In the view of the nineteenth-century Iranian prophet,
Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), the major world-religions
were founded by "Manifestations of God" (sing. mazhar-i
), theophanies who mirrored forth the names
and attributes of God on the human plane. These previous
divine Manifestations included Moses, Jesus, Muhammad
and the Bab in the West, and Zoroaster and the Hindu
figures in the East. Jesus of Nazareth was important
for Bahá'u'lláh in a number of ways, and he cited the
New Testament occasionally. Such references were rare
among Muslim thinkers, who, on the whole, regarded
the New Testament text as unreliable and corrupt and
found its language about Jesus incompatible with the
Qur'an and Muslim theology. Why did Bahá'u'lláh break
with this Muslim tradition of excluding the actual
Bible from religious discourse? I will look for the
answer to this question in three areas. First, I will
examine the lessons that might have been learned from
the Judeo-Christian experience for the founder of a
new, post-Islamic religion. Second, I will look at
the way in which many of Bahá'u'lláh's references to
Jesus are characterized by presentism, insofar as he
invokes Christ to illuminate a contemporary situation
within Babi-Bahá'í history. Third, I will ask what
the implications were of Bahá'u'lláh's approach to
Jesus for his relations with Middle Eastern and Mediterranean
The position of Christians and Christianity had changed
enormously in Iran during the first half of the nineteenth
century. The encroachments of the Russian and British
Empires, their concern with the welfare of local Christians,
the establishment of missionary schools, and some Iranian
Christians' own involvement in commerce with Europe,
all set this community apart. In consequence, some
educated Iranians took a new interest in the history
and doctrines of Christianity, and even some clerics
investigated the religion in order to refute visiting
missionaries such as Henry Martyn (Algar:82-102, Aryan:92-95).
As a nineteenth-century Persian from a Shi`ite culture,
Bahá'u'lláh inherited a number of images of Jesus,
from the Qur'an, from the Persian Sufi mystics and
from Shi`ite texts, as well as from nineteenth-century
Arabic printings of the New Testament. These perspectives
had been seen by many Muslim authors as incompatible,
and their juxtaposition raises many thorny questions.
How did Bahá'u'lláh navigate his way among diverse
sources to create a new intertextuality (a new set
of texts read against one another)? What were his
views of the seminal events in Jesus' life?
The Babi movement began in 1844 in Shiraz, Iran, with
the declaration of Sayyid `Ali Muhammad (1819-1850)
that he had a special divine calling as the "Bab"
or intermediary between God and humans; ultimately
he asserted that he was the Mahdi or promised one of
Islam. The Bab was ultimately arrested for heresy
and imprisoned in fortresses in Iran's northwest.
In 1848 at Tabriz, he was examined by the Shi`ite clergy
in the presence of the heir apparent and declared a
heretic worthy of death. The Bab revealed his own
holy book, the Bayan, to supplant the Qur'an,
and laid great stress on the coming of a further messianic
figure after him, "He whom God shall make manifest."
In 1850 the Iranian state had the Bab executed at
the public square in Tabriz, in the wake of outbreaks
of violence between Shi`ites who rejected the Bab and
the 100,000 or so who had accepted him. In 1852 a
cabal of Babis in Tehran attempted to assassinate Nasiru'd-Din
Shah (r. 1848-1896), but failed. The shah launched
a nationwide pogrom against the Babis that left thousands
dead and drove the religion underground. Among those
arrested at this time was Mirza Husayn `Ali Nuri, known
as Bahá'u'lláh, an increasingly prominent Babi leader
and thinker from a noble background. Found innocent
of involvement in the plot, he was nevertheless exiled
to Baghdad. There in 1863 Bahá'u'lláh declared himself
the promised one of the Bab, and of all religions.
In the same year the Ottoman government brought him
to Istanbul, then rusticated him to Edirne in Rumelia.
In 1868 he was further exiled to the pestiferous city
of Acre (`Akka) on the coast of Ottoman Syria, where
he lived until his death in 1892. Bahá'u'lláh's main
teachings focused on the unity of the world religions,
and the need for world unity, collective security,
and peace. His community in Iran grew by the 1890s
to between 50,000 and 100,000, in a population of 8
or 9 million, most of them apparently artisans, merchants
and members of the new middle class, though village
peasants were also represented. The Bahá'í faith,
has since spread to virtually every country in the
world and numbers some 5.5 million adherents in the
mid-1990s (Cole 1992; Smith; Smith and Momen).
The Authenticity of the New Testament
Although there has not been one monolithic Muslim approach
to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, most Muslim
thinkers have been so convinced that these texts were
corrupted (Ar. tahrif) after the advent of Islam
that they have been loathe to refer to them. It seems
clear, as Hava Lazarus-Yafeh has argued, that exact
quotation of biblical texts is extremely rare in medieval
Muslim writing, and that "only if we assume that these
authors had no direct access to a written Arabic translation
of the Bible . . . can we understand this strange phenomenon"
(113). Yet Bahá'u'lláh did accept the authenticity
of the extant New Testament. Why? Before attempting
to answer this question, let us examine the issue in
The Prophet Muhammad (d. 632) was familiar with oral
Christian traditions, and the Qur'an retells the stories
of the birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus, perhaps
working from Syriac Christian folk motifs (which emphasize
the Lucan nativity narratives), and possibly from extra-canonical
infancy Gospels (Robinson:15-22). The Qur'an speaks
of the revelation given to Jesus as the Injil,
an Arabic word derived from the Greek euangelion
("good news"), praising it as full of guidance and
light and as a confirmation of the Torah (Q. 5:49-50).
Muslims who believe in the corruption of the text
do not identify the Injil praised in the Qur'an
with the New Testament, which they believe distorted
(Parrinder:142-151). Still, there is evidence that
the Qur'an itself employs the word Injil to
indicate the New Testament text, since it instructs
the Christians to judge according to what God has revealed
in the "Gospel" and speaks (7:156) of it as being "written"
(maktub an) and "in their possession" (`indahum).
Once an Islamic state and civilization had been established,
the majority of Muslim scholars rejected the existing
manuscripts of the New Testament, along with those
of the Hebrew Bible, as inauthentic and textually corrupt.
This doctrine depended upon an interpretation of the
Qur'an, which says "Some of the Jews pervert words
from their meanings . . . twisting with their tongues
and traducing religion" (4:46). Most Muslim authors
construed such verses to mean that the Jews (and by
analogy Christians) actually changed the text of the
Bible. A minority of great scholars, such as Tabari
and Ibn Khaldun, suggested that this corruption of
the text referred solely to how it was read and interpreted,
not to tampering with the written words themselves.
The issue of access to the text changed radically in
the nineteenth century, when for the first time Protestant
missionaries had Bibles printed and distributed (Bible
in Arabic 1833; Saliba). Bahá'u'lláh championed the
minority view by upholding the textual integrity of
the Bible in his Book of Certitude, written
at Baghdad in 1862 for a member of the prominent Afnan
merchant family, an uncle of the Bab, Sayyid Muhammad
Afnan Shirazi (Bahá'u'lláh: 1970, 1980a; Collins; Buck).
He notes that most Muslim clergymen dismiss the Bible
as textually corrupt, but he insists that the Qur'an
referred only to changes in law and custom introduced
by the post-exilic Jews, for instance, ceasing the
biblical practice of stoning adulterers. He adds,
Can a man who believeth in a book, and deemeth it to
be inspired by God, mutilate it? Moreover, the Pentateuch
hath been spread over the surface of all the earth,
and was not confined to Mecca and Medina, so that they
could privily corrupt and pervert its text. Nay, rather,
by corruption of the text is meant that in which all
Muslim divines are engaged today, that is the interpretation
of God's holy Book in accordance with their idle imaginings
and vain desires (Bahá'u'lláh, 1970:86; 1980a:67).
To believe in both the Bible and the Qur'an was seldom
attempted, and that Bahá'u'lláh did so profoundly affected
his image of Jesus. The Qur'an remains a touchstone
for many of Bahá'u'lláh's references to Jesus, despite
his familiarity with and willingness to cite the Gospels
themselves. It now functions as a sermon-like commentary,
however, supplementing New Testament perspectives rather
than displacing them altogether.
Bahá'u'lláh makes it clear that he did not find the
mainstream Muslim theory of textual corruption plausible
on rational grounds. What other, unstated, motivations
might he have had? At this point he had no real missiological
reasons for wishing to please Christians. Most Iranian
Christians were Armenians or Nestorians, and they had
not become Babis nor did these local Christians ever
show much interest in the Bahá'í faith, unlike Iranian
Jews and Zoroastrians, who converted in substantial
numbers. The Book of Certitude was addressed
to a Shi`ite Muslim. Still, the New Testament was
potentially important for the new religion in a number
of ways. Its eschatological emphasis on Christ's return
and the clearly symbolic nature of Jesus' parables
and prophecies resonated powerfully with Shi`ite esotericism
and expectations about the rise of a divinely-guided
Mahdi and the return of Jesus at the End-Time. In
constituting a largely spiritual document that was
held by Christians to have abrogated a law-oriented
Torah, the New Testament offered Bahá'u'lláh a model
for moving away from the emphasis on Islamic law (shari`ah)
that pervaded urban, literate Shi`ite culture, as well
as a precedent for abrogating such an elaborated legal
code. The emphasis on redemptive suffering in the
New Testament, centering on a prophetic figure, justified
the combination in the Babi-Bahá'í movement of two
strains of Shi`ite spirituality that had been separate:
Reverence for Muhammad as the founder of the dispensation
and conviction that mourning the Prophet's martyred
grandson Husayn was redemptive. Folk Shi`ism taught
that merely weeping for Imam Husayn (d. 680) was enough
to ensure one's entrance into paradise (Fischer 1980:
13-27; Chelkowski). Jesus' passion opened up the possibility
that the site of redemption could be a prophetic figure
and so helped justify and infuse with meaning the martyrdom
of the Bab and the imprisonments of Bahá'u'lláh. Of
himself, Bahá'u'lláh wrote, "The Ancient Beauty hath
consented to be bound with chains that mankind may
be released from its bondage, and hath accepted to
be made a prisoner within this most mighty Stronghold
that the whole world may attain unto true liberty"
Jesus' Early Life and Career
Let us examine how Bahá'u'lláh deals with the major
events and themes in the life of Jesus. Bahá'u'lláh
refers to the virgin birth in his Book of Certitude,
in the course of an argument for the humanity of past
holy figures. The uncle of the Bab had inquired as
to why the Bab, if he were truly the Mahdi or promised
one of Islam, had failed to establish his sovereignty.
In reply, Bahá'u'lláh says that most holy figures
of the past had been subject to worldly humiliations,
pointing to Moses' flight after being accused of murder,
and calling attention to Mary's predicament when it
became known that she was with child. "Likewise,"
he writes, "reflect upon the state and condition of
Mary. So deep was the perplexity of that most beauteous
countenance, so grievous her case, that she bitterly
regretted she had ever been born" (Bahá'u'lláh 1980a:44-45;
1970:56-57). As hinted in the Qur'an (19:22-28), the
nativity is here not a sentimental Christmas tale,
but a social scandal that plunges the young mother
into despair. Yet her faith and steadfastness are
rewarded, since her son was made a prophet by God.
As for Jesus' birth, Bahá'u'lláh cites it in connection
with his argument that the advent of each Manifestation
of God has been marked both by celestial phenomena
such as the appearance of a comet or star and by a
symbolic "star" in the form of a charismatic human
precursor. The archetype for this conjunction of celestial
and human signs is clearly the nativity story. Bahá'u'lláh,
quoting Matthew 2:2, speaks of how the star was followed
to the realm of Herod, to Bethlehem, by some Zoroastrians
(majus). Bahá'u'lláh's Iranian audience may
have felt this showed their forebears' involvement
with the Nativity (Bahá'u'lláh 1970:64; 1980a:49-50).
Bahá'u'lláh maintained that each major Manifestation
of God was also preceded by a precursor who had attained
the mystical state called by the Sufis the "perfect
person" (insan-i kamil). In the Babi religion,
the harbingers were Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i (d. 1826)
and Sayyid Kazim Rashti (d. 1844), and the Prophet
Muhammad's advent was foreseen by such seekers as the
Zoroastrian Ruz-Bih, who became known as Salman. John
the Baptist played this role in Christianity. Bahá'u'lláh
writes, "As to the sign in the invisible heaven--the
heaven of divine knowledge and understanding--it was
Yahya [John], son of Zechariah, who gave unto the people
the tidings of the Manifestation of Jesus" (Bahá'u'lláh
1970:64; 1980a:44-45). He quotes Qur'an 3:39, "God
announceth Yahya to thee, who shall bear witness unto
the Word from God, and a great one and chaste," explaining
that the "Word" here is Jesus himself. He then quotes
Mt. 3:1-2 on John the Baptist's preaching in the wilderness
The Book of Certitude was written in 1862, a
year or so before Bahá'u'lláh declared himself to be
the messianic figure, "He whom God shall make manifest,"
foretold by the Bab. Bahá'u'lláh went on to found
his own religion, and in 1873 revealed a new, concise
book of laws. The Bab was considered both by Babis
and Bahá'ís an independent Manifestation of God who
had revealed a legal system, and some Babis found it
difficult to accept that it should have been abrogated
so soon. At this point, the relationship between John
the Baptist and Jesus took on a new resonance for Bahá'u'lláh
and his followers, since John was recognized in Islam
as an independent prophet (Parrinder: 48). That John
and Jesus could appear so closely together suggested
that there was nothing anomalous in sacred history
about two Manifestations of God having been contemporaneous.
In one passage, Bahá'u'lláh says that the son of Zechariah
began performing baptisms by immersion and preaching
repentance because the kingdom of heaven was at hand,
quoting Mt. 4:11. He points out that John admits that
Jesus is mightier than he, despite their being contemporaries,
though the Baptist does so allusively since Jesus'
own mission had not yet been made manifest. He glosses
"he who is coming after me" as "he who shall manifest
himself after me." He then cites Mt. 4:13 on John's
baptism of Jesus.
Bahá'u'lláh points out that baptism originated with
John and was his teaching, which the Christians adopted
and carried on, and it appears that his point here
is Bahá'ís are hardly innovating in continuing some
Babi practices. He says that the fragrance of these
days (the simultaneous appearance of two Manifestations
of God) also wafted in those, for the Bab also foretold
the coming of his contemporary, Bahá'u'lláh (Ishraq
Khavari 1971-73, 7:228-229). Elsewhere, Bahá'u'lláh
says that John the Baptist, like the Bab, came to prepare
the people of the world for his successor (Bahá'u'lláh
1892:95-96; cf. Crossan: 237-38). Other Babis appear
to have criticized Bahá'u'lláh for moving too slowly
in supplanting Islamic and Babi law, and here, too,
he appealed to the example of Jesus, saying that even
relatively late in his preaching career he only abrogated
some laws of the Torah, as a kindness to Jews who would
otherwise find it impossible to accept him, and that
if he had begun with such abrogations, his crucifixion
would have occurred much earlier (Bahá'u'lláh 1890-78:6,102).
Bahá'u'lláh believed that a friction developed between
the followers of Jesus and John, and that it was paralleled
by the rancor felt toward the Bahá'ís by the tiny minority
of Babis who did not accept Bahá'u'lláh. He writes,
"They that have turned aside from Me have spoken even
as the followers of John (the Baptist) spoke. For
they, too, protested against Him Who was the Spirit
(Jesus) saying: `The dispensation of John hath not
yet ended; wherefore hast thou come?' (Bahá'u'lláh
1971a:157; 1982:102)." New Testament scholars have
also suggested that a certain amount of tension developed
between John's followers and those of Jesus, based
on Jn. 3 and 4; that a Baptist sect existed in its
own right is indicated by Acts 18:24-28. The Mandaean
or "Sabean" sect of Iraq, a Gnostic group, gave some
honor to John the Baptist in order to fit into the
Islamic legal framework of a "People of the Book" with
their own prophet. It is not impossible that Bahá'u'lláh
came into contact with them (and with the sentiment
he paraphrases above) while living in Baghdad (Fredriksen:24-25;
The narratives of Jesus' birth and baptism inevitably
contained within them implicit legitimations of the
Babi break with Islam and the Bahá'í evolution out
of Babism. As read in an Islamic culture, which expected
a succession of messengers of God, they underlined
that God was ever ready to speak again to his covenantal
communities, but that such a new advent always risked
scandal (the virgin birth) and succession conflicts
(as between the followers of the Baptist and the Christians).
Bahá'u'lláh employs images of Jesus' birth and baptism
in a presentist fashion to help make Babis and Bahá'ís
of the nineteenth century comfortable with aspects
of their own history. Just as the relationship between
John the Baptist and Jesus was complex, with Jesus
acknowledging his being from God by accepting baptism
from him, but later expressing approval of only some
aspects of John's teachings, so the relationship between
the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh is one of both recognition
Jesus' Teachings and Miracles
Bahá'u'lláh cites Jesus as an example of a Manifestation
of God who lacked material riches and honors. As noted,
the uncle of the Bab was perplexed by his nephew's
lack of sovereignty, just as many Jews in the time
of Jesus found it difficult to accept a crucified Messiah.
Bahá'u'lláh points out that a number of holy figures
revered by Shi`ite Muslims suffered afflictions in
this world, and that even the grandson of the Prophet
Muhammad, the Imam Husayn, was brutally martyred by
the Umayyad government in A.D. 680 when he attempted
to lead an uprising against it.
As a result of Jesus' itinerant style of life and his
disdain for worldly goods (e.g. Mk. 10:21, Mt. 10:9-10),
Sufi mystics in Islam saw him as the perfect ascetic.
Many sayings of such a tenor were attributed to him
or adopted into Sufi and esoteric Shi`ite literature
from Christian ascetics, among whom they circulated
orally (King; Nurbaksh; Ayoub 1976). It has been suggested
that a few of these Arabic logia or sayings
may actually preserve extra-canonical material valued
by the early Eastern churches. Bahá'u'lláh occasionally
quoted these Sufi narratives about Jesus, retelling,
for instance, the story of how Jesus and his disciples
came upon a dead dog. While the others recoiled at
the smell, Jesus found something good to say about
the creature, admiring his white teeth (Bahá'u'lláh
in Ishraq-Khavari 1971-73, 8:128; Nurbaksh:98-100).
With regard to Jesus' self-effacing mode of life,
Bahá'u'lláh cites another such Sufi anecdote, wherein
Jesus says, "My bed is the dust, my lamp in the night
the light of the moon, and my steed my own feet. Behold,
who on earth is richer than I?" (Bahá'u'lláh 1970:130-131;
1980a:100-101). Jesus is implicitly invoked as a justification
for the Bab, who, like the man from Nazareth, became
penniless and was arrested once he proclaimed his mission.
Neither the Qur'an (57:27) nor Bahá'u'lláh approved
of monasticism, celibacy and seclusion from society.
Indeed, Bahá'u'lláh calls upon the Christian monks
of his day to issue from their cloisters and marry
(Bahá'u'lláh 1988:60; 1980b:32). He therefore rejects
the image of "Jesus as monk" prevalent in medieval
Europe, and depicts this ascetic bent in Christ as
a result of persecution rather than simply of choice
(cf. Mt. 8:20); (Pelikan: 109-121). He wrote, "Reflect
how Jesus, the Spirit of God, was, notwithstanding
His extreme meekness and perfect tender-heartedness,
treated by His enemies. So fierce was the opposition
which He, the Essence of Being and the Lord of the
visible and invisible, had to face, that He had nowhere
to lay His head. He wandered continually from place
to place, deprived of a permanent abode" (Bahá'u'lláh
1976:57; 1984:45). Jesus' asceticism is interpreted,
not as a commitment to self-mortification, but as a
"radical itinerancy" forced on him by the political
and ecclesiastical authorities of his day (cf. Crossan:
346). Again, there is a parallel with the Bab, who
had to flee to Isfahan and was exiled to Mah-Ku and
Chihriq. But this passage is also evocative of Bahá'u'lláh's
own life, for he, too, after his arrest in 1852, suffered
a series of exiles and persecutions that deprived him
of "a permanent abode." Like Jesus, Bahá'u'lláh was
known for his meekness and tender heart, his advocacy
of peace and harmony. That Jesus was subject to such
victimization despite his exalted station as "Lord
of the visible and invisible (malik-i ghayb va shuhud)"
helped explain how Bahá'u'lláh, the promised one of
the ages, could have suffered similarly.
Jesus nevertheless possessed a spiritual sovereignty.
This is apparent for Bahá'u'lláh in the Synoptic story
of the healing of the paralytic, wherein Jesus cures
a man and says his sins are forgiven, which Luke reports
to have provoked cavilling from Pharisees. Jesus in
reply asks if it is easier to heal one paralyzed or
to pronounce sins forgiven "that ye may know that the
Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins." (Lk.
5:17-26). This story has been cited, Bahá'u'lláh says,
so that the reader "will comprehend the inner meaning
of sovereignty and the like, spoken of in the traditions
and scriptures" (Bahá'u'lláh 1970:133-135; 1980a:103-104).
Late in his life, Bahá'u'lláh argued that the sort of
sovereignty Jesus possessed did not conflict with civil
authority. Jesus' position on the relationship of
his followers to the Roman empire, as reported in the
Synoptics and generally interpreted by nineteenth-century
Christians, was increasingly appealing for Bahá'u'lláh
as he founded a new religion in the Middle East. He
worked to have the Bahá'í faith accepted, along with
Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism, as a minority
religion under the Shah of Iran's rule. To do so,
he had to convince the state that he had no plans to
promote a Babi-style theocracy, but rather accepted
the validity of the civil state. In this regard, he
pledged to Nasiru'd-Din Shah that Bahá'ís would recognize
the legitimacy of his government (though he did not
offer to give way on matters of principle, such as
the Bahá'í belief in the need for constitutional and
parliamentary rule), and he cited in support of this
position Mk. 12:17, "Render to Caesar the things that
are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
He points out that in fact, Caesar could not have
come to the throne against God's will in any case.
He supports this verse with Qur'an (4:59), "Obey God
and obey the Apostle, and those among you invested
with authority," which he says refers first of all
to the Imams and then to secular rulers. On this theme,
Bahá'u'lláh also quotes the Apostle Paul's (hadrat-i
Bulus-i Qiddis) Epistle to the Romans (13:1-2),
"Let every soul be subject to the higher powers . .
." (Bahá'u'lláh 1971a:89=91; 1982:60-61). Later Christian
exegetes often interpreted Jesus' saying about Caesar
and Paul's epistle as urging Christian quietism; this
could be a means of finding acceptance, e.g., in the
Roman Empire (in contrast to the Jews who revolted
in the late 60s, provoking harsh Roman reprisals).
Again, the position of the Bahá'ís in the nineteenth-century
Middle East was very similar. Just as Christians were
dogged by their relationship to rebellious Jews, so
Bahá'ís were often blamed for the turmoil of the earlier
Babi period. It should also be noted here that Bahá'u'lláh's
willingness to cite the Epistle to the Romans as authoritative
is even more remarkable than his acceptance of the
four Gospels, since Muslims most often saw Paul as
a corruptor of Christianity and importer into it of
Despite his references to such stories as the healing
of the paralytic to demonstrate Jesus' spiritual sovereignty,
Bahá'u'lláh rejects a purely literal interpretation
of miracle stories about Christ in the Gospels and
in the Qur'an (e.g. 3:49, 5:110). He is concerned,
not in a positivist fashion with what really happened,
but with what the scriptures intend by such anecdotes,
and interprets Jesus' miracles as symbolic of his spiritual
We testify that when He came into the world, He shed
the splendor of His glory upon all created things.
Through Him the leper recovered from the leprosy of
perversity and ignorance. Through Him, the unchaste
and wayward were healed. Through His power, born of
Almighty God, the eyes of the blind were opened, and
the soul of the sinner sanctified.
Leprosy may be interpreted as any veil that interveneth
between man and the recognition of the Lord, his God.
Whoso alloweth himself to be shut out from Him is
indeed a leper, who shall not be remembered in the
Kingdom of God, the Mighty, the All-Praised. We bear
witness that through the power of the Word of God every
leper was cleansed, every sickness was healed, every
human infirmity was banished. He it is Who purified
the world. Blessed is the man who, with a face beaming
with light, hath turned towards Him (Bahá'u'lláh 1976:86;
In keeping with this figurative approach to hermeneutics
or interpretation, Bahá'u'lláh in his Book of Certitude
shows great interest in the idea of the kingdom of
God as a present reality rather than as an eschatological
idea, and in Jesus' symbolic uses of words such as
"life" and "death." He argues that the Resurrection
Day itself may be identified as that kingdom of God,
and that it is not a historical, concrete event at
the end of linear time but rather a symbol for the
spiritual awakening that is provoked by the advent
of any new Manifestation of God. He supports this
view with reference to Jn. 3:7, "Ye must be born again,"
and Jn. 3:5, "Except a man be born of water and of
the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God."
Thus, birth, life, and death are figurative references
to humankind's existential responses to the new theophany.
"The purport of these words," he says of the passages
quoted from the Gospel of John, "is that whosoever
in every dispensation is born of the Spirit and is
quickened by the breath of the Manifestation of Holiness
is of those that have attained unto `life' and `resurrection'
and have entered into the `paradise' of the love of
God." Likewise, those who reject the new Messenger
of God are spoken of as "dead" and consumed by "fire."
He also cites Lk. 9:60, where Jesus tells his disciple,
whose father is dead, to "let the dead bury the dead,"
as a proof-text in his argument that scripture employs
the word "death" symbolically rather than literally.
The point is that the "resurrection" of the "dead"
refers to the infusion into deadened souls of the new
spiritual vigor of faith and certitude (Bahá'u'lláh
1970:118; 1980a:90; Nurbakhsh:84).
Bahá'u'lláh's Jesus is primarily a teacher of Wisdom
rather than a miracle-worker, and his teachings about
the kingdom of God force him to be constantly on the
move because they provoke the ire of the Establishment.
Jesus' teachings and his emphasis on parables and
figurative uses of words helped legitimate a number
of Bahá'í principles. Among the most urgent tasks
facing the Babi-Bahá'í preachers in Iran was to convince
Muslim interlocutors that the signs of the last days
mentioned in the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet
and the Imams should be read figuratively rather than
literally. Jesus' parables, and figurative use of
ideas such as "death," provided models for this apologetic
task. His ascetic existence and itineracy provided
an alternative model for prophecy from that of the
wealthy and powerful Prophet Muhammad at the end of
his life. And the politically quietist interpretation
that could so easily be put upon the principle of rendering
unto Caesar provided the Bahá'ís with a new, non-theocratic
model for their relationship to the state.
Jesus' Arrest and Trial
The seventh-century Meccans boycotted the Prophet Muhammad
and his followers, then attempted but failed to have
him assassinated, and finally fought a series of battles
with him, which they lost. He thus avoided ever having
been arrested or tried by them. The Bab, on the other
hand, as we have seen, was both imprisoned and tried.
Bahá'u'lláh suffered imprisonment twice, in Tehran
in 1852, and in Acre in 1868-70, as well as being exiled
and often kept under virtual house arrest during much
of his life, though he never received a proper trial.
The story of Jesus' arrest and trial therefore had
many resonances with the lives of the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh.
In one of his meditations Bahá'u'lláh says his eyes
were "cheered" by the tribulations God had decreed
for him, and he recalls the scene of Jesus in the garden
of Gethsemane, after the last supper and shortly before
his arrest by the High Priest, paraphrasing Mk. 14:36:
"He Who was Thy Spirit (Jesus), O my God, withdrew
all alone in the darkness of the night preceding His
last day on earth, and falling on His face to the ground
besought Thee saying, `If it be Thy will, O my Lord,
my Well-Beloved, let this cup, through thy grace and
bounty, pass from Me.' By Thy bounty, O Thou Who art
the Lord of all names and the Creator of the heavens!
I can smell the fragrance of the words which, in His
love for Thee, His lips uttered . . ." (Bahá'u'lláh
1971b:192-193; 1981:130-131). Here, Bahá'u'lláh sees
in Jesus' simultaneous plea for relief and expression
of resignation to the will of God an archetypal spiritual
attitude, which he himself shared.
Jesus' arrest and trial is a scene to which Bahá'u'lláh
repeatedly adverts in his writings. It may be that
it reminded him of the Bab's own trial in Tabriz, when
the young heir apparent Nasiru'd-Din Mirza presided
and the Shi`ite clergy asked the Bab questions about
his claims to be the Mahdi and then declared him devoid
of religion (that is, an infidel). In that trial,
the mujtahids or Muslim jurisprudents represented the
hierocracy, whereas the heir apparent personified secular
power, and it was the clergy who issued the legal opinion
(fatwa) that allowed the Bab's blood to be shed, while
the government of Nasiru'd-Din carried it out two years
after his succession to the throne (Amanat:385-400).
The Gospel accounts differ on the details of Jesus'
arrest and trial. The Synoptics tend to depict a convocation
of the Sanhedrin, or council of rabbis, but it has
been pointed out that there are several difficulties
with this scenario. The Sanhedrin would not have met
at night (as in Mark and Matthew, which have it meet
yet again after daybreak), and would not have met on
Passover, and certainly not at night on Passover.
In addition, that body lacked authority to try capital
crimes, since Jerusalem was directly ruled by the Romans
at that point. The Sanhedrin trial scene, it has been
argued, must be seen more as early Christian theology
(Jesus was condemned for religious rather than political
reasons) than as history. The more likely account
is that of John (18:3-28), who has Jesus taken from
the garden of Gethsemane by a mixed group of Jewish
"officers" and Roman soldiers to the house of Annas
(a Jerusalem notable and the father-in-law of the Jewish
High Priest Caiaphas). After his triumphal entry into
Jerusalem, Annas and Caiaphas appear to have been distressed
over the possibility that Jesus was a rebel or bandit
who might be planning to lead a zealot-style revolt
against the Romans. His answers did not assuage their
fears, so he was taken first to the house of Caiaphas
and then delivered to Pilate so that Roman justice
might be imposed on him, since he had done nothing
for which he could be sanctioned by the Sanhedrin (Fredriksen:116-120).
In the Book of Certitude, Bahá'u'lláh draws on
the Synoptic accounts of the trial, emphasizing the
manner in which Jesus retained his sense of divine
authority as the Son of Man even in the midst of his
humiliating questioning: "Similarly, call thou to
mind the day when the Jews, who had surrounded Jesus,
Son of Mary, were pressing Him to confess His claim
of being the Messiah and Prophet of God, so that they
might declare Him an infidel and sentence Him to death.
Then, they led Him away, He Who was the Day-star of
the heaven of divine Revelation, unto Pilate and Caiaphas,
who was the leading divine (a`zam-i `ulama)
of that age. The chief priests were all assembled
in the palace, also a multitude of people who had gathered
to witness His sufferings, to deride and injure Him"
(Bahá'u'lláh 1970:132-133; 1980a:102-103). When pressed
to say who he is before the High Priest Caiaphas, Bahá'u'lláh
observes, Jesus replied: "Beholdest thou not the Son
of Man sitting on the right hand of power and might?"
(a paraphrase of Mk. 14:61). Bahá'u'lláh is struck
by Christ's bold declaration of power at a time when
he was to all appearances completely vulnerable (Bahá'u'lláh
1970:133; 1980a:103). The Synoptic image of the faithless
crowd at the public trial of Jesus appears elsewhere,
as well. When, in 1879, the leading Muslim jurisprudents
of Isfahan condemned to death for their faith two prominent
Bahá'ís, Muhammad-Hasan and Muhammad-Husayn Nahri,
Bahá'u'lláh wrote a powerful denunciation of this act.
He asked Shaykh Muhammad Baqir, whom he branded "the
Wolf," "Art thou happy to see the abject and worthless
as thy followers? They support thee as did a people
before them, they that followed Annas, who, without
clear proof and testimony, pronounced judgment against
the Spirit" (1988:210; 1980b:129).
In other passages, Bahá'u'lláh appears to draw more
on John's depiction of the High Priest and his father-in-law
interrogating Jesus in the latter's home. Bahá'u'lláh
recalls the opposition met by Messengers of God such
as Muhammad and Jesus, writing, "Consider the Dispensation
of Jesus Christ. Behold, how all the learned men (`ulama')
of that generation, though eagerly anticipating the
coming of the Promised One, have nevertheless denied
Him. Both Annas, the most learned among the divines
(`ulama') of His day, and Caiaphas, the high
priest (aqda al-qudat), denounced Him and pronounced
the sentence of His death" (1976:83; 1988:237). In
the original it is clear that Bahá'u'lláh powerfully
identifies Jesus' persecutors with the Muslim clergy
of his own day, calling the rabbis "ulema" (the word
for Muslim learned men of religion) and making Caiaphas
a "qadi" or Muslim court judge.
In his Most Holy Tablet, written for the Christian
community, Bahá'u'lláh recalls this theme again: "call
thou to mind the one who sentenced Jesus to death.
He was the most learned of his age in his own country,
whilst he who was only a fisherman believed in Him"
(Bahá'u'lláh 1988:10; 1980b:4; Sours 1990). There
appears to be a shift of emphasis in Bahá'u'lláh's
imagery relating to the trial, from a depiction in
the Babi-period Book of Certitude of
a large gathering of Jewish rabbis in the Sanhedrin
who condemned Jesus (after the Synoptic Gospels), toward
a focus in the Bahá'í period in Acre on Caiaphas and
Annas as the chief villains of the piece (the Johannine
version). This shift may reflect the changing relationship
of Bahá'u'lláh to the Shi`ite clerics. In the early
1860s the Babi community of which he formed a part
had been violently and massively suppressed by the
joint action of the Shi`ite clergy and the state, partially
in response to the perceived militancy of the Babis.
In forming the new Bahá'í religion from 1863, however,
Bahá'u'lláh imbued it with a peaceful ethos, and while
Bahá'ís continued to be persecuted there was nothing
like the clashes that occurred in the Babi period.
In some communities it appears that Shi`ite clergymen
were either sympathetic to the ideals of the Bahá'ís
or at least willing to look the other way. Still,
powerful clerics such as Shaykh Muhammad Baqir and
his son Shaykh Muhammad Taqi Najafi in Isfahan persecuted
Bahá'ís on several occasions, scapegoating them relentlessly.
The Johannine account of Jesus' trial, which placed
blame for his condemnation primarily on the Chief Priest
and his family rather than on the entire Sanhedrin,
could be evoked to signal the wickedness of a few top
clerics rather than attacking the general run of Shi`ite
learned men. In addition, Bahá'u'lláh appears not
to mention Pilate after the early 1860s, placing most
of the blame on the High Priest, and this emphasis
may reflect his desire to effect a rapprochement between
the Bahá'í community and the Qajar state in Iran.
In any case, the narrative of the arrest and trial
of Jesus certainly helped legitimate the incarcerations
and examinations suffered by the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh.
Because Bahá'u'lláh endorses the New Testament text
as authentic, he accepts the reality of the crucifixion,
unlike most Muslim thinkers. The general Muslim unwillingness
to admit that Jesus was crucified before bodily ascending
into heaven is rooted in Qur'an 4:155-158, which castigates
the Jews for "slaying the Prophets without right" and
for their saying, "`We slew the Messiah, Jesus son
of Mary, the Messenger of God'--yet they did not slay
him, neither crucified him, only a likeness of that
was shown to them." Much controversy has swirled about
this difficult and ambiguous passage through the centuries.
Some have alleged that the phrase shubbiha la-hum,
"a likeness was shown to them," shows that the Qur'an
accepted the doctrine of the Gnostics that someone
other than Jesus mounted the cross in his stead, or
that it accorded with the Docetists, Christian heretics
who denied that Jesus had a physical body. Medieval
Muslim commentators developed a Borges-like "substitutionist"
theory, saying that someone else was mistakenly arrested
and crucified in Jesus' stead; some suggested that
it was Judas Iscariot himself. As B. Todd Lawson has
underlined, the medieval exegete and theologian Fakhru'd-Din
ar-Razi rejected the substitutionist theory as intrinsically
unjust and unworthy of God (Lawson 1991; cf. Ayoub
Docetism in the Qur'an is unlikely. The Qur'an is nothing
if not realistic about physical reality, and it at
one point criticizes local Arabian Christian sectaries
(Docetists or Gnostics?) for denying that Jesus and
Mary ate food (5:75). It also affirms that Jesus was
mortal and died (19:33). A less literal interpretation
of shubbiha la-hum would be "it was made to
appear to them [the Jews] thus." Several plausible
interpretations have been advanced along these lines.
It might mean that God hardened their hearts by allowing
them to think they had succeeded in having Jesus killed,
when in fact his spirit is immortal. After all, the
Qur'an forbids Muslims to say of the martyrs that they
are dead: "Nay, they are living, only you are not
aware" (2:154). This interpretation would fit with
a later phrase in the passage, "and they slew him not
of a certainty--no indeed; God raised him up to Him."
Or it might mean that they were not the actual agents
in his death, rather the Romans were, and some Medinan
Jews and their predecessors were under an illusion
when they took credit for and boasted of this accomplishment
(Parrinder 105-121; Robinson:106-141; Lawson 1991).
Some Muslims adhered to a minority view that accepted
the reality of the crucifixion and passion. This was
true of the tenth-century Isma`ili Shi`ite group, the
Brethren of Purity, authors of the influential Epistles
(Rasa'il). They argued that only Jesus' human
nature (nasut) was crucified, and mentioned
biblical details such as Jesus being offered vinegar
on the cross. Sufi mystics also often suggested that
it was only Jesus' human form that was crucified, whereas
his aspect as Spirit was received by God into heaven,
and that the Qur'an meant only to deny the death of
the Spirit (Robinson:56-57, 184; Jandi:495-512)).
In a less analytical vein, Persian poets sometimes
referred to Jesus and his cross, appearing to accept
the symbolism of the passion in their imagery (Ariyan).
In the Surah of Blood (Surat ad-Dam), written in Edirne
around 1866, Bahá'u'lláh represents the eternal Logos
that was manifest in each of the Manifestations of
God as lamenting its treatment through the millennia.
It speaks of Pharaoh's persecution of Moses as well
as the Imam Husayn's death and decapitation at the
hands of the forces of Yazid the Umayyad. This Logos
figure, as Jesus, apostrophizes God, saying, "Thou
didst lift Me up upon the cross (arfa`tani ila as-salib),"
an acknowledgment that God's will permitted the crucifixion
(Bahá'u'lláh 1976:89; 1892-1978, 4:9). In the Book
of Certitude, Bahá'u'lláh clearly speaks of Jesus
having been "persecuted and killed" (idha' va qatl)
by his opponents (1980a:103).
Bahá'u'lláh affirms not simply the fact of Jesus on
the cross, but agrees with Paul in seeing the passion
as redemptive. In one passage, he discerns a similarity
among the stories of sacrifice of Abraham, Jesus and
the Imam Husayn. God's command to Abraham to sacrifice
his first-born had as its purpose "to sacrifice him
as a ransom [fida'i] for the sins and iniquities
[`isyan va khataha] of all the peoples of the
earth" (Bahá'u'lláh 1976:76; Ishraq-Khavari 1971-73,
7:77; cf. Cole 1993). He says that because of its
treatment of the Prophets of God and His chosen ones
all humankind deserves to perish (halakat),
but that God's invisible and loving grace (altaf)
has protected it from retribution. The persecution
of the prophets is thus both an occasion of collective
sin and an occasion of grace, since the sacrificed
holy figure ransoms humans from the bondage of their
sins. "This same honor [maqam], Jesus, the
Son of Mary, besought the one true God . . . to confer
upon Him" (ibid.). Since Shi`ite Islam possessed an
elaborate theology of redemptive sacrifice centered
on the martyrdom of the Imam Husayn, it was easy enough
for Bahá'u'lláh to meld that tradition with the New
Testament preaching about Christ crucified. On the
other hand, neither Islam nor the Bahá'í faith accepts
the idea of original sin, so that humankind is here
redeemed, not from Adam's lapse, but from the historical
guilt of having tortured and killed the Messengers
of God. Another cause for which Jesus is said to sacrifice
himself is the coming of the Day of God, that is, the
world-historical turning-point represented by Bahá'u'lláh's
own advent. In the Surat as-Sultan written
in the early Acre period for the Bahá'ís of Sultanabad,
Bahá'u'lláh depicts Jesus upon the cross, confusedly
noticing blood upon his tunic and being questioned
and taunted. The dove of holiness then informs him
of what will befall Bahá'u'lláh (al-ghulam)
when he arises in the station of Christ's return, and
it is at that point that Jesus cries out and departs
from this world, ascending to the presence of God (Bahá'u'lláh
in Ishraq-Khavari 1967:193-194).
In a letter to a Christian clergyman of Istanbul, perhaps
a member of the Eastern Orthodox church, Bahá'u'lláh
connects the crucifixion with sacrifice and with human
advancement. He writes, "Know thou that when the Son
. . . [al-Ibn] yielded up His breath to God
[sallama ar-ruh], the whole creation wept with
a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself, however,
a fresh capacity was infused into all created things.
Its evidences, as witnessed in all the peoples of
the earth, are now manifest before thee. The deepest
wisdom which the sages have uttered, the profoundest
learning which any mind hath unfolded, the arts which
the ablest hands have produced, the influence exerted
by the most potent of rulers, are but manifestations
of the quickening power released by His transcendent,
His all-pervasive, and resplendent Spirit" (Bahá'u'lláh
1976:85-86; 1892:93). Jesus' passion is here identified
as the motive force behind Christian civilization,
the unseen source of human advance. On the one hand,
this passage evokes something like the Eastern Orthodox
image of Jesus as the Cosmic Christ, as Pantocrator,
the Ruler of All (Pelikan:57-70). On the other, Bahá'u'lláh
as a nineteenth-century thinker innovates in linking
the redemption gained by the cross to ideas such as
civilization, progress, and the arts and sciences.
Christ not only saved individual souls, but engendered
by his teachings and self-sacrifice an entire civilization.
Why does Bahá'u'lláh accept the crucifixion? Christian
feelings about and images of the crucifixion come closer
to the religious sensibilities of Shi`ites than they
do to those of most Sunnis. But even most Shi`ites,
despite their passion plays for Imam Husayn, rejected
the idea that Christ died on the cross. A more relevant
event might be the execution of the Bab. Most Muslims
thought the paradigmatic prophet was Muhammad, a successful
Prophet-Statesman who died of old age in the capital
of the incipient state that he created, and this image
may have made it difficult for them to concede that
Jesus could be summarily killed. Babis, on the other
hand, knew very well that a Manifestation of God could
be so cruelly treated, since they daily lived with
the outrage at Tabriz. Indeed, the passion of Christ
helped justify the passion of the Bab.
I have found only one reference in Bahá'u'lláh's writings
to the resurrection of Christ. In a poetic passage,
Bahá'u'lláh depicts himself as having adorned the cross
in his previous manifestation as Christ, saying that
he has now risen from the dead (Ishraq-Khavari 1982:148).
In short, he assimilates the resurrection to the second
coming. In accord with his symbolic approach to the
miracle stories in the Gospels, he apparently understood
the resurrection narratives in Matthew and Luke as
a spiritual event in the lives of the disciples rather
than as a physical reality. This is certainly the
interpretation of his son and successor, `Abdu'l-Bahá,
who may well have received it from his father (1981:103-105;
1983:76-78). Bahá'u'lláh does refer to Christ's ascension
into heaven, but seems to use it as a symbolic manner
of talking about his death upon the cross. In the
Book of Certitude, he says of the authorities'
actions toward Jesus: "They at last heaped on His blessed
Person such woes that He took His flight unto the fourth
heaven" (Bahá'u'lláh 1970:133; 1980a:103). In Islamic
lore, Jesus was supposed to inhabit the fourth (sometimes
the third) of the seven heavens until his return at
the end of time (Robinson:94). In the Surah of
Sultan Bahá'u'lláh depicts Jesus upon the cross
as severing himself from this world and "ascending"
into the divine presence (Ishraq-Khavari 1967:193-194).
The difference between the major Muslim treatments of
Jesus' arrest, trial, crucifixion and death and Bahá'u'lláh's
could not be more stark. Bahá'u'lláh's Jesus equivocates
in Gethsemene, boldly replies to Annas and Caiaphas,
is delivered to Pilate, and is crucified to the death
on Easter Friday. His weary soul is raised up to God
from the cross. Few Muslim accounts indeed go so far
or accord so intimately with aspects of New Testament
texts. Like modern Christian liberals, Bahá'u'lláh
sees the Resurrection not as a bodily but as a spiritual
event, an existential realization in the disciples.
Paraclete and Parousia
The New Testament writers, and most Christians ever
since, did not think the drama of Jesus ended with
the ascension to his Father. He was expected to return.
The return (Gr. parousia) of Christ is probably
the Gospel theme to which Bahá'u'lláh himself most
frequently adverts. Since Bahá'u'lláh's idea of time
is the gyre, the spiral combining recurrent cycles
and upward progression, Jesus' life is unique from
one point of view but subject to the Eternal Return
from another. There is a sense, he argues, in which
the advent of each subsequent Manifestation of God
(Muhammad and the Bab) represents a "return" of Christ.
Of Muhammad, he says: "in the Dispensation of the
Qur'an both the Book and the Cause of Jesus were confirmed.
As to the matter of names, Muhammad, Himself, declared:
`I am Jesus.' He recognized the truth of the signs,
prophecies, and words of Jesus, and testified that
they were all of God. In this sense, neither the person
of Jesus nor His writings hath differed from that of
Muhammad and of His holy Book, inasmuch as both have
championed the Cause of God, uttered His praise, and
revealed His commandments. Thus it is that Jesus,
Himself, declared: `I go away and come again unto you.'
[John 14:28]. Consider the sun. Were it to say now,
`I am the sun of yesterday,' it would speak the truth"
(Bahá'u'lláh 1970:20; cf. Buck; Lawson 1987:342-343).
In his Gems of the Mysteries, Bahá'u'lláh quotes
John 16:5-7 about the Counsellor or Comforter (Gr.
paraclete) who, Jesus promised his disciples,
would come once he himself had departed (Bahá'u'lláh
1890-1978, 3:11-12; cf. Lambden forthcoming). These
verses were very popular among Muslim apologists, who
saw in them a prediction of Muhammad's coming. On
the one hand, Bahá'u'lláh confirmed that Jesus gave
them glad-tidings of a prophet who would come after
him, appearing to confirm that Muhammad was the paraclete.
On the other hand, in Bahá'u'lláh's cyclical schema
of the Eternal Return, the Counsellor would come again
and again, first as Muhammad, then as the Bab. This
figure becomes another way of referring to the spiritual
return of Christ (Ishraq-Khavari 1971-73, 4:65; Lambden
1983:45-47; Buck). In the Book of Certitude,
Bahá'u'lláh presents a long excursus on the minor apocalypse
from Mt. 24:29-31, which enumerates the signs that
will accompany his eschatological return, showing the
symbolic ways in which the Bab's advent had fulfilled
them (Bahá'u'lláh 1970:20-93; see Buck).
Many Muslims expected that after the advent of the Mahdi
(a descendant of the Prophet who was expected to arise
at the end of time to fill the world with justice after
it had been filled with tyranny), Jesus would return
shortly before the Resurrection Day. Muslim lore even
contains numerous miraculous acts and adventures that
the returned Christ will undertake (Parrinder:122-125;
Robinson:78-105). Mahmoud Ayoub has translated a particularly
interesting Sufi interpretation of the return of Christ,
by Isma`il ibn Mustafa al-Haqqi, which says of Jesus:
"He shall return in the end to be a sign for the hour
(`ilm li's-sa`ah, that is, the Day of Resurrection
[Q. 43:61]) . . . [For in this] is [the Islamic dispensation's]
great ennoblement, in that it will be closed by a prophet-messenger
who will be subject to the shari`a [divinely-revealed
Law]. Both Jews and Christians will believe in it
[that is, Islam]. Through him (Jesus) God will renew
the age of prophethood for the community (umma).
He shall be served by the Mahdi and the men of the
cave. He shall marry and beget children. He shall
be one of the community of Muhammad as the seal of
his awliya' [saints] . . . For the Spirit of
Jesus is the manifestation of the Greatest Name, and
an effulgence of divine power . . ." (Haqqi in Ayoub
1980:121). In a gloss on Qur'an 2:86, the Bab says
the "clear signs" God bestowed on Jesus are a reference
to his future co-advent with the Islamic promised one.
He identifies Jesus or the Holy Spirit that aids him
as "the noblest of the partisans of [the first Shi`ite
Imam or successor to the Prophet] `Ali" (the Bab in
The Bab gradually revealed himself to be the Mahdi,
and prophesied the coming of "He Whom God shall make
Manifest." When Bahá'u'lláh asserted, from 1863, that
he was the promised one prophesied by the Bab, he was
as a result claiming to be the spiritual return of
Christ. The idea of past holy figures "returning"
(raj`at) was a doctrine of Shi`ite Islam, not
so very different in conception from Jesus' own assertion
that John the Baptist had been the return of the Prophet
Elijah. In Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet to Queen Victoria,
he wrote, "all that hath been mentioned in the Gospel
hath been fulfilled. The land of Syria hath been honoured
by the footsteps of its Lord . . ." (1967:33; 1968:131).
In his letter to the Pope, Bahá'u'lláh says that "He,
verily, hath again come down from Heaven even as He
came down from it the first time. Beware that thou
dispute not with Him even as the Pharisees disputed
with Him (Jesus) without a clear token or proof" (1967:83;
1968:73). Similar statements are scattered through
Bahá'u'lláh's writings (1988:11; 1980b:4-5; cf. Lambden
The complex figurative treatment of Jesus' return in
Bahá'u'lláh's writings, depending as it does upon ideas
such as cyclical sacred time, the return of personality-attributes,
and the more mystical traditions of Islamic eschatology,
has perforce been treated very briefly here. It is
clear, however, that for Bahá'u'lláh Jesus Christ possessed
an eschatological and not merely a historical significance.
He is a form of the Eternal Prophet, returning again
and again through the upward gyre of sacred history.
Jesus and the New Testament are important for Bahá'u'lláh
for many reasons, some explicit and some implicit.
Among the latter is the way in which references to
Jesus and the Gospel helped to relativize the Islamic
heritage. For a new religion to emerge from Islam,
with its dense, millennium-old traditions and highly
elaborated religious scholarship was as difficult as
for a moon to escape the gravity of its planet. Taking
the New Testament seriously helped put Islam in perspective,
as one religious civilization among many. Although
the Qur'an itself depicted Muhammad as only one among
the messengers of God, subsequent Muslim tradition
tended to contain a fully fleshed-out image of the
Prophet while reducing the previous envoys to thin
stereotypes. Bahá'u'lláh cites and quotes the New
Testament to evoke the rich texture of Jesus' life
as revealed in the Gospels. The French linguist Saussure
suggested the metaphor of the chessboard for some kinds
of linguistic change, arguing that when one piece changes
position, it completely reconfigures the board, affecting
all the other pieces. I would argue that the insertion
of the New Testament into Arabic and Persian discourse
functions in a similar manner, causing other texts,
including the Qur'an, suddenly to look very different.
Bahá'u'lláh blends together the various sources about
Jesus' life available to Muslims by accepting the authority
of the existing New Testament and interpreting the
other sources in light of it.
Not only does an engagement with New Testament texts
allow Bahá'u'lláh to relativize Islam, but it also
provides him with an opportunity to reach out to Christians
as friends and even potential converts to his religion.
Bahá'u'lláh's good relations with Christians in Edirne
and in the Acre-Haifa area to some extent derived from
his obvious openness to and respect for the Christian
scriptures, an attitude that contrasted with that of
most local Muslim leaders. He especially emphasizes
his assertion that he is the spiritual return of Christ
in his letters to Christians (Buck unpublished; cf.
Buck 1986; Momen 1992). Nevertheless, this use of
the New Testament for missiological purposes post-dates
Bahá'u'lláh's extensive citations of it to Muslim interlocutors
in Baghdad, and so reaching out to Christians cannot
have been his primary motivation in turning to these
Bahá'u'lláh also refers to Jesus in order to make sense
of the setbacks faced by Babis and Bahá'ís. Jesus'
harried life of self-denial and radical itineracy are
implicitly seen as similar to the imprisonments and
exiles of the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh. Caiaphas and Annas
are gradually focused on as the chief source of opposition
to Jesus, and are depicted as analogous to the Muslim
learned men and judges of Qajar Iran. Bahá'u'lláh
conceived of himself as a prophet teaching wisdom,
as a conduit for the irruption of divine grace and
energy into the world, as a founder of a new, global
civilization, and he depicted Jesus in the same terms.
Jesus' Gospel was held by Christians to abrogate the
complex ritual and other laws of Judaism, just as Bahá'u'lláh
abrogated much Islamic and Babi law in favor of a simpler
religion based on a few broad ethical principles.
Passages such as the Minor Apocalypse could be employed
to help naturalize the messianic and eschatological
motifs in Iranian culture, bolstering Babi-Bahá'í claims
that the advent of the End-Time and of the promised
one could occur in normal history as a spiritual rather
than physical apocalypse. Finally, the theme of redemptive
sacrifice, so powerful in Shi`ite Islam, was reinforced
by the New Testament, providing a doubly strong basis
upon which to understand the execution by firing squad
of the Bab and the exiles, imprisonment and humiliations
inflicted on Bahá'u'lláh.
For triumphalist Muslims with the image of the conquering
Muhammad in their minds, the shattered corpse on the
square in Tabriz and the ignominious imprisonment of
Bahá'u'lláh in the Ottoman barracks of Acre stood as
arguments against the truth of the Babi and Bahá'í
religions. But these outrages were after all no more
damning than the scandal of the cross, the notoriety
of which had not prevented the emergence of Christianity
as the world's most successful religion. Thus, Bahá'u'lláh
strongly and explicitly affirms the historicity of
the crucifixion and death of Christ, despite the overwhelming
consensus against it among exegetes of the Qur'an.
Bahá'u'lláh was clearly steeped in the esoteric Shi`ite
and Sufi literature that most often, within Islamic
culture, acquiesced in the historicity of Jesus' execution.
Aspects of Christian theology, especially the idea
of the Logos, and the divinity of Christ, resonated
well with the esoteric Shi`ite and Sufi background
of Bahá'í theology, and if taken in a generic sense
as applicable to all the High Prophets, helped justify
Babi theopathic language. In keeping with Bahá'u'lláh's
figurative approach to Jesus' miracles, he sees even
Christ's predictions of his own advent or parousia
to refer not to cosmic events but to an allegory of
Eternal Return, a return of the attributes and not
of the essence, so that Muhammad, the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh
are all in some sense cyclical returns of the Christ-spirit,
all equally fulfilling in a symbolic manner the dire
omens of the minor apocalypse. The final image of
Jesus in Bahá'u'lláh's writings is as the Prisoner
of Acre in western Galilee.
*I am grateful for their comments on this paper to Christopher
Buck, Seena Fazel, Khazeh Fananapazir, Stephen Lambden,
Todd Lawson, Michael Sours, Robert Stockman, and John
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