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  • The Struggle for Scripture and Covenant: The Purpose of the Epistle of Barnabas and Jewish-Christian Competition in the Second Century
  • Robert F. Hull Jr.
Reider Hvalvik. The Struggle for Scripture and Covenant: The Purpose of the Epistle of Barnabas and Jewish-Christian Competition in the Second Century. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2. Reihe, 82. Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1996. Pp. xiii + 415. DM 118.

This aptly-named study is a revision of Hvalvik’s doctoral dissertation, written under the supervision of Oskar Skarsaune and submitted to the Norwegian Lutheran School of Theology in 1994. It joins a number of recent publications devoted to pushing back the darkness that obscures our knowledge of Christianity [End Page 325] and Judaism in the second century, their distinctive developments and interrelationship.

Since most recent research has focused largely on the literary and theological traditions of Barnabas, Hvalvik sets as his primary aim the identification of the purpose of the writing (16). A secondary goal is to describe the relationship between Church and Judaism in the early centuries, especially the second century, in order to provide a plausible setting for the production of a work such as Barnabas (13–16).

Part One takes up the standard introductory issues of dating, provenance, authorship, readers. On the basis of 16:1–6, with its references to the destruction of the Jewish temple and its rebuilding, which “is now taking place” (16:4), Hvalvik dates the work to 130–132 and the building of the Jupiter temple by Hadrian in the renamed Aelia Capitolina. He is cautious about assigning a place of origin, concluding only that the epistle likely originated “in the Greek-speaking Eastern part of the Mediterranean” (41). Its author considered himself to be a charismatically-endowed teacher whose main task was to interpret scripture for readers who might be somewhat ambivalent about his message (48–53).

The heart of the work is Part Two (57–211), in which the author attacks the question of purpose from a literary standpoint. This is largely a synchronic approach, in which Hvalvik analyzes the text on the basis of epistolary conventions, semantic features, rhetorical characteristics, and theological concerns. Methodologically, this is an admirable procedure, especially in his study of vocabulary, in which he gets beyond word-counting and identifies three major semantic fields, one that includes the closely-related domains of “knowledge,” “learning,” and “understanding,” a second that relates largely to Jews and Judaism, and a third with words relating to the well-known tradition of the “Two Ways.” His identification of the Two Ways as a motif that occurs throughout the epistle undercuts the conventional judgment that the section in chaps. 18–21 of Barnabas, where the Two Ways tradition is explicitly set forth, is loosely tacked on and may not have been part of the original composition. On the contrary, in the opinion of Hvalvik, it is “appropriate to refer to the Two Ways as the governing idea of the letter” (65).

Is the composition a genuine letter or only a homily or tract in epistolary dress? Hvalvik concludes that it is a “real” even if somewhat “literary” letter (78), which means it is written to a discrete set of readers in relation to specific and current issues rather than theoretical matters. Specifically, Barnabas is written in a setting in which Judaism is considered to be a threat to the Church on two fronts: (1) Judaism may be attracting Christians to convert; (2) Judaism is competing with the Church for the same potential Gentile converts.

Hvalvik sets the theology of the letter in relation to the above concerns. Clearly, the most interesting feature of Barnabas is its interpretation of scripture. Hvalvik studies the roughly 100 explicit quotations of scripture and emphasizes the distinctive or characteristic interpretive techniques of the author. What stands out is the author’s insistence that the scriptures belong, not to Israel and the church, but solely to the church. Scripture really reflects the “Two Ways,” the [End Page 326] way of “them” (Jews) and the way of “us” (Christians), but all its references to the Jews are negative. By selective quotation, tendentious interpretation, and even...

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