Monday, February 2, 2009

Bartlet on the Historical Situation of Hebrews

Bartlet, Vernon. "Barnabas and His Genuine Epistle." The Expositor. Sixth Series, 5 (1902): 409-27; 6 (1902): 28-30.

Bartlet, Vernon. "The Epistle to Hebrews as the Work of Barnabas." The Expositor. Sixth Series, 8 (1903): 381-96.

Bartlet, Vernon. "More Words on the Epistle to Hebrews." The Expositor. Sixth Series, 11 (1905): 431-40.

James Vernon Bartlet (1863-1940) was an ecclesiastical historian who taught at Mansfield College, Oxford, 1889-1928. He wrote primarily on the New Testament and early church history.

It never ceases to amaze me that competent scholars can look at the same exact text and come up with entirely different interpretations incompatible with one another. Such is the case with our next series of essays. Bartlet differs with Harnack (and George Milligan, and A. S. Peake) regarding the historical setting of the epistle. Whereas Harnack believed that Hebrews was written by Priscilla (and Aquila) to Jewish or Gentile Christians in Rome after the Claudian edict, Bartlet argues that Hebrews was written by Barnabas to Jewish Christians in Caesarea in the crisis years leading up to the Jewish revolt, and in particular, in response to the execution of James in 62 A.D.

In the first decade of the twentieth century Bartlet wrote a series of essays on the historical situation of Hebrews. Like a detective Bartlet pieces together clues from the biblical texts and from patristic writings to build his case that Barnabas was the author of Hebrews:

1) Barnabas was one of the leading Christians in the Jerusalem church. He was sent as an envoy to the Antioch to authenticate and confirm the beginnings of the gospel there. He used his considerable influence to introduce Paul to the Jerusalem apostles. He is mentioned before Paul in Acts 15:12, 25 and was equally called to be an apostle to the Gentiles as Paul was (Gal 2:9) Although he would eventually be overshadowed by Paul, Bartlet believes that many in the early church would have regarded Barnabas as the greater man.

2) Bartlet attributes Barnabas’ influence to the possibility that he was a close associate of Jesus and was among the unnamed followers of Jesus outside the circle of the twelve (see, for example, Luke 24:9). He may have also been among the mission of the 70 (Luke 10:1, 17). Bartlet finds his support in Clement of Alexandria who calls Barnabas an "apostle" and names him as one of the 70 (Stromateis 2.20). It is possible that Barnabas was aware of Jesus’ sufferings and crucifixion during his final week in Jerusalem, which could explain the "extraordinary realism" of Jesus’ temptations, particularly with the Garden of Gethsemane scene in Heb 5:7-8. Of course there is no indication in the gospels or Acts that Barnabas was one of Jesus’ close associates. Barnabas is introduced rather abruptly at the end of Acts 4 (verse 36-37) and there is no indication that he had any prior contact with Jesus. However, the reference in Clement of Alexandria is quite intriguing–does he preserve a tradition that has otherwise been lost?

3) Barnabas was a Hellenistic Jew: he was from Cyprus. Cyprus, Bartlet claims, would have been under the influence of both Alexandria and Jerusalem. According to Bartlet, this "dual training finds its counterpart in the mingled idealism and realism of the thoughts in Hebrews."

4) Barnabas was a Levite. As a Levite he would have had intimate knowledge of the sacrificial system in Jerusalem. Bartlet speculates that Barnabas did not find the sacrificial rites of Judaism adequate to give him a clean conscience from the sense of defiling sin. Barnabas instead found that perfect cleansing of conscience in the final sacrificial work of Christ (cf. Heb 9:9, 14; 10:22).

5) Barnabas may have visited Italy, if not Rome. The Clementine Recognitions (1:7) preserves a tradition that Clement heard the gospel from Barnabas in Rome. The Gnostic Acts of Peter preserves a tradition that Barnabas and Timothy were together with Paul in Rome, and were sent by him to Macedonia.

6) Heb 2:3 does not count against Bartlet’s thesis because Barnabas would have been simply identifying himself with his readers; he rhetorically includes himself with his readers.

7) There is a strong tradition that connects Barnabas with Hebrews. The strongest of these traditions is found in Tertullian’s On Modesty 20:

I wish, however, redundantly to superadd the testimony likewise of one particular comrade of the apostles,–(a testimony) aptly suited for confirming, by most proximate right, the discipline of his masters. For there is extant withal an Epistle to the Hebrews under the name of Barnabas–a man sufficiently accredited by God, as being one whom Paul has stationed next to himself in the uninterrupted observance of abstinence . . . And, of course, the Epistle of Barnabas is more generally received among the Churches than that apocryphal "Shepherd" of adulterers. (Quotation from the Ante-Nicene Fathers)
Tertullian proceeds to quote from Heb 6, so it is clear that he has the canonical epistle in mind. Tertullian does not seem to waver in his belief that Hebrews was written by Barnabas. Thus Bartlet finds strong support for Barnabas’ authorship in Tertullian (and some other more obscure patristic witnesses). While I, at this point, find no major objections to Barnabas’ candidacy as the author of Hebrews, I often found Bartlet’s reconstruction highly speculative at points. He takes passing references in his sources to build a whole scenario. But perhaps the biggest objection to Barnabas’ candidacy is Bartlet himself who changed his mind years later and attributed the authorship to Apollos!

We now turn to Bartlet’s reconstruction of the situation of the recipients of Hebrews:

1) They were Jewish Christians who were beginning to fall away from the faith after a long period because of persecution and perhaps because of the delay of the parousia. Heb 3-4 contains a severe judgment on Israel’s past: their leaders failed to bring them into God’s rest.

2) The language of priesthood, sacrifices, covenant and commonwealth suggests that the recipients lived within the sphere of Jerusalem and its temple. They lived in Palestine.

3) They lived somewhere along the seacoast between Joppa and Caesarea (most likely the latter since it had the closest relations with Italy). Bartlet finds support for this in the nautical metaphors that Hebrews uses: a ship drifting away from its moorings (2:1); Christ as the anchor of the soul (6:18). The race metaphor of 12:1 would have been more familiar with Jews living near Caesarea where "non-Jewish sports were within the experience of even Hebrew Christians." I find this highly speculative. The metaphors that the author of Hebrews uses are not particularly extraordinary or obscure and would likely have been readily understood even by Jews living further inland. Besides ancient Jerusalem also contained a hippodrome–Jews would not have been ignorant about Greco-Roman sports.

4) The letter was only sent to one small community. The author tells them to greet "all" of their leaders, so only a section of the community is being addressed. The author perhaps aimed to bring this community in line with the views and practices of the local leaders.

5) The community consisted of wealthy and influential members (6:10; 10:32-34; 13:1-6). Bartlet supposes this is the reason why the community had not suffered unto the "shedding of blood" (12:4) or why they had not been imprisoned. They would have been among the more respected element among the Jewish people. Moreover, their wealth and status could suggest that they were more susceptible to worldliness, thus explaining the exhortations against the reliance on wealth (11:25-26; 12:16; 13:5-6). The exalted diction of the epistle also seems to indicate that the audience was among the intellectual elite among the Jewish Christians in Caesarea.

6) Bartlet imagines that the crisis was precipitated during the tenure of the Roman governor Felix when a struggle erupted between the Jewish and non-Jewish inhabitants of Caesarea for control of the city. Nero ruled in favor of the non-Jews around 61 AD. The crisis was exacerbated by the execution of James in 62 AD. Bartlet speculates that Barnabas might have felt the need to step in to fill the void created by James’ death. Bartlet thus situates the writing of the letter quite specifically in the summer of 62 AD.

7) Barnabas was writing from Italy, but not Rome. He was most likely writing from a seaport town, perhaps Brundisium, on the verge of sailing back to Palestine. He was hoping that Timothy would join him on the trip, having recently been released from prison (Heb 13:23).
Bartlet concludes with an explanation on why the epistle lacks an opening address. First, it may never had an address. But more likely the address, due to its very particular and restricted nature, would have been left off when the epistle was copied for a more general audience. If the address had been of a more general nature, then the address would not have disappeared. He gives the instance in which a copy of Romans from which all local references had been excised (according to Origen).


  1. Interesting. On the last point, do you have the reference in Origen?

  2. In the last article Bartlet says, "For there is a good deal of evidence, going back as far as Origen, which shows that 'there were in circulation in ancient times a few copies of the Epistle from which all local references had been removed'" (p. 439). He quotes from Sanday and Headlam's commentary on Romans (p. 12). Unfortunately, he does not give the reference from Origen.

    As I look over this quote from Bartlet again, I am not entirely sure whether he means that Origen is the earliest witness to this fact, or that the earliest manuscript that omits local references dates from the time of Origen. It would have been nice if Bartlet had given the primary source rather than quoting a secondary source here.