Midweek Blog, “The Last Days Are at Hand:” The Epistle of Barnabas and Reading the Signs of the Times

homer_the_end_is_near

In continuing my series on the Apostolic Fathers, I wanted to examine the Epistle of Barnabas today. My reason for doing so lies within many of the comments I have read online and even heard from some individuals regarding the United States today. I want to preface this by saying that this blog will not get into the recent debates regarding the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage a few weeks ago (I find that such debates belong in a more philosophy- or theology-centric blog); however, the ruling has been one of the main catalysts for individuals clamoring that the end of days must be at hand. At this point, I want to jump into the Epistle of Barnabas.

Barnabas reads:

“We must therefore investigate the present circumstances very carefully and seek out the things that are able to save us. Let us avoid, therefore, absolutely all the works of lawlessness lest the works of lawlessness overpower us, and let us hate the deception of the present age, so that we may be loved in the age to come… The last stumbling block is at hand, concerning what the scriptures speak.” (Barnabas 4:1-3)

And further:

“Consequently, let us be on guard in these last days, for the whole time of our faith will do us no good unless now, in the age of lawlessness, we also resist, as befits God’s children, the coming stumbling blocks.” (4:10)

As we did last week, I want to pause to note that the original intent and flavor of such commentary on the world around the author was likely rhetorical in order to inspire direct action. Barnabas was probably written sometime between 70-135 AD (Holmes 373), and contains a general anti-Jewish tone throughout. Israel often serves as a negative example, such as their tendency of reading Mosaic laws too literally, instead of an allegorical understanding of the laws’ true, spiritual message (Barnabas 10). As the author’s purpose is to invoke action by Christians in the present age, one must read the above passages from chapter four as a rhetorical device designed to inspire Christian piety in their lives.

To pull a 180, there have been many people throughout American Church History who have claimed intimate knowledge of when the end of the world would come. Heck, Y2K inspired a number of groups to wait for the end times on a mountaintop, or in Jerusalem, for a front-row seat to the apocalypse. Even today many people will point to social or political events in order to show that “the end is nigh.” I think that some people may have called Barack Obama the antichrist a time or two. The most recent apocalypse-inspiring event has been the SCOTUS’s legalization of gay marriage in all 50 states. Some have decided that this will be what finally causes Christ to return to earth.

The reason I am making the connection between those who claim the end of the world is upon us and the Epistle of Barnabas is twofold. First, the idea that a text written in the first two centuries AD (almost 2,000 years ago) taught its audience that they were living in the last days should serve as proof that no one has any idea when the end of the world is actually going to happen (so how about we stop trying to figure it out?).

The second reason is more nuanced. I wonder what someone who today claims that the end of the world is coming actually wants to accomplish by such rhetoric. Does that person want to inspire his or her own community toward a more righteous way of life (as Barnabas did)? Or is their message intended to scare others into joining their ranks/ aligning with their ideology? Do people who are currently claiming that the USA is “beyond saving” really want it to be saved? Or would they rather the USA just align with their message and teaching?

In closing, I feel like the type of people who are so focused on the end of days often miss out opportunities to serve the world around them. Instead of seeing some event as “the sign that Christ is returning soon,” why not try to lovingly minister to those with whom one disagrees? If one’s goal is truly that people will hear the Gospel, why the fear-mongering? Why not action that speaks a loving message into the hearts of those around you? I would argue that much of Barnabas has an ax to grind (particularly against Jews). As a historian, I do like how it is an early example of a more allegorical interpretation of scripture and shows how that exegetical method developed. Yet, I wonder how Jews would have responded to such a work. I conclude with one final question: Do people claiming the “end is nigh” ever wonder what impact their message has on people? As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments on this.

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5 thoughts on “Midweek Blog, “The Last Days Are at Hand:” The Epistle of Barnabas and Reading the Signs of the Times

  1. The Epistle of Barnabas was written in a more aggressively pagan world than our own: slavery, child prostitution, and infanticide were accepted practices in addition to our issues of homosexuality, abortion and pornography.
    We tend to forget that “the world” is always an enemy, sometimes more, sometimes less, and the end is always drawing near: the Roman world came to an end, and so will the modern. We are always dual citizens, one foot in our home country, one foot in the Kingdom of heaven.
    In the NT Rome is both Babylon and the God-willed peace-keeper. St. Paul is proud of being a Roman citizen and an Israelite, but he can also condemn both insofar as those identities might keep him from Christ.

    • Thanks for reading/ commenting!

      I think it’s good to note these aspects of the historical setting of Barnabas. I think that most likely the author of that text is more in line with Paul and other early Christian writers (such as the John of Revelation) in saying things like, “the end is at hand, shape up!” However, those are usually written to their own communities and/or like-minded communities. Many people today are quick to say that America has a one-way ticket to hell and you better jump on board with their ideology if you want to be spared. I see a decided difference between the two thought processes.

      • The ideological pressure is probably good to note. St John strikes me as being written to console, not to scare.
        On the other hand it is normal to love your country and want what is best for it. It is easy to forget that it isn’t our final destination.

  2. Pingback: Midweek Blog: Is the USA a Christian Nation? The Epistle to Diognetus and Life as a “Foreigner” | The Historical Christian

  3. Pingback: Midweek Blog: Is the USA a Christian Nation? The Epistle to Diognetus and Life as a Foreigner | The Historical Christian

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