Episode 37 - Gospel of Barnabas

A main piece of evidence used for the "imposter on the cross" argument is the Gospel of Barnabas. Some think this text is even better than the four canonical Gospels. The text teaches that God made Judas look like Jesus so he could get crucified instead. With those things in mind, some argue that there really was an imposter on the cross, and there's been a massive cover up by Christians to hide this fact. In this episode we dive into the facts regarding the usefulness of the text, the dating of it, and the different problems found within it.

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Hello and welcome to the Ultimate Questions podcast. This episode is going to be a bit different, which you’ve probably already noticed, given the length of the episode. Last episode we started to evaluate the “imposter on the cross” argument, which is a counter argument against the resurrection of Jesus Christ, that tries to say Jesus never rose from the dead, because He never died on the cross in the first place! Instead, someone else was crucified in Jesus’ place. This argument is very popular in Muslim circles, so it’s good to understand where they’re coming from, and how to respond. We dealt with all the other points last time, but we didn’t touch on the most common argument Muslims use, which is the Gospel of Barnabas. This episode will be going into a good bit of depth regarding the Gospel of Barnabas, which normally I would split into multiple episodes, but I knew that it was a very specific topic that would be very useful to a handful of people, but most of the other listeners wouldn’t want to have a month or so of episodes on the Gospel of Barnabas, so I figured I’d make one long episode for those interested, and for those who aren’t, don’t worry, the podcast will go back to normal next episode. That said, I’ve run into the “imposter on the cross” argument in quite a few discussions with Muslims, and found researching this topic to be very interesting, and will be quite helpful in my future conversations. We’re going to look at what the Gospel of Barnabas is, what sorts of claims are made within the text, the pro-Muslim aspect, the anti-Christian aspect, how we date it, and then we’ll go into the problems related to the text. So, let’s dive into it.

Importance of the Gospel of Barnabas

There are different versions of the “imposter on the cross” argument, but mostly the argument is put forth by Muslims who think Allah switched Jesus with someone else. The reason they think this is because the Quran says that it only “appeared” to everyone that Jesus was crucified. They then make the inference that Allah must have switched appearances, so that everyone thought it was Jesus, but it wasn’t. While there are problems with this, like the fact that it makes Allah a liar, and that it disagrees with literally all the historical data we have access to, we dealt with those issues in the last episode. Right now, we want to look at the Gospel of Barnabas. The reason Muslims and their apologists are so excited about the Gospel of Barnabas is because it’s a very old text, which says exactly what they already believe. It states that God took Jesus away, and made Judas look like Jesus, so Judas got crucified, but everyone thought it was Jesus. If this really is an ancient Christian text, or even a first century document, as some Muslims claim, then this would absolutely give a lot of credibility to the “imposter on the cross” argument. Additionally, the Gospel of Barnabas actually supports a great deal of other Islamic claims as well, to the point that it looks like the author was deliberately trying to hit on all the ways Islam and Christianity are different, and to give support to the Islamic view. If this document predates Islam, then it would definitely be a great piece of evidence for the Muslim position, so that they can discredit every way that Christianity is different from Islam. They typically argue that, once Christianity rose to prominence, the Christians in power silenced all the “true” texts, and advocated for the texts that validated their own positions. They then say that there were prophecies of a coming prophet, Muhammad, who would set all the theology straight. To these sorts of Muslims, the Gospel of Barnabas is an early source that they claim was censored because it taught the truth.

As I’ve said, some Muslim apologists love the Gospel of Barnabas. For example, Abdullah Yusuf Ali wrote a commentary on the Quran, and refers to the Gospel of Barnabas favorably, as if it were an ancient position among early Christians, as evidence for there being an imposter on the cross. Suzanne Haneef wrote a book titled, What Everyone Should Know about Islam and Muslims, where she says of the Gospel of Barnabas, “Within it one finds the living Jesus portrayed far more vividly and in character with the mis­sion with which he was entrusted than any other of the four New Testa­ment Gospels has been able to portray him.” She also calls the Gospel of Barnabas “essential reading for any seeker of the truth.” Then we have Muhammed Ata ur-Rahim, who wrote the book, Jesus, A Prophet of Islam, where he writes, “The Gospel of Barnabas is the only known surviving Gospel written by a disciple of Jesus…. [It] was accepted as a Canonical Gospel in the churches of Alexandria up until 325 A.D.” Then lastly we have M.A. Yusseff, who wrote the book The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Gospel of Barnabas, and the New Testament, where he says that “in antiquity and authenticity, no other gospel can come close to The Gospel of Barnabas.” While some Muslims will recognize that the Gospel of Barnabas is actually a forgery, you can see that many other Muslims, even academics, regard it very highly. I should also stress that it’s basically only Muslims who are favorable towards it, where everyone else does recognize that it’s a very late forgery, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

Content of the Gospel of Barnabas

To begin evaluating the text, we should first get an understanding of what exactly we find within this text, which claims to be a Gospel of Jesus Christ, written by Barnabas, who, in this text takes the position of the twelfth apostle after Judas’ death, rather than Matthias as the Bible claims. The text is very large, being roughly the size of all four canonical Gospels put together. While it has a lot of content, the important part right now is the ending. In the Gospel of Barnabas, Judas betrays Jesus, leading the soldiers to where He was praying. Jesus hears the soldiers coming, is terrified, and runs away. Then we read in chapters 215-216,

“Then God, seeing the danger of his servant, commanded Gabriel, Michael, Rafael, and Uriel, his ministers, to take Jesus out of the world. The holy angels came and took Jesus out by the window that looketh toward the South. They bare him and placed him in the third heaven in the company of angels blessing God for evermore… Whereupon the wonderful God acted wonderfully, insomuch that Judas was so changed in speech and in face to be like Jesus that we believed him to be Jesus.”

At this point everyone was fooled, even the disciples, and even Jesus’ mother Mary. Then in the trial scene, we have Judas ranting and raving, claiming he’s not Jesus, and everyone thinks that he is Jesus, and that he’s gone insane. Interestingly, the text says that John and Peter were witnesses of this scene, where Judas was on trial, looking like Jesus, and raving like a madman. With that in mind, it’s a drastically different account than what we find in the canonical Gospels, one of which was written by John, and another which was written by Mark, who used material he got from Peter. So it’s quite interesting that the Gospel of Barnabas explicitly says John and Peter were present to see the “apparent” Jesus acting insane in the trial, when their Gospels give a very different story.

At this point in the Gospel of Barnabas, it says something else quite interesting. We read in chapter 217 that the disciples had forgotten what Jesus had taught, which was that “he (Jesus) should be taken up from the world, and that he should suffer in a third person, and that he should not die until near the end of the world.” This idea that Jesus should suffer in a third person, and not die Himself until the end of the world, is treated as though it was a prophecy Jesus had given, which we find nowhere else in recorded history, not even earlier in the Gospel of Barnabas. Then after Judas is crucified, Jesus comes back to all His disciples, and corrects everyone, telling them all that He didn’t die, and instead, it was actually Judas made to appear like Him. Once again, this is interesting, because all the disciples are corrected in this regard, according to the Gospel of Barnabas, and yet, we don’t find any accounts of this at all, and find plenty of accounts that contradict this story. If Jesus really did tell all His disciples that it was Judas who died in His place, then why do we have zero historical record of any of the disciples making this claim, and why do we have so many very early, even eyewitness accounts, all saying the opposite of this?

After Jesus corrects all His disciples, He then instructs Barnabas to go out and correct everyone regarding these events, helping people to become “undeceived” by the deception God had brought about, which is apparently the reason for the Gospel of Barnabas. When asked why God would deceive everyone like this, Jesus tells them that it’s because God is allowing Jesus’ disciples to be punished for loving Jesus too much, so that they wouldn’t have to go to hell. This idea seems linked to the notion that the disciples had believed that Jesus was God, which is blasphemous, so God was allowing them to be deceived for a time to save them from hell. It also states that, in a sense, Jesus had failed in His mission, because so many people thought He was God. Because of this, God would allow Jesus to be mocked for all human history, by having the whole world think He was shamefully crucified. It then says that, at a later time, God would send another prophet, named Muhammad, who would correct this bad theology regarding Jesus’ death. And if you’re thinking, really? It actually says Muhammad would be a prophet in the future, and gives his name? Yes, it does, quite a few times actually.

In the very end of the book in chapter 222, we read, “For certain evil men, pretending to be disciples, preached that Jesus died and rose not again. Others preached that he really died, but rose again. Others preached, and yet preach, that Jesus is the Son of God, among whom is Paul deceived.” In other words, we see evidence that the writer of this document fully recognizes that there is historical record of people being understood as disciples of Jesus who were claiming Jesus had died, risen again, and was the Son of God. He even condemns Paul by name, saying that Paul himself was deceived. We also find this same sentiment in a lot of Muslims, where they really hate Paul, because Paul’s theology is so obviously praising Jesus as God, teaching that Jesus died and rose, and that salvation is found in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice. Basically, the entire premise of Christianity is so explicit in Paul’s writing, that the Muslim is forced to condemn it, and what we find in the Gospel of Barnabas is blatantly criticizing Paul, and what he wrote. It’s just incredibly odd since, apparently Jesus corrected all of His disciples, and yet historically we find that Paul knew all the disciples, and agreed with them on theological matters. Was Paul simply lying about knowing the disciples, and working closely with them? Was Luke just lying in the book of Acts about everything he wrote regarding the Early Church? If so, why are these false historical accounts so incredibly early, and why do we not find anyone contradicting them? Also, why do we find the disciples of the disciples confirming everything we read in Luke and Paul’s books? We also know the students of Jesus’ disciples, and they all teach that Jesus was God, died on the cross, and was resurrected. Really, the entirety of our historical data disagrees with the story we read in the Gospel of Barnabas.

Arabic and Anti-Christian Aspects

With the content of the Gospel of Barnabas in mind now, it’s interesting to notice the amount of Arab and Islamic influence on this story. This text is so helpful for the Muslim position, bringing correction to basically every way Christianity and Islam differs, that it just seems far too convenient to be true. We also find a lot of references within the Gospel of Barnabas where it seems to be heavily biased towards an Arab worldview. For example, we find Jesus in the garden bowing a hundred times while praying. We see a similar attitude towards prayer in Islam, where it’s more about the obligation to pray a certain way, than it is about a real connection with the divine. This looks far more like the duty-based prayer traditions of Arabs within Islam than it does the passionate and heartfelt prayer we read about in the canonical Gospels. We also find the obviously Islamic point where it affirms that Jesus only “appeared” to be crucified, which is what the Quran states. The Gospel of Barnabas also condemns the belief in Jesus as God, which is another big theological difference between Christianity and Islam. We even see in chapter 39, where it gives the story of Adam being created by God, and immediately afterwards says that Adam saw bright letters in the sky which read, “There is only one God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because this is the Shahada, which in Islam is a statement you must recite if you wish to become a Muslim. Adam is obviously confused, because this statement infers a person named Muhammad, so he asks God if God had created other humans before him. God respond that he created Muhammad’s soul 60 thousand years before he created anything else, and that Muhammad will come into the world as a human in the future. This is so obviously trying to advocate for Islam that it’s really hard to see it any other way. Not only do you have Muhammad being explicitly named many times within the Gospel of Barnabas, but you even have the Shahada being stated, thousands of years before Muhammad was even considered a prophet. The text also says in chapters 191-192 that the Old Testament was written by Moses and Joshua, and it says that they were “Ishmaelites”, and that the Messiah would be an Ishmaelite. For those listening that don’t know, Ishmael was Abraham’s other son, where Isaac is the father of the Hebrews, Ishmael is considered the father of the Arabs. This is very interesting, because it’s trying to say that all the important people like Moses, Joshua, and the messiah, were Ishmaelites, meaning Arabs, rather than from Isaac, being Hebrews. We find something similar in chapter 212 where it says, the “Lord our God, God of Abraham, God of Ishmael and Isaac.” Again, this is interesting, because it’s clearly trying to do the same thing we find throughout the Bible, where it refers to “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, but it has switched the names so that it includes Ishmael, who is the father of the Arabs. In these cases it seems obvious that the writer of the Gospel of Barnabas is deliberately trying to justify Islam, and bring more respect to the Arab race. It also seems clear that the writer of the text was fairly ignorant, because no Muslims or Arabs have ever thought of Moses or the messiah as being Arabs. In this way, it seems we have clear evidence that the author had an agenda to “Islamify” Christianity, and bring respect to the Arab people, even though he was clearly ignorant about certain details pertaining to both Christianity, and Islam. We’ll see more examples of this as we continue.

We also see within the Gospel of Barnabas a lot of anti-Christian concepts, where it really does seem like the general purpose of the text is to contradict many aspects of Christianity. As I mentioned earlier, in the text itself it says that Jesus told Barnabas to write this text, so as to correct everyone, and fix the deceptions. One example of this is that Christianity brought about the “new covenant”. While we won’t go into great depth of the doctrine of this, basically, we read in the New Testament that God brought His people out of all the Old Testament obligations like eating kosher, and circumcision, where these things were no longer necessary to serve the Lord God. However, we find in the Gospel of Barnabas a very direct statement that, if you are not circumcised, you cannot go to heaven, and that the anti-kosher beliefs are actually doctrines from Satan. This further shows the author’s attempt to attack and discredit Paul, basically saying that what Paul taught is from Satan, rather than God. We also find many times in the Gospel of Barnabas it condemns the idea of Jesus being the Son of God, and even says that this is a doctrine of Satan. This alone shows that this text was not written by anyone in the Early Christian Church, because universally the earliest Christian writings all affirm Jesus as the resurrected Son of God. We even find in the book of Acts that the real Barnabas himself affirmed Jesus as the resurrected Son of God. Again, I find this very strange, considering the earliest writings we have by Christians teach that Jesus is the Son of God, so the entirety of Christianity would have all been Satan worshipping idolators, meaning Jesus did far more damage than He did good. Further, it’s interesting that the Gospel of Barnabas actually does teach that Jesus did a lot of damage, and that God punished Jesus for leading people astray, even though it was by accident. All in all, the whole point of this text appears to bring correction to the false Christians doctrines, and help them align with the truth, which just happens to be what Islam teaches. We even find in the preface to the book where Barnabas explicitly says that the purpose of the book is to correct the ideas of Jesus being the Son of God, that circumcision isn’t necessary for salvation, and the permitting of eating unclean meat. It even states that these ideas are from Satan, and then names Paul as being one who is deceived.

Problems in the Content of the Text

While all of those aspects I’ve mentioned might seem strange to a Christian, a Muslim could quite easily agree with all of it, and still believe the Gospel of Barnabas to be correct. However, there are other things in the text that make it look like the writer was quite ignorant of the facts, and just got a lot of things wrong, regardless of whether you’re a Christian or a Muslim. For example, the Gospel of Barnabas in chapter 214 says Judas was paid 30 gold, rather than 30 silver. It also says in chapter 3 that Jesus was born when Pilate was governor, which is impossible, because Pilate wasn’t the governor until about 26-27 ad. The text also says in chapter 20 that Jesus sailed to Nazareth, which is impossible, because Nazareth isn’t on the shore. It also says in chapter 92 that Jesus spent 40 days on Mount Sinai, and then came by the river Jordan to go to Jerusalem. This is impossible because Sinai is incredibly far away from the river Jordan, and from Jerusalem. It would take more than a week to get there, but the Gospel of Barnabas treats it like it’s an afternoon walk. Then we also have chapter 145 which says that, during Elijah’s time, there were over 17 thousand Pharisees. This is quite literally impossible, since the faction of the Pharisees didn’t exist during the time of Elijah, with there being roughly 700 years in-between Elijah and the first Pharisees. In chapter 6 we find an interesting problem, because it affirms Jesus as the “Christ”, however, in chapter 42 Jesus denies being the messiah. In case you aren’t aware, the title “Christ” just is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for messiah, so for Jesus to be the Christ, but not be the messiah, is nonsensical. Another interesting theological point is that in chapter 79 Jesus says that people should read the Old Testament prophets, and that if you despise them, then you are actually despising God Himself. However, in chapter 44, Jesus had already mocked the writings of Moses, by saying that it was corrupted, that Moses didn’t write it, and that it was written by rabbis who didn’t fear God. So in this sense, Jesus was mocking the writings of the prophets, so by His own admission, He would be mocking God. All these details show that the author was familiar with the content of the Bible, like Judas accepting a bribe, or Pilate being governor, or the concept of Pharisees, but they also show that he was quite ignorant of the specifics and details, constantly making errors. These sorts of errors don’t make any sense if this text was actually written by the real Barnabas, and make far more sense if we have someone removed from the biblical culture, and who was familiar with the Bible, but didn’t actually have it on hand.

In addition to the factual errors found in the Gospel of Barnabas, we also find many places where it disagrees with Islam. Considering Muslims are typically the ones trying to use the Gospel of Barnabas to prove their point, the fact that the text disagrees with the Quran in many places should cause Muslims to not rely so heavily on the text, or to even respect it at all. In the Gospel of Barnabas chapter 178 it says there are nine heavens, when Islam says there are seven. In chapter 23 it says that circumcision started with Adam, rather than Abraham, which is not only contrary to the Quran, but also has no justification, and again just shows the ignorance of the author. In chapter 112 it says that Jesus won’t get to heaven until the judgment, where Islam teaches Jesus was raised to heaven and is there now. The Gospel of Barnabas also says that the messiah will come from the lineage of Ishmael, which means he would be an Arab, and further, as previously mentioned, the Gospel of Barnabas says that Jesus isn’t the messiah, when in Islam, He is. There seems to be a big mix up in this regard in the text, where it looks like the writer of the text seems to have misunderstood the purpose of Muhammad in Islam. The writer says that Jesus is the Christ, who is the one announcing the coming of the actual messiah, who is Muhammad. In fact, in chapter 42, the Gospel of Barnabas has Jesus saying that He is a “voice that cries”, announcing the way of the messenger of God, and that He isn’t even worthy of untying the shoes of the messiah. If you’re familiar with the canonical Gospels, that should sound incredibly familiar, because that is what is said of John the Baptist, who prepared the way for the messiah, who is Jesus. In this way, it seems as though the author of the Gospel of Barnabas either deliberately, or accidentally, got mixed up between John the Baptist, Jesus, and Muhammad, getting confused and calling Muhammad the messiah. It even says in chapter 97 that there was coming another prophet, who is the messiah, and would be the final prophet, and that his name is Muhammad. All of these points are false in both Christianity, and Islam, and show that the author was incredibly ignorant and confused.

Argument for an Early Dating

At this point we have a good grasp of the content of the book, how it is heavily supportive of Islamic concepts and Arabs in general, how it speaks against Christianity, and even how it contradicts Islam. With all that in mind, we can already see that this text shouldn’t be respected, regardless of religious affiliation. However, what if it really is an early text, and it’s true, and everything else that came later is false? To evaluate that, we can now look to the dating of the book, to see if it really is an ancient text that could possibly have been written by the real Barnabas. To begin discerning the date of the text, we’ll first look at the argument for an early dating. The Gospel of Barnabas as we know it is from two translations of the original text, which come from the 1500s and the 1600s. The text of the book claims it was written by the Barnabas of the first century that we find in the New Testament book of Acts. These translations we have are very late, but they are the only manuscripts we have of the Gospel of Barnabas. However, we do have two ancient references to a text titled “The Gospel of Barnabas” within other documents, and these two references do indeed place the original text before Islam! Even if the text isn’t first century, if it predates Islam, that would be a huge win for Islam, since it predicts Muhammad, and confirms Islamic teachings, before they came about. So what are these two references to the Gospel of Barnabas that predate Islam? What we find are two ancient lists of books, each of which gives a list of both biblical and non-biblical books. The first is the Decretum Gelasianum, which is from roughly 550ad. This work is mostly just lists of books, declaring what books are to be considered part of the Bible, what books are from well respected authors, and then what books are written by heretics or considered apocrypha, and thus are not to be respected or read by Christians. The Gospel of Barnabas is found among this final list, meaning, even by 550ad, Christians already recognized that the Gospel of Barnabas was not to be respected. That said, the Muslim position would say that, by this time, Christianity had already been defiled by false teaching, and the great conspiracy and coverup to shut down anything against Paul’s teachings had already happened, so we should actually expect to find the Gospel of Barnabas being disrespected by the Roman Catholic Church.

The second reference to the Gospel of Barnabas is found in a work called the “Catalogue of the Sixty Canonical Books”, which is from the 600s ad. It contains a list of Old Testament books, then New Testament books, and then good books that are not considered Scripture, and then lastly, a list of apocryphal books. Once again, we find the Gospel of Barnabas in the final list, showing it was not considered Scripture, or even respected.