about the Lord Jesus, know so little about them? (Especially if the common opinion about this text that it comes from a circle in Alexandria is correct; how would the Christians of Alexandria in the 2nd century not know anything about the Jesus story?) And yet he tells the story of Jesus in vague outline.

I think it counts not only as evidence for mythicism, but also as evidence that the Gospel History was unknown to Christians until close to the middle of the 2nd century. It is entirely plausible that the authors of the Gospels used this text as a source. What they have in common is an overriding desire, which we do not find in the Pauline epistles, to blame unbelieving, literal-minded Jews as the enemy of Jesus. The overwhelming desire of Christians at this time was to lay claim to the Jewish covenantal theology and all its authority. The Gospels are the realization of a plan that we see clearly outlined in this epistle.

However, Earl Doherty, whose analysis agrees with my own, notes an important difference between "Barnabas" and the Evangelists regarding what specific theological crime the Jews have committed.

While Barnabas now postulates a Christ on earth, his starting point remains of the old variety: Jesus Christ is the divine Son in heaven—who then came to earth. He does not start from the historical Jesus of Nazareth and declare him to have been the Son of God. In fact, this is an issue, a question of faith, which nowhere appears in the epistle, despite the writer’s focus on a multitude of debated questions. Even more tellingly, the Jews are never accused of or condemned for not believing that Jesus was the Messiah, which is the way someone like Justin was to put it, as were the Gospels. Rather, the Jews’ “sin” was that they had done the same thing to the Son as they (allegedly) had done to all the prophets sent from God: they had persecuted and slain him (5:11). Nowhere does Barnabas say that this was because they had not believed in his identity and divinity.

This is a subtle but crucial observation. The rejection of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah would have been a piece of information based on historical record, whereas there would be nothing in scripture to point to a feature like this. (And Barnabas does not try to give us such a thing.) Even Paul in Romans 10, scouring the sacred writings for passages foretelling a lack of response on the part of the Jews, fails to offer anything which could fit the idea of rejecting someone who claimed to be God’s Son. Rather, Paul applies his findings only to the rejection of messengers like himself, of apostles who declare the word of God, as the ancient prophets had done. Barnabas, too, casts the Jews’ rejection of Jesus solely as the killing of the messenger, though he goes a step further in equating that messenger with the Son himself. The point is, such a rejection is something which need not be dependent on historical record but rather would be derived from scripture.

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GakuseiDon
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Re: The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

Post by GakuseiDon »

Irish1975 wrote: Mon Aug 23, 2021 11:05 amWhat to make of all this? The story of Jesus is plainly and unequivocally given through revelation to the author, who performs midrash on the OT. There is no trace of "historical traditions" or "oral traditions" connected to the written Gospels (although Ehrman in his translation puts certain verses in quotation as though the author knew that he was quoting one of the Gospels: a historicist presumption). On the other hand, the story is remarkably close to the canonical Gospel history, despite odd details like the utterly depraved apostles, and resurrection-plus-ascension on the 8th day.
The issue I have with this line of thinking is the idea that, if there was a historical Jesus, that the people of his time would have been interested in that historical Jesus. That is, they would remember what he said and did about various topics, and these became oral and written traditions that were gathered later into the Gospels. These would have included exaggerations and outright fictions used to make polemic points for the tradition-gatherers.

The problem with that is that I don't think that historical details about Jesus the man were important to those earlier tradition-gatherers. They were interested in Jesus "the Christ". The important aspects of his life would have been those that conformed with what could be "found" in the OT. That's what would have formed the convincing and important elements of the Christ story, and that to me is what made it through the earliest layers of writing, in both the Gospels and the epistles of Paul and the others.

Imagine a tradition-gatherer that had a story about Jesus-the-man that didn't conform to the Jesus-the-Christ story. Those would be less likely to make it through into the next layer of writing, unless they could be tied to the OT and therefore Jesus-the-Christ. In the end, we simply couldn't know what was fiction and what was fact. For me, I see the creation of the Gospels and the early epistles as being inspired by a historical Jesus of some description, but it is now impossible to see what parts were fact and fiction in order to determine that description.
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Re: The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

Post by yakovzutolmai »

Irish1975 wrote: Mon Aug 23, 2021 11:05 am
While Barnabas now postulates a Christ on earth, his starting point remains of the old variety: Jesus Christ is the divine Son in heaven—who then came to earth. He does not start from the historical Jesus of Nazareth and declare him to have been the Son of God. In fact, this is an issue, a question of faith, which nowhere appears in the epistle, despite the writer’s focus on a multitude of debated questions. Even more tellingly, the Jews are never accused of or condemned for not believing that Jesus was the Messiah, which is the way someone like Justin was to put it, as were the Gospels. Rather, the Jews’ “sin” was that they had done the same thing to the Son as they (allegedly) had done to all the prophets sent from God: they had persecuted and slain him (5:11). Nowhere does Barnabas say that this was because they had not believed in his identity and divinity.

This is a subtle but crucial observation. The rejection of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah would have been a piece of information based on historical record, whereas there would be nothing in scripture to point to a feature like this. (And Barnabas does not try to give us such a thing.) Even Paul in Romans 10, scouring the sacred writings for passages foretelling a lack of response on the part of the Jews, fails to offer anything which could fit the idea of rejecting someone who claimed to be God’s Son. Rather, Paul applies his findings only to the rejection of messengers like himself, of apostles who declare the word of God, as the ancient prophets had done. Barnabas, too, casts the Jews’ rejection of Jesus solely as the killing of the messenger, though he goes a step further in equating that messenger with the Son himself. The point is, such a rejection is something which need not be dependent on historical record but rather would be derived from scripture.

So, to add from my working hypothesis.

The Pauline literature expresses the theology of the Alexandrian Jews (as we know it from Philo), but is written sympathetic to an audience that is attracted to messianic theology. To be clear, this is the community of James and its theology does not concern a savior spirit, but rather the revelation of the second Adam in the form of some member of their community. Paul is trying to convince those who are attracted to the James movement that the "Philonic" theology is correct by pretending to be one of them.

These Alexandrian Jews are represented in Jerusalem by the family of Ananus the High Priest. Barnabas might be identified as Jesus ben Ananus (the itinerant of the family, who preached the destruction of Jerusalem), who is Paul's "Banus".

I'm not sure about the dating of Barnabas, but it might be identified as a later continuation of the "Pauline" tradition of conceding to some of the Jewish Christian beliefs but ultimately arguing for the Alexandrine philosophy.

Of course, my hypothesis has the historical Jesus of Nazareth and his crucifixion as a very late invention (ca. 165-175). It supposes that Mark was an explicit parody of Jewish Christian beliefs by the Alexandria set, meant for their private enjoyment as a dramatic production. Later, Mark is rediscovered out of context, and spreads alongside Marcionite beliefs. The inheritors of the Alexandrine philosophy are forced to accede to Mark's Jesus of Nazareth, and the resultant second century conflict with Marcionite beliefs leads to the generation of the other gospels. Making this the point after which one would expect documentation about the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

I'm just adding this for the "historical record" for those interested in a late historicism. I don't have a secret scroll which revealed this information, I'm applying a hypothesis to known loose ends.
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Irish1975
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Re: The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

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GakuseiDon wrote: Mon Aug 23, 2021 2:34 pm The issue I have with this line of thinking is the idea that, if there was a historical Jesus, that the people of his time would have been interested in that historical Jesus. That is, they would remember what he said and did about various topics, and these became oral and written traditions that were gathered later into the Gospels. These would have included exaggerations and outright fictions used to make polemic points for the tradition-gatherers.

The problem with that is that I don't think that historical details about Jesus the man were important to those earlier tradition-gatherers. They were interested in Jesus "the Christ". The important aspects of his life would have been those that conformed with what could be "found" in the OT. That's what would have formed the convincing and important elements of the Christ story, and that to me is what made it through the earliest layers of writing, in both the Gospels and the epistles of Paul and the others.
Then the idea of a historical Jesus is superfluous. But you don't seem to think so:
For me, I see the creation of the Gospels and the early epistles as being inspired by a historical Jesus of some description, but it is now impossible to see what parts were fact and fiction in order to determine that description.
The supposition of an original historical layer of man/event/fact is idle if we can't say anything specific about that layer.
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Re: The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

Post by GakuseiDon »

Irish1975 wrote: Mon Aug 23, 2021 3:17 pmThen the idea of a historical Jesus is superfluous. But you don't seem to think so: "as being inspired by a historical Jesus of some description"
Not so much 'superfluous' as 'unreconstructable'. If I watch a movie that claims it is inspired by a true story, it's impossible to determine what that true story was without further information. Still, the movie exists. It seems to me that "inspired by a historical Jesus" is the best explanation for the materials that we have. There are other explanations, but for me personally, that is the best explanation.
Irish1975 wrote: Mon Aug 23, 2021 3:17 pmThe supposition of an original historical layer of man/event/fact is idle if we can't say anything specific about that layer.
100%.
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Re: The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

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No claim is above the requirement of justification.

--- Kosso, p. 26 https://www.jstor.org/stable/2505606?origin=crossref
This book/movie is based on a true story. Such is the strongly implied claim of those responsible for the book Picnic at Hanging Rock, for the eyewitness account of the Trojan War by Dictys and Dares, and "the True Story" by Lucian, and not a few others.

The fact that the stories exist and that many people have believed the claims of many of them that they are based on true stories is not itself a justification for believing that the characters and events are a mix of fiction and nonfiction. The ability to identify and justify specific elements as nonfiction and others as fiction would be a justification.
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Re: The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

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Irish1975 wrote: Mon Aug 23, 2021 11:05 am 7) He selected apostles, 12 of them "as a witness to the tribes" (8:3) to preach his gospel "who were altogether lawless beyond all sin"
Christian apologist Origen imagined that Barnabas was the source of the Celsus's claim that the 12 were evildoers:

Now in the general Epistle of Barnabas, from which perhaps Celsus took the statement that the apostles were notoriously wicked men, it is recorded that "Jesus selected His own apostles, as persons who were more guilty of sin than all other evildoers."

http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/t ... en161.html

This would explain the late Mark's choice of casting the disciples with embarrassing names resembling Zealots: Thaddeus(Theudas?), Simon the Zealot(bar Giora?), Judas (Sicarioth?).
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Re: The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

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Irish1975 wrote: Mon Aug 23, 2021 11:05 am
What the author says about Jesus:

1) Son of God and Lord of creation, to whom the Father speaks in Genesis 1:26.
2) Judge of the living and the dead
3) Not a "son of man," nor a son of David (12:10)
4) He "came in the flesh" (5:11) and was "manifest in the flesh" (5:6) and "dwelt among us" (6:14)
5) He came to earth to prepare a new people for himself
6) He taught Israel, performed signs and wonders, preached and showed love
7) He selected apostles, 12 of them "as a witness to the tribes" (8:3) to preach his gospel "who were altogether lawless beyond all sin"
8) He allowed himself to suffer by human hands "for our salvation," but also "to total up the sins" of those who killed the prophets (5:11)
9) When he was crucified he was given vinegar and gall to drink (7:3)
10) "The kingdom of Jesus is on the tree" and "blood flows from a tree"
11) He destroyed death and showed that there is a resurrection of the dead
12) He arose from the dead "on the 8th day," appeared, and ascended into heaven

All of these affirmations about Jesus are truths revealed to holy prophets such as the author, but obscure to the Jews.
Barnabas 8:7
Now to us indeed it is manifest that these things so befell for this
reason, but to them they were dark, because they heard not the voice
of the Lord.
The Lord dwells in the hearts of the believers and thus reveals his mysteries to them. But events past and future are understood obscurely even by the believers, because they are given in parables:
Barnabas 16:8
But [the temple] shall be built in the name of the Lord. Give heed then that
the temple of the Lord may be built gloriously.
[/box]
Is it just as likely that a midrashic message has recently been reinterpreted so that the central figure is more than a personification of Israel cum presence of God and has become instead a literal heavenly Son of God sent to be made flesh?

The original message bound up the believers as one with the figure who personified both them and God's presence together in the one "body". Now with the new interpretation, only one thing has changed: the ontological status of Jesus (from personification to literal Son of God).

If so, would this not explain how it is that the epistle writes on the understanding that all, audience and author, take for granted that the believers are part of the same temple/spiritual body etc, new kingdom or life in some "realized eschatology"?

There is no suggestion, anywhere I am aware of, where there is a belief in a most high christology for Jesus that is met with any sort of hint of resistance among any followers still wanting to keep him "closer to real humanity just as at the beginning".

If the message from the beginning was that God and his people were all one body and that this was represented midrashically, then it would be but a small step to shift just one element of that scenario: one figure is shifted from being solely a personification of the presence of God and becomes the literal presence of God.

Does this scenario have fewer (or more?) problems than starting out with a belief in an entirely celestial Son of God?
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Re: The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

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Giuseppe wrote: Mon Aug 23, 2021 8:40 pm
Irish1975 wrote: Mon Aug 23, 2021 11:05 am 7) He selected apostles, 12 of them "as a witness to the tribes" (8:3) to preach his gospel "who were altogether lawless beyond all sin"
Christian apologist Origen imagined that Barnabas was the source of the Celsus's claim that the 12 were evildoers:

Now in the general Epistle of Barnabas, from which perhaps Celsus took the statement that the apostles were notoriously wicked men, it is recorded that "Jesus selected His own apostles, as persons who were more guilty of sin than all other evildoers."

http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/t ... en161.html

This would explain the late Mark's choice of casting the disciples with embarrassing names resembling Zealots: Thaddeus(Theudas?), Simon the Zealot(bar Giora?), Judas (Sicarioth?).
Yes. Barnabas links the sinful character of the twelve witnesses to the gentile mission. One thinks of the early gospel stories where sin or blemish often appears to be very interpretable as an indicator of a symbolic gentile. The twelve were chosen to call the gentiles into a new body of God or temple.

But that opens up the question of where Paul appears in the thought of the "Barnabas" author of this "letter".
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Re: The Epistle of Barnabas: Evidence for Mythicism

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neilgodfrey wrote: Mon Aug 23, 2021 10:32 pm Is it just as likely that a midrashic message has recently been reinterpreted so that the central figure is more than a personification of Israel cum presence of God and has become instead a literal heavenly Son of God sent to be made flesh?

The original message bound up the believers as one with the figure who personified both them and God's presence together in the one "body". Now with the new interpretation, only one thing has changed: the ontological status of Jesus (from personification to literal Son of God).

If so, would this not explain how it is that the epistle writes on the understanding that all, audience and author, take for granted that the believers are part of the same temple/spiritual body etc, new kingdom or life in some "realized eschatology"?

There is no suggestion, anywhere I am aware of, where there is a belief in a most high christology for Jesus that is met with any sort of hint of resistance among any followers still wanting to keep him "closer to real humanity just as at the beginning".

If the message from the beginning was that God and his people were all one body and that this was represented midrashically, then it would be but a small step to shift just one element of that scenario: one figure is shifted from being solely a personification of the presence of God and becomes the literal presence of God.

Does this scenario have fewer (or more?) problems than starting out with a belief in an entirely celestial Son of God?
Whatever the original event was for early Christ worship, I don’t see any basis in the epistles or the apostolic fathers or the early apologists for a low christology of adoptionism. (Romans 1 is a late Catholic framing.) Every articulation of a belief about Jesus is celestial. Jesus is known from the beginning to be the original agent of creation as well as the Lord who is coming soon to judge. The only wrinkle is that, for Paul as well as for the Barnabas author, Jesus’ act of redemption from sin by his death involves the establishment of his intimate presence among the believers, through baptism, and in the worship activites of the churches. Christianity’s peculiar blend of transcendance and immanence is there from the beginning.

My theory, more or less, is that the experience of redemption was incredibly transformative and effective for the Pauline churches, even in the 2nd century. But they couldn’t make sense of it theologically unless there had already been a coming of the Lord in lowly human form (who knows what “Paul” actually believed). The transition from mystical experience via charismatic apostles to a more stable, midrashically based cosmic event of assuming flesh, dwelling among us, and suffering at human hands was necessary if the religion was going to survive. All these essential ideas of Christianity are already present in the Barnabas epistle, even though it lacks the traces of a historical reminiscence of the man from Nazareth.
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