In a previous blog post (Islam and the Crucifixion) I mentioned a book called The Gospel of Barnabas and how some Muslim apologists have used it to defend the Islamic view of Jesus. I pointed out that this so-called “gospel” is fraught with anachronisms, and there is virtually no evidence for its existence prior to medieval times. Since the publication of that post, I have received several emails asking me to elaborate on the subject.
What is the “Gospel of Barnabas?”
The Gospel of Barnabas is a book about the life of Jesus. It is sometimes confused with the Acts of Barnabas and the Epistle of Barnabas, but it’s an entirely different work in both style and content.
The author identifies himself as Barnabas, an apostle, and makes several claims that are not consistent with the four canonical Gospels.
According to the text, Jesus was not the Son of God, but merely a prophet:
Jesus confessed, and said the truth: ‘I am not the Messiah.’ (42)
The book also claims that Jesus was bodily assumed into heaven through an act of God, and that it was actually Judas Iscariot who was given the appearance of Jesus and then crucified:
Whereupon the wonderful God acted wonderfully, insomuch that Judas was so changed in speech and in face to be like Jesus that we believed him to be Jesus. (216)
So they led [Judas] to Mount Calvary, where they used to hang malefactors, and there they crucified him naked; for the greater ignominy. Judas truly did nothing else but cry out: ‘God, why have you forsaken me, seeing the malefactor has escaped and I die unjustly?’ Truly I say that the voice, the face, and the person of Judas were so like to Jesus, that his disciples and believers entirely believed that he was Jesus; wherefore some departed from the doctrine of Jesus, believing that Jesus had been a false prophet, and that by art magic he had done the miracles which he did: for Jesus had said that he should not die till near the end of the world; for that at that time he should be taken away from the world. (217)
This account of the Crucifixion mirrors the Islamic view of events recorded in the Qur’an:
That they said (in boast), “We killed Christ Jesus the son of Mary, the Messenger of Allah”;- but they killed him not, nor crucified him, but so it was made to appear to them, and those who differ therein are full of doubts, with no (certain) knowledge, but only conjecture to follow, for of a surety they killed him not:-
Nay, Allah raised him up unto Himself; and Allah is Exalted in Power, Wise…” (4:157-158)
If the Gospel of Barnabas was truly written by a follower of Jesus, then this would be very strong evidence for the reliability of this passage from the Qur’an. In fact, some skeptics of Christianity have pointed to Barnabas as a refutation of the bedrock belief of all Christians that Jesus is divine.
But the reality is that scholars are virtually unanimous in their opinion that it is a falsely attributed medieval text.
When was it written?
It is not known exactly when, why, or by whom the Gospel of Barnabas was written, but scholars have given us an approximate date based on clues in the text.
Of the confirmed surviving manuscripts, there exists one in Spanish and one in Italian. The Italian manuscript is generally dated around 1600 AD, and the Spanish version closer to 1800. Biblical scholar Jan Joosten believes the internal evidence points to an earlier date:
Within this period, the date can only be fixed on the basis of the contents of the writing. While much of what is told in Barnabas is more or less atemporal, the few details that can be related to a precise period point to the fourteenth century. The strongest evidence is the mention of the centennial jubilee in chapters 82 and 83. Since the Christian Jubilee was shortened in 1349 to 50 years (and later to 25), the notion of a centennial jubilee points to the first half of the fourteenth century. Although it is routinely dismissed by scholars who prefer a later date, this piece of evidence has never effectively been countered. (The Date and Provenance of the Gospel of Barnabas)
In addition to Jooten’s example of the Christian Jubilee, there exist other anachronisms in the manuscripts, including:
- Chapter 152 describing wine being stored in wooden casks, which were not widely used in the Roman empire until about 300 years after the time of Jesus.
- Chapter 91 refers to the “40 Days” as an annual fast, but fasting for 40 days during Lent cannot be traced back further than 325.
- Quotes from the Old Testament correspond to the readings in the Latin Vulgate, which Saint Jerome did not even begin work on until 328.
These are only a few examples. There are many more.
If the Gospel of Barnabas had indeed been written by the apostle as it claims, then it should not contain so many egregious errors.
Pay no attention to the memes.
There is an internet meme that pops up from time to time claiming that a 1,500 year old version of the Gospel of Barnabas had been found in Turkey and that the Vatican has been very nervous about it becoming public knowledge.
This claim began to circulate in 2012 after the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism confirmed that it had deposited a 52-page biblical manuscript in Syriac in the Ethnography Museum of Ankara. Turkish newspapers speculated that it might be a copy of the Gospel of Barnabas.
Even if the Turkish version were 1,500 years old, that’s still too late to have been written by an apostle of Jesus. I’m sure no one in the Vatican is losing sleep over this.