I have recently been writing about a truly odd text called the Gospel of Barnabas, which purports to be a secret gospel revealed to the early Christian figure of that name. The more I get into it, the more intriguing ideas and insights I find. Today I want to explore one truly weird story from the Old Testament. The story really does exist, it really is canonical, but it raises all sorts of difficult questions that really are not addressed much elsewhere in the Bible. Dare I bet that you have not often heard it preached on?
As it stands, the Gospel of Barnabas was put together around 1590 by a person or group deeply hostile to the most basic points of Christian orthodoxy. (The work also incorporates earlier portions, possibly from quite ancient lost gospel texts). Possibly, but not necessarily, the authors were secret believers in some other faith who were forced to adopt orthodox Christianity, at least on the surface. They might have been crypto-Muslims; or else they were Christians of a highly skeptical/liberal strain who were presenting themselves that way. It’s complicated…
Whatever their actual identity, we are dealing with concealed believers, crypto-believers, or, in the language of the time, Nicodemites, and Nicodemus himself (whom we know from John’s gospel) is a central figure in Barnabas. Nicodemus often serves as a channel for Jesus’s teachings. Not surprisingly given this context, much of the Barnabas gospel concerns themes of deceit, concealment, duplicity, impersonation, and false or assumed identities. If only Umberto Eco had turned it into a novel!
Anyone interested in the Reformation era should find Barnabas of great interest, because it is engaged with so many of the religious and intellectual issues of the day. In particular, Barnabas offers a detailed and very hostile critique of Calvinism, and Jesus often denounces thinly disguised Calvinists as “Pharisees.” That again fits the Nicodemite origins of the work.
One story that the Gospel’s “Barnabas” tells at length concerns the Old Testament prophet Micaiah, not to be confused with Micah. The story is found in 1 Kings 22. Jehoshaphat of Judah invites Ahab of Israel to join him in a military campaign, but first they have to consult the word of the Lord. Ahab asks his four hundred prophets, who assure him that he will indeed win the war, and seize Ramoth-Gilead. Jehoshaphat asks for a second opinion, so they turn to Micaiah, a faithful follower of Elijah. Micaiah originally gives a favorable response about coming victory, but then explains that this was a lie, or a parody of the truth. (“You’re going to win! Just kidding!”)
Micaiah then explains that he had had a vision of the heavenly court, and reports the discussion between YHWH and the host of heaven. The passage has obvious parallels to Job, and the interaction between God and Satan:
Therefore hear the word of the Lord:
I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’ “One suggested this, and another that. Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’
“‘By what means?’ the Lord asked.
“‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said.
“‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the Lord. ‘Go and do it.’ (19-22)
That lie was what inspired the original response by Ahab’s four hundred prophets. Ahab is naturally furious, but he is alarmed enough to enter battle very carefully. Nevertheless, as Micaiah alone prophesied, Ahab loses the war, and is killed – around 850 BC.
So why is this important? First, this seems to be the first account of the heavenly throne room, an image that would be of immense interest to later rabbinic scholars, and to Jewish mystics. But some Talmudic scholars asked an excellent question about the authority of what was recounted. Everything we know about heaven and its proceedings comes from Micaiah himself. So was he telling the divine truth himself? Or was he telling a story like this as a rhetorical strategy, to describe things that he was not claiming had actually happened? Was he an unreliable narrator? The Bible tells us not that Micaiah saw these things, but that Micaiah said that he had seen these things: big difference. The heavenly account begins with the words “Therefore hear the word of the Lord,” making it reported speech. It is an interesting, and shrewd, distinction.
John Calvin, incidentally, took Micaiah’s words at face value. He actually used the story to establish the point that God not merely permitted evil but, on occasion, actually directed it. Again, Barnabas is challenging one of Calvin’s doctrines.
Also, and critically, there is the theme of lying and deception, which so fascinated the author of Barnabas. And in this instance, lying and deception that seem to come from God himself, and his angels. There is no suggestion that the spirit is necessarily a devil or demon figure, and he operates entirely with God’s will and permission. In this instance, then, some prophecy in particular cases is not only wrong and inaccurate, but that falsehood is directly provoked by God himself, for the purpose of destroying an evil king. The bad prophets are not lying about what they have witnessed; they are not just making things up to please the king. They are doing what they have been divinely instructed to do, by God and Heaven. In this instance, revelation itself is deceptive.
For Barnabas, that idea is explosive, and raises the question of what other divine revelations might fall into that category. And how does anyone in the material world know that? How, in the context of that work, did one decide between the revelations of Jesus and Muhammad? How did you decide what prophets were truthful? Even more alarming, how many might be truthful as far as they knew themselves, but who might nevertheless be channeling the words of a lying spirit? And a lying spirit authorized by God.
It’s not surprising why such a story might appeal to Early Modern Nicodemites, who rejected the hope of absolute confidence in revelation, and who followed their own inner truths while offering outward conformity to the demands of state and church.
For modern scholarship on the Micaiah story, see Ehud Ben Zvi, “A contribution to the intellectual history of Yehud : the story of Micaiah and its function within the discourse of Persian-period literati,” in Philip R. Davies and Diana V. Edelman, eds., The Historian and the Bible: Essays in Honour of Lester L. Grabbe (New York: T & T Clark International, 2010); and R.W. L. Moberly, “Does God Lie to His Prophets? The Story of Micaiah ben Imlah As a Test Case,” Harvard Theological Review 96(1)(2003) 1-23.
Micaiah’s reputation as a prophet who never spoke good to a king made him a byword for intransigent Puritan critics of the English monarchy, like the famous John Preston in the 1620s, who was called the “Micaiah” of his day. See Nick Bunker, Making Haste from Babylon: the Mayflower Pilgrims and their World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). As far as I can tell, the subversive point about God actively commanding false prophecy does not get much discussed in that era, but I might be totally wrong. Help me on this?