The Epistle of Barnabas

By James M. Rochford

Unless otherwise stated, all citations taken from Kirsopp Lake, Apostolic Fathers, 1912 (Loeb Classical Library), found here.

The Epistle of Barnabas is a very early Christian letter. It is roughly 9,400 words (roughly the length of the book of Revelation).

This ancient letter shouldn’t be confused with the gospel of Barnabas, which is a spurious 13th century AD document that is filled with anachronisms and “prophecies” that Muhammad is the Messiah.


We have two complete Greek texts of the letter, nine partial Greek texts, and one Latin translation. One of our complete Greek manuscripts exists in Codex Sinaiticus. This letter and the Shepherd of Hermas are placed at the very end of the codex. The other complete Greek manuscript exists in Codex Hierosolymitanus.[1]


The author of the letter is unknown. The name “Barnabas” was most likely attached to it to add to its authority. While some manuscripts contain the name Barnabas in the title and the conclusion, this doesn’t seem authentic.

Jerome, Clement of Alexandria, and Serapion of Thmuis held that the biblical Barnabas (Acts 11-15; Gal. 2) wrote the letter. However, Jefford notes, “Few scholars continue to hold this view today.”[2] There are two reasons why: (1) The text dates too late in history to have been written by the biblical Barnabas (~AD 100?), and (2) the anti-Semitic comments in the letter are at odds with the Barnabas we know in the NT. These more reliably reflect the growing anti-Semitism which entered the Church in the post-apostolic Church.

Jefford gives three explanations for the origin of the title Barnabas: (1) It’s possible that this could’ve been written by a generic man named Barnabas—just not the Barnabas of the NT. (2) It’s also possible that it could be pseudepigraphical—written by an anonymous author under the name Barnabas to boost his credibility. (3) A final option is that it was written by an anonymous author, and later Christians placed the name Barnabas in the letter to boost its authority. We simply cannot be sure.


Scholarship dates the letter anywhere from AD 70 to 135—though “most scholars” date it closer to AD 100.[3] Since the letter mentions the destruction of the Jewish Temple in AD 70, this places it sometime after this event. The author writes, “‘They who destroyed this temple shall themselves build it.’ That is happening now. For owing to the war it was destroyed by the enemy; at present even the servants of the enemy will build it up again” (16.3-4). The letter’s reference to the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple could reflect the historical context of Simon Bar Kokhba, who tried to reconstruct the Temple in his day (AD 132-135).

Is this Scripture?

Clement of Alexandria (AD 200) cites this letter seven in his book Stromateis. Clement “even endorsed it with the authority of scripture,”[4] writing a (lost) commentary on the letter. Origen (AD 250) referred to it as “a Catholic Epistle” (Contra Celsus, 1.63). Does this mean that the letter should be considered Scripture? We would disagree for several reasons:

First, canonicity is based on apostolicity. As we’ve argued elsewhere (see “The NT Canon”), the books included in the NT canon needed to be written by an apostle or under the authority of an apostle. The Epistle of Barnabas—a pseudepigraphical and late dated letter—would not pass this essential test.

Second, the Epistle was locally recognized in Alexandria, but not by the entire Church. Clement of Alexandria and Origen both accepted the letter, because it became popular in their localized area: Alexandria, Egypt. The letter uses an allegorical interpretation of the OT (see “Faulty Hermeneutical Systems”), which was infamous in the Alexandrian school. This could be why these two men believed it to be reliable: it fit with their erroneous interpretation of OT Scripture.

Third, the rest of the Christian leaders rightly rejected this letter. Jefford writes, “There are no additional references to the text outside of the Alexandrian area during the second and third centuries.”[5] Athanasius, who associated with the church in Alexandria, excluded this letter as canonical. Eusebius called it a “spurious” writing. While it does appear in the Codex Sinaiticus, it appears at the end of the text, being separated from the NT Scriptures.

Fourth, the author doesn’t consider himself a teacher. We read, “I will show you a few things, not as a teacher but as one of yourselves…. I hasten to write in devotion to you, not as a teacher, but as it becomes one who loves to leave out nothing of that which we have” (1.8; 4.9). Is the author telling us that his teaching is categorically different than Scripture? Could we imagine a NT author making a statement like this?

Contents of the Epistle

Allegorical interpretation. Notice the wild allegorical approach to interpreting “prophecies” from the OT concerning Christ, baptism, etc. This allegorical approach should be rejected, as the reader will see for herself by reading the letter.

Anti-Semitic polemic. Note how early anti-Semitism entered the Church! Of course, the Bible rejects anti-Semitism.

Comments on the Epistle of Barnabas

(Chapter 1) He addresses his letter to any and all Christians. He wants to expound on three key doctrines: “‘The hope of life’ is the beginning and end of our faith; and righteousness is the beginning and end of judgment; love of joy and of gladness is the testimony of the works of righteousness” (v.6). He wants to share what he has learned, though not as a teacher (v.8).

(Chapter 2) He argues against the need for animal sacrifices. He compares going back under the rituals of animal sacrifices to the evil one entering into the believer (v.10).

(Chapter 3) He compares the OT ritualism to a “shipwreck” of the faith (v.6).

(Chapter 4) He interprets the breaking of the stone tablets of the Law to the Jews losing their covenant to Christians, because of their idolatry (v.8).

He refers to Satan as “the Black One” (v.9).

He wants believers to be “the Temple” (v.11).

Believers shouldn’t be content with their sinful lifestyle, just because they are Christians (v.13).

Even though God performed many miracles in Israel, the Jewish people were “abandoned” (v.14). Is he referring to the destruction of the Temple in AD 70?

(Chapter 5) He cites Isaiah 53 as a prophecy of the Cross (v.2).

This is a memorable line: “We ought to give great thanks to the Lord that he has given us knowledge of the past, and wisdom for the present, and that we are not without understanding for the future” (v.3).

The author believed that God had to incarnate in human flesh. Otherwise, we couldn’t bear to look at God in his absolute glory. He compares it to looking directly at the sun (v.10).

(Chapter 6) He cites Psalm 22 as a messianic prophecy (v.6).

He repeatedly appeals to an allegorical hermeneutic. Here’s one example: “What then is the milk and the honey? Because a child is first nourished with honey, and afterwards with milk. Thus therefore we also, being nourished on the faith of the promise and by the word, shall live and possess the earth” (v.17).

(Chapter 7) He heavily allegorizes the scapegoat of the OT. Here’s one example: “But why is it that they put the wool in the middle of the thorns? It is a type of Jesus placed in the Church, because whoever wishes to take away the scarlet wool must suffer much because the thorns are terrible and he can gain it only through pain” (v.11).

He appeals to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac as a type of Christ (v. 3; cf. Gen. 22).

(Chapter 8) More allegorizing of the heifer sacrifice: “The boys who sprinkle are they who preached to us the forgiveness of sins, and the purification of the heart, to whom he gave the power of the Gospel to preach, and there are twelve as a testimony to the tribes, because there are twelve tribes of Israel. But why are there three boys who sprinkle? As a testimony to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, for these are great before God. And why was the wool put on the wood? Because the kingdom of Jesus is on the wood” (vv.3-5).

(Chapter 9) He argues that the Jewish people trusted in circumcision for salvation, but they were giving into the leading of an evil angel (v.4).

If circumcision causes salvation, then many people—even the enemies of Israel like Syria, Arabia, and Egypt—could be saved, because they too practiced circumcision (v.6).

He sees prophecy in a wild allegory of Abraham circumcising the 318 men. He writes, “For it says, ‘And Abraham circumcised from his household eighteen men and three hundred.’ What then was the knowledge that was given to him? Notice that he first mentions the eighteen, and after a pause the three hundred. The eighteen is I (=ten) and H (=8)—you have Jesus—and because the cross was destined to have grace in the T he says ‘and three hundred.’ So he indicates Jesus in the two letters and the cross in the other” (v.8).

(Chapter 10) More allegorizing of the OT. Moses prohibited the eating of swine, because “you shall not consort, he means, with men who are like swine” (v.3).

They weren’t supposed to eat birds. According to the author, this means that they should not “join thyself or make thyself like to such men, as do not know how to gain their food by their labour and sweat, but plunder other people’s property in their iniquity, and lay wait for it, though they seem to walk in innocence, and look round to see whom they may plunder in their covetousness, just as these birds alone provide no food for themselves, but sit idle, and seek how they may devour the flesh of others, and become pestilent in their iniquity” (v.4).

He uses these hidden spiritual interpretations to support his “three doctrines.” But the Jews, he argues, only interpreted these literally.

The people were allowed to eat ruminants (e.g. cows), because this supposedly showed that we should “ruminate on the word of the Lord” (v.11).

(Chapter 11) He offers more allegory to defend the doctrines of water baptism and the Cross in the OT.

(Chapter 12) He gives more allegorical interpretations of the OT to “predict” the Cross of Christ.

(Chapter 13) He argues about who has the covenant.

(Chapter 14) The Jews were unable to receive the covenant: “they were not worthy to receive it because of their sins” (v.1).

(Chapter 15) He holds that the six days of creation refer to 6,000 years of history, because a “day is like a thousand years” (v.4).

(Chapter 16) The Jewish people saw their Temple destroyed in the war of AD 70, and they were currently trying to rebuild it (vv.3-4). This happened in AD 132-135 under Bar Kokhba. The author understand the Temple to refer to believers—a “spiritual temple” (v.10; 1 Pet. 2).

(Chapter 17) The meaning of God’s truth is hidden in parables.

The Two Ways

This section is parallel with the Didache chapters 1-6.

(Chapter 18) We can go with God or with Satan.

(Chapter 19) He explains the “Way of the Light,” listing a number of moral commands.

(Chapter 20) He explains the “Way of the Black One,” listing more moral commands.

(Chapter 21) He writes his conclusion and farewell address.

[1] Jefford, C. N. (2012). Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Student’s Introduction (Second Edition, p. 1-3). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[2] Jefford, C. N. (2012). Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Student’s Introduction (Second Edition, p. 5). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[3] Jefford, C. N. (2012). Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Student’s Introduction (Second Edition, p. 1). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[4] Jefford, C. N. (2012). Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Student’s Introduction (Second Edition, p. 7). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

[5] Jefford, C. N. (2012). Reading the Apostolic Fathers: A Student’s Introduction (Second Edition, p. 15). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.