Do as I Say, Not as They Do: Social Construction in the Epistle of Barnabas Through Canonical Interpretation and Ritual
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What makes a group a group? There must be something common among individuals that would constitute such individuals as an actual group. Some groups might be informal—for instance, a group of individuals waiting at a bus stop—while others might be more institutional—for instance, a number of newcomers undertaking an initiatory rite.
In most, if not all, cases, these groups form around two elements: canon (i.e., a set of normative values) and ritual. This is evident for the latter, more institutionalized group, but the same can be said of informal groups as well. The group of people waiting at a bus stop do not coincidentally gather at the same time and location. Rather, there is a normative schedule that designates a specific time and location, and the gathering and waiting of these individuals can be perceived as a ritual.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, these two elements of canon and ritual play a significant role in our involvement in groups today. Canon and ritual are so embedded in group formation that often we take them for granted. In the ancient Mediterranean world, canon and ritual were also fundamental for group formation. There is, however, one text where these two elements seem to be neglected.
Likely written in the early second century CE, the Epistle of Barnabas has been regarded as one of the most puzzling texts of early Christianity for a variety of reasons. Until fairly recently, most of the research has focused on the sources behind the letter or its hostility toward Jewish rituals. The epistle, however, is also strange because its views on canon and ritual—the foundational elements of group formation—are obscure. The opprobrium of Jewish rituals that this text delivers is grounded on Jewish normative values and traditions. Moreover, it appears, at first glance, that the text does not advance its own rituals and its only “canon” is that which is owned by the very group that the text seems to be attacking.
Upon closer analysis, I argue that the text actually does reveal a pressing concern for both canon and ritual. The key to this is a rare metaphor that it uses, the circumcision of hearing (Barn. 9:1–3), whose importance and rationale have not hitherto been expounded in scholarship. In part, this is because the significance of this metaphor does not directly contribute to the theology of Barnabas, which has largely preoccupied Barnabas scholarship. Not only is this metaphor significant, but its significance lies in its social and communal implications.
To explore these implications I draw upon interdisciplinary research on canon and ritual. Barnabas attempts to create and/or sustain his group by offering a new canon (or canonical interpretation) that could only be understood through the circumcision of hearing. Although the methodology and conclusion of this study are primarily concerned with the social dimensions of the text, I do not intend to undermine the importance of its theology. Rather, my study aims to supplement, or perhaps even clarify, the theological outlook of Barnabas. Owing to the theoretical richness of canon and ritual, my study can also serve as a methodological paradigm to examine the dynamics of other communal groups.
Jason N. Yuh, University of Toronto