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.

Volumes of the Acta Sanctorum online

Lately I’ve found myself looking for Saints’ Acta. I’m not sure how one finds translations.  In fact it’s really not that easy to find even the original texts.   But I believe that the “go to” source for the texts is the monster 17-19th century compilation, made by the Bollandists, the Acta Sanctorum.


  • The original series, published at Antwerp, consisted of 68 volumes.  See Brepols list here, and links to those I could find below.
  • A Venice reprint from 1734-1760 is basically the same, except that it combined May vol. 7 and the propylaeum, and it didn’t include September vols.6-8, October 7-13, or any of November or December.  A Brussels supplement to this (ed. Greuse) provided Sept. 5 and 8, and October 1-6.
  • A Paris reprint of 1863-1870 (edited by Palmé) assigned a number to each volume.  But it also divided the two January volumes into three, and stopped with October vol. 12; after which Palme was printing the original series as it appeared.  Links to these follow.
  • Finally there is a 1966-71 reprint of vols.1-60 of the original series.  The 60 volumes printed may be found at the DCO site here.

I doubt that this list of versions is complete.

I have found, by experience, that the page numbers in the Paris edition are not the same as those in the original.

Volume numbers and referencing

The original volumes did not have an overall series volume number, although the 19th century Paris reprint assigned one.  Instead the material is organised by Saint’s day; if the Saint is commemorated on 1st June, then that is where the material will be found.  In turn that means that we need to know which volume contains which days.

A reference to a page in the Acta Sanctorum will typically look like this: AS Mai 23, 412; i.e. May 23rd, page 412.  But you may also get ASS Mai III 412; which would indicate May vol. 3, page 412.

Other collections of links

See also this site with links to the French Bibliothèque Nationale copies.  There are also volumes at the Documenta Catholica Omnia site, which I think are from the 1960’s reprint of the original edition.

Online volumes – The 19th century Paris edition

Here are the 60 volumes of the Paris-Palmé edition, courtesy of Villanova University; followed by the other original volumes which Palmé then issued.  We’re still missing three volumes.

At this point things get rather confused.  Palme’s numbering of 60 volumes of reprints is 1 more than the original series, because he divided January into 3 volumes.  So the “official” number is only 59 to this point.

There are three further volumes, listed at Brepols here as 69, 70, and 71; and then the “Acta Sanctorum Tables Generales” (1900), listed as 72.

Online volumes – Original Antwerp Edition

Since I compiled the list above, volumes of the original printing have started to come online.  I give those I could find here (which often meant searching for “acta sanctorvm septembris”!).  The Greek text in these is frankly very hard to read.

For November and December, the Paris/Palme volumes are the original edition.

Online volumes – Venice Edition

The Venice reprints start in the 18th century.  They do not reprint everything, however.  Here are some volumes that I came across incidentally:

The Venice edition carried on as far as September vol. 5.


  • H. Delehaye, The work of the Bollandists Through Three Centuries, 1615-1915, (1922) online here.

Contributions of links to volumes where there are gaps are most welcome.  Add them in the comments.