Chasing some fake news about the Gospel of Barnabas

Weird websites can be a lot of fun!  Often they get hold of some obscure fact, which might pass us by.  It can be interesting to track it down.  I was reading Twitter earlier today and came across a series of tweets by an Islamic propagandist, one of which mentioned the Acta Sanctorum.  The page is headed How the Gospel of Barnabas survived.

The modern “gospel of Barnabas” is extant in Italian and Spanish, and was written in the renaissance by a renegade who converted to Islam.  It references events after 1300, so cannot be ancient.  The page is dedicated to proving that it is.

Here’s the claim that caught my eye:

In the fourth year of Emperor Zeno (478 C.E. ), the remains of Barnabas were discovered and there was found on his breast a copy of the Gospel of Barnabas written by his own hand. (Acia Sanctorum Boland Junii Tom II, Pages 422 and 450. Antwerp 1698).

All spelling as found.

Now I don’t believe for a moment that this is the actual source used by the author of that web page.  It’s clearly something copied from some undisclosed source.  But as it happens I have been collecting URLs for the original edition of the Acta Sanctorum.  So let’s go and look at these references!

It took little time to locate a copy of June volume 2, in the original Antwerp 1698 edition.  It’s on Google Books here.  For some strange reason they display it online in colour, but download is only in black and white.

The reference to p.422 can be briefly disposed of.  The text starts on p.421, and, as a note in the margin of p.422 makes plain, this is the text of the introduction by the Bollandists; “auctore D.P.”, in fact!  It is not an ancient or medieval text, although it quotes some ancient references.  In the right hand column, a few lines from the bottom, we read that the body of the apostle was found “& Evangelium supra pectus positum”.  Then at the end, we get a quote from Theodore Lector, writing around 520, and taken from a collection of assortments published in the Bibliotheca Patrum:

Reliquiae Barnabae Apostoli inventae sunt in Cypro, sub arbore cerasea, habentes sub pectore evangelium Matthaei, manu ipsius Barnabae scriptum.  Evangelium autem illud Zenon sub alia corona condidit.

The relics of the apostle Barnabas were found in Cyprus, buried under a tree, having on his chest a gospel of Matthew written by Barnabas’ own hand.  But that Zeno established that gospel under another crown.

I.e. this is the disposition of the relics in the monastery.

P.450 is here.  It’s in the Laudatio S. Barnabae Apost. (BHG 226, CPG 7400), written by “Alexander the monk of Cyprus”, from an unspecified Vatican manuscript, and translated by Francisco Zeno (p.436).  Chapter 4 is headed (p.449) “The finding of the body of St Barnabas”.  In this, section 40, in the left hand column, the Latin translation, part B, we read this:

It’s plainly Barnabas speaking, presumably in a dream, instructing someone where to find his body:

… & Evangelium manu proprie scriptum, quod a sancto Apostolo & Evangelista Matthaeo (a) excepi.

… and a gospel written in my own hand, which I took down from the apostle and evangelist Matthew (a).

It is, in fact, a copy of Matthew, not Barnabas, that is in question.  But there is a footnote here, which is also worth looking at, on p.452.  This is rather remarkable:

a. Nativus verborum sensus videtur esse, quod Barnabas evangelium, primitus Hebraice editum, propria manu exceperit ex ore ipsius met sancti Matthai, illud Graece dictantis, & et secum tulerit; sicut etiam fecisse dicitur S. Bartholomaeus: plures forsitan alii, uno eodemque tenore & tempore, citra ullam differentiam; quae inveniri deberet, si quisque suo marte propriam sibi versionem fecisset, cuius differentia nullam uspiam extat indicium.  Atque hinc factum sit, ut alii Iacobum, alii Ioannem, alii etiam Lucam vel Paulum interpretem fecerint; pro ut scilicet quoque Ecclesia evangelium legebat, ex huius vel illius Apostoli autographe.

a.  The natural sense seems to be, that Barnabas a gospel, originally written in Hebrew, with his own hand took down from the very mouth of St Matthew, speaking it in Greek, and bore it with him; just as is also said of St Bartholomew; perhaps many others, of  one and the same outlook and time, on this side of any difference….

The note is signed DP, which is a name of great authority – the Bollandist Daniel Papebroch.  The inference depends on the word that he rendered “excepi” – “took down”.  Unfortunately I don’t find the Greek text in the original at all readable – and that is the key here.

Fortunately others have read it, and printed the text.  The 19th century Paris reprint of the AASS is a bit easier to read.  July vol. 2 is here, although pagination etc is not the same.  Our section 40 is on p.445.

This seems to me to read “ξελαβον“, “I received from”, aorist.  It could indeed mean that Matthew dictated to Barnabas; but it need not.  Indeed the sense of dictation does not seem to be natural here.

But of course Papebroch was an expert, and I am not.  All the same, I can’t help feeling that he misunderstood his text here.  I don’t see any suggestion of a “gospel of Barnabas”; just of a written copy of Matthew in the hand of Barnabas, just as with Theodore Lector.

Alexander the monk seems to be a shadowy figure, who belongs to the 6th century.  The Wikipedia article mentions several scholarly articles, some giving a date as late as the 9th century, although I have not read these.

Fortunately a pre-print article by Chrysovalantis Kyriacou, “The Encomium on St Barnabas by Alexander the Monk: ecclesiastical and imperial politics in sixth-century Byzantium”, taken from an upcoming volume is online here.  This very useful article tells us much about the text (which has been edited critically since the Acta Sanctorum!), its manuscripts, and even discusses this question of “a gospel”, in note 49.  But he, like myself, sees only a copy of St Matthew here.

UPDATE: I find that the story that I am looking into is to be found in the Ragg translation of the Gospel of Barnabas, which has a long, copious and well-researched introduction.  On p.xlv of the introduction is the reference above, but the body of the text makes plain that the gospel found with the body of Barnabas was a gospel of Matthew.  So somebody has quietly ignored that.


9 thoughts on “Chasing some fake news about the Gospel of Barnabas

  1. Hi Roger,
    An Islamic edition of an English translation of the Gospel of Barnabas that I own makes the same claim in the introduction. It also comfuses the Gospel of Barnabas with the Letter of Barnabas.

  2. Interesting! Where and when was it printed? Is this the Ragg translation? Ragg explicitly says fifferent in p.xlv of his intro.

  3. Yes indeed, my version is the Ragg translation (but doesn’t acknowledge this on the cover only on page xvi of the introduction). The version is stripped of the Oxford introduction but has a 25 introduction by Imam Muhammad Nu’man. It was published in 1993 by A & B Publishers Group of Brooklyn, NY.

    The claim about the Gospel of Barnabas being discovered with Barnabas during the time of Emperor Zeno is on page xv of the introduction. As a matter of fact, now that I look at it, the reference is identical to the one you cite (mispellings and all).

    It is still sold on it has Hebrew writing on the cover (taken from the Dead Sea Scrolls) to add an extra touch of authenticity.

  4. Van Deun in his edition notes that one other manuscript from the 11th century has exemathon “i learned” rather than exelabon (p. 116). He accepts exelabon anyway, correctly IMO.

  5. Downloaded and skimmed the Gospel of Barnabas.
    It smells like a worked over diatessaron with a big interpolation of Gnosticism, some rabbinic exegesis (how’d it get there?), and a really crude overlay of Muhamedan propaganda.
    The description of the hellish circles raises an interesting question, did a GoB redactor crib from Dante, or did Dante base his geography of hell on a literary precursor of Barnabas.
    It would be interesting to compare GoB to the PsClementine texts, and the Manichees.

  6. I am no authority, but to my mind “εὐαγγέλιον ἰδιόχειρον, ὃ ἐξέλαβον ἀπὸ Ματθαίου τοῦ ἁγίου ἀποστόλου καὶ εὐαγγελἰστου” means “an autograph gospel, which I received from Matthew the holy apostle and evangelist”, the most natural sense of which would be that it had been written by Matthew himself. It seems to be Theodore Lector who is the earliest of the writers cited here who says it was written down by Barnabas, but one doesn’t know what other material he had at his disposal.

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