So, back around 2000, some smugglers were caught smuggling antiquities around Turkey, and a quite interesting text was picked up while raiding them (or so the story goes), written in gold(ish?) ink in Syriac on leather.
Now it's mid-December 2015, and more importantly Christmas time, and more importantly than that it's time to generate some hits on websites y'all! So let's see just how much anti-Christian conspiracy we can wring out of this curiousity!
Or maybe get some web-hits out of pouring cold water on the feverish fires of anti-Christian conspiracy. Y'know, whichever. Option 2 sounds more fun, so let's go with that.
• SO IS THIS A 1500 YEAR OLD BIBLE?!
No, because it isn't a "Bible". It's one text. Which would still be pretty interesting, but don't be fooled by hysterical claims of it being a "Bible" (except in the sense of it being a book, loosely speaking). There are actual collections of scriptural texts that are 1500 years old, but this isn't one of them.
• BUT IT'S 1500 YEARS OLD, RIGHT?!
Only if whoever inscribed it thought that the year 500(ish) was the fifteen hundredth year of the "Lord" of whoever inscribed it "in the name of the Lord". Probably the "Lord" is Jesus, based on contexts of the work. If the "Lord" is supposed to be God (and not Jesus), or for that matter anyone else, it's hard to figure out why the inscriber is reckoning a 1500 year count of that person's Lordship.
So, no, the text itself is 500 years old. (Maybe, unless it's totally a hoax.)
• BUT... uh... IT COULD BE COPYING A 1500 YEAR OLD TEXT, RIGHT?!
I dunno. Maybe? Who knows? Scholars haven't been able to study it very well yet.
• BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN KEPT SECRET BY THE VATICAN OR SOME OTHER CHRISTIAN AUTHORITY, RIGHT?!
No, it was being held by the Turkish government, who are increasingly Muslim in their sympathies (and who govern a largely Muslim nation), until they could get enough reassurance that they could legally claim ownership (in case the smugglers stole it from a rightful owner), whereupon they sent it to a Turkish antiquities museum in Ankara. Now that it's at an actual scholarly museum, the Vatican has applied for permission to send scholars to study it.
• BUT SOMETHING ABOUT IT IS SUPPOSED TO BE SECRETLY SECRET, RIGHT?!
Maybe the identities of whoever is paying millions of dollars for photocopies of its pages are supposed to be secret. But, and I think this is important to stress, Turkey (and/or the museum, and/or some enterprising fellow at the museum) is selling photocopies of its pages for millions of dollars. It's only "secret" if you can't afford to look at it. Which probably means you, yes you, aren't worthy to see its secrets. Because you have better things to spend your million dollars on. Or don't have a million dollars.
Please note that if anyone wants to donate two million dollars to me, I will try my hardest to post a photocopy of one of the pages here on the Cadre Journal. I promise!
• IF IT ISN'T ALL THAT SECRETLY SECRET, WHY DOES THE VATICAN WANT TO STUDY IT?!
Because the Vatican has a lot of renowned antiquity geeks who are interested in the history of the church, warts and all, including the ancient opponents to the orthodox party because those are also part of the history of the church. And any antiquity geek, whether Christian or not, would want to study it. Including to evaluate whether it's even legitimately 500 years old. (See: ridiculous amounts of money being paid for photocopies.)
• IF IT ISN'T ALL THAT SECRETLY SECRET, WHY WOULD PEOPLE PAY RIDICULOUS AMOUNTS OF MONEY FOR PHOTOCOPIES?!
Why does a plush figure of Baragon from Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidora: Giant Monsters All-out Attack sell for $150 on Amazon? He isn't even in the title of the movie!
Honestly, you'd have to ask those people. I suspect the buyers are largely wealthy Muslims wanting to see if this is, as rumored, a(nother) copy of the Gospel of Barnabas.
• WHY WOULD A MUSLIM CARE ABOUT A RESPECTED ANCIENT LEGITIMATE ORTHODOX EPISTLE THAT WAS EVEN TREATED AS CANONICAL OR NEAR-CANONICAL BY SOME OF THE ORTHODOX FATHERS, AND WHICH WE HAVE PLENTY OF COPIES OF?!
No, no, you're thinking of the Epistle of Barnabas.
• WHY WOULD A MUSLIM CARE ABOUT AN ORTHODOX TEXT FROM THE 400s THAT WAS POPULAR IN LATE ANTIQUITY AND WHICH WE ALREADY HAVE A COUPLE OF GREEK AND ONE LATIN COPY OF?!
No, no, you're thinking of the Acts of Barnabas.
• WHY WOULD A MUSLIM CARE ABOUT A GOSPEL FROM AN ORTHODOX JEWISH CHRISTIAN EVANGELIST WHO WAS THE COUSIN OF ST. PAUL OF TARSUS AND LIVED IN THE APOSTOLIC AGE?!
Ah. Well, there's a tale. Settle back while I history-geek a bit.
The writers of very late Christian antiquity (500s and 600s, just prior to the rise of Islam) knew of a "Gospel of Barnabas" but did not regard it highly enough to mention it by anything other than name; neither did they censor or warn against it, other than to reject its authenticity. So the best inference in light of what little data we have is that they thought it was a Catholic text (whether Eastern or Western) of respectable doctrine, popular in some small areas, but of late composition and so while harmless not to be promoted as legitimate.
We don't have a surviving copy of this Gospel. We do have exactly two copies of another text called "the Gospel of Barnabas", which for convenience I'll call GosBarn2.
However, the earliest known reference anywhere to the current GosBarn2 is the writing of a Spanish Muslim in the mid 1600s, and only two versions of the text survive today, one in Spanish and one in Italian (the Spanish version of the text having been fairly recently rediscovered).
Obviously the text must predate the earliest known reference, and the Moriscan author regards it as being easy enough to find in his area (wherever that is, probably Turkey where many Spanish Muslims fled). No ancient Arabic versions of the text have been found by scholars so far as I know, nor ancient versions in any other relevant language (Syriac, Hebrew, Coptic, Ethiopian, Greek or even Latin which might show translation from an earlier language). Attempts have been lately made to identify a Gospel found in the late 400s (supposedly) buried with the body of St. Barnabas as GosBarn (1 or 2), but at the time the text was regarded as GosMatt and a Christian scholar not long afterward in the early 500s studied it looking for a Matthean textual variation that it did not have, indicating no other problems and thus confirming that however late that Gospel may have been composed it was nothing other than GosMatt. This text was last heard of in the 1000s (when an Eastern bishop reported it without controversy to be a unical manuscript, an early form with all capital letters), but has since been lost.
The Italian text of GosBarn 2 was certainly printed sometime in the late 1500s or early 1600s. There are notes in Arabic but written by a native Italian. The text has 42 blank pages (apparently intended for an introduction and commentary), with 457 pages devoted to translating GosBarn2, providing a wordcount approximately the same as all four canonical Gospels (partly due to the work being a harmonization of all four canon texts). Not incidentally, legitimate photos of the Turkish Syriac text that the internet is all atwitter about this week, show a text that cannot possibly be nearly that size. (Don't be fooled by stock photos of an old text, photographed in a close up end view, showing numerous "quires" or collections of paper bound together as in modern hardback books. Those aren't photos of the new Ankara text.)
A Spanish edition printed in the 1700s was recently rediscovered (in the 1970s), but was well known among English scholars of that time who translated it into English (which may still survive along with some references to it among various English scholars and as one of the Bampton Lectures of 1784). The rediscovered Spanish text claims to have been translated from Italian by an Aragonese (Spanish) Muslim named Mustafa de Aranda writing in Istanbul (thus after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople), and includes a preface by someone calling himself Father Marino (specifically a false name to avoid discovery, created from the name of the suburb of Rome where the preface author's patroness of the Colonna family lived) who claims to have stolen the Italian text (behind the Spanish translation but different from the surviving Italian text) from the library of Pope Sixtus V. "Fra Marino" claims to have been posted in the Inquisition Court where he acquired several works from which he decided the canonical Biblical text had been corrupted and genuine apostolic works had been excluded -- but so far as I can tell the preface author makes no mention of the sensational Muslim claims of GosBarn2. He also claims to have previously heard of the Gospel of Barnabas from an allusion in a work supposedly written by the late 2nd century Irenaeus against St. Paul, citing a citation in a book presented to him by his patroness; but this vague trail cannot be reproduced and no such known text from Irenaeus (or even purportedly by him) exists. It would be super-weird for such a text to be legitimately from Irenaeus, who liked to cite Rom 5, Rom 11, and 1 Cor 15 as evidence of Christ's high Christology (especially in Christ's capability of saving sinners) against the heretic groups of his day.
There is literally no reason to believe GosBarn2 was composed any earlier than the 1300s (and more likely later as the surviving texts show some familiarity with phrases from Dante and Latin Gospel harmonizations, although these may be due to subsequent copies or translations touching up the language with popular styles of the time). The Arabic annotations of the Italian text are so riddled with elementary errors that it is unlikely to have been actually written by an Italian living in Istanbul (much less transcribed from any original Arabic commentary).
So little is known about the history of the text, that there is a lively debate among scholars of it, whether the non-orthodox/Muslim portions are original to the text or were late additions to it. If Turkish Istanbul was indeed part of its transmission, at that time there were radical anti-trinitarian Protestants fleeing Catholic (and orthodox Protestant) persecutions, who set up small publishing companies in the city and its region, protected by the Muslim rulers for their anti-trinity stances but not generally hired by them for translation; because at the time Muslim teaching strongly opposed printing (rather than handwriting) Islamic or even Arabic non-religious texts. In other words, the Muslim authorities regarded them as useful propaganda tools against their Catholic neighbors to the west.
The text has a few similarities to the teachings of Spaniard anti-trinitarian Christian universalist Michael Servetus (whom Calvin misled to be murdered), coming close to a purgatorial universalism: only persistently impenitent sinners will stay in hell, with true penitents being offered salvation out of hell. Certainly this is not any kind of mainstream Muslim belief either.
One of the versions of GosBarn2 involves Jesus denying being the Messiah, prophecying that the Messiah would be from the tribe of Ishmael (thus Arabic).
GosBarn2 is sometimes cited by Muslim counter-Christian apologists who don't know much (or perhaps don't care) about evidence in favor of late medieval composition, and who either aren't familiar with the text's occasional anti-Muslim stances or who know about them but obscure the differences in order to promote the apparently prophetic references to Mohammad and to Islam. I don't know any good reason to regard this text as being historically accurate to Jesus and early Christianity (aside from details it picks up from the canonicals), and we can be sure it certainly wasn't written by anyone directly knowledgeable of 1st century Palestine (such as St. Barnabas) because of the numerous errors and anachronisms which happen to fit late medieval times much better.