Chapter Six

The Gospel of Barnabas

The Spurious Gospel in Islamic Apologetics

6.1   Muslim Interest in the Gospel of Barnabas

Muslim: Why has the Christian world hidden the Gospel of Barnabas? This illuminating book proves that Jesus was a true Prophet of Islam, proving that he never claimed to be the Son of God and that he predicted the coming of our Prophet by name.

In witness with Muslims a Christian evangelist will often find that they raise the subject of the Gospel of Barnabas. With great confidence they will claim that it is the only reliable record of the life of Jesus Christ and that we have deliberately concealed it because it shows Jesus to have been the prophet the Qur’an declares him to have been. If you should express surprise to hear that such a book actually exists they will press home their contentions all the more, declaring that your ignorance of the book is a sure sign that the Church has forcefully suppressed its teaching.

The History of the Barnabas Gospel

In his Preliminary Discourse to his translation of the Qur’an first published in 1734 AD, George Sale first drew the attention of the Christian world generally to a Gospel attributed to St. Barnabas which, he said, records the life of Jesus in a manner very different from that found in the four Biblical Gospels but corresponding to the traditions of Muhammad in the Qur’an. He mentioned a Spanish translation in the possession of the Moriscoes in Africa (which no longer exists apart from a few known extracts), and an Italian translation in the library of Prince Eugene of Savoy. From this edition Lonsdale and Laura Ragg published a translation into English which was published in 1907 with various notes, proving Sale’s contention that it is a forgery.

Since the beginning of this century, when an Arabic translation became well known in the Islamic world, Muslim scholars and writers have made much of the book. In 1973 the Raggs’ English translation of the Gospel was first published in the Muslim world. Since then approximately 100 000 copies have been printed in Pakistan. It has caused considerable excitement as it appears to finally prove, from Christian origins, that Jesus was the ‘Isa of Islam and that Muhammad was indeed to be the final messenger of God to all mankind.

Muslims fondly suppose that this Gospel has been denounced in the Christian world solely because of its Islamic character. It is truer to say that this is the only real reason why it has attracted so much publicity in the Muslim world. The external and internal evidences around the book give a far better reason for rejecting it. They prove conclusively that it was compiled only a few centuries ago as a deliberate forgery to impose both Qur’anic and traditional Muslim dogmas on the life of Jesus as it is described in the four genuine Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Unlike these books which are between twenty and forty pages each, the Gospel of Barnabas is 273 pages long.

Much of its teaching is repetitive of Biblical teaching, though adapted to suit Islamic preferences. For example, when ten lepers were healed on one occasion by Jesus, the only one to return was a Samaritan who fell at his feet, giving him thanks (Luke 17:16). The Gospel of Barnabas conveniently states that he was an Ishmaelite! The rest of its teaching, however, consists of legendary and fanciful stories and forged teachings of Jesus of no historical value at all. Let us consider a few of its typical Islamic teachings.

Islamic Teachings of the Barnabas Gospel

1.   Jesus Denied that he was the Son of God

The Gospel of Barnabas repeats the incident where Jesus asked his disciples, firstly, who the multitudes thought he was and, secondly, who they thought he was (Matthew 16:13-20). When Peter answered that he was the Son of God, Jesus responded that he was blessed because his Father in heaven had revealed this to him. In the Gospel of Barnabas, however, while Peter is correctly recorded as declaring that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, the answer of Jesus to him was totally different.

Jesus is supposed to have declared to Peter "Begone and depart from me, because thou art the devil and seekest to cause me offence!" He then is reputed to have told all his disciples to beware because "I have won from God a great curse against those who believe this" (Gospel of Barnabas, para 70).

2.   Judas was Crucified in Place of Jesus

The Muslim doctrine that Jesus was taken alive from the earth just before he was due to be arrested while someone else was made to look like him and was crucified in his place is repeated in this Gospel, only it specifically makes the victim Judas Iscariot. It was only some centuries after Muhammad that the Muslim world first taught this theory, invented to justify the crucifixion of a bystander who might otherwise have seemed to be an innocent substitute.

The Gospel of Barnabas teaches that when Judas arrived with soldiers to arrest Jesus, God sent four angels to take Jesus out of the world into the third heaven while Judas "was so changed in speech and in face to be like Jesus" that Barnabas and the other disciples believed him to actually be Jesus (Gospel of Barnabas, para 216). Judas was duly crucified in his place.

3.   Jesus Predicted the Coming of Muhammad by Name

In many places Jesus is said to have declared the coming of Muhammad by name, as in this statement made after he said he would first have to endure the infamy that he had been crucified: "But when Mohammed shall come, the sacred messenger of God, that infamy shall be taken away" (Gospel of Barnabas, para 112).

These are some of the central Islamic features of the Gospel of Barnabas where its teaching contradicts the contents of the four Biblical Gospels. Numerous other Islamic influences can be found throughout the book, such as the claim that the covenantal promise to Abraham was made in Ishmael and not Isaac (para 191), explaining the Muslim conviction that this is the only true Gospel.

6.2   Medieval Origins Proving it is a Forgery

Muslim: Among the books discredited by the Gelasian Decree in the sixth century after Christ was the Gospel of Barnabas. This proves that it existed at that time. It was only rejected because it told the truth about Jesus’ life and teaching.

There were numerous apocryphal Gospels, Epistles and other forgeries similar in style to the authentic New Testament scriptures that were rejected by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD and in the subsequent Decretum Gelasianum of which one was titled the Gospel of Barnabas. No historical record whatsoever exists to show what sort of book it was or what it taught. From a study of the contents of this Islamic Gospel so strongly promoted in the Muslim world, however, it soon becomes obvious that these two cannot possibly be the same works. There are many proofs that the latter is a 16th century forgery.

Medieval Sources of the Gospel of Barnabas

It is not hard to prove to Muslims that this Gospel was first compiled many centuries after the times of both Jesus and Muhammad. Three of examples of medieval influences will be considered here.

1.   The Centenary Year of Jubilee

One of the laws Moses gave to the people of Israel was that a jubilee year was to observed twice every century when slaves would be liberated and debts cancelled. God ordained it in these words:

A jubilee year shall that fiftieth year be to you. Leviticus 25:11

About 1300 AD Pope Boniface the Eighth decreed that the jubilee year should be reintroduced but that it should only be held at the turn of each century, that is, once every hundred years. After his death, however, Pope Clemens the Sixth decreed that the jubilee year should revert to every fifty years following the Biblical decree and there was talk thereafter of reducing it further. In the Gospel of Barnabas this saying is attributed to Jesus:

And then through all the world will God be worshipped, and mercy received, insomuch that the year of jubilee, which now cometh every hundred years, shall by the Messiah be reduced to every year in every place. Gospel of Barnabas, para 82

The anachronism is obvious – the author of the Gospel of Barnabas could only have spoken of the jubilee year coming every hundred years if he knew of the decree of Pope Boniface. Whoever wrote this Gospel makes Jesus repeat a proclamation which was only made at least thirteen centuries after his time! This proves that the Gospel is a forgery of not earlier than the 14th century AD.

2.   Quotations from Dante’s Inferno

Dante was an Italian who lived at about the same time as Pope Boniface. He wrote a well-known classic titled Divina Comedia – the "Divine Comedy". It was a fantasy about hell, purgatory and heaven according to the beliefs of his time. Many passages in the Gospel of Barnabas show a dependence on his work, one of which is a saying attributed to Jesus of the prophets of old:

Readily and with gladness they went to their death, so as not to offend against the law of God given by Moses his servant, and go and serve false and lying gods. Gospel of Barnabas, para 23

The expression dei falsi e lugiardi (false and lying gods) is found elsewhere in the Gospel of Barnabas. Jesus is recorded as again using this phrase (para 78) while Herod is also said by the author to have "adored the false and lying gods" (para 217). The cliche is found in neither the Bible nor the Qur’an but is a direct quote from Dante! (Inferno 1.72).

In its actual descriptions of heaven and hell the Gospel of Barnabas follows Dante exactly while contradicting the Qur’an. Jesus is said to have declared to Simon Peter:

Know ye therefore that hell is one, yet hath seven centres one below another. Hence, even as sin is of seven kinds, for as seven gates of hell hath Satan generated it: so there are seven punishments therein. Gospel of Barnabas, para 135

Dante gives precisely this description in the fifth and sixth cantos of his Inferno. Speaking of the heavens the Gospel of Barnabas states that they are nine and that Paradise itself is greater than all of them together (para 178). This again parallels Dante who also speaks of nine heavens with an Empyrean, a tenth heaven above them all. These depictions of heaven, however, directly contradict the Qur’an which teaches that after Allah had created the earth, he fashioned paradise as seven heavens (Surah 2:29).

3.   The Medieval Environment of the Gospel

Other passages from the Gospel show that the author was more at home in the climate and seasons of southern Europe than in the land of Palestine. He makes Jesus speak of how beautiful the world is in summer-time when the harvest and fruit abound (para 169). This is a fair description of Italy in summer but not of Palestine where the rain falls in winter and the fields are parched in summer.

Likewise the Gospel of Barnabas speaks of storing wine in wooden wine-casks (para 152), a common practice in medieval Europe but not in first-century Palestine where wine was stored in skins (Matthew 9:17). Further proof of the author’s ignorance of the geography of Palestine is found in this statement:

Having arrived at the city of Nazareth the seamen spread through the city all that Jesus had wrought. Gospel of Barnabas, para 20

In this passage Nazareth is represented as a harbour on the Lake of Galilee. After this Jesus is said to have gone "up to Capernaum". Every disciple of Jesus would have known that Capernaum was the city on the shores of the lake while Nazareth is up in the hills. Jesus would have gone up from Capernaum to Nazareth, not the other way around as the Gospel of Barnabas has it.

These evidences all prove that the Gospel of Barnabas is a forgery compiled in southern Europe sometime around the 16th century after Christ. Let us proceed to examine other evidences that discount the authenticity of this book that calls itself a Gospel.

6.3   Other Evidences Against its Authenticity

Muslim: The Gospel of Barnabas must be the true Gospel since it teaches that Jesus was not to be the final messenger of God to mankind but that this honour would be reserved to our holy Prophet Muhammad who he said would follow after him.

There are numerous other evidences against the authenticity of the Gospel of Barnabas, some of which derive from the very passages where Jesus is said to have foretold the coming of Muhammad. It is very interesting to note that this Gospel makes no mention of John the Baptist – a striking omission, considering the attention given to him as a contemporary prophet to Jesus in the Biblical Gospels. Instead sayings of John are attributed to Jesus, such as "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’" (John 1:23) which is ascribed to Jesus in the Gospel of Barnabas together with the whole conversation that surrounds it (para 42). The author of this Gospel conveniently, but very erroneously, makes Jesus say of Muhammad what John actually said of him.

The Messiah – Jesus or Muhammad?

John the Baptist denied that he was the Messiah when challenged by the Jewish leaders (John 1:20). The Gospel of Barnabas makes Jesus deny the same thing in much the same words:

Jesus confessed and said the truth: ‘I am not the Messiah ... I am indeed sent to the house of Israel as a prophet of salvation; but after me shall come the Messiah’. Gospel of Barnabas, paras 42, 82

Who was to be the coming Messiah, then? Elsewhere the Gospel makes Jesus say "The name of the Messiah is Admirable ... God said: Wait Mohammed; for thy sake I will to create paradise ... Mohammed is his blessed name" (para 97). Here the author of the Gospel of Barnabas completely overreaches himself for the Qur’an clearly states, no less than eleven times, that Jesus alone is the Messiah. The Bible confirms this too on many occasions (John 4:26, Matthew 16:20) and one quotation from the Qur’an will be sufficient to prove the point:

O Mary! Lo! Allah gives you glad tidings of a Word from him, whose name is the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, illustrious in the world and the hereafter. Surah 3:45

The title here is Al-Masih, "the Messiah", and Jesus himself is called Al-Masihu Isa, "the Messiah Jesus", elsewhere in the book (Surah 4:171). So the Gospel of Barnabas incontrovertibly contradicts the Qur’an when it declares that Muhammad was to be the Messiah. No Muslim can be true to his own holy book while at the same time trying to defend the Gospel of Barnabas as an authentic Gospel.

What is very interesting here is the discovery that this Gospel not only contradicts the Qur’an but also itself. In the prologue to the book it speaks of "Jesus the Nazarene, called Christ" and states that it is the "true Gospel of Jesus, called Christ". The author does not seem to have been aware that Messiah and Christ are interchangeable terms, meaning the same thing. The latter derives from the Greek word Christos which is a translation of the original Hebrew word Mashiah.

Contradictions between the Barnabas Gospel and the Qur’an

There are other contradictions between the Qur’an and the Gospel of Barnabas which cannot be satisfactorily explained. One relates to the birth of Jesus as it is told in each book. The Gospel says this about the moment of his delivery:

The virgin was surrounded by a light exceeding bright and brought forth her son without pain. Gospel of Barnabas, para 3

This statement has no Biblical equivalent but parallels Catholic beliefs of the Middle Ages. It is further evidence that the Gospel of Barnabas is a forgery composed up to fifteen centuries after the time of Christ. What is significant for Muslims, however, is that it totally disagrees with the Qur’an which says of Mary and the birth of Jesus:

And the pangs of childbirth drove her unto the trunk of the palm tree. Surah 19:23

There is little room here for Muslims to maintain their cherished belief that they have, in the Gospel of Barnabas, an original Gospel which is consistent with the Qur’an and Islamic tradition. It is not surprising that many Muslim scholars have, in recent times, rejected the Gospel as a forgery. Nonetheless there are still many Muslim writers, often well aware of the overwhelming evidences against it, who still promote it as an authentic text.

Another typical contradiction between the two books is found in the statement in the Gospel of Barnabas about the angels of God on the last days before the great Judgment: "The fifteenth day the holy angels shall die, and God alone shall remain alive" (para 53). The Qur’an knows nothing about the death of angels but states that eight of them shall bear the throne of Allah on the Last Day (Surah 69:17).

Again the Gospel of Barnabas states that on the thirteenth day of the final period before the end, all mankind will die and every living thing on the earth shall perish (para 53) whereas the Qur’an states that men will be alive until the last day, the great Day of Judgment, when the trumpet shall sound and "every man will have enough concerns on that day to make him heedless of others" (Surah 80:37).

In witness with Muslims it should be easy to get the Gospel of Barnabas dispensed with once these evidences are produced to them. The book is a counterfeit of no value which has been promoted by Muslims as a red herring across the path of genuine Christian-Muslim apologetics.

6.4   The Original Authorship of the Gospel

Muslim: Barnabas was known to have been one of the great disciples of Jesus. How can you even contemplate trying to discredit a Gospel written by him? If he was one of the twelve, why do you Christians conveniently reject everything he wrote?

One of the great questions about this Gospel is indeed its original authorship. Who wrote it? Although it is obvious that the book is a forgery of relatively recent times it is important nonetheless to prove to Muslims that Barnabas could never have been its author. Throughout the book its author is said to have been one of the twelve disciples of Jesus yet it is well known that the real Barnabas only appears on the scene after the death and resurrection of Jesus and, furthermore, that he only received his name as a result of an incident that took place much later. The evidence is found in the following passage:

Thus Joseph who was surnamed by the apostles Barnabas (which means, Son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Acts 4:36-37

It was only when this man Joseph encouraged the early Church by donating the proceeds of the sale of his property to the disciples of Jesus that he was given the surname bar-nabas. Thereafter he is a prominent personality in the record of the initial development of the Church and is mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (Galatians 2:9). He was most certainly not one of the original twelve, however, whose names are all recorded in two of the Gospels (Matthew 10:2-4, Luke 6:14-16). He is not mentioned at all in the four Gospels and the composer of this forgery has, as it were, left his fingerprints on its text by including what is a glaring anachronism. Jesus is said to have called him by name on numerous occasions of which the following passage is an example:

Jesus answered: ‘Be not sore grieved, Barnabas, for those whom God hath chosen before the creation of the world shall not perish’. Gospel of Barnabas, para 19

Such an address before Jesus ascended to heaven was impossible if he only received the title some time after the event.

The Probable Authorship of the Barnabas Gospel

There are some evidences that give rise to the probable authorship of this book. In the introduction to the Spanish version of the Gospel there was a statement that it was a translation of the Italian version done by an Arragonian Muslim named Mostafa de Aranda. Sale also adds a note that in the preface to the Italian version a certain Fra Marino, a Roman Catholic monk, is said to have heard of the existence of the Gospel of Barnabas and happened to come upon it while looking through the library of Pope Sixtus V who was conveniently asleep in his presence. The story concludes with the monk quietly removing the book and converting to Islam once he had read through it.

Whoever the author was it is clear that he was very conversant with the land of Spain and its environment. He could well have been a Spanish Muslim forcibly converted to Christianity around the time of the Spanish Inquisition who took private revenge by compiling an Islamic Gospel. He might well have written it first in Italian to give it a more authentic appearance before translating it into his own language. There is clear evidence of Spanish influence in this quote attributed to Jesus:

For he would get in change a piece of gold must have sixty mites. Gospel of Barnabas, para 54

The Italian version divides the golden denarius into sixty minuti. These coins were of Spanish origin dating from the pre-Islamic Visigothic period and betray a Spanish influence behind the Gospel.

It is far more likely that the author was Fra Marino himself as there is also much evidence that the book was written by someone very familiar with Italy and its language. From other works it is known that the real Fra Marino was at one time a close associate of Fra Peretti who was a key figure in the Inquisition and later duly became Pope Sixtus V. As a result of certain malpractices in his administration as an inquisitor Fra Marino fell out of favour with Fra Peretti and received no further promotion. Peretti, however, went on from one distinction to the other until he obtained the papacy itself.

His fate at the hand of Peretti once he became Pope may have led him to compose this Gospel as an act of private revenge against him, especially if he had subsequently converted to Islam. There is much support for this theory in the story that, while in audience with the Pope, he found the original manuscript in the papal library while the Pontiff dozed off. Conveniently it just happened to be the first book he laid hands on. Muslims today often claim, pursuant to this fictional episode, that the Popes of Rome have always deliberately concealed the Gospel of Barnabas from public knowledge in an act of calculated conspiracy against its contents. It is far more probable that Fra Marino himself, or someone familiar with these gentlemen, composed the manuscript and invented the story of its supposed "discovery".

We will never know for certain who actually wrote this Gospel. What we do know is that it most certainly could not have been written by the Apostle Barnabas who was at no time one of the immediate disciples of Jesus. If the Gospel of Barnabas serves any purpose it is perhaps to prove that it is impossible to compose a life of Jesus consistent with the factual evidences of his life and teachings as found in the four true Gospels which at the same time promotes him as a prophet of Islam. The book fails dismally in its attempt to do precisely this.

In conversation with Muslims it is important to dispose of this Gospel as soon as possible. It offers no useful contribution to the field of Christian-Muslim apologetics.

6.5   Paul and Barnabas in the Book of Acts

Muslim: In his Gospel Barnabas expressly repudiates the teaching of Paul that Jesus is the Son of God. In fact even the New Testament records that Paul and Barnabas couldn’t agree. It was because Barnabas taught the ultimate truth about Jesus.

The Gospel of Barnabas begins with a statement that "many, being deceived of Satan, under pretence of piety, are preaching most impious doctrine, calling Jesus Son of God ... among whom Paul also hath been deceived" (para 1). At the very end of the book Paul is again accused of being deceived for the same reason. Muslims latch on to a passage in the Bible where it is recorded that "there arose a sharp contention, so that they separated from each other" (Acts 15:39) to prove that Paul and Barnabas could not agree with each other and claim that this is proof that Barnabas differed with Christianity’s foremost apostle on the major points of Christian doctrine. The aim is to prove that Barnabas rejected these beliefs and wrote his Gospel to correct them.

Barnabas and Paul: Two Close Companions

Anyone reading through Acts 15 will discover that the only point of disagreement between these two men was on whether they should again be accompanied by John Mark on a later journey. Paul did not want him to go with as he had let them down on their first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). For this reason alone they separated. Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus while Paul chose Silas as his future companion (Acts 15:39-40).

All the other evidences in the Book of Acts prove that, far from being an opponent of Paul, Barnabas consistently stood by him and backed his teaching. When Paul was converted through a dramatic vision of Jesus in the sky as he made his way to Damascus, he remained a few days in the city with the other disciples of the Lord and then finally entered the local synagogue, proclaiming Jesus and declaring "He is the Son of God" (Acts 9:20). There can be no doubt, therefore, that right from the time he first became a follower of Jesus Christ Paul declared the heart of the Christian doctrine. From here it is important to know what role Barnabas played in accompanying him on his travels.

1.   Barnabas First Introduced Paul to the Other Apostles

When Paul first returned to Jerusalem after his conversion the other disciples were very afraid of him, knowing his relentless persecution of the early Church. They did not believe that he was a true disciple of Jesus. It is a revelation to discover, in the light of the vehement attacks made on Paul in the Barnabas Gospel, just who it was who commended him to the disciples:

But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. Acts 9:27

From here on, until their dispute on a personal matter, Paul and Barnabas were constantly together. In fact, as we shall see, the real author of the Gospel of Barnabas could hardly have made a more inappropriate choice for the authorship of his forgery.

2.   Barnabas Sought Paul to help him Teach in Antioch

As soon as the Church in Jerusalem heard that the Church in Antioch was growing well, the Apostles sent Barnabas there to instruct the new disciples in the faith of Jesus. Barnabas, however, decided he could not do this alone. Who did he send for to assist him? No one else but Paul! He went all the way to Tarsus to look for him and, when he found him, he brought him to Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). What follows is significant:

For a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians. Acts 11:26

Under the ministry of these two men the believers were first called Christians because Paul and Barnabas taught them the basic truths of what makes Christianity the religion it is today – that Jesus is the Son of God and that he died for our sins. These are the very things that the Gospel of "Barnabas" is at such pains to deny. Throughout their travels together Paul took the initiative in preaching the Christian Gospel while Barnabas stood by him, vindicating everything he said. There can be no doubt that Barnabas was not the author of the anti-Paul Gospel attributed to him.

3.   Both Barnabas and Paul Rejected Circumcision

According to the Gospel of Barnabas Jesus is recorded as teaching that circumcision is one of the most important acts of religious piety. Both Judaism and Islam to this day faithfully observe the ordinance. Jesus is supposed to have said:

Leave fear to him that hath not circumcised his foreskin, for he is deprived of paradise. Gospel of Barnabas, para 23

It is most ironic to find that the real Barnabas joined Paul in vehemently opposing circumcision as a necessary ritual for salvation:

But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’. And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders about this question. Acts 15:1-2

In one of his Epistles Paul states that, when he and Barnabas went to Jerusalem, they took Titus, an uncircumcised Greek believer in Jesus, as a test case. Paul laid before the apostles the Christian Gospel he was preaching – one devoid of the legalistic rituals that characterise Judaism and Islam – to see if they disagreed with him on any point. They not only agreed that Titus should not be circumcised (Galatians 2:1-3) but "gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship" (v. 9). It does appear that no one was closer to Paul in his preaching of the Christian faith than this man Barnabas. He cannot possibly be the author of the Gospel falsely attributed to him.

The Gospel of Barnabas is a book of no true historical value. Muslims should be gently persuaded to put it aside and instead take time to read the four genuine Gospels where the real truth about Jesus has been written.

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