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Christianity from a Bahá'í Perspective

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 1

A Bahá'í Approach to the Bible

A thorough and systematic examination of the Bahá'í approach to interpreting the Bible remains to be written; this chapter can only begin the task. It is helpful to begin one's examination by noting the interpretive approaches followed by other groups, for the Bahá'í approach bears both points of similarity and of difference to them.

      Among modern American Christians there are two common approaches to interpreting the Bible. Conservative Protestants (often called "fundamentalists" or "evangelicals") prefer the "literal" or "face value" approach to scripture. Conservative Protestant biblical scholars may not adhere to a literalistic reading of scripture, but prefer traditional methods for reading and interpreting the biblical text. Conservative approaches tend to emphasize one basic assumption—that the Bible is the precise and exact Word of God—that is, that every word in the Bible is inspired and means exactly what it says. This denies the possibility that a historical fact in the Bible might be wrong. It does not deny symbolic interpretation of many verses, but it sees no need to interpret symbolically many things that it believes to be fact. It also argues that generally each verse possesses only one correct meaning.

      Liberal Christians (or simply "liberals") recognize that the Old and New Testaments are also a product of history, and did not drop from the sky miraculously complete. This approach, of necessity, must accept that the Bible is partly a human product as well as being partly a divine product. Unfortunately, it is impossible to devise a way to determine reliably which is which; thus the liberal approach to the Bible inevitably threatens to undermine its sacredness, and threatens to leave liberal Christians without a scripture.

      Other groups of Christians hold other approaches. Conservative Catholics, for example, see the Bible as only one source of belief, Catholic tradition and the interpretations of the Popes being others; thus, biblical interpretation is generally less central to their faith, and the conclusions of the historical-critical system of interpretation seem less devastating (though conservative Catholics, often, have tended to ignore the liberal approach to scripture in favor of traditional methods). Other Christian groups, such as the Mormons and Christian Scientists, have books of their own that they see as new forms of revelation, and their understanding and interpretation of the Bible is shaped by them.

      Most Christians fall in the middle of the spectrum, between the liberals and the conservatives. They try to hold both approaches together, seeing the Bible as scripture and historically conditioned, and are willing to recognize that it cannot be interpreted literally. Others choose to ignore both approaches, and the dilemmas they raise, altogether. Perhaps the biggest problem faced by Christianity today is how to recognize the Bible's historical inaccuracies and its theological diversity, and yet still retain it as scripture, as a source of inspiration and guidance. The conservatives do this sometimes by denying that any problems exist; they hold onto the old approaches and their conclusions, which have been undermined by modern science. The liberals sometimes essentially ignore the Bible, or use it to endorse whatever theologies they have developed based on other sources of ideas. In Bahá'í terms, both sides have failed to maintain the harmony of science and religion, of reason and revelation.

The Question of Biblical Inerrancy

      What is the Bahá'í approach to biblical interpretation? An important factor is Bahá'í reliance on a new revelation. Thus if Bahá'ís need guidance for a problem they turn to the Bahá'í writings for their answers, and not primarily to the Bible. They thus need not experience grave anxiety over how to interpret crucial Bible passages, or over the implications of a particular interpretive approach to the Bible.

      Bahá'ís also have an assurance, in their own sacred writings, that the Bible is holy scripture and contains a record of divine revelation. Some Muslim divines had argued, based on interpretation of verses in the Qur'án, that the Bible was totally corrupted—that is, that nothing valid remained of the revelation that God had given through Moses and Jesus. This doctrine is called tahríf, "corruption" of the text. Bahá'u'lláh emphatically rejects this interpretation:

Reflect: the words of the verses [of the Bible] themselves eloquently testify to the truth that they are of God. (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 84).

Can a man who believeth in a book, and deemeth it to be inspired by God, mutilate it? (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 86).

We have also heard a number of the foolish of the earth assert that the genuine text of the heavenly Gospel doth not exist amongst the Christians, that it hath ascended unto heaven. How grievously they have erred! How oblivious of the fact that such a statement imputeth the gravest injustice and tyranny to a gracious and loving Providence! How could God, when once the Day-star of the beauty of Jesus had disappeared from the sight of His people, and ascended unto the fourth heaven, cause His holy Book, His most great testimony amongst His creatures, to disappear also? What would be left to that people to cling to from the setting of the day-star of Jesus until the rise of the sun of the Muhammadan Dispensation? What law could be their stay and guide? How could such a people be made the victims of the avenging wrath of God, the omnipotent Avenger? How could they be afflicted with the scourge of chastisement by the heavenly King? Above all, how could the flow of grace of the all-Bountiful be stayed? How could the ocean of His tender mercies be stilled? We take refuge in God, from that which His creatures have fancied about Him! Exalted is He above their comprehension! (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 89-90.)

      Thus, Bahá'u'lláh makes it very clear that it would be unjust of God to give His people a revelation and then take it away from them. But it is important to note that Bahá'u'lláh does not say that the Bible consists solely of accurate divine revelation; He only insists that the Bible possessed an adequate source of revelation to guide humanity rightly. In other words, even if the Bible contains historically inaccurate information, and even if the words of Jesus were often recorded inaccurately, enough revelation was recorded accurately to guide the Christians adequately until the advent of Muhammad in 622 C.E. (and, perhaps, until the advent of the Báb in 1844).

      This understanding of the biblical text as adequately accurate, but not inerrant, is reinforced by a statement made on Shoghi Effendi's behalf. The Bahá'ís of Racine, Wisconsin, apparently asked Shoghi Effendi whether Abraham had attempted to sacrifice Isaac, as the Bible says (Gen 22:1-19), or Ishmael, as affirmed by the Qur'án and Bahá'u'lláh:

As to the question raised by the Racine Assembly in connection with Bahá'u'lláh's statement in the Gleanings concerning the sacrifice of Ishmael; although His statement does not agree with that made in the Bible, Genesis 22:9, the friends should unhesitatingly, and for reasons that are only too obvious, give precedence to the sayings of Bahá'u'lláh which, it should be pointed out. . . [are] fully corroborated by the Qur'án, which book is more authentic than the Bible, including both the New and the Old Testaments. The Bible is not wholly authentic, and in this respect not to be compared with the Qur'án, and should be wholly subordinated to the authentic sayings of Bahá'u'lláh. (Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States and Canada, 28 July 1936, published in Bahá'í News, no. 103 (Oct. 1936), p. 1).

Elsewhere Shoghi Effendi has stated the following:

      When 'Abdu'l-Bahá states we believe what is in the Bible, He means in substance. Not that we believe every word of it to be taken literally or that every word is the authentic saying of the Prophet (from a letter written to an individual on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 11 February 1944).

      We cannot be sure of the authenticity of any of the phrases in the Old and New Testament. What we can be sure of is when such references or words are cited or quoted in either the Qurán or the Bahá'í writings. (from a letter written to an individual on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 4 July 1947).

      . . . we cannot be sure how much or how little of the four Gospels are accurate and include the words of Christ and His undiluted teachings, all we can be sure of, as Bahá'ís, is that what has been quoted by Bahá'u'lláh and the Master must be absolutely authentic. As many times passages in the Gospel of St. John are quoted we may assume that it is his Gospel and much of it is accurate (from a letter written to an individual on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 23 January 1944)

      From these and other statements of Shoghi Effendi, the Universal House of Justice has concluded:

      . . . The Bahá'ís believe that God's Revelation is under His care and protection and that the essence, or essential elements, of what His Manifestations intended to convey has been recorded and preserved in Their Holy Books. However, as the sayings of ancient Prophets were written down some time later, we cannot categorically state, as we do in the case of the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, that the words and phrases attributed to Them are Their exact words (letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 9 August 1984).

      A scholarly examination of the Bible substantially confirms the approach taken by the Bahá'í authoritative texts. One finds historical errors in the New Testament. Perhaps the clearest example is the two genealogies of Jesus (Matthew 1 and Luke 3). They frequently disagree about the ancestors of Jesus:

Matthew:

Luke:

Abraham, father of

Abraham, father of

Isaac

Isaac

Jacob

Jacob

Judah

Judah

Perez

Perez

Hezron

Hezron

Ram

Arni

Admin

Amminadab

Amminadab

Nahshon

Nahshon

Salmon

Salmon

Boaz

Boaz

Obed

Obed

Jesse

Jesse

David

David

Solomon

Nathan

Rehoboam

Mattatha

Abijah

Menna

Asa

Melea

Jehoshaphat

Eliakim

Joram

Jonam

Uzziah

Joseph

Jotham

Judah

Ahaz

Simeon

Hezekiah

Levi

Manasseh

Matthat

Amos

Jorim

Josiah

Eliezer

Jechoniah

Joshua

Er

Elmadam

Cosam

Addi

Melchi

Neri

She-alti-el

Shealtiel

Zerubbabel

Zerubbabel

Abiud

Rhesa

Eliakim

Joanan

Azor

Joda

Zadok

Josech

Achim

Semein

Eliud

Mattathias

Eleazar

Maath

Naggai

Esli

Nahum

Amos

Mattathias

Joseph

Jannai

Melchi

Levi

Matthan

Matthat

Jacob

Heli

Joseph

Joseph

Jesus

Jesus


      Both genealogies are given in full; the gaps exist simply to make the lists line up where they agree. Places where the names on the two lists are different are indicated with italics. As can be seen, there is substantial difference between the two, even on such a detail as the name of Jesus's grandfather. Matthew lists forty individuals between Jesus and Abraham, while Luke gives fifty-six; only sixteen of the names on both lists are the same. Since Jesus cannot have two genealogies through his father, one must conclude that one (or, more likely, both) are wrong. It is very unlikely that in an illiterate culture, with no censuses or birth and death records, an accurate two-thousand-year genealogy for any individual—even a king!—could exist anyway, unless there is evidence that the culture is concerned about preserving such genealogies. There is no evidence of such concern in first-century Judaism.

      Hence, in this case, the Bible cannot be understood literally. The authors of Luke and Matthew, however, each had important points to make with their genealogies, and the points are more important than the contradictory facts. Matthew, the former rabbi, was interested in establishing Jesus's credentials to a Jewish audience; thus his list of ancestors includes the great king Solomon and many of the kings of the house of David descended through him. He also includes Zurubbabel, one of the Jewish governors who brought the Jews back to Jerusalem under the Persians, and Zadok, the ancestor of the priestly families who ran the Temple. He starts his genealogy with Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew people. Luke, on the other hand, is concerned with placing Jesus in the context of all human history. He is unconcerned with past kings who might be Jesus's ancestors. His genealogy goes to Abraham, thence to Noah, thence to Seth, then to Adam, and concludes with Adam as "the son of God," thus linking Christ back to God.[1]

      Some conservative Christians interpret Matthew's genealogy to be through Mary because verse 1:16 says "And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus" (KJV). The text is careful to say that Joseph did not beget Jesus so as to avoid contradicting the doctrine of the virgin birth, but the text nevertheless is giving Joseph's genealogy. Even if the list were giving Mary's genealogy, the two lists still contradict regarding the ancestors of King David.

Interpretations of some Biblical Subjects by the
Bahá'í Writings

      When one examines the interpretations given to biblical passages by Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, one is struck by how nonliterally They interpret them. Occasionally Their interpretations totally ignore the interpretations given to passages by Christian tradition. An example is the interpretation of the term "Prince of this world" (John 14:30; 16:11) to refer to Bahá'u'lláh; traditional Christianity has interpreted the term to refer to the devil since at least the third century C.E.![2] In short, their interpretations often break the rules about how one should interpret the Bible. But this is understandable when one remembers that Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá are offering their interpretations based on divine knowledge, not human reasoning. While their interpretations are not illogical, many fly in the face of commonly accepted interpretations or interpretive approaches.

The Garden of Eden and Myth

      Undoubtedly the most symbolic and allegorical interpretation of the Bible that can be found in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's book Some Answered Questions concerns the story of the Garden of Eden (pp. 122-26). 'Abdu'l-Bahá notes that if one takes the story literally, "the intelligence cannot accept it, affirm it, or imagine it"; consequently He concludes that it "must be thought of simply as a symbol" (p. 123). He offers a symbolic explanation where Adam represents the "heavenly spirit" of Adam; Eve represents the soul of Adam; the tree of good and evil from which Adam and Eve ate signifies the human world, with its mixture of good and evil, light and darkness; the serpent signifies attachment to the human world; and the tree of Life represents the Manifestation of God. 'Abdu'l-Bahá's completely nonliteral interpretation converts the story of the Garden of Eden into a powerful metaphor on human existence:

      Now consider how far this meaning conforms to the reality. For the spirit and soul of Adam, when they were attached to the human world, passed from the world of freedom into the world of bondage, and His descendants continue in bondage. This attachment of the soul and spirit to the human world, which is sin, was inherited by the descendants of Adam, and is the serpent which is alwys in the midst of, and at enmity with, the spirits and the descendants of Adam. That enmity continues and endures. For attachment to the world has become the cause of the bondage of spirits, and this bondage is identical with sin, which has been transmitted from Adam to His posterity. It is because of this attachment that men have been deprived of essential spirituality and exalted position. (Some Answered Questions, 124-25)

      At the end of His interpretation, 'Abdu'l-Bahá adds "This is one of the meanings of the biblical story of Adam. Reflect until you discover others" (Some Answered Questions, 126). This indicates that 'Abdu'l-Bahá is not claiming to offer the only correct interpretation of the story of the Garden of Eden, but one interpretation that is valid for Bahá'ís. Others can offer other interpretations.

      'Abdu'l-Bahá's metaphorical approach downplays the question of whether the Garden of Eden was a literal, historical place; it does not deny the possibility, but suggests that the question ultimately is not important. His approach suggests that much of the Bible consists of symbols and images with many possible valid interpretations; the Bahá'í writings only claim to offer one possible interpretation.

Interpretation of Prophecy

      An examination of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretations of passages from the Hebrew prophets supports the hypothesis that biblical passages contain many valid meanings. Bahá'ís often read the Bible primarily to find references to Bahá'u'lláh in the text, and then think they have exhausted its meaning. But much of what the Bible "means" is tied to the times which, and people who, produced it, hence the meaning of the text is often contextual and plural. Furthermore, the images and symbols of the biblical prophecies have been used in countless ways by millions of people over thousands of years to make sense out of their situation; one cannot declare all those other interpretations to be invalid or wrong. Rather, one must recognize a Bahá'í interpretation of a biblical verse as one possible valid meaning of the verse; God may have intended other meanings as well.

      A prominent example is Ezekiel 43:4, "And the glory of the LORD came into the house by way of the gate whose prospect is toward the east." Although no official Bahá'í interpretation of the verse is known to the writer, Bahá'ís "know" that this refers to Bahá'u'lláh coming to the Holy Land by way of "the Gate" (the Báb) from the east (Iran and Iraq).[3] "The glory of the LORD" is a good translation of the word Bahá'u'lláh. "LORD" (in capital letters) is the standard English translation for "Yahweh," which is God's name, just like "Allah" is a designation for the God, not any god. "Glory" (Hebrew, kabod) can be translated into Arabic several ways—majd, jalál, or bahá.

      But Ezekiel wrote this passage to convey something very different to his contemporaries, who, like he, had recently made a heartbreaking and exhausting journey from Jerusalem to their exile in Mesopotamia (Iraq). He was promising that God's "glory," that is, God's nimbus, or God's aura, or God's spirit, would return to the Temple in Jerusalem through the east gate, that is, from Mesopotamia, with the Jewish people who were in exile there. This verse, then, was part of Ezekiel's promise to his people that God would eventually lead them back to Israel.

      There is no reason for Bahá'ís to deny the possibility that God had both of these meanings in mind—and perhaps others—when He gave the vision to Ezekiel.

      Another biblical prophecy frequently cited by Bahá'ís is Hosea 2:15, "And I will give. . . the valley of Achor for a door of hope. . ." According to Joshua 15:7—which mentions it while delimiting the northeastern border of the land of Judah—the Valley of Achor is located about half way between Jerusalem and the northern end of the Dead Sea. It is near Jericho, but very far from Akka. While the Israelites were camped there Joshua discovered that an Israelite had secretly kept some of the loot from the capture of Jericho for himself, thereby calling God's punishment down on all the people (Joshua 8). The hoarder was stoned to death, and the text concludes that "therefore to this day the name of that place is called the Valley of Achor" (Joshua 7:26). Achor, in Hebrew, means "trouble"; and the Valley of Achor came to symbolize trouble in the Hebrew Bible. Hosea (and Isaiah, who refers to it in 65:10) mention Achor to suggest that in the last times even a "valley of trouble" would become a door of hope. The verse is a clear word play on the meaning of Achor.

      Bahá'ís, of course, understand the verse to refer to Akka. This conclusion is supported by Abdu'l-Bahá Himself:

It is recorded in the Torah: And I will give you the valley of Achor for a door of hope. This valley of Achor is the city of 'Akká, and whoso hath interpreted this otherwise is of those who know not. (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 162.)

      There is no reason to assume that 'Abdu'l-Bahá was wrong and did not know where the Bible says Achor is, or that He was ignorant of Hosea's word play. Nor, perhaps, should one assume that 'Abdu'l-Bahá was denying that Hosea meant to make the word play. Rather, perhaps, 'Abdu'l-Bahá was saying—in hyperbolic language—that from a Bahá'í perspective, Achor means Akka. That interpretation, for Bahá'ís, is the important and valid understanding of the verse, and not others.

Interpretation of Miracles

      Among the biblical subjects interpreted by Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán is the question of whether Jesus performed miracles. The New Testament mentions approximately thirty miracles by Jesus, which scholars have classified into three categories: exorcisms, healings, and nature miracles (such as walking on water or feeding multitudes). One of the few positions held by all biblical scholars is that Jesus was a miracle worker.[4]

      Bahá'u'lláh's approach is to emphasize the spiritual miracles performed by Jesus, not the physical miracles. His discussion of healings is typical:

Through Him [Christ] the leper recovered from the leprosy of perversity and ignorance. Through Him, the unchaste and the 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. Whosoever 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 healed, every human infirmity was banished. He it is Who purified the world. (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 86)

      Clearly, if Bahá'ulláh is referring to stories in the Gospels where Christ healed lepers (Matt 8:1-4; Mark 1:40; Luke 5:12-16) He is interpreting them very nonliterally. He seems to be saying here that Christ's real miracles were spiritual, not physical. He does not explicitly deny physical miracles; rather, He focuses on their spiritual significance.

      'Abdu'l-Bahá elaborates on this theme by saying that while physical miracles are performed by all the Manifestations of God, they are meant for those who witnessed them and who thus would be certain that they occurred. Thus from Bahá'í perspective, the position of modern scholars that the historical Jesus was a miracle worker is not incorrect; but theologically it misses an important point. 'Abdu'l-Bahá notes that physical miracles are of less importance than spiritual ones:

If we consider miracles a great proof, they are still only proofs and arguments for those who are present when they are performed, and not for those who are absent.

      For example, if we relate to a seeker, a stranger to Moses and Christ, marvelous signs, he will deny them and will say "Wonderful signs are also continually related of false gods by the testimony of many people, and they are affirmed in the Books. . . ."

      The outward miracles have no importance to the people of Reality. If a blind man receives sight, for example, he will finally again become sightless, for he will die. . . . If the body of a dead person be resuscitated, of what use is it since the body will die again? But it is important to give perception and eternal life—that is, the spiritual and divine life. For this physical life is not immortal, and its existence is equivalent to nonexistence. So it is that Christ said to one of His disciples: "Let the dead bury their dead;" for "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (Some Answered Questions, 100-101.)

Jesus's Resurrection

      The Bahá'í writings also explore the question of Jesus's bodily resurrection. This is a subject of great importance to conservative Protestants, who understand the biblical accounts very literalistically, and put great importance on them. It is clear from the Gospels that the early Christians believed that Christ underwent a resurrection of the body. The oldest account in the Bible, that of Mark (16:1-8), is also the simplest; it makes no mention of such details as soldiers being placed on guard at the tomb, but simply says that three women went to the tomb to anoint Jesus's body on the Sabbath and encountered a young man (presumably an angel), who told them that Jesus had risen. The last twelve verses of the book (16:9-20) appear to be a later addition, though they are very ancient; in them various appearances of Jesus are mentioned, but no details are given. To this account Matthew adds that Roman guards were placed around the tomb to prevent anyone from stealing Jesus's body (a detail not given in the other gospels) and mentions that "Jesus came to" the disciples and instructed them in Galilee, though without giving any details as to His appearance (27:62-66, 28:1-20).

      Luke, who wrote slightly later than Matthew, has an even most detailed account of the burial and resurrection. In that book, not one man but two (presumably angels) stand at the tomb and tell Mary that Christ has risen (24:1-11). Later Jesus appears to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:13-35). He appears to the ten disciples and asks them to examine the holes in His hands and feet (24:38-40); He even eats food with them to prove to them that His body has been resurrected (24:41-43). The Gospel of John, written at an even later date, has similar stories.

      It is significant to note that neither Paul nor Mark—who wrote decades earlier than Luke—included any details about Christ's resurrection appearances, and that later descriptions, found in books that never were included in the Bible, give elaborate accounts of Jesus's physical appearances to His disciples. This has prompted many biblical scholars to suggest that the oldest form of the tradition included no details at all—just statements that he appeared to certain people—that they were added later to convince the skeptical, and that they became more and more elaborate over time, as orally repeated stories tend to do.

      When one examines Luke's account from a traditional and literal standpoint, one finds many details that makes one wonder what sort of body the resurrected Jesus had. The story about the appearance on the road to Emmaus is the best example. Jesus walks with two disciples, but "their eyes were kept from recognizing him" (24:16), suggesting that either His body was an apparition, or that the disciples's eyesight was being controlled in some supernatural way. Later Jesus breaks bread with them, and suddenly "their eyes were opened and they recognized him" (24:31); presumably either the physical appearance of Jesus changed or the supernatural control over the disciples's eyesight was suspended. Then Jesus "vanished out of their sight" (24:31) something an ordinary person, with an ordinary body, cannot do. One could argue that the disappearance was a miracle, but one could just as easily argue that Jesus's appearance to the disciples was a miraculous vision of some sort, and not the presence of an actual, resurrected human body.

      The story of Jesus's appearance before the ten is similar (24:36-53). Jesus's manner of arrival is not described; it is simply said that suddenly "he stood among them" (24:36), implying that He materialized out of thin air. Jesus invites the disciples to touch His body and feel His wounds. The account does not say that they did so, but if they had presumably they would have experienced the touching of a body; if God can affect the sense of sight (as in the Emmaus story), there is no reason to assume God cannot similarly affect the sense of touch. Jesus then instructs the disciples, reviving their hopes and faith, so that they experienced "great joy" (24:52); this is the important occurrence in the story, for it is the point where Jesus resurrected the Christian community. Finally, Jesus was "carried up into heaven" (24:51), an event that would have resulted in the suffocation of an ordinary body in the thin air of the upper atmosphere long before heaven were attained, unless the "body" were special or protected by a space suit or a miracle.

      A close reading of the above stories—without raising the question of their historicity, which is a serious issue itself—suggests that the disciples may have experienced Jesus in a spiritual way, instead of actually seeing a resurrected physical body. This interpretation is supported by Paul himself, who discusses bodily resurrection in great detail. He makes an analogy between the physical body and the spiritual body that succeeds it, on the one hand, and a seed and the plant that grows from it, on the other:

      But some one will ask, "How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?" You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen. . . . There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, and what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. (I Cor. 15:35-44)

Precisely what Paul means by a "spiritual body" here is not clear; he seems to be struggling to make analogies for ideas that are difficult to explain. He seems to be avoiding the Greek word for soul (psyche) and the philosophical implications it had.[5] Another reason for avoiding "soul" is that he is already using it in the phrase "physical body," which in the original Greek is soma psychikon, "psychical body" or "soulful body."[6] Thus it is possible that by "spiritual body" (soma pneumatikon) Paul is referring to what Bahá'ís would call the soul and its divine attributes.

      Like Paul, 'Abdu'l-Bahá's statements support a spiritual interpretation of the references in the New Testament to bodily resurrection:

The resurrections of the Divine Manifestations are not of the body. . . it is clearly stated in many places in the Gospel that the Son of man came from heaven, He is in heaven, and He will go to heaven. . . . [for example] in John, chapter 3, verse 13: "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven."

      Observe that it is said, "The Son of man is in heaven," while at that time Christ was on earth. Notice also that it is said that Christ came from heaven, though He came from the womb of Mary, and His body was born of Mary. It is clear, then, that when it is said that the Son of man is come from heaven, this has not an outward but an inward signification; it is a spiritual, not a material, fact. . . . In the same way, His resurrection from the interior of the earth is also symbolical; it is a spiritual and divine fact, and not material; and likewise His ascension to heaven is a spiritual and not a material ascension.

      Beside these explanations, it has been established and proved by science that the visible heaven is a limitless area, void and empty, where innumerable stars and planets revolve.

      Therefore, we say that the meaning of Christ's resurrection was as follows: the disciples were troubled and agitated after the martyrdom of Christ. The Reality of Christ, which signifies His teachings, His bounties, His perfections, His spiritual power, was hidden and concealed for two or three days after His martyrdom, and was not resplendent and manifest. No, rather it was lost, for the believers were few in number and were troubled and agitated. The Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body; and when after three days the disciples became assured and steadfast, and began to serve the Cause of Christ, and resolved to spread the divine teachings, putting His counsels into practice, and arising to serve Him, the Reality of Christ became resplendent and His bounty appeared; His religion found life; His teachings and admonitions became evidence and visible. In other words, the Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body until the life and bounty of the Holy Spirit surrounded it. (Some Answered Questions, p. 102.)

      Thus 'Abdu'l-Bahá emphasizes that the true resurrection that occurred was of the Christian community, which even the New Testament refers to as the "body of Christ" (cf. Romans 12:5; I Cor. 12:12-31). The visions and apparitions of the resurrected Jesus did indeed fire the disciples with a great devotion, so much so that they spread the teachings of Christ far and wide, undeterred even by martyrdom.

      This aspect of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's position is not unsupported by Christian scholars. John Dominic Crossan, whose life of Jesus is a very significant piece of scholarship, takes a very similar position:

If those who accepted Jesus during his earthly life had not continued to follow, believe and experience his continuing presence after the crucifixion, all would have been over. That is the meaning of resurrection, the continuing presence in a continuing community of the past Jesus in a radically new and transcendental mode of present and future existence (Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 404).

      'Abdu'l-Bahá mentions another argument against the belief in bodily resurrection: "heaven" is not a physical place in the sky. Rather, the Bahá'í writings explain that the "next world" is a spiritual state, where matter, energy, and physical bodies do not exist.

      'Abdu'l-Bahá even confirms Paul's statement that humans are sown as a physical body, but raised as a spiritual body; He notes that "in the other world the human reality does not assume a physical form, rather it doth take on a heavenly form, made up of elements of that heavenly realm" (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 194). This would suggest that Paul was attempting to describe the reality of human beings in the next world in vocabulary current to his time and place.

      The Universal House of Justice has elucidated 'Abdu'l-Bahá's position in these words:

      Concerning the Resurrection of Christ you quote the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, where the account stresses the reality of the appearance of Jesus to His disciples who, the Gospel states, at first took Him to be a ghost. From a Bahá'í point of view the belief that the Resurrection was the return to life of a body of flesh and blood, which later rose from the earth into the sky is not reasonable, nor is it necessary to the essential truth of the disciples' experience, which is that Jesus did not cease to exist when He was crucified (as would have the belief of many Jews of that period), but that His Spirit, released from the body, ascended to the presence of God and continued to inspire and guide His followers and preside over the destinies of His Dispensation (from a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 28 May 1984).

      One further question regarding the bodily resurrection remains: what happened to Jesus's body, if it did not ascend into heaven? Unfortunately, it is virtually useless to speculate on this extremely important question, because historical evidence is lacking. According to New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan, the disciples themselves did not know the answer to this question. His careful study of the accounts of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection indicates that they developed in the early Christian community purely through interpretation of Old Testament passages that were believed to prophecy aspects of Jesus's sufferings. Crossan notes that Roman practice was for the soldiers to bury the body, not turn it over to others for burial. He believes that the disciples fled when their Master was arrested and returned later to discover He had been crucified; and "nobody knew what had happened to Jesus' body" (Crossan, p. 394; italics his).

      It is intriguing to note that Bahá'í pilgrims who asked 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi about Jesus's body say that both men stated that "the disciples hid the body of Christ by burying it under the wall of Jerusalem, and that it is now under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre." The Universal House of Justice adds that there is "nothing in the Writings of the Faith, however, explicitly confirming these statements."[7]

      While the Bahá'í writings reject Christ's bodily resurrection, they affirm Jesus's virgin birth. The Qur'án also supports it (19:16-22). But 'Abdu'l-Bahá makes it clear that this miracle does not make Jesus superior to other Manifestations of God: "If the greatness of Christ is His being fatherless, then Adam is greater, for He had neither father nor mother." Rather, Jesus's greatness is best demonstrated by His "heavenly perfections, bounties, and glory" (Some Answered Questions, 89-90).

Conclusion

      The above examples underline the importance of distinguishing between two types of biblical interpretation found in the Bahá'í community. First, there are many interpretations of the Bible found in the Bahá'í writings. Even they usually do not claim to be the only "correct" interpretation of a biblical passage, but rather to be one interpretation that has been endorsed by the Faith and which, therefore, is an interpretation Bahá'ís know is valid (as opposed to hundreds of interpretations which are not endorsed and thus may or may not be valid).

      Second, there are interpretations of the Bible made by individual Bahá'ís. These are useful and good, but may not necessarily be endorsed by the Bahá'í writings. Much of the content of books by Bahá'ís on the Bible falls in this category; much of it is the personal interpretation of the authors, not the official interpretation of the Bahá'í Faith. There is nothing wrong with personal interpretation, as long as it is not confused with an authorized interpretation.

      The Bahá'í writings do not dwell on the question of the accuracy or inaccuracy of the Bible; rather, they make it clear that the Bible is a repository of revelation and is a sacred work. Thus, Bahá'ís must not follow the tendency of agnostics and a small number of liberal Christians, who essentially ignore the Bible as a source of truth and inspiration. A veneration of the Word of God is called for, no matter how much that Word is clothed in the phrases and interpretations of humans. 'Abdu'l-Bahá repeatedly makes this clear:

      Thou hast written that thou lovest the Bible. Undoubtedly, the friends and maid-servants of the Merciful should know the value of the Bible, for they are the ones who have discovered its real significances and have become cognizant of the hidden mystery of the Holy Book. ('Abdu'l-Bahá to Wallesca Pollock, Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, I, 218)

      I beg of God through the confirmation and assistance of the True One thou mayest show the utmost eloquence, fluency, ability and skill in teaching the real significances of the Bible. Turn toward the Kingdom of ABHA and seek the bounty of the Holy Spirit. Loosen the tongue and the confirmation of the Spirit shall reach thee. ('Abdu'l-Bahá to Alma Knobloch, translated by Ahmad Sohrab on 26 Dec. 1903; Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, II, 243)

      My God! My God! Elohim

      To this servant give the understanding of the Old Testament and the New and enable her to speak forth with a mighty voice and to sing with power the holy songs and discover the real meaning and the secret mysteries of those verses, for Thou art the Powerful Inspirer and the Mighty One! ('Abdu'l-Bahá, written on the flyleaf of Sarah Farmer's Bible, 26 March 1900; Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, II, 277-78)

      The Bible is a sacred scripture for Bahá'ís. It is the account of the lives of three manifestations of God, of numerous lesser prophets who revealed God's truth in their shadow, and of the people who sought to follow and understand Their teachings. Read both reverently and in a manner that recognizes its historical origin, the Bible can teach us about both the struggles that humanity went through as it developed, and the promises of a time when "swords will be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks" (Isaiah 2:4), a time that, Bahá'ís believe, has now dawned in the world. It can illuminate the sacred writings of the Bahá'í Faith, both by contrast—the social process that created the Bible was very different from the process by which the Bahá'í scriptures came into being—and by comparison, for through it we can see God's eternal truths clothed in yet another form and expressed in another language. The Bible is a foundational link in the chain that makes up the scriptures of the world's religions, and thus has eternal significance for scholar and seeker alike.


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