Will A Newly Found “Lost Gospel” Bring Down Christianity?

According to Iranian officials, a recently[1] discovered copy of the Gospel of Barnabas, will cause the collapse of Christianity worldwide.[2] Why?  Apparently this text, which is claimed to date to the 5th or 6th century AD, predicts the coming of the prophet Muhammad.

This is not the first we’ve heard of the Gospel of Barnabas though, if genuine, this particular manuscript will be the oldest copy to have been found. Apart from this particular text there are only two known manuscripts of the Gospel of Barnabas, both likely dating to the 16th century.[3] There are some indications that a “Barnabas” gospel was in circulation around the 6th century as it is identified as an apocryphal work in two different lists,[4] but it is not possible to determine if the book cited in those lists is the same as the one evidenced by the 16th century manuscripts.

Barnabas was, of course, one of Jesus’ twelve disciples and for this reason was an attractive option for writers attempting to lend credibility to their fictional accounts of Jesus.  The same thing was true of all twelve disciples and multiple “gospels” were attributed to them in the centuries following the birth and spread of Christianity.  These books are all widely recognized as pseudopigrapha (“false writings”) and are interesting to scholars not because they have anything historically reliable to say about Jesus or his earliest followers but because of what they tell us about the aberrant teachings and cults which attempted to gain credibility by putting their doctrines in Jesus’ mouth.

The Gospel of Barnabas is no exception to this practice as it departs significantly from the historical and theological claims of the canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all of which are dated to within the first century and are therefore far more reliable sources for the true teaching of Jesus.

What is exceptional about the Gospel of Barnabas, however, is that it appears to have been composed by an Islamic apologist bent on turning Jesus into an early herald of Muhammad.  While much of the text contains a relatively accurate harmonization of the canonical gospels, at various points it changes or adds material with a distinctly Islamic focus.  According to the 16th century manuscripts, Jesus supposedly said:

 “The name of the Messiah is admirable, for God himself gave him the name when he had created his soul, and placed it in a celestial splendour. God said: Wait Mohammed; for thy sake I will to create paradise, the world, and a great multitude of creatures, whereof I make thee a present, insomuch that whoso bless thee shall be blessed, and whoso shall curse thee shall be accursed. When I shall send thee into the world I shall send thee as my messenger of salvation, and thy word shall be true, insomuch that heaven and earth shall fail, but thy faith shall never fail.’ Mohammed is his blessed name.” – Barnabas 97:9-10

In addition to such direct statements about Muhammad, the Gospel of Barnabas clearly alters the theology of Jesus in such a way as to make him fit into Islamic orthodoxy.  For instance, it removes the crucifixion and resurrection, replacing it with an ascension, and invents numerous statements by Jesus in which he denies his divinity and laments the day that his followers would come to mistakenly believe that he was the Son of God (cf. 53:6, 69:6, 70:1, et.al).

So will this “earth shattering” find in Iran really sound the death knell for Christianity?  Probably not (heavy sarcasm).  This manuscript (if genuine) is nothing more than another weak attempt at revisionist history.

However, the continued popularity of this kind of thing should be a wake-up call to Christians.  We must be able to offer solid historical evidence to support the reliability of the canonical gospels and the picture of the historical Jesus that they provide to us.  For an incredible day of encouragement and equipping in this area, join us Nov. 2-3 at the 2012 Word Conference:  Jesus, Faith in the Facts in Denver, Colorado.

[1] The manuscript itself was discovered 12 years ago, but a recent request by the Vatican to examine the piece has led to renewed interest.

[3] Joosten, Jan (January 2002). “The Gospel of Barnabas and the Diatessaron”. Harvard Theological Review  95 (1): 73–96.

[4] A “Gospel according to Barnabas” is listed in the Latin Decretum Gelasianum and the Greek List of the Sixty Books; Ragg, L & L (1907). The Gospel of Barnabas. Oxford. xiv.ISBN 1-881316-15-7.