Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Epistle of Barnabas

Another Early Witness to the Church’s High Christology

Sam Shamoun

Seeing just how fond Paul Bilal Williams happens to be of Geza Vermes’ latest book on Christianity titled, “Christian Beginnings: From Nazareth to Nicaea, AD 30-325,” even going as far as to devote an entire blog post to what this scholar has to say regarding one of our earliest extant Christian documents outside of the NT, titled the Didache, we have therefore decided to quote some of the things that this same authority has stated in respect to another early Christian writing called The Epistle of Barnabas.

Vermes dates the composition of the book from anywhere between 120-135 AD (Christian Beginnings, p. 148), making it one of our oldest sources outside of the NT documents. As such, it provides an early glimpse into the views of the orthodox Christians at that time.

According to Vermes, this epistle depicts Jesus as the eternal Son of God who became flesh and is therefore similar to John’s Logos Christology. Vermes even goes as far as to say that Barnabas clearly portrays Jesus as God:

“… The terms ‘Son’ or ‘Son of God’, which figure no less than twelve times, are more significant. In the singular, the title ‘Son of God’ indicates not simply a holy man especially close to God, but a person of a higher order… The superhuman understanding of ‘Son of God’ is further strengthened by the writer’s assertion that ‘the Son’ was not only above the human category, but he was also pre-existent SINCE ETERNITY and was active already BEFORE THE CREATION. It was to him that God’s words ‘Let us make man according to our image and likeness’ were directed at the time of ‘the foundation of the world’ (Barn. 5.5; 6.12) By postulating a Johannine Logos-like Son of God, Barnabas may imply acquaintance with the Prologue of the Fourth Gospel. But he goes even further in implicitly asserting Christ’s strictly divine character by explaining that the reason for the incarnation of the eternal Son of God was that without concealment of his true self under a human body, people would not have been able to look at him, and survive (Barn. 5.9-10). The argument is tacitly, but unquestionably, based on Exodus 33:20, where Moses is told by God, ‘You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live’, and so Moses was allowed, according to the colourful metaphor of the rabbis, to see God from behind in the ‘vision of the buttocks’.”


This is clearly Barnabas’s paraphrase of the Word becoming flesh as described in John chapter 1. But whereas in the Prologue the aim of the Word in becoming human was to reveal God the Father to mankind, Barnabas combines the Johannine vision of the Logos revealing the face of the Father with Paul’s redemption theology. The ultimate purpose of the descent of ‘the Lord of the entire world’ among men was to allow himself to suffer ‘for our sake… in order to destroy death and to show that there is resurrection of the dead’ (Barn. 5.5-6). Contrary to the Judaeo-Christian Didache, Barnabas is permeated by Pauline thought, and combining it with a dose of John’s mystical vision, he constructs for his readers a Saviour image in which JESUS IS GOD IN ALL BUT IN NAME. We are not to wait for too long to cross this major hurdle along the meandering path of Christology… By contrast, Barnabas, most likely written under Pauline/Johannine influence for Gentile Christians in the third decade of the second century AD (c. 120-35), recognizes in Jesus the eschatological Son of God, who existed before his appearance on earth. While he is not expressly portrayed as God, his human body is seen as a deliberate and benevolent disguise of his underlying divine character…” (Christian Beginnings From Nazareth To Nicaea, AD 30-325 [Penguin Books, Ltd 2012], 6. The Didache and Barnabas, pp. 153-154; bold and capital emphasis ours)

In light of the foregoing, we have decided to quote certain sections from this epistle in order to show that Vermes’ comments are right on the mark:

5 This is why the Lord gave himself over to corruption, that we might be made holy through the forgiveness of sins, which comes in the sprinkling of his blood.  

2 For some of the things written about him concern Israel; others concern us. And so it says: “He was wounded because of our lawless acts and weakened because of our sins. By his bruising we were healed. He was led like a sheep going to the slaughter; and like a lamb, silent before the one who shears it.”14  

3 Therefore we ought to give thanks to the lord even more abundantly, because he revealed to us the things that have taken place and made us wise in the things that are now; and we are not ignorant of the things that are yet to happen… 

5 Consider this my brothers: if the Lord allowed himself to suffer for our sake, even though he was the Lord of the entire world, the one to whom God said at the foundation of the world, “Let us make a human according to our image and likeness,”16 how then did he allow himself to suffer at the hands of humans?

6 Because the prophets received his gracious gift, they prophesied looking ahead to him. He allowed himself to suffer in order to destroy death and to show that there is a resurrection of the dead. For he had to be manifest in the flesh.

7 And he allowed himself to suffer in order to redeem the promise given to the fathers and to show, while he was on earth preparing a new people for himself, that he is to execute judgment after raising the dead.

8 Moreover, while teaching Israel and doing such wonders and signs, he preached to them and loved them deeply.

9 And when he selected his own apostles who were about to preach his gospel, they were altogether lawless beyond all sin. This was to show that he did not come to call the upright but sinners. Then he revealed that he was the Son of God.

10 For if he had not come in the flesh, HOW WOULD PEOPLE HAVE BEEN ABLE TO LOOK UPON HIM AND SURVIVE? For they cannot even look intently at the sun, gazing directly into its rays, even though it is the work of his hands and will eventually cease to exist.

11 Therefore the Son of God CAME IN THE FLESH for this reason, that he might total up all the sins of those who persecuted his prophets to death.

12 And so this is why he allowed himself to suffer. For God speaks of the blow they delivered against his flesh: “When they smite their own shepherd, then the sheep of the flock will scatter.”17

13 But he wished to suffer in this way for he had to suffer on a tree. For the one who prophesied about him said, “Spare my life from the sword,” and “Nail my flesh, because an assembly of evildoers has risen up against me.”18

14 Again he says, “See! I have set my back to whips and my cheeks to blows; and I have set my face as a hard rock.”19   

14Isa 53:5, 7.… 16Gen 1:26. 17Cf. Zech 13:7; Matt 26:31

18 Ps 22:20, 16. 19 Isa 50:6-7 (Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament [Oxford University Press, Paperback edition: 2003], pp. 223-224; capital and italic emphasis ours) 

7 And so, because he was about to be revealed and suffer in the flesh, his suffering was revealed in advance. For the prophet says about Israel, “Woe to their soul, because they hatched an evil plot against themselves, saying, ‘Let us bind the upright one, because he is trouble for us.’”26

9 Learn what knowledge says. “Hope,” it says, “in Jesus, who is about to be revealed to you in the flesh.” For a human is earth that suffers. For Adam was formed out of the face of the earth…

11 Since then, he renewed through the forgiveness of our sins, he made us into a different type of person, that we might have the soul of children, as if he were forming us all over again.

12 For the Scripture speaks about us when he says to his Son, “Let us make the human according to our image and likeness, and let them rule over the wild beasts of the land and the birds of the sky and the fish of the sea.”28 Once the Lord saw our beautiful form, he said, “Increase and multiply and fill the earth.”29 He said these things to the Son. (Ibid, Chapter 6, p. 224)

26 Isa 3:9-10… 28 Gen 1:26. 29 Gen 1:28. (Ibid)

2 And so, if the Son of God suffered, that by being beaten he might give us life (even though he is the Lord and is about to judge the living and the dead), we should believe that the Son of God could not suffer unless it was for our sakes.

3 But also when he was crucified he was given vinegar and gall to drink. Listen how the priests in the temple made a revelation about this. For the Lord gave the written commandment that “Whoever does not keep the fast must surely die,”36 because he himself was about to offer the vessel of the Spirit as a sacrifice for our sins, that the type might also be fulfilled that was set forth in Isaac, when he was offered on the altar

9 And so, what does this mean? Pay attention: “The one they take to the altar, but the other is cursed,” and the one that is cursed is crowned. For that they will see him in that day wearing a long scarlet robe around his flesh, and they will say, “Is this not the one we once crucified, despising, piercing, and spitting on him? Truly this is the one who was saying at that time that he was himself the Son of God.” (Ibid, Chapter 7, pp. 225-226; italic emphasis ours)

36Lev 23:29. (Ibid, p. 225)

Here is a summary of the Christology of the Epistle of Barnabas:

1. Jesus is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah whom God sends to die as a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of God’s people (cf. Isa. 50:6-7; 53:5, 7).

The epistle is merely echoing what the NT proclaims concerning the subject of Christ’s substitutionary death:

“This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” John 6:50-51

“whom God displayed publicly as a propitiatory sacrifice in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed;” Romans 3:25

“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins… For it was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” Colossians 1:13-14, 19-20

“how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?… so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly await Him.” Hebrews 9:14, 28

“according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, by the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to obey Jesus Christ and be sprinkled with His blood: May grace and peace be yours in the fullest measure… knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ. For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you.” 1 Peter 1:2, 18-20

“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.” 1 Peter 2:21-25

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit;” 1 Peter 3:18

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiatory sacrifice for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” 1 John 2:1-2

“By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiatory sacrifice for our sins.” 1 John 4:9-10

2. Jesus is the Lord who will judge the living and the dead.

This not only agrees with the NT teaching,

“The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)… And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” Acts 10:36, 42-43

“Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.” Acts 17:30-31

“for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Romans 14:8-10

“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by HIS appearing and HIS kingdom… in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved HIS appearingThe Lord will rescue me from every evil deed, and will bring me safely to HIS heavenly kingdom; to Him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” 2 Timothy 4:1, 8, 18

It also serves to identify Christ as Yahweh Incarnate, since the Hebrew Bible expressly teaches that it is Yahweh who comes to judge all mankind:

Before the LORD, for He is coming, For He is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness And the peoples in His faithfulness.” Psalm 96:13

“Before the LORD, for He is coming to judge the earth; He will judge the world with righteousness And the peoples with equity.” Psalm 98:9 – cf. Ps. 9:7-8

3. Jesus is the preexistent Son whom God spoke to in Genesis when creating mankind:

“Then God said, ‘Let US make man in OUR image, according to OUR likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ GOD CREATED man in HIS OWN IMAGE, in THE IMAGE OF GOD HE CREATED him; male and female HE CREATED them.” Genesis 1:26-27

“This is the book of the generations of Adam. In the day when GOD CREATED man, HE MADE him in THE LIKENESS OF GOD. HE CREATED them male and female, and HE blessed them and named them Man in the day when they were created.” Genesis 5:1-2

What this basically means is that the author believed that mankind was not only created by the Son together with the Father, but that human beings also bear his very image and likeness. It further shows that he actually thought that Jesus is Yahweh God Almighty since the inspired Scriptures proclaim that Yahweh alone created all things:

Who ALONE stretches out the heavens And tramples down the waves of the sea;” Job 9:8

“Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb, ‘I, the Lord, am the maker of all things, Stretching out the heavens by MYSELF And spreading out the earth ALL ALONE,’” Isaiah 44:24

“For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (He is the God who formed the earth and made it, He established it and did not create it a waste place, but formed it to be inhabited), ‘I am the Lord, and there is none else.’” Isaiah 45:18

Once again, the epistle happens to be in complete agreement with the NT, which expressly teaches that Christ is the divine Agent whom the Father used to create all things, and continues to employ to sustain all creation:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men… He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:1-4, 10, 14

“yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” 1 Corinthians 8:6

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. Colossians 1:15-18

“Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son. God has appointed Him heir of all things and made the universe through Him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature, sustaining all things by His powerful word. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high… And: In the beginning, Lord [the Son], You established the earth, and the heavens are the works of Your hands; they will perish, but You remain. They will all wear out like clothing; You will roll them up like a cloak, and they will be changed like a robe. But You are the same, and Your years will never end.” Hebrews 1:1-3, 10-12

4. Jesus was revealed and made manifest in the flesh since this is the only way that people could look upon him and survive.

This, again, not only presupposes Christ’s prehuman existence, and therefore agrees with the NT proclamation,

“By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.” 1 Timothy 3:16

“For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, as He was coming into the world, He said: You did not want sacrifice and offering, but You prepared a body for Me. You did not delight in whole burnt offerings and sin offerings. Then I said, ‘See—it is written about Me in the volume of the scroll—I have come to do Your will, God! After He says above, You did not want or delight in sacrifices and offerings, whole burnt offerings and sin offerings (which are offered according to the law), He then says, See, I have come to do Your will. He takes away the first to establish the second. By this will of God, we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all.” Hebrews 10:4-10

“You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin… the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” 1 John 3:5, 8

“This is how you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” 1 John 4:2

It also assumes that he is fully God in essence since the Hebrew Bible is emphatic that no one is able to behold God in the full display of his glory and live:

“But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!’ Exodus 33:20

“which He will bring about at the proper time—He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen.” 1 Timothy 6:15-16

To, therefore, use such language for the Son implies, as Vermes himself realized, that the author clearly believed that Jesus Christ is truly God in essence, being the eternal Son whom no creature can behold in his unveiled glory and majesty.

In light of the above, is Williams going to now accept the fact that all of the earliest witnesses which we have point in one direction? Is he willing to admit that documents such as the Didache and the Epistle of Barnabas provide us with an unbroken chain of transmission going all the way back to the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ, a transmission which confirms that the faith of all true believers has always been that Jesus Christ is the divine unique Son of God who became flesh in order to die on the cross as a vicarious sacrifice for our sins, and who then rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven to sit enthroned as Lord over all creation?   

The only reason that he wouldn’t admit to this fact is because such teachings directly conflict with his Islamic beliefs, and prove that Muhammad was a false prophet and one of the antichrists whom the inspired Scriptures prophesied would be coming to mislead people from the Gospel of our risen Lord and glorious Savior, Jesus Christ, God’s beloved and unique Son:

"But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!” Galatians 1:8-9

“Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.” 1 John 2:22-23

“If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater; for the testimony of God is this, that He has testified concerning His Son. The one who believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself; the one who does not believe God has made Him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has given concerning His Son. And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” 1 John 5:9-13