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Notes from Limmud 2006

The Epistle of Panic: Fear of Jewish Law in Early Christianity

Nathan Jeffay

[Once again, disclaimer: all opinions are those of the speaker, not myself.]

The Epistle of Barnabas (full text) is "a somewhat mysterious and understudied document." For a start, it wasn't written by Barnabas. We don't know who wrote it, where it was written (possibly in Alexandria) or why. It was written sometime in the late first or early second century—the time when the Temple had just been destroyed, and Christianity—the religion of Paul—was emerging, and trying to sort out its theology. The Epistle of Barnabas did not make it into the canon of the NT, but it did have a profound influence.

Christianity is the religion which claims to be the new Israel. Early Christianity did not claim a theology different to Judaism. It claimed to be the new chosen people. But how then is it that the Jews are the people of the covenant? This is the question at the core of the Epistle of Barnabas.

The writer was very committed to Christianity, and felt that if the Christians were now in possession of the covenant, he needed to find an answer to the question of where the Jews fit into this.

This is one of the few surviving texts that shows the raw dread of the Christians for the continued survival and presence of Judaism. Christians in the early second century believed that Israel and the Jews have had it, and that they were members of the new chosen people. (See also the previous talk on the role of Jesus in Christian theology.) There's a metaphor in the NT for this (Matthew 22):

The kingdom of heaven is like unto a certain king, which made a marriage for his son, And sent forth his servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding: and they would not come. Again, he sent forth other servants, saying, Tell them which are bidden, Behold, I have prepared my dinner: my oxen and my fatlings are killed, and all things are ready: come unto the marriage. But they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise: And the remnant took his servants, and entreated them spitefully, and slew them. But when the king heard thereof, he was wroth: and he sent forth his armies, and destroyed those murderers, and burned up their city. Then saith he to his servants, The wedding is ready, but they which were bidden were not worthy. Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage. So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests.

The city representing the Jews is burned—and this indeed went on to happen to Jerusalem in 70CE.

This is all well and good provided the Jews now bow out of the picture to give way to Christianity. But this didn't happen; not only were the Jews still there, but it looked like they were going to survive. The Jews were going to Yavne and beginning the codification of the Oral Law. Early Christians had tremendous difficulty with this.

For many years Christian scholars looked at the Epistle and tried work out whether it was about the destruction of the Temple, about Jewish Law, or about the Covenant. In actuality, these various concerns came together, as shall be demonstrated.

The puzzle of fasting in Barnabas

Barnabas, Ch. 3:

To them he says then again concerning these things, "Why do ye fast for me, saith the Lord, so that your voice is heard this day with a cry! This is not the fast which I chose, saith the Lord, not a man humbling his soul;

Nor though ye bend your neck as a hoop, and put on sackcloth, and make your bed of ashes, not even so shall ye call it an acceptable fast."

But to us he says, "Behold this is the fast which I chose," saith the Lord, "loose every bond of wickedness, set loose the fastenings of harsh agreements, send away the bruised in forgiveness, and tear up every unjust contract, give to the hungry thy bread, and if thou seest a naked man clothe him, bring the homeless into thy house, and if thou seest a humble man, despise him not, neither thou nor any of the household of thy seed.

Then shall thy light break forth as the dawn, and thy robes shall rise quickly, and thy righteousness shall go before thee, and the glory of God shall surround thee."

"Then thou shalt cry and God shall hear thee; while thou art still speaking He shall say, `Lo I am here'; if thou puttest away from thee bondage, and violence, and the word of murmuring, and dost give to the poor thy bread with a cheerful heart, and dost pity the soul that is abased."

So then, brethren, the long-suffering one foresaw that the people whom He prepared in his beloved should believe in guilelessness, and made all things plain to us beforehand that we should not be shipwrecked by conversion to their law.

This is saying fasting does not work. The author brings Scriptural proofs, from Isaiah 58. For a long time scholars held this to be about Yom Kippur [the Jewish Day of Atonement]. From the author's perspective not only did the Jews carry on after their Temple was destroyed, but even now [that guilt offerings cannot be brought] they think that on Yom Kippur they can be forgiven by fasting!

But the speaker doesn't think this isn't the case. There is a long section in the middle of Barnabas about Yom Kippur. There it talks about the scape-goat and interprets it as being about Jesus, and brings proofs, and there is a polemic against Yom Kippur. Furthermore, this is a sackcloth and ashes fact; it does not fit Yom Kippur [in which one dresses in white, to be like the angels].

In the NT Jesus comes into conflict all the time with the Pharisees, on the grounds that they are saying suchty-such is part of the law, but was in actuality an addition to the law. What first and second century Christians had a big issue with was innovative rabbinic practices. The reason the Epistle of Barnabas is so inciteful is because the author realises this is what's going to sustain Judaism. Now, in Luke (5:33) it says that the Pharisees—not the Jews—fast. How often did they fast? תחנון in the modern service is tied to a certain practice called the מעמדות. Lay people would be brought into the Temple Service, and would fast on the days beforehand, from Monday to Thursday. Today some people fast on Monday and Thursday. This was a practice amongst the Pharisees of the time.

For the Jews/Pharisees, fasting epitomises the idea that your action can have spiritual significance. In Christianity it was not your actions that had significance, but the grace that Jesus brought upon the world.

Now, some Christians adopted this twice-weekly fasting; it took the name of the Stationes. So, could it be that the Epistle is an polemic internal to Christianity? The language of the Epistle does not support this.

An often overlooked factor here is מסכת תענית—the tractate of the Talmud on fasting. Jewish Law came after the destruction of the Temple to take the place of Temple service. The Torah was given in Sinai; the home of the Torah when the Temple stood was in the Holy of Holies. But consider (Micah 4:2) כי מציון תצא תורה ודבר ה׳ מירושלים: "For the Torah shall go forth from Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem". Surely the Torah did not go forth from Jerusalem; it went forth from Sinai! One thing about Judaism is its ability to adapt. The Torah got established into Jerusalem.

What the Mishna says about this is as follows:

Taanit 4:6 תענית ד ו
Five things befell our fathers on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and five on the ninth of Av. On the seventeenth of Tammuz the tablets were broken, the tamid offering was annulled, the city was breached and Aspostemos burned the Torah and placed an idol in the sancuary. On the ninth of Av it was decreed against our fathers that they would not enter the Land, and the Temple was destroyed for the firest time and the second time, and Betar was taken and the city was ploughed up. When Av enters, we reduce in joy. חמשה דברים ארעו את אבותינו בשבעה עשר בתמוז וחמשה בתשעה באב׃ בשבעה עשר בתמוז נשתברו הלוחות ובטל התמיד והבקעה העיר ושרף אפסטמוס את התורה והעמיד צלם בהיכל׃ בתשעה באב נגזר על אבותינו שלא יכנסו לארץ וחרב הבית בראשונה ובשניה ונלכדה ביתר ונחרשה העיר׃ משנכנס אב ממעטין בשמחה׃

Not only did the Jews hold all the abovelisted beliefs, but they had the chutzpah to mourn for their Temple, and to predict that the Messiah would come on the ninth of Av!

Now consider when the events in the above lists took place:

Tammuz Av
Biblical Biblical
First Temple First Temple
? Second Temple
? Post Second Temple
? Post Second Temple

Perhaps on purpose the rabbis left unresolved the מחלוקות [unresolved disputes] in the Mishna as to when the questioned events happened, but they mixed it all up to create a continuum of Jewish history for the two fasts: some of it has a Biblical significance, some a significance from the First Temple and some from the second Temple. Christian theologians were saying it's all over: the Temple is destroyed, you're not the Chosen People any more—and the author of Barnabas does this by challenging the entire continuum. He's saying the Jews never had the covenant.

The Sabbath

Barnabas, Ch. 15:

Furthermore it was written concerning the Sabbath in the ten words which he spake on Mount Sinai face to face to Moses. "Sanctify also the Sabbath ofthe Lord with pure hands and a pure heart."

And in another place he says, "If my sons keepthe Sabbath, then will I bestow my mercy upon them."

He speaks of the Sabbath at the beginning of the Creation, "And God made in six days the works of his hands and on the seventh day he made an end, and rested in it and sanctified it."

Notice, children, what is the meaning of "He made an end in six days"? He means this: that the Lord will make an end of everything in six thousand years, for a day with him means a thousand years [Psalms 90:4]. And he himself is my witness when he says, "Lo, the day ofthe Lord shall be as a thousand years." So then, children, in six days, that is in six thousand years, everything will be completed.

"And he rested on the seventh day." This means, when his Son comes he will destroy the time of the wicked one, and will judge the godless, and will change the sun and the moon and the stars, and then he will truly rest on the seventh day.

Furthermore he says, "Thou shalt sanctify it with clean hands and a pure heart." If, then, anyone has at present the power to keep holy the day which God made holy, by being pure in heart, we are altogether deceived.

See that we shall indeed keep it holy at that time, when we enjoy true rest, when we shall be able to do so because we have been made righteous ourselves and have received the promise, when there is no more sin, but all things have been made new by the Lord: then we shall be able to keep it holy because we ourselves have first been made holy.

Furthermore he says to them, "Your new moons and the sabbaths I cannot away with." Do you see what he means? The present sabbaths are not acceptable to me, but that which I have made, in which I will give rest to all things and make the beginning of an eighth day, that is the beginning of another world.

Wherefore we also celebrate with gladness the eighth day in which Jesus also rose from the dead, and was made manifest, and ascended into Heaven.

What is he saying here? He's trying to change things; this may be the earliest reference to the Christians observing the Sabbath on the eighth day (Sunday) rather than Saturday. He's also saying that you don't have to keep Shabbos now.

The issue he takes with Jews observing the Sabbath. He's saying they think that observing the Sabbath brings purity and brings them close to G-d. Rather it's the other way around; there's a purity which is prerequisite. If you're pure you don't need the actions; if you're not, you go through the intermediary of someone who is pure, namely Jesus.

Why is the Sabbath so central here? Why was it such an issue that somebody concerned with the survival of Jewish practice should be concerned about? Shabbos was extremely closely connected to the Temple. In the Torah, the Temple and Shabbos are connected very closely: "You shall keep my Sabbaths and reverence my sanctuary; I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:30).
[second thing]

The two institutions which allowed Israel to get close to G-d were the Temple and the Sabbath. Furthermore, both of these allowed ordinary Jews to take their ordinary actions and elevate them to a spiritual level. The whole concept that the actions of the Jews could be spiritually significant even once the Temple was destroyed was what troubled the author of Barnabas.

Now the Temple was destroyed, but the actions prohibited on the Sabbath were still those that went into the construction of the Tabernacle—the predecessor to the Temple. And many things which happened in the Temple had their focus moved into the Sabbath. Jews do not believe in sanctified space now the Temple is destroyed, but rather sanctified time. Mishna Peah opens "What things are holy?" [Well, figuratively, at least] It provides a list then says, "The study of Torah is significant against everything." All the significance of the Temple had to be moved to other carriers. The prime one was Shabbos, and alongside that was the study of Torah.

This shift was already ongoing during the final days of the Second Temple.

Did the sacrifices ever have validity?

Barnabas Chapter 2:

Seeing then that the days are evil, and that the worker of evil himself is in power, we ought to give heed to ourselves, and seek out the ordinances of the Lord.

Fear then, and patience are the helpers of our faith, and long-suffering and continence are our allies.

While then these things remain in holiness towards the Lord, wisdom, prudence, understanding, and knowledge rejoice with them.

For he has made plain to us through all the Prophets that he needs neither sacrifices nor burnt-offerings nor oblations, saying in one place,

"What is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord. I am full of burnt offerings and desire not the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls and goats, not even when ye come to appear before me. For who has required these things at your hands? Henceforth shall ye tread my court no more. If ye bring flour, it is vain. Incense is an abomination to me. I cannot away with your new moons and sabbaths."

These things then he abolished in order that the new law of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is without the yoke of necessity, might have its oblation not made by man.

And again he says to them, "Did I command your fathers when they came out of the land of Egypt to offer me burnt offerings and sacrifices?

Nay, but rather did I command them this: Let none of you cherish any evil in his heart against his neighbour, and love not a false oath."

We ought then to understand, if we are not foolish, the loving intention of our Father, for he speaks to us, wishing that we should not err like them, but seek how we may make our offering to him.

To us then he speaks thus: "Sacrifice for the Lord is a broken heart, a smell of sweet savour to the Lord is a heart that glorifieth him that made it." We ought, therefore, brethren, carefully to enquire concerning our salvation, in order that the evil one may not achieve a deceitful entry into us and hurl us away from our life.

The Temple

Barnabas Chapter 16:

I will also speak with you concerning the Temple, and show how the wretched men erred by putting their hope on the building, and not on the God who made them, and is the true house of God.

For they consecrated him in the Temple almost like the heathen. But learn how the Lord speaks, in bringing it to naught, "Who has measured the heaven with a span, or the earth with his outstretched hand? Have not I? saith the Lord. Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool, what house will ye build for me, or what is the place of my rest?" You know that their hope was vain.

Furthermore he says again, "Lo, they who destroyed this temple shall themselves build it."

That is happening now. For owing to the war it was destroyed by the enemy; at present even the servants of the enemy will build it up again.

Again, it was made manifest that the city and the temple and the people of Israel were to be delivered up. For the Scripture says, "And it shall come to pass in the last days that the Lord shall deliver the sheep of his pasture, and the sheep-fold, and their tower to destruction." And it took place according to what the Lord said.

But let us inquire if a temple of God exists. Yes, it exists, where he himself said that he makes and perfects it. For it is written, "And it shall come to pass when the week is ended that a temple of God shall be built gloriously in the name of the Lord."

I find then that a temple exists. Learn then how it will be built in the name of the Lord. Before we believed in God the habitation of our heart was corrupt and weak, like a temple really built with hands, because it was full of idolatry, and was the house of demons through doing things which were contrary to God.

"But it shall be built in the name of the Lord." Now give heed, in order that the temple of the Lord may be built gloriously. Learn in what way. When we received the remission of sins, and put our hope on the Name, we became new, being created again from the beginning; wherefore God truly dwells in us, in the habitation which we are.

How? His word of faith, the calling of his promise, the wisdom of the ordinances, the commands of the teaching, himself prophesying in us, himself dwelling in us, by opening the door of the temple (that is the mouth) to us, giving repentance to us, and thus he leads us, who have been enslaved to death into the incorruptible temple.

For he who desires to be saved looks not at the man, but at him who dwells and speaks in him, and is amazed at him, for he has never either heard him speak such words with his mouth, nor has he himself ever desired to hear them. This is a spiritual temple being built for the Lord.

This Epistle seems to be pairing up these themes: sacrifice (ch. 2) and fasting (ch.3)—the staples of Jewish life before and after the destruction of the Temple respectively; the latter of which wass also a way of commemorating the Temple.

Likewise Sabbath (ch. 15) and the Temple (ch. 16), the former coming to take the place of the latter. Also the themes of keeping shabbos bringing on the messiah and restoration of the Temple.

Barnabas, ch. 9:

For he speaks again concerning the ears, how he circumcised our hearts; for the Lord says in the Prophet: "In the hearing of the ear they obey me." And again he says, "They who are afar off shall hear clearly, they shall know the things that I have done," and "Circumcise your hearts, saith the Lord."

And again he says, "Hear, O Israel, thus saith the Lord thy God," and again the Spirit of the Lord prophesies, "Who is he that will live for ever? Let him hear the voice of my servant."

And again he says, "Hear, O heaven, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord hath spoken these things for a testimony." And again he says, "Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of this people." And again he says, "Hear, O children, a voice of one crying in the wilderness." So then he circumcised our hearing in order that we should hear the word and believe.

But moreover the circumcision in which they trusted has been abolished. For he declared that circumcision was not of the flesh, but they erred because an evil angel was misleading them.

He says to them, "Thus saith the Lord your God" (here I find a commandment), "Sow not among thorns, be circumcised to your Lord." And what does he say? "Circumcise the hardness of your heart, and stiffen not your neck." Take it again: "Behold, saith the Lord, all the heathen are uncircumcised in the foreskin, but this people is uncircumcised in heart."

But you will say, surely the people has received circumcision as a seal? Yes, but every Syrian and Arab and all priests of the idols have been circumcised; are then these also within their covenant?—indeed even the Egyptians belong to the circumcision.

Learn fully then, children of love, concerning all things, for Abraham, who first circumcised, did so looking forward in the spirit to Jesus, and had received the doctrines of three letters.

For it says, "And Abraham circumcised from his household eighteen men and three hundred." What then was the knowledge that was given to him? Notice that he first mentions the eighteen, and after a pause the three hundred. The eighteen is I (=ten) and H (=8)—you have Jesus—and because the cross was destined to have grace in the T he says "and three hundred." So he indicates Jesus in the two letters and the cross in the other.

He knows this who placed the gift of his teaching in our hearts. No one has heard a more excellent lesson from me, but I know that you are worthy.

It's not just that the Jews do not have the covenant now. The Jews never had the covenant. This is the new idea in the Epistle of Barnabas.

Pay particular attention to v.8 (the second last paragraph). If all the laws are [?sc. abrogated], how come Abraham circumcised his household?

Chs. 4 and 14 give a hint as to why the author needed to do this.

Chapter 4:

We ought, then, to enquire earnestly into the things which now are, and to seek out those which are able to save us. Let us then utterly flee from all the works of lawlessness, lest the works of lawlessness overcome us, and let us hate the error of this present time, that we may be loved in that which is to come.

Let us give no freedom to our souls to have power to walk with sinners and wicked men, lest we be made like to them.

The final stumbling block is at hand of which it was written, as Enoch says, "For to this end the Lord has cut short the times and the days, that his beloved should make haste and come to his inheritance."

And the Prophet also says thus: "Ten kingdoms shall reign upon the earth and there shall rise up after them a little king, who shall subdue three of the kings under one."

Daniel says likewise concerning the same: "And I beheld the fourth Beast, wicked and powerful and fiercer than all the beasts of the sea, and that ten horns sprang from it, and out of them a little excrescent horn, and that it subdued under one three of the great horns."

You ought then to understand. And this also I ask you, as being one of yourselves, and especially as loving you all above my own life; take heed to yourselves now, and be not made like unto some, heaping up your sins and saying that the covenant is both theirs and ours.

It is ours: but in this way did they finally lose it when Moses had just received it, for the Scripture says: "And Moses was in the mount fasting forty days and forty nights, and he received the covenant from the Lord, tables of stone written with the finger of the hand of the Lord."

But they turned to idols and lost it. For thus saith the Lord: "Moses, Moses, go down quickly, for thy people, whom thou broughtest forth out of the land of Egypt, have broken the Law." And Moses understood and cast the two tables out of his hands, and their covenant was broken, in order that the covenant of Jesus the Beloved should be sealed in our hearts in hope of his faith.

(And though I wish to write much, I hasten to write in devotion to you, not as a teacher, but as it becomes one who loves to leave out nothing of that which we have.) Wherefore let us pay heed in the last days, for the whole time of our life and faith will profit us nothing, unless we resist, as becomes the sons of God in this present evil time, against the offences which are to come, that the Black One may have no opportunity of entry.

Let us flee from all vanity, let us utterly hate the deeds of the path of wickedness. Do not by retiring apart live alone as if you were already made righteous, but come together and seek out the common good.

For the Scripture says: "Woe to them who are prudent for themselves and understanding in their own sight." Let us be spiritual, let us be a temple consecrated to God, so far as in us lies let us "exercise ourselves in the fear" of God, and let us strive to keep his commandments in order that we may rejoice in his ordinances.

The Lord will "judge" the world "without respect of persons." Each will receive according to his deeds. If he be good his righteousness will lead him; if he be evil the reward of iniquity is before him.

Let us never rest as though we were `called' and slumber in our sins, lest the wicked ruler gain power over us and thrust us out from the Kingdom of the Lord.

And consider this also, my brethren, when you see that after such great signs and wonders were wrought in Israel they were even then finally abandoned;—let us take heed lest as it was written we be found "many called but few chosen."

This is saying the Jews lost the covenant immediately it was given, with the sin of the Golden Calf! The same message is repeated in Chapter 14:

So it is. But let us see whether the covenant which he sware to the fathers to give to the people—whether he has given it. He has given it. But they were not worthy to receive it because of their sins.

For the Prophet says, "And Moses was fasting on Mount Sinai, to receive the covenant of the Lord for the people, forty days and forty nights. And Moses received from the Lord the two tables, written by the finger of the hand of the Lord in the Spirit"; and Moses took them, and carried them down to give them to the people.

And the Lord said to Moses, "Moses, Moses, go down quickly, for thy people whom thou didst bring out of the land of Egypt have broken the Law. And Moses perceived that they had made themselves again molten images, and he cast them out of his hands, and the tables of the covenant of the Lord were broken."

Moses received it, but they were not worthy. But learn how we received it. Moses received it when he was a servant, but the Lord himself gave it to us, as the people of the inheritance, by suffering for our sakes.

And it was made manifest both that the tale of their sins should be completed in their sins, and that we through Jesus, the Lord who inherits the covenant, should receive it, for he was prepared for this purpose, that when he appeared he might redeem from darkness our hearts which were already paid over to death, and given over to the iniquity of error, and by his word might make a covenant with us.

For it is written that the Father enjoins on him that he should redeem us from darkness and prepare a holy people for himself.

The Prophet therefore says, "I the Lord thy God did call thee in righteousness, and I will hold thy hands, and I will give thee strength, and I have given thee for a covenant of the people, for a light to the Gentiles, to open the eyes of the blind, and to bring forth from their fetters those that are bound and those that sit in darkness out of the prison house." We know then whence we have been redeemed.

Again the Prophet says, "Lo, I have made thee a light for the Gentiles, to be for salvation unto the ends of the earth, thus saith the Lord the God who did redeem thee."

And again the Prophet saith, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the Gospel of grace to the humble, he sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim delivery to the captives, and sight to the blind, to announce a year acceptable to the Lord, and a day of recompense, to comfort all who mourn."

Don't say both the Jews and the Christians can own the covenant, or that the Jews had the covenant but then lost it. The author of the Epistle claims they never had it, and this had quite a lot of influence on early Christianity.

In the centre of the Epistle there are certain themes: Yom Kippur, the [The speaker went too fast for me to get the rest of this sentence, I'm afraid.] These occupy the centrepiece. On either side, ch.s 4 and 14 are strong proofs that the Jews were never in possession of the covenant. And in the middle the author had a go at the institutions sustaining Judaism until now—food laws, circumcision, etc—at the same time as underlining the important of Jesus and the Cross. Thus the Epistle has the following overall structure:

Sacrifices (ch.2) } polemic against Jewish cultic life before 70 CE
} polemic against institutions to sustain Judaism now
Fasting (ch.3)
  Covenant (ch.4) Argues that the Jews never had a covenant with G-d
    Central chapters
  Covenant (ch.14) Argues that the Jews never had a covenant with G-d
Sabbath (ch. 15) } polemic against institutions to sustain Judaism now
} polemic against Jewish cultic life before 70 CE
Temple (ch.16)

One thing, then, we can be proud of nowadays is that the institutions the author identified as being set up to sustain Judaism after the destruction of the Temple did indeed do so, and are still going strong today.

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