includes the sections:
Apostles and Books of the Bible
Genuine Letters, in Probable Order of Composition
Book of Revelation
When Jesus died, His followers were largely restricted
to Galilee and Judea, and the only significant grouping of them was in Jerusalem,
where the Twelve remained. The twelve apparently were not seen as a supreme church
council for Christianity, nor is there any evidence Jesus appointed them for that
purpose. Around the Twelve a Christian community rapidly grew up. Three men soon
became the most prominent leaders in that community: Peter, John, and James (who
was a brother of Jesus, and not one of the twelve). They were referred to as the
"pillars" (Gal. 2:9) and were consulted, but were not seen as supreme Christian
The Jerusalem Christian community consisted of converts
from Judaism, initially from Aramaic-speaking Judaism, since they were the group
on which Jesus focused His attention (they are called "Hebrews" in Acts 6:1).
They remained practicing Jews, visiting the Temple regularly to perform sacrifices,
upholding all Jewish dietary laws, and practicing circumcision. However, they
did see themselves as Jews of a special type. They baptized new members in the
name of Jesus and celebrated communal meals. They also used new designations for
Jesus: Messiah, Lord, and Son of David. Messiah, in particular, was probably used
frequently; by the time it was translated into Greek as "Christ" it had virtually
become Jesus's last name. Some scholars think the title "Son of Man" was first
used somewhere other than Jerusalem; "Son of God" as a title for Jesus may have
awaited the conversion of gentiles. Thus we do not know whether those titles were
known to, or used by, the Jerusalem Christians.
The Jerusalem church was active at teaching the new
faith to others. Hellenistic Jews (called "Hellenists" in Acts 6:1) were among
the early converts; perhaps some had converted in the lifetime of Jesus. As the
Hellenistic faction grew in the Jerusalem church it acquired a leadership; Acts
6:1-6 speaks of seven Hellenists being appointed deacons (diakonos or "servant"
in Greek; probably they were waiters who distributed food to the community at
its common meal and to needy widows). Among them was Stephen, a Jew whose Greek
cultural background is suggested by his Greek name.
The Hellenists saw Christianity in a less specifically
Jewish way, compared to the Aramaic-speaking Jews. Stephen soon articulated this
different view of Christianity, apparently by speaking out against the Temple
and Christian involvement in it, and against Christian observance of Jewish law.
Acts 6 and 7which may not be completely accurate, but which are our only
historical sourcesay that Stephen was arrested by the Sanhedrin, put on
trial for blasphemy (as a Jew) and stoned. Acts continues that the Hellenistic
Jewish Christian community was driven from Jerusalem, leaving behind only the
Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians (the "Apostles," Acts 8:1), who continued to
sacrifice at the Temple. The expulsion must have occurred about 32 C.E., two or
three years after Jesus's crucifixion. The Twelve remained in Jerusalem, apparently
unaffected by the controversy.
This seeming disaster soon proved a blessing in disguise,
for the Hellenistic Jewish Christians scattered throughout the Roman Empire, carrying
Christianity with them. Acts speaks of Christians in Sidon and Tripoli (in modern
Lebanon) and in Damascus and Antioch (in modern Syria). Elsewhere in the New Testament
there are references to Christians in Alexandria (Egypt) and Cyprus. Christian
groups may have resulted in Egypt, Syria, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Greece, Libya, Tunisia,
Italy, and perhaps even the Mediterranean coasts of France and Spain.
Of these early communities, Antioch quickly rose to
prominence. The largest city in Syria and fourth or fifth largest in the Roman
Empire, it had many Jews, and many Jewish Christians settled there. There, the
effort to teach Christianity to gentilesnon-Jewsfirst became significant.
Greek was the city's dominant language. There Christ became the common
title for Jesus; and according to Acts 12:26, the term Christian was first
used there. Antioch became the center of missionary activity for the entire area;
among its traveling teachers was Paul.
The Apostle Paul was born with the name Saul in the
city of Tarsus in what today is southeastern Turkey, probably between 1 and 10
C.E. He was a Hellenistic Jew; his Jewish parents had ceased to speak Aramaic
and Hebrew, but spoke Greek and had adopted Greek culture. Paul was fairly well
educated and was a dedicated Pharisee. According to Paul's own account, "I advanced
in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was
I for the traditions of my fathers" (Gal. 1:14). As a result he "persecuted the
church violently and tried to destroy it" (Gal. 1:13). However, God had other
plans for him; as Paul says, God "called me through his grace, [and] was pleased
to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles"
(Gal. 1:15-16). The Book of Acts gives further details about Paul's conversion
that Paul does not mention, and thus cannot be corroborated. It says that while
traveling on the road to Damascus one day, a light appeared from heaven and Jesus
confronted Paul verbally about his persecution of the Christians; that he was
miraculously struck blind; and then three days later he was cured by a Christian,
which led to Paul's acceptance of Jesus Christ (Acts 9:1-19). Paul converted about
Paul soon became an active missionizer, first under
the teacher Barnabas, then on his own. He traveled first to southern Syria and
Jordan (Paul calls it "Arabia," Gal. 1:17), then to southern Asia Minor. He traveled
extensively all of his life and is primarily responsible for establishing the
Faith of Christ in Greece and Asia Minor.
The success of Paul and others in converting gentiles
to Christianity soon created a major problem: do the gentiles have to become Jews
in order to become Christians? That would mean that male converts would have to
undergo circumcision, and all would have to follow Jewish dietary laws. Otherwise
the Jewish Christians would not associate with them, and could not eat meals with
them. Since table fellowship was the central event in the Christian communitythe
Eucharist was still served as a full mealthe question of dietary restrictions
was crucial to maintaining the unity of the Christians.
According to Paul (Gal. 2:12) James and the Jerusalem
church wanted converts to become Jews in order to become Christians. Paul, recognizing
that Christianity represented a break from the past, disagreed. About 48 or 49
C.E., both sides met in a council in Jerusalem to discuss the church's growth
among non-Jews. The consultation there resulted in agreement that converts did
not have to uphold dietary laws and did not have to be circumcised, but had to
follow the Ten Commandments and the other ethical teachings in Judaism. The gentiles
were also urged to "remember the poor" (Gal. 2:10) that is, to help support the
The result was unity, or at least tolerance, between
two very different groups of Christians. Unfortunately, the agreement was not
always followed. James was an extreme Judaizer, while Peter was more conciliatory.
After the council Peter left Jerusalem permanently and apparently settled in Antioch,
probably to dedicate his energies to the Hellenistic Jewish mission. In Antioch
he held table fellowship with gentile Christians until some followers of James,
who were visiting the city, objected; then Peter ceased to eat with the gentile
converts. Paul was angry and took Peter to task for his reversal of position.
Apparently Peter later came around and resumed table fellowship with gentile Christians,
but a temporary breach formed between Paul and Peter; this may have been the reason
that shortly thereafter Paul left Antioch to begin his mission to Asia Minor and
In his letters Paul frequently complaints about
rival Christian missionaries, who followed him and preached to the communities
he formed after he had left. For example, he complains about those who came to
Corinth after him to preach "another Jesus than the one we preached"
(II Cor. 11:4). He calls them "false apostles" (II Cor. 11:13). He alludes
to various factions in Corinth when he complains that Corinthian Christians say
"'I belong to Paul,' or 'I belong to Apollos,' or 'I belong to Cephas [Peter],'
or 'I belong to Christ'" (I Cor. 1:12). This suggests that the Christian
missionary effort was loose and uncoordinated, each prominent teacher having his
own set of assistants and forming his own Christian communities; competition for
territory, "poaching" of each other's communities, and the establishment
of rival factions in communities occurred.
Paul's genuine letters make it clear that the various
missionaries each had his own theology that was partly at variance with the teachings
of the others. Thus in Galatians, Paul argues against "Judaizers," who
argue that Christians must be good Jews as well; in I Corinthians he defends against
"spiritualizers" who argue that because Christians are saved and live
in Christian freedom, they can commit any immoral acts they desire. Probably the
different ways of seeing Christ, mentioned in chapter seven, also had their advocates.
In spite of opposition from the Judaizers, Paul did
not forget the agreement reached in Jerusalem that he should teach Judaism's moral
laws or that he should "remember the poor" (Gal. 2:10). To show the
love of the gentile Christians for the Jerusalem church, he raised a collection
from among them and brought it to Jerusalem. The Jerusalem church, however, had
become far more Jewish over the last decade, and less open to gentile Christians.
Peter had left; apparently of the three "pillars" only James was left,
and he was a strong Judaizer. Because of the Jerusalem church's uncertainty about
Paul's orthodoxy, Paul participated in a private Jewish ceremony in the Temple
in order to demonstrate his good Jewish credentials. But while in the Temple Paul
was recognized by other visiting Jews and accused of sacrilege, resulting in his
arrest. This occurred about 56 C.E. Because Paul was a Roman citizen he had the
right to trial before the emperor, consequently he was sent to Rome, a process
that took two years. After being in prison there for about two years, he was martyred
under the Emperor Nero about 60 C.E.
Paul has long been a controversial figure for Christians.
It has often been asked whether Paul was faithful to the teachings of Jesus, or
whether Paul "changed" the message of Jesus in order to make it attractive to
his audience. This has been a theme of several books by Bahá'ís, notably Huschmand
Sabet's The Heavens are Cleft Asunder and Udo Schaefer's The Light Shineth
in Darkness. It is clear that Paul preached a risen Christ, while Jesus did
not; but Jesus in His parables did call for a radical faith in God, a message
very similar to Paul's idea of salvation through faith in Christ alone. Since
Jesus did not write a book or establish a succession of interpreters, Paul was
free to innovate in his understanding of Christianity; indeed, he may have innovated
far less than the opponents he denounced in his letters. Some innovation, such
as rejection of circumcision and the kosher laws, in retrospect appears to have
been necessary. A certain amount of innovation was inevitable simply because times
change, and with them the needs of people change. The Bahá'í Faith received divine
guidance via Bahá'u'lláh for thirty years and subsequently had guidance through
'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi as well; but Jesus's earthly mission lasted only
three years. Hence it was inevitable that someone had to interpret Jesus's teachings
for the new Hellenistic, gentile, urban environment it had entered. Paul did his
best to innovate in ways faithful to Jesus's revelationthis is all any evangelist,
from Paul's day to the present, can hope to doand the solid results of his missionizing
cannot be faulted.
Paul was not the only successful evangelist. After
leaving Jerusalem, Peter apparently remained in Syria during most of his ministry;
several writings, including I Peter in the New Testament, originated there. Scholars
doubt Peter wrote any of the works that bear his name, but probably they represent
a school of thought started by him. Tradition has it that Peter was eventually
martyred in Rome.
Peter's role in Christianity has been the subject
of considerable debate by Christians. The statement "Thou art Peter and upon this
rock I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18) is understood by Catholics to indicate
Jesus's founding of the papacy. However, a letter written on behalf of Shoghi
Effendi states that "this saying of Jesus establishes beyond any doubt the primacy
of Peter and also the principle of succession, but is not explicit enough regarding
the nature and functioning of the Church itself. The Catholics had read too much
into that statement, and derived from it certain conclusions that are quite unjustifiable."
The letter is not clear about whether Bahá'ís believe
Jesus really uttered the statement about Peter or whether it originated in the
early church but nevertheless represents a spiritual truth. When one compares
the statement's settingMatthew 16:13-23with its textual parallels in Mark
8:27-33 and Luke 9:18-22, one finds that Jesus's statement about Peter is absent
from the same story in the other two gospels, suggesting that Matthew added it
to an existing story from the oral tradition. Because the statement uses the word
"church" (ekklesia in Greek) and no other statements attributed to Jesus
include ekklesia, the statement is suspected as a product of the early
Christian community. But this cannot be proved.
'Abdu'l-Bahá said that the statement is a confirmation
of Peter's faith, not a granting of the power to interpret Jesus's revelation.
Shoghi Effendi alludes to the statement when he notes that Bahá'ís uphold the
"primacy of Peter, prince of the apostles"
No Bahá'í source says that Christians had to obey Peter. This is important to
remember when considering Paul's complaint that Peter had agreed to eat with gentile
Christians, then refused to continue to do so. To the extent scholars understand
the controversyPaul, after all, is the only sourceit would appear that Paul
was right and Peter was wrong. But neither man was infallible and both were doing
their best to be faithful to the message of Jesus and preserve the unity of the
church they were building.
While one can lament at the scantness of the available
information about Paul and especially about Peter, even less is known about the
lives and fates of the other prominent apostles. According to the Book of Acts
(12:1), James was martyred in Jerusalem, probably about 63 C.E. Shortly thereafter
the Jewish war began; according to tradition the Jerusalem church left Jerusalem
for Pella, on the eastern side of the Jordan valley. The destruction of Jerusalem
in 70 C.E. largely destroyed Jewish Christianity, for it had retained a strong
attachment to the Temple; over the next two centuries it faded into oblivion.
Afterwards only Hellenistic Christianity existed.
John was the third pillar of the Jerusalem church;
since, after the meeting with Paul, he is no longer mentioned as being in Jerusalem,
it is assumed that he left the city to start his own missionary effort. Probably
he settled in Palestine or Syria, for the gospel of John and the three letters
of John, which represent a school of thought probably started by him, are thought
to have been composed in that region.
The churches formed by Peter and Paul eventually fused
into a single movement, with a single overall theology; later some of the churches
of John fused with them as well. This cluster of churches, or of Christian subgroups
(many churches contained a diversity of Christian groups) eventually became the
backbone of "emergent Catholicism," the Christians who came to dominate and shape
Christianity in the Mediterranean region.
Other apostles may have started churches as well.
For example, there are several books bearing the name of Thomas from eastern Syria,
suggesting that he settled in that area. Undoubtedly apostles settled in Egypt
very early, and their followers composed the Gospel of the Egyptians and
the Gospel of the Hebrews. However, these traditions moved away from Pauline-Petrine
Christianity, tended in the direction of gnosticism, and were soon excluded from
the emerging church.
The Apostles and Books of the Bible
The apostles and their successors in the second and
third Christian generations wrote sermons, gospels, letters, and acts (biographical
and historical sketches) in profusion. Few survived, and fewer proved to be of
sufficient literary quality and theological significance to be canonized as works
of the New Testament. Because ancient literary works did not have covers, title
pages, copyright notices, clearly defined authorship, or established dates of
publication, scholars have had to devote centuries to the task of determining
who really was the author of each work, when it was written, where, and for what
reasons. The traditional attributions of authorship were often made decades after
the composition of the work, and thus are not always accurate.
The Apostle Paul
Paul's influence on Christianity was enormous. It
is prominently demonstrated by the works that went into the Bible itself. Of the
twenty-seven books in the New Testament, thirteen are attributed to Paul; almost
half of the total. Modern scholarship has shown that seven of the letters were
definitely written by Paul (Philemon, I Corinthians, II Corinthians, Romans, Galatians,
Philippians, and I Thessalonians); two (Colossians and Ephesians) may have been
written by him, but most critical scholars believe they probably were not; II
Thessalonians, according to most critical biblical scholars, almost certainly
was not written by him; and I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus were attributed to
him, but their style and content are strong evidence that they were written much
Paul never wrote a gospel; indeed, his genuine letters
contain only two, or at most three, quotations from Jesus (I Cor. 11:23-26, when
Paul describes the Last Supper; I Cor. 7:10-12, when he quotes Jesus about divorce;
and I Thes. 5:2, where he reminds the Christians that Christ will come like a
"thief in the night"). This is because Paul was not concerned with the earthly
Jesus, His life, miracles, and teachings, but about the risen Christ and His Lordship.
Paul primarily called people to accept their Lord; everything else he taught,
such as rejection of Jewish law, revolved around that principle. Paul's genuine
letters are the oldest documents in the New Testament, and his preaching has had
a profound influence on the direction that Christianity has taken. Paul also remains
an important personal example to Christians of dedicated service, frankness, sincerity,
Paul's Genuine Letters, in Probable Order of Composition
I Thessalonians: The church in Thessalonica (in what
today is northern Greece) did not know Paul well, for he had been there only a
few months. Paul's letter to them summarizes his theology, but his explanations
are relatively undeveloped; thus, probably this letter was one of his earliest,
and scholars think it was composed about 51 C.E. Paul especially discusses the
subject of purity and chastity and reminds the Christians that Jesus will come
I Corinthians: Probably written about 55 C.E. from
Ephesus, Paul wrote to answer a series of questions asked by the Christians in
Corinth, an important city in central Greece. Paul discusses basic issues such
as the nature of Christian baptism; whether Christians could eat the meat of animals
sacrificed in pagan temples (which was sold in the market after the sacrificing);
whether Christians should be married or celibate; the validity of the gifts of
the spirit, such as speaking in tongues; the nature of the Christian community;
and he discusses Christian freedom. In I Corinthians 15:3-8, Paul summarizes his
basic teaching: that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world, that He was
buried, that He rose on the third day, and that He appeared to Peter and many
II Corinthians: This book is not one letter by Paul,
but appears to be assembled from six; thus it is a compilation. The six were probably
written from Ephesus about 56 C.E., after I Corinthians. Letter I (2:14-6:13,
7:2-4) defends his ministry and contains an autobiographical sketch. Letter II
(10:1-13:14) discusses the beliefs of rival Christian preachers and other opponents
of him. Letter III (1:1-2:13, 7:5-16) is a reconciliatory letter; apparently letter
II was successful in bringing the Corinthian church back to his theology. Letter
IV (8:1-24) is a letter of recommendation for his disciple Titus, who carried
Paul's letters to Corinth. Letter V (9:1-15) reminds the Corinthians to take up
a collection for the Jerusalem church. Letter VI (6:14-7:1) has un-Pauline language
and appears to be a fragment that is not from Paul; it may even originally be
from the Essenes, a Jewish group, whose theology it resembles.
Second Corinthians contains some of the most easily
recognizable literary seams in the New Testament. For example, II Cor. 2:12-13
matches II Cor. 7:5-6 very well:
2:12 When I came to Troas to preach the gospel
of Christ, a door opened for me in the Lord; 13 but my mind could not rest
because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I took leave of them and went
to Macedonia. 7:5 . . . when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no
rest but we were afflicted at every turnfighting without and fear within. 6
But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus.
These verses match better than II Cor. 2:14, which represents an abrupt and complete
change of subject: "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph,
and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere." A second
literary seam can be seen in the continuity between II Cor. 6:11-13 and II Cor.
6:11 Our mouth
is open to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide. 12 You are not restricted
by us, but you are restricted in your own affections. 13 In returnI speak
as to childrenwiden your hearts also. 7:2 Open your hearts to us; we
have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have taken advantage of no one.
Once again, II Cor. 6:14 represents a complete change of subject: "Do
not be mismated with unbelievers. For what partnership have righteousness and
Galatians: This letter was also written from Ephesus,
probably about 54 C.E., to the Christians in Galatia, in what is today northwestern
Asia Minor. In it Paul defends his teaching against "Judaizers," Christians
who insisted that converts undergo circumcision and follow the dietary laws in
order to join the church. Paul details his disputes with Peter, who supported
the Judaizer position in Antioch, and describes the council in Jerusalem in 48
C.E., where it was agreed that gentiles did not have to become Jews in order to
join the church. Six years later in Galatia, however, the agreement was not being
Philippians: This epistle, also, is a compilation,
containing three letters Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, an ancient city
in northeastern Greece. Two of the letters refer to his imprisonment in Ephesus
and thus were written from there. The letters give thanks to the Philippians for
their assistance. The third letter attacks Judaizers. Philippians begins with
the opening "to all the saints. . . with the bishops and deacons." Thus
it speaks of a simple, early church organization. The "saints" would
be the entire congregation; significantly, the church did not have one bishop,
Philemon: Paul's shortest letter (one page), it is
plea that Philemon, a Christian, accept back into his service his runaway slave,
Onesimus, who has become a Christian. The letter was written from prison in Ephesus.
Romans: Romans is thought to have been written from
Corinth during the winter of 55-56 C.E. Paul was planning to visit Rome for the
first time. The church there was unfamiliar with him, consequently Paul decided
to write them a letter stating his theology in detail. Thus, Romans is a mature
and thorough summary of Paul's teachings, by Paul himself. Because Protestantism
is based so heavily on Paul, it might not be inaccurate to say that the book of
Romans is the most important book for Protestants in the New Testament. In Romans
Paul develops his basic themes: 1) justification by faith alone (that God accepts
or rejects you based on your faith, and not based on works); 2) Abraham, in His
willingness to sacrifice Isaac, is an archetype of justification by faith; 3)
Adam embodies the fall; 4) God sent His son for our redemption. In this book Paul
also attacks Jewish law (for it served as a system to obtain justification by
works) and he discusses the place of the Jews in God's plan for humanity.
The Deuteropauline School
Paul's influence was so great that his disciples continued
to write letters in his name, or sometimes in the names of other disciples. These
letters are Colossians, Ephesians, II Thessalonians, I and II Timothy, Titus,
I Peter, and I Clement (which is not in the New Testament). It was not
unusual, in the classical period, for someone to write a literary work and attribute
it to someone else; the culture did not concern itself with authorship and copyright
laws did not exist. Because books had to be hand-copied and were rare and expensive,
attribution of a work to a famous person conferred prestige on it and helped insure
Colossians and Ephesians are the works closest to
Paul in theology and style. Some argue that perhaps they were written when Paul
was older and his theology had thus changed slightly; and that perhaps a secretary
modified his text slightly, which would explain its small difference in style.
These two letters refer to a church with a definite organizational structure and
hierarchy, which is not seen in the previous seven letters. Christ is described
differently also, as a cosmic Christ: "the image of the invisible God,"
"in him all things were created," "he is before all things," "he is the head of
the body, the church," "first born from the dead." Paul never uses such terms,
though he would not have rejected them.
Colossians is a letter which deals with the problem
of gnosticism in the churches; it must have been written before 100 C.E., because
the city of Colossi, to whose church it was addressed, was destroyed in that year.
Ephesians probably wasn't even written for Ephesus; the letter does not state
its destination, indeed, the work is really an essay dressed up as a letter. The
letter alludes to every letter of Paul except one, implying that the author knew
of Paul's letters as a corpus that was well on its way to being considered canonical.
Its style varies from Paul by using very long sentences and many rare Greek words.
II Thessalonians is written in a style to imitate
I Thessalonians. While I Thes. promises that Christ will return soon, II Thes.
deals with the problem that he didn't. The first generation of Christians expected
Christ to return in their lifetimes; when Jerusalem was besieged by the Romans
in 68-70 C.E. most Christians thought the battle would trigger Christ's return;
when the Romans destroyed the city the Christians faced a crisis over the question
of why Christ had not come. II Thes. is an attempt to resolve the problem raised
by I Thes., and does so in the following manner:
Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ
and our assembling to meet him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken
in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be
from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come [c.f. I Thes. 5:2]. Let
no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion
comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who
opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so
that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God (2:1-4).
II Thessalonians discusses persecution of Christians too; the Christian movement,
by the end of the first century, had grown large enough to attract the attention
of the government.
The Pastoral Epistles
Three letters bearing the name of Paul are even later
in composition: the Pastoral Epistles, I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus. Titus
and Timothy were disciples of Paul mentioned in the genuine Pauline letters. The
Pastorals were written after Paul's letters had become canonical and clearly imitate
his style, though not his vocabulary (over one third of the Greek words in these
letters are not found in Paul's genuine letters; one fifth of the words are not
found elsewhere in the New Testament at all). Their vocabulary is typical of other
Christian works that can be placed in the first half of the second century, consequently
they are thought to have been written as late as the year 140. All three appear
to have been written by the same anonymous individual, sometimes referred to as
"the Pastor" by scholars. The letters mention the problem that Christ
had not returned, but focus on the development of church structure (in Bahá'í
terms, with the creation of an administrative order). The letters thus deal with
the qualifications of bishops, ordination, the establishment of an order of widows,
and the problem of heresy. The letters focus on Paul as an example of a good Christian
and strive to combat gnosticism.
Hebrews is one of the most difficult New Testament
books to understand. It is attributed to Paul, but theologians have doubted the
attribution since the third century. Its theology bears no resemblance to Paul's,
or to anyone else's in the New Testament, but it was such a beautiful and moving
work that it had to be attributed to someone in order for it to be accepted into
the canon, so it was attributed to Paul. The work shows some influence from Philo
of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher, and from non-conformist Judaism. The text
often quotes the Septuagint, the standard Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible
used by the Jews. Its high-quality Greek and its vocabulary resembles a well-written
sermon such as those given in the synagogues of the time. Jesus is described as
a high priest and His death is likened to ancient Jewish ritual and sacrificial
practices. Christ is linked to Melchizedek, a shadowy figure in Jewish mythology
who was king of Jerusalem at the time of Abraham (Gen. 14:18). The book has a
beautiful definition of faith as "the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction
of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1).
The Catholic Epistles
Four lettersJude, I Peter, II Peter, and Jamesare
called catholic (universal) because they are addressed to everyone, not
to a particular city or person. But they have little in common otherwise.
The Epistle of James is a letter, but it does not
imitate Paul's letters, rather it follows standard Greek letter form. It only
mentions Christ twice, causing some to question whether it was originally Christian.
Some of its passages seem to be critical of Paul's rejection of the value of works
in salvation, at least as Paul's idea had been simplistically understood by some
Christians; thus James 2:17 says "faith without works is dead." As a
result, Protestant theologians have not liked the Epistle of James; Luther called
it "an epistle of straw."
In spite of its title, the letter probably has nothing to do with the apostle
James or the Jerusalem church; James was dead and the Jerusalem church destroyed
when the letter was composed in the early second century.
I Peter is addressed to "the exiles of the Dispersion
in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia" (1:1), all provinces
in Asia Minor. It is written in good Greek literary style, which is a strong argument
against its author being Peter, an illiterate, Aramaic-speaking fisherman. Persecution
of Christianity is its theme; thus scholars date it to one of the known episodes
of persecution in Asia Minor, either the 90s (when the Book of Revelation was
written) or about 112 C.E. (when Pliny the Younger was persecuting Christians
in Bithynia). In theology, the work is purely Pauline, and has nothing at all
to do with Peter's theology (to the extent that the latter is known to scholars,
at any rate). By attributing Pauline ideas to Peter, its anonymous author was
probably attempting to reconcile the two great apostles of the church. It may
have been written in Rome, which claimed both Peter and Paul as its founders.
Jude, a short letter, is a polemic against gnostics;
it is quite abusive and calls them names, rather than attempting to refute their
beliefs. It also quotes verses from two Jewish apocalyptic works, the Assumption
of Moses and Enoch. It was probably composed in the late first century
II Peter is also written to counter the arguments
of gnostics, and to counter the arguments of those who reject the return of Christ.
It quotes the synoptic gospels, the letters of Paul, and I Peter, in such a way
as to suggest that he knew them as sacred scripture; this indicates it was written
quite late, about 140 C.E. The second chapter is a rewriting of Jude; but the
author of II Peter edits out the passages from Assumption of Moses and
Enoch because he rejects their canonicity, which also suggests the work
was written in the second century (when the Jews were ceasing to use those two
books). The epistle's language is an elevated Attic Greek, very different from
the koine Greek of the rest of the New Testament, including I Peter.
The Book of Revelation
The Book of Revelation is attributed to the Apostle
John, but the language bears little resemblance to that of the Johannine school;
its authorship has been disputed since the third century. Almost certainly it
was written by a different John. The author calls himself John of Patmos (Rev.
1:9), one of the few instances where the author of a New Testament book actually
gives his name.
The book is written in excellent imitation of the
style of Paul's letters; it was written to encourage the churches of Asia Minor
to weather an outbreak of persecution, which probably occurred during the reign
of the emperor Domitian (81-96 C.E.). The revelation sent to John by an angel
is composed in the form of a letter (1:4 is the typical opening line), and the
messages to the seven churches of Asia Minor each are revealed in letter form.
Some scholarly study has been devoted to the letters to the churches in an attempt
to understand their conditions; the letters condemn specific heretics and heretical
Technically, the Book of Revelation is not even an
apocalypse, at least not in the style of the apocalyptic works of the Hebrew Bible.
While the apocalypses are usually pseudonymous, Revelation specifies the name
of its author. While they survey world history, Revelation does not. While they
offer interpretations of visions by angels, Revelation does not. And while they
claim that the meanings of their books are sealed until the time of the end, Revelation
never puts a seal on its contents. As a result, Revelation has been described
as a kind of "anti-apocalypse." The book clearly draws on images uses
in Daniel and Ezekiel; however, critical biblical scholarship has agreed that
it is a completely hopeless task to attempt to construct a chronology for the
events of the "time of the end" from the book, for its chapters do not
portray events chronologically.
The imagery and symbolism of the book of Revelation
has excited the imagination of Christians for two thousand years, and a wide variety
of interpretations of its passages have been offered. 'Abdu'l-Bahá offers interpretations
of the symbols as well, which are valid for Bahá'ís because they are authoritative.
'Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretations vary widely from many of the interpretations common
among Christians, mostly because He identifies many of the figures with persons
and events in Islamic history.
'Abdu'l-Bahá offers interpretation and commentary
on chapters eleven and twelve of the Book of Revelation (Some Answered Questions,
45-61, 67-72). He asserts the interpretation that various time measures (twelve
hundred and sixty days; forty-two months; three and a half years; a time, and
times, and half a time), which all equal twelve hundred and sixty days, refer
to the twelve hundred and sixty Islamic years that elapsed between the hejira
of Muhammad and the declaration of the Báb (which occurred in 1844 C.E.,
or 1260 A.H.). 'Abdu'l-Bahá identifies the two witnesses (11:3) as Muhammad
and 'Alí, quoting the Qur'án as calling Muhammad a witness. The "two olive
trees" and "the two candlesticks" (11:4) refer to them as well, and symbolically
allude to their missions to illuminate the world. The "beast" (11:7) refers to
the Umayyad caliphs, who, 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains, corrupted Islam and thus made
war on its Prophet and His successor. Their dead bodies being placed in the grave
(11:9) refers to the teachings of Muhammad and 'Alí, and indicates that the
religion of God is in eclipse for the remainder of the Islamic dispensation. The
reference to their resurrection after three and a half days (11:11) is symbolic
of their spiritual return in the Báb and His chief disciple, Quddús, in 1260 A.H.
The earthquake mentioned in 11:13 'Abdu'l-Bahá links with the earthquake that
devastated Shiraz after the martyrdom of the Báb in 1850.
Verse 11:14 refers to three woes, which 'Abdu'l-Bahá
identifies with Muhammad, the Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh; He explains that the
coming of a new Manifestation of God signifies judgment of the people, and thus
constitutes a woe. He reinforces His interpretation by citing Ezekiel 30:1-3.
The reference to twenty-four elders (11:16), 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains, refers to
the greatness of the Bahá'í dispensation, which has twice the number of leading
figures as the previous religions, each of which had twelve (twelve sons of Jacob,
twelve chiefs of the tribes of Israel under Moses, twelve disciples of Jesus,
twelve Imams). The reference to the temple being open in heaven (11:19) refers
to the divine teachings again being diffused to the world.
'Abdu'l-Bahá also offers a symbolic interpretation
of chapter twelve. The reference to the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon
under her feet, and a crown of twelve stars on her head (12:1) refers to the Islamic
revelation; the sun is the symbol for Iran, the moon the symbol of the Ottoman
Turks, and the twelve stars are a reference to the twelve Imams. The dragon with
seven heads and ten horns (12:3-4) refers to the Umayyads, who dominated seven
nations (Syria, Arabia, Persia, Egypt, North Africa, Spain, and Transoxiana) and
who had ten names (there were more than ten Umayyad rulers, but some of them had
the same name, such as Yazid I and Yazid II). The Umayyads tried to devour the
Law of God, just as the dragon attempted to devour the child referred to in 12:4.
However, He was born anyway (12:5); 'Abdu'l-Bahá says the child refers to the
Báb. Nevertheless, the woman had to flee into the wilderness for twelve hundred
and sixty days (12:5-6); that is, the Law of God had to remain confined to the
heart of Arabia until the time of the Báb's advent.
Finally, 'Abdu'l-Bahá interprets the closing image
of the book of Revelation, "I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first
heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw
the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven" (21:1-2) (Some
Answered Questions, 67). This, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, says, refers to the new revelation
of God, brought by a new messenger. The abolition of the sea, He adds, refers
to the fact that every place will be dry land, in other words, humanity will be
able to dwell under the Law of God everywhere.
The New Testament is not only an account of Jesus,
but the story of the rise of Christianity as well. It is both scripture and history.
In it we see both the Word of God and the struggle of humans to understand the
word. For Bahá'ís, it is an opportunity to appreciate the purity of the Bahá'í
revelation, which did not have to go through a period of oral transmission before
reaching its final written form. But it is also an opportunity for Bahá'ís to
realize that their own scripture, like that of Christianity, has interacted with
human beings, and that the content of the scripture is always shaped by the questions
of the Manifestation's audience. It is yet another opportunity to witness the
power of the Word of God, throughout all ages, to transform human hearts.
Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated 7 September
Star of the West, vol. 3, no. 14, p. 9.
Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, 109.
Martin Luther, quoted in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin
Luther (New York: Abingdon Press, 1977), 259.
What follows is a summary; the reader is referred to the text of Some Answered
Questions if s/he wants the details of the interpretation.