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Why Was Barnabas Attributed to Barnabas: Part 2

In my last post but one, in starting to talk about why the anonymous Letter to Barnabas was attributed by early Christians to Barnabas, best known as a one of the closest companions of Paul, I talked mainly about the mid-second century philosopher/theologian-eventually-branded-arch-heretic Marcion. You may have wondered why. In this post I’ll tell you why.

VERY brief review. Recall, the letter of Barnabas is stridently anti-Jewish, claiming that the Jews never were the people of God because they had broken the covenant as soon as God had given it to them on Mount Sinai (by worshipping the Golden Calf); they misunderstood the law, taking it literally, when it was meant figuratively. Even though Jews never realized it, the OT was not a Jewish book but a Christian book, that not only anticipated Christ but proclaimed the Christian message. END of review….

The first explicit reference to this anonymous letter is in the writings of Clement of Alexandria, writing around 200 who quotes it and claims it was written by Barnabas, who, he indicates, was one of the seventy apostles sent out by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 10:1) and a later co-worker with Paul (thus Clement, Miscellanies [otherwise known as the Stromateis] 2.6, 31; 2.7, 35; and 2.20).

A couple of decades later the church father Origen named the letter as a “Catholic epistle” (Against Celsus 1. 63) and called it “divine scripture” (On First Principles 3, 2, 47). Just over a century or so after that it was included among the writings of the New Testament in the famous Codex Sinaiticus, also closely associated with Alexandria. Almost certainly neither Origen nor Sinaiticus would have accepted it into the canon of Scripture if they had not thought it had an apostolic origin.

And so in at least one part of the church – that connected with Alexandria – there were Christians who thought that the book was written by an apostle; and since it never has been known by any other name, it almost certainly was always associated with Barnabas.

But why Barnabas in particular?

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How to Date Documents, including Barnabas
Why Was The Letter of Barnabas Attributed to Barnabas?



  1. Avatar
    andymhallman  January 1, 2013

    Interesting theory, Bart.

    As I understand it, Marcion came to be seen by proto-Orthodox Christians as a heretic. This would have given them an incentive to include Barnabas’s letter in the New Testament canon, but obviously, that didn’t happen.

    Was that because this letter was too obviously a forgery and not really from Barnabas? Or was there another reason it was not included in the New Testament?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 2, 2013

      None of the people who mention the letter talk about its anti-Marcionite potential. My sense is that it wasn’t included finally just because it wasn’t widely enough used or known…

  2. Avatar
    Jdavis3927  January 1, 2013

    And a good theory, in my opinion.

  3. Avatar
    Joshua150  January 2, 2013

    Good theory, and fits the evolution of forgery for all ‘apostolic’ writings. Especially the Pauline thread of that kind of thought.

  4. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 2, 2013

    Interesting, thought-provoking theory. Let us know what other scholars subsequently say about it.

  5. Avatar
    KungFuJoe  January 2, 2013

    A very interesting theory, Dr. Ehrman. It does bring two questions to mind, though.

    The first question is, “Are you aware of any other theories regarding the attribution to Barnabas?” Your first post on the matter seemed to imply that you hadn’t heard much, if any, discussion on the matter amongst scholarly circles, but it wasn’t entirely clear.

    The second question deals with your concluding statement that, “The letter could *not* be attributed to Paul himself, since everyone knew that Paul signed his own letters, whereas this letter was anonymous.” However, the book of Hebrews was anonymous, and early Church authorities attributed that book to Paul. Why not extend the same provenance to the Epistle of Barnabas, if their goal was to establish Pauline authority?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  January 2, 2013

      Off hand, I don’t know other theories.

      Yes, I thought about Hebrews too. My sense is that the attribution in that case was more natural because of the reference to “Timothy” as the author’s companion/friend at the end, taken to be an indication that the writer was Paul (so that he didn’t need to identify himself). But yes, you’re right, it’s the exception (that proves the rule?). The later “Pauline forgeries,” of course, all claim to be written by Paul (3 Corinthians, Letter to the Laodiceans, Correspondence with Seneca).

  6. Avatar
    Jerry  January 2, 2013

    What’s up with human sculls on ancient desks? There is one on your new Forgery books and I’ve seen them in other pictures too. Seems to have been common back then, any reason?

    Thanks and Happy New Year

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