The Epistle of Barnabas

Anti-Judaic theology in the early Church starts with a rather unknown document called the Epistle of Barnabas

Scrolls of Esther at the Bible Lands Museum 370 (photo credit: Avner Moriah)
Scrolls of Esther at the Bible Lands Museum 370
(photo credit: Avner Moriah)
Anti-Judaic theology in the early Church starts with a rather unknown document called the Epistle of Barnabas. Containing 20 short chapters, this letter was written around 80- 120 CE by an orthodox writer addressing believers. It is not an isolated work; it was read in churches in the first three centuries and was even a candidate for the canon of Scripture. It was therefore received in the Church as a recognized work, and was never condemned or strongly criticized. We do not know who wrote it, but we do know it has nothing to do with the Barnabas of Acts.
So why is it important for our study of anti-Semitism among the early Church Fathers? Because here we find the earliest examples of adversos-judaeum theology, which in many cases still exists in churches today. It is the first example of the poisonous seed which slowly infected Christian churches and cultures and formed the backdrop, the murky bog from which violent, bloodthirsty and merciless monsters arose for hundreds of years.
In his letter, the author warns Christians against the evil of those days. But right from chapter 2, he speaks of two groups; us and them – us being Christians and them Jews.
Among the dangers threatening the Christian was “to liken yourselves to certain persons who pile up sin upon sin, saying that our covenant remains to them also.”
So for the first time we see Church teachings that there is no longer any covenant between God and the Jews.
Not only that, it is a grievous sin to even say so. The Jews are out – period! They lost the covenant at Sinai when they turned to idols (chapter 14).
Jesus’s death was their final condemnation: “Therefore the Son of God came in the flesh to this end, that He might sum up the complete tale of their sins against those who persecuted and slew His prophets” (5:11). Thus substitution theology was born! Secondly, we find a peculiar way of reading the Bible, a hermeneutic style which persists in many churches today. Put brutally, the promises of the Old Testament are for the Church, the curses are for Israel.
Amazingly, Barnabas reads the two goats theme of Yom Kippur in a way where everything has a Christian message and has nothing to do with Israel (chapter 7).
Almost comical (and tragic) is his reading of the dietary laws of Moses (chapter 10), or his interpretation of the Sabbath (chapter 15).
Allegory enabled his anti-Judaic theology to shape his exegesis. Thus “the younger shall serve the older” theme present in the stories of Esau/Jacob and Manasseh/Ephraim becomes symbolic for the teaching that God has chosen the Church over Israel. So Jacob becomes a type of the Church and Esau of Israel.
He is the first to appropriate the patriarchs and make them Christian. Thus when Abraham circumcises the males in his household, the author of Barnabas writes, he is really revealing Christ and the cross (chapter 10). Moses, the prophets and the patriarchs are all Christians in the midst of an incredulous and sinful Jewish nation.
For the first time, we see the manipulation of Paul’s veil theme found in 2 Corinthians 3:13-16. Here Paul affirms that a veil remains on the eyes of Jews regarding the Old Testament because they do not see Christ foreshadowed in it.
Our Barnabas reads this as meaning the Jews do not and cannot understand the Old Testament tout court! The examples abound. They do not even understand the food laws or the true meaning of the Sabbath! One last “first”: When one reads this letter, as with later church documents, you find much sound teaching and exhortations to good works and holy lives. There are even attacks on abortion and pederasty. But all this love and respect does not include the Jews. They have been abandoned by God and consequently by the Church as well! This means you should love your neighbor, as long as they are not Jews. They simply do not count! This horrific idea first emerges in the epistle of Barnabas. •
Rev. Anthony Rozinni is a pastor and Bible school teacher in Italy whose studies for a master’s degree included extensive reading about the early Church Fathers. This is the latest in his series on the rise of anti-Semitism in the early Church.