paleo Ideofact

Saturday, June 15, 2002
Rather than continue writing about the Arab News stories I started in on in "Exegesis" (the post immediately below), I decided to spend some time with the Gospel of Barnabas, an English translation of which can be read here (scroll about halfway down the page). The link is to Rodney Blackhirst's site; it's well worth spending a little time there.

For me, one of the values of dabbling in heretical or heterodox texts is that they persuade me that the early Church's leaders were on to something when they edited out the various texts floating around, claiming to be divinely inspired. This afternoon was a unseasonably comfortable day for the Washington, D.C., metro area. In the afternoon, I sat in the backyard with a cup of steaming coffee, its aroma mingling with tobacco smoke, a volume of short stories by Robert Louis Stevenson on my lap, the two cats stretching themselves -- bellies pointed to the sun -- and while I didn't think it at the time, it now occures to me that some Gnostic ideas of dualism, of the utter evil of the material world, are so contradicted by experience as to be laughable.

But what are we to make of this odd text? Some statistics, perhaps, are in order. Using the All The Web search engine (I sometimes prefer it to Google, because it returns a more modest number of pages, and since one of the notions that Ideofact expounds is that as all of our -- wait, better to say my -- ideas are provisional, modesty is to be preferred), the exact phrase, "Gospel of Barnabas," returns 4,356 links. By comparison, the Gospel of Matthew returns something like 93,000 links, but the "Epistle of Barnabas" -- which is a genuine document (not a medieval forgery) -- returns less than 300. However, the Gospel of Thomas, a Gnostic text, gives us over 60,000 hits, so it is perhaps safe to assume that Barnabas is rather obscure.

Barnabas figures in a running debate between Islamic and Christain proselytizers. Thus, here we find it quoted approvingly on a page that begins,
We must first of all know that the entire Bible is corrupted and unreliable and is mostly filled with man-made laws and corruption! 
Of Barnabas, we learn
Before the year 325 C.E., it is known that the Gospel of Barnabas was accepted as canonical in the churches of Alexandria. It is known to have been circulated in the first two centuries after Christ  from the writings of Irenaeus ("Jesus Prophet of Islam"). After this council, four Gospels were selected out of a minimum of three hundred available and the rest, including the Gospel of Barnabas, were ordered utterly destroyed. All Gospels written in Hebrew were also ordered destroyed.
Christian polemicists respond, noting, for example:
Nowhere, however, in the voluminous extant writings of Irenaeus is there mention of a Gospel of Barnabas. ...

It was in 1907 that the Italian text of The Gospel of Barnabas was translated into English by Lonsdale and Laura Ragg. In their introduction to the work they provide evidence to the effect that the book was a Medieval forgery. Since then Arabic and Urdu translations have been produced, all, however, without the introduction by the Raggs. Lt. Col. M.A. Rahim (Pakistan) reprinted The Gospel of Barnabas in English in 1973, omitting the Raggs’ introduction and substituting another from a different point of view.
I downloaded a copy of Lonsdale and Ragg translation from a site with Islamic sympathies (sorry, I can't find the link); I've only managed to read the first 15 pages or so. What I found more interesting than the text itself is this description of the extant Italian manuscript:
The complete Italian manuscript is now in the National Library of Austria in the collection of fine and rare books of Prince Eugene of Savoy. It is in good condition and is handsomely bound in black-green Turkish binding. It only measures about 6 inches to 5 inches in size but is quite thick; 255 leaves of a heavy coarse paper. The writing throughout is steady, clear and methodical with an orthographic style that places it in the latter half of the sixteenth century. The watermark of the paper - an anchor in a circle - comes from the same period and has been identified as being of northern Italian origin. There seems little doubt that the manuscript was produced in Italy in the later decades of the sixteenth century, probably in the 1580's or 90's. But why was it produced? For what reason? By whom?

There are no tell-tale marks that give away the identity of the hand that wrote the manuscript, but the safest assumption to make from the steadiness of the writing and the scale of the production is that it was written by a professional scribe. This is especially likely given some of the other features of the work. For a start, it is a carefully planned piece of writing and shows that its creator was adept at manuscript production - it is not a copy scribbled off for private use by an amatuer. On the other hand it seems to be a unique copy and not one of a large-scale production. Some features suggest that the manuscript was perhaps being prepared for a compositor who, in the next stage of production, would reproduce the manuscript in printer's blocks ready for the printing press. If this is the case, however, it seems the work never reached the presses, for the Italian manuscript has not been completed in its entireity. While the whole of the text of the Gospel has been written out and spaced into chapters, only some chapters have been supplied with headings. In most cases the spaces for the chapter rubics are blank, but it was clearly the intention of the writer to add headings in every case. Why has this task not been completed? For some reason, it seems, the project was abandoned. After going to great pains (and probably considerable expense) in organising the production the writer seems to have stopped work after filling in the first twenty or so chapter rubics. It would barely have taken an afternoon's work to finish what he had started but for some reason the finishing touches were never added. If the manuscript was being prepared for a publishing house, perhaps they grew nervous about being involved in the project and cancelled the scribe's commision? Perhaps the scribe died or was discovered? This is one of the more inpenetrable mysteries surrounding the work. Having been composed and then written up into such a highly organised form as the Italian manuscript, nothing ever came of it. Why not? If the work was some sort of hoax, then it was a hoax that was never perpetrated. Why not? If the work was being prepared for publication in the Italian vernacular, then by what publishing house, where, for what readership, and why did they fail to go through with the undertaking?

These questions are further compounded by Arabic margin notes found throughout the text. While the Italian hand has failed to complete the task of adding chapter rubics, an Arabic hand writing in red ink has added Arabic chapter rubics in most cases as well as further notes and rough translations of selected passages as marginalia. The purpose and origins of these Arabic notes is far from clear. The Arabic is poor and is almost certainly by someone for whom Arabic was not a natural language. This has given rise to speculation that the Arabic notes were made by the same writer as the Italian text, although no one has given a convincing reason why the Italian writer would do this.
I excerpted more than I should have -- these are the writings of the good Dr. Blackhirst, and if I quote them so extensively it's only because I find the subject of interest and the riddle of this text perplexing. I'm not entirely sure I agree with his argument that Barnabas might be based on earlier, now lost, writings, but I'll write more on that later.

Thursday, June 13, 2002
Of late, I haven't written -- haven't wanted to write -- much about the Middle East, or Islam, or the war on the Islamists. I think some of the sites I've linked to the left -- notably Charles Johnson's Little Green Footballs, Meryl Yourish's site, and Joe Katzman's Winds of Change -- offer far more information and commentary than I can bring to bear, and I'd rather read them than offer my own thoughts. I occasionally look at the articles from Arab News, the rantings of Hamas, and other assorted nonsense, but I've preferred not to comment.

I will probably regret doing so now, if only because it will consume a great deal of time better spent doing other things. So let me preface this by noting its utter futility -- those of you who will read this and agree with what I've written probably didn't need to read it at all, and those who disagree will not be persuaded by what I have painstakingly assembled.

The Arab News recently ran a three part series called, Beware the Ides of May; you can read them here, here, and here. The author is Afnan Hussein Fatani, described as a "professor of stylistics at King Abdul Aziz University and currently a visiting professor at Dar Al-Hekma College, Jeddah." I'm not entirely sure what a professor of "stylistics" is, but I'm glad I never encountered one in my undergraduate days.

The series is about Israel, and indulges in all the usual one-sided argument critical readers have come to expect from pieces in the Arab News. I'll pass over the factual inaccuracies and the contextless critique of Israel's actions; what disturbed me so much was the theology of the pieces.

I'm certainly not an expert in Islam, but I know a little of the Bible, and while I'm neither a Jew nor much more than a nominal Christian (I'm one of Shaw's worldly wisemen), I think I have some grasp of the basic ideas of my religion. That said, let us pick up Fatani's arguments about Israel's recent attempt to attack the infrastructure of terrorism in the West Bank:
The first pretext we are given is that Israel has a right to defend itself from Palestinian suicide bombers. According to US Congress, the brutal and wanton bombing of Palestinian cities is a legitimate "pre-emptive measure" by the Israeli government. Thousands of years ago, another supporter of pre-emptive measures, Herod the tyrant, the King of the Jews, ordered all the two-year old boys of Bethlehem murdered so as to kill the newborn Jesus, the prophesied King of the Jews, and hence ensure his grip on power. (Mathew 2: 1-18)

I wonder if this is legitimate in the eyes of US congressman? Has anyone ever wondered why this Herodian self-defense strategy, known in church history as "The slaughter of the Holy Innocents" is never observed except by very few churches. Has anyone ever asked why this scripture is seldom read during the Christmas season, or rarely read at all? Could it possibly have anything to do with the fact that Herod the tyrant (37 BC. to 4 BC.), who initiated the building of the Third temple in Jerusalem, was a Jewish national leader, married to a Jewish princess?
Of the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Matthew is the only one who tells this story. There is no contemporaneous, independent historical record of the "slaughter of the Holy Innocents." And Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience; most likely, the tale of Herod, which echoes that of the Pharoah who resorted to the same expedient to get rid of Moses, is designed to persuade the reader that Jesus' coming is as fundamental, as important, as world-changing as that of Moses. Or, as Shaw puts it, Matthew was seeking
...for some legend bearing out Hosea's "Out of Egypt have I called my son," and Jeremiah's Rachel weeping for her children: in fact, he says so. Nothing that interests us nowadays turns on the credibility of the massacre of the innocents and the flight into Egypt.
But consider also what Fatani is saying. The Israelis are looking for potential suicide bombers; Herod was looking for Jesus, whom, we are told, is revered as a prophet in Islam. We find here the identification of Jesus with the crazed lunatics who blow themselves up in the vicinity of children and women and the elderly.

In part two, Fatani says,
What is so democratic about Western leaders assembling to uphold by brute force promises made more than 2000 years ago during the exile of Jews in Babylon in the 5th century BC. Shouldn’t such wild claims be first verified independently? According to our version of events, and according to the older and more authentic Barnabas Gospel (as well as the Dead Sea scrolls) dating back to the 1st century AD(during the time of John the Baptist), God promised the land to all of Abraham’s offspring, that is to his first-born son Ishmael, to Isaac, and to his 11 other sons by the two Canaanite wives he married after Sarah’s death, Qantura and Hajoon. (The most familiar of his later sons is Midian, an ancestor of Moses’ Midianite wife as mentioned in the Bible and the Qur’an.) Keep in mind that God’s promise to Abraham was made long before the birth of any of his sons; he was 86 when Ishmael was born, and 100 at the time of Isaac’s birth. Hence, if we were to take God’s promise to Abraham literally, then the land does not belong exclusively to Isaac’s descendants and certainly not to immigrant Israelis from Europe and America; it rightfully belongs to all the native-born people of the region including the Palestinian of Canaan, be they Jews, Christians, or Muslims. As the Bible asserts, Abraham is the father of many: “I have made you a father of many nations” (Romans 4: 13-17) — “In your seed will I bless all of the tribes of the earth” (The Gospel of Barnabas).

It was basically illegal for Western leaders to dispossess the Arabs, Ishmael’s descendants, of their legitimate inheritance so as to reinstate a group of Ashkenazi settlers and squatters like Begin, Shamir and Sharon, who are not of the tribe of Israel nor even genealogically related to Abraham in any remote way, just because they happen to be Jewish by faith. If that were the case, then the Vatican should lawfully be divided among all the Catholics of the world, from Ireland to the Philippines.
I'll confess here that there's nothing I enjoy so much as a forgery, and the Gospel of Barnabas appears to be one:
While the extant work has a pronounced Muslim agenda, many scholars - looking beyond this vaneer - have detected some remarkable reconstructions of early "Ebionite" points of view. This was recognized by John Toland, the Irish Deist, who first introduced the work to Europeans in the 18th C., and more recently by the Jewish scholar Schlomo Pines in the 1960s, who was critical of previous studies and urged a fresh approach to the "Ebionite" character of the Barnabas gospel.

Some Muslims object to calling the work the "medieval" Gospel of Barnabas. There are Muslims polemicists who claim that the work is ancient and, indeed, the very "Injil of the Prophet Isa". But there can be no question that the extant work is a late medieval production - to claim otherwise flies in the face of all the evidence. The question is, though, has it been based upon some earlier writings - perhaps ancient - or upon earlier sources? There are manystartling ways in which the work engages with early Christian debates. The view taken in this on-line presentation is that the work, while certainly not the true "Injil" of the "Prophet Isa", and while not an ancient work in itself, nevertheless preserves an early - perhaps ancient - viewpoint.
Incidentally, shouldn't that be a Renaissance forgery? I think the manuscript dates to something like 1500, although I may be wrong about that...

As for the notion that Ashkenazi Jews are not related to Abraham at all, I must have missed those waves of conversion to Judaism in the history of the various European countries from which they came. In any case, Fatani later says:
As many Western theologians have repeatedly pointed out, the conception of the chosen people in the Hebrew Bible is a spiritual rather than a racial conception.
So then Ashkenazi Jews -- assuming, unlikely as it may seem, that they were European converts to Judaism rather than geneological descendents of Jews -- become chosen people by embracing the faith of Abraham.

As for God's promise of the Holy Land, my King James Bible (Genesis 17:19-21) says:
And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.

And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.

But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.
I don't know how much more explicit one can get than that. Of course, the King James Bible is not the most accurate translation, and if I'm not mistaken, Muslims argue that the Hebrew scriptures are inaccurate or corrupted, so my citation from Genesis probably wouldn't persuade Fatani.

Later in part two, Fatani writes,
As to the alleged unconditional promise that God made to Moses, the promise of Palestine, the land of milk and honey. Well, the Bible states that God retracted this promise to punish the Israelites for their incessant iniquity: “From that day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I sent to you all my servants the prophets, day upon day; yet they did not listen to me, or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck.” (7:22 ff).

They were specifically forbidden from entering Jerusalem, and God made them vow never to migrate to the Holy land in large numbers, never to enter the land by force, and never to rebel against the people of the world. They were to wait out their punishment in exile until the second coming of Christ. (Sources: Ruth Blau, “Les Gardien de la Cite,” p. 60).
Leave aside the bizarreness of a Muslim citing a Christian author who argues that Jews were to suffer in silence until the second coming of someone that, according to Islamic doctrine, didn't come the first time. What about that "alleged" promise? Here's Joshua 1:1-5:
Now after the death of Moses the servant of the LORD it came to pass, that the LORD spake unto Joshua the son of Nun, Moses' minister, saying,

Moses my servant is dead; now therefore arise, go over this Jordan, thou, and all this people, unto the land which I do give to them, even to the children of Israel.

Every place that the sole of your foot shall tread upon, that have I given unto you, as I said unto Moses.

From the wilderness and this Lebanon even unto the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, and unto the great sea toward the going down of the sun, shall be your coast.

There shall not any man be able to stand before thee all the days of thy life: as I was with Moses, so I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee.
I should probably state here that I don't consider any religious text to be legally binding on the present. I disagree with Fatani's method of arguing his points. But he raises the subject. I am only pointing out things that contradict him. That doesn't mean I'm about to put on the sackcloth, or sacrifice cows, or any such thing. I am, after all, a worldly wiseman. Still, I'd expect someone using the Bible to argue a political point to at least have some slight familiarity with the text. Say what you will about Christian Conservatives, they can usually site chapter and verse.

In any case, I am only through part two of his series; there's a third one to go. But I'm exhausted, and this is already a very long post. Perhaps I'll finish this tomorrow, but I'm already regretting having spent so much effort on something of so little utility.

Lisa Spangenberg, a real medievalist, has what appears to be a new site called The Digital Medievalist. She was kind enough to say that although I say I'm not a real medievalist, I write and think like one. I take that as high praise. I'll add a link to the left shortly.

Update: The Digital Medievalist is actually an old site -- well, old for a medievalist weblogger. Also, my link to the site is up on the left side of this page. And speaking of links, Digital Medievalist has some very useful links on her site -- well worth a visit.

Wednesday, June 12, 2002
Sorry I haven't posted in a while; I was traveling. I brought the new laptop with me, but really, I didn't have a spare minute even to follow the news, let alone to write anything. I've spent a good part of this evening getting caught up on current events; tomorrow I'll resume my ramblings.