"Muslim gospel" excites "Da Vinci Code" conspiracists

A mysterious manuscript confiscated by Turkish police suggests it was Judas, not Jesus, who suffered crucifixion

Published May 29, 2014 5:51PM (EDT)

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This article originally appeared on Religion Dispatches.

Religion Dispatches In Amsterdam in 1709, philosopher John Toland set his eyes upon a remarkable manuscript—what he described in Nazarenus as "a Mahometan [i.e., Muslim] Gospel, never before publicly made known among Christians."

Associated with the apostle Barnabas, the text essentially retold the life of Jesus in terms familiar from the New Testament, but with some major departures. It contended that Jesus denied his divine status; that he had predicted the coming of the prophet Muhammad; and that Judas died in his place on the cross. Combing Christian canon lists and literature, Toland found references to an otherwise unknown "gospel under the name of Barnabas," and he concluded that this "Gospel of the Mahometans... very probably is in great part that same book."

For Toland, this was not just another apocryphon. From this "Turkish Gospel being fathr'd upon Barnabas," he claimed to have been led to recover "the original plan of Christianity" as centered on Jewish-Christian beliefs that "Jesus did not take away or cancel the Jewish Law in any sense whatsoever."

This, Toland argued, was the very oldest form of Christianity, only it was lost to history when "converts from the Gentiles... did almost wholly subvert" it. On the basis of the Gospel of Barnabas, Toland characterized the most ancient Christianity as harmonious with Islam as well: its account of Jesus, after all, was

perfectly conformable to the traditions of the Mahometans [i.e., Muslims], who maintain that another was crucified in his stead; and that Jesus, slipping thro' the hands of Jews, preach'd afterwards to his disciples, then was taken to heaven.

In this too, Toland buttressed his claims with evidence from ancient Christian literature. It was well known that Church Fathers like Irenaeus had condemned Basilides and others as "heretics" for denying that Jesus died on the cross and for claiming that another had died in his place. Toland’s innovation was in speculating that these alleged "heresies" were actually the true apostolic religion, which had been systematically suppressed—particularly in the wake of the Edict of Milan and the Council of Nicaea. And so it was, in Toland’s estimation, that a Muslim gospel could preserve Christian truths long lost to Christians themselves.

Toland’s claims were controversial by design. He introduced the GBarn in Nazarenus as part of a Deist critique of the established Church of his time. Not surprisingly, his theories did not find scholarly or theological acceptance. It didn’t help in this regard that the evidence for the GBarn was both slim and late.

What Toland saw in Amsterdam was a manuscript from 1600, preserving the text of the gospel in Italian. Later, a Spanish version was also discovered, but this manuscript was even later, dating from the eighteenth century—hardly the ancient artifacts evoked by Toland’s grand narratives of suppression and rediscovery.

Almost 300 years later, however, the GBarn continues to excite curiosity and controversy, recently intensified due to the surfacing of a mysterious manuscript that Turkish police confiscated from smugglers in 2000. The manuscript was the subject of media coverage in 2012, when curiosity about it was sparked by the Vatican's reported interest in examining it. "1500 year-old Syriac Bible found in Ankara, Turkey: Vatican in shock!" proclaimed the National Turk.

Other Turkish newspapers, such as Today’s Zaman, speculated that it "may be a copy of the much-debated GBarn, which Muslims claim is an original gospel that was later suppressed." Iran’s Basij Press went even further, using the discovery of the manuscript as an occasion to explain how the GBarn undermines Christianity.

Such claims soon attracted attention from Western journalists. The Daily Mail addressed the claim that this gospel might "cause Christianity’s collapse," while the Vatican Insider dismissed it as a "hoax," charging that the Gospel of Barnabas was a forgery. The dating of the manuscript was questioned by scholars like T. Michael Law, and Christian blogs offered point-by-point refutations countering the notion that this gospel was more authentic than those in the New Testament.

To be sure, even if this manuscript were modern in date, it would still be significant as a witness to the puzzling GBarn, which is otherwise known from only two surviving manuscripts, both in European languages. The possibility of a third, with text in Syriac (i.e., Christian Aramaic), would be momentous, even if it were to date to the year 1500 rather than to 1,500 years agoSome reports, however, have suggested that it isn't a copy of the GBarn at all.

Nevertheless, the notion of the manuscript’s connection with the GBarn continues to attract attention. In 2013, conspiracy theories circulated linking the resignation of the Pope to its rediscovery. This year, various blogs have resurrected the theory that it preserves an ancient version of the GBarn. In the process, they have evoked scenarios of suppression straight out of Toland; one paragraph, repeated in multiple reports for instance, asserts:

It is believed that, during the Council of Nicea, the Catholic Church hand-picked the gospels that form the Bible as we know it today; omitting the Gospel of Barnabas (among many others) in favor of the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many biblical texts have begun to surface over time, including those of the Dead Sea and Gnostic Gospels; but this book especially, seems to worry the Vatican.

Online speculation, in turn, has sparked renewed press interest. Just this month a headline in the Latin Times proclaimed: "1500-Year-Old Bible Discovered In Turkey Indicates Jesus Christ Was Not Crucified."

At least from the evidence now at hand, there's little to support the theory that the GBarn is authentically ancient. The question, rather, is why this possibility continues to arise again and again despite the paucity of evidence. Why is the idea of this gospel—and speculation about its possible suppression—so compelling to modern readers? How has on-line speculation about a Syriac manuscript of an obscure apocryphon risen to the status of e-Rumor, spreading widely through social media and persisting for years?

The Crucifixion of Judas Iscariot

The controversial version of the crucifixion in chapters 215-219 of the Gospel of Barnabas follows the same structure as the four gospels known from the New Testament, though at each stage it introduces a twist. In the Barnabas, for instance, Judas’ betrayal of Jesus to the Romans prompts God to save Jesus by removing him to heaven and to condemn Judas by changing his face so that it was the betrayer who suffered arrest and indignity:

Judas entered impetuously before all into the chamber whence Jesus had been taken up. And the disciples were sleeping. Whereupon the wonderful God acted wonderfully, insomuch that Judas was so changed in speech and in face to be like Jesus that we believed him to be Jesus. And he, having awakened us, was seeking where the Master was. Whereupon we marvelled, and answered: 'Thou, Lord, art our master; hast thou now forgotten us?' And he, smiling, said: 'Now are ye foolish, that know not me to be Judas Iscariot!' And as he was saying this the soldiery entered, and laid their hands upon Judas, because he was in every way like to Jesus... The soldiers took Judas and bound him, not without derision. For he truthfully denied that he was Jesus… Then the soldiers lost their patience, and with blows and kicks they began to flout Judas, and they led him with fury into Jerusalem...

The drama of misrecognition in the GBarn continues in its account of his trial, culminating with an account of the crucifixion in which Judas ironically deems God’s judgment unjust:

Whereupon they condemned two robbers with him to the death of the cross. So they led him to Mount Calvary, where they used to hang malefactors, and there they crucified him naked, for the greater ignominy. Judas truly did nothing else but cry out: 'God, why hast thou forsaken me, seeing the malefactor hath escaped and I die unjustly?'

By this account, God saved the righteous Jesus and punished the wicked Judas. It is those who do not trust in God to intervene, in fact, who are said in the GBarn to hide Jesus’ body and claim his resurrection. This causes God to intervene yet again, returning Jesus to earth so that his mother and true disciples can know the truth:

...Those disciples who did not fear God went by night [and] stole the body of Judas and hid it, spreading a report that Jesus was risen again; whence great confusion arose.... Wherefore Jesus prayed God that he would give him power to see his mother and his disciples. Then the merciful God commanded his four favorite angels, who are Gabriel, Michael, Rafael, and Uriel, to bear Jesus into his mother's house, and there keep watch over him for three days continually, suffering him only to be seen by them that believed in his doctrine.

The Gospel of Barnabas’ Jesus, thus, is not the slain and raised Son of God, sacrificed by his divine Father for the sins of humankind, but rather a righteous prophet protected by God when the wicked sought to harm him. The concern here is quite distinct from the docetism condemned by Church Fathers as "heresy."

Basilides, Marcion, and others evoked a wholly divine Christ with no touch of the corruption, pain, or suffering of flesh—and, hence, denied either his death on the cross or the presence of his divine spirit in the body that died. The elevation of a divine Christ beyond bodily flesh is also what’s at stake in texts from Nag Hammadi, like the Apocalypse of Peter and the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, which describe Christ as watching (and even laughing) when a substitute is crucified in his place.

By contrast, the GBarn posits a wholly human Jesus, who explicitly denied his own divinity but who was lifted up into heaven during the events of the Passion; the GBarn’s Jesus is saved from suffering as a man, not exempt from suffering as a deity. It is God, not Christ, who is elevated. Upon closer examination, the parallels cited by Toland thus reveal telling points of difference. The alternate account of the crucifixion in the GBarn falls much closer to the characterization of Jesus in the Qur’an and tafsir than to the "heretical" Christologies of ancient times.

Origins and Reception of the Gospel of Barnabas

Then where—and more importantly why—did the Gospel of Barnabas take form? Among Western scholars, the editors of the French translation are alone in maintaining some connection with the ancient "Jewish-Christian" traditions cited by Toland. Even they, however, agree that its current form does not date to the lifetime of the apostle Barnabas in the first century or to any time prior to the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. Parallels with Dante and other anachronisms preclude a date prior to the 14th century.

Prominent theories about its origins and authorship differ, but they cluster in the late medieval or early modern periods—with options ranging from 14th-century Italy to 16th-century Spain. Dutch scholar Jan Slomp and others, for instance, speculate about its forgery by the Franciscan monk Fra Marino, who is credited, in a preface to the Spanish manuscript, with its discovery; the preface claims that this monk found the manuscript in the library of Pope Sixtus V (1521–1590) when the Pope was sleeping, and converted to Islam immediately after reading it; the possibility that Fra Marino had been a converso (i.e., a Jew forced to convert to Christianity) makes this theory all the more intriguing.

Others, such as Gerald Wiegers, situate the gospel among moriscos (i.e., Muslims forced to convert to Christianity) and Christian converts to Islam "who came in contact with each other before and after the expulsion of the converts from Spain," noting that "in common with several other texts written in these circles, it presents Muhammad as the messiah." Most recently, Theodore Pulcini has made a case for its authorship by a medieval monk of the Carmelite order who had converted to Islam.

Whatever its origins, the recent growth of interest in the GBarn reflects its revival in the 19th and 20th century in the context of Muslim–Christian polemics, especially in South Asia. It was mentioned already in Rahmatullâh al-Kairânawî’s 19th-century polemics against Christianity, and it also made an appearance in Mirza Ghulam Ahmad’s 1899 Jesus in India.

As Oddbjørn Leirvik has shown, it rose to even greater prominence after the 1907 publication of the English translation by Longsdale and Laura Ragg. Within a year, it was translated from English into Arabic (1908), and within a decade, from Arabic into Urdu (1916). These translations gave the GBarn wide circulation.

Not all Muslim scholars accept its authenticity, although the theory of its authenticity and suppression became a popular trope. Toland himself is often cited in support of its authenticity, as in Muhammad Ata ur-Rahim’s 1977 Jesus, Prophet of Islam. During the 19th and 20th centuries, the GBarn was largely forgotten in Europe and North America, but it was widely read and discussed in South Asia and the Middle East.

This has now changed, however, due to the widespread dissemination of the text on the Internet. Today, the GBarn has a prominent place within Christian/Islamic debates online and is known to many Christians as well as Muslims. Recent speculation about the Syriac manuscript in Turkey, moreover, dovetails with the growing place of this gospel in the realm of Internet conspiracy theories about Vatican secrecy.

Theories about its suppression may have been developed many centuries ago, but they speak no less to our own age—a time in which online discussion delights in the notion of long-lost gospels, inspired by Dan Brown at least as much as by the rediscovery of the Nag Hammadi codices. Even if the Gospel of Barnabas tells us little about ancient times, it can tell us quite a lot about the allure of claims about secret histories—both in Toland’s age and our own.

By Annette Yoshiko Reed

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Da Vinci Code Jesus Chris Judas Iscariot Muslim Gospel Religion Dispatches Turkey