Remember BatBoy? BatBoy was not an assistant at baseball games; he was an imaginary part-human, part-bat creature featured in the tabloid Weekly World News. From time to time (and especially around Christmastime and Eastertime), stories circulate online about a manuscript which has as much credibility as BatBoy. I call this manuscript Codex Batboy. Since 2009, it has occasionally been presented as if it shakes the foundations of Christianity, worries the Pope, vindicates Islam, etc., etc. Here are a few samples of the sensationalistic headlines of stories mentioning this manuscript:
What’s this all about? Islamic writers are attempting to publicize a late medieval text known as the Gospel of Barnabas in order to promote their belief (based on Quran 4:157-158) that Jesus was not crucified. (Those wishing to learn more about the so-called Gospel of Barnabas – not to be confused with the second-century composition known as the Epistle of Barnabas – can read about it at Muslim Hope, Arabic Bible Outreach Ministry, Amina Inloes’ article at Academia.edu, and UnchangingWord. It is certainly a late medieval forgery.
The manuscript in the photographs that accompany these stories has not been shown to have any connection to the Gospel of Barnabas, and the Islamic propaganda-writers do not show that the Gospel of Barnabas is contained in the manuscript. They mention that there is a text called the Gospel of Barnabas, and then they mention that Barnabas was one of the associates of the apostles Paul, apparently hoping that when readers see these statements side by side, they will assume that the historical person known as Barnabas had something to do with the composition of the composition called the Gospel of Barnabas. The writers must also hope that readers will assume that the manuscript contains the text that they say it contains.
Only one or two pages of the manuscript are pictured, and then the writers move on to describe the contents of the Gospel of Barnabas; along the way the writers introduce all kinds of ridiculous claims, prefaced with empty phrases such as “It has been reported,” (indeed it has been reported by liars) and “It is believed” (indeed it has been believed by the gullible) and “It is thought” (indeed it is so thought by the uninformed).
A report which appeared in the British publication Daily Mail in 2016 spread the claim that the manuscript featured in such reports is a “1,500-year-old book.” The article went on to include the same Islamic propaganda found in earlier reports, such as the sentence, “It rejects the ideas of the Holy Trinity and the Crucifixion and reveals that Jesus predicted the coming of the Prophet Muhammad.” Setting aside the propaganda, is there anything to the claim that the manuscript in question, whatever it may contain, is 1,500 years old?
Back in February of 2012, Peter BetBasoo and Ashur Giwargis made some relevant observations about this in an article for the Assyrian International News Agency (also at the PaleoJudaica blog and at OrthoChristian.org). BetBasoo and Giwargis noted that the inscription in one of the photographs says, b-shimmit maran paish kteewa aha ktawa al idateh d-rabbaneh d-dera illaya b-ninweh b'sheeta d-alpa w-khamshamma d-maran – that is, “In the name of our Lord, this book is written on the hands of the monks of the high monastery in
in the 1,500th year of our Lord.” Instead
of supporting the idea that this manuscript is 1,500 years old, it contains a
colophon which dates its production to the year 1500. Nineveh
BetBasoo and Ashur Giwargis also observed that the colophon uses a word to describe the manuscript that traditionally is not used to describe Biblical texts: “The bottom sentence uses the word ktawa (“book”) to refer to the book, but in Assyrian the Bible is never referred to as a “book.” One says awreta (Old Testament), khdatta (New Testament), or ktawa qaddeesha (holy book). Given this, since no one has seen the inside of this “Bible,” we cannot be sure if it is in fact a Bible.”
The Islamic propaganda masquerading as news-articles about this manuscript, calling it a “1,500-year-old Bible,” is incorrect: if the colophon is accurate and the manuscript is not a forgery of some kind, the manuscript is only about 500 years old.
Also, Syriac specialist Dr. Peter Williams briefly chimed in on this subject at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog in 2012. Williams expressed his suspicion that the manuscript is a forgery; he also observed that above the colophon there is text from the closing verses of Matthew as they appear in the ordinary Syriac text of the Peshitta translation. So there is at least a little basis for suspecting that instead of containing the Gospel of Barnabas, this manuscript – if it is not a forged or tampered document – is a damaged copy of the Syriac text of the Gospel of Matthew.
Codex Batboy is not the only item to recently receive sensationalistic claims. An entirely different manuscript was reported to have been confiscated by police in
2015. It too, received sensationalistic headlines. I
advise that if you encounter online stories about manuscripts found in Turkey with
text written in gold letters, with an abundance of claims but a paucity of
evidence, set your belief-o-meter to “Extreme Skepticism.” Turkey
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