Barnabas, His Gospel, and its Credibility - Abdus Sattar Ghauri

Barnabas, His Gospel, and its Credibility


The name of Joseph Barnabas has never been strange or unknown to the scholars of the New Testament of the Bible; but his Gospel was scarcely known before the publication of the English Translation of ‘The Koran’ by George Sale, who introduced this ‘Gospel’ in the ‘Preliminary Discourse’ to his translation. Even then it remained beyond the access of Muslim Scholars owing to its non-availability in some language familiar to them. It was only after the publication of the English translation of the Gospel of Barnabas by Lonsdale and Laura Ragg from the Clarendon Press, Oxford in 1907, that some Muslim scholars could get an approach to it. Since then it has emerged as a matter of dispute, rather controversy, among Muslim and Christian scholars. In this article it would be endeavoured to make an objective study of the subject.


Joseph Barnabas was a Jew of the tribe of Levi1 and of the Island of Cyprus ‘who became one of the earliest Christian disciples at Jerusalem.’2 His original name was Joseph and ‘he received from the Apostles the Aramaic surname Barnabas (...). Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius number him among the 72 (?70) disciples3 mentioned in Luke 10:1. He first appears in Acts 4:36-37 as a fervent and well to do Christian who donated to the Church the proceeds from the sale of his property.4 Although he was Cypriot by birth, he ‘seems to have been living in Jerusalem.’5 In the Christian Diaspora (dispersion) many Hellenists fled from Jerusalem and went to Antioch6 of Syria. That Barnabas did not flee is evidence of his good standing in Jerusalem, along with the ‘apostles’. (...) he was sent to join the company of workers at Antioch, to preach to Jews, Hellenists, and Greeks (Acts 11:19-22). As the work of the Antioch Church expanded and more workers were needed, Barnabas went over to Tarsus7 and brought back with him Saul (Paul). It seems that Barnabas was the leader of the Antioch Church, and the order which Luke gives, ‘Barnabas and Saul,’ indicates his pre-eminence. If was ‘Barnabas and Saul’ who carried relief funds from Antioch to the famine-stricken Jarusalem (Act 11:30). Barnabas was commissioned by the Antioch Church, along with Saul and John Mark, to undertake the missionary journey which led them to Cyprus and later to the provinces of the N. Mainland (...). in the city of Lystra... Barnabas was given the title ‘Zeus8, while Paul was only ‘Hermes’9 the spokesman (Act 14:12). The men of Lystra must have recognised a comparative dignity in Barnabas... Luke’s account of the conference at Jerusalem (Acts:15) again places Barnabas at the front, indicating that Barnabas was in better standing than Paul in Jerusalem. ‘Barnabas and Paul’ made the report in the conference relating to the work which had been done among the Gentiles10(Acts 15:12). The document which was sent by the conference recommending ‘Barnabas and Paul’ to the Syrian and Cilician11 Churches again shows Luke’s knowledge of the relative standing of the two men in Jerusalem.

‘The separation of Barnabas from Paul and their divergent missionary activity began in Antioch after the Jerusalem Conference. The issue which Luke gives was the taking of John Mark on another journey (Acts 15:36). Marks’ defection at Cyprus (Acts 13:13) seemed to Paul to be sufficient grounds for dropping him from the party. But Barnabas was devoted to Mark as a cousin (Col 4:14), and leaving Paul, Barnabas took Mark on a separate mission again to Cyprus. Luke’s cryptic words “sailed away to Cyprus” (Acts 15:39) are his farewell to Barnabas.’12 The details of this separation have also been given by John Mark himself in his small work ‘The Acts of Barnabas’. He tells that after setting sail from Cyprus (during the first missionary journey), they landed in Perga13 of Pamphylia,14 and there he stayed for two months, wishing to sail to the regions of the West; but the Holy Spirit did not allow him. When he returned to Antioch, he found Paul ill, who was much cross on his delay in Pamphylia. ‘And I gave repentance on my knees upon the earth of Paul, and he would not endure me.’ says John Mark, ‘for his great grievance against me was on account of my keeping several parchments in Pamphylia.’15

Barnabas was martyrised at Salamis16 in Cyprus in 61 A D and his corpse was placed in a cave near Salamis. It was discovered safe and sound after about 400 years in the reign of Emperor Zeno (474-491).17 B.M. Ahern, in his article on St. Barnabas in the New Catholic Encyclopaedia, says ‘According to legend he met a martyr’s death there [Cyprus]; his body was later found with his own hand-written copy of Mathew’s Gospel over his heart.’18 It may be noted that Barnabas died in 61 A D and ‘There is wide agreement that it [the Gospel of Mathew] is later than 70 A D, although the evidence for this is not great; a date after the fall of Jerusalem is favoured by Mt 22:7.’19 How can a man, who dies in 61 A D, copy the book in his own handwriting, which did not exist before 70 A D? It is therefore certain that the gospel which was found ‘over his heart’ and was ‘his own hand written’, could only be the ‘Gospel of Barnabas’. It might have been taken to the capital of the Empire (Constantinople), where it passed into the possession of the Ottoman Empire, the successor of the Byzantines, and was discovered from a cave in Oloderay, a village of Turkey in 1984.20


Barnabas in Hebrew and Aramaic means the son of PROPHECY (Bar = son; Nabas = prophecy; from Nabiy = a prophet; from the primary root Naba = to prophesy)21. Luke in his Acts of the Apostles (4:36), has interpreted it as ‘the son of consolation; but according to Mckenzie’s Bible Dictionary: ‘this popular etymology can hardly be accepted.’22 A New Standard Bible Dictionary also relates it to the word ‘prophet’.23 O Zockler in the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia of Religious Knowledge explains:

He was surnamed by the apostles (in Aramaic) Bar Nebhuah, which is explained by the Greek huios parakleseos (‘son of exhortation’ not ‘of consolation,’ cf Acts xi, 23) and denotes a prophet in the primitive Christian sense of the word (cf Acts xiii, 1; xv,32)24.

From the observations made above, it can be inferred:

i) that Barnabas was not the original name; but a surname, given to him by the apostles on account of some predominant attribute, which was so conspicuous in his personality that it became the very introduction and identification for him.

ii) that this special reference of his introduction was the utterance of some ‘Nebuah’ or ‘prophecy’ which is the true sense of this word and can be seen pervading and prevailing only in his extant gospel; in the absence of which the title, Barnabas, attributed to him by the apostles, is rendered meaningless.

iii) that the apostles unanimously endorsed, approved, and appreciated this prophecy. Had they disapproved it, or found it objectionable and contrary to the teachings to Jesus, they would never have affectionately addressed and attributed him with Barnabas’.


The word ‘APOSTLE’ is the English transliteration of a Greek word meaning ‘one who is sent out.’25 Mckenzie explains:

‘Jesus himself is called an apostle (Heb 3:1), as one sent from God. In the New Testament the word designates a small group who hold the highest position in the Church and are charged with its most responsible functions; but a closer definition of the term discloses some problems which do not admit a peremptory answer.’26‘Apostolic lists appear in Mt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:13-16; and Acts 1:13. Each of the lists contains twelve names, but not always the same twelve. The number twelve probably refers to God’s elect, the 12 tribes of Israel. (....) The exact nature of “apostleship” in the early church is obscure.’27 Thaddaeus, who is given at No. 10 in the lists of Matthew and Mark, is missing from the list of Luke’s Gospel and of the Acts, wherein ‘Judas the son of James’ is found at No.11. This discrepancy has been explained diversely; for example “(i) Judas son (or brother) of James, and Thaddaeus (or lebbaeus) are the same person, (ii) The lists in Luke and Acts reflect a change in the apostles. (iii) Tradition has preserved the fact that Jesus had an inner group of trusted followers (the Twelve) and has retained the names of most of the members of this group but not without slight variations.” There is some hardship in the first explanation. The second one appears unlikely. ‘The third is plausible in the light of the fact that the gospel traditions were transmitted within difference communities, making some variation far from surprising. (...) Post-biblical traditions supply additional information about Thaddaeus, but this is of questionable value.’28

Barnabas has also provided a list of the ‘Twelve apostles’ in his Gospel. Ten members of his list are the same as Matthew’s and Mark’s. Instead of ‘Thomas’ he has entered ‘Judas.’ Smith’s A Dictionary of the Bible states:

According to Eusebius his (Thomas’) real name was ‘Judas.’29 Thus, there remains only one variation which requires explanation that is instead of Simon the Cananaean / Zealot, he lists his own name as an ‘apostle’. As regards Simon the Zealot, it look to be a fictitious name or person or a later interpolation, as none of his authorised written work or a record or result of his missionary service is reliably available. Most of the authorities find themselves at a loss even to identify him, for example (a) ‘very little is known about this Apostle. Many would identify him with Simon the brother of Jesus, but this identification does not seem likely’,30 (b) ‘Of his personal history nothing certain in known’31 and (c) ‘Identification of Simon Zealot with the Simon who is named among the brethren of Jesus, together with the cognate assumption that the later was a brother of James the son of Alphaeus, is quite unfounded, as are the reports of a later activity of the apostle in Egypt and in Britain, or in Persia and Babylonia.’32 As regards the apostleship of Barnabas, there exists abundant evidence in the early biblical literature, church history, and even in the Bible itself. Some of the quotations are given below:

(i) Among the Apostolic Fathers Barnabas is the first and the only one who expressly teaches...33

(ii) ... but possibly he bore the name ‘Barnabas’ and so had been confounded with his holy and apostolic name-sire. (...) was attributed to Saint Barnabas, by those who supposed that apostle to be the...34

iii) Dressel gives ‘Epistle of Barnabas the Apostle,’ from the Vatican MS. of the Latin Codex.35

iv) The Apostle Barnabas says...36

v) One of the Apostles, of the tribe of Levi and of the country of Cyprus.37

vi) Barnabas was the elder companion of Paul in his journeys as apostle (...); wherefore the two together are called ‘apostles’ (Acts xix, 4,14).38

vii) The resultant sharp ‘contention’ led the separation of the two Apostles (Acts. 15:36-39).39

viii) Himself called an apostle in Acts xiv, 4, 14 (...). An unhappy discussion separated the two apostles.40

ix) He is further described panegyrically as ‘a goodman, and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith’ (Acts 11:24). Undoubtedly, these gifts gave him influence and leadership, so that he is regarded with Simeon (Niger), Lucius, and Manaeu as among the PROPHETS and teachers at Antioch in Syria (Acts 13:1). Together with Paul he is designated as an apostle (Acts 14:14).41

x) Barnabas who is called an apostle by clement of Alexandria (Strom. II. 31.2. cf. 116.3) and already in Acts 14:14 (cf. also verse 4), is in Pseudo-Clement, Hom. 1.9-16; II.4, a personal disciple of Jesus a strict servant of the law, a Palestinian by birth, but residing in Alexandria, (...). The Recognitions, which identify Barnabas with Matthias (1.60; cf. Th. Zahn, Forschungen II, p. 562) and thus enrol him as substitute for the betrayer in the band of the twelve, have the meeting between Clement and Barnabas take place in Rome, whither the later had brought the gospel already in the life-time of Jesus (1:6f). The Acts of Peter (C.4) also knows of a stay of Barnabas in Rome. For Tertullian (de pud. 20.2) Corp. Christ. 2, p. 1324) and the Tractatus Origenis (PL Supp. 1,417) the Epistle to the Hebrews counts as a work of Barnabas. (...) In the Decretum Gelasianum as also in the list of the 60 Books there appears a Gospel of Barnabas which baffles us.42

Besides the fact that in his Gospel, Barnabas has mentioned his name in the list of the twelve apostles, there is another list of apostles, in which as well he is counted as a member, which is pertinently quoted here:

As a sort of list of the apostles there can be counted the enumeration of the twelve apostles who in Pseudo - Clement, Rec. I.55.62, debate with the Jews and Samaritans in the temple at Jerusalem. Here we have the following sequence: 1. Mathew (55), 2. Andrew (56),
3. and. 4. James and John (57), 5. Philip (58),
6. Bartholomew (59), 7. James the son of Alphaeus (59), 8. Lebbaeus (59), 9. Simon Cananeus (60), 10. Barnabas who is also called Mathias (60), 11. Thomas (61), 12. Peter (62). That Peter, who is the speaker, names himself last is not surprising.43

All these references amount to the fact that Barnabas enjoyed a privileged position among the early Christianity. He was one of the earliest companions of Jesus. He has been attributed with the titles of a saint, a disciple, a prophet and an apostle by almost all the Encyclopaedias and Histories of the Church.


Paul was born of Jewish parents in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia, probably between zero A D and 5 A D. Before going for preaching Christianity in Gentiles,44 he was known as Saul. At Tarsus he must have learnt to speak and write Greek language fluently. In his boyhood he shifted to Jerusalem and was brought up there. During the life-time of Jesus, he remained a bitter enemy of Jesus Christ and his disciples. Luke states in Acts 9:13-19 that Saul received sudden light from heaven; the voice of Jesus speaking with authority to his persecutor; Saul struck to the ground blinded, overcome; the three-days suspense; the coming of Ananias as s a messenger of the Lord; and Saul’s baptism. This package of events occurred in Damascus in
37 A D. Then he went to Arabia. In 40 A D, he went to Jerusalem, but the disciples were afraid of him. It was Barnabas who introduced him to them, and convinced them to accept him as a Christian, even though reluctantly. After some time he had again to flee from Jerusalem to Tarsus to save his life. Barnabas was sent by the apostles on a special and important mission to Antioch. Barnabas brought Paul from Tarsus so that he might help him in his mission at Antioch; and both of them worked there for a whole year. ‘ALL THIS TIME SAUL WAS SUBORDINATE TO BARNABAS.’ During the first missionary journey (45 A D to 49 A D) Barnabas was the leader of the mission. It was indeed the missionary journey of Barnabas which is erroneously ascribed to Paul. Paul was planning to bypass all the disciples and even his benefactor, Barnabas, and to gain pre-eminence for himself. He wanted to be second to none. He managed to set Barnabas aside by laying a ridiculous blame on John Mark, and to set himself in as the sole representative, spokesman, interpreter and leader of Christianity. He contrived to throw Barnabas away from the main stream of Christianity into his native isolated island of Cyprus. He undertook his second missionary journey from 50 A D to
54 A D, and the third one from 54 A D to 58 A D, during which he received successes and sufferings. He led a dynamic life and was at last beheaded at Rome by Nero in 67 A D or 68 A D. He wrote many important missionary epistles during his missionary life, which form a considerable portion of the New Testament of the Bible.45

After separation from Paul, Barnabas continued to travel widely on his missionary services ‘as later St Paul mentions him as if he were known to Galatians (Gal. 2:1-13), the Corinthians (I. Cor. 9.6), and possibly the Colossians (Col. 4.6). He is the traditional founder of the Cypriot Church.’46 ‘Paul mentions him in I Cor 9:6 as one known for his sacrificial labours in the gospel. Paul’s words in Gal. 2:13 (‘Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation’) indicate Paul’s high esteem for Barnabas.’47 Paul indicates two points of his dissension from Barnabas. According to him:

Barnabas not only insisted on taking Mark on a second journey, but he had shown a wavering, along with Peter, on the issue of association with Gentiles, particularly eating with them at table (Gal. 2:11 ff). Peter was to Jerusalem, and the sympathies of Barnabas were there too.48

It inconceivable that everlasting separation can take place on such minor disputes between two close companions. As regards the dispute on the desertion of Mark, it is desirable that the version of the second party be also brought on record. John Mark explains in the ‘Acts of Barnabas’ that he stayed in Perga of Pam Phylia for about two months wishing to go to preach in the regions of the West, but probably the climatic conditions did not allow him. On his return to Antioch, he found Paul ill ‘from the toil of the journey.’ Mark states:

Who (Paul) also seeing me, was exceedingly grieved on account of my delaying in Pamphylia (...). And I gave repentance on my knees upon the earth to Paul, and he would not endure it. And when I remained for three Sabbaths in entreaty and prayer on my knees, I was unable to prevail upon him about myself; for his great grievance against me was on account of my keeping several parchments in Pamphylia.49

As regards the defection of Mark, both the versions basically agree, though not in details. But such a minor thing does not justify so grave an action by Paul. Only a highly ungrateful person can exhibit such a severe disregard towards a benefactor like Barnabas. It seems as if Paul wanted to get rid of Barnabas and exploited the incident as a lame excuse for his defection. There is another reason given by Mark, that is keeping several parchments. It looks to be something meaningful. As regard the wavering of Barnabas about Gentiles, it is also not so grave an issue. In fact, the serious issue was that of obedience and observance of the ‘Law of God’, which is manifest from Gal. 2:14, 16, 21, eg.:

(...) I [Paul] said unto Peter (...), why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? (...) a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ (...): for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (...): for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.50

Indeed Paul has tried to twist the discussions in such a way as to give them quite a different tint. Obviously, neither Peter nor Barnabas, the true disciples of Jesus Christ as they were, could share and accompany Paul in leading people astray and away from the law of the Lord, about which their teacher, Jesus Christ, had affirmed:

Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.51


N.B. The following important points will be dealth with in the next instalment of this article:

i) Barnabas as an author: Epistle to Hebrews; Epistle of Barnabas; His Acts; His Gospel.

ii) The story of the discovery of this Gospel.

iii) Proofs of his authorship of a Gospel.

iv) Rejection and Prohibition of his Gospel by the church and the reasons for them.

v) Prophecies in this Gospel regarding the Holy Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) by name.

vi) Conclusion.

1. Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob from Leah, d/o Laban; and one of the 12 tribes of Israel, which is the priestly tribe. Moses and Aaron belonged to the tribe of Levi (Ex. 2:1 ff).

2. F.L. Cross and E.V. Livingstone, the Oxford Dictionary of Christian Church, London, Oxf. Univ. Press, 1974, p.133.

3. ‘We have here the sending forth of seventy disciples, two and two, into divers parts of the country, to preach the gospel, and to work miracles in those places which Christ himself designed to visit, (...) they were the constant hearers of his doctrine, and witnesses of his miracles, and believed in him. (....) These seventy were those whom Peter speaks of as “the men which compained with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us”,’ -- Mathew Henry, A Commentary on the Holy Bible, London, Ward, Lock and Co., Warwick House, Salisbury Square, n.a., Vol. V, p. 392.

4. New Catholic Encyclopaedia, McGraw Hill Book Co., N.Y., 1966, Vol. II, p. 102.

5. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopaedia of Religious knowledge, London, Tunk and Wagnulls Co., n.a. p. 486.

6. An ancient city of Syria on the site of the modern Antakia. It lay 17 miles from the sea and its port city was Seleucia. It was founded by Seleucus in 300 B.C. and named after his father Antiochus. Its population in the 2nd century B.C. is estimated at 500,000.

7. Tarsus was a city of Asia Minor, the native city of Paul. He returned to Tarsus after he was forced to leave Jerusalem (Acts 9:30) and remained there until he was approached and taken to Antioch by Barnabas. It lies 20 miles from the sea on the S.E. coast of Turkey.

8. ‘Jupiter in 2 Mac 62 is Zeus, the SUPREME GOD in the Greek pantheon. Zeus Xenios (ib.), i.e. Zeus the god of hospitality and protector of strangers, was worshipped throughout the Greek world.’ (Hasting’s Dictionary of the Bible, T.T. Clark, Edinburgh, 1904, Vol. II, p. 825.)

9. ‘(...) for which the rendering “Hermes” of RVm is preferable. Thus Mercury (from merx = merchandise) the god of commerce and profit, was identified with the Greek Hermes, the patron of good luck. One of the many functions of the latter was that of messenger and spokesman of the gods. (...) He was also regarded as the inventor of speech and the god of eloquence.’ (ibid, Vol. III, p. 344-45.)

10. A foreigner; who is not a Jew or an Israelite by birth.

11. Cilicia was the coastal strip of the S.E. corner of Asia Minor, became a province in 57 A D, before which it was a part of the province of Syria.

12. The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, p. 356.

13. A city in Pamphylia (Perga).

14. Pamphylia is a region on the south coast of Asia Minor between Pisidia to the N., Lycia to the W., and Cilicia to the E.

15. ‘The Acts of Barnabas’ in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, edtd. by Alexandar Roberts D.D. and James Donaldson, LLD., Michigan, WM.B. Eerdmans Pbg. Co., 1951, Vol. VIII, p. 493.

16. Salamis was at that time the largest city and port of Cyprus. Its ruins lie N. of the modern city of Famagusta.

17. Prof. Bashir Mahmud Akhtar has given its details in his M. Phil. Thesis on the ‘Gospel of Barnabas’ with ref. to different Encyclopaedias and a manuscript of ‘Life of St. Barnabas, A Sketch for Nurses’, which he studied at British Museum Library.

18. New Catholic Encyc. Vol. II, p.102.

19. John L. Mckenzie, A Dictionary of the Bible, London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1984, p. 554.

20. M. Phil (Isl.) Thesis of B.M. Akhtar at A.I.O.U., Islamabad, p. 47.

21. James Strong, A Concise Dictionary of the words in the Greek Testament, The Methodist Book Concern, N.Y., 1984, p. 18, entry No. 921.

22. John L. Mckenzie, Dictionary of the Bible, p. 81.

23. The New Standard B. Dy., III Rvd. Edu., N.Y., Tunk and Wagnulls Co., 1936, p. 95.

24. New Schaff-Herzog Encyc., p. 486.

25. Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper’s B. Dy., Bangalore, Theological Publications in India, (T.P.I.), 1990, p. 40.

26. McKenzie’s Dy. of the B., p. 46.

27. Harper’s B.Dy., p. 40.

28. ibid p. 1054.

29. W. Smith, A Dictionary of the Bible, Regency Reference Library, Michigan, 1984, p. 692.

30. N. Cath. Enc., Vol. XIII, p. 219 f.

31. Cross, Dy. of Christian Church, p. 1257.

32. N. Schaff Herzog Encycl. of R.K., Vol. X, p. 421 (Article by F. Sieffert).

33. P. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, N.Y., Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888, p. 615.

34. Alexandar Roberts and James Donaldsons, the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, Michigan, WM. B. Eerdman Publishing Co., n.d., p. 133.

35. ibid, p. 137, footnote No.1.

36. op. cit., Vol. II, p. 354.

37. The Jewish Encyclopaedia, KTAV Pbg. House, nd., Vol. II, p. 537.

38. ibid, p. 537.

39. N. Catholic Encycl. Vol. II, p. 102.

40. N. Schaff-Herzog Encycl. of RK., Vol. II, 486.

41. The Encyclopaedia of Christianity, n.d., p. 568.

42. Wilhelm Schneemalcher, New Testament Apocrypha, Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1965, Vol. II, p. 67.

43. ibid, p. 37.

44. Gentile means a foreigner, not a Jew by birth, not a descendant of Isaac.

45. W. Smith’s Dy. of the B., p. 487-94. (Abridged and adapted).

46. The Oxford Dy. of Christian Church, p. 134.

47. The Enc. of Christianity, p. 568-69.

48. The Interpreter’s Dy. of the B., p. 356.

49. The ‘Acts of Barnabas’ in the Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. 8, p. 493.

50. The Bible, King James Version (A.V.), Galatians 2:14-21.

51. The Bible, Revised Standard Version, Mathew 5:17-20.



With thanks to Monthly Renaissance

Written/Published: Aug 1997

Author:   Abdus Sattar Ghauri
Uploaded on : Sep 05, 2016
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