Animal Typology in the Epistle of Barnabas

I’m reading through the Apostolic Fathers this year and recently finished the Epistle of Barnabas (in The Apostolic Fathers, second edition, J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer, trans [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1989], a text written sometime toward the end of the first century or the beginning of the second. One of the striking things about it is the use of allegory and typology. For example, in ch. 10, the author loosely quotes from Leviticus and Deuteronomy concerning dietary restrictions and then riffs on what each forbidden animal actually represents. For example, there is a prohibition against eating swine which the author writes means that

you must not associate…with such men, men who are like swine. That is, when they are well off, they forget the Lord, but when they are in need, they acknowledge the Lord, just as the swine ignores its owner when it is feeding, but when it is hungry it starts to squeal and falls silent only after being fed again (10:3).

Later in that chapter, the author of the epistle lists the commandment, “Neither shall you eat the hyena” (10:7). This, of course, appears nowhere in the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, the epistle’s author deduces from it that it means

[d]o not become…an adulterer or a seducer, or even resemble such people. Why? Because this animal changes its nature from year to year, and becomes male one time and female another (10:7).

Spoiler: hyenas don’t change their sex and it appears that the author’s epistle is basing his information on Aesop’s Fables or something of that nature. The epistle also takes aim at weasels, claiming that it “conceives through its mouth” (10:8), another misunderstanding rooted in ancient myth.

Reading through the Apostolic Fathers has been eye opening in many ways, the Epistle of Barnabas especially so.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

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