Barnabas and the Gospels:
Was There an Early Gospel of Barnabas?

R. Blackhirst

JHC 7/1 (Spring 2000), 1-22.


THE extant Gospel of Barnabas, often classified among the "modern apocrypha," survives in Italian and Spanish versions and is, no doubt, the product of the late Middle Ages.1 There is, however, a Gospel of Barnabas mentioned in earlier Christian history and it is fairly safe to assume that the medieval book of the same name is intended by its author to be the same work. In the Preface to the Spanish text of the medieval Barnabas we are told that an employee of the Inquisition, a "Brother Marino" encountered a reference to an early Gospel of Barnabas in the writings of Irenaeus. Then, some time later, by a happy accident, he found a copy of the same early gospel in the library of Pope Sixtus V. Neither the known text of Irenaeus' Adversus haereses nor any existing fragments from Irenaeus' writings mention a Gospel of Barnabas as the Preface claims, but two other works do: a gospel of that name is mentioned in two lists of books "received and not received" by orthodox Christianity, the so-called Gelasian Decree and the so-called List of Sixty Books. The later of these two references is dated to the seventh century CE 2 after which a "Gospel according to Barnabas" is never heard of again until the medieval work appeared. It is widely assumed that this is the historical opportunity seized upon by the author of the medieval work: knowing, through Irenaeus, the lists, or some other source, that there had once been a Gospel of Barnabas but that it was no longer extant provided the medieval author with a perfect situation in which to place his forgery. It is curious that the author of the Preface does not exploit the references in the early lists directly, and cites Irenaeus as his source,3 but the intent is the same. The story is that "Fra Marino" encountered a notice of an early Gospel of Barnabas and then, miraculously, he found a copy. More likely, of course, someone encountered a notice of an early Gospel of Barnabas, and knowing it to be lost, invented a copy. We might, nevertheless, speculate that someone did find or had knowledge of an early Gospel of Barnabas and that the extant work does bear some relationship to an earlier work of the same name. This is one of the controversies surrounding the medieval Barnabas. It is a "forgery," no doubt, but is it a "worthless forgery," a baseless fiction? Cirillo tried to demonstrate that an early Gnostic gospel underpins the medieval work,4 and the Raggs, who translated the Italian manuscript into English, made similar speculations. Several scholars have been struck by the work's recreation of early Ebionite points of view.5 In the 1960s Pines suggested that the medieval work may contain residues of early Ebionite writings.6 Those that see traces of early material in the medieval text are naturally intrigued by the possibility that an ancient Gospel of Barnabas is now buried in the medieval work of the same name.

Was there an early Gospel of Barnabas?

BUT was there really an early Gospel of Barnabas for the medieval work to be based upon? Despite the notices in the two lists, many question whether there ever was such a gospel. Christian parties in the debate over the worth of the medieval Barnabas generally attempt to squash any possibility that it may contain any germ of early material by arguing that both notices of the early Gospel of Barnabas were mistaken and that there never was such a gospel at all. They have several important New Testament authorities on their side. Both James's and Schneemelcher's standard editions of Christian apocrypha question the accuracy of the ancient lists on this point.7 It is doubtful whether the authors of either the Gelasian Decree or the List of Sixty Books had actually seen all of the works they list, so the fact that they mention a Gospel of Barnabas is not proof that they actually possessed copies. It is therefore quite possible that their information about the existence of a gospel under Barnabas' name was mistaken or was the product of empty hearsay. A Gospel of Barnabas is not mentioned in any source outside of these two lists; it is not mentioned by any other Christian writers (Irenaeus included) even for the purposes of condemning it. Nor does so much as a single fragment of an early Gospel of Barnabas survive. It appears to be an empty title; not a single word of it is extant. For some this counts heavily against it having been a real work. The assertion that fragments of it may survive in the medieval Barnabas introduces the worst kind of circular argument.8 Given a lack of all corroborating evidence, it is safer, it is said, to suppose that there was no such gospel to begin with. The tradition that there was an early Barnabas gospel is deemed to be feeble, and recourse to such a fantastic creation as the medieval Barnabas for supporting evidence makes the case for its existence even more feeble still.

It is, however, not unlikely that a Gospel might have been written under the name Barnabas. As with most characters mentioned as having had even a subsiduary role in the events described in the New Testament, there was a spurious literature gathered under Barnabas' authority in the early history of the Christian faith, with contending sects claiming him as their own. Barnabas was, in any Christian reckoning, an important figure in the Christian story. There are extant, in whole or in part, Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Peter, James, Bartholemew, Matthias, Nicodemus, a whole array of New Testament characters, so why not Barnabas as well? Even though the canonical Barnabas did not meet Jesus in person (not joining the disciples until after the Ascension of Christ into heaven, according to the Acts of the Apostles)9 neither had Luke and, even more than Luke, Barnabas (in the New Testament accounts) was in a position to hear of Jesus' life and teachings direct from those who did meet him; this qualified him to write a gospel.10 John Mark, a relative of Barnabas,11 is supposed to have written from the reports of Peter. Barnabas, in this same circle, could have written too. To the Church Fathers Barnabas was known as the writer of an important epistle. Some Christian authorities supported moves to include this epistle in the canon of the New Testament but, ultimately, it was rejected while still attaining and holding a place of honour among early Christian writings. There is no reason why such a revered figure as Barnabas might not have also had a gospel written in his name; indeed, given the welter of spurious gospels written under a host of New Testament names it might be more surprising if a gospel had not been written in his name by someone at some stage. In modern times, particularly among Muslims, the Epistle of Barnabas has often been confused with a Gospel of Barnabas,12 but this is not a mistake found in the Fathers or other primitive Christian sources, nor in the lists. The List of Sixty Books catalogues both the Epistle and a Gospel, making it clear that they were understood to be two distinct works. The Fathers know Barnabas as a writer of letters, like Paul, but the lists would have us believe that at some time in the early Christian centuries a gospel was added to Barnabas' oeuvre by some group outside of orthodoxy. This, it should be said, would not be an unlikely turn of events. It is not inherently implausible that such a work as a Gospel of Barnabas was written and circulated.

The Missing Gospel

A closer look at the lists reveals evidence that could be taken either way on this matter; it could support a case for an early Barnabas as much as it could support the case against. The remarkable fact is that it is possible to account for all of the works mentioned in both lists with the one exception of the Gospel of Barnabas. The lists will sometimes use variants of the more common names of known works, as when the List of Sixty calls the Protevangelium of James the History of James, but every work in these lists has been identified, at least to the general satisfaction of most scholars. The Gelasian Decree's obscure reference to "All the books of Leucius" has been identified with the Acts of John (extant).13 The Decree's "Passing of Mary" is presumed to be pseudo-Melito's narrative. A reference to "Gospels which Lucianus and Heschius falsified" is taken to refer to recensions of the text of the canonicals, known but not extant. The Gospel of Thomas, however, is today extant. The Gospel of Bartholomew is extant. The Gospel of Peter the Apostle survives in fragments. "Books concerning the Infancy of the Saviour" are identified as the Pseudo-Matthew, extant. Discoveries in the twentieth century, especially those at Nag Hammadi, have filled many gaps in our record. It is, remarkably, only the Gospel according to Barnabas in these lists for which no satisfactory account can be given. It is true that in some cases the accepted identifications are highly conjectural, but by standard reckonings only the Gospel according to Barnabas presents serious problems. This can be interpreted in two ways. It may count against there having been such a work, or it may just as easily count for it. Is it conceivable that both lists could be wrong on this and only this point? The Gelasian Decree and the List of Sixty Books are, as far as we know, independent of each other: geographically one is from the east and one from the west; in time they are separated by at least a century. It seems hardly plausible that, by a coincidence of errors, both lists are mistaken in this one case, the only occasion where both lists have their information significantly wrong. On the other hand we may say that since all the other information in the lists seems to be in order, is it conceivable that there was a Gospel of Barnabas but it and it alone has left no further trace? If such a book did exist why does it and it alone defy identification? It is not unusual for a work from that period to have left nothing but its name. There are literally hundreds of works mentioned in extant writings of which not even fragments survive. It is entirely possible, therefore, for there to have been a Gospel of Barnabas but for there to be no part of it extant today. There is no doubt from the two lists of books "received and not received" that the Gospel of Barnabas was not a favourite in orthodox circles. These lists were, in themselves, catalogues of those books that were to be preserved and those that were to be destroyed in the Church's campaign to assert its version of the Christian message to the exclusion of all others. We should not be too surprised to find that, in this case, the work in question was eradicated. But is it conceivable that only the Gospel of Barnabas, of all the works listed in these catalogues, was eradicated comprehensively?

Barnabas and Matthias

A curious feature of the notices in both lists deserves some attention. This is that in both cases a "Gospel according to Barnabas" is paired with a "Gospel according to Matthias." Here are relevant samples from both lists to make this clear:


Acts of Peter - extant.

Acts of Philip - extant.

Gospel of Matthias - presumed to be Traditions of Matthias - fragments extant.

Gospel of Barnabas - nothing extant.

Gospel of James the Less - probably the Protevangelium.

Gospel of Peter the Apostle - fragments extant.


Teachings of Clement - Apostolic Constitutions - extant.

Teachings of Ignatius - extant (letters).

Teachings of Polycarp - extant (letters).

Gospel according to Barnabas - nothing extant.

Gospel according to Matthias - extant.

This suggests that the two notices may be related, the later dependant on the earlier, or that they depend on the same source, or, if the notices are truly independent of each other, it suggests that this Gospel of Barnabas travelled with the Gospel of Matthias (identified as the work more commonly known as the Traditions of Matthias), the two works being in some way a matching set. In this case we have a genuine instance of double attestation which must surely count in favour of there having been an early Barnabas gospel. There are no clues to anything of this in the surviving fragments of the Gospel/Traditions of Matthias, but the possibility is suggestive in other ways. Why, we wonder, have the Gospels of Barnabas and Matthias been grouped together? Why these two names and in both lists? Why Barnabas and Matthias?

In order to answer this question we need to consider it as an instance of a very complex tangle of associations between characters of similar name found throughout our sources. Matthias, according to the Acts of the Apostles, is the character who defeated a certain Barsabbas in the election of a new disciple after the suicide of Judas Iscariot. Ebionite literature, the Clementina, however, reports that this Barsabbas was in fact Barnabas and that Barnabas defeated Matthias in the election. The pairing of the names Matthias and Barnabas in the lists recalls this tangle of names and associations, and especially recalls the Clementina's account of matters as opposed to Act's Matthias and Barsabas. This is an interesting point in itself, but should be considered in a wider context still. The names Barnabas and Matthew are closely linked by tradition in relevant ways too. According to orthodox identifications, both Barnabas and Matthew were Levites and were among the leading Jews of the early Church. Barnabas, in fact, is credited with an important role in the transmission of Matthew's gospel. It was through Barnabas, it was said, that Matthew's Gospel-the "Jewish Gospel" of the orthodox Church-was preserved and transmitted. The traditions recording this are found in the late work the Acts of Barnabas. Barnabas, we are told, supposedly used "documents from Matthew"-noting the plural-for the purposes of both preaching and healing:

And having gone into Salamis we came to the synagogue near the place called Biblia; and when we had gone into it, Barnabas, having unrolled the Gospel which he had received from Matthew his fellow-labourer, began to teach the Jews.

And Timon was afflicted by much fever. And having laid our hands upon him, we straightway removed his fever, having called upon the name of the Lord Jesus. And Barnabas had received documents from Matthew, a book of the word of God, and a narrative of miracles and doctrines. This Barnabas laid upon the sick in each place that we came to, and it immediately made a cure of their sufferings.

At his death the supposed writer of the Acts of Barnabas, John Mark, saved Matthew's Gospel and hid it away.

But I, finding an opportunity in the night, and being able along with Timon and Rhodon to carry it, we came to a certain place, and having found a cave, put it down there, where the nation of the Jebusites formerly dwelt. And having found a secret place in it, we put it away, with the documents which he had received from Matthew. And it was the fourth hour of the night of the second of the week.

In later traditions when Barnabas' remains were discovered he was clutching this hidden copy of Matthew's Gospel to his chest. In some versions of the story both the book and his body were miraculously preserved.

Barnabas with Matthew

MATTHIAS/Matthew/Barsabbas/Barnabas -- it is evident that our extant sources are giving somewhat garbled versions of a common sub-stratum of stories involving this group of names. The two lists, with their Gospels of Matthias and Barnabas grouped together, participate in the same tradition of associations. The grouping of Matthias and Barnabas reminds us of Matthias and Barsabbas in Acts, which reminds us of Matthias and Barnabas in the Clementina, and both of these in turn remind us of Matthew and Barnabas in other sources. Curiously, in the medieval Gospel of Barnabas we find these associations again. In the list of disciples found in chapter 14 of the work (in both manuscripts) the supposed author, Barnabas, lists himself as "he who writes with Matthew."14

Disciples are commonly grouped into pairs. In the canonical lists Matthew's pair is Thomas. In the medieval gospel "Barnabas" is paired "with Matthew" and Thomas is omitted. The very idea that Barnabas is one of the Twelve, as it appears in the medieval work, is reminiscent of the Ebionite claim that Barnabas defeated Matthias for the position left vacant by Judas.15 Is the author of the medieval Barnabas following the New Testament and grouping together two Levites (taking Matthias and Matthew to be interchangeable) or does the grouping of "he who writes with Matthew" point to a stronger participation in the complex of associations between the two names, especially as these two names are connected with the transmission of the primitive "Jewish gospel"?

The Ebionites, the Fathers tell us, used the Gospel of Matthew and no other (especially not Luke). It is surely significant that, in the Ebionitic medieval Gospel of Barnabas, the supposed author "he who writes" counts himself among the disciples "with Matthew." Matthew's Gospel, it will be remembered, was supposed to have been written originally in Aramaic. The earliest testimony of the Fathers is that Matthew wrote first and that he wrote down the teachings of Jesus in Jesus' own language. In the writings of the earliest Fathers we find an overwhelming preference for the Gospel of Matthew; the other gospels are hardly mentioned, if at all. This is because the Fathers were laying claim to the Jewish heritage and it was important to demonstrate that the "gospel" was a product of authentic Jewish soil. Legends quickly developed about a "Jewish Gospel," the original gospel written in a semitic tongue. There were several contenders for this title, but Matthew's Gospel played this role in orthodox accounts.

Barnabas' traditional role in preserving and transmitting Matthew's gospel -- the "Jewish gospel," written in Palestine, in a native tongue - is surely relevant to the claims of the medieval Gospel of Barnabas which purports to be the long-lost testament of the Jewish Jesus. If the evidence for an early Gospel of Barnabas is slim and evidence of its transmission through the Middle Ages non-existent, we can safely say that the idea that the Gospel of Barnabas was associated with the "Jewish Gospel" was widespread and continuous. This raises the possibility, it should be noted, that there has been some confusion about a "Gospel of Barnabas," for it is conceivable that the Gospel of Matthew might be referred to as "Barnabas' gospel," meaning the gospel he preserved, not the gospel he wrote. The medieval Gospel of Barnabas may not, after all, be referring to the work mentioned in the two lists of books but rather it may be some misconstruction of traditions that a "Jewish Gospel" was associated with Barnabas' name.

In any case, the grouping of the Gospels of Matthias and Barnabas in both the Gelasian Decree and the List of Sixty Books opens some useful lines of inquiry. When we think of the biblical Barnabas we usually think of his association with Paul. But by tradition -- and scripturally in the interesting Matthias/Barsabbas configuration -- it is Matthew/Matthias with whom he is associated and, most importantly, this in the context of (a) the issue of discipleship - was Barnabas a disciple?16 and (b) the transmission of the original written witness of Jesus. In the present writer's view this adds some weight to the notices in the two lists; a Gospel of Barnabas might well have been a companion to the Gospel of Matthias -- the grouping of the two together in both lists bears the mark of an authentic tradition; it certainly signals meaningful associations. On what other grounds would Matthias and Barnabas be grouped together, and in both lists? It points to something, most likely the chain of associations sketched here. This is a sign that there may be some substance in the notices in the lists.

This, though, is still thin evidence. Until some early fragment or some other corroborating evidence comes to light many will prefer to remain sceptical about an early Gospel of Barnabas. If the lists are not confusing the Epistle of Barnabas for a Gospel, perhaps they are confusing the Acts of Barnabas for a Gospel?17 Perhaps both lists are simply perpetuating some error made in a common source? We can only conjecture as to what an early Gospel of Barnabas might have been like. The lists only permit us to conclude that, if it existed, it was for some reason unacceptable to orthodoxy. Most likely -- although it is, of course, pure conjecture -- it was too Judaic. The Clementina make it clear to what extant Barnabas was a favourite in Ebionite thought. Even the deeply anti-Semitic Epistle of Barnabas was, finally, too "Judaic" in its concerns to be admitted to the canon. Who might have written an early Gospel of Barnabas? Which sect might have sought the authority of the figure of Barnabas in writing? What climate of disputation might have called a "Gospel according to Barnabas" into existence? If there was an early Gospel of Barnabas its general orientation and affiliations would probably have made it an Ebionitic work, one favoured by "Jewish Christians" among whom Barnabas was an especially revered figure. The author of the medieval work was probably right in this respect, making his own work of exactly that persuasian. But has he done so from a position of knowledge, a "forger" armed with insights into an early literature, or merely through the same conjectures we have just made?

The name "Barnabas"

TO continue this discussion, let us consider the question 'Is the name Barnabas integral to the medieval work bearing this name?' How authentically "Barnabean" is the medieval gospel? Perhaps the medieval work was not originally a Gospel of Barnabas but was made so? Perhaps the medieval author had a body of work not in any way related to the name Barnabas, but supplied the name after discovering that there had been a Gospel of Barnabas that was now lost.18 In that case, the author has simply adapted his material to the name, although the name has no integral relation to the text. There are, indeed, signs of adaptation. It is common to say that the medieval Barnabas is an anti-Pauline work, and it is. But there are signs that it has been made more explicitly so than it had been. The Prologue to the Italian manuscript reports that the supposed narrator, Barnabas, "he who writes," is motivated to correct the errors of Pauline doctrine. They are "many," says the Prologue, who

being deceived of Satan, under pretence of piety, are preaching most impious doctrine, calling Jesus son of God, repudiating the circumcision ordained of God for ever, and permitting every unclean meat: among whom also Paul has been deceived, whereof I speak not without grief. It is because of this that I am writing that truth which I have seen and heard...

The same position is reiterated in the very final chapter. Certain "evil men" it says

pretending to be disciples, [have] preached that Jesus died and rose not again. Others preached that he really died, but rose again. Others preached, and yet preach, that Jesus is the Son of God, among whom is Paul deceived...

These anti-Pauline notices at the beginning and end of the manuscript, however, do not quite match the contents of Barnabas' gospel. For a start, as others have pointed out, there are quotes from or allusions to nearly all of Paul's letters to be found in the text of the work.19 More importantly, the issues nominated in the Prologue over which "he who writes" is at odds with Paul -the repudiation of circumcision and the eating of unclean meat -are not in fact crucial issues in the gospel itself. References to circumcision are confined to a distinct section, chapters 21 to 29. There is not another mention of the issue in the remaining 190 chapters. Similarly, the issue of unclean meats receives little treatment. In chapter 2 Jesus is kept from "unclean meat and strong drink" and there is a reference to the issue in chapter 32, but otherwise this is not the matter of contention signalled by the Prologue. This all suggests that the Prologue is an addition to the text and that its agenda is to make the work more explicitly anti-Pauline. There is every appearance that someone has added the Prologue, added the chapters on circumcision and added a remark about Paul to the final sentences of the text in order to make it an explicitly anti-Pauline work. In this case the name Barnabas may have been added at the same time on the basis of the Epistle of Galatian's portrayal of Barnabas and Paul at odds over the issues of circumcision and unclean meats.20 If we remove the Prologue, remove the chapters on circumcision, remove the reference to Paul in the final chapter, and remove all references to the name Barnabas, we have a coherent gospel, Ebionitic but not specifically anti-Pauline, written by an anonymous disciple "he who writes" in the manner of the Fourth Gospel.21 This suggests that the work was not originally a Gospel of Barnabas but has been made so in its final redaction. This, of course, would remove any possibility that the medieval gospel has any relation to an early "Gospel of Barnabas," supposing that such a work did once exist.

Another interesting possibility arises, however. In the medieval work the name Barnabas has evidently replaced the name Thomas. Thomas is missing from among Jesus' disciples; Barnabas - or more commonly just "he who writes"- takes his place. Perhaps this "Gospel of Barnabas" was originally material attached to the name Thomas? This might be significant in such a strongly docetic gospel where the name "Thomas," twin, might suggest the theme of "double," "doppleganger," since, in the medieval work Judas Iscariot takes the image of Jesus and is crucified in Jesus' stead. Is this perhaps related to some variation on the theme of the "twins" and motifs of mistaken identity? This is a possibility that needs to be explored. Many recent writers have explored the theme of the "twin" in Thomasine Christianity, noting the appelation "Judas Thomas," "Judas the Twin." 22 In the medieval Barnabas we have a spectacular formulation of a "Judas the Twin" in Judas Iscariot who is made to look so like Jesus that Jesus' own disciples are deceived; this in a work where "he who writes" replaces Thomas among the disciples. In this way the name Thomas might be integral to the material, the name Barnabas replacing it when the work was redrafted in a more explicitly anti-Pauline form.23


ETYMOLOGY, however, supplies another connection that does suggest that the name Barnabas is integral to the work, and in a most fascinating way. The most common derivation given for the name Barnabas is "Son of the Prophets," with nabi = "prophet" the root.24 There are objections to this derivation - we cannot be sure what the name means, anymore than we can be sure what the name "Barsabbas" is supposed to mean25 - but 'Son of the Prophet' is the most likely and natural derivation. Objections are often motivated by the fact that scripture offers an alternative. In Acts Luke gives what is best described as a type of explanatory or "descriptive" etymology:

There was a Levite of Cypriot origin called Joseph whom the apostles surnamed Barnabas (which means son of exhortation)...26

The common translation 'Son of Exhortation' here is in turn only a "descriptive" translation. Luke's Greek gives us the word "parakleseos," the same as 'Paraclete' in Jesus' teachings in the Fourth Gospel. The idea is that a "paraclete," an advocate, as in a court of law, is one who "exhorts" or argues a case, or it may similarly convey the idea 'consolation' or 'encouragement'.27 Luke seems to have in mind the idea that Prophets (nabi) exhort (or console or encourage) - this at least is how his "descriptive" etymology is usually explained in Christian apologetics.28 One cannot help but wonder why Luke explains "Barnabas" as meaning "son of parakleseos" and thus only alludes-obliquely-to the more obvious "Son of Prophets." Nevertheless, it should be noted that Luke's etymology does not undermine the natural etymology; prophets exhort; the name still means "Son of the Prophets," although Luke has seen fit to link it with the idea of the "exhortation" typical of "Advocates."29

All of this is strikingly relevant to the content of the medieval gospel. Throughout the work there is a marked affinity with Elijah, Elisha, and their followers, the Sons of the Prophets, as described in the Book of Kings. Jesus is in fact portrayed as Elijah redivivus.30 The Barnabas gospel is replete with extra-canonical material stemming from the Elijah cycle in Kings and several important canonical episodes have been changed or 'corrected' to conform to stories, themes or motifs from the Elijah cycle.31 In many respects, in fact, the whole of the Gospel of Barnabas operates upon parallels between the time of Elijah and the time of Barnabas' Jesus. Throughout there are parallels made between the persecution of Jesus and his followers, and the persecution of the Sons of the Prophets by Ahab and Jezebel.32

There is a similar preoccupation with Samuel and David and the Sons of the Prophets mentioned in the Book of Samuel. Moreover, it is clear that the 'True Pharisees' described in the work are the Sons of the Prophets, the followers of Elijah and Elisha on Mount Carmel.33 There is an unmistakeable strain of thought in the work belonging to the latter-day Sons of the Prophets, the medieval Carmelites, who claimed continuity (through John the Baptist) with the Sons of the Prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.34 If the name Barnabas is taken to mean Son of the Prophets, then it squares perfectly with this important aspect of the content of the medieval Gospel; Barnabas, Son of the Prophets, delivers a gospel in which the Sons of the Prophets are the heroes.

Remarkably, though, Luke's descriptive etymology also squares with the content of the work. The Messianic doctrine in the medieval Barnabas, inseparable from the 'Sons of the Prophets' theme, is founded upon the Paraclete doctrine from the Fourth Gospel.35 In its current form the medieval work nominates Muhammad as the Messiah of whom Jesus prophesies; in making Jesus the forerunner to the Messiah the author draws upon the Fourth Gospel's portrayal of Jesus as the forerunner of the Paraclete who is to come.36 It is possible in most cases to extract Muhammad's name from the work and supply 'Paraclete' instead. It is quite evident that the author had no detailed knowledge of Muhammad's biography or even of legends regarding him. "Muhammad" is little more than a name in Barnabas.37 When we remove that name we find a Messianic doctrine largely based in the idea of the 'Paraclete' (conceived as a prophetic function). This pronounced use of the Paraclete theme is consonant with Luke's creative etymology of the name Barnabas. Together, the Sons of the Prophets theme and the Paraclete theme constitute the characteristic core material of the medieval work. Together, they are consonant with not only the natural etymology of Barnabas' name but Luke's oblique etmyology as well. It is as if someone has assembled the content of the gospel from a study of the etymology of the name Barnabas, including the "descriptive" etymology given in Acts. Can it be a coincidence that this Gospel of Barnabas dwells on both the Sons of the Prophets and the Paraclete, and that both these these are suggested by the etymology of the name Barnabas?

Strange to relate, this configuration of ideas is found in the Clementina, but associated with James the Righteous.38 James is described as an authority on the manner in which Christ "is drawn from Scripture." "We must first inquire from what Scriptures we are especially to derive our discussion," says James. For this purpose he nominates the Law, but "afterwards he made mention also of the prophets" and specifically "he made some statements respecting the books of the Kings: in what way, and when, and by whom they were written, and how they ought to be used." Later in the same passage we are told that the Paraclete was also a subject of the same discourses of James.39 James' (Ebionitic) exegesis of the Book of Kings and James' discourses on the Paraclete - and both of these things in the context of the "True Prophet" ideology of the Clementina - this is all very suggestive of the conjunction of the same ideas in the (Ebionitic) Gospel of Barnabas, remembering also the important role played by the character Barnabas in the Clementina.40

Noting the Ebionitic character of the medieval gospel, we turn to other Ebionite writing in search of consonances and coincidences of ideas. This section of the Clementine Recognitions provides an important parallel; it tells us that a (True Prophet) exegesis of Kings (and presumably the Elijah cycle within Kings) was characteristic of the teachings of James and that in the same discourses he spoke of the Paraclete. These are elements of the type of Ebionism found in the medieval Barnabas. Ebionism is a blanket term.41 What type of Ebionite thought do we find in the medieval Barnabas? This passage in the Recognitions has several of the elements characteristic of the medieval work, and they happen to also suggest the two etymologies yielded by the name "Barnabas." Perhaps the name Barnabas is integral to the work, but its source is via such works as the Clementina, not some early gospel written in Barnabas' name? Perhaps the author had a body of Ebionite material,42 under Barnabas' name, and has crafted it into a gospel to take advantage of the fact that the early gospel of that name mentioned in the lists is nowhere to be found? There are certainly signs that the medieval work has been pressed into its present format: the "gospel" construction is highly artificial.43 This again counts against any continuity with an early Gospel of Barnabas, but it leaves open possibilities of dependence on or reflections from other early sources.44

The name Barnabas, though, does seem to adhere to the core of the work. The name matches the content.45 If we ask what sort of gospel might have been written in Barnabas' name, we should not be surprised to find a work that reflects his prophetic credentials, although the extant work might almost be said to be written from as well as in Barnabas' name. Someone, evidently, has imagined that such a work should be overtly anti-Pauline, but more importantly someone else has matched his name to the 'Sons of the Prophets' and furthermore to the Paraclete idea. If there is some textual evidence that the name Barnabas might not have been originally attached to the work, the coincidence between the etymology of the name and the work's core material - its prophetology and Messianic doctrine - is hard to overlook. How though did this happen? Was the material assembled to match the name? We might suspect that the coincidence between name and content reveals too much artiface to be trustworthy, but the Clementine Recognitions provides evidence that such ideas do reflect a genuine strand of Ebionism. We can imagine some related or derivative early work; an Ebionite work based on James' exegesis of Kings and the Paraclete, but bearing Barnabas' name - it would be such a document upon which the medieval work is based.


THE present writer is of the view that the Gelasian Decree and the List of Sixty Books were not both mistaken; there probably was an early Gospel of Barnabas. The positive evidence, identical reports in two lists, outweighs the negative evidence, a lack of corroborating notices outside of the two lists (which corroborate each other) and a lack of surviving fragments. Given the reports in the two lists, there are no grounds for any confident assertion that a Gospel of Barnabas never existed, even if the lack of corroborating evidence might make us question if it ever did. The pairing of the names Barnabas and Matthias in both lists, which points to a complex of associations, adds to the substance of the notices; the notice of a Gospel of Barnabas in both cases is not just a haphazard report; the pairing with a Gospel of Matthias suggests a stronger line of tradition. What became of this early Gospel of Barnabas, though, is impossible to say. Let us suppose there was an early Gospel of Barnabas. It could not have had wide circulation or it would have left more of a mark than it did, especially among those eager to condemn heretical gospels. Then, there are any number of ways by which it could have passed into oblivion. It may have been highly specific to a particular group and perished when they were purged by orthodoxy. It may have been burned; it may have been lost. It may be still buried, waiting to be rediscovered. In any case, it seems, to the present writer, that there was such a work and that it has since disappeared, leaving only the notices in the two lists.

Or perhaps it or something of it survived? What is its relationship to the medieval work? There are at least grounds for believing that the constituent material now taking the form of the medieval gospel did already have the name "Barnabas" attached to it. If we admit an early Gospel of Barnabas, the extent to which the medieval work is able to replicate early Ebionite points of view may be explained by some continuity with the earlier work. At least, the notices of the early work point to an heretical literature in Barnabas' name, something of which may now be reflected in the medieval gospel. The present writer is of the opinion that the medieval work does contain at least adumbrations of early works; if the name "Barnabas" is integral to the medieval work then it is tempting to explain these adumbrations by supposing that the early Gospel of Barnabas somehow survived into the Middle Ages where it was adapted to new purposes.

The story told in the Spanish Preface of "Friar Marino" in the Pope's library, it should be said, is fanciful, but it should not be dismissed out of hand. It no doubt alludes to the efforts of Sixtus V. to consolidate and catalogue the Vatican library. In the papacy of Sixtus V. there were, for the first time, paid scriptores appointed to the task of sorting through the huge accumulation of material belonging to the papacy then scattered through several libraries in Rome.46 Leaving the details aside, the general claim made by the Preface, that an old gospel came to light during the papacy of Sixtus V, is not out of the question. Books can traverse the centuries unseen. The Preface also mentions heretical books -"repugnant to Christian law"- appearing from the "books of the forefathers" of the two Roman families, the Orsini and the Colonna. These families traced their origins to the early Middle Ages. We know of no such books "repugnant to Christian law" as mentioned in the Preface, but the story is not entirely outlandish, especially in the context of the Inquisition. Doctrinally suspect works among the books of ancient collections may have suddenly been brought to light by the unprecedented thoroughness of the Inquisition's methods. This is the scenario presented in the Preface.

Let us suppose that the medieval Barnabas does bear some relationship to the earlier gospel of that name (supposing it existed). The difficulty then becomes demonstrating the early material's passage through history. There is, to put it plainly, no textual history of which to speak. As stated at the outset, between the List of Sixty Books and the appearance of the medieval gospel there is no sign of a Gospel of Barnabas. Other than the route of transmission supplied in the Preface (the work was buried in an ancient library), Schlomo Pines drew attention to the way in which Judaeo-Christian works could pass unnoticed through the centuries by other means, namely embedded and effectively hidden in Arabic works. He suggested that material in the medieval Barnabas may have moved in the same way and, controversially, he pointed to an obscure notice in al-Biruni as evidence that perhaps a Gospel of Barnabas survived among the Arabs. It is inconceivable, though, that had the Arabs possessed such a work-and it was the same work now developed into the extant medieval gospel-they would not have used it or portions of its constituent material for ideological and doctrinal ammunition against the Christians. As it happens, Arab sources are silent regarding a Gospel of Barnabas until after the publication of the medieval work in Europe. Pines may have demonstrated the possibility of the passage of Ebionite material through Arab literature, but there is a wealth of evidence to say that the medieval Barnabas is not an instance of it. It might be argued that the early material can be so deeply embedded in the literature through which it is transmitted that no one notices it, but how then was the author of the medieval Barnabas able to extract it? A perennial weakness, in any case, for the medieval work containing early material - even shadows of an early Gospel of Barnabas - is that the passage of the early material through time cannot be demonstrated unless we accept the Preface's claim that it was simply out of circulation for centuries and came to light suddenly towards the end of the 1500s.

The present writer believes that the Carmelite elements in the medieval Barnabas offer the most likely avenue along which early material - whether in the form of a "gospel" or not - may have travelled. The medieval Barnabas invokes the primitive hermits of Mount Carmel, the Sons of the Prophets. We know that there were hermits of Carmel before the arrival of the Latin Crusaders in the Holy Land. We even know that there was a "School of the Prophets" on the mountain in the early thirteenth century, distinct from the emerging Latin monks, and presumably adhering to some Palestinian form of Christianity.47 The present writer suspects that the medieval Barnabas has been compiled from material belonging to this "School of the Prophets"- a Palestinian sect claiming great antiquity, with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic elements woven into a syncretistic cult of Elijan prophetology. In some such group there was an active Barnabas (= Son of the Prophets) tradition preserving or at least reflecting ancient Ebionite ideas still current in Palestine (under the umbrella of Islam) but unknown in the West. Carmelite sources claim continuity with the ancient "Essenes and Rechabites." Much of their pre-Latin tradition was lost or written over when the monks migrated to Europe at the close of the Crusades. Torn from their holy mountain, they were also torn from their eremetic traditions and transformed into a mendicant Order. There were waves of resistance to these changes; attempts to restore the old ways and primitive traditions. In the medieval Barnabas the 'True Pharisees' (the primitive hermits) are contrasted with the 'False Pharisees,' book-learnt pretenders. It seems that much of the Barnabas material has been written by parties opposed to the reform (or rather, transformation) of the Carmelites. Perhaps some clash within Carmelite ranks occasioned the re-emergence of some errant material from before the time the Carmelites were brought into Latin orthodoxy? Perhaps this material had ancient roots? Perhaps the primitive Carmelites knew an early Gospel of Barnabas or at least a "Gospel of the Sons of the Prophets"?48 This again is speculation, but when we are dealing with such a mysterious work as the medieval Barnabas, and ancient gospels that might or might not have been, then speculate -- with a view to stimulating further research and prompting fresh ideas from others -- is all we can do.

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1 All references and quotations from the Gospel of Barnabas used here are from the translation of L. & L. Ragg, 1907, the only English translation. The Ragg translation, however, is only from the Italian manuscript; the Spanish version was lost until the 1970s and is, in any case, incomplete.

2 The Gelasian Decree is considered a forgery but is not later than the sixth century. The List of Sixty Books is of eastern provenance and is as old as the seventh century. Both lists, it should be noted, probably drew on earlier lists, including those supplied through Jerome.

3 Perhaps the Preface is alluding to the "discovery" of lost sections of Irenaeus, circa 1575. These were expressions of millenarian doctrine by Irenaeus which were comprehensively repressed throughout the Middle Ages but came to light in the heat of the Reformation. It should also be noted that many believe that even with the return of the repressed sections our Adversus haereses is incomplete. Our author seems to be claiming to have seen some writing by Irenaeus that is otherwise unknown to us.

4 For an account of recent theories see J. Slomp, 'The Gospel of Barnabas in Recent Research' Islamochristiana, Pontifico Instituto Di Studi Arabi E D'Islamistica, Rome, 1997, although Slomp, a Christian missionary, is generally hostile to and dismissive of any attempts to connect the medieval work to an earlier gospel.

5 Beginning with John Toland, the Irish deist, who announced the existence of the Gospel of Barnabas to Europeans in 1718. He was struck by the resemblance of the work's doctrines to those of the early Christian "Ebionites".

6 See Pines S. The Jewish Christians According to a New Source, Hebrew Academy of Science & Humanities, Jerusalem, 1968.

7 James says outright: "The existence of a Gospel of Barnabas is most doubtful" (M. R. James (ed.), The Apocryphal New Testament, Oxford at Claredon, 1924 [1980 edition], p. 22). Scholarly opinion has not changed since James offered this assessment.

8 The circular argument is: the medieval Barnabas preserves the early Gospel of Barnabas. Was there an early Barnabas? There was. We know this because it is preserved in the medieval Barnabas.

9 Acts 4:36

10 Contact with first hand knowledge of the ministry of Jesus is the fundamental qualification for gospel writers. Most gospels, of course, are written in the name of one or another of Jesus' immediate disciples, but Luke's Gospel is sufficient evidence to show that those who knew the immediate disciples, or received their witness, qualify as well. Although not one of the Twelve - by orthodox accounts - it would not have been considered out of order for Barnabas to have written a gospel based on knowledge acquired from the inner circle of Jesus' disciples.

11 Col. 4:10.

12 In some Muslim propagandist literature, for example, the textual history of the Epistle of Barnabas is presented as the textual history of the Gospel of Barnabas by way of demonstrating how the Church conspired to keep it from the canon.

13 The identifications given here are those given by James. Some have been modified by more recent study, but the details are not essential. The important point is that, of all identifications, only the "Gospel according to Barnabas" has scholars scratching their heads.

14 The list of disciples reads: "Their names are: Andrew and Peter his brother, Barnabas, who wrote this with Matthew the publican, who sat at the receipt of custom; John and James, sons of Zebedee; Thaddaeus and Judas; Bartholomew and Philip, James, and Judas Iscariot the traitor."

15 Although, of course, in the Clementina Barnabas still does not meet Jesus in person, as Barnabas does in the medieval gospel.

16 Ebionite sources (Clementina) say he was; orthodox sources (Acts) say he was not (and furthermore Acts says it was not Barnabas but some character named "Barsabbas," and he lost.)

17 The Acts of Barnabas, a document by which Cypriots claimed Barnabas as their own, is dated to the fifth century. It is possible that the lists are mistaking the Acts for a Gospel.

18 Little work has been done attempting to reconstruct the redaction history of the Barnabas text. But even if we disallow redactions and claim the work was written all of a piece, there is still the issue of what sources the author may have consulted. Several different sources are clearly discernible in the text.

19 Most conspicuous is the whole docetic account of the ascension of Jesus which is closely related to Paul's description of "a man he knew in Christ" being "caught up to the third heaven" in 2 Corinthians 12:1ff.

20 Gal 2:13

21 It is relevant to note here that the Clementina are not explicitly anti-Pauline either. Paul is clearly the "enemy" in the Clementina, but he is not named.

22 See, for instance, the Acts of Thomas: "And he saw Jesus in the likeness of the apostle Judas Thomas." See R. M. Price, "Docetic Epiphanies: A Structuralist Analysis of the Apocryphal Acts," The Journal of Higher Criticism, 5/2 (fall 1998), pp. 163-187, for a relevant discussion of this and other aspects of docetic mythology.

23 It is relevant to note here that in the Spanish Preface the discovery of a "Gospel of Barnabas" in Irenaeus is said to be in the context of anti-Pauline statements made by Irenaeus.

24 See any standard lexicon of New Testament useage for discussion on this.

25 "Son of the Sabbath"? Compare also "Barabbas" the "notorious prisoner" in the Gospels. Barnabas, Barsabbas, Barabbas - there is evidence of considerable "play" involving these similar names in our texts, but all of them defy a straight-foward etymology.

26 Acts 4:36

27 "Admonitory, encouraging and consolatory exhortation...": H. Cremer. Biblio-Theological Lexicon of New Testament Greek, Edinburgh, 1872, pp. 336-337.

28 "It is not an inaccuracy," writes Cremer (Ibid., p. 337) "when in Acts 4:34 the name Barnabas is interpreted uios parakleseos in order to indicate that his prophetic gift expressed itself specifically in the exercise of paraclesis."

29 See also Acts 13:1 where Barnabas is listed first among the "prophets and teachers" in the church at Antioch. He is associated with the Christian "prophets". See also Acts 11:27 where "some prophets came down to Jerusalem" to meet Barnabas and Paul. These New Testament prophets are charismatics, like Old Testament prophets, who "edify, exhort, console'. See 1 Cor 14:3.

30 A role, of course, played by the canonical John the Baptist. Barnabas' Jesus is very John-like in this and in other respects. This is a further indication of Carmelite influence upon the work.

31 See for instance the place of the city of Jericho in Barnabas' gospel. It is described as a "city rebuilt under a curse" in chpt. 30, a reference to Jos 6:26 but more directly to 1 Kings 16:34, the rebuilding of Jericho by Hiel of Bethel at the beginning of the reign of Ahab. In Barnabas Jesus never goes to Jericho; it symbolizes the forces that were opposed by Elijah.

32 See, for instance, chpt. 18 concerning the persecution of the servants of God: "Remember," says Jesus, " [the] holy prophets that have been slain by the world, even as in the time of Elijah ten thousand prophets were slain by Jezebel, insomuch that scarcely did poor Elijah escape, and seven thousand sons of prophets who were hidden by the captain of Ahab's host."

33 See chps. 144 - 151 especially. The identification of the 'True Pharisees' with the primitive Carmelite hermits is certain. Mount Carmel is named in chapter 188.

34 This makes the Carmelites unique among Christian Orders in that they do not have a New Covenant founder. Instead, the Virgin Mary is their special "sponsor," but this seems a later, Latin aspect of Carmelite spirituality designed to supplement the traditional account of the Order's origins through John. John is supposed to have re-established the ancient school of Elijah and Elisha.

35 See, for instance, in chapt. 42 where Jesus speaks of "the Messenger of God whom you call "Messiah," who was made before me, and shall come after me, and shall bring the words of truth..." The phrase "and shall bring words of truth" alludes to the Paraclete, Spirit of Truth, from Jn 14:17. Similarly, in chpt. 97: "but my consolation is in the coming of the Messenger, who shall destroy every false opinion of me..." is based in John's Paraclete.

36 The identification of Muhammad as Messiah is unusual and, from the perspective of Muslim orthodoxy, incorrect, but Muhammad was and is commonly identified with the Paraclete by Muslims.

37 Christian critics tend to argue that the work is deeply, inherently Islamic (and therefore a "Muslim forgery".) But it is quite clear that the name "Muhammad" is not essential to the work's Messianic doctrine. It is equally clear that the Messianic doctrine is based in the Paraclete sections of Jesus' discourses in the Fourth Gospel. The author knew the Fourth Gospel well and the hadith of Muhammad not at all. Nor, should it be said, does the author display any direct knowledge of the Koran; on the contrary, there are several key ways in which the work flatly contradicts the Koran, the nomination of Muhammad as Messiah among them. On the other hand, the identification of the Paraclete (but not the Messiah) with Muhammad comes naturally to the Muslim mind.

38 See Recognitions, chs. 68, 69.

39 The phrase "Son of God" is used of the Paraclete in this passage of the Recognitions, contrary to teachings central to the medieval Barnabas. There are other significant differences. However, there are also significant parallels between this passage and the medieval work, and between the 'True Prophet' ideology of the Clementina and Barnabas' prophetology. The parallels and differences require a more thorough study. Some think the reference to the Paraclete in the Recognitions is a late interpolation.

40 In the Clementina Barnabas is the avenue through which Clement meets the inner circle of Jesus' followers. This is in contrast to the story in Acts, where Barnabas is the avenue through which Paul is introduced to the same circle.

41 And is used throughout this article as a term of convenience. It is hardly more satisfactory than the term "Jewish Christian." We mean followers of Jesus with a markedly more Judaic point of view than that which prevailed in what became Christian orthodoxy, call them what you will.

42 Not necessarily ancient material. Ebionism is not merely a movement among early Christians but an enduring tendency in Christian thought, especially in the east.

43 The author has taken as a framework a loose gospel harmony and attached to it slabs of non-canonical material. The Infancy and Childhood narrative (chpts. 1-9) has the appearance of having been added on, and it is possible that the Passion narrative was also a separate composition. The whole work is far from seamless.

44 Large sections of the work seem, to the present writer, to have not originally been part of a "gospel." A closer study needs to be made of the framework to which such material has been attached. This framework is a form of diatessaron.

45 Another instance of this deserves noting. In the Clementina Barnabas relates a parable of the "gnat and the elephant." Although this is a well-known and wide-spread parable, its association with Barnabas continues into the Middle Ages; the story told in the Clementina found its way into medieval works such as the Golden Legend. In chpt. 46 of the medieval Gospel of Barnabas Jesus relates the example of the "ant and the elephant."

46 This point does not seem to have been given proper attention before. The Preface reports that a renogade Inquisitor stole the Gospel of Barnabas from the library of Sixtus V. It was Sixtus V who brought the Vatican library into its modern form. His papacy was characterized by extensive building programs and reorganisations that consolidated the papal collections into what we today call the Vatican Library. The notice in the Preface should be considered in this context. No doubt, the reference to the "pope's library" specifically refers to the Bibliotheca secreta, the pope's private and "secret" collection, also reorganised during the papacy of Sixtus V.

47 A medieval itinerary, dated to the early 1200s, distinguishes between "the Latin hermits who are called Brothers of Carmel" who lived higher up the mountain at the Fountain of Elijah, and "the Hermits of Carmel," the School of the Prophets.

48 This is another possibility that presents itself. Other than gospels written in the name of disciples and other New Testament characters, there is also a class of gospels written in the name of certain groups: the Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of the Hebrews, etc. It is possible that the present Gospel of Barnabas might originally have been a "Gospel of the Sons of the Prophets" or some such account. The medieval "Sons of the Prophets" (certainly, the Latin Carmelites) believed that their ancient brothers, refounded by John, had witnessed the life of Christ and might easily have had their own written accounts of that supposed witness.

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Copyright © Institute for Higher Critical Studies, 2001

Darrell J. Doughty
Institute for Higher Critical Studies
Drew University, Madison, NJ, 07940

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