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Monday, 12 October 2015

Supernatural Evil in the Apostolic Fathers (6): The Epistle of Barnabas

The Epistle of Barnabas (henceforth Barnabas) is an early Christian text generally dated to the 130s A.D., around the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt.1 Although traditionally ascribed to 'Barnabas', the document itself does not claim to have been written by Barnabas and never mentions Barnabas. There is near-universal agreement that the author was not Paul's companion of that name mentioned in the New Testament. The author and work will be referred to as Barnabas for sake of convenience.

This document is perhaps best known for its idiosyncratic answer to the question of why Christians are not bound to literal observance of the statutes of the Torah. In contrast to Paul, who had argued that literal Torah observance played a preparatory role in anticipation of Christ, Barnabas (who does not seem to be familiar with Paul's writings) holds that the Torah is eternally valid but was never meant to be followed literally.2 Moreover, he claims that God abrogated the Sinai covenant due to the golden calf incident and appears to hold out no enduring privileges for the Jewish people.3 These positions are unique among patristic writings.4 However, that Barnabas was regarded as generally theologically sound and valuable is evident from its inclusion after Revelation in Codex Sinaiticus, the earliest surviving complete New Testament manuscript.5

Paget stresses the writer’s use of Jewish exegetical methods6 and even allows the possibility that the writer was Jewish,7 although Skarsaune thinks his knowledge of rabbinic haggadah is only second-hand and that he was certainly Gentile.8 His antagonism toward Jews and Judaism should be understand in the context of fierce religious competition between the Church and Synagogue, and the probability that the former was losing proselytes to the latter.9 Horbury concludes that compared to Justin Martyr's writings, this document is 'more strongly Jewish as well as anti-Jewish.'10 It seems probable that he knew the Gospel of Matthew but otherwise shows no dependence on writings from what would become the New Testament.11

Barnabas is an important witness to the early Christian understanding of supernatural evil. Satan plays a prominent role in his theology, and he also refers to demons and bad angels.

Satanological Terminology in Barnabas

Barnabas uses a number of different terms to refer to Satan. Some are known from earlier Christian tradition. ho satanas (Satan; Barn. 18.1) is, with ho diabolos, the most widely used Satanological term in the New Testament.12 ho ponēros (the evil one;13; Barn. 2.10; 21.314) also occurs frequently in the New Testament as a designation for Satan.15 Barnabas' notion of Satan as a ruler is also commonplace in the New Testament.16 He refers to Satan as ho ponēros archōn (the evil ruler; Barn. 4.13) and as ho archōn kairou tou nun tēs anomias (the ruler over the present age of lawlessness; Barn. 18.2).

Other Satanological terms are used by Barnabas which do not occur in the New Testament. These include ho energōn (literally 'the one who is at work', Barn. 2.1), ho melas (the black one, Barn. 4.10; 20.1), and ho anomos (the lawless one, Barn. 15.5).

tou energountos (in lexical form, ho energōn) is a participial form of energeō. This verb is frequently used to refer to 'divine or supernatural action'17 in patristic literature. Gokey states that the use of energeō and its corresponding noun energeia 'for superhuman evil powers is common to the pagan, Jewish and Christian Hellenistic world.'18 On NT usage specifically, Gokey states that energeō, when used in the active voice, has a superhuman personal subject in all but one instance.19 As for the noun cognate, 'In the NT energeia only appears in Paul, where it always refers to the mystic supernatural power of divine or evil origin.'20 Forms of energeō or energeia are linked to Satan by Paul in Eph. 2:2 and 2 Thess. 2:9, and also by Justin Martyr in Dialogue with Trypho 69.1.21

One major lexical authority appears to take ho energōn in Barn 2.1 to refer to God.22 However, it is more likely that it refers to Satan,23 given the emphasis on 'evil days' just prior. Ehrman translates Barn. 2.1a, 'Since, then, the days are evil and the one who is at work holds sway.'24 Gokey renders ho energōn as 'the Agent'.25

The reference to ho energōn having exousia (power or dominion) in Barn. 2.1 parallels several New Testament texts which explicitly or implicitly attribute exousia to Satan.26

As for ho melas, Barnabas seems to be the first Christian writer to associate this term with Satan. What is the source of the imagery of Satan as 'the black one'? Based on the likelihood that Barnabas was written in Alexandria, where black-skinned Ethiopians would have been present, Byron argues that the use of this term for Satan 'as a trope within the ethno-political rhetorics about vices and sins.'27 However, Byron acknowledges that Barnabas never refers to 'blacks' as an ethnic group, and so his reconstruction of the background of ho melas is pure conjecture. Peerbolte is more likely correct that 'The use of melas for Satan originates in its use as a synonym of ponēros.'28 Hermas uses melas as a symbol of vice repeatedly in his Similitudes, with no hint of an ethnic connotation.29 Moreover, it is surely noteworthy that in Barn. 20.1, 'the path of the Black One' (tou melanos hodos)30 is explicitly contrasted, not with the colour white but with 'the path of light' (hodos tou phōtos) in Barn. 19.1, 12. The use of light/darkness imagery to draw a dualistic contrast is, of course, common in the New Testament, especially in the writings of John and Paul.31

Finally, tou anomou (in lexical form, ho anomos) in Barn. 15.5 could conceivably mean 'the lawless one' generically (as in Ezek. 18:24 LXX), or 'the lawless one' par excellence, i.e. Satan or the Antichrist. The expression ho anomos is used by Paul in 2 Thess. 2:8 of the Antichrist, whom Paul distinguishes from Satan but explicitly links with his activity.32 That Barnabas' tou anomou refers to Satan is probable for two reasons: firstly, generic wicked humans are referred to in the next phrase in the plural (krinei tous asebeis), making it unlikely that they are also referred to in the singular with a generic use of the article. Secondly, Satan is explicitly linked to 'the present age of lawlessness' in Barn. 18.2 as its ruler. The phrase 'age of lawlessness' or 'age of the lawless one' closely parallels the 'age of the lawlessness of Israel' (en kairō tēs anomias) mentioned in Testament of Dan 6.633 (a passage which also mentions 'Satan and his spirits'), suggesting some correspondence of thought.

Two main conclusions can be drawn from Barnabas' Satanological terminology. Firstly, while in certain respects his phraseology is unique (e.g. ho melas), broadly speaking his language and ideas about Satan closely parallel what we find in the New Testament. Secondly, it is clear that Barnabas regarded Satan as a supernatural, personal being. Further confirmation of this is seen in Barnabas' Two Ways material in Barn. 18.1-2, where he describes Satan as having angels who are set over against the angels of God.34

Other supernatural evil beings in Barnabas

Besides Satan, Barnabas knows of other supernatural evil beings. These include the angels of Satan just mentioned, as well as an evil angel (angelos ponēros) who, according to Barnabas, misled the Jews into practicing physical circumcision instead of spiritual (Barn. 9.4).35 Barnabas may be dependent upon the reference to angelōn ponērōn in Ps. 78(77):49 LXX for his terminology here.

Barnabas makes one mention of demons in the context of an argument spiritualising the Temple:
And so I conclude that a temple exists. But learn how it will be built in the name of the Lord. Before we believed in God, the dwelling place of our heart was corrupt and feeble, since it really was a temple build by hand; for it was full of idolatry and was a house of demons, because we did everything that was opposed to God. (Barn. 16.7)36
Gokey notes the 'strong affinities' between this passage and the Synoptic parable of the unclean spirit which goes out of a man and returns later to the 'house' with 'seven other spirits more evil than himself' (Matt. 12:45; Luke 11:24-26).37 By internalizing the temple of God within the heart, Barnabas' thought also closely parallels Paul's doctrine of the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit.38 Wahlen states, 'The thought seems to be that demons, which rule the Jews as truly as they rule the Gentile nations, are expelled from the heart of the forgiven believer.'39 This contrasts with Kelly, who states that here 'there is no real indication that baptism has an exorcistic meaning.'40 Along the same lines, Russell thinks the idea expressed here is that of temptation from without, not demon-possession.41 Whatever the case, it is apparent that Barnabas believed in the real existence of demons.

Concluding observations

Two other observations will help illustrate how Barnabas uses language pertaining to supernatural evil. Firstly, despite his clear belief in supernatural evil beings, Barnabas also regards evil as having an anthropological dimension. He refers to 'the purification of our hearts' (8:3), to 'the one who is sick in the flesh' who is 'healed by the foul juice of the hyssop' (8:6). He writes of those who 'are reputed to perform a lawless deed in their mouth because of their uncleanness' (10:8), to those who 'received his words according to the desires of their own flesh' (10:9), to those 'full of sins and filth' (11:11), to those 'completely filled with sins' and 'hearts that were already paid out to death and given over to the lawlessness of deceit' (14:5). Moreover, Barnabas' main teaching on how to overcome Satan is not magical but ethical. This is evident from the extended ethical instruction which follows the pronouncement that Satan is set over the path of darkness (Barn. 19.1-12; 21.1-9).

Secondly, Barnabas offers no attempt to explain or justify his ideas about Satan, bad angels, and demons. He simply offers a series of passing allusions to these concepts. Evidently, these ideas are part of the Christian worldview which he can assume his audience shares with him, not a controversial claim for which he needs to make an argument. This suggests that Barnabas' beliefs about Satan and demons are not innovative but taken over from earlier Christian tradition. Further corroboration of this conclusion is found in the close conceptual and terminological parallel between Barnabas' beliefs and those in the New Testament, despite little evidence for Barnabas' direct dependence on New Testament writings.


  • 1 Paget, J.C. (2006). The Epistle of Barnabas. The Expository Times, 117(11), 441-446. Here p. 443.
  • 2 Skarsaune, O. (2002). In the shadow of the temple: Jewish influences on early Christianity. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, p. 218.
  • 3Horbury, W. (1992). Jewish-Christian Relations in Barnabas and Justin Martyr. In J.D.G. Dunn (Ed.), Jews and Christians: The Parting of the Ways, A.D. 70 to 135 (pp. 315-345). Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, pp. 327-328.
  • 4Hvalvik, R. (1996). The Struggle for Scripture and Covenant: The Purpose of the Epistle of Barnabas and Jewish-Christian Competition in the Second Century. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 331.
  • 5 Note: the Shepherd of Hermas is also included in this manuscript after the Epistle of Barnabas.
  • 6 'It has long been noted by scholars that Barnabas consists of material of a strongly Jewish character.' (Paget, J. C. (1996). Paul and the Epistle of Barnabas. Novum Testamentum, 38(4), 359-381. Here p. 377.)
  • 7 Paget, 2006, op. cit., p. 442.
  • 8 Skarsaune, op. cit., p. 220.
  • 9 Hvalvik, op. cit., pp. 324-326; Evans, C.A. (2000). Root Causes of the Jewish-Christian Rift from Jesus to Justin. In S.E. Porter & B.W.R. Pearson (Eds.), Christian-Jewish Relations through the Centuries (pp. 20-35). Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, p. 22.
  • 10 Horbury, op. cit., p. 332.
  • 11 Hvalvik, op. cit., pp. 32-34.
  • 12 36 occurrences: Matt. 4:10, 12:26 (twice), 16:23; Mark 1:13, 3:23 (twice), 3:26, 4:15, 8:33; Luke 10:18, 11:18, 13:16, 22:3, 22:31; John 13:27; Acts 5:3, 26:18; Rom. 16:20; 1 Cor. 5:5, 7:5; 2 Cor. 2:11, 11:14, 12:7; 1 Thess. 2:18; 2 Thess. 2:9; 1 Tim. 1:20; 5:15; Rev. 2:9, 2:13 (twice), 2:24, 3:9, 12:9, 20:2, 20:7.
  • 13 Byron suggests that ho ponēros here 'could refer to the devil, or more specifically to the Roman emperor Trajan' (Byron, G.L. (2002). Symbolic blackness and ethnic difference in early Christian literature. New York: Routledge, p. 64). In support of the latter proposal, he notes that Trajan is referred to as the 'evil one' in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sukkah 5.1, 55B: 'In the time of Trogianos, the evil one (טרוגיינוס הרשע), a son was born to him on the ninth of Av...' (ibid., p. 155 n. 68). He is dependent on Modrzejewski, J. (1997). The Jews of Egypt: from Rameses II to Emperor Hadrian. Princeton: Princeton University Press, p. 209 (see also, e.g. Neusner, J. (Ed.). (1988). The Talmud of the Land of Israel (Vol. 17). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 118; Saldarini, A.J. (1975). The Fathers according to Rabbi Nathan. Leiden: Brill. 68; Goldberg, D. (1970). The Leaven of Judaism. Woodbridge: Twayne, p. 164.) In fact, not only Trajan but also Titus is referred to in Jewish literature as 'the evil one' (the latter for entering the Holy of Holies). However, two observations reduce the significance of this parallel with the satanic designation ho ponēros. In the first place, when applied to Trajan or Titus, 'the evil one' accompanies the emperor’s personal name: it is 'Trajan the evil one' or 'Titus the evil one'. 'The evil one' does not function as a stand-alone designation for either emperor. Secondly, הרשע need not even function as a substantive in these texts; one could also translate it as an attribute adjective: 'the evil Titus' or 'Trajan the Wicked' (Modrzejewski, op. cit., p. 207; Neusner, op. cit., p. 118; Dershowitz, N. & Reingold, E.M. (2008). Calendrical Calculations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 101; Alon, G. (1980). The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 383; Attias, J.-C. (2014). The Jews and the Bible. Redwood City: Stanford University Press, p. 38; Feldman, L.H. (1996). Studies in Hellenistic Judaism. Leiden: Brill, pp. 3-4; Holder, M. (1986). History of the Jewish People: From Yavneh to Pumbedisa. Brooklyn: Mesorah Publications, p. 29; Finkel, A.Y. (trans.) (1999). Ein Yaakov: The Ethical and Inspirational Teachings of the Talmud. New York: Aronson, p. 425; Zinberg, I. (1977). A History of Jewish Literature. New York: KTAV Publishing, p. 31.). In view of this, it is unlikely that the substantive ho ponēros in Barnabas or any other early Christian text refers to the Roman emperor. It is rather a designation for Satan.
  • 14 The gender of tō ponērō in Barn. 21.3 is ambiguous so this could refer to 'the evil one' or 'evil' abstractly. Only in Barn. 2.10 do we have unambiguous masculine usage. Holmes mistranslates to ponēron in Barn. 19.11 as 'the evil one' (Holmes, M.W. (2007) The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, p. 437.). This expression is neuter and so can only refer to evil abstractly (Ehrman, B.D. (2003). The Apostolic Fathers, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 79.)
  • 15 Certainly in Matt. 13:19; 1 John 2:13, 2:14, 5:18; probably in Matt. 5:37, 6:13, 13:38; Eph. 6:16; 2 Thess. 3:3; 1 John 3:12, 5:19; possibly in Matt. 5:39.
  • 16 For the term, see Matt. 12:24-29; Mark 3:22-27; Luke 11:15-21; John 12.31, 14:30, 16:11; Eph. 2:2; for the concept, see Luke 4:5; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 John 5:19.
  • 17 Lampe, G.W.H. (1961). A Patristic Greek Lexicon, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 473.
  • 18 Gokey, F.X. (1961). The Terminology for the Devil and Evil Spirits in the Apostolic Fathers. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, p. 104 n. 1.
  • 19 Ibid.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 103 n. 1.
  • 21 For other early Christian texts where these words are used of demonic activity, see Lampe, op. cit., pp. 472-473.
  • 22 Arndt, W., Danker, F.W. & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 335.
  • 23 So Gokey, op. cit., p. 99; Ehrman, op. cit., p. 15 n. 1; Prostmeier, F.P. (1999). Der Barnabasbrief. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, p. 182.
  • 24 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 15. Holmes, op. cit., p. 383 offers an identical translation of ho energōn.
  • 25 Gokey, op. cit., p. 99.
  • 26 Luke 4:6; 10:19; 22:53; Acts 26:18; Eph. 2:2; Col. 1:13.
  • 27 Byron, op. cit., p. 65.
  • 28 Peerbolte, L.J.L. (1996). The Antecedents of Antichrist: A Traditio-Historical Study of the Earliest Christian Views on Eschatological Opponents. Leiden: Brill, p. 191.
  • 29 Hermas, Similitudes 9.1.5; 9.6.4; 9.8.1ff; 9.9.5; 9.13.8; 9.15.1, 3; 9.19.1; so Arndt et al, op. cit., p. 626.
  • 30 Since the gender of tou melanos is ambiguous, it is possible to render this as 'the path of blackness', which may make more sense given that the antithesis is impersonal ('light') (cf. 'the path of darkness' in Barn. 18.1). However, in Barn. 4.10 ho melas is unambiguously masculine and so refers to a personal being.
  • 31 e.g. John 3:19; 12:35; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 6:14; 1 Thess. 5:5.
  • 32 It is not clear whether Barnabas' theology includes an eschatological Antichrist figure and, if so, whether this individual is distinct from Satan himself, as in 2 Thessalonians, or is Satan himself, as in the Ascension of Isaiah.
  • 33 Arndt et al, op. cit., p. 86.
  • 34 For New Testament parallels to the idea of Satan having angels, see Matt. 25:41; 2 Cor. 12:7; Rev. 12:7-9.
  • 35 Paget takes this evil angel to be the devil himself (Paget, J.C. (1994). The Epistle of Barnabas: Outlook and Background. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 183). However, Russell more plausibly takes it to be an unspecified evil angel since it lacks the article (Russell, J.B. (1981/1987). Satan: The Early Christian Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, p. 39 n. 23).
  • 36 Ehrman, op. cit., p. 73, trans.
  • 37 Gokey, op. cit., p. 108 n. 5.
  • 38 Ibid.
  • 39 Wahlen, C. (2004). Jesus and the Impurity of Spirits in the Synoptic Gospels. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, p. 63.
  • 40 Kelly, H.A. (1985/2004). The Devil at Baptism: Ritual, Theology, and Drama. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, p. 52.
  • 41 Russell, op. cit., p. 40.

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