The History Of The Gospel Of Barnabas

The Gospel of Barnabas is the only known surviving Gospel written by a disciple of Jesus, that is by a man who spent most of his time in the actual company of Jesus during the three years in which he was delivering his message. He therefore had direct experience and knowledge of Jesus’s teaching, unlike all the authors of the four accepted Gospels. It is not known when he wrote down what he remembered of Jesus and his guidance, whether events and discourses were recorded as they happened, or whether he wrote it soon after Jesus had left the earth, fearing that otherwise some of his teaching might be changed or lost. It is possible that he did not write down anything until he had returned to Cyprus with John Mark. The two made this journey some time after Jesus had left the earth, after parting company with Paul of Tarsus, who had refused to make any further journeys with Barnabas on which Mark was also present. But no matter when it was written, and although it too, like the four accepted Gospels, has inevitably suffered from being translated and filtered through several languages it is, at least, an eye-witness account of Jesus’s life.

The Gospel of Barnabas was accepted as a Canonical Gospel in the churches of Alexandria up until 325 A.D. It is known that it was being circulated in the first and second centuries after the birth of Jesus from the writings of Iraneus (130-200 A.D.), who wrote in support of the Divine Unity. He opposed Paul whom he accused of being responsible for the assimilation of the pagan Roman religion and Platonic philosophy into the original teaching of Jesus. He quoted extensively from the Gospel of Barnabas in support of his views.

The Old Book

The Old Book

In 325 A.D., the famous Council of Nicea was held. The doctrine of the Trinity was declared to be the official doctrine of the Pauline Church, and one of the consequences of this decision was that out of the three hundred or so Gospels extant at that time, four were chosen as the official Gospels of the Church. The remaining Gospels, including the Gospel of Barnabas, were ordered to be destroyed completely. It was also decided that all Gospels written in Hebrew should be destroyed. An edict was issued stating that anyone found in possession of an unauthorized Gospel would be put to death. This was the first well-organised attempt to remove all the records of Jesus’s original teaching whether in human beings or books, which contradicted the doctrine of Trinity. In the case of the Gospel of Barnabas: these orders were not entirely successful, and mention of its continued existence has been made up to the present day.

Pope Damasus (304-384 A.D.) who became Pope in 366 A.D. is recorded as having issued a decree that the Gospel of Barnabas should not be read. This decree was supported by Gelasus, Bishop of Caesaria, who died in 395 A.D. The Gospel was included in his list of Apocryphal books. Apocrypha simply means “hidden from the people”. Thus, at this stage, the Gospel was no longer available to everyone, but was still being referred to by the leaders of the Church. In fact, it is known that the Pope secured a copy of the Gospel of Barnabas in 383 A.D. and kept it in his private library.

There were a number of other decrees which referred to the Gospel. It was forbidden by the Decree of the Western Churches in 382 A.D., and by Pope Innocent in 465 A.D. In the Glasian Decree of 496 A.D. the Evangelium Barnabe is included in the list of forbidden books. This decree was reaffirmed by Hormisdas, who was Pope from 514 A.D. to 523 A.D. [about fifty years before the birth of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh)]. All these decrees are mentioned in the catalogue of the Greek manuscripts in the Library of Chancellor Seguier (1558-1672), prepared by B. de Montfaucon (1655-1741).

Barnabas is also mentioned in the Stichometry of Nicephorus as follows:

Serial No.3, Epistle of Barnabas… Lines 1,300

and again in the list of Sixty Books as follows:

Serial No. 17. Travels and teaching of the Apostles.
Serial No.18. Epistle of Barnabas.
Serial No.24. Gospel According to Barnabas.

This famous list was also known as the Index, and Christians were not supposed to read any of the books on it on pain of eternal punishment.

Cotelerius, who catalogued the manuscripts in the Library of the French king, listed the Gospel of Barnabas in the Index of Scriptures which he prepared in 1789. The Gospel is also recorded in the 206′” manuscript of the Baroccian Collection in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.[1] There is also a solitary fragment of a Greek version of the Gospel of Barnabas to be found in a museum in Athens, which is all that remains of a copy which was burnt:

In the fourth year of the Emperor Zeno’s rule in 478 A.D., the remains of Barnabas were discovered, and a copy of the Gospel of Barnabas, written in his own hand, was found on his breast. This is recorded in the Acta Sanctorum Boland Junii, Tome II, pages 422-450, published in Antwerp in 1698. It has been claimed by the Roman Catholic Church that the Gospel found in the grave of Barnabas was that of Matthew, but no steps have been taken to display this copy. The contents of the twenty-five mile long library of the Vatican remain in the dark.

The manuscript from which the English translation of the Gospel of Barnabas was made, was originally in the possession of Pope Sextus (1589-1590). He had a friend, a monk called Fra Marino, who became very interested in the Gospel of Barnabas after reading the writings of Iraneus, who quoted from it extensively. One day he went to see the Pope. They lunched together and, after the meal, the Pope fell asleep. Father Marino began to browse through the Books in the Pope’s private library and discovered an Italian manuscript of the Gospel of Barnabas. Concealing it in the sleeve of his robe, he left and came out of the Vatican with it. This manuscript then passed through different hands until it reached “a person of great name and authority” in Amsterdam, “who during his lifetime, was often heard to put a high value to this piece.” After his death, it came into the possession of J.E. Cramer, a Councillor of the King of Prussia. In 1713, Cramer presented this manuscript to the famous connoisseur of books, Prince Eugene of Savoy. In 1738, along with the library of the Prince, it found its way into the Hofbibliothek in Vienna, where it now rests.

Toland, a notable historian of the early Church, had access to this manuscript, and he refers to it in his Miscellaneous Works which was published posthumously in 1747. He says of the Gospel: “This is in scripture style to a hair,” and continues:

The story of Jesus is very differently told in many things from the received Gospels, but much more fully… and particularly this Gospel.. being near as long again as many of ours. Someone would make a prejudice in favour of it; because, as all things are best known just after they happen, so everything diminishes the further it proceeds from its original. [3]

The publicity which Toland gave to this manuscript made it impossible for it to share the same fate as another manuscript of the Gospel in Spanish which also once existed. This manuscript was presented to a college library in England at about the same time that the Italian manuscript was given to the Homibliothek. It had not been in England long before it mysteriously disappeared.

The Italian manuscript was translated into English by Canon and Mrs. Ragg, and was printed and published by the Oxford University Press in 1907. Nearly the whole edition of this English translation abruptly and mysteriously disappeared from the market. Only two copies of this translation are known to exist, one in the British Museum and the other in the Library of Congress in Washington. A micro-film copy of the book in the Library of Congress was obtained, and a fresh edition of the English translation was printed in Pakistan. A copy of this edition was used for the purposes of reprinting a revised version of the Gospel of Barnabas.

It is now generally accepted that the three earliest accepted Gospels, known as the Synoptic Gospels, were copied from an earlier unknown Gospel which today’s researchers refer to as “Q” for want of a better name. The question arises as to whether the Apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas is, in fact, this missing Gospel. It must be remembered that John Mark, whose Gospel is the earliest of the four accepted Gospels, was the son of the sister of Barnabas. He never met Jesus. Thus, what he related of Jesus’s life and teaching in his Gospel must have been related to him by others. It is known from the books of the New Testament that he accompanied Paul and Barnabas on many of their missionary journeys up to the point when there was a sharp conflict between them resulting in Barnabas and Mark going to Cyprus together. It is unlikely that Mark relied on Paul as a source of information since Paul had never met Jesus either. The only reasonable conclusion appears to be that he must have repeated what his uncle Barnabas told him about Jesus. It is said by some that he acted as Peter’s interpreter and wrote down what he had learned from Peter. This may be correct, for Mark must have had some contact with the other apostles when he was not journeying with Barnabas or Paul. However, Godspeed shows us from his research that anything he did learn from Peter was by no means comprehensive:

He had been an interpreter of Peter and wrote down accurately, though not in order, everything that he remembered that had been said or done by the Lord. For he neither heard the Lord, nor followed him, but afterwards, as I said, attended Peter who adapted his instructions to the needs of the hearers, but had no design of giving a connected account of the Lord’s oracles. [4]

Luke, who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles, never met Jesus. He was Paul’s personal physician. Matthew, who also never encountered Jesus, was a tax collector. It has been argued that Mark’s Gospel might be the “Q” Gospel and that Matthew and Luke used his Gospel when writing theirs. However, they record details which Mark does not, which implies that Mark’s Gospel could not have been their only source. Some have said that this is not important, since it is known that Mark’s Gospel was written in Hebrew, was then translated into Greek, and re-translated again into Latin. All the Hebrew and early Greek versions of Mark’s Gospel have been destroyed, and people can only speculate as to how much of the Gospel was changed or altered during these transitions from one language to another.

It is interesting to note, in passing, that there have even been attempts to return to the source by synthesising the Gospels, since the contradictions that arise between them have, at times, proved a little awkward for the established Church. Titian attempted to synthesise the four accepted Gospels, which had already been earmarked by the Pauline Church as their official Scriptures in the second century A.D. In this Gospel, Titian used 96% of John’s Gospel, 75% of Mathew’s Gospel, 66% of Luke’s Gospel and 50% of Mark’s Gospel. The rest he rejected. It is significant that he placed little trust in the earliest Gospel and relied most heavily on the last Gospel to be written. His synthetic Gospel was not a success.

Thus it is debatable whether Mark’s Gospel can be regarded as the common source of the three Synoptic Gospels, whereas all the events recorded in these three Gospels are contained within the Gospel of Barnabas.

Whether these three men, with such differing backgrounds, derived their knowledge from the same source or not, about Barnabas the commandment is:

If he comes unto you, receive him. (Epistle to the Colossians 4:10)

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