The Gospel Of Barnabas, article in the Theosophical Review
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The Italian Gospel of Barnabas is a puzzle. The solitary MS. is almost certainly of the 14th century; but as to its nature and origin there is no external testimony, and we have to draw what conclusions we can from internal evidence. The Italian Gospel of Barnabas presents us with a tendency-writing in favour of Mohammedanism. The Gospel-story is rewritten from a Mohammedan standpoint, and Jesus is made to play the role of forerunner to Mohammed, and to utter prophecies of the coming of one greater than himself who should complete all things. The part that John the Baptist is made to play in the Evangelical account with regard to Jesus, is assigned on a larger scale to Jesus in respect to Mohammed.
Since the days of Toland (1709), and Sale (1734), who were first instrumental in making the existence of this Gospel known, the question has been debated whether the Italian MS. is a version from the Arabic or an original compilation. The Arabic doctors have, again and again, been challenged to produce an Arabic original, but so far without result. The interest in the subject which at one time was widespread, has for long died down, and the editors and translators are therefore to be congratulated on bringing the question again into prominence by the publication of their excellent text and version. The critical problems, however, they do not attempt to solve; their task has been to raise them, and this they have done in a very creditable fashion.
Though, as far as I can judge, the Italian is not a translation, it has every appearance of being the product of a Semitic mind. Again and again I have been struck with passages that put me in contact with a similar atmosphere to the one in which I had to steep myself in treating the Talmud Jesus Stories and mediaeval Toldoth Jeschu. It seems to me to have been written by a Jew who had passed via Christianity into conversion to Mohammedanism.
But setting aside the obvious fictions which prove beyond any question that the Gospel is a naive tendency-writing of a later date, we are confronted with the puzzle of sources other than the books of the New Testament, that cannot be accounted for by any known documents. Neither the known apocryphal books nor the Talmud stories will help us. And yet, though the writer has plainly never been in Palestine, as is shown by his grievous blunders in geography, he is evidently not only acquainted with Jesus legends otherwise unknown, though perhaps once in circulation among the Mohammedans, but writes from a standpoint that shows he is in touch with Pharisee traditions of a high type.
The question now arises as to whether he may have seen a copy of the old Gospel of Barnabas which existed in early times, but of which we have not even a fragment remaining. That there was such a Gospel, and that it was well-known at one time, is plain from the Decree of Pope Gelasius (a.d. 492-496), who mentioned it among the books that are not to be received into the Canon, and by so doing showed that it was widely circulated. It is further highly probable that this old Gospel of Barnabus was a Gnostic scripture. I have accordingly been very keen to discover any Gnostic traces in the Italian Gospel, but have been unable to do so, except the Docetic element in the crucifixion of Judas in place of Jesus, and the mode of describing the heavens and hells and the questioning of the disciples, which puts me in mind of the type of gospel to which the Pisiis Sophia and the Gospel of the Egyptians belong.
The Italian Gospel is a lengthy document consisting of no less than two hundred and twenty-two chapters—the MS. being a thick quarto of 255 leaves, written on recto and verso, measuring 6 1/4 X 43/8 ins.
In completing our notice of this interesting publication, we may add a few notes of the contents.
The lengthy praisegiving put into the mouth of Jesus (xii.), each clause beginning: "Blessed be the Holy Name of God "—reminds us strongly of the Shem or Tetragrammaton (which is mentioned in Jewish spelling in the text), the Name of Power, by which Jesus is said to have done all his miracles in the Talmud and Toldoth stories; and indeed frequently elsewhere in the Italian Gospel Jesus accomplishes his healing wonders by means of the Name.
Occasionally there is a mystic allusion as, for instance, in the exhortation of the Angel Gabriel to Jesus (xiv.):
"Fear not, O Jesus, for a thousand thousand who dwell above the heaven guard thy garments."
So also in the command of God to Adam and Eve in Paradise are preserved the proper mystery-symbols, in the prohibition (xxxviii.):
"Behold I give unto you every fruit to eat, except the apples and the corn. . . Beware that in no wise ye eat of these fruits, for ye shall become unclean, in so much that I shall not suffer you to remain here, but shall drive you forth, and ye shall suffer great miseries."
This is clearly the "fall" into generation.
The same order of symbolism is also shown in the sentence (cxiii.):
"When the disciples were come they brought pine-cones, and by the will of God they found a good quantity of dates."
And if the fall out of Paradise is the descent into generation, equally so in the regeneration shall there be an ascent in a glorified body, when through "the eye of Paradise" (clxxix.) we shall see God.
Again a curious legend is preserved in a saying put into the mouth of Jesus (Ixxiv.):
"Solomon sinned in thinking to invite to a feast all the creatures of God, whereupon a fish corrected him by eating all that he had prepared."
The "fish" may be the Leviathan of the Talmud legends and the Ophite Diagram.
There are many fine passages in praise of God, one of the finest being (xvii.):
"God is a good without which there is naught good; God is a being without which there is naught that is; God is a life without which there is naught that liveth; so great that he filleth all and is everywhere. He alone hath no equal. He hath had no beginning, nor will he ever have an end, but to everything hath he given a beginning, and to everything shall he give an end."
This reminds us strongly of the Trismegistic literature, and we do not forget that this literature was current among the Arab doctors.
The Mount of Transfiguration is given as Tabor, the Sacred Mount of The Gospel according to the Hebrews, and the traditional mount of the early Greek Church.
The Discourse of Jesus on Friendship is excellent (lxxxv.):
"The friend is a singular thing, that is not easily found, but is easily lost. For the friend will not suffer contradiction against him whom he loveth supremely. Beware, be ye cautious, and choose not for friend one who loveth not him whom ye love. Know ye what friend meaneth? Friend meaneth naught but physician of the soul. And so, just as one rarely findeth a good physician who knoweth the sicknesses and understandeth to apply the medicines thereto, so also are friends rare who know the faults and understand how to guide unto good. But herein is an evil, that there are many who have friends that feign not to see the faults of their friend; others excuse them; others defend them under earthly pretext; and, what is worse, there are friends who invite and aid their friend to err, whose end shall be like unto their villainy. Beware that ye receive not such men for friends, for that in truth they are enemies and slayers of the soul.
"Let thy friend be such that, even as he willeth to correct thee so he may receive correction; and even as he willeth that thou shouldst leave all things for love of God, even so again it may content him that thou forsake him for the service of God."
This seems to be an injunction to those who aspire to be Servants of God (? Therapeuts). That there may possibly be sources of great value hidden in our Italian MSS., connected with a very early ascetic Pharisee (? Essene) tradition or perhaps with a rule of the monks of the Desert, may be seen from the following sayings that are said to be contained in the "Little Book of Elijah" (cxlv.):
"They that seek God, once only in thirty days shall they come forth where be men of the world; for in one day can be done works for two years in respect of the business of him that seeketh God.
"When he walketh let him not look save at his own feet.
"When he speaketh, let him not speak save that which is necessary.
"When they eat, let them rise from the table still hungry; thinking every day not to attain to the next; spending their time as one draweth his breath.
"Let one garment of the skin of beasts suffice.
"Let the lump of earth sleep on the naked earth; for every night let two hours of sleep suffice.
"Let him hate no one save himself; condemn no one save himself.
"In prayer, let them stand in such fear as if they were at the judgment to come.
"Now do this in the service of God, with the law that God hath given you through Moses, for in such wise shall ye find God, that in every time and place ye shall feel that ye are in God and God in you."
If the writer of the Italian Gospel of Barnabas was a forger of such passages the forgery is as fine an art as original work. He was a compiler and adapter. What were his sources? The answer to this question opens up problems of the greatest interest and importance, and we hope that the publication of the labours of Mr. and Mrs. Ragg will turn the attention of scholars to what may prove to be a very fruitful subject of enquiry.
G. R. S. M
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