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Semi-Gnostic, Semi-Christian, Semi-Islamic Gospel
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Lonsdale and Laura Ragg, trans.
The Gospel of Barnabas (Cedar Rapids, Iowa:  Unity Publishing Co, 1980.  273p.)

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I first learned about the Gospel of Barnabas in Kenya, from Muslim sources who proposed that this was the name of the original Gospel that "came down upon Jesus."  I bought my own copy in 2001 in Larnaca, Cyprus, where I found it in a used book store.  I kept it on my shelf until I read it in November 2007.

This English version was translated from the Italian manuscript in the Imperial Library at Vienna.  This is the medieval apocryphal gospel claimed by Muslim to be the original Gospel [injil], which they say Christians changed into the four variations now included in the New Testament.

Jesus Denies Messiahship
The portrait of Jesus here has Jesus denying he is the Messiah, but announcing that Mohammad will come as the messenger of God, and will be the Messiah for all nations.  Mohammad is actually mentioned by name.

This book tells the alternative story of God rescuing Jesus when the soldiers come to arrest him in the Garden, and as punishment, God turns Judas' features into those of Jesus, so he is arrested instead.  The trial the canonical gospels record with Jesus, then is told with some variation, from the perspective of the puzzled Judas trying to convince the priests, Herod and Pilate that he is Judas, not Jesus.

Thus it is Judas who is crucified in Jesus' place.  This book portrays the primary concern of Jesus as opposition to idolatry, both literal and spiritual.  Thus the crime of the Pharisees is idolatry of the heart.  Their hypocrisy is their condemnation.

New Role
The role of Barnabas is changed in this gospel, but his origin is the same as in Luke's writing, being described as a Jew from Cyprus.  In the writing of Luke (Acts of the Apostles), Barnabas is a Jew from Cyprus who is in Jerusalem for the Passover and believes in Jesus.  He is indeed later called an apostle, as are several other new converts or Jewish believers who were not among the original twelve.

In the Gospel of Barnabas, Barnabas is one of the 12 original disciples, and the author writes in the guise of Barnabas.  The story does not explain why a Jew from Cyprus is in Palestine (Galilee no less) in a situation in which Jesus would choose him as one of his original followers.  (Note also, incidentally, in the canonical Gospels the original twelve followers are never called Apostles until after Jesus has resurrected, when they are sent out.  This is what "apostle" means, a sent one.  The word in Greek simply means messenger or missionary.)

Trinity is Paul's Fault
One purpose the author gives for writing this Gospel is that Paul has erred by changing Jesus into a Divine figure.  He charges likewise that Paul has created the doctrine of the Trinity, which created three gods, leading all the followers of Paul into a new idolatry.

I was surprised to find this apparently mis-informed author blaming Paul for the doctrine of the Trinity, since Paul does not focus on that.  He does refer to Jesus as the resurrected Messiah, and as the continuing ruler of God's spiritual Kingdom.  And Paul refers to the dynamic figure of the Holy Sprit.  He uses this term interchangeably with the risen Christ.

For instance, Luke's phrase that Jesus would baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit is expressed in Paul's statement that we are baptized into Christ by the Holy Spirit.  (In the book of Acts, various terms are interchangeable with the term Holy Spirit, which became dominant in history and theology.  Luke uses the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Lord and several others.)

Parables and Stories
The Gospel of Barnabas has some Gnostic tendencies, though it sticks close to the canonical gospel stories.  It changes some teachings or events in ways to make its point that idolatry is at the root of all sin.  This author also has a broad range of parables and events, many of which are virtually word-for-word with the canonicals.  But some are changed, and many additional ones are added.

In general the Gospel of Barnabas stays faithful to the teachings of Jesus except where New Testament Gospel writers have expressions of the Messiahship of Jesus, or other aspects that might be used to support the doctrine of the Trinity.  There is not as much emphasis, however, on social justice and there is an extreme development of a vindictive punishment.

Vengeful Torture
This hammer-and-anvil character of God's punishment and torture of unbelievers is not found in the New Testament and certainly not in the canonical gospels.  In the Gospel of Barnabas, God invites the righteous to come and watch the tortures of those who did evil to them.  What is detailed is not just the administration of justice, but vengeful, torturous kinds of creative pain.

Mohammad is given the place of honor in observing the profound horrors of God's multiplied wrath.  Though the punishment is said to be in line with the type and degree of evil the sinners committed in their life, the punishment is multiplied many times over, so the sinners suffer manifold torture and punishment.  

Mohammad Advocates Mercy
The portrayals here are similar to those medieval visions of horror expressed by Dante Alighieri in the Divine Comedy, as Dante portrayed his view of the 9 levels of hell.  Dante expresses gleeful joy at the punishment of rival families and those he feels treated him or his family badly in life.  The punishment in the hells of the Gospel of Barnabas is so great and horrid, that even Mohammad is driven to cry out for mercy for the punished sinners.

Mild Gnosticism
The gnosticism of the Gospel of Barnabas is not "full-blown" as in the Gnostic gospels like the Gospel of Judas.  The latter presents the full Gnostic two-level realities in both the visible and the hidden groups among Jesus' disciples.  The Gospel of Barnabas references a dualistic spiritual reality, and has the ascetic streak found in many Gnostic and orthodox writings, as well as the express desire to release the soul from the body.

This expresses a western cultural focus found in one stream of Greek philosophy.  This came to dominate popular European theology and is still prominent today in what is referred to as "evangelical" expressions of Christianity, and in Western popular culture in general.

Shift from Jewish Worldview
This shifts the focus from the strong Jewish background in New Testament emphasis on the resurrection of the body.  This was the concern that arose among the early mixed Greek and Jewish synagogue of Christians in Thessalonica and led to the first Christian writings we know of, from the pen of Saul/Paul of Tarsus, Jewish Christian missionary to the Nations.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[Review] A Gnostic View of Jesus
[review] The Gospel of Judas Is this Really Good News?
[review] Judas:  Historical Streams and Textual Themes

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First written and posted on Thoughts and Resources and Amazon 17 December 2007
Last edited 1 April 2011

Copyright © 2007 Orville Boyd Jenkins
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