The Gospel of Barnabas

By Jeff Laird

For more on the Gospel of Barnabas, see the "Got Questions article.

There's been a resurgence in hype over the so-called "Gospel of Barnabas" lately, mostly due to claims that a Turkish copy, stolen from smugglers, has been "verified" to be over 1,500 years old. Such claims are almost exclusively from pro-Islamic conspiracy theorists and non-scholars. Note, right away, this would still be several centuries too late to threaten the significant manuscript evidence supporting the Bible. No actual scholar has claimed to have verified the manuscript's authenticity or date. And those scholars who believe they have seen it, since it's no longer open for public perusal, even doubt whether it contains any part of the Gospel of Barnabas at all! The current fad is all sizzle, no steak.

The Gospel of Barnabas has been recognized as a forgery by Christian, Islamic, and secular scholars since it was first discovered in the 18th century. It is never mentioned by a single writer, of any religion, until after that time. The only two known manuscripts are dated no earlier than the 17th century. It contains numerous errors in history, geography, culture, and even basic language. In short, despite recent hype, and popularity with some Muslims, the Gospel of Barnabas is just another unremarkable piece of spiritual fiction.

The Gospel of Barnabas is referenced by supporters of Islam, at times, since it goes to great lengths to counter Christian ideas about Jesus in favor of Islamic ones. It was even used as a partial basis for a 2007 Iranian film about Jesus. The content, however, is irrelevant, since it was written about 1,500 years after the fact. The only two manuscripts are in Italian and Spanish, both dated to no earlier than the 1600's. Most damaging to claims of authenticity is the fact that nobody — of any religious view at all — ever referenced, quoted, cited, or mentioned it prior to the 18th century. If the book was so early, and so damaging, then Islamic scholars would have mentioned it, as would Christians trying to refute it. Even Islamic historians have agreed the work cannot be anything other than a forgery.

Dating of the Gospel of Barnabas is easily confused, however, due to the existence of a totally separate work, the "Epistle of Barnabas." The Epistle is a strongly pro-Christian work, probably written between the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132 AD. It is actually cited in some early church writings, though it was never considered anything like inspired scripture. And, it's not likely to have been written by the Biblical figure of that name. Muslims who claim the Gospel of Barnabas was written very early are confusing two totally different, but similarly named works.

If evidence for a late date is not enough, the Gospel of Barnabas also contains multiple overt errors, which you can read for yourself online. These show beyond doubt the author was not personally familiar with the culture or history of Jesus' day. It claims Jesus was born when Pilate was governor, though Pilate actually came to power in Judea after 25 or 26 AD. It speaks of wine being kept in wooden barrels, though people in that time and place only kept wine in wineskins and clay jars. And those are just two of the many historical and cultural mistakes one can find. In much the same way as the Book of Mormon's gross errors about North America erode its credibility, so too do these mistakes show the Gospel of Barnabas to be a false text.

Even worse, the Gospel of Barnabas uses the words "Messiah" and "Christ" as though they are different terms. In reality, "Messiah" and "Christ" are words from Hebrew and Greek, respectively, which mean the exact same thing. The writer of the Gospel of Barnabas uses "Christ" as if it was Jesus' family name. This means the author not only did not understand Greek, or Hebrew, but certainly didn't write in a time and place when such terms would be clearly understood.

The fact that this is an obscure text can actually make it more threatening, in some respects, as an attack on Christian faith. Few people, believer or otherwise, will know much off the top of their heads about the Gospel of Barnabas. This, of course, is where having a solid grasp of reasons for our faith is so important (1 Peter 3:15). When weird or unexpected challenges come our way, we ought to know enough about what we believe, and why that single attack doesn't undermine our confidence. We might not have an immediate, meticulous answer, but the staggering evidence supporting Christianity ought to count for something. A faith which has been tested and examined (2 Corinthians 13:5, 1 John 4:1), both rationally and spiritually (2 Corinthians 10:4, Colossians 2:8, Proverbs 4:3-6, Proverbs 18:13), can be at peace while we seek more information.

TagsBiblical-Truth  |  Controversial-Issues  |  Current-Issues  |  History-Apologetics

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Published 5-22-14