Everything to Know About the Epistle of Barnabas | Church Fathers

The anonymous Epistle of Barnabas is one of the earliest Christian writings of the subapostolic era. It has the tone of both a letter and a sermon. The author, recipients, location, and date of the epistle are a mystery. The name of the author is not explicitly mentioned in the epistle. The author claims not to be a teacher but certainly writes like one. Clement of Alexandria supposed the author was the Apostle Barnabas, Paul’s missionary companion, which may account for the title of the epistle, but the general consensus today is that the author wrote later than Barnabas’s lifetime. The identity of the recipients also remains a mystery, but they were praised for their Christian goodness and love in the introductory section. There is no mention of the location of the epistle’s author or recipients; however, most scholars suggest Alexandria because of the epistle’s strong use of an allegorical interpretation of Scripture, which was common in Alexandrian literary and religious education at the time. Guesses as to the date of the epistle range from AD 70 to 200, but the epistle was most likely written sometime in the early 130s. The author mentioned that the epistle was written “in order that (the readers) might have, along with (their) faith, a perfect knowledge (of) the doctrines of the Lord.” 

The epistle consists of two clear sections. Chapters 1-17 are doctrinal in nature and serve to form an explanation of the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. Chapters 18-21 are subtitled the “two ways” and are practical in nature. A variation of the “two ways” was also found in the Didache, an earlier Christian instruction manual. This has led some scholars to suppose that the “two ways” might have been a separate Hebrew document that predated both the Epistle of Barnabas and the Didache. 

Overall, the allegorical or symbolic approach of the epistle has the feel of an apology against the Jewish interpretation of Scriptures and Jewish law practiced as it was in that day. The matter was urgent because “the days are evil,” and “Satan possesses the power of the world.” The main section of the epistle notes that God did not need sacrifices like the pagans offered their gods and the Jews offered theirs. As David said in Psalm 51, God desires a broken spirit rather than animal sacrifices. God’s people were told in the Old Testament to avoid eating certain foods because of the sin each unclean animal represented in their own natural habitats (especially pigs). However, God desired humility rather than legalistic fasting and hearts that welcomed His spiritual presence rather than a temple to welcome His physical presence. While God intended to give the covenant to Israel through Moses, the people chose to make a golden calf. Their sin of idolatry resulted in God’s choice to give Christians the covenant later through Jesus Christ. Even Jacob’s blessing of his younger grandson, Ephraim, instead of the older, Manasseh, was a symbol of God’s blessing the younger Christians over the older Jews in the giving and living of the covenant. Though there may have been ignorance in the ancient Hebrew world about God, the prophets prophesied about Jesus Christ, and eventually, He revealed Himself to be the Son of God. Goats, sheep, calves, circumcision, wood, water, and other items mentioned in the Old Testament all pointed to Jesus Christ. He was both the Giver of the sacrifice and the Sacrifice itself. The Jews misunderstood their Christ because of their wickedness, but now Christians know better because God forgave their sins on the cross of Jesus Christ.

As was the case in Paul’s Epistles, the Epistle of Barnabas established a doctrinal basis for faith and life and then provided practical advice for living out this doctrine. The practical advice took the form of the “two ways.” The way of light includes the better behaviors to imitate, and the way of darkness includes the worse behaviors to avoid. Essentially the two ways teaches: live according to the light by having good thoughts and actions, and avoid a life of darkness that includes bad thoughts and actions. The epistle concludes with a reminder that the Second Coming of Jesus is near, so the readers ought to live in wisdom, intelligence, understanding, and knowledge of God’s judgments. This way, they will be ready for the final judgment day. That day will be coming soon, according to the epistle, because the six days of creation correspond to six thousand years; the sabbath day to the current millennium; and the “eighth day,” a symbol of the day on which Jesus Christ resurrected, will be the beginning of the future life and Heaven. 

In summary, the Christian doctrines and way of life are superior to the Jewish doctrines and way of life because Christians are forgiven of their sins through the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross, which comes with the benefit of understanding spiritual matters in a deeper, allegorical or spiritual sense. Though the author, recipients, location, and date of this epistle remain a mystery, it clearly serves an important purpose to our understanding today of how Christians attempted to distinguish themselves from their Jewish counterparts in the early second century.