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My summer reading in the writings of the early church continues, and I just concluded the Didache and Epistle of Barnabus.
Both works share some things in common. They are both from the second century. The author(s) of both are unknown. The Epistle of Barnabus has a concluding section that mirrors the Didache’s “Two Ways” (the way of life and the way of death) motif. They were widely read in the early church. And much of the original texts were recovered in the nineteenth century.
A key difference is that the Epistle of Barnabus was written as a letter, and the Didache is basically an instruction manual for new converts (or perhaps a tool for evangelism for inquiring neighbors). A second difference is that the Epistle of Barnabus is filled will allegory – what appears to me as fascinating and fanciful applications of the biblical text.
What follows are some observations and takeaways from my reading.
We need to be reminded in this age of isolation that (safe) physical contact is healthy and meeting together is vital to the church. When we can, we need to meet: “All the same, you are not to withdraw into yourselves and live in solitude, as though God had already pronounced you holy. Come and take your full share in the meetings, and in deliberating for the common good.”
I must admit I have never been a fan of an allegorical reading of the biblical text – I suppose too many bad sermons and too many historical examples of misuse have turned me off such an approach.
Yet the appeal for the author of the Epistle of Barnabus was obvious for all to read. The biblical accounts of the land of milk and honey, the vinegar and gall, the scapegoat, the rites of purification, circumcision, dietary laws, baptism, the cross, the sabbath, and the temple all were portrayed as having meanings that went beyond the plain reading of the text. Some of the applications were quite out there – see the dietary laws and application to sexuality for one example. Other less so, such as the six days of creation pointing to the end of the age after 6,000 years (after all, “a day of the Lord shall be as a thousand year”).
Sadly, the allegorical method in the Epistle of Barnabus was used primarily to assert Christian truth by attacking the Jews, establishing a precedent as commented on below.
Early Jewish attitudes towards Christians were often marked by hostility. By the early second century synagogue worship could include the birkat ha-minim (benediction against the heretics): “May the Nazarenes and the heretics be suddenly destroyed and removed from the Book of Life.”
The Christian response was often less than gracious, and could be marked by vitriolic commentary. What arose over time was a literary theme adversus Judaeos (“Against the Jews”) – and glimpses of that can be seen in the commentary in both works. For instance, in the Epistle of Barnabus, the Jew’s “carnal instincts” kept them from the truth, and they were “scarcely less misguided than the heathen.” The Didache portrayed the Jews as “hypocrites” in regard to their fast days.
That unfriendly and increasingly harsh commentary arose in the early decades when Christians were minuscule in size, with no social or political power that could be a threat to the Jews. However, as we know now, when Christians became powerful much later that line of thinking and harsh commentary led to conduct unbecoming of Christians.
Both the Epistle of Barnabus and the Didache portrayed the Christian life in simple binary terms – there were two ways: the way of life (to be pursued) and the way of death (to be shunned).
The Epistle of Barnabus spoke of the “Dark One” or the “Way of Wickedness” or the “Prince of Evil” or the “Way of the Dark Lord.”
But it was the list of the items in the Didache’s “way of death” that particularly caught my attention. The “way of death” details the moral and ethical expectations for Christians in the early church. Here is what they were to flee:
“The Way of Death is this. To begin with, it is evil, and in every way fraught with damnation. In it are murders, adulteries, lusts, fornications, thefts, idolatries, witchcraft, sorceries, robberies, perjuries, hypocrisies, duplicities, deceit, pride, malice, self-will, avarice, foul language, jealousy, insolence, arrogance, and boastfulness. Here are those who persecute good men, hold truth in abhorrence, and love falsehood; who do not know of the rewards of righteousness; nor adhere to what is good, nor to just judgement; who lie awake planning wickedness rather than well-doing. Gentleness and patience are beyond their conception; they care for nothing good or useful, and are bent only on their own advantage, without pity for the poor or feeling for the distressed. Knowledge of their Creator is not in them; they make away with their infants and deface God’s image; they turn away the needy and oppress the afflicted; they aid and abet the rich but arbitrarily condemn the poor; they are utterly and altogether suck in iniquity. Flee, my children, from all this!”
One of the most interesting parts of the Epistle of Barnabus was the instruction regarding true fasting. The Lord was portrayed as dismayed with the fasting of his people, seeing their abstaining and wailing as simply unacceptable when injustice and suffering was ignored. Here is what was deemed to be an acceptable fast - it is worth quoting at length:
“Look, the fast of my choice is this: relax all your iniquitous restrictions, loosen the shackles of your oppressive covenants, let your ruined debtors go free, and tear up all your unjust agreements. Break up your bread into portions for the starving; and if you see a man who is want of clothing, fit him out yourself. Bring in the homeless under your own roof; and should you happen to catch sight of some person of low degree, be sure that neither you nor anyone belonging to you casts an eye of scorn upon him. Then shall your light shine out like the rising sun; healing shall dawn swiftly upon you, and you will march forward with holiness as your vanguard and the glory of God on either flank. Then God will hear you when you call, and while the words are still on your lips he will say, Look, here I am – if only you will forswear imprisonings and violence, leave-off your resentful murmurings, give your bread to the hungry with good grace, and have pity on the soul that is afflicted.”
The above quotes taken from Early Christian Writings (Penguin, 1987)
 Epistle of Barnabus, 4.
 Epistle of Barnabus, 10.
 Epistle of Barnabus, 15.
 One would like to be able to “turn to a Jewish source or discover some traces of a Jewish literature adversus Christianos to see how Jews were portraying Christians and what arguments they were employing against Christianity.” See Lincoln Blumell, “A Jew in Celsus’ True Doctrine? An Examination of Jewish Anti-Christian Polemic in the Second Century CE,” Studies in Religion 36/2 (2007): 297-315.
 Epistle of Barnabus, 10.
 Epistle of Barnabus, 16.
 Didache, 8.
 Epistle of Barnabus, 4-5, 20.
 Didache, 5.