THE Epistle which bears the name of Barnabas stands alone in the literature of the early Church. The writer is an uncompromising antagonist of Judaism, but beyond this antagonism he has nothing in common with the Antijudaic heresies of the second century. Unlike Marcion, he postulates no opposition between the Old Testament and the New. On the contrary he sees Christianity everywhere in the Lawgiver and the Prophets, and treats them with a degree of respect which would have satisfied the most devout rabbi. He quotes them profusely as authoritative. Only he accuses the Jews of misunderstanding them from beginning to end, and intimates that the ordinances of circumcision, of the sabbath, of the distinctions of meats clean and unclean, were never intended to be literally observed, but had throughout a spiritual and mystical significance.
Who then was the writer of this Epistle? At the close of the second century Clement of Alexandria quotes it frequently, and ascribes it to the 'Apostle,' or the 'Prophet Barnabas,' identifying the author with 'Barnabas who himself also preached with the Apostle' (i.e. St Paul) 'in the ministry of the Gentiles.' Yet elsewhere he does not hesitate to criticize the work, and clearly therefore did not regard it as final and authoritative. A few years later, Origen cites the Epistle with the introductory words, 'It is written in the catholic (i.e. general) Epistle of Barnabas.' The earliest notices however are confined to the Alexandrian fathers, and the presumption is that it was written in Alexandria itself.
It will be observed that the writer nowhere claims to be the Apostle Barnabas; indeed his language is such as to suggest that he was wholly unconnected with the Apostles. The work therefore is in no sense apocryphal, if by apocryphal we mean fictitious. How the name of Barnabas came to be associated with it, it is impossible to say. An early tradition, or fiction, represents Barnabas as residing at Alexandria; but this story might have been the consequence, rather than the cause, of the name attached to the letter. Possibly its author was some unknown namesake of the 'Son of Consolation.'
That Alexandria, the place of its earliest reception, was also the place of its birth, is borne out by the internal evidence of style and interpretation, which is Alexandrian throughout. The picture too which it presents of feuds between Jews and Christians is in keeping with the state of the population of that city, the various elements of which were continually in conflict. But the problem of the date is a more difficult one. The Epistle was certainly written after the first destruction of Jerusalem under Titus, to which it alludes; but, had it been composed after the war under Hadrian ending in the second devastation, it could hardly have failed to refer to that event. The possible limits therefore are A.D. 70 and A.D. 132. But within this period of sixty years the most various dates have been assigned to it. The conclusion depends mainly on the interpretation put upon two passages which treat of quotations from the prophets. (1) The first is in §4, where Daniel vii. 7 sq is quoted as illustrating the great scandal or offence which, according to the writer, is at hand. The date will depend on the interpretation put upon the 'three kings in one' (τρεῖς ὑφ' ἒν τῶς βασιλέως) and 'the little excrescence' or 'offshoot horn' (μικρὸν κέρας παραφυάδιον). And here no theory yet propounded appears quite satisfactory. Weizsäcker, who dates the Epistle in Vespasian's reign (A.D. 70—79), is compelled to consider that emperor as at once one of the great horns and the little horn; Hilgenfeld, who places it under Nerva (A.D. 96— 98), arbitrarily omits Julius and Vitellius from the list of Caesars, that he may make Domitian the tenth king; while both alike fail to recognize in Daniel's little horn a prophecy of Antichrist and therefore a persecuting emperor. Volkmar's date (A.D. 119—132), besides other serious objections, depends upon the enumeration of the three kings over and above the ten, whereas the language suggests that they were in some sense comprised within the ten. The solution, which follows, and which we are disposed to adopt provisionally, has not, we believe, been offered before. We enumerate the ten Caesars in their natural sequence, with Weizsäcker, and arrive at Vespasian as the tenth. We regard the three Flavii as the three kings destined to be humiliated, with Hilgenfeld. We do not however with him contemplate them as three separate emperors, but explain the language as referring to the association with himself by Vespasian of his two sons Titus and Domitian in the exercise of supreme power. So close a connexion of three in one was never seen in the history of the empire, until a date too late to enter into consideration. The significance of this association is commemorated in several types of coins, which exhibit Vespasian on the obverse and Titus and Domitian on the reverse in various attitudes and with various legends. Lastly, with Volkmar, we interpret the little horn as symbolizing Antichrist, and explain it by the expectation of Nero's reappearance which we know to have been rife during the continuation of the Flavian dynasty. (2) The second passage is the interpretation in §16 given to Isaiah xlix. 17, where it is foretold to the Jews that 'those who pulled down this temple themselves shall build it up,' and the interpretation goes on to say that 'this is taking place (γίνεται). Because they went to war it was pulled down by their enemies; now also the very subjects (ὑπηρέται) of their enemies (the Romans) shall build it up !' This is taken by interpreters generally to refer to the material temple at Jerusalem, and they explain it of the expectations of the Jews at one epoch or another that the Romans would rebuild the temple—the epoch generally chosen being the conquest of Hadrian, at which point consequently very many place the writing of the Epistle. This conflicts with any natural interpretation of the three horns and the little horn. But (i) no satisfactory evidence has been adduced that Hadrian had any such intention, or that the Jews had any such expectation in his time; and (ii) there is the still more formidable objection that this interpretation runs counter to the general teaching of this writer, who reproaches the Jews with their material interpretations of prophecy, and to the whole context, which is conceived in his usual vein. He explains at the outset that the Jews are wrong in setting their hope on the material building. Yet here, if this interpretation be correct, he tells them to do this very thing. Moreover, lest there should be any mistake, he assures them that there is a temple, but this temple of the Lord, predicted by the prophets, is a spiritual temple; for it is either the Church of Christ, or the soul of the individual believer, wherein the Lord dwells. Whether with א we read a second καὶ after αὐτοὶ or not, this spiritual interpretation must be correct; but the context suggests its omission. Thus the passage has no bearing at all on the date. For these reasons we should probably place the date of the so-called Epistle of Barnabas between A.D. 70—79; but the ultimate decision must be affected by the view which shall commend itself of the origin of those chapters, which the epistle has in common with the Teaching of the Apostles.
The authorities for the text are as follows:
(1) GREEK MANUSCRIPTS.
1. The famous Sinaitic MS (א) of the fourth century, where, in company with the Shepherd of Hermas, it occurs in a complete form, following the Apocalypse, as a sort of appendix to the sacred volume.
2. The Constantinopolitan MS (C) of Bryennios, an eleventh century document (see above, pp. 4, 216); here also the epistle is found complete.
3. The series of nine Greek MSS (G), all of one family, enumerated above, p. 166sq; in this collection of manuscripts the first four chapters and part of the fifth are wanting.
There is also (II) a LATIN VERSION (L) extant in a MS of the ninth or tenth century (Petropolitanus Q. v. 1. 39, formerly Corbeiensis). This MS omits the last four chapters, which apparently formed no part of the version in question.
Lastly, the quotations in Clement of Alexandria, comprising as they do portions of §§ 1, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 16, 21, and those passages in §§ 18—21 which this Epistle has in common with the Didache and other documents, open out additional considerations which must not be disregarded in the formation of the text.