Some Muslims appeal to the Gospel of Barnabas as evidence that God has made Judas Iscariot look like Jesus so that Judas was crucified instead. Should you believe in the Gospel of Barnabas?
One of the main differences and how Islam and Christianity view Jesus pertains to his fate. The New Testament claims Jesus died for our sins whereas the Quran states that Jesus did not die but God made it appear so, then took him to heaven (Surah 4:157). The Quran does not provide further details on how this occurred. This has led Muslim Scholars to speculate over the centuries resulting in two major views. One view is that God allowed Jesus to be crucified and made it appear he died. Mistaken for dead, Jesus was removed from the cross and buried. While in his grave, God healed Jesus and took him to heaven. The second popular view is that God made someone look like Jesus and this look-alike was arrested and crucified while Jesus was taken to heaven. Muslim scholars have speculated that the person made to look like Jesus may have been Judas for betraying Jesus, or Simon of Cyrene who had carried Jesus’ cross or perhaps someone else. Muslims will occasionally appeal to the Gospel of Barnabas in support.
This gospel states that when soldiers came to arrest Jesus, God changed Judas’ physical appearance so that it looked like Jesus. When the soldiers saw Judas, they arrested him, despite his very strong protest that they had gotten the wrong man. While leading Muslim apologists such as Ahmed Deedat and Zakir Naik have hesitated to endorse the Gospel of Barnabas, they likewise hesitated to deny its authenticity. Instead, they encouraged Muslims to use the New Testament gospels when talking with Christians and interpret them or I should say rather misinterpret them in such a manner to have the gospel support Islamic theology. But there are many reasons why the authenticity of the Gospel of Barnabas should be rejected even by Muslims. Let’s look at two major reasons.
First, the Gospel Barnabas clearly contradicts the Quran. The Quran says there are seven heavens but the Gospel of Barnabas says there are nine. The Quran says Mary had great pain while giving birth to Jesus but the Gospel of Barnabas says Mary experienced no pain while giving birth to Jesus. The Quran refers to Jesus as Messiah on nine occasions but the Gospel of Barnabas never refers to Jesus as Messiah. In fact, it even denies that he is on two occasions. It’s noteworthy that the Gospel of Barnabas refers to Jesus as Christ on four occasions and this is quite humorous since the word “Christ” is the Greek translation for the Hebrew word “Messiah”. So the Gospel of Barnabas twice states that Jesus is not the Messiah while referring to him as Christ (Messiah) on four occasions. Of course this is not a mistake the real Barnabas, a first-century Palestine, would have made.
The second major reason why the authenticity of the Gospel Barnabas should be rejected is the presence of several anachronisms that suggest the date of composition no earlier than the 14th century. One anachronism pertains to the Year of Jubilee. Leviticus 25:11 in the Bible states that the Year of Jubilee occurred every 50 years but around the year 1300, Pope Boniface the 8th decreed that from that time on, the Year of Jubilee would be held every 100 years. However, in 1343 Pope Clement the 6th returned the Year of Jubilee to once every fifty years. Therefore, it’s of interest that the Gospel of Barnabas states that the Year of Jubilee is every 100 years. This suggests that the Gospel of Barnabas was probably written sometime between the years 1313 and 1343. Of course it’s also possible that it was written even later because the forger didn’t get Pope Clement’s memo.
Two side notes are in order. First, there is evidence that a Gospel of Barnabas existed earlier than the 14th century. Written around the middle of the sixth century, the fifth section of the Gelasian Decree mentions the Gospel of Barnabas and states that it’s an apocryphal book falsely attributed to Barnabas. In the seventh century, the document called the list of 60 books likewise mentions the Gospel of Barnabas as an apocryphal book. However, the anachronisms in the Gospel of Barnabas we have in our possession, of which I’ve mentioned only one, suggest this was a different text than the earlier mentioned one.
Second, some Muslims have argued that the early church fathers Irenaeus quoted extensively from the Gospel of Barnabas. However, this claim is based on a single manuscript that has been dated to approximately 1400 years after Irenaeus wrote. This manuscript introduces the Gospel of Barnabas with the claim that Irenaeus quoted extensively from the Gospel of Barnabas in an otherwise unknown work against the Apostle Paul. This is without doubt a false claim since in his extant writings, Irenaeus frequently refers to Paul’s authority in a positive manner, even refers to Paul and Peter as the two most glorious Apostles. He also said those who do not recognize Paul as an apostle must also reject the writings of Luke who was a disciple of the Apostles and who recognized Paul as an apostle. Then Irenaeus says whoever rejects Luke rejects the gospel message.
Accordingly an anti-Pauline work by Irenaeus should be rejected since it’s based on a single medieval report written 1400 years after Irenaeus, is otherwise never mentioned in any ancient or medieval literature, has never since been seen and clearly contradicts what Irenaeus actually said about Paul in his extant writings. The equivalent would be a claim that a lost work of Sahih Al bukhari had been discovered by a now-deceased Imam, who had showed it to no one but he claimed that Bukhari frequently quoted a letter from Muhammad stating he had enlisted the services of a lettered relative who secretly composed the Quran. That would be historical evidence of the poorest kind. No one would believe it nor should they. And that’s precisely the kind of evidence we have introduced in the Gospel of Barnabas in the single manuscript written 1400 years later.
In summary, that the gospel contradicts the Quran should be reason enough for Muslims to reject it and regard it as a forgery. There’s also little doubt that the Gospel of Barnabas in our possession is a medieval forgery that has no links to the Apostle Barnabas. It contains anachronism suggesting it was written no earlier than the 14th century and it makes a linguistic blunder the historical Barnabas certainly would not have made.