The probability that the author of the “Epistle of Barnabas” is that Barnabas, sometime companion of Paul (Acts 11-15), and known cousin of (John) Mark (Col 4:10), is quite low, but the author nevertheless deserves a place in a “Dictionary of African Christian Biography” as one functioning on behalf of incipient Christianity from Alexandria by the turn into the second century. It was conjectured in the nineteenth century, “setting aside the guess that the author’s name may really have been” some Barnabas, “that the Church of Alexandria was founded, if not by Barnabas himself, by men of Cyprus, who owed their knowledge of the Gospel to him” (Salmon 1889: 572). The Epistle itself was included in that collection of Scripture which became Codex Sinaiticus (Goodspeed 1966: 21), a “complete” Bible dating from the fourth century (Skeat 1963: 19-23), now in the British Library (Barker 1989: 238), and probably one of the fifty copies authorized by the emperor Constantine [reigned 307-337] (Eusebius, De Vita Constantini IV.36-37 apud Skeat 1963: 22).
The earliest citation of the Epistle, and hence of this unknown “Barnabas,” is Clement of Alexandria (160-215), who, however, treats its author as though he were that sometime companion of Paul – “him who preached in company with Paul” (Stromateis II.6 apud Staniforth 1968: 189; cf. Eusebius H.E. VI.14.1 with reference to Clement’s lost work, the Hypotyposeis), though all internal and external evidence suggests its origin to have been Alexandria where “the influence of Philo” (c.20 B.C.- A.D. 50) was “unmistakable” (Q1.2.5 p. 89) and where its concern was to find a Christian way of treating texts of the “Old” Testament as known in their Hellenistic Greek sense or translation:
The view Christians were to take of the Jewish scriptures was a serious problem for the early church for almost a century and a half. What were Christians to think of the Jewish Law? How were they to regard the utterances of the prophets? The Letter to the Romans and the Gospel of Matthew had grappled with these questions, and Marcion and Justin in the middle of the second century took opposite views on them. But about A.D. 130 a Christian teacher, probably in Alexandria, offered a compromise. The Jewish scriptures were true, not literally, as the Jews believed, but allegorically. (Goodspeed 1966: 20, though ODCC dates the writing “between A.D. 70 and 100”; cf. Salmon 1889: 570-571; Lawlor 1928: 93-94)
While Jerome (c.347-419) in his “Lives of Illustrious Men” agreed with Clement as to who that “Barnabas” was, a century earlier Eusebius of Caesarea (c.260-340), writing in his ecclesiastical history, made no such statement, but rather understood “the extant epistle of Barnabas” as one “among the spurious writings” of the New Testament (H.E. III.25.4; Oulton 1927: 87), so that even Jerome, while admiring the Epistle as “valuable for the edification of the church,” had to concede that it was “reckoned among the apocryphal writings” [ J 6; NPNF 2 III (1892) 363]. But in the third century Origen had cited it as “the ‘Catholic’ Epistle of Barnabas” (Contra Celsus I.63), and numbered it “among the books of Sacred Scripture” (Q1.2.5 p. 89; in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans I.24, Salmon 1889: 566), so that it is not surprising that it appeared not merely in manuscript collections of “the Apostolic Fathers” with Clement of Rome (traditionally “bishop” 88-97) or with Polycarp of Smyrna (c.69-155) (cf. Goodspeed 1966: 21 with Lightfoot 1891: 136), but even in at least one “complete” Bible.
Clyde Curry Smith
Bibliography (see link to abbreviations table below):
PG 2; CPG 1.1050; TLG 1216
Q1.2.5; DECL 89-90, 90-91 (FRProstmeier); FOTC 100 15; ODCC 132; NIDCC 105 (DGuthrie); ODByz 257-258 (AKazhdan); OEEC 111-112 (FScorzaBarcellona); GEEC 167-168 (EFerguson)
Treasures of the British Library, compiled by Nicolas Barker and the curatorial staff of the British Library. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Carrington 1957 The Early Christian Church, by Philip Carrington. Cambridge: At the University Press. 2 volumes. Index sub verbo.
A History of Early Christian Literature, by Edgar Johnson Goodspeed, revised and enlarged by Robert McQueen Grant. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Lawlor 1928 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume II: Introduction, Notes, and Index, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor.
The Apostolic Fathers, translated by Joseph Barber Lightfoot, edited and reprinted. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1956.
NPNF 2 III 1892 Jerome, De viris inlustribus, translated by Ernest Cushing Richardson, in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Buffalo and New York: Christian Literature. Series 2, Volume III, pp. 359-384.
Oulton 1927 Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea, The Ecclesiastical History and the Martyrs of Palestine, translated with Introduction and Notes, by Hugh Jackson Lawlor and John Ernest Leonard Oulton. London: SPCK. 2 volumes. Volume I: Translation, by John Ernest Leonard Oulton. (Specific references also cited as H.E. with book and chapter).
A Historical Introduction to the Study of the Books of the New Testament: Being an Expansion of Lectures delivered in the Divinity School of the University of Dublin, by George Salmon. 4th edition; London: John Murray. Pp. 565-572.
The Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Alexandrinus, revised throughout by Theodore Cressy Skeat. London: The Trustees of the British Museum.
Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, translated by Maxwell Staniforth. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd.
This article, received in 2001, was researched and written by Dr. Clyde Curry Smith, Professor Emeritus of Ancient History and Religion, University of Wisconsin, River Falls.