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
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 assumptionthat the Bible is the precise and exact Word of Godthat
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 corruptedthat is, that nothing valid remained of
the revelation that God had given through Moses and Jesus. This doctrine is called
hríf, "corruption" of the text. Bahá'u'lláh emphatically rejects
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 Mu
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,
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:
Abraham, father of
Abraham, father of
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 individualeven
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
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.
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
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.!
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
'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 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).
"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 waysmajd,
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 mindand perhaps otherswhen He gave the vision
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 15:7which mentions it while delimiting the northeastern
border of the land of Judahthe 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 sayingin
hyperbolic languagethat 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.
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
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 lifethat 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.)
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,
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 Markwho
wrote decades earlier than Lukeincluded 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 alljust statements that he appeared to
certain peoplethat 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 storieswithout raising the
question of their historicity, which is a serious issue itselfsuggests 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
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,
body" or "soulful body."
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."
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).
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 contrastthe social process that created the Bible
was very different from the process by which the Bahá'í scriptures came into beingand
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.
The New Testament
The New Testament is the traditional scripture of the
Christian dispensation. None of the authors of the books of the New Testament
set out to compose scripture; they were writing down their own understandings
of Christianity, in response to the needs of their communities. The first two
or three generations of Christians wrote hundreds of works, a hundred of which
have survived, and about a quarter of which were accepted into the New Testament.
Of the New Testament's twenty-seven books, four are about Jesus Christ, His life
and teachings; they are called gospels. The Book of Acts, a companion work
to the Gospel of Luke, describes the actions of Christ's apostles after His death.
Of the remaining twenty-two books, twenty-one are either
letters or are sermons composed as if they were letters. Letter writing became
important because the earliest significant Christian documents were the letters
that the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches he had established; these letters
very quickly acquired a special status, and they made letter writing the genre
in which early Christians recorded their thoughts. Even the Book of Revelation
is composed as if it were a letter, and the author expressed part of the revelation
he claimed to receive in the form of a series of letters. The Book of Hebrews,
which is a sermon, not a letter, closes using the same concluding forms as ancient
No church council ever finalized the contents of the New
Testament; rather, its contents were gradually settled by tradition. The collection
of works did not even have a name until about 200 C.E., when the Latin theologian
Tertullian coined the term New Testament. Many independent Christian groups
had other collections of writings that they considered foundational to their beliefs,
but which were never considered sacred or even correct by the mainstream of Christians.
The Nag Hammadi library, a collection of forty-six works buried in southern Egypt
about 400 C.E. and found in 1945, is the best example.
Bibles of the third and fourth centuriesthe oldest that
are knownoften included books that are no longer considered part of the canon,
such as First Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse
of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas. Christians outside the Roman
Empire, such as in eastern Syria and Ethiopia, often included works in their Bibles
not accepted by the later Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, such as the Diatessaron.
Medieval Catholic Bibles sometimes included a collection of books called the Apocrypha,
a kind of appendix. When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in the
mid sixteenth century he decided to exclude the Apocrypha. His Bible became the
standard among Protestants, and remains the standard for American Christianity
Christians have studied, and disagreed about, the New Testament
since it first emerged as a collection of works in the late second and early third
century. Since the early and mid nineteenth century, sophisticated techniques
for examining the language, style, and historical context of the New Testament
books have developed and are collectively referred to as higher biblical criticism
(where "criticism" refers to analysis of the New Testament, not criticizing it).
There are several important aspects of higher biblical criticism. One is comparison
of biblical texts describing the same topics side by side, so that differences
of language and content can be studied carefully. Another important technique
involves comparing biblical texts to other Christian nonbiblical texts of a similar
age, on the assumption that nonbiblical texts also contain important information
about Jesus and His early disciples. A third important aspect of the approach
involves minute study of non-Christian texts of the same age, to gain a more detailed
understanding of the usage of common biblical terms and phrases in the language
of the day. A key assumption throughout is that when apparent contradictions between
biblical texts are noted, the contradictions should not be glossed over or reconciled
theologically, but should be studied rigorously and thoroughly to determine what
they tell us about the range of assumptions held by the early Christians. In short,
higher biblical criticism assumes that scripture is the product not only of a
revelatory process, but also of a social process, and the social component of
the composition of scripture can be studied rigorously using the modern techniques
of sociology, psychology, and literary criticism.
Higher biblical criticism has produced a much deeper understanding
of the biblical text than traditional techniques, but some of its conclusions
are startling, even shocking. The most important point of disagreement between
liberal and conservative Christians is whether to accept higher criticism and
its conclusions about the Bible. This book presents the conclusions of higher
biblical criticism largely without questioning its results because it will be
decades before a competent critique of them can be created by Bahá'í scholars.
One of the most important conclusions of higher-critical
biblical scholarship is that not one book in the New Testament was written
by an individual who met Jesus Christ. All of them were written later, usually
by the second and third generation; the latest books in the New Testament were
composed about 140 or 150 C.E. Many of the books are pseudonymousthat is, they
claim to be written by someone other than the real author. Examples are First
and Second Peter, the Epistle of James, and the Epistle of Jude; the quality of
the Greek and the theological issues addressed indicate the authors were native
Greek speakers and writers, composing decades after Peter, James, and Jude died.
First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus are attributed to Paul but are very different
in vocabulary and theology from Paul's genuine letters. The Book of Hebrews is
anonymous, that is, its author is not given at all; it was attributed to Paul
very early, but the attribution has been questioned since the third century.
It may seem strange to modern people that so many books of
the Bible were pseudonymous or anonymous, but the process of writing books in
the first and second centuries was very different than it is today. Ancient books
had to be hand-copied and thus were incredibly expensive; consequently unknown
authors often attributed their works to great men long dead to give the books
weight and increase the likelihood they would be copied. Ancient books did not
have copyrights or title pages; often the only place the author's name would be
mentioned was in the text itself.
A second major conclusion of higher biblical criticism is
that all the New Testament books were originally written in Greek, not
in Aramaic, which was the language of Christ. Thus the teachings of the Manifestation
of God had to be translated, not only into a new language, but a new culture as
Closely related to this conclusion is another, that the stories
about Jesus and accounts of His words were transmitted orally for one or two generations.
Detailed study of the gospels has shown that the miracle stories, parables, and
sayings of Jesus were preserved not because the first generation of Christians
realized they had an obligation to posterity to serve as impartial and thorough
transmitters of the Jesus tradition, but because of the stories' usefulness in
the mission to convert others to Christ. Preserved in the missionary context,
the stories about Jesus were gradually written down as brief collections of sayings
or miracles, and these short documents were later incorporated into the gospels,
either completely or in part.
Because of the missionary needs that preserved accounts about
Jesus, and the oral milieu that transmitted them, one can expect that some of
Jesus's teachings were lost, and others may have been garbled. This is not to
say that Jesus's teachings did not survive; on the contrary, enough revelation
survived for Christianity to flourish for almost two thousand years. However,
Christianity is not in the same situation as the Bahá'í Faith, where the revelation
was written down by the Manifestation of God Himself. Rather, Bahá'ís can think
of the scriptures of Christianity as being similar to pilgrim's notes: descriptions
of the words of the Manifestation written down at a later date. Nevertheless,
Bahá'ís should respect, even venerate the New Testament and treat it as sacred
text, for it contains God's Word (see chapter one, on the Bahá'í understanding
of the Bible, for details).
A third major conclusion of modern biblical scholarship is
that the New Testament is not theologically unified, but contains within it
diverse and conflicting opinions about the nature of Christianity. This is
an extremely important discovery because it shows that Christianity was never
a single united religion, but always contained sharp disagreements and diverging
tendenciesthe sources of its sects. Bahá'ís, used to thinking of their own religious
community as being in theological agreement, must understand that never in its
history did Christianity experience similar unity. It had no golden age of unity
in the first generation, from which it fell away. Paul's letters, which constantly
complain about and warn against the teachings of rival Christian groups, make
this clear (see I Cor. 1: 10-17; Gal 2:1-21). The Bahá'í Faith has a Covenant
that maintains its unity. According to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Christianity never had a
At most, His Holiness Jesus Christ gave only an intimation, a symbol, and that
was but an indication of the solidity of Peter's faith. When he mentioned his
faith, His Holiness said "Thou art Peter"which means rock"and upon
this rock I will build My church." This was a sanction of Peter's faith; it was
not indicative of his (Peter) being the expounder of the Book, but was a confirmation
of Peter's faith.
Were it not for the protecting power of the Covenant to guard the impregnable
fort of the Cause of God, there would arise among the Bahá'ís, in
one day, a thousand different sects as was the case in former ages.
Some Christians are fully aware of the disaster, indeed,
of the sin, of sectarianism. According to H. Richard Niebuhr, one of America's
greatest Protestant theologians:
Denominationalism. . . . is a compromise, made far too
lightly, between Christianity and the world . . . . It represents the accommodation
of Christianity to the caste-system of human society. It carries over into the
organization of the Christian principle of brotherhood the prides and prejudices,
the privilege and prestige, as well as the humiliations and abasements, the injustices
and inequalities of that specious order of high and low wherein men find the satisfaction
of their craving for vainglory. The division of the churches closely follows the
divisions of men into castes of national, racial, and economic groups. It draws
the color line in the church of God; it fosters the misunderstandings, the self-exaltations,
the hatreds of jingoistic nationalism by continuing in the body of Christ the
spurious differences of provincial loyalties; it seats the rich and the poor apart
at the table of the Lord, where the fortunate may enjoy the bounty they have provided
while the others feed upon the crusts their poverty affords.
According to the World Christian Encyclopedia,
Christianity had about 1900 sects in the year 1900; by 1985 the number had increased
to about 22,190; and currently sects come into existence at the rate of 270 per
year, or five per week!
There is no reason to assume that Christianity's fragmentation will slow down
or reverse in the near future. Indeed, many Christians believe that sectarianism
is good: Liberals argue that it allows greater diversity of expression of the
Christian truth; conservatives maintain that it permits the "true" believers to
be separated from the "false."
The sectarian tendency in Christianity goes all the way back
to its earliest days. The followers of Jesus understood the purpose of His mission
in several sharply divergent ways, and they remembered His words and actions creatively,
not passively. Thus the story of Jesus is also the story of His followers; and
of both the weaknesses of their efforts to remember His life and their ultimate
genius in preserving and creatively transforming the Jesus tradition.
Many biblical scholars have studied the genealogies of Jesus and noted their contrasting
purposes. See, for example, David L. Tiede, Luke, in Augsburg Commentary
on the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), 96-97;
Robert H. Smith, Matthew, in Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament
(Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1989), 30-35.
Origen (185-254) understands the phrase "prince of this world" to refer to Satan;
see G. W. Butterworth, trans, Origin on First Principles (Gloucester, Mass.:
Peter Smith, 1973), 45, 50.
It is important to note that Shoghi Effendi does offer an interpretation of the
verse "the gate that looketh towards the East" as being an allusion to the city
of Akka (God Passes By, 184). But this probably refers to a different verse:
Ezekiel 43:1-2. In Ezekiel this probably refers to the east gate of a new Jerusalem
See, for example, John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a
Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1991). Chapter
13 summarizes his view of Jesus's miracles; he succinctly summarizes other scholars
on page 320.
Norman Perrin, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York: Harcourt Brace
Jovanovitch, 1974), 104.
For commentary on I Corinthians 15:35:49 see William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther,
I Corinthians: A New Translation, Introduction With a Study of the Life of
Paul, Notes, and Commentary, in William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman,
eds., The Anchor Bible, vol. 32 (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1976),
Resurrection and Return of Jesus," a memorandum of the Research Department of
the Universal House of Justice to the Universal House of Justice, 9 October 1989,
Star of the West, vol. 3, no. 14, p. 9.
Bahá'í World Faith, pp. 357-58.
H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York:
Meridian Books, 1929), p. 6.
The World Christian Encyclopedia, ed. David B. Barrett (Oxford: Oxford
Univ. Press, 1982).
Preserving the Jesus Tradition
Because of the discovery that the first generation of
Christians served not as a pure transmitter of the Jesus tradition, but as a filter
of the tradition, a study of Christianity must start not with Jesus, but with
the earliest Christians. Their interests and needs determined what traditions
about Jesus were preserved, and how they were modified.
It may seem easy to assume, almost twenty centuries after
the death of Jesus, that the first generation must have had historical consciousness;
in other words, that they knew posterity was depending on them to preserve the
precious acts and pronouncements of their Lord. There are many examples, from
all around the world, of stories and sayings that have been accurately transmitted
orally for centuries; the rabbinic tradition in Judaism itself was a vehicle for
this. Usually cultures that transmit a body of tradition, however, organize the
material into rhyming form, to ease memorization, and establish a class of professional
memorizers. The early Christian community did neither. When scholars examine the
New Testament text closely they find little evidence for a systematic effort to
record the story of Jesus.
Furthermore, critical biblical scholarship has shown there
were good reasons that a historical consciousness was largely absent from the
first generation. As the Gospel of Mark and the genuine letters of Paul indicate,
much of the first generation believed that Jesus would return soon, within their
own lifetimes; and since the world was about to end, there was no need to preserve
their memories of Him.
Furthermore, the early Christian community believed that
Jesus's coming had brought them new gifts. The first generation was very charismatic,
and the exercise of the "gifts of the spirit," such as speaking in tongues, were
important components of community life. Such gifts were not unique to the early
Christians; speaking in tongues occurred in Hellenistic Judaism and probably in
pagan religious circles as well. Among the important gifts of the spirit was the
power of prophecy. Christian "prophets" spoke ecstatically, giving the words of
Christ as He spoke to them. Because the words of the risen Christ in the worship
experience were more immediate and were as real as those spoken by the historical
Jesus, Christians probably made little or no distinction between them.
Finally, from its very beginning the early Christian community
interpreted Jesus's life and words, and often they did not distinguish between
historical materials and their own interpretations. A good example is the parable
of the sower and its interpretation (Mark 4:10-12; Matthew 13:10-13; Luke 8:9-10).
Biblical scholarship strongly suggests that while the parable is probably genuine,
the interpretation was produced by the early church, even though the gospels also
place it in the mouth of Jesus.
As a result, there are many reasons to assume that the gospels
contain a mixture of accurate information about Jesus, material attributed to
Him that arose in the early Christian community, and interpretations of His life
and words. Study of the early Christian community has also revealed that it possessed
several understandings of the significance of Jesus. Helmut Koester, a leading
biblical scholar, has sketched four: Jesus as an envoy of Wisdom; Jesus as divine
human; Jesus raised from the dead; and Jesus as Lord of the Future.
Jesus and Wisdom
Many Christiansusually of Jewish backgroundsaw Jesus
as the embodiment of Sophia or Wisdom. The wisdom tradition in Judaism
envisions God as having produced a being or emanation, Wisdom, who revealed His
truth to individuals or to humanity. The Wisdom tradition was mystical and often
esoteric; it focused on wise aphorisms and cryptic proverbs. Many early Christians
saw Jesus as an emissary of Wisdom, or as Wisdom itself. They assembled lists
of His "wisdom sayings": proverbs, parables, and other words that Jesus uttered.
Two works of this sort have survived: the Gospel of Thomas and Q.
The Gospel of Thomas
Although there are many gospels, acts of the apostles, and
letters that were never included in the New Testament, most of them were written
after 140 C.E., which is about the time the last works included in the New Testament
were composed. One of the significant exceptions is the Gospel of Thomas.
It is very old, possibly being composed as early as 60 C.E. (though the text was
edited, possibly as late as the early second century). The work is attributed
to Thomas, one of Jesus's disciples. The original Greek text, so far, has not
been found; the extant version is in Coptic translation (Coptic is the ancient
Egyptian language, written in a modification of the Greek alphabet).
The Gospel of Thomas is not like the gospels in the
New Testament, in that it contains no passion narrative (description of Christ's
crucifixion) and no resurrection accounts; thus it ignores the most important
event around which the canonical gospels were written. It has no mention of Jesus's
birth or childhood, no narration of Jesus's life, and only one miracle story.
Instead, it consists of one hundred fourteen sayings of Jesus, one after the other,
with no context for each and no transition between them. Often the text does not
even include the question that Jesus was asked. The arrangement of the sayings
is based on similar words in them. In organization, it is a "wisdom" piece.
The work is significant for several reasons. Many of its
sayings are also found in the synoptic gospels, though in different wording. All
reference to a future messiah, and to Jesus as the "Son of Man" are absent, even
though the work contains sayings that in the canonical gospels includes the term
"Son of Man." Careful study suggests that the Gospel of Thomas may preserve
the older form of the sayings.
The Gospel of Thomas also claims to present "secret"
sayings; and those that have been included are those that support gnostic interpretations
of Jesus's teachings. Liberation of the soul from the body is a common theme;
it was a common theme for gnostics. Traditional Jesus sayings appear to have been
modified to give them a gnostic interpretation. There also are many admonitions
to recognize one's true self.
The Synoptic Sayings Source (Q)
Since the 1830s biblical scholars have recognized that Matthew
and Luke contain a large amount of common material. Much of it is also found in
the gospel of Mark, but a considerable amount is found only in Matthew and Luke.
The common material exhibits some important patterns that are clues to its origin:
almost all of it consists of sayings; only one miracle is included; there is no
common material in the Lukan and Matthean birth stories or passion narratives;
and when scholars are fairly certain what the original version of the common material
wasfor example, when a phrase from the Hebrew Bible was alluded to in the original
textboth Matthew's and Luke's versions may differ from the original.
This suggests that rather than Matthew using Luke as a source when writing his
gospel, or vice versa, they both read another, lost work, and borrowed from it.
Scholars call this lost work the Synoptic Sayings Source or Q (from
the German word Quelle, source).
Q consisted mostly of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative
and virtually no stories to give the context of the sayings. The Gospel of
Thomas lends credence to the idea that a document just listing sayings could
have existed. Q, like Thomas, appears to be a work written in the
Jewish Wisdom tradition. Matthew and Luke arrange the Q sayings in very
similar order, suggesting that the original order has often been preserved, especially
One hundred six units of text (fragments of sentences, sentences,
and groups of sentences on the same topic) can be identified in Matthew and Luke
that came from Q. The sayings concern various topics: Jesus and John the
Baptist; Christian discipleship and mission; controversies with Israel; fearless
preaching; and especially apocalyptic concerns. Particularly significant are the
subjects missing from Q: Jesus's baptism, passion, and resurrection. While
Matthew and Luke often give Q phrasing that is identical (suggesting Q
was a written source), sometimes there are significant differences in phrasing
(for example, the Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew may have constructed by collecting
and rearranging Q sayings, versus the Sermon on the Plain, which Luke took
from Q). Research on Q has advanced to the point where scholars
think the document underwent at least two redactions (modifications and editings);
the later version was more apocalytic, the earlier more interested in wisdom.
Q cannot be dated except to say it had to be composed after Jesus's death
(about 30 C.E.) and before it was used by Matthew and Luke (about 80 C.E.); most
scholars, though, suspect it was composed between 40 and 60. A likely setting
for the composition of Q is a Syrian Jewish-Christian community that sought
to follow most of the Jewish law but maintained friendly relations with Gentile
Christians, and that was bitterly criticized by Pharisaic Jews (such as Paul,
before his conversion) as a result.
Q may have circulated fairly widely, for The Gospel
of Thomas, the apostle Paul, and the authors of the epistles of James, I Peter,
and I Clement may have been familiar with versions of it.
One intriguing possibility is that Q was composed by or based on sayings
collected by the apostle Matthew, that the work began to circulate widely, and
that the Matthean community continued to develop the Q material, eventually
incorporating it into the Gospel of Matthew.
The Christians who saw Jesus as the envoy of Wisdom preserved
many of His sayings that were later used in the writing of the gospels. They may
have considered the view that Jesus was Lord of the Future or that he was raised
from the dead as unimportant. As already noted, the Gospel of Thomas ignored
both views; Q originally ignored both as well, though a concern for Jesus
as Lord of the Future apparently was edited into the document later.
Jesus as Divine Human
Yet another group of Christians interpreted Jesus primarily
as a divine human. This is a concept that existed in Hellenistic culture.
Hercules exhibits some of the traits of a divine human, such as his ability to
perform remarkable feats. Biographies of Alexander the Great and of an obscure
Greek seer, Apollonius of Tyana, offer good examples of the tradition of the divine
human: he performed healings, exorcisms, miracles, had ecstatic experiences, and
saw visions. Sometimes divine humans were born as a result of a union of their
mother with a god. Christians who saw Jesus as a divine human were among those
who referred to Him by the title "Son of God." This title probably would have
been unacceptable in traditional Judaism because the unknown, transcendent God
could never have had a son. These Christians assembled collections of stories
of miracles and exorcisms performed by Jesus and apparently wrote them down. They
also assembled the stories of Jesus's miraculous birth. It is thought that a "Signs
Source" or Semeiaa collection of miracle storieswas used by the writer
of the gospel of Mark; the author of John may have used it as well.
The Signs Source (Semeia)
Unlike the Q, it is not possible to reconstruct the
original text of the Semeia, though it is possible, from the parallel stories
found in the gospels of Mark and John, to trace its contents:
Mark 4:35-6:44: Mark 6:45-8:26:
4:35-41 Stilling tempest 6:45-52 Walking on sea
5:1-20 Gerasene demoniac 5:22-43 Daughter of Jarius
5:25-34 Woman with issue of blood 7:24-30 Canaanite woman
7:32-36 Healing of deaf mute
6:30-44 Feeding 5000 8:1-10 Feeding 4000
8:22-26 Healing blind man
2:1-11 Wine miracle at wedding feast at Cana
4:46-54 Healing of son of royal official
5:2-9 Healing of lame man at Bethzatha pool
6:5-14 Feeding 6000
6:16-25 Tempest and walking on the sea
9:1-7 Healing blind man
11:1-45 Raising Lazarus
Mark apparently preserved the cycle of miracle stories twice, as independent collections;
John used it once. In both gospels the miracle stories included an account of
feeding thousands; stilling a tempest and walking on the sea; and various healings.
Both gospels preserved other miracle stories that were not part of these collections.
The Johannine collection is particularly significant because
it appears to imitate the collections of miracles stories, or aretologies,
that were told about various Greek gods. It opens with the changing of water to
wine, a miracle Greeks attributed to the god Dionysos. The first two miracles
also close with "this is the first of the signs which Jesus did in Cana" (John
2:11) and "this is the second sign when he came from Judea into Galilee" (John
4:54), wording that would be expected if the signs had been copied from an existing
written source. Possibly the original ending of the Signs Source is preserved
in John 20:30-31, "Jesus did many other signs before his disciples which are not
written in this book."
The Signs Source apparently only focused on Jesus as a divine
human and ignored the other three ways of viewing Jesus.
Jesus, Raised from the Dead
Probably the oldest of the four ways to view Jesus, and perhaps
the most decisive for later writing about Jesus, was Jesus raised from the dead.
One of the most significant results of modern biblical scholarship has been the
recognition that Jesus's death was one of the most important influences on the
understanding of Jesus's life. Consider the impact that Jesus had on His disciples.
They believed He performed miracles. They experienced His life and were overwhelmed
by it. They heard His words and were mesmerized by them, even if they didn't understand
them perfectly. He was more than a human being to them; in some sense He was divine.
Then He was arrested and cruelly murdered. How could Jesus
allow such an injustice to be perpetrated against Him? The disciples could not
understand; their faith was severely shaken. One can understand why the standard
Islamic understanding of the crucifixion is that Jesus Himself was not crucified,
but someone who looked like Him; the ideal that a divine messenger could be martyred
seems to contradict the idea that He has divine power. The crucifixion shattered
the Christian community. The gospels testify that it was Christ's resurrection
appearances that revived the dead body of Christianity.
To understand the seemingly meaningless turn of events, the
disciples turned to their Biblethe Hebrew Bible. An apocryphal Christian
work, the Kerygma Petrou
(The Proclamation of Peter) says that the leading
disciples examined the last days of Jesus's life, event by event, and searched
the Hebrew Bible for prophecies that had been fulfilled in order to understand
the tragedy. The Kerygma Petrou
puts the description of the disciples'
action in the mouth of Peter:
But we opened the books of the prophets which we had, which partly in parables,
partly in enigmas, partly with certainty and in clear words name Christ Jesus,
and found his coming, his death, his crucifixion and all the rest of the tortures
which the Jews inflicted on him, his resurrection and his assumption to heaven.-.-.
how all was written that he had to suffer and what would be after him. Recognizing
this, we believed God in consequence of what is written of (in reference to) him.
The apostles also conducted the process in the reverse
direction: They considered the prophecies that the Bible contained and examined
the life of Jesus in order to determine which prophecies were fulfilled. Over
time stories about Jesus developed that were based on the fulfillment of many
biblical prophecies by Him; thus passages in the Old Testament shaped the memory
of Jesus's death.
The result was eventually formed into the passion narrative,
the account of Christ's arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It was the first part
of Christ's life to be systematically organized, and may have been the first part
to be written down. The similarity of the passion accounts in the four canonical
gospels strongly suggests that they had access to a written passion account, now
lost. One scholar has even given this lost document a namethe Cross Gospeland
has attempted to reconstruct its original text. The prominence of Peter's name
in all of the accounts suggests that Peter may have been the ultimate source for
much of the Passion narrative. This possibility is reinforced by two apocryphal
accounts of the passion, the Gospel of Peter and the Kerygma of Peter,
which both bear his name.
Peter was not the only prominent Christian to focus on Jesus's
death; Paul did also. Paul's summary of his basic teaching, presented in I Corinthians
15:3-8, exclusively emphasized Jesus's death and resurrection:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I
also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures
[Hebrew Bible], that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance
with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve
[apostles]. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most
of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James
[Jesus's brother], then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born,
he appeared also to me.
Paul's summary of the message of Christianity is purely
the proclamation of the risen Christ; His life is not even mentioned, nor are
His words or miracles. Paul's genuine letters contain very few references to the
words and deeds of the historical Jesus. Note that Paul, also, refers to the influence
of the Hebrew Bible on the community's understanding of Jesus's crucifixion.
Because Jesus's death came to dominate the understanding
of His life, His biography, when it was finally composed, was written backwards,
starting from the end. The passion became the shaping event for structuring the
gospels. All traditional materials about Jesus, such as sayings, miracle stories,
parables, and propheciespreserved by other Christianswere written into a single
story, using the passion as the framework.
Jesus, Lord of the Future
Closely related to belief in Jesus as raised from the dead
was belief in Jesus Christ as Lord of the Future, as the one who would return
as judge and redeemer. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians is a good example:
after he mentions the Christian belief that "Jesus died and rose again" (4:14)
he speaks of "we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord" (4:15),
which refers to belief in Christ's imminent return. The gospel of Mark reflects
a similar belief. Expectation of the imminent return of Christ persisted until
70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and Jesus did not
return to prevent it.
Important to some of the Christians who focused on Jesus's
passion and return was the title "Son of man" (or "Son of humanity," if one wishes
to avoid sexist language), which comes from the book of Daniel. Some biblical
scholars believe that the sayings where Jesus refers to Himself as the "Son of
man" did not originally include that term. A careful study by John Dominic Crossan
of the forty "Son of man" sayings that are found in first-generation Christian
writings indicates that sixteen of the sayings are independently attested in two
or more sources; but the term "Son of man" itself is found more than once in only
(In the other cases the same saying refers to Jesus using words and phrases like
"I" or "the Lord.")
Christians who focused on Jesus as the future redeemer also
referred to him as "Lord." They called him "the Anointed One," mashiah (messiah)
in Hebrew, a term that was translated into Greek as christos. (Before Christianity,
the word christos could have meant "ointment" as well as "anointed.")
Not all Christians who saw Jesus as the Lord of the Future
also focused on him as one raised from the dead. Q contained many sayings
about Christ's return, but apparently contained no passion narrative, and no reference
to his crucifixion.
The Distinctiveness of the Four Views of Jesus
While there were Christians who saw Jesus according to more
than one of these four ways, it is striking to note that the earliest documents
are often dominated by one or at most two ways of conceptualizing Jesus and completely
ignore the other ways. The genuine letters of Paul stress Jesus raised from the
dead and emphasize His role as Lord of the future, but contain only three complete
sayings attributed to Jesus, and make no mention of His miracles. The ideas of
Jesus as divine human or Jesus as envoy of wisdom apparently were not important
to Paul. The Gospel of Thomas is a piece in the wisdom tradition, but has few
references to miracles, contains no passion narrative, and rarely refers to Jesus
as Lord. The Q document used by Matthew and Luke is a piece in the wisdom tradition
and contains sayings about the future (possibly added later), but has no passion
narrative and no miracle stories. The signs source was dominated by miracles and
seems to have contained no reference to the passion or return and contained few
if any sayings of Jesus.
It is interesting to note that the late nineteenth and early
twentieth-century American Bahá'í community was divided into groups similar to
the early Christians. Some early American Bahá'ís saw the Bahá'í Faith primarily
as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy (like the early Christians who emphasized
Jesus as raised from the dead and as judge and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy).
Other early American Bahá'ís saw the Bahá'í Faith primarily in terms of esoteric
religious truth (such as those Christians who emphasized Jesus as envoy of Wisdom
or as a divine human). Bahá'í communities included individuals with both points
of view, and some Bahá'ís saw the Faith both ways.
The Bahá'í community had access to the writings of its Founder
and thus the divergent tendencies in the community gradually faded. The different
groups did not write works that later were incorporated into Bahá'í scripture.
The early Christian community had no definitions of true belief or of heresy,
consequently divergent beliefs could exist together in a group or within an individual.
All of these groups spoke about Jesus; all of them had "prophets" who
received Jesus's words; and all of them wrote accounts of Jesus, probably within
a decade or two of His death. From these short works many gospels were later compiled.
Since the new gospels had not yet acquired any special status, they were edited,
rewritten, and paraphrased in yet later gospels. (This even includes the Gospel
of Mark, which was used as a source by the authors of Matthew and Luke, who edited
and modified the information they obtained from it.) The earliest documents, having
been incorporated into more sophisticated works, were gradually lost.
Standing near the end of this literary process are the four
gospels in the New Testament. They are among the oldest accounts that are preserved.
Three of them are called the synoptic gospels because they see Jesus through
the "same eye" (which is what synoptic means in Greek). These three are
Mark, Matthew, and Luke; they were composed between 70 and 90 C.E.
There is no parallel for the genre of the gospel in Hellenistic
literature, for they are not biographies or histories, but statements of the theological
significance of an individual using examples from that individual's life and words.
The works thus proclaim and interpret Jesus, not simply describe Him. This is
the principal reason why the historical Jesus is so difficult to reconstruct;
the early Christians' understanding of Him dominates the accounts about Him. An
examination of the gospels, and works associated with them, reveals this.
Mark has been described as "a passion story with a long
introduction." Fundamentally, the book is an apocalyse; Jesus is expected
to return imminently. Most likely the work was composed about 70 C.E., when the
Roman siege of Jerusalem raised Christian expectations of His return to a height.
The many references to gentiles in Mark suggest its author was very interested
in the mission to teach the gentiles. Jesus is equally called "Son of God"
(a Hellenistic title for Him) and "Son of Man" (a Jewish title for Him);
two Son of Man statements are often followed by two Son of God statements (for
example, 1:1, 1:10; 2:10, 2:28; 3:11, 5:7). In Mark, Jesus constantly refuses
to disclose His identity until the end; this feature of Mark is called the "Messianic
secret" (Bahá'ís, notably Christopher Buck, have seen a similar "messianic
secret" theme in the Kitáb-i-Íqán, composed before Bahá'u'lláh's declaration).
Jesus even orders demons not to divulge His identity (c.f. 3:12). The gospel gives
the reason for Jesus's death on the cross as a "ransom for many" (Mark
The book breaks into five sections, each of which begins
with a summary and ends with an allusion to the passion (Christ on the cross).
The passion allusions occur in verses 3:6, 6:1-6:6, 8:17-8:21, 10:45, and 12:44.
The entire section from 8:27 to 10:45 has the overall theme of interpreting the
The gospel of Mark must have circulated quickly, for both
Matthew and Luke used it. Ninety percent of Mark may be found in reused form in
Matthew, and fifty percent of it in Luke. The ways these authors reused Mark (for
example, by changing the wording of quotes of Jesus) tells us much about the reasons
that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels.
The Gospel of Matthew was apparently composed by a Christian
of Jewish background. The book is constantly in dialogue with the Jews. Jesus
is quoted as describing His mission as "to fulfill the law and the prophets" (Matt
5:17). His genealogy is used to tie Jesus to Abraham and demonstrates His Jewish
lineage; each birth story about Him highlights a passage from the Hebrew Bible.
The gospel is believed to have been composed between 70 and
100 C.E. because it reflects the concerns of that period: It deals with the problem
of the delay of Jesus's return; it focuses on the organization of church structure;
and it culminates in the "Great Commission," when Jesus tells His disciples to
go out and "make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19), thus endorsing the mission
to teach the gentiles.
Matthew does not describe Jesus's life chronologically. He
likes to place similar materials together; for example, chapters five, six, and
seven are mostly ethical teachings. Chapters eight and nine are mostly healings.
Chapter ten is instructions to His disciples. Chapter thirteen consists solely
of parables. Chapters twenty-four and twenty-five consist of teachings about the
The book has five major discourses by Jesus, which end with
the formula "when Jesus finished these sayings" or some similar phrase (7:28,
11:1, 13:53, 19:1, and 26:1). The five sections may be an intentional parallel
to the five books of the Pentateuch. Jesus's teachings are presented as the new
law (an idea that Paul would not have liked!) and the disciples are portrayed
as the new rabbis.
Of the three synoptic gospels, the gospel of Luke most closely
resembles a work of history. The book sets Jesus in a "sacred history" at the
"midpoint of time." That is, Luke divides all of human history into three periods:
- The Jewish dispensation ("the law and the prophets were until John; since
then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached" [Luke 16:16]).
- The time of Jesus.
- The time of the church.
The last is described in great detail, for Luke is also the
author of the book of Acts, and the two books were originally written as one complementary
whole. For Luke, the immediacy of Christ's return has faded; Christianity has
a period in history given to it, and the church must recognize the fact and seize
the opportunities it offers. The book was probably written about 85 C.E., plus
or minus five years.
The book begins with a prologue in good Greek literary style;
clearly, Luke is intentionally writing a polished literary work. His description
of the birth of Jesus includes Psalm-like hymns, in imitation of the style of
the Septuagint (the Greek edition of the Hebrew Bible); this shows that Jesus's
birth is still part of the first period of human history.
Luke treated John the Baptist very differently than did Matthew.
Matthew has Jesus baptized by John the Baptist (3:13-17), and draws many parallels
between John and Jesus. In contrast, Luke has John arrested and thrown in prison
immediately before Jesus begins His mission, and instead of a baptism, Luke has
a dove descend upon Jesus from heaven (3:20-22). (`Abdu'l-Bahá describes the dove
as symbolic; see Lights of Guidance, 3d ed., number 1642). Thus Luke see
John as the end of the old dispensation and Jesus as the inauguration of the new,
and allows no overlap in their missions.
Half of the gospel of Luke consists of the teachings that
Jesus supposedly gave while on His way from Galilee to Jerusalem (the "Lukan travel
narrative," 9:51-18:14). None of this material is from Mark; most of it is about
the Christian life, a kind of manual for living.
Luke's concept of salvation is unique; he does not see Christ's
death as an expiation, a sacrifice for sins, like Paul and the early church. Rather,
Jesus is an example to us how to live our lives, and in the contemplation of His
life Luke sees individual salvation.
Since Luke also composed the Book of Acts, it is best to
describe that work and the gospel together. Luke wrote Acts in a fashion parallel
to his gospel. The book begins with a description of the early Jerusalem church
and is written in an intentionally archaic Greek style, just as the gospel began
with an archaic-sounding description of Jesus's birth. The "great commission"
that appears at the end of Matthew appears at the beginning of Acts. Stephen's
martyrdom is portrayed in a way similar to Christ's death (Acts 7:54-60). Paul,
Peter, Stephen, and the other early disciples are portrayed as Hellenistic "divine
men" and as examples to follow, as Jesus was portrayed in the gospel. One
third of Acts describes Paul's journey to Rome; one half of Luke describes Jesus's
journey to Jerusalem.
Luke supposedly was one of Paul's disciples, though the book
of Acts presents no evidence for this. The historical accuracy of Acts has been
hotly debated by scholars. The book places many speeches in Paul's moutha significant
fraction of the text consists of speechesand when one examines the content of
the speeches closely one notes that it is often inconsistent with the teachings
of Paul given in his genuine letters. Furthermore, a cursory examination of Greek
historical works and romances (the early forerunner of the modern novel)
shows that inventing speeches of major characters was extremely common in Greek
writing. Acts appears to be written in the style of Greek romance: in addition
to many speeches it has travel, adventures, danger, magical escapes, and dramatic
dialogue. It even has a shipwreck, which was obligatory in Greek romance. The
only thing it lacks is a love story!
A key piece of evidence in the debate over the historical
reliability of Acts are the so-called "we passages," or places where the text
of Acts lapses into the first person plural (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16).
It has been argued that Luke was utilizing a travel diary or some other personal
record of his travels with Paul, and therefore the "we passages" were evidence
of the document's historical reliability. However, recent research has shown that
Greek romances frequently lapsed into the first person plural whenever sea travel
was involved, in order to make the account more vivid. Virtually all of the "we
passages" in Acts are connected with sea travel. Thus evidence that at first glance
appeared to strengthen the case for the historical reliability of Acts in the
long run has weakened the case instead.
Sources Used by Luke and Matthew
Scholars have long noted that in many places Matthew, Luke,
and Mark overlap in content, which has led to the question whether one of the
documents was the oldest and the other two used it as a source. As already noted,
examination of the three has brought most biblical scholars to the conclusion
that Mark is the oldest of the three, and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark
when writing their gospels. Since Mark was not yet seen as a sacred textjust
as a sourceboth Matthew and Luke felt free to paraphrase, edit, and rewrite
the text they were borrowing.
There are also many places where Matthew and Luke contain
stories absent from Mark, and scholars have asked whether Matthew borrowed from
Luke or vice versa. As already noted, most scholars think a lost work called Q
was used by both writers, and this explains the two gospels' overlap.
In addition to Mark and Q, Luke, at least, probably
had access to another written document (called L by scholars). Some say
Matthew may also have had a written document (called M by scholars) as
a source for his stories. Both Mark and John appear to have used a Signs Source
or Semeia that lists miracles of Jesus. None of these works exist today.
The Gospel of John
The fourth gospel is very different from the first three,
in content, style, and presentation. It has no parables, for example, no proverbs,
and has many stories that are absent from the synoptics. The book appears to have
been edited considerably by "John" or his school of disciples and the
changes are all in the same style as the original, making them very difficult
to detect. The editing, however, did not fix all the problems with the original
text; chapters 5, 6, and 7 are best read in the order 6, 5, 7. Various individual
verses seem out of place, also.
The attribution of the gospel to John, a disciple of Jesus,
is suggested by the reference in John 21:20 to "the disciple whom Jesus loved";
church tradition maintains that John of Zebedee was this man. But many scholars
believe chapter 21 is a later addition to the gospel. The text itself does not
give the author's name.
A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi on 23 January
1944 noted that "as many of the passages in the Gospel of Saint John are
quoted we may assume that it is his Gospel and much of it is accurate."
This reinforces the consensus of biblical scholarship that the gospel ultimately
can be traced to John. This is important, because even ancient writers questioned
whether Matthew was the ultimate sources of his gospel (Papias believed Matthew
wrote down the gospel according to Peter), and Lukewho is identified as the
author in the Gospel that bears his nameconverted to Christianity through Paul
and never met the historical Jesus. It is not clear whether the statement written
on behalf of Shoghi Effendi implies that John himself was the author of the Gospel
(a view rejected by most liberal biblical scholarship) or whether his account
could have been recorded by others. Biblical scholarship has not yet attained
a consensus about the accuracy of the Johannine text relative to the synoptic
gospels; but clearly it preserved information about Jesus that was not preserved
in other sources.
The Gospel of John begins with the classic words, "In
the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
This section is a hymn in Greek. Theologically, the gospel begins with a preexistent
Christ and shows considerable development in its Christology (theology about Jesus).
The chronological structure of the gospel is quite different
from the synoptics. The synoptics have Jesus preach in Galilee, go to Jerusalem,
and die. John has Jesus go to Jerusalem several times. The synoptics tell the
story of the cleansing of the Temple at the end of the story, just before the
passion; John tells it early in his gospel. In John, Jesus never preaches that
the Kingdom will come soon; this suggests the book was written considerably after
70 C.E., and when the community had ceased to expect His imminent return. In John,
Jesus is constantly describing Himself, which He rarely does in the synoptics.
He does this by beginning with the words "I am. . .." which is the usual
way Jesus starts to talk about Himself in John, but which is a rare phrase in
the synoptics. John is familiar with gnosticism and portrays the world very dualistically,
in terms of light and darkness, good and evil, truth and lies, the saved and the
John's stories about Jesus follow a standard pattern: first
there is an action, then a dialogue, then a monologue (usually by Jesus), then
an appendix. The pattern has variations: sometimes there are two dialogues, or
the action or appendix may be absent. John also follows the "law of stage
duality," a convention in Greek plays where there could only be two actors
on stage at one time. Thus, whenever Jesus is in dialogue with several people,
He only speaks with one person at a time. The best example is Jesus's trial:
18:19-24 Jesus speaks with Annas.
18:29-32 Pilate goes out of his palace and speaks with
the messengers of the Sanhedrin. Jesus is absent.
18:33-38 Pilate goes into his palace and speaks with Jesus.
The Jews are absent.
18:38-40 Pilate goes out and speaks with the Jews; Jesus
This arrangement is in contrast to Mark 15:1-5, Matthew 27:1-2,
27:11-26, and Luke 23:1-25, where Jesus, the high priests, and Pilate are all
present together. John's rearranging of the material to match the conventions
of Greek dramain order to make the scene more dramatic, by conventional standardsis
clear evidence that he rewrote the material that had been handed down to him by
John's passion narrative is distinctively different from
the synoptics. Jesus is crucified not on Passover, but the day before. The last
supper is not portrayed as a seder,
or Passover meal. Jesus's trial is
the center of the passion drama.
John was probably written without a copy of either Mark,
Matthew, or Luke available to its author, though some scholars suggest the author
may have known about the gospel of Mark or possibly Luke, or that the gospel was
later edited to make it consistent with them. The author apparently had available
to him a "signs source," a book written in Greek that described Jesus's miracles.
Probably the gospel was written about 90 C.E.; it must have been written by 100
or 110 because a fragment of the Gospel has been found in Egypt that was copied
before 150 C.E.
The Johannine School
In addition to the gospel, John is said to have written the
three letters in the New Testament that bear his name. Probably they were written
by disciples of his, who are collectively called the "Johannine School"
for convenience. The letters show a slight difference in language and theology
when compared to the gospel. They are clearly associated with the author of the
gospel of John, however, because their theology and language is similar.
I John is the longest and most important of the letters.
It is really a sermon, edited to resemble a letter, which shows how strong the
influence of letter writing was in the early Christian community. It focuses on
the question of how to interpret the gospel of John, for some members of the local
church were interpreting it in a way to deny that Christ ever came in the flesh.
John warns against this interpretation.
II John and III John are by the "presbyter," or
elder. No one knows who he was; based on the content of the letters, he seems
to have been a supervisor of itinerant missionaries. Second John warns of heresy
in the churchapparently gnosticism and III John urges that Christians give
hospitality to each other.
The Johannine school is also represented by a gnostic work,
the Acts of John,
perhaps by the group against which I John warns. The
work, which is not in the Bible and which is only partially preserved, is an account
of "John" written in the form of a romance. Part of the work has survived under
the name of The Gospel Preaching of John,
which describes Christ in docetic
terms (that is, that Jesus Christ never really had a body or suffered on the cross,
but only appeared to have a body for the convenience of humans). It portrays Jesus
as constantly changing His bodily form; among other things, it says that when
He walked on a sandy beach, His feet left no footprints!
The complexity and diversity of the various textual sources
about the great manifestation of God, Jesus Christ, make it difficult to reconstruct
a single portrait of Him that is detailed and faithful. His message seems to have
been one of unconditioned love for God and of radical obedience to the divine
will. It was a message delivered in the form of parables, which were simple yet
profound enough to survive in oral transmission and to puzzle and inspire persons
for two thousand years. Because of the state of human society, a more complete
survival of Jesus's message may not have been possible; indeed, it may not have
been advisable. Had Jesus's message been accurately written down in complete detail,
and had He established a system for interpreting and leading His Faith, the immature
state of human society might have perverted that truth and converted that system
into a powerful instrument for suppressing human individuality and monopolizing
power. Instead, perhaps God intentionally gave humanity a message that would be
preserved only imperfectly, because God intended to update and supplement the
teaching later with new revelations.
In order to understand the historical Jesus, the layers of
tradition that have accumulated around the original events must be removed. This
is extremely difficult to accomplish; but scholars have been able to peel off
some of the accretions, to begin to understand the process whereby the gospels
were written, and to commence the painting of a portrait of the Founder of Christianity.
We now turn to that portrait.
Helmut Koester, "The Structure and Criteria of Early Christian Beliefs," in James
M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity
(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 205-31. Much of the following discussion
on the four understandings of the significance of Jesus comes form this source.
example, Matthew 7:23 and Luke 13:27 contain common material, but whereas the
Matthean text quotes the first half of Psalm 6:9 and paraphrases the second half,
the Lucan text paraphrases the first half and quotes the second. See Helmut Koester,
Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia:
Trinity Press International, 1990) 131, for details of the argument.
some cases the author of Matthew appears to have skimmed Q and removed
sayings related to a particular topic, and then reproduced the sayings in the
order he copied them from Q.
Early Christian Gospels 170-71.
Early Christian Gospels, 53-107.
is suggested by Helmut Koester in Ancient Christian Gospels, 166-67. It
would explain the statement by Papias of Hierapolisa second=century bishopthat
Matthew "composed the sayings," which does not adequately describe the Gospel
of Matthew, with its miracles, birth stories, and other materials other than sayings.
It would also explain the ancient Christian tradition that Matthew's gospel is
the oldest, for the tradition could then refer to Q. Finally, attribution
of Q to Matthew might explain the fact that early Christian documents that
preserve stories of apostles asking Jesus questions usually prominently feature
Matthew among the questioners, suggesting that there was a tradition of Matthew
being interested in the sayings of Jesus (see Koester, 166-67).
above summary of the Signs Source comes from Koesterm Early Christian Gospels,
Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, volume two: Writings Relating to the
Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects, trans. R. McL. Wilson (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1964), 101-02.
Thom. 44, "Jesus said 'Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven,
and whoever blasphemes against the Son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes
against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven,'" versus
Luke 12:10, "and everyone who speaks a word against the Son of man will be forgiven;
but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven."
a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual Bahá'í dated 23
January 1944 and quoted in "Extracts from the Bahá'í Writings and From Letters
of the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice on the Old and New Testaments,"
unpublished compilation assembled by the Research Department of the Universal
House of Justice.
Gospel Preaching Of John may be located in Ronald D. Cameron, ed., The
Other Gospels: Introductions and Translations (Philadelphia: Westminster Press,
Jesus Christ in History and in the Bahá'í Writings
When one becomes aware of the divergent understandings
of Jesus that existed in the early Christian community, one sees the difficulty
of reconstructing what Jesus's life and teachings really were. One is reminded
of the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. The first generation
of Christians groped to describe Him and to experience Him in worship. What has
survived is a composite not only of the first generation's recollections, but
of their interpretation of Jesus and of their experience of the risen Christ as
well, often edited and assembled into one story by the second generation.
But in the last century scholars have made considerable progress in reconstructing
the life and teachings of Jesus. The discovery of lost books has made it possible
to establish scholarly criteria for determining which information about Jesus
is reliable and which is later interpretation or invention. Scholars focus on
two criteria in particular: information from the oldest sources generally is more
likely to be reliable than information found only in later sources; and information
found in more than one source, if the sources were composed independently of each
other, is more likely to be reliable than information found in one source alone.
The Historical Jesus
Jesus was born of Jewish parents. They, and Jesus's four
brothers (James, Joses, Judas, and Simon) had Hebrew, not Greek names. Thus His
parents were probably not Hellenized Jews, but Palestinian Jews who spoke Aramaic
at home. Jesus probably knew some Greek, but apparently He preached in Aramaic;
the gospels do not mention that He preached in any of Palestine's Greek-speaking
cities. Galilean villages and towns are mentioned frequently in the gospels, so
probably He spent most of His time there. Nazareth, where He probably lived much
of His life, is in southern Galilee.
Before Jesus began His mission He apparently had some sort
of connection with John the Baptist. John was probably slightly older than Jesus,
and supposedly of priestly birth. He was a wandering prophet, traveling throughout
Palestine and trans-Jordan. His principal message was that the Kingdom of God
is coming; this resembles Jesus's proclamation of the rule or kingship of God.
Some scholars suggest that John's baptism of people in the Jordan worried Herod
Antipas; possibly John also reenacted the crossing of the Jordan, which symbolized
entry into and conquest of the Promised Land.
Fearing John's influence might cause rebellion, Antipas had him imprisoned and
John's importance to Christianity is difficult to determine
because so little is known about him and about his relationship to Jesus. John
baptized people and may have introduced that rite to Jesus. Many scholars speculate
that there may have been a connection between John and the Essenes, and that he
was a conduit for influence of the Essenes on Jesus. But this claim is difficult
to substantiate because so little is known of the messages of John and Jesus.
John's influence has persisted to this day; not only is he an important figure
in the New Testament, but a group of people in Iraq, the Mandeans, claim to be
his followers and to be descended from his original followers.
Jesus soon began his own movement, featuring teachings that
were different from John's. In founding his own movement, Jesus seems to have
broken the prevailing models available to Him or His people. He did not conduct
sacrifices, like a priest. He did not experience a divine call or visions, like
an Israelite prophet. He never started a school of thought, like a philosopher.
His interpretation of the Law avoided the legalistic techniques of the Pharisees;
rather, He claimed to proclaim the Will of God directly. His wisdom sayings were
simple and proverbial, not speculative, as was common in the first century.
Jesus spoke constantly of the basileia of God. The
word is often translated kingdom, but its meaning is more like rule, reign, or
kingship. The rule was not apocalyptic and did not involve God's impending judgment,
as John the Baptist stressed. Many scholars believe Jesus did not proclaim that
a messianic figure would come to bring God's rule; in other words, that Jesus
did not promise to return. They draw their conclusions by studying the many different
literary sources about Jesus; the sayings attributed to Jesus where He speaks
about a return are not multiply attested in independent sources. While such a
conclusion may seem startling to Bahá'ís, if this is true it makes Jesus's message
more like Muhammad's, for Muhammad, in the Qur'án, never promised to return and
never spoke of a messianic figure who would come; rather, Muhammad, like John
the Baptist, stressed the time when God would rule and judge (Qur'án 56).
According to some scholars, Jesus primarily proclaimed that
the kingship of God was within each person, or among the believers ("in the midst
of you"; Luke 17:21). He proclaimed the rule of God primarily through parables.
The parables, because they are stories, have been fairly accurately preserved,
but they are extraordinarily difficult to understand. All of the parables involve
an element of surprise; they challenge the hearer. The Kingdom is a kingdom of
nobodies: it is a kingdom for children (Mark 10:13-16; Matthew 18:1-4) and the
poor (Luke 6:20), which rich men will have grave difficulties entering (Mark 10:25).
The kingdom is like weeds that grow and take over a field of wheat (Gospel
of Thomas 57) or like a mustard plant, which is also a noxious weed (Mark
4:30-32). The kingdom involves socially unacceptable behavior (Matthew 13:44).
The parables often challenge the individual to become involved in Jesus, for they
imply that this is the way for an individual to participate in the rule of God.
Many parables illustrate a new human situation, one in which
God demands the whole person; not just obedience, but surrender of the reality
of the person. To put it in Islamic terms, God demands submission of the will
of humans to the will of God. This requires a new form of conduct: radical love,
of one's enemies as well as one's friends; sacrifice of all one's property for
others; doing not just what is necessary, but what is right. Scholars have called
this eschatological ethics (ethics of the eschaton or rule of God).
In additional to talking about the Kingdom, Jesus also demonstrated
it. One of the most important ways He demonstrated it was by eating with anyone;
Jesus observed none of the social conventions that divided rich from poor or upper
class from lower. Scholars refer to such behavior as open commensality.
Jesus's willingness to eat with anyone caused some to complain about those with
whom he associated, and how he ate his meals, prompting Jesus to complain "For
John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son
of man came eating and drinking, and they say 'Behold, a glutton and a drunkard,
a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" (Matt 11: 18-19).
It would seem that he could not win either way.
Scholars are much more cautious in drawing conclusions about
Jesus's miracles than His sayings because the evidence for miracles is generally
less reliable. John Dominic Crossan calculates that while there are as many as
six independent sources for some of the sayings of Jesus, there are never more
than two independent sources describing a particular miracle.
While collections of Jesus's sayings are known, the evidence for a collection
of miracle stories is considerably weaker, and the document is much harder to
reconstruct. The miracle stories also show more evidence of rewriting and reinterpretation,
probably because the Christian community was more embarrassed about them. Finally,
an entire class of miracle storiesnature miracles, involving walking on water,
stilling the sea, and changing water into wineCrossan and some other scholars
think are not historical.
Crossan argues that the reason Jesus performed miracles was to prove the power
of the Kingdom. He called on His disciples to heal peoplea miracle that is relatively
easy to accomplish, since much of human illness has a psychological dimensionin
order to impress on people the power of God's rule and the power of Faith in God.
The Bahá'í authoritative writings are cautious about literal interpretation of
miracles, favoring a "spiritual meaning" to them instead (letter written on behalf
of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, August 14, 1934, in Lights of
Guidance, 3d ed., number 1649).
Jesus did not establish a church or a school of thought to
propagate His beliefs, but He apparently did establish a mission to propagate
His teachings about the Kingdom. He sent his disciples out in twos (Mark 6:7;
Luke 10:1), enjoined them to heal the sick and "eat what they will set before
you" (Gospel of Thomas, 14:1-3)in other words, to practice open commensality.
The various references to the places the disciples should go suggests Jesus sent
them into the Galilean countryside, and thus the mission He established was primarily
to rural Jewish peasantry.
The disciples apparently were to wander as itinerants, and to carry no bread or
money with them on the journey; thus they were totally dependent on the reception
they received at each new village.
Jesus appointed the twelve apostles as a body or group, but
there is no evidence that He meant them to be the leadership body of a religion;
rather, they were to serve some sort of function in the reign of God. Most of
them were from Galilee, and Peter was their leader.
The various places where Jesus visited that are mentioned
in the gospels are almost all in Galilee, strongly suggesting that most of Jesus's
ministry occurred in his home district. The synoptic gospels describe Jesus as
going to Jerusalem only once, at which time He was arrested. According to extremely
early Christian tradition, Jesus celebrated some sort of messianic meal with His
disciples the night before His arrest. Many modern scholars doubt the tradition,
however, because some early Christian sources (such as the Didache, a late
first-century church manual) are unaware of it. It seem more likely that Jesus's
practice of open commensality evolved into the Eucharist instead of Jesus's inauguration
of the Eucharist being forgotten by some Christians.
Jesus was arrested, perhaps because of His preaching about
the Temple or His action against the moneychangers outside the Temple. Since the
Jews did not have the power to execute anyone, they turned him over to the Romans.
He was probably crucified the day before Passover (following John's account instead
of the Synoptic Gospels; it is likely that some sources moved the time of His
arrest so that His last supper could be the Passover meal). The accounts of Jesus's
trial and crucifixion in the four gospels are remarkably uniform in content, but
this apparently is caused by their common dependence on a lost work called by
a few scholars the Cross Gospel. John Dominic Crossan, who is one of the
world's experts on the passion narrative, argues that the disciples probably fled
Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested and thus knew nothing about His trial and crucifixion;
he maintains the entire account was constructed later through careful reading
of the Hebrew Bible and searching for prophecies Jesus fulfilled.
After Jesus's crucifixion, He appeared to His followers as
a resurrected Christ. The resurrection appearances renewed the first Christians
and inspired them to go out and conquer the world for Him.
Many modern scholars doubt that Jesus referred to Himself
as Messiah, or Son of Man, or Son of David, or Son of God, or Lord. We cannot
be sure how He referred to Himself, because quotations that include one title
in one source include a different title in another source.
Jesus in the Bahá'í Scriptures
Modern critical biblical scholarship has reached only a fraction
of modern Christians; for most Christians the various traditional views of Jesus
remain important. Modern biblical scholarship itself is not unified in its view
of Jesus either. Thus, among Christians there exists a very wide range of views
about Jesus Christ. A natural and inevitable question to ask is, where does the
Bahá'í view of Jesus fall within the spectrum of Christian views? To answer this
question one must first consider the descriptives that Bahá'ís and Christians
use to define His station. Some Christians describe Jesus as God Godself. Other
terms they use are "Son of God," "Son of Man," "Lord,"
"Savior," and "Incarnation of God." Another important Christian
approach to understanding Jesus, which is not in the New Testament but is very
ancient, is the Trinity. The Bahá'í Faith uses different descriptives for Jesus,
such as "Manifestation of God" and "Spirit of God." What do
the Bahá'í terms mean? What is the Bahá'í understanding of the Christian descriptives?
Bahá'u'lláh classifies Jesus Christ, Moses, Abraham, Muhammad,
Zoroaster, the Báb, and Himself as Manifestations of God.
To understand the Bahá'í concept of the Manifestation, one must also understand
the Bahá'í concepts of God, creation, and humanity. This is because Bahá'u'lláh
says the Manifestations of God have a twofold station; one is "pure abstraction
and essential unity," not only with each other, but with God as well; the second
is the "station of distinction, and pertaineth to the world of creation, and to
the limitations thereof" (Gleanings, 51, 52). Thus Manifestations are bridges
between a perfect, ineffable, and transcendent God, on the one hand, and a physical
world and humanity on the other. Traditional Christianity views the station of
Jesus in a similar way, for traditionally, Jesus can not save humanity unless
He is part of humanity and part of God simultaneously.
Bahá'u'lláh, like Islam, describes the nature of God by emphasizing
its transcendence. The innermost essence of God is beyond anything we can understand
and experience, because we are limited and God is infinite; we are creatures and
God is the Creator (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 151; 193).
As 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains, the difference between God and humanity is like the
difference between a painter and a painting; just as a painting is incapable of
understanding the painter, so we are limited in our ability to understand our
Creator (Some Answered Questions, 5). This does not deny the reality of
mystical experience; rather, it asserts that however intensely an individual may
experience God's love, God is capable of loving the person even more intensely;
so intensely that the frail human soul would be totally destroyed by the power
of the love. It is in this sense that the Bahá'í writings strongly emphasize God's
The Bahá'í writings add, however, that even though the innermost
essence of God is sanctified beyond our ken, nevertheless humans can know something
about God; this is because God chooses to manifest Godself through attributes.
Examples of attributes would be love; knowledge; compassion; justice; mercy; wisdom;
strength; power; honesty. Bahá'u'lláh, in a prayer, says "I testify that Thou
hast been sanctified above all attributes and holy above all names" (Bahá'í
Prayers, 12), indicating that even God's attributes do not fully express God's
The Christian equivalent to the Bahá'í concept of Manifestation
is the concept of incarnation. The word to incarnate means "to embody in
flesh" or "to assume, or exist in, a bodily (esp. a human) form" (Oxford English
Dictionary). From a Bahá'í point of view, the important question regarding the
subject of incarnation is, what is it that Jesus is supposed to incarnate? Bahá'ís
can certainly say that Jesus incarnated God's attributes, in the sense that in
Jesus, God's attributes were perfectly reflected and expressed. The Bahá'í scriptures,
however, reject the belief that the ineffable essence of the Divinity was ever
perfectly and completely contained in a single human body, because the Bahá'í
scriptures emphasize the greatness and transcendence of the essence of God.
Bahá'u'lláh defines creation and humanity in considerable
detail. He says that on "every created thing He [God] hath shed the light of one
of His names" (Gleanings, 65). In other words, everything reflects an attribute
of God; thus Bahá'u'lláh endorses a major insight of nature mysticism. Bahá'u'lláh
adds that on the human soul, however, God "hath focused the radiance of all His
names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self" (Gleanings,
675). Thus the essence of human beings includes all the attributes of God in potential
form (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 101), and in this sense we are all linked to, and expressions
of, God (though we are separate from the inmost essence of God).
Bahá'u'lláh asserts that the principal bridge between God
and all of creation is the Manifestations of God; individuals in whom all the
attributes of God exist not just potentially, but in whom they are all perfectly
expressed. Manifestations are the mouthpieces of God; the exemplars of God's qualities;
they are God's vicegerents on earth. An analogy for the Manifestations found in
the Bahá'í writings (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 79, 142; Gleanings, 74; Some
Answered Questions, 147-48; Promulgation of Universal Peace, 114-15)
is that they are like perfect mirrors, reflecting the light of the sun so faithfully
that the image of the sun, seen in such a perfect mirror, is indistinguishable
from the sun in the sky. Ordinary human beings, no matter how much they polish
the mirrors of their own souls, can never become perfect mirrors; and nature also,
however much it reflects God's beauty and magnificence, remains an imperfect mirror.
To see God truly, we need to turn to the Manifestations. It is interesting to
note that the mirror analogy was not unknown to early Christians; the great theologian
Origen (185-254), citing the biblical Book of Wisdom, called Christ "the spotless
mirror" of God's workings (Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth
[Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973], 26).
Two philosophical terms might be useful to clarify the twofold
station of the Manifestations that Bahá'u'lláh describes. One is ontology,
"the science or study of being" (Oxford English Dictionary). Ontology pertains
to the nature or essence of things. The other term is epistemology, "the
theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge" (Oxford English Dictionary).
Epistemology pertains to what we can know about things. What we can know about
a thing is not necessarily identical to the thing itself.
One can argue that Bahá'u'lláh is asserting that epistemologically
the Manifestations are God, for they are the perfect embodiment of all we can
know about Godself; but ontologically they are not God, for they are not
identical with God's essence. Perhaps this is the meaning of the words attributed
to Jesus in the gospel of John: "If you had known me, you would have known my
Father also" (John 14:7) and "he who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).
Bahá'u'lláh uses the concept of the twofold station to explain
seemingly contradictory statements in the Qur'án and hadíth about Muhammad:
The first station, which is related to His [the Manifestation's] innermost
reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this
testified the tradition: "Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God.
I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that
He is." And in like manner, the words: "Arise, O Muhammad, for the Lover and the
Beloved are joined together and made one in Thee." He similarly saith: "There
is no distinction whatsoever between Thee [God] and Them [the Manifestations],
except that They are Thy servants." The second station is the human station, exemplified
by the following verses: "I am but a man like you." "Say praise be to my Lord!
Am I more than a man, an apostle?" (Gleanings, 66-67).
The New Testament, similarly, contains statements where
Jesus describes Himself as God, and others where He makes a distinction between
Himself and God. For example, "I and the Father are One" (John 10:30);
and "the Father is in me, and I am in the Father" (John 10:38); but
on the other hand, "the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28); and
"Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18;
Luke 18:19). These statements make sense and do not contradict if one assumes
they assert an epistemological oneness with God, but an ontological separateness
from the Unknowable Essence.
The Christian concept of the trinity arose out of the need
to explain statements such as these. The earliest Christians tended to be "binitarian,"
that is, they stressed the Father and the Son. The third person of the trinity
was added because of the experience of the Spirit in Christian worship and in
order to explain many doxologies and expressions used in worship that included
the Holy Spirit, such as the baptismal formula in Matt. 28:19, "Go therefore and
make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of
the Son and of the Holy Spirit." When the baptismal formula was coined it was
not meant to be a trinitarian statement. Nor did it standardize the views of Christians;
Ignatius, a prominent second-generation bishop (died c. 115) used various formulas
in his writings, such as "Christ God" (Smyr. 10:1), "Son, Father, and Spirit"
(note the order) (Magn. 13:1), and "in honor of the Father, Jesus Christ, and
the Apostles" (Tral. 12:2).
Tertullian, the first great Latin theologian, coined the word trinity about
the year 200 C.E.; the doctrine reached its traditional form by about 325 C.E.
In its most literal formthat God consists of three separate
parts or "persons," a Father, Son, and Holy Spiritthe trinity contradicts the
Bahá'í view that God consists of a single, transcendent, unknowable essence. But
even the most literalistic conception of the trinity can be related to the Bahá'í
concept of God. For example, one could identify the transcendent, unknowable essence
of God as the "Father" part of the trinity. The Son and the Holy Spirit can be
seen as manifestations of the essence and thus are expressions of God's attributes.
'Abdu'l-Bahá, using the analogy of the perfect mirror previously mentioned, endorses
Now if we say we have seen the Sun in two mirrorsone
the Christ and one the Holy Spiritthat is to say, that we have seen three
Suns, one in heaven and the other two on the earth, we speak truly. And if we
say there is one Sun, and it is pure singleness, and has no partner and equal,
we again speak truly. (Some Answered Questions, 114)
This is one Bahá'í explanation of the symbol of the trinity.
There are others, for the concept can be understood in many different ways. When
one examines the concept of the trinity historically one finds that a literal
understanding was not originally intended. The word "person," two thousand years
ago, never meant an individual human being, as it does today. The word is believed
to come from the Latin per, "through" and sona, "sound"; its etymology
refers to the masks that actors in plays frequently wore, which had mouthpieces
in them to amplify the actor's voice. When the actor wished to represent a different
character he put on a different mask or persona. Thus the concept of "person"
in the trinity could also be translated into modern English by words such as "personality,"
"character," "face," or "expression" instead of "person" (Paul Tillich, A History
of Christian Thought, 46-47). The original idea of the Greek theologians was
that God had multiple forms of expression, not multiple individualities, and that
these multiple forms, nevertheless, were one.
When faced with the problem of defining the three personas
in precise terms, the theologians turned to theology by description and analogy.
A good example comes from Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-c. 391): "The Father is
the begetter and emitter; without passion, of course, and without reference to
time, and not in a corporeal manner. The Son is the begotten, and the Holy Spirit
is the emission; for I know not how this can be expressed in terms altogether
excluding visible things" ("The Third Theological OrationOn the Son," 161).
Another place, using the analogy of light, Gregory says God can be comprehended
"out of light" [the Father], as "light" itself [the Son], and "in light" [the
Spirit] ("Fifth Theological OrationOn the Spirit," 195).
It is interesting to note that 'Abdu'l-Bahá takes
this analogical approach to describing the trinity as well. In a tablet He revealed
to an American Bahá'í in 1900, He says:
But as to the question of the Trinity, know, O advancer
unto God, that in each one of the cycles [dispensations of a Manifestation].-.-.
there are necessarily three things, the Giver of the Grace, and the Grace, and
the Recipient of the Grace; the Source of the Effulgence, and the Effulgence,
and the Recipient of the Effulgence; the Illuminator, and the Illumination, and
the Illumined. Look at the Mosaic cyclethe Lord, and Moses, and the Fire
(i.e., the Burning Bush), the intermediary; and in the Messianic cycle, the Father,
and the Son, and the Holy Ghost the intermediary; and in the Muhammudan [sic]
cycle, the Lord and the Apostle (or Messenger, Muhammad) and Gabriel (for, as
the Muhammadans believe, Gabriel brought the Revelation from God to Muhammad,)
the intermediary. Look at the Sun and its rays and the heat which results from
its rays: the rays and the heat are but two effects of the Sun, but inseparable
from it and sent out from it; yet is the Sun one in its essence, unique in its
real identity, single in its Attributes, neither is it possible for anything to
resemble it. Such is the Essence of the Truth concerning the Unity, the real doctrine
of the Singularity, the undiluted reality as to the (Divine) Sanctuary. ('Abdu'l-Bahá,
Tablets from Abdul Beha Abbas to Some American Believers in the year 1900
[New York: New York Board of Counsel, 1901], 9. Note: this is an old translation.)
In addition to discussing Jesus Christ in general terms,
and in terms of the Trinity, the Bahá'í writings discuss Jesus Himself. Jesus's
death on the cross is recognized as an atonement for humanity (God Passes By,
188; Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, 543). Bahá'u'lláh describes Jesus's impact
on the world in very specific terms:
Know thou that when the Son of Man yielded up His breath
to God, the whole of 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.-.-.-.
He it is who purified the world. Blessed the man who, with a face beaming with
light, hath turned towards Him. (Gleanings, 86)
Bahá'u'lláh states that while all the Manifestations
of God hold an equal spiritual station, they are not equal in terms of the intensity
and potency of their revelations (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 104).
The above suggests that Jesus Christ, the Manifestation who founded what is today
the largest religious community on the planet, had an impact exceeding that of
A Bahá'í View of Jesus's Titles
The Bahá'í writings do not discuss all of the
titles used by Christians for Jesus, but they often imply approaches that Bahá'ís
can take to the titles that are not discussed. A key element in the Bahá'í
approach is the uniqueness of each Manifestation; Bahá'u'lláh says
that each has "a distinct personality, a definitely prescribed station, a predestined
revelation, and specially designated limitations" (Gleanings, 52). Thus
Bahá'ís do not have to recognize the validity of, say, the title
"Son of Man" by attributing it to Muhammad, Bahá'u'lláh, and the
other Manifestations as well. Jesus can be the Son of Man; Muhammad can be the
Seal of the Prophets; Bahá'u'lláh can be the Glory of God; each
is different, yet none is better than the other because of His unique titles.
In the previously quoted passage Bahá'u'lláh
appears specifically to endorse the title "Son of Man" (or "Son of Humanity,"
as some modern Christian theologians prefer to translate it) as referring to Jesus.
Bahá'u'lláh does not say what the term means, and Christian tradition
has been fairly vague about the term's meaning as well. It ultimately comes from
the Book of Daniel, where it refers to the Messiah, and is frequently used in
the Gospels as a title of Jesus. Possibly the title is symbolic of the perfect
humanity that Jesus represented.
"Son of God" is an extremely important title of Jesus for
Christians, so much so that in the minds of many Christians "Son of God" defines
the relationship of Jesus with His Father. But often Christians do not think about
the symbolic meaning of the title; indeed, many seem unaware that the title is
a symbol at all. What does the term "son" mean? Normally, the word has a simple
biological meaning, but that meaning is the very one that cannot apply to the
relationship between God and Jesus, for God does not have genetic material to
confer upon Jesus, nor does God have a body with which He could unite with Mary
to produce a son. Christian theology has long recognized this and has never meant
the term to be understood literally; as the above quote from Gregory of Nazianzus
emphasizes, God begot Christ "without passion, of course, and without reference
to time, and not in a corporeal manner" ("The Third Theological OrationOn
the Son," 161). The Qur'án echoes Gregory's recognition of God's transcendence
when it says "Allah is only one God. Far is it removed from His transcendent majesty
that He should have a son" (Qur'án 5:171). 'Abdu'l-Bahá explained
that the term "Son of God" referred to the fact that Christ "found existence through
the Spirit of God" (Some Answered Questions, 63). Thus the term is symbolic
of Christ's connection to the divine.
"Son of God" has been interpreted in many other ways by Christians
and Bahá'ís as well. One possible meaning of Son, rejected early
by the mainstream of Christian theology, was the "adoptionist" interpretation;
that Jesus was an ordinary man, "adopted" by God as His Son. The Bahá'í
writings would also seem to reject this approach, since they do not see Manifestations
of God as ordinary human beings; rather, the Bahá'í writings say
that Manifestations are preexistent, in contrast to ordinary human beings, whose
souls come into existence at the moment of conception. Manifestations are indeed
unique creations of God, as the word "begotten" attempts to convey; it describes
Jesus's mode of creation through an analogy with the physical world, an analogy
that Gregory of Nazianzus, by qualifying the word in the above passage, admits
has its limitations.
Another symbolic interpretation of the term "Son" would be
to argue that Jesus was the "spiritual" Son of God. One could say that all humans,
Jesus included, are "sons" of God in the sense that all were created by God. This
is true, but it undercuts the uniqueness of the title's application to Christ,
perhaps unnecessarily, and undercuts the distinction that Bahá'ís
would make between Jesus Christ and creation.
Another approach is exemplified by a statement on behalf
of Shoghi Effendi that the meaning of the title "Son of God" is
entirely spiritual, and points out to the close relationship existing between
Him and the Almighty God. Nor does it necessarily indicate any inherent superiority
in the station of Jesus over other Prophets and Messengers. As far as their spiritual
nature is concerned all Prophets can be regarded as Sons of God, as they all reflect
His light, though not in an equal measure, and this difference in reflection is
due to the conditions and circumstances under which they appear (letter written
on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, November 29, 1937, in Lights
of Guidance, 3d ed., number 1644).
The above statement on Shoghi Effendi's behalf
uses the term "Son of God" in a specific way, and perhaps does not preclude the
possibility that Bahá'ís could also
acknowledge the term as a title referring
solely to Jesus, in the sense that perhaps He exemplified "sonship" uniquely,
just as Moses, the "friend of God," exemplified a different sort of relationship
The term "Savior" is another Christian title for Jesus.
It is also used in the Bahá'í scriptures for Him ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation
of Universal Peace, 62, 211). A savior must save one from something; in the
physical world one can be saved from a physical disaster, such as drowning or
a sickness; in the spiritual realms one is saved from the spiritual disaster of
ignorance of oneself, of God, and of God's laws. Bahá'u'lláh makes it clear that
"salvation," in the term's broad sense, is the purpose of all the Manifestations
The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him
Who is the Day Spring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth
the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of His creation. Whoso
achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof,
has gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth
every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent
glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These
twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other. Thus hath
it been decreed by Him Who is the Source of Divine inspiration. (Gleanings,
This passage states that acceptance of the Manifestation
of God, and obedience to His laws, are crucially important to one's spiritual
growth; thus one could argue that acceptance of and obedience to the Manifestation
An ingenious, though personal, interpretation of the term
salvation was offered by Thornton Chase, the first American Bahá'í. Chase began
with 'Abdu'l-Bahá's discussion of the five kinds of spirit. Plants possess the
vegetable spirit, which consists of the power of growth; animals possess the animal
spirit, which includes growth and perception; humans possess the human spirit,
which includes growth, perception, and cognition. Above these three is the "heavenly
spirit" or the "spirit of faith," which 'Abdu'l-Bahá calls "the power which makes
the earthly man heavenly, and the imperfect man perfect" (Some Answered Questions,
144). Fifth is the Holy Spirit, "the mediator between God and His creatures" (Some
Answered Questions, 145). Chase argues that when a person acquires the fourth
spiritan acquisition which occurs when the Word of God is accepted into one's
heart and works a transformation in one's soulthen the person has experienced
salvation. This, he says, is what is meant by the phrase "ye must be born again"
(John 3:7). (Thornton Chase, The Bahai Revelation [Chicago: Bahai Publishing
Society, 1910], 119-21).
Thus Bahá'ís would not claim that only Jesus offered salvation
to humanity; all the Manifestations convey salvation, through their words and
through their sacrifice. In this sense all Manifestations could be termed a "Savior."
American Bahá'ís frequently apply the title to Bahá'u'lláh in their songs, and
Shoghi Effendi refers to Bahá'u'lláh as "Savior of the whole human race" (Promised
Day is Come, 114).
Bahá'ís would also apply the title "Lord," which Christians
apply to Jesus, to any Manifestation, including Bahá'u'lláh. "Lord" is a title
of respect in the English language that is applied not only to Jesus, but to kings,
nobility, masters, and others. The term kyrie in Greek had a similarly
wide range of uses.
Modern Christians sometimes use passages from the New Testament
as titles or descriptives of Jesus. Perhaps the best example would be John 14:6,
"I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by
me." Bahá'ís would not reject this passage from the Gospel of John, but they would
interpret it differently than most Christians. Two possible approaches come to
mind. One would be to examine the word "I"; to whom is Jesus referring? To Himself,
certainly, but could He not be referring to all Manifestations in general, since,
as Bahá'u'lláh explains, one of the stations of the Manifestations is "pure abstraction
and essential unity" (Gleanings, 51)? Thus, Jesus's statement would never
have been meant to exclude the other Manifestations, especially not Himself when
He returnedthat is, in the person of Bahá'u'lláh. A Christian theologian, John
Hick, has also recognized the ambiguity of "I" and has suggested that the "I"
refers not to the historical Jesus, but to the eternal logos manifested in Jesus.
In Bahá'í terms, Hick is suggesting that the "I" refers to the holy spirit common
to all the Manifestations, or to their station of unity.
One could also examine the word "am." The verb to be
has many usesthe Oxford English Dictionary lists 24some of which are normally
distinguished from each other only by context. One grammatical usage is the universal
present, which is used to make statements that are always true, such as "triangles
are three-sided." Another usage applies to the present, but may not apply to the
future as well, such as "I am young" or "I am alive." Christians usually understand
the statement "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," as a universal present,
but could it not be meant to apply only to some period of time in the past? Could
not Abraham have been the way, truth, and life for the peoples of the Middle East
from 2000 B.C.E. to the time of Moses; then Moses was the way, truth, and life
until the time of Jesus; then Jesus was the way, truth, and life until the time
of Muhammad; and then Muhammad was the way, truth, and life until the time of
the Báb; and the Báb was the way, truth, and life until the time of Bahá'u'lláh?
Similarly, Bahá'u'lláh will be the way, truth, and life until He is superseded
by another Manifestation, which He assures us will occur in a thousand years or
more (Gleanings, 346).
In summary, Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Bahá'ís, do
not reject the uniqueness of Jesus Christ; on the contrary, they respect, love,
and emphasize it. However, they seek to balance that uniqueness by recognizing
the uniqueness of other Manifestations of God as well. The balance is achieved
by seeing Manifestations as perfect expressions of the divine will and purpose
to the people of their places and times. They bring eternal and unchanging religious
teachings to the people as well as principles designed for the society to which
they minister. Jesus, thus, is seen by Bahá'ís as divine, as the Son of Man and
the Son of God, and as the way, truth, and life to His world. Ironically, this
is more than many Christians believe about Jesus; Bahá'ís often find themselves
defending the station of Christ to individuals who claim to be His followers.
The Bahá'í view of the station of Jesus falls near the middle of the spectrum
of views that Christians hold, and claims to understand Jesus in a way fitting
to our modern, pluralistic, and historically-minded world.
Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of as Mediterranean Jewish
Peasant (San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1991), 231-32.
version of the saying may be found in Luke 7:31-34. While scholars think the saying
is a genuine, some doubt the phrase "son of man" is original.
The Historical Jesus, 310-11.
The Historical Jesus, 396-98.
The Historical Jesus,336-38.
The Historical Jesus, 339-40.
The Historical Jesus, 367-94.
this list, 'Abdu'l-Bahá added the Buddha; Bahá'u'lláh does not seem to have mentioned
eastern Asian religions at all. A letter written by Shoghi Effendi includes Krishna
as a manifestation of God.
is interesting to note that 'Abdu'l-Bahá refers to some attributes as essential
to God's nature, such as preexistence (Some Answered Questions, 148-49).
But which attributes are essential? It would seem that the definition of the word
God necessitates that God be all-powerful and omniscient; therefore one could
argue that these are qualities of God's inmost essence. But can God choose whether
or not to be loving and compassionate, and remain God? Is it a necessary part
of God's essence that God be loving? Questions such as these await the thought
of Bahá'í philosophers and theologians. An excellent foundation for study of them
has been laid by Juan Ricardo Coles' Concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í
Writings, in Bahá'í Studies, vol. 9 (Ottawa: Association for Bahá'í
writings of Ignatius are available in Cyril C. Richardson, ed. trans., Early
Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 87-120).
of Nazianzus was one of the three great Greek theologians who, after the Council
of Nicaea, defined the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in trinitarian
terms acceptable to virtually all Christians. He is considered one of the great
fathers of the Greek church and is highly respected by all Christian traditions.
A selection of Gregory of Nazianzus's writings may be found in Edward Rochie Hardy
and Cyril C. Richardson, eds., Christology of the Later Fathers, in The
Library of Christian Classics, Ichthus edition (Philadelphia: Westminster
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.
Christianity in the Classical World
Christianity spread very fast in the Roman Empire,
partly because the first and second centuries were a time of political stability
and prosperity. The roads and shipping routes were relatively safe from highwaymen
and pirates, thus allowing Christian preachers to travel freely and to dispatch
messengers and letters easily. Travel was costly, but the Christian communities,
particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, had the money to support it because
they shared in the empire's prosperity. The empire had relative freedom of religion;
as long as a citizen was loyal to Rome, was willing to swear an oath of allegiance
to the emperor as a god, and did not disturb the social order, he or she was not
disturbed in religious matters.
Christianity was not the only religion with missionaries.
There were hundreds of wandering philosophers who offered their brand of peace
of mind and happiness to whoever would listen, and preferably to whoever would
pay. Dozens of mystery religions sprang up that, through secret rites and ceremonies,
claimed to offer salvation or the secret of life. The ancient world was very much
like modern America, where one can investigate thousands of philosophies, forms
of meditation, and religions. If anything, the Greco-Roman world was too pluralistic;
there were so many religious choices people became religiously cynical.
The most successful missionaries of all were the Jews.
Hellenistic culture had a tendency toward monotheism, and only one people firmly
believed in one God. Jewish missionaries, like modern Christian evangelists, were
self-appointed and itinerant. They preached in synagogues and in the marketplaces.
A group o f
people, called God fearers, came into existence who read the Hebrew Bible
(in its standard Greek translation), who often attended synagogue, who did not
work on the Sabbath, yet who did not desire to undergo the pains of circumcision,
the rigors of the Jewish dietary laws, or the inconvenience of following all the
moral principles. Nor did they think highly of the Jerusalem Temple, which to
them was a symbol of an ethnic group rather than a religion. But sometimes the
children of God-fearers became Jews. No one knows what fraction of the diaspora
Jews were converts, but it is known that of the Roman Empire's approximately sixty
million people, between four and six million were Jews. Most cities in the eastern
Roman Empire had significant Jewish populations; Alexandria, Egypt was reported
to be one third Jewish.
For those God-fearers who hesitated to join Judaism
because of its laws and its ethnicity, Christianity represented an ideal alternative.
As a result they joined Christianity in great numbers; Jewish missionaries had
unconsciously laid the foundation for Christian growth. Christian missionaries
followed the same approaches used by Jewish missionaries; they spoke at synagogues,
gave speeches in the marketplace, and met with fellow members of their ethnic
group or profession. According to the Book of Acts (16:13), on the Sabbath Paul
visited a "place of prayer," probably a synagogue. By attending synagogue services,
early Christian missionaries would have made contact with those sympathetic to
the new religion such as the God-fearers. The early American Bahá'ís acted similarly;
they often taught their Faith by attending a local church.
What sort of people became Christians? The evidence
is scanty, but has been assembled. Ancient cities did not have upper, middle,
and lower economic classes like the modern west. On top was a hereditary aristocracy
made of a relative small number of familiesperhaps a hundredwho ran the city
and controlled much of its land and wealth. Beneath them were various groups.
Merchants often were wealthy, but did not have aristocratic status or its attendant
privileges. Artisans made most of the goods the city neededclothing, pottery,
metal goods, glass, furniture, etc.but were heavily taxed and often were as
impoverished as rural peasants. Slaves and an urban proletariat performed the
menial tasksunloading ships, building houses, slaughtering animals, and providing
muscle power, since there was no machine power. A certain fraction of the proletariat
was permanently unemployed, and the aristocracy distributed free grain to prevent
them from rioting. Street gangs were often well organized and in the pay of aristocrats,
who used them to exert political power. Finally, peasant farmers or slaves on
large estates raised most of the city's food. Smaller cities were largely self
sufficient, raising most of the food they needed on local lands, farmed by peasants
living in villages outside of the city. The few very large cities in the empire,
like Rome, had to import food, usually from Egypt, and thus were dependent on
the maintenance of safe trade.
From the beginning, Christianity seems to have attracted
individuals from many classes, but especially from the merchant and artisan classes.
The aristocracy and proletariat were little represented in the new faith, although
the few aristocrats often became prominent Christian leaders.
At first Christianity did not spread in the countryside at all, so peasants were
rarely Christians. Paul himself was a tentmaker, according to Acts 18:3; Paul
himself says (I Thes. 2:9) that he worked for a living so as not to burden the
local Christian community. Probably whenever Paul visited a new city he would
find the tent maker's guild, make friends there, acquire employment from them,
and teach them about Jesus.
Social scientists have also debated the techniques
used to spread Christianity. The Book of Acts speaks of Paul and other apostles
preaching to large crowds, resulting in mass acceptance of the new Faith. Sociologists
are skeptical, however, because preaching to crowds is easier to dramatize than
one-on-one instruction, but is far less effective in producing committed followers.
Most likely, the bulk of the successful evangelism involved individual Christians
teaching their friends by word and deed. If Christianity grew in membership by
about 3.5% a year40% per decadethe numbers increase from about 1,000 in the
year 40 C.E. to 7,500 by 100 C.E., 218,000 by 200 C.E., 6,300,000 by 300 C.E.,
and 34,000,000 by 350 C.E. In this manner, an insignificant religious group could
have become more than 50% of the Empire's population in a bit over 300 years.
In addition to its early diversity of ethnicity and
social class, Christianity also contained considerable diversity of belief, and
as the churches grew the different understandings of Christianity became an increasingly
serious problem for some. Paul expended much of his literary effort in arguing
against Judaizers and gnostics. While Jewish Christianity faded as a threat, gnosticism
grew stronger as a competing interpretation of Christianity.
Gnosticism was not just a religion, but a broad
philosophical and spiritual movement, rather like Existentialism, New Thought,
or Transcendental Meditation in nineteenth and twentieth-century America. Christians
apparently became interested in gnosticism from the beginning of the Jesus movement;
in Christianity, gnosticism became highly developed.
Gnosticism stressed dualism, the idea that
the world was divided into paired opposites: matter and spirit, light and darkness,
good and evil, God and the devil, angels and demons, heaven and hell. It believed
that the human spirit was an emanation from God, a "divine spark" that must be
reunited with its Creator. This spark was trapped in the world of matter in a
body. Gnosticism saw the body and physical existence as the cause of sin and evil.
Salvation was escape from the physical world and reunion with God; it was achieved
not through faith, but through knowledge of one's condition. For example, the
non-Christian gnostic devotees of the god Hermes Trismegistus believed that the
soul, after its creation, had to pass from the starry sphere (which was the highest
heaven) through the lower levels of heaven (each of which corresponded to a planet)
to the earth, which was the lowest, dirtiest, and most corrupt level of existence.
This gnosticism thus combined religion with the most advanced science and astronomy
of the day (which was astrology, in modern terms). The journey of the soul resulted
in accretions to the soul at each level:
As the souls descend, they draw with them the torpor of Saturn, the wrathfulness
of Mars, the concupiscence of Venus, the greed for gain of Mercury, the lust for
power of Jupiter; which things effect a confusion in the souls, so that they can
no longer make use of their own power and their proper facilities.
The qualities one acquired were appropriate to each planet: Saturn is the slowest
of the planets in its orbit and Mercury is the fastest; Venus was the goddess
of love and therefore of lust; Mars was the god of war and therefore of anger;
Jupiter was the king of the gods and therefore the god of power. Knowledge of
one's condition as it was shaped by astrology was seen as half the struggle to
obtain salvation. Some non-Christian groups claimed to give to the devotee the
"passwords" that he or she would need after death to pass back through
each heavenly sphere, shedding the accretions he or she acquired at each, and
thus enabling him or her to reach the highest heaven successfully.
Christian gnostics avoided detailed astrology and
favored a mythological interpretation of Genesis to describe the universe. They
believed that creation began when the Fore-Father produced a series of twenty-nine
emanations from Himself, who were progressively more remote from Him; together
these constituted a kind of Godhead that was called the pleuroma. Some
gnostics believed that the physical universe represented the solidified or crystallized
passions for the Fore-Father produced by His most distant emanation, named Sophia
(Wisdom). Each passion became a different element (Greek science believed there
were four elements, earth, water, air, and fire). A semi-divine being, the Demiurge,
was formed from them and he shaped creation out of them, including the starry
and planetary spheres, the earth, and humanity. He also was the God who created
Judaism. In contrast, Christ was a special emanation of the Fore-Father, sent
by Him to the earth in order to lead the divine spark in humans back to union
in the pleuroma. Because of the belief that Judaism and Christianity had different
ultimate sources, Christian gnostics often argued that the two religions and their
scriptures were incompatible.
Since matter and the body were seen as evil, often
these groups denied that Jesus ever had had a body. They refused to recognize
the fact that He was born, ate food, and really suffered on the cross. Bodily
resurrection, to them, was not only absurd but disgusting; it would maintain ones
entrapment in matter and therefore would be a form of hell.
Since the body was the source of evil, these groups
had unusual beliefs about sexuality. Some advocated complete celibacy, for sex
was seen as the embodiment of evil and a trick by the devil to continue his rule
on earth. Marcion, one of the greatest of the Christian thinkers influenced by
gnosticism, forbade his followers to marry. Other gnostic groups went to the opposite
extreme and said that since the body was not reality, it didn't matter what you
did with it. These groups were accused of tremendous sexual licentiousness.
Gnosticism and the Development of
The existence of gnostic groups impelled the early
church to define many of its basic beliefs. Gnosticism offered significantly different
doctrines in several areas: in christology (the nature of Christ); soteriology
(the nature of salvation, how Christ saves, and from what); and anthropology
(the basic nature of human beings). The church defined its teachings on the Trinity,
original sin, and the nature of Christ's mission partly in reaction to gnosticism
and other heretical movements.
Gnosticism also gave impetus to the creation of the
Christian canon. Until the mid second century the Christian movement considered
the Hebrew Bible to be its sacred scripture; all references to "the scriptures"
in the New Testament refer to the Old. But by the mid second century, Christianity
had produced a large corpus of writings. Some, such as the four gospels and the
letters of Paul, were read very widely and were venerated. Others had a more restricted
usage; gnostic groups, for example, had written their own special works since
the late first century. Today these are popularly known as the "gnostic gospels."
In Christian worship it became customary to read not only passages from the Hebrew
Bible, but from Christian writings as well (which Christian writings were read,
however, depended on the beliefs of the man who organized the service).
This custom was upset by Marcion (c. 100 - c. 150),
who rejected the Hebrew Bible; borrowing from gnostic beliefs, he argued that
it had been created by the god of the Jews, who was the petty and legalistic Demiurge,
and not by the Creator God who had sent Jesus to the world. Having rejected the
only works that Christians believed were sacred scripture, Marcion felt the need
to create a new Christian canon. Since there could be only one gospelthat is,
only one good news, one Christian messagehis scripture could only include one
gospel book. He chose Luke because its theology was closest to his own. He also
included the genuine letters of Paul and the deuteropauline epistles in his sacred
writings. However, Marcion was dissatisfied with the texts as they existed because
they seemed to show signs of tampering by the Demiurge; for example, they often
quoted, or alluded to, the Hebrew Bible. Marcion solved the problem by editing
the texts in order to remove all signs of "tampering." In this fashion Marcion
acquired a text that he believed was the original Christian message.
Most Christians were angered that Marcion had altered
their oldest and most venerable writings, but his idea that Christianity should
have a scripture of its own was accepted, partly because the best way to fight
Marcion's canon was to create a rival canon. Between 150 and 200 C.E., the idea
of a New Testament emerged, especially as a result of the writings of the mid
second-century theologian and pastor Irenaeus. He argued that the canon should
be as broad and inclusive as possible, as long as the works included in it were
not gnostic. He especially sought to overcome the attitude that since there could
be only one gospel message, there could only be one gospel book. He favored the
inclusion of the four gospels that circulated the mostMatthew, Mark, Luke, and
Johnin spite of the fact that they occasionally seem to contradict each other.
Until the late second century, some of the four were favored in some regions,
and others had circulated little in other areas.
By the year 200 C.E., most of the books included in
the New Testament were those found in it today. However, no Christian council
has ever officially defined the content of the Christian sacred writings, and
Christian churches outside the Roman empire evolved their own canons, which were
slightly different from the canon that came to be accepted inside the Roman empire.
One way the churches battled gnosticism was to establish
a systematized, professional leadership. The Christian churches, like all other
groups in the Roman empire (including the empire itself) were only loosely organized,
especially when the churches were first formed. The need to define correct belief,
and the need to carry out that belief in acts of Christian charity, gradually
resulted in a detailed church structure.
The Establishment of Church Structure
When people became Christians they joined a new
community of people, one called an ekklesia. In Greek the word literally
means "calling out" and refers to a gathering where one can speak; it roughly
translates as "meeting" or "assembly."
The first Christian groups were "house churches," that is, they consisted of the
members of a household who met at home. Wealthier Christians would invite other
Christians to worship with them in their large houses. Christianity spread through
ties of family and patronage. The head of the family was often the head of the
Churches were not the only voluntary associations
in the Hellenistic cities. A typical Greek city had burial societies, to which
one periodically contributed money and which provided a large funeral when one
died. There were eating clubs, which held meals weekly or monthly; some pagan
temples had outbuildings that included kitchens and dining facilities for their
use. There were ethnic organizations, which one could join when one moved to a
new city and where one could associate with one's countrymen; and mystery cults,
which provided their members with religious experience and sometimes religious
community. Finally there were Jewish synagogues, which maintained an extensive
system of private welfare in addition to their religious services and social opportunities.
From the beginning, a major focus of many Christian
churches was the care of widows, orphans, the sick, and the aged. This effort
alone required considerable organization, and as Christianity expanded the welfare
systems of local churches soon grew larger than those of synagogues. The Roman
empire had no welfare, unemployment relief, hospitals, or orphanages; furthermore,
pagan temples provided few services. The ultimate success of Christianity had
a lot to do with the fact that Christians took care of each other.
One sociologist has dramatically demonstrated the
impact that Christian values would have had during the plagues of 165-80 and 250-60
(which probably represent, respectively, the first-time arrival of smallpox and
measles to the Empire).
Each plague killed between one quarter and one third of the entire population.
Entire cities became deserted as the population fled, taking the disease with
them to the countryside. But basic nursing care can reduce the death rate to about
ten percent. Thus if Christians nursed each other, far fewer would have died,
which in the ancient world would have looked like a miracle. If Christians nursed
their pagan neighbors, the latter would have been strongly impressed by Christian
virtue and possibly attracted to the faith. Other disastershuge fires, earthquakes,
riotsstruck ancient cities about once every decade or two, giving the Christians
plenty of opportunities to practice their beliefs.
From the first, Christian charity was both an individual
and a collective effort. The latter required some sort of organizational system.
Christian churches were concerned about both spiritual powerthrough such activities
as speaking in tongues and experiencing divine inspirationand with creation
of at least a minimal amount of ecclesiastical authority. In I Cor. 12:28 the
Apostle Paul speaks of a hierarchy in the body of Christ consisting of "first
apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then healers, helpers, administrators,
[and] speakers in various kinds of tongues." Initially the principle of charismatic
authority ("apostles, prophets, teachers") was more important than administrative
authority. In the churches founded by Paul administration seems to have been rudimentary;
each local church had one or more "overseers" (Greek episcopos, from which
comes the English word "bishop") and a series of assistants, servants, or messengers
(Greek diakonos, "deacons.") Presumably Paul was alluding to them when
he referred to "administrators" and "helpers."
While this organizational structure apparently became
standard among the gentile churches, Jewish Christians seemed to have followed
the model of the synagogue more closely. Synagogues were governed by a council
of elders. The Greek term used by the Christians for the elders was presbyteros,
from which come the English words "presbyter" and "priest." Within a generation
or two the gentile and Jewish Christian churches merged, as did their organizational
systems. When a gentile church originally had more than one overseer, they came
to be considered elders, and these elders or presbyters became priests; above
them was an overseer or bishop; below them were the deacons. This created three
levels of local church officers.
Only gradually, during the second and third centuries,
did the administrative positions surpass the charismatic positions as the most
important in the churches. The office of apostle died out because only the Christians
who had met Jesus were entitled to that title. The teaching function became a
task of the bishops and priests. The prophetic function gradually disappeared;
when the New Testament became codified the guidance of the first generation of
Christians became readily available, and as local churches became better organized
"prophecy" proved a common source of disruption, especially since it came to be
dominated more and more by gnostics and other heretics.
Since the gnostics favored a speculative and personal
religion, and apparently did not engage in extensive charity, they favored charismatic
offices over administrative ones; hence when a city's Christians organized, gnostics
usually did not seek to become bishop or presbyter. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch,
writing about 115 C.E., was a tireless champion of the monarchal episcopate,
that is, the principle that each city should have one Christian bishop who was
exclusively in charge of all Christian activities in that locality. He stressed
the monarchal episcopate mainly as an instrument to fight gnosticism and other
heresies, and this became one of its principal functions.
Gradually, the office of bishop became the dominant
one in the local Christian churches. Originally deacons and presbyters were chosen
by the local church and were not under the bishop's authority; but gradually they
became subordinates to him. The disciplining of Christians who committed immoral
acts, such as adultery, became the bishop's task; in Paul's day disciplining was
carried out by the entire congregation (I Cor. 1:1-5). A ritual for ordaining
the bishop became defined, orders of widows were created, and rules for Christian
community life were formulated. Since Christianity had no organization at all
beyond the local levelthere were no archbishops, no pope, and, until the third
century, no councils of bishopsinnovations in one city only gradually spread
to another. Letters written by bishops to churches in other cities became an important
means for exchanging ideas and allowed a bishop to become influential in his region.
Rome was one of the first churches to establish an
episcopate; its bishop possessed authority over the Roman Christian community
by the mid second century. By the end of the second century the monarchal episcopate
was firmly established everywhere. In many cities the appointment of a bishop
marked the beginning of an "orthodox" Christian community; for example, Christians
in Alexandria seems to have first chosen a bishop in 189 C.E. Before that, gnostic
Christianity dominated the city and the rest of Egypt.
To legitimize themselves further in their fight against
gnostics, bishops claimed that their office had been established by the apostles
themselves. Many bishops codified the history of Christianity in their city for
the first time and claimed a series of venerable local church leaders as previous
bishops in order to show that their own office had been created by an apostle,
and that they were the most recent of an unbroken succession of bishops. This
claim that the bishops were the successors of the apostles is called apostolic
succession. The idea was not new; gnostics claimed apostolic succession as
well, possibly before bishops did. Rome claimed the most elaborate apostolic succession,
with Peter as the city's first bishop and Paul as the cofounder of the Roman church.
When the great church historian Eusebius wrote his Ecclesiastical History,
about the year 300, he published many cities' bishop lists, thereby legitimizing
With the establishment of the office of bishop in
most cities, bishops began to meet together to discuss regional affairs, and the
bishop of a region's capital city gradually acquired prestige and influence over
the bishops of smaller cities. Carthage, Athens, Antioch, and Alexandria emerged
as important Christian centers; since Rome was the capital of the empire, the
bishop of Rome emerged as a particularly influential bishop.
The Rise of Christian Scholarship
Christians have always done theology, in the sense
of thinking about the nature of God and Christ, but until about 150 C.E. their
theology was done without any systematic use of Greek philosophy. In the early
second century the waning of the emphasis on Christ's immediate return made the
study of Greek philosophy more acceptable, and its use by gnostics (who had never
had an apocalyptic perspective) made knowledge of Greek philosophy necessary in
the fight against heresy. Further, Christianity's growing size and strength made
its lack of legal status a concern for many church leaders. Several Christian
writers, called apologists, wrote essays addressed to the emperor in which
they defended the legitimacy of Christianity and called for its recognition. One
of the most famous apologists was Justin Martyr (c. 100 - c. 167), who had some
familiarity with Greek philosophy. He wrote several works that defended Christianity
from external attacksone of which addressed objections raised by Jewsand started
a Christian school in Rome. He was one of the first to elaborate on the idea that
Christ was God's logos ("word," an idea from Greek philosophy) in order
to define the relationship between God and Christ. He also wrote about how Christ's
death established salvation, about the eucharist and baptism, and about the role
of demons (spirits) in creating Greek mythology and philosophy. The quality of
his thinking and writing was not high, but it helped to lay a theological foundation
for Christian thought.
A little later, Irenaeus (c. 130 - c. 180) wrote a
work against heresies and defined a Christian position on such matters as original
sin, redemption, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the canon, and church structure.
He has been called the "first consciously literary theologian of the Christian
Tertullian (c. 155 - c. 222) wrote the first Christian
theology in Latin; though some of the other theologians had lived in the western
Roman Empire, they had written in Greek. Tertullian coined the term trinitas
(trinity) and first defined the concept of God having three personae, three
aspects or modes of being. He also coined the Christian terms Old Testament
and New Testament.
Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 - c. 215) became the
first Christian philosopher and wrote extensively, though not systematically,
on Christian questions. Having been influenced by gnosticism, he argued that Christianity
was based on knowledge (gnosis), not faith. He made the Christian teacher extremely
important in a Christian's spiritual development. He also described the universe
hierarchically, although he rejected both the basics and the details of the gnostic
concept of creation.
His successor in Alexandria, Origen (c. 185 - 254)
was one of the greatest Christian thinkers who ever lived and was a philosopher
as great as any who lived during his day. He was highly respected by non-Christians
for his learning, the first Christian to be so treated. He was Christianity's
first systematic Bible scholar; he produced an edition of the Old Testament with
eight parallel versions, so that the various alternate readings could be compared
easily. He wrote commentaries on many biblical books, some of which have survived
to this day. He questioned some commonly held assumptions about the New Testament,
such as the belief that Paul authored the Book of Hebrews. He was without a doubt
the most prolific writer in classical Christianity. His theology, however, was
tinged by gnosticism. His christology was especially speculative. After his death,
as Christian doctrine became more clearly and rigidly defined, his popularity
waned. Eventually many of his works were declared heretical and were altered or
destroyed, making it difficult for modern scholars to study his thought.
The growth of Christianity also produced one nearly
fatal problem, the reaction of the Roman government. One of the first serious
persecutions occurred in Bithynia, a province in northwestern Asia Minor, in 112-113
C.E. Christianity had spread so much in that region, in the countryside as well
as in the cities, that temples had become empty and were unable to sell the meat
of sacrificed animals (Christians generally refused to buy it, because it was
a product of paganism). The Roman governor of the province, Pliny the Younger,
began to arrest Christians and order them to sacrifice to the emperor as a god.
Since Christians could not consider the emperor a god, they refused to sacrificean
act equivalent to refusing to salute the flag, or refusing to repeat the pledge
of allegiance. Consequently, they were executed for disloyalty to the Roman state.
However, Pliny soon realized that those who were revealing
the names of Christians had their own ulterior motives. He decided to stop searching
out Christians, but if any were arrested for other reasons they would be required
to sacrifice to the emperor or be executed. He wrote to the emperor to state his
policy, and the emperor concurred. Since Pliny was an excellent writer he eventually
published a collection of his letters, for they were beautiful examples of Latin
style, and among them was his letter to the emperor about the Christians.
Anti-Christian edicts were occasionally promulgated
by an emperor; Marcus Aurelius issued one in 164-68 and Lucius Verus announced
another in 176-78 C.E. But they were enforced only in Asia Minor and Gaul respectively.
Pliny's persecution was the standard type that Christians had to endure in the
late first and second centuries: localized attacks, authorized by a local governor,
which lasted a short time and which produced a few martyrs. Usually the bishop
was one of the first to be martyred; Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and the great bishop,
Polycarp (c. 70 - c. 166) were all executed for their beliefs in this way. The
rank and file of ordinary Christians were often undisturbed because Greco-Roman
religions did not expect any loyalty of their followers, and Roman officials assumed
that Christianity was the same. From their perspective it was only necessary to
kill a religion's leaders to debilitate the religious community, and they did
not understand that Christianity was different from pagan religious groups until
it had grown substantially.
Hence, generally Christianity was left alone by officials.
By the late second and early third centuries the Christian communities had become
large enough in many cities to build impressive church buildings and pay for full-time
bishops. Intellectual attacks were not absent, however; the first systematic anti-Christian
work, produced by the philosopher Celsus, was published about 178 C.E. It was
followed by others.
Christianity's social environment changed greatly
after 200 C.E. Its growth led to an intellectual revival of paganism, probably
as a reaction against the religion of Christ. Furthermore, the empire's two centuries
of political stability and prosperity had come to an end. The Roman frontiers
became very difficult and expensive to defend, and to raise the money necessary
to maintain the armies, coins with less than the correct amount of silver were
issued. This debasement of the currency caused inflation and led to serious economic
problems. Plagues ravaged the empire and drastically decreased its population
(which was shrinking naturally anyway, because of infanticide and low marriage
rates). The quality of the emperors declined.
The empire's increased difficulties had to be blamed
on someone, and the Christians were a convenient scapegoat; their refusal to sacrifice
to the gods was said to have made the gods angry. Since the society believed in
many gods and the Christians did not, they were accused of atheism. Earlier chargesthat
the eucharist was cannibalism and the love feast an orgysurfaced again.
The first coordinated, empire-wide persecution of
Christians was initiated by the emperor Septimus Severus in 202-03 C.E. It resulted
in perhaps several hundred martyrs from all over the empire, mainly educated Christians
and ecclesiastical leaders, such as most of the pupils of Clement of Alexandria,
and Origen's father. Among the martyred was a remarkable young woman in Carthage
named Perpetua; the account of her imprisonment includes a portion probably composed
by her, one of the earliest Christian works by a woman.
The next emperor, Alexander Severus, tolerated Christianity; his mother was said
to be a Christian. A generation and a half of tolerance followed.
In 248 C.E. the Roman empire suffered a major invasion
by the Goths, then a plague, and popular hostility against Christianity again
increased sharply. In 250 the new emperor, Decius, suddenly decided to initiate
an imperial persecution of Christians by ordering everyone to sacrifice to the
gods. Many Christians, even many bishops, recanted their faith and sacrificed.
Others refused and were martyred. In 251 the persecution ended when Decius was
killed in a battle with the Goths. Many lapsed Christians then sought readmission
into the church, sparking an enormous controversy about their status. A few lapsed
Christians even became bishops; others, who had suffered for the Faith, refused
to recognize them. Carthage and Rome, for a time, had two rival Christian communities
and two rival bishops.
Peace proved short-lived; in 257 C.E. the emperor
Valerian initiated another wave of persecutions. This time the churches were prepared;
their organizational structures remained strong and most Christians and their
bishops stood firm. Many bishops were exiled, then martyred. In 260 Valerian died
fighting the Persians and the persecution ended.
The Christians enjoyed relative peace until 303, by
which time some eastern provinces were heavily Christian, and the entire empire
was perhaps ten percent Christian. In that year the Emperor Diocletian (reigned
284 - 304) sought to reform the empire radically in order to increase its religious
and social unity and thus ensure its survival, and the Christians were seen as
a potentially divisive factor. When a pagan priest in the imperial court claimed
he could not divine the future because of the presence of Christians, in 303,
the emperor decided to act. He ordered all churches destroyed, all Bibles and
sacred vessels confiscated, and all Christian meetings banned. Later that year
he ordered all priests and bishops arrested. Finally, in 304, he required all
citizens in the empire to sacrifice or be executed. His orders were enforced only
to a limited degreethe Roman empire was not a totalitarian state, and its bureaucracy
and police powers were limitedbut nevertheless hundreds, perhaps as many as
a thousand, Christians were martyred. Only in Gaul, Britain, and Spain were Diocletian's
orders mostly ignored; the caesar in charge of the region, who was named Constantine,
limited the persecution to the destruction of church buildings.
In 304 Diocletian retired, but his successor in the
eastern Roman empire, Gallerius, was even more anti-Christian. Only when he was
on his death bed in 312 did Gallerius order the persecution of Christians to stop.
It has been estimated that as many as 3,000 Christians were martyred between the
years 303 and 313. In Asia Minor an entire town that had been completely Christian
was massacred. In Egypt, where the persecution was the most systematic, the most
number of martyrs occurred, and the province almost lapsed into civil war.
But one spiritual result of the sacrifice was the
conversion of the first Christian emperor. Constantine's mother and sister had
been Christians and he had always been favorable to the religion. In October 312,
on the eve of a battle that would make him sole emperor of the western Roman empire,
Constantine reportedly had a vision of a cross with the legend under it, "by
this sign conquer." He ordered crosses painted on the shields of his soldiers,
and his army won the battle. Later that year he and the new emperor of the eastern
empire granted religious freedom to Christians and all other religions. In 324
Constantine, as a result of several civil wars, emerged as the sole emperor of
the Roman Empire. He extended the protection and financial support of the state
to the church throughout the empire.
One result was a flood of converts, for being a Christian
was no longer dangerous; indeed, it could be advantageous if one were seeking
a job in the army or civil service. When Constantine died in 327 his sons, all
of whom were Christians, split the empire among themselves. After the last one
died a new emperor for the entire empire was selected named Julian who had been
raised Christian and who had a Christian wife but who loved Greek philosophy.
He became sole emperor in 360 C.E.; in 361 he renounced Christianity and attempted
to revive paganism. All pagan temples were converted into temples of the one god,
Helios (the sun); state money was given to them so that they could inaugurate
works of charity, such as those the churches were running. Christians were not
persecuted, but were placed under grave restrictions; they were not allowed to
become teachers, for example, and all teachers were required to teach the old
pagan values. When pagan crowds rioted and destroyed churches, the emperor did
not interfere; when Christians attacked each other as heretics, Julian did not
seek to impose one form of Christianity on them.
Julian's reforms are particularly noteworthy because
they sought to modify paganism so that it could compete against Christianity.
His effort to make paganism monotheistic and to make pagan temples the center
of social services are noteworthy imitations of Christianity. But it was too late;
the temples did not know how to organize social services, their attendance had
declined too sharply for them to be revived, their facilities were in such poor
shape the money had to be spent on repairs, and Christianity was too strong to
be rivaled. A year and a half later, in 363, Julian died in a battle with the
Persians; his successor was a Christian, and his reforms were easily swept away.
Paganism continued to exist in the Roman Empire, but it was confined to two groups:
peasants in the remote countryside and many of the old aristocratic class. In
Rome, the Senate was a bastion of paganism until the fifth century; in Athens,
the philosophical schools led a losing struggle against Christianity until the
Christian emperor Justinian closed them in 529.
The Trinitarian and Christological
Christianity's victory against paganism, and the
gradual end of persecution of the church, allowed theological differences to become
expressed in politics, both ecclesiastical and imperial. The church's intellectual
victory over paganism also necessitated clearer definition of many basic Christian
ideas, especially the nature of Christ, His relation to the father, and how He
saves. The result was the eventual creation of the classical definition of the
trinity and the nature of Christ.
Christ's nature had been a subject of Christian thinking
from the beginning. The biblical terms Son of God and Son of Man/Human Being show
that the thinking about Jesus was a concern of the first generation. Greek philosophers,
especially the Stoics, had developed the concept of the logos or "word"
as the divine principle that gave the world its order and shape. The first century
Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria used the idea of the logos as the
agent for bringing creation into being, and as the intermediary between the biblical
God and creation. Thus it was natural to utilize the logos to define the
nature of Christ. It was the first christological formulation in early Christianity
and is found in John 1:1.
But the logos doctrine had several problems. If Christ
was understood as an emanation from God, as a logos naturally would be, then Christ
was subordinate to God. If, on the other hand, the logos was viewed as the creative
force in the universe, Christ could be set up as a rival God. This became a problem
as theories of soteriology, or how Christ saves, were defined more clearly. In
order for Christ's death on the cross to save humanity from sin, Christ had to
be fully human, in order to represent humans fully; yet He also had to be fully
God, in order to be a worthy sacrifice. Efforts by some Christian thinkers to
subordinate Christ to God (notably Arius, c.250-326) were consistently rejected
by the mainstream as heretical. The logos doctrine risked either subordinationism,
where Jesus was less than God, or polytheism, when there was more than one Christian
Further complicating the picture was an apostolic
baptismal formula where one baptized in the name "of the father, and of the
son, and of the holy spirit" (Matt. 28:19). No one knew what the formula
meant, but it became a formula on which the relationship between Jesus and God
was understood. Apparently it was not originally meant to be a trinitarian statement;
rather, the idea of the trinity developed from the baptismal formula. Thus the
role of the spirit was added to those of the father and son to constitute the
essential problem in formulating a definition of the Godhead.
The problem was how to develop imagery and language
that made the father, son, and spirit different, but not too different; if they
were too different one risked either tritheismthree separate, different and
equal godsor subordinationismthree separate, different, but unequal beings.
One had to create distinctions that were worthy of the three members of the trinity,
but distinctions that did not make one member of the trinity better than another.
It took the finest minds in Christianity, using the most powerful intellectual
tool of the dayGreek philosophyalmost the entire fourth century to accomplish
the task. Because of the history of philosophical speculation in the Hellenistic
east, the question of the nature of Christ assumed great importance in church
culture there, and became emmeshed in ecclesiastical as well as imperial politics.
Hence the trinitarian controversy was the ostensible motive for the deposing of
many bishops, the smearing of lives and careers, the violent clashes of personalities,
and some shedding of Christian blood by Christian hands.
The first stage of the controversy was fought over
the question of whether the three members of the trinity were homoousion,
"of the same substance," or homoiousion,
"of similar substance." The only
difference between the words was a single letter (the Greek letter iota). If the
three members of the trinity were understood to be of the same substance, some
theologians feared that no distinction would remain between them; but if they
were merely of similar substance then the Son and Holy Spirit could be seen as
subordinate to the Father, and some church fathers, led by Arius, strongly favored
such a view. The controversy grew so fierce that the emperor Constantine called
a council in 325 to resolve the issue; held in Nicea, it was the first universal
council of the Catholic church. The council formulated the Nicene Creed, which
declared the members of the trinity to be homoousion,
the party of Arius, who strongly emphasized Jesus Christ's greatness, but denied
He was equal to the Father. Several subsequent councils were held, however, and
depending on which side was in the majority, one side or the other was declared
In the late fourth century three young theologians
from eastern Asia Minor finally developed workable language that everyone could
accept. They took another word, hypostasis
(usually translated into Latin
"substance") originally used by Greek philosophers as
a synonym for ousia
(usually translated into Latin as essentia,
"essence")and developed trinitarian distinctions between the two terms. The
trinity, they said, consisted of three hypostases
but only one ousia.
This allowed homoousion
to be used by all, because it no longer implied
subordinationism or tritheism. One difficulty with this solution was that neither
was found in the New Testament, hence the solution
had a certain non-Christian quality to it. However, the three theologians wrote
extensively about the persons of the trinity and through imagery and analogy developed
workable distinctions that infused meaning into the distinction between hypostasis
The relationship between the father and the son was
resolved to the satisfaction of most Greek Christians by 400, but soon a new question
arose: what was the relationship between Christ's divine nature and His human
nature? How could two natures exist in the same person? There was again the tendency
either to subordinate Christ's divine nature to His human side or vice-versa.
The first phase of the controversy developed in the
420s, as a result of a personality clash between the bishops of Alexandria and
Constantinople. In sermons the former bishop referred to the virgin Mary as theotokos,
"bearer of God," but the latter bishop preferred the term christotokos,
"bearer of Christ," and saw the former term as heretical. Both men had extensive
networks of friends in high church and government positions and drew them into
the fight; both also misrepresented the position of the other. In 431 a church
council was called; as the bishops slowly arrived to participate in the council
the strength of the two sides fluctuated, and the decision of the council shifted
back and forth. The emperor was appealed to and he initially deposed both bishops,
but eventually favored the term theotokos
and confirmed the deposition
of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople. He was exiled to Egypt where he eventually
died, a seemingly forgotten man.
The second phase focused on a new issue: did Christ
have two separate natures existing in one body and personality, or one only? Those
who maintained that Christ could only have one nature were called monophysites
Greek for one; physis,
Greek for nature). The majority maintained
that Christ had to have a fully human nature and a fully divine nature in order
to save humanity. They excommunicated the Monophysites. Christ's nature was the
major issue discussed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which declared Christ
to be "truly God and truly man, of rational soul and body, of the same substance
] with the Father according to the Godhead, and of the same
] with us according to the manhood."
However, Monophysitism did not die out. It eventually
came to dominate the Christian churches in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Syria, thereby
permanently splitting the eastern churches. Some Monophysites entered the Persian
realms as well, where their ideas were attributed to Bishop Nestorius and became
the nucleus of the Nestorian
church. Because Nestorianism was considered
heretical in the Roman realms the Persian kings were willing to let it spread;
they had been suspicious of orthodox Christianity because it was associated with
Rome, Persia's greatest enemy.
The third phase of the controversy over the nature
of Christ did not occur until the rise of Islam in the 620s and 630s, which necessitated
new efforts to heal the split among the eastern churches. A compromise formula
was offered: that Christ, regardless of his nature, had only one will. This seemed
intuitively correct, for how could one argue that a person had two wills? Other
Christians, however, replied that in order to be fully divine, Christ had to have
a divine will, and to be fully human He had to have a human will; hence Christ
had to have two wills, which presumably always operated together and in perfect
agreement with each other. This view eventually carried the day and the monotheletists
who said Christ had one willwere excommunicated by the sixth and last church
council, held in Constantinople in 680-81. While many of the previous heresies
persisted, and new ones arose, the mainstream of Christians had now reached a
consensus about the trinity and Christ's nature, so the controversy died down.
Furthermore, the eastern churches were now fighting for their very existence against
the spread of Islam and had no time for theological speculation.
Latin Christianity in the Third,
Fourth, and Fifth Centuries
While Greek Christian theology focused on the nature
of Christ, Latin theology focused on the nature of human beings and the world
they lived in. The difference reflected the philosophical, speculative tendency
of Greek culture and the legalistic, practical, organizational tendency of Roman
culture respectively. The acute social crises engendered by the collapse of the
western Roman Empire also demanded the urgent consideration of Latin theologians.
The west was spared some of the controversy over the
trinity and the nature of Christ because the Greek theological terms did not translate
well into Latin. In the early third century Tertullian had used Latin legal terminology
to define the trinity as three personae (masks; persons; parties in a legal
action) in one substantia (substance or presence), distinctions that worked
well and did not lead to the problems that the Greek terms had created. The chief
difficulties over trinitarian doctrine arose later, when some barbarian invaders
were converted to the Arian version of Christianity.
Instead, Latin theology focused on the nature of the church. The bishop of
Carthage, Cyprian (c. 200 - 258), devoted much of his writing to the question
of the nature of the church; he is the author of the famous statement "there
is no salvation outside the church."
Cyprian also argued that meetings of bishops were an important part of the church
structure and that while all bishops were equal, the Bishop of Rome was the first
among equals. In this way Cyprian laid the foundation for the establishment of
the papacy. Since the western Empire had no cities of the size, age, and prestige
of Rome, and no churches that could compete with the church of Rome, Rome acquired
an importance over the western church that had no parallel in the east.
In fourth century the Latin church benefited from
several important theologians. Ambrose (339 - 97), bishop of Milanwhich at that
time was the administrative center of the western empirewas a tireless administrator
and promoter of the church, a wise counsel for western emperors, and an active
disseminator of Greek theology. Jerome (c. 341 - 420), learned in Hebrew and Greek,
edited and retranslated the Bible into Latin, thereby creating the Latin text
that was standard for a thousand years. He also translated many Greek theological
works into Latin.
But without question the supreme Latin theologian
of the day was Augustine (354 - 430), who ranks with Origen, Thomas Aquinas, Martin
Luther, and John Calvin as one of the greatest thinkers in Christendom. Augustine
was born to a Christian mother (Saint Monica) and a pagan father and was raised
Christian, but as a young man he turned to philosophy. After extensive reading
he became, for a time, a Manichaean; the Manichaeans were followers of Mani (219
- c. 277), a Babylonian-born Persian who claimed to be a divine revelator and
successor to Christ, Zoroaster, and Buddha and who established a religion based
on gnostic conceptions of the world. Moving to Milan, Augustine met Bishop Ambrose,
was very impressed, and studied Christianity; he was baptized in 386. Two years
later he permanently returned to Africa, where he had been born, and became bishop
of the Mediterranean city of Hippo.
Augustine wrote extensively on a wide range of topics;
113 books, over 200 letters, and over 500 sermons have survived. His De Trinitatae
(On the Trinity) became one of the standard works on the trinity in the
Latin church. His Confessions, which described his spiritual journey to
Christianity and his meditations on the meaning of the journey immediately became
a classic on the Christian spiritual life, and remains widely read today. But
most significant was his masterpiece De Civitate Dei, "On the City of God,"
which was written over a fourteen-year period to make sense of the sacking of
Rome by the Goths in 410 and of the collapse of the Roman Empire, which was a
profoundly disturbing phenomenon to the intellectuals of Augustine's generation.
Pagans argued that Rome had been sacked because the gods were angered by the spread
of Christianity. Augustine replied that there had always been two cities, the
city of God and the city of this world; Rome was part of the latter. Drawing from
his own vast knowledge of Roman philosophers, poets, and essayists, he pointed
out how checkered the history of the city of Rome had always been. But the City
of God was the true city; it was dominated by the love of God; all good persons,
Christian or not, were members of it; as Christianity spread, it was growing in
the world, regardless of the economic and social state of the world around it.
In this way Augustine set the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the framework
of eternity, and thus minimized its theological importance. His thinking became
central to the understanding of society in medieval Christian Europe. Because
he wrote in Latin, his thought had little influence on the Greek-speaking east,
and thus helped to widen the gap growing between the two halves of the church.
National and Cultural Divisions
Throughout its first four centuries, mainstream
Christianity had to wage a fierce battle against ethnic and cultural differences
as well as heresy. As the church grew in size and strength, cultural differences
began to produce regional variants of Christianity. Since the vast majority of
Christians lived in the Roman Empire, the church there was called the universal
(catholic, in Greek) church. But in semi-independent areas on the border
of the Roman Empire, such as Armenia, Iraq, eastern Syria, north Africa, and southern
Egypt, churches developed that had their own national hierarchies and used their
own native languages. These churches were never completely a part of the catholic
church. Thus Christian sects began to form along national and cultural lines.
In Egypt, a Coptic church emerged; in Armenia, an Armenian church; in Mesopotamia,
a Syriac church; in southern Tunisia and Algeria, a Donatist church. Beyond the
Roman Empire, churches formed in Ethiopia, Georgia, Iran, and even southern India.
The eastern part of the Roman Empire spoke and wrote
Greek, the western part Latin. As has been noted, as Christian theology developed
in both the Latin and Greek languages, divergent understandings of the nature
of Christianity began to grow between the eastern and the western churches. When
military and administrative realities necessitated the splitting of the Roman
Empire into eastern and western halves, the two halves of the church were psychologically
divorced from each other as well. The growing power of the Bishop of Rome over
Latin Christianityhis rise to the status of Popeand the growing status of
the Bishop of Constantinople among the churches in the eastern half of the empire
split the administration of the church. Consequently, the Latin and Greek halves
of the catholic church grew farther and farther apart. In the 800s serious theological
differences emerged between the "Catholics" and the "Orthodox." Finally in 1054
Pope Justinian excommunicated the Eastern Orthodox, and the bishop of Constantinople
replied by excommunicating the Catholics; thus the largest pat of the body of
Christ was formally rent in half. After the collapse of Rome a distinctive form
of Catholic Christianity emerged in the west, as the church accommodated itself
to the social and cultural conditions of the early middle ages.
Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth,
ed. trans. John H. Schútz (Philadephia: Fortress, 1982), 72.
Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History
(Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), 7.
Quoted in Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and
the Beginnings of Christianity, 2d ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), 157.
It is interesting to note that the word ma
hfil, the Arabic-Persian
word for "assembly" (as in "spiritual assembly") originally had a similar range
of meanings, and was translated variously as "gathering," "meeting," and "assembly"
in early translations of the Bahá'í scriptures into English. The English word
"assembly" also possesses a wide range of meanings. In the early days of the Bahá'í
Faith in the Occident the word for a Bahá'í community was "assembly," there being
no standard term yet for the community's governing body.
Stark, The Rise of Christianity, chapter 4.
Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 160.
Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Greek Church, trans. Stanley
Godman (New York: Pantheon, 1959), 26.
To read the account of the martyrdoms of Perpetua and Felicitas, see Herbert Musurillo,
ed., trans., The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press,
Clarendon Press, 1972), 106-131.
Quoted in Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume I: to
A.D. 1500, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1975). 171.
Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought from its Judaic and Hellenistic
Origins to Existentialism, ed. Carl E. Braaten (New York: Simon and Schuster,
Christianity in the Middle Ages
While Christianity was spreading in the Greco-Roman
world, that world was itself undergoing revolutionary changes. The reasons for
the decline and eventually collapse of the Roman Empire were numerous, and no
single explanation is adequate. Internally, the empire never solved the problem
of a stable, peaceful succession of competent leaders. Emperors usually appointed
their successors, but some proved incompetent, emotionally imbalanced, or evil.
From the beginning, the rule of force was established as superior to the rule
of law, allowing many generals to contest the succession, often successfully;
the result was a military challenge to almost every new emperor, devastating civil
wars every decade or two, and sometimes frequent changes in leadership. The simple
technology of the day placed limitations on the empire's growth; for example,
a peaceful society allowed for increased trade and greater prosperity, which produced
larger cities, but the unsanitary conditions of the larger cities also stimulated
disease, which the improved transportation systems spread empire-wide. Thus the
empire suffered from several serious plagues in the first and second centuries,
in addition to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
Externally, the empire faced enemies close and far.
Along the eastern border the Persian Empire revived under the Sassanian dynasty
in the mid third century and became a serious threat; Romans and Persians fought
many wars, and as the frontier shifted back and forth Mesopotamia and Syria were
devastated. Along the northern border, the tribes of northern and central Europe
came in contact with Roman civilization, adopted aspects of it, and consequently
became increasingly civilized, organized, powerful, and envious. Increasingly,
emperors had to be good generals and had less time to devote to the development
of the empire's cities or the maintenance of its roads and aquaducts. Eventually
the empire had to be split into eastern and western halves so that there were
two emperors to handle the two major frontiers.
Throughout the second, third, and fourth centuries
Roman military spending rose, forcing taxes upward ruinously and weakening the
empire's economy. When enough tax revenue could not be raised the emperors ordered
the gold and silver content of the coins to be decreased, in order to mint more
coins using the same amount of precious metal; but this debased the currency and
caused inflation, further damaging the economy.
In Central Asia, the movement of peoples out of what
is today Mongolia triggered a domino effect, displacing tribe after tribe westward;
by the third and fourth centuries the frontiers no longer could hold them out,
and Germanic and Slavic tribes began to pour into the empire, either to settle
peacefully or to conquer and destroy sections of it. The eastern Empire, with
its higher population density and older civilization, survived fairly well; relatively
few of the major cities were destroyed. But after the 630s the Eastern Roman or
Byzantine Empire faced a new and much more powerful enemy: Islam, which quickly
conquered all of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and North Africa. Islamic armies steadily
advanced on the Byzantines, finally capturing Constantinople itself in 1453.
The western empire collapsed under the pressure of
the migratory tribes. Rome was sacked in 410 and 455 and was besieged three times
in the sixth century; its population, nearly a million in the first and second
centuries, declined to less than fifty thousand by the end of the sixth century.
By the eleventh century it was only thirty thousand. In Britain urban life was
completely swept away by the tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who were entering,
conquering, and settling. Latin became extinct as a spoken language in Britain,
and the Celtic peoples were assimilated or driven into the hills of Wales and
Cornwall. Gaul was overrun by various tribes, among them the Franks, from whom
the country acquired the name of France; urban life there collapsed as well. Spain
and Portugal were overrun by the Goths.
One result of the invasions was a steady shrinkage
of Christendom. In the north, Britain was completely lost, any gains in Germany
were eliminated, and even in France and Spain Christianity was imperiled. The
invasion of the Bulgars and southern Slavs swept away Christianiy in parts of
the Balkans; then the Magyars occupied Hungary, destroying Christianity there.
But the worst blow to Christendom was undoubtedly the spread of Islam, which ultimately
eliminated or drastically weakened Christianity in the eastern and southern half
of the former Roman Empire. It would be hundreds of years before these losses
were reversed, primarily through conversion of the Germanic and Slavic peoples
north of the former Roman Empire to the Catholic and Orthodox faiths.
As the roads became unsafe for commerce, the towns
that survived had to be concentrated along waterways. But with the rise of Islam
the Byzantine navy could no longer control pirates and maritime commerce ceased.
In the north, the Vikings began their raids about 800, snuffing out whatever peaceful
trade that had begun to develop along the North Sea and Atlantic Coast. Towns
became the targets of organized looting by both Saracens and Vikings, causing
urban life to shrink further. With it went the merchant and aristocratic classes,
the theatres and libraries, most knowledge of reading and writing, and most familiarity
with the accumulated wisdom of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations. With the
virtually cessation of trade, life became purely local; food had to be raised
locally and thus land became the principal source of wealth. Even coins largely
disappeared from circulation and any trade that did occur had to be conducted
The extent of the changes to Western European culture
is measurable in many of the words that entered the Latin language or changed
their meanings. Domus, Latin for house, disappeared from the Latin spoken
in France, Italy, and the Iberian peninsula; in all those areas except France
it was replaced by the word casa, which originally meant "cottage." The
Latin word for city, civitas, was swept away in France and replaced by
the word ville, from the Latin word villa; this suggests that most
cities were destroyed, and settled life mostly survived around the villas of powerful
noblemen. The Latin laborare, "to work," was replaced in French, Portuguese,
and Spanish by a word from which we get travail, "strenuous exertion; toil; tribulation
or agony; anguish." From Italy to the Atlantic, the Latin word bellum,
"war," was replaced by words of German origin. Such changes bespeak of the decline
of living standards and social order.
In the rising tide of chaos one institution stood
out as a source of hope: the church. Not only did the church come to represent
the City of God and the hope for humanity's future, but it was blessed by many
able leaders who were able to use the church's size and prestige to preserve what
civilization remained. Bishops often were able to persuade barbarian chiefs not
to sack their cities; in Rome, the Pope largely ran the city, organizing the collection
and distribution of food and other essentials. Gregory the Great (c. 540 - 604)
was the most distinguished example of leadership. Son of a Roman senator, in 590
he was force to abandon a monastic life of prayer when he was unanimously elected
Pope. He used the church's estates in southern Italy and Sicily to grow food for
Rome's poor. He appointed governors to run other Italian cities. He negotiated
a peace treaty with the Lombards, a German tribe then occupying northern Italy.
He sent missionaries to England to reestablish Christianity there (the German
invasion had destroyed it two centuries earlier). He also help bring about the
conversion of many barbarian tribes to Catholicism from Arianism, a rival form
of Christianity based on the teachings of Arius. His efforts to missionize pagan
areas of western Europe strengthened the claim of the bishop of Rome to primacy
over the church in western Europe. This greatly fostered the development of the
Monasteries also developed as the focal points of
civilization. Celibacy as a tendency in Christianity can be traced back to the
first century (I Cor. 7:1-9). First Timothy 5:3-16 (a letter attributed to Paul,
though written in the early second century) speaks of an orders of widows, presumably
the forerunner of nuns. In the late third century, Antony of Egypt (251-356) began
to organize the Christian hermits living in the desert into a monastic community.
Possibly gnosticism influenced the strong monastic tendency that developed in
Egypt; indeed, the so called "gnostic gospels" found in southern Egypt in the
1940s are thought to represent the gnostic library of a ruined monastery nearby,
which were probably buried as a result of an order that monasteries destroy all
Jerome was one of the earlier monks in the western
Roman empire, having been a hermit in the Syrian desert for five years. Augustine
established a monastery in North Africa. As Christianity went from a religion
of a small, dedicated minority to the dominant form of religion in the Roman Empire
the zeal of the majority of its followers declined somewhat, and monasticism provided
a new outlet for zealous Christians to pursue a religious life different from
their contemporaries. Thus its influence steadily grew in the fourth and fifth
The collapse of the western empire also made monastic
life increasing attractive. It provided some measure of safety, since few monasteries
were destroyed. Because monasteries were usually self-sufficient, they had a reliable
food supply, and the brothers or sisters took care of their own when they were
sick or old. Celibacy meant that domestic responsibilities would not be a distraction.
Learning was prized, so monks had the time to learn Latin and sometimes even Greek,
to read and studynot just the Bible, but the old philosophical and literary
classicsand to write. Under the circumstances of the times, what Mediterranean
and Christian civilization that survived was mostly to be found in the monasteries.
The monasteries also initiated educational programs to teach Christianity to the
masses, which had been partially de-Christianized by the empire's collapse. The
rural areas of the western Empire had never been completely Christianized anyway;
the monks completed the job.
Ironically, one of the great powerhouses of monasticism
was Ireland. Because of its isolation Ireland never suffered barbarian invasions,
until the Vikings in the tenth century. Christianity arrived in Ireland about
600 under Saint Patrick and quickly conquered the island. Irish Christianity was
initially monastic; monks went into virgin territory, established a new monastery,
and from it converted the population. Initially Ireland had no dioceses and parishes,
just monasteries; the local abbot, not the local bishop, was powerful. Working
with Rome, in the eighth and ninth centuries hundreds, if not thousands, of Irish
monks spread out over Gaul, Germany, Switzerland, even northern Italy, founding
monasteries. Usually thirteen monks traveled together to found a new monastery,
in imitation of Christ and his twelve disciples.
A significant figure in the development of monasticism
in Europe was Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547), an Italian monk who acquired a
reputation as a holy man and who consequently attracted many disciples. Benedict
organized many monasteries, and the experience he acquired culminated in the rule
of Saint Benedict, a document that sets the basic principles of monastic life.
Such a life is dominated by unconditional obedience to God's will and to the exercise
of humility; it views the abbot as central in a monk's spiritual development;
and it advocates a daily life that balances worship, prayer, reading of scripture,
and useful work. Benedict's rule was a synthesis of existing monastic practices
with Benedict's own insights. Upon it a monastic orderthe Benedictineswas
founded. It was the first organized monastic order in the Catholic church.
It is easy for Bahá'ís, aware of the Bahá'í prohibition
of monasticism, to view the development of Christian monasticism with suspicion,
but it is not clear that such suspicion is justified in the context of those times.
Christ may not have created monasticism, but He did not forbid it either. In many
ways, the creation of a clergy and a monastic lifestyle were positive developments
in early Christianity. A clergy, with its sacramental powers, adapted Christianity
to the folk religion of Greco-Roman culture; monasticism allowed the religion
to develop and spread under the adverse social conditions after the collapse of
the western Roman Empire. Convents provided women with their only opportunity
to escape the burden of near-constant pregnancy, child rearing, and domestic drudgery
and to learn to read. Monasteries provided one of the few opportunities for men
to avoid constant work to support a family and to learn to read and write. Thus
monasteries and clergy were effective responses to the needs of the day.
The monastic spirituality that developed in the fourth
and fifth centuries represented a refinement and extension of the spiritual life
expected of a Christian layperson. That lifestyle started with baptism, which
washed away one's original sin. Confession of sins before a priest engaged the
church's power to forgive sins and allowed one to reduce one's time in purgatory
(the church claimed no power over hell, however). Taking the sacraments were a
means of obtaining God's grace and assisting in one's salvation. Confessing one's
sins on one's death bed completed the cycle. However, if one wanted to be a good
Christian, one became a monk; there was no definition of spirituality for the
laity. A celibate, cloistered, ascetic, prayer-filled life was seen as superior
and more "Christian" than the life of a married layperson, who was mired in domestic
drudgery and tempted by sexual pleasure.
By the late middle ages (1200-1500 C.E.) the redevelopment
of an urban culture put this system of salvation under strain. The growing strength
of the monarchies resulted in safer highways and sea routes. The Crusades re-established
trade with the Middle East, brought new ideas to Europe, and created the conditions
for a new prosperity. Towns became cities. A class of artisans (craftsmen) and
merchants arose that had not existed for hundreds of years; this new "middle"
class existed between the peasants and the nobility. A money economy spread for
the first time since the fall of Rome. The new "middle" class wanted economic
and political power and saw religion in a new way as well. They yearned for a
less monastic spirituality; as a result the late middle ages saw the establishment
of many lay religious orders that permitted marriage and worldly employment and
that promoted a new style of popular mysticism. The artisans and merchants often
disliked the idea that salvation was available through the mechanical process
of attending mass and confessing sins, and sought a more direct link to God.
The late Middle Ages also saw the founding
of universities across Europe to teach Christianity and classical learning. Returning
Crusaders and Jewish and Christian visitors from Islamic Spain brought books.
Aristotle, totally ignored by classical Christianity, had become a central influence
on Arabic philosophy and his assumptions had shaped Islamic theology. In the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries Aristotle was introduced to western Europe in Latin translation
from Arabic along with Avverhoes (Ibn-Rushd), Avicenna (Ibn-Síná), and Algazal
(Al-Ghazálí), major Muslim philosophers and theologians. The translations
were poor and the Islamic content suspect, generating confusion and heresy in
many universities. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who obtained a doctorate in Theology
at the University of Paris, produced over fifty treatises in his short scholarly
career, notably his Summa Theologica, where he reconciled Aristotelianism
to Christianity, thereby producing a new formulation of the latter. Somewhat controversial
in his own lifetime, Aquinas soon emerged as the primary theologian of the medieval
Catholic church and remains a central voice in Catholic thought to this day. His
Summa became the principal textbook of Catholic theology; six thousand
commentaries have been written on his works.
In the fifteenth century several major events changed
European culture forever. The European conquest of the civilizations of Central
and South America flooded Europe with unprecedented quantities of gold and silver,
causing inflation but greatly expanding investment capital. Cities expanded even
more. Movable type and the development of a process for making cheap paper revolutionized
book production. From 1450 to 1500, six million books were printedfar more than
monks and scribes had copied by hand in the previous thousand years. Individuals,
especially those in the new "middle" class, could now purchase books. The development
of a book market stimulated writing books in the vernacular languages; use of
Latin began to decline. The expansion of the supply of books and the decrease
in their cost fostered learning and expanded literacy. Newspapers pamphlets, and
posters were produced in large numbers, the latter two extensively illustrated
as a result of another invention: the woodcut, which created black and white illustrations.
The growing powers of monarchies and the spread of
vernacular publishing accelerated the creation of national cultures, weakening
Europe's cultural and religious unity based on Latin and the church. The kings
asserted the right to appoint bishops in their kingdoms, thereby claiming control
over their national churches. Just as the "universal" church of the old Roman
Empire faced a split as the Latin west developed a Christianity distinct from
the Greek east, so now the Catholic church faced national tensions. Northern Europespeaking
Germanic languages, more recently Christianized, and more recently urbanized than
the older Latin landsdeveloped cultural expressions and political institutions
of its own as it developed economically and socially.
The fifteenth century saw the Bible translated and
printed in most of western Europe's major languages. For the first time in the
history of Christianity it became available to large numbers of readers. As a
result many Christians discovered that masses, confession, baptism of infants,
and other central features of their religion were not mentioned in the Bible at
all, and other featureslike the trinity and priesthoodwere only implied at
best. The stage was set for a major reform of Christianity throughout Europe.
It is no coincidence that the phrase sola scriptura"only scripture"was
to become the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation.
Crucial to the Reformation of the sixteenth century was Europe's new prosperity,
the cultural developments that prosperity entailed, and the availability of printed
Bibles. Reading the Bible became a new religious activity, and the truths Christians
found there shaped a new Christian spirituality that was independent of the church.
The wide circulation of printed pamphlets spread new understandings of Christian
truths to the peasantry and nobility as well. Emphasis on the importance of reading
the scripture eventually became a major force for the establishment of universal
With the reading of the Bible came a new fascination
for the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul's stress on the individual's direct
relation to God and his rejection of all good works as completely irrelevant for
salvation matched the interests of the merchants and artisans who wished to pursue
a Christian life that was not dependent on priests with their confessions,
mass, and penances.
Exemplifying these new ideas was Martin Luther (1483-1546),
a Catholic monk and scholar. As a young man, Luther sought to become a "monk's
monk" among other things by confessing every sin he had ever committed, even as
a small child. His spiritual obsession was relieved about 1513-15 when he meditated
on Paul's statement that "the righteous shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17);
it caused him to realize that penance was a human institution, not a divine one.
While Eric Erikson, a leading psychologist, maintains that Luther was plagued
by constipation much of his life and had his spiritual breakthrough simultaneously
with a bowel movement, most historians interpret Luther's description of his spiritual
transformation as occurring in a moment of great spiritual humility in the monastery's
Luther's realization that penance was
a human institution sharpened his opposition to indulgences, which the Pope issued
to raise money for the church. Purchase of an indulgence reduced the time one
had to spend in purgatory, so one could go to heaven more quickly; one could reduce
one's stay in purgatory by up to thousands of years if one paid enough. In practice,
much of the money supported the luxuries of the Vatican court, the Pope's construction
and artistic projects, even local civic projects such as construction of bridges.
In 1517 Luther nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany,
a list of ninety-five theses, which disputed key Catholic teachings and practices,
including the Pope's power to forgive sins. This act is considered the opening
shot in the Reformation.
The Catholic Church's first response was
to ignore Luther, but he proved to be the most brilliant and prolific theologian
of the age. Not only did he turn out theological works justifying his beliefs,
but he penned commentaries on most books of the Bible, drafted catechisms to explain
his faith to laypeople and even to children, engaged in a massive correspondence,
composed scores of hymns, produced hundreds of written sermons, and wrote popular
works that, illustrated by woodcuts of the Pope dressed as Satan, took his ideas
to ordinary people. He translated the entire Bible into German, producing a work
that standardized the language. He advocated a Christian lifestyle based on marriage,
child rearing, and a vocation, and demonstrated them by renouncing celibacy, marrying
a former nun, and starting a family. With Luther, the ideal Christian life ceased
to be that of a monk or nun. The church went from a dispenser of salvation to
an institution for bringing Christians together in their efforts to live a life
in Christ. Priests were replaced by preachers who expounded the word and educated
Luther was a skilled debater who brilliantly
defended his positions in a court trying him for heresy, and who had the wisdom
to flee before it condemned him to death. Germany was a welter of semi-independent
city-states and principalities, many of whose princes sympathized with Luther's
theology. The sympathetic princes adopted Lutheranism and forcibly reformed the
Catholic church in their jurisdictions; other princes (especially those bishops
who were the civil leaders of their cities) persecuted Lutherans and sought Luther's
head. A century of warfare descended upon Germany.
As a reform movement gathered momentum,
however, a spectrum of opinions emerged as to how the church should be reformed.
Radical Ref. Zwingli Calvin Luther Catholic Reform
Menno Simon Melanchthon Erasmus
On the "left" or extremist end of the spectrum
were the Radical Reformers, especially the Anabaptists. They rejected on biblical
grounds all Christian participation in war and in government, and argued that
the Bible called for the baptism of believing adults only, and not of infants.
By rejecting infant baptismwhich was seen not only as washing the babies of
original sin, but as introducing them into society as new membersthe Anabaptists
were seen as subversive of the social order. In Germany and Switzerland thousands
of them were martyred for their beliefs. From the Anabaptists come the modern
Mennonites and Amish.
On the "right" or conservative end of the
spectrum were the reformers who sought to reform the Catholic church without breaking
from it. Erasmus (1469?-1536), the great Catholic scholar, was one example. These
reformers sought to curb the worst abuses of the penance system, to decentralize
the church structure, and to renew its spiritual life. Ignatius Loyola (c. 1491-1556)
and the new monastic order that he foundedthe Jesuitswere the principal agents
for Catholic renewal and reinvigoration. This movement is often called the "Counter-Reformation,"
but because it is not simply a reaction against Protestantism, the term "Catholic
Reformation" is now preferred by most scholars.
In the middle of the spectrum were the "Magisterial
Reformers," a band of reformers who, with the help of princes and city councils,
broke from the Catholic church and created new Christian sects along the lines
of their new theology. Luther was only the most prominent of these men. Equally
important to the creation of Lutheranism was Philip Melanchthon, a colleague of
Luther and an excellent theologian. Lutheranism spread throughout Germany and
Scandinavia, in each case becoming a national church; thus a Swedish Lutheran
church organized that was separate from a German Lutheran church. Christian sects
thus formed along national lines. Because the culture of each country was a bit
different, the theology of the churches came to differ slightly also. Other Protestant
Reformers were Huldreich Zwingli in Zurich, Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, and John
Oecolampadius in Basel.
John Calvin (1509 - 64) was the man who gave the Protestant
Reformation one of its classic expressions. A French Protestant who fled to Geneva,
Switzerland, he came to dominate that city's Christianity and made it into an
international center of Protestantism. Like Luther, Calvin was incredibly prolific,
writing commentaries on biblical books and producing dozens of treatises. But
his greatness lay in the magnificent book that he wrote and re-wrote most of his
life, Institutes of the Christian Religion,
his summary of Christian theology.
Before his conversion, Calvin had been a lawyer and had learned how to present
an argument clearly and cogently. Institutes
is one of the great classics
in Protestant theology; it was printed in Latin and French and was widely read,
even in Italy and Spain where it was banned. The individuals who agreed with Calvin
usually did not have the power to take over their national churchesthe exceptions
were Netherlands and Scotlandand thus had to form Calvinist minority sects,
usually referred to as "Reformed" Churches. These sects based their beliefs on
Calvin, but over time their beliefs inevitably took on distinctive aspects not
elaborated by Calvin in his writings. The Puritans who founded New England were
The basic teachings of Calvinism were succinctly formulated
in 1618 at the Synod of Dort. A synod is a meeting of church ecclesiastics; Dort
is a town in the Netherlands. Calvin himself did not always hold all of these
pointsthey represent an extreme positionnor did many Calvinists, but the New
England Puritans initially did. This radical or "pure" Calvinism had five points:
Total Depravity As a result of eating the forbidden
fruit in the Garden of Eden, humanity became totally corrupted. Not even the faculty
of reason is an adequate and reliable means for finding God; all our faculties
Unconditioned Election God chooses, or "elects"
those whom He will save, freely and unconditionally of any outside influence,
there is absolutely nothing one can do to become elect. One can do good deeds
every day of one's life, and make a mighty effort not to sin; one can, in short,
live like a saint; but if God decides you will go to hell, you will, and there
is nothing anyone can do to change His mind.
Limited Atonement Christ died to save humanity
from sin, but the power of that act was not absolute; it does not tie the hands
of God and guarantee that all can be saved. Thus His atonement for sin was limited
in its efficacy.
Irresistible grace If God has chosen to save you,
you cannot resist His power. His grace will transform you even against your will.
Perseverance of the Saints Once God has saved you,
you cannot backslide; you are saved eternally.
These five might be thought of as the "basic principles"
of Calvinism. They may be abbreviated "TULIP," from the first letter of the first
word of each principle. They stress the absolute sovereignty of God and His grace,
a rather Islamic notion that only God is powerful in this world and we must submit
our wills to Him. The power of the individual to work on his or her salvation
and the importance of good works are totally denied. Rather, the Calvinist assumes
that good works will follow from the grace, and that a saint will do good works
he is saved; thus good works may be evidence of election, but cannot
bring about election in the first place. Such an approach to human beings strikes
most modern people as unnecessarily pessimistic and oppressive, but five hundred
years ago, when life was short and most humans were confined in rigidly hierarchical
societies that gave them few rights and options, it seemed more plausible and
The English Reformation
Both Calvinism and Lutheranism were brought to England,
and both had an effect on thinking there. The English Reformation began in 1529,
just twelve years after Luther's efforts, when Pope Clement VII refused to grant
King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) a divorce; his wife had failed to bear him a
son, he blamed the failure on her, and argued that for the good of his country
he had to father a male heir. Henry also asserted that as King of England he should
have control over the Church in England, an idea that in the twentieth century
seems strange, but which had considerable precedent in the Middle Ages. Henry
took over the church from the Pope by an act of Parliament and was excommunicated
as a result. But he made only a few changes in the church at first. He appointed
new bishops loyal to himself and closed the monasteries, confiscating all their
land for the crown. He opposed Protestant reforms and actually wrote a law forbidding
women, peasants, and others from reading the Bible. Only toward the end of his
life did he allow changes to be made in the Church of England's theology.
When Henry died in 1547 his son, Edward VI, was only
ten years old, consequently the kingdom was placed in the hands of a regent. He
was a Protestant; Lutheran and Calvinist ideas poured in. But when Edward VI died
in 1553 he was succeeded by his stepsister, Mary, who was Catholic. She converted
the Church of England back to Catholicism and persecuted the Protestants. She
died in 1558 and was succeeded by Elizabeth I, who re-established Protestantism.
The English Reformation had no central figure, like
Luther, but did have a spectrum of opinions with a radical left, a conservative
right, and middle, like the Reformation on the Continent:
Ranters Quakers Puritans Moderate Angl. AngloCatholics
The more radical Protestants became disillusioned
that the Church of England could ever be correctly and completely reformed and
separated themselves from it. On the far "left" or radical end of the
spectrum were those who went beyond the scriptures to claim direct revelation
or inspiration from God. Most of these sects either died out or were exterminated;
the Quakers, with their stress on the "light within," were among the
more moderate of the radicals. On the other hand, the Church of England retained
a lot of conservatives who sought reunification with Rome; to this day the Church
of England (or Anglican church, as it is also called) contains an "Anglo-Catholic"
Closer to the middle of the reformation spectrum were
the Calvinists, who fell into several camps depending on the way they organized
their churches. Many read the letters of the Apostle Paul closely and advocated
a "presbyterian" governmental system for the church: individual churches
would have a minister and a council of elders; local churches would be grouped
into "presbyteries," which would oversee ordination and discipline of
ministers; presbyteries would be grouped together into "synods"; and
synods would be members of the general assembly, the single supreme legislative
body of a presbyterian church. In Scotland the Calvinists won control of the national
church and reformed it along these lines; to this day most Scots are members of
the Church of Scotland, which is a presbyterian church. When Scots came to the
United States they became the main founders of the Presbyterian church.
Other Calvinists advocated a purely local organization
of churches, where each local church was independent and the local congregation
owned the church building, chose the minister, paid him, and fired him if they
didn't like him. These Calvinists were called "Separatists" and were
persecuted because they were seen as subversive of the church; they fled England
for the Netherlands, and in 1620 some of them sailed to Plymouth, Massachusetts,
becoming what Americans call the pilgrims. Other Calvinists remained within the
Church of England and sought to reform it from within. Some of them eventually
withdrew from the Church of England, to form Congregational, Presbyterian, and
Baptist churches; others remained within it to this day, and represent a Calvinist
"low-church" tendency within Anglicanism.
The entire range of English Protestant sects eventually
came to British North America. The lack of established political and ecclesiastical
structures in North America made control of the various sects almost impossible.
Many took advantage of the opportunities that a frontier offered to create their
own sectarian villages and towns, where religious principles dominated local social
life and culture. As a result the tendencies unloosened by the Reformation took
unexpected turns, and produced many unexpected developments.
Many scholars believe that Protestantism, by reshaping
the culture and society of northern Europe, made possible both capitalism and
modern individualism. Its rejection of the Pope and much of church tradition in
favor of reliance on the Bible opened the door for thousands of variant interpretations
of the gospel. Reliance on the Bible also had the consequence that Protestants
stressed literacy so that everyone could read the scriptures themselves. This
set the stage for mass education in northern Europe and North America. Protestant's
distrust of ecclesiastical authority also helped undermine aristocratic authority
somewhat. The religious diversity that resulted caused the old assumptions about
the need for a society to have religious uniformity to collapse and opened discussion
about separation of church and state and religious rights. Congregational forms
of church organization put the decision-making in the hands of all male members
and set the stage for new concepts of democracy. Thus Protestantism set the stage
for many ideals in the modern world.
The Bahá'í authoritative writings say
relatively little about the Reformation, but Shoghi Effendi did approve of the
following text written on his behalf:
What contribution the Reformation did really make was to seriously challenge,
and partly undermine, the edifice which the Fathers of the Church had themselves
reared, and to discard and demonstrate the purely human origin of the elaborate
doctrines, ceremonies and institutions which they had devised. The Reformation
was a right challenge to the man-made organization of the Church, and as
such was a step in advance. In it origins, it was a reflection of the new spirit
which Islam had released, and a God-sent punishment to those who had refused to
embrace its truth (letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual
believer, January 14, 1938, published in Lights of Guidance, 3d ed., number
The Reformation particularly focused on the Papacy and the numerous powers
it had accumulated, powers, the Bahá'í writings note, that were not implied in
the biblical text that Jesus would build His church on the "rock" of the Apostle
Peter. Islam unquestionably did exert an influence on late medieval Catholic theology
via such Aristotelians as Avicenna and Averrhoes, although the text above suggests
a spiritual influence that is hard to trace in a specific way. Possibly the Islamic
insistence on the absolute transcendence and authority of God reinforced Saint
Paul's own voice, thereby easing the way for Protestantism to stress justification
by faith and reject the Pope's claim to the keys to the gate of heaven. But Protestantism
did have a side to it that may explain Shoghi Effendi's description of it as a
"God-sent punishment," for it further split the unity of Christendom and opened
the door to a vast multiplication of Christian sects.
Christianity in America
The discovery of North and South America
created many new challenges for Europe. The wealth of the central and south American
civilizations catapulted Spain to the forefront of world powers and had a profound
impact on the European economy. All western European states were soon clambering
to establish their own American colonies and experimented with a variety of cash
crops to find an economic basis for them. Most also sent Catholic missionaries
to convert the natives.
Because of its relatively late arrival
on the scene, Britain got the colder eastern coast of North America, which offered
few opportunities for gold and no native urban civilizations to conquer. A major
problem it faced was finding colonists willing to leave their native land for
potential poverty and death far from family and friends. Britain solved the problem
by charting private companies to send out profit-making colonies. The first successful
enterprise was the Virginia Colony, which established Jamestown in May 1607. Within
the wooden palisade were a storehouse, a number of houses, and a church. The colony,
established by wealthy Anglican merchants, only recognized the Church of England,
but for many years the company paid for no priest to settle there. Immediately
attacked by the local Indians, the colony had no economic basis for years, made
no profit, and the colonists suffered an immensely high death rate from warfare,
disease, and starvation. Eventually the arrival of African slaves, the raising
of tobacco, and the importation of London criminals (who faced execution or extensive
imprisonment if they refused to emigrate) caused the colony to expand. A series
of incompetent or unpopular governors chosen by the company's wealthy London owners
cause the colonists to establish an elected legislative body in 1619 to establish
the colony's laws. But the Virginia Colony had no printing press for over half
a century; the first university in Virginia, the College of William and Mary,
was not established until 1696.
In Virginia and later in the Carolinas
and Georgia, the Church of England was the only recognized church; but priests
didn't want to leave warm and comfortable England to settle in the swamps, Indian-infested
woods and crude hamlets of England's south Atlantic colonies. As a result, there
was about one priest for every four or five churches in the American south, and
the priests were often of low quality. The Church of England is an episcopal church,
that is, power resides in bishops. The bishops appoint and direct the priests,
and traditionally the lay people had very little to do with the running of a local
church. But in the South there was no bishop at all and few priests, so the laymen
ran the churches and often administered communion or performed baptisms, which
was against church law. Because of the shortage of priests, even in the south
the congregational form of church organization became the dominant one. As the
population of the colonies grew, the local Anglicans themselves opposed the appointment
of an American bishop, lest he take away privileges they had grown used to.
Thirteen years after the founding of Jamestown,
a colony of a different sort formed four hundred miles to the north. A group of
separatist Puritans, disillusioned by Anglicanism's refusal to reform, first emigrated
to the Netherlands (a good Calvinist nation) in 1608, but as their children began
to become Dutch, they decided to emigrate to "northern Virginia" instead. They
landed in what today is Massachusetts in December, 1620. They learned how to raise
corn from the Indianswhose numbers had been decimated by European illnesses
brought by fishermen a few years earlierreceived some additional settlers
from England in the next decade, and survived fairly well in their new environment.
In 1630 King Charles I appointed a new Archbishop
of Canterbury (the head of the Anglican Church), who favored a middle path to
reforming the English church. This entailed rejecting the much more extreme demands
of the Puritans, whom he began to persecute severely. Puritan ministers were deprived
of their churches; Puritan laypeople were discriminated against. In response,
a group of Calvinist businessmen organized the Massachusetts Bay Company and obtained
a charter for it from the King, which included a claim over a large stretch of
land. Like the Virginia Company, the company was a joint stock company; individuals
who invested in the company owned shares and had voting privileges in choosing
a governor. Unlike the Virginia Company, however, the company bylaws did not require
the annual meeting to be held in London (the place of the annual meeting was unspecified).
Stock was mainly sold to hundreds of middle class Puritan artisans and small businessmen,
who then used the company proceeds to purchase ships for their own emigration.
As a result, in 1630 four ships loaded with a thousand colonists arrived in Boston
harbor and had the legal framework for electing their own governor, setting up
their own government, and making some changes in the ways the company's charter
would be interpreted.
The Puritan colonists decided their colony
that would demonstrate the truth of their beliefs by example; it would be a utopian
society proving the superiority of their understanding of Christianity. As Calvinists
they believed that some people were chosen by God to be saved; these people could
more or less be known by their good character, their good works (which were a
fruit of salvation, not a cause of it), and by the experience of receiving God's
grace. Since they were sure their senior clergy were among God's elect, they formed
a committee of the saved to interview the others for evidence of election. Since
those who fled to Massachusetts were among the most determined of the Puritans,
most were found to be saved. Those who were determined to be saints were made
full members of the churches; their children could be baptized and they could
receive communion. The others were to pray, attend church every Sunday, follow
God's laws (include complete abstinence from labor on the Sabbath) and await God's
act of saving grace. Only those judged to be among God's elect could vote in elections
and be voted for; in this way the civil government of the colony, based on the
royal charter, was secured from gross immorality and corruption.
The flood of immigration continued for
a decade, until the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1640 and his replacement
by a man less opposed to Puritanism. Over ten thousand Puritans arrived and spread
out over Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, founding towns. Each town
used the church as its meeting hall, all male members of the church as its legislative
body (the New England town meeting), and elected officers to carry out various
executive functions. Every town organized schools to educate boys (girls were
not sent to school until the eighteenth century). In order to assure themselves
a reliable supply of ministers, one of the first things the Puritans did was to
establish Harvard College (1636; far sooner than any college in Virginia).
Those who found Puritan theological uniformity
stifling moved to Rhode Island, a colony established by dissenters from strict
Calvinism. Roger Williams, the founder of the town of Providence, became a Baptist
and gave that town a Baptist character. He later withdrew even from Baptism, but
not before declaring that complete religious freedom reigned in Rhode Island and
that even Turks (Muslims) would be welcome there.
In the Middle Colonies, many different groups settled
and the area acquired considerable religious diversity. William Penn, who founded
Pennsylvania, was a Quaker, and he settled many Quakers there. Because there weren't
enough Quakers willing to move to the New World, Penn invited many persecuted
German sects to settle in Pennsylvania, such as the "Pennsylvania Dutch"
(Mennonites and Amish). Often the sects were part of Germany's radical Reformation,
just as the Quakers were part of England's; thus the groups often felt an affinity
with each other. Other Germans came over to settle near their countrymen; they
established the Lutheran church in America and the German Reformed (Calvinist)
New York was first settled by the Dutch, who brought
the Calvinist Dutch Reformed church (the national Dutch church) to America. Later
when the English conquered New Amsterdam they introduced Anglicanism and declared
it the official faith, but found it impractical to persecute the Dutch and English
Calvinists. New England Puritans migrated south to Long Island, New York, and
northern New Jersey and brought the their church; many of them later joined the
Scots, who had especially settled in New Jersey, to establish the Presbyterian
church. Delaware was first settled by Swedes who established Lutheran churches.
Maryland was established as a colony for Roman Catholics, though Anglicans quickly
became the majority.
Because there was effectively no national church,
Calvinism soon became the dominant form of Christianity in British North America,
spreading into the rural south from New England and the Middle Colonies and replacing
Anglicanism. This is in sharp contrast to Europe, where the Calvinists usually
were in the minority.
No sooner were the various Protestant groups established
in America than they began to change, and often to split. The American environment
and Protestantism's basic assumptionsa stress on the individual's relationship
with God and on the Bible as the only ultimate source of guidance to the individualcaused
the changes. When one makes the Bible and the individual's consciousness the standards
of personal growth, the conscience can insist on unusual interpretations of the
Bible. In Europe the Calvinist sects were small and often subject to persecution
by the state and the state church; but in America, generally, there was freedom
of religion, and thus there was no external force to control unusual interpretations.
In Massachusetts the Puritans did hang several women for being Quaker missionaries
in 1659 and 1661, but they were isolated cases. As a result of religious freedom,
religious imaginations ran wild, new interpretations of the Bible were set forth,
and new sects began to appear in America.
American culture was different from the culture of
late medieval Europe in several crucial respects. In America a white man could
always acquire land simply by packing up his wagon and riding to the frontier.
In England few owned land, and property ownership defined whether one could vote;
in America virtually all white men owned land and thus could vote. In New England
virtually all white men could read and write also, which was practically unprecedented
in human history. The country had no hereditary aristocracy and very little poverty.
By and large, there was rule of law. In colonial America there were no European-style
wars; wars with the American Indians rarely resulted in extensive destruction
to European settlements. There was no starvation after the first decade, and because
the population was scattered, no plagues. Medical care, while rudimentary, was
no worse than in Europe; Boston was one of the first towns to use vaccination
to combat smallpox. A typical New England farmer and his wife would have eight
to twelve children, and three quarters survived to adulthood. Thus America experienced
a population explosion nearly unprecedented in human history.
One result was a culture that was extremely optimistic
about the ability of individuals. The average person was seen to have "common
sense"an idea that in Europe did not immediately become a commonly accepted
assumption because of the hierarchical nature of society. Because the average
American could read the Bible himself and had "common sense," he was
capable of making up his own mind about the truths in religion; this further encouraged
the tendency toward sect formation and individualism. The doctrines of TULIP,
which stress the complete powerlessness of the individual to change his own situation,
came to be seen as unnecessarily pessimistic and harsh. Gradually the Protestant
churches moved away from it.
New England Puritans, because of their congregational
organization, had very few mechanisms above the local church level that could
control the theology of the ministers, and consequently they underwent the most
theological diversification and drift. One of the biggest issues that arose among
the Congregational churches concerned whether infants should be baptized, or only
confessing adults; the churches baptized infants, but Jesus never did. Those who
insisted that baptism was a sacrament reserved only for the born again gradually
withdrew to form Baptist churches.
Anglicans moved in a liberal direction as well. Presbyterians
had a hierarchy of ministers and elders who controlled ordination and could discipline
errant clergymen, so they resisted the efforts to modify Calvinism more successfully.
To combat a tendency toward laxity, many
churches sought to create conditions in which God's grace could more easily be
given to souls and they could become saved. In spite of Calvinism's emphasis on
the absolute sovereignty of God to decide who would receive the gift of eternal
life and on the complete helplessness of the individual before God's power, some
Calvinists began to promulgate doctrines of "preparation" whereby souls could
prepare themselves for grace and preachers could create conditions where people
yearned for salvation. The first large-scale revivals occurred in the 1730s in
Massachusetts, and subsequently in all the other colonies. Thousands accepted
Christ and joined churches. Revival was the first pan-American experience; denominational
leaders traveled between colonies to foster revival and established contacts and
networks; the thirteen colonies acquired common experiences and forged a modicum
of common culture. In many ways, the First Great Awakening (1730-60) laid the
foundation for the American Revolution.
The American Revolution proved to a religious
revolution as well. The big loser was Anglicanism; after the war was won, it was
impossible for an American to be a member of the Church of England. Many members
had already joined lay-organized Methodist "societies" within Anglicanism, and
on the frontier the Methodist societies were the only religious organization available
to many; it became a separate Methodist denomination soon after the end of the
Revolution. With its itinerant bishops to coordinate lay-organized local churches,
Methodism was perfectly organized for chaotic frontier conditions. It soon became
America's largest denomination. The older, more established Anglican churches
formed the Episcopal Church of America and sent several men to Britain to be ordained
as bishops, thereby acquiring the leadership the church had sorely lacked in the
colonial period. The New England Puritansnow known as the Congregational
Churchthe Presbyterians and the Baptists were the ones who supported the
American cause the most and who gained the most prestige as a result.
But as the eighteenth century yielded to the nineteenth,
America was on the moveto the westand American religion had to change
to accommodate. Most religious innovation occurred on the frontier. This was partly
because churches had not yet been established there, so new ideas faced less resistance.
Furthermore, most frontiersmen had come from small settled towns where everyone
had known everyone else; in contrast, the frontier was a place where complete
strangers were thrown together. Because they experienced considerable personal
upheaval on the frontier, people had to think in new ways, and yearned to establish
homes and churches where the familiarity of settled life back east could be duplicated.
As a result, many sects arose on the frontier or came
there and flourished. The Universalists said that no one was damned eternally
to hell, but everyone eventually would be saved (their name comes from their doctrine
of "universal" salvation). Free Will Baptists championed free will over
total depravity and unconditioned election. Both of these sects first became strong
in northern New England right after the Revolution, when that area was undergoing
rapid settlement. Both opposed the doctrines of TULIP with more optimistic views
of human nature. Baptists grew along the New England frontier and spread south.
The Methodists stressed free will and the perfectibility of human beings, ideas
very appealing to frontiersmen.
The need to convert the frontier population
to Christ and organize it into local churches often caused Baptists, Presbyterians,
Congregationalists, and Methodists to band together to plan revivals. These four
denominations, and a few smaller regional churches (like the Disciples of Christ)
came to be called the "evangelical" or "mainline Protestant"
churches because of their theological affinities.
However, revivals often created as much disunity as
unity and furthered the tendency toward religious individualism. In western New
York state in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, sect creation
became unusually common. Most of the people settling there had been born into
New England Puritan families and were reacting against its strictness. So many
evangelists toured the area, holding "camp meetings" in order to save
souls, that the area came to be called the "Burned Over District." Joseph
Smith started Mormonism there, partly in reaction against all the conflicting
revivals and theological claims. William Miller lived on the edge of the Burned
Over District and preached there; he proclaimed that Christ would return in 1844,
starting a movement that would eventually produce the Seventh Day Adventists.
The Oneida colony experimented with eugenics and a religious-based socialism.
The Fox sisters heard the rappings of spirits in their house in western New York
state and started Spiritualism, with its seances, communication with the dead,
and ouija (pronounced "wee-jee") boards. Ann Lee, the founder of Shakerism,
settled there, and the movement (which advocated communal living and strict celibacy)
In the cities, especially in New England, new ideas
from Europe also brought new sects into existence. In Boston, European philosophy
caused many to reject total depravity, the trinity, and other traditional Calvinist
doctrines, and become Unitarians (the name refers to their rejection of the trinity
and their belief in the unity of God). Later, Unitarianism spawned Transcendentalism,
which rejected all Christian dogmas in favor of an individual mystical relation
with nature and with God. The Transcendentalists studied Hindu and Confucian texts,
helped to introduce the study of world religions in America, and were among the
first to do modern higher biblical criticism. Unitarianism, by the end of the
nineteenth century, came to include a large number of persons who did not consider
themselves Christiansonly theistsand a few who, rejecting belief in God, considered
Late nineteenth-century Boston also became the center
of Christian Science, which stresses spiritual healing. Toward the end of the
nineteenth century millions of rural Americans began to move to the cities to
get manufacturing jobs. Among them were many Methodists, who were shocked by how
lax Methodism had become in the cities. To protect their children against the
sins of liquor and dancing these people formed the Church of the Nazarene. Other,
poorer Methodists, stressing the ideas of personal perfection and speaking in
tongues, spawned the Pentecostal and Holiness churches.
Confrontation with New Ideas
After the Civil War, new issues arose which were unlike any that Christianity
had ever faced before, and which eventually proved fatal to the unity of mainline
Protestantism. The first was Darwinism. The Origin of Species was published
in 1859, but not until after the Civil War did it become widely read and debated
in the United States. The initial reaction was quite favorable, and by the turn
of the century most Protestants had accepted evolution. It was only after World
War One, when conservative Protestantism became increasingly vocal, that it became
The second issue was comparative religion. Western
Europeans and Americans, before the nineteenth century, had virtually no contact
with non-Christians, except occasional Turks (in Europe) and Indians (in America).
With the creation of factories, steam ships, railroads, and the telegraph, imperialistic
empires were established that brought westerners in contact with nonwesterners
on a large scale. Western missionaries went out to enlighten the poor, ignorant,
immoral heathen (as they believed), and discovered that the nonwesterners were
considerably more intelligent, sophisticated, and capable than they had imagined.
The naive view that everyone would convert to Christianity as soon as the non-Christians
were exposed to true religion quickly proved naive. Chinese and Japanese immigrated
into the western United States as early as the 1870s and quietly established Buddhist
temples for their own use. By the 1890s Hindu swamis and Buddhist teachers were
touring the United States and publicly criticizing Christian missionaries. Middle
Eastern Muslims began to settle in American cities and even on the prairies as
farmers and built America's first mosques. This is the time the Bahá'í Faith arrived
in America as well. American Christians had to reevaluate their view of other
religions, and in the process had to face the question of the uniqueness of Christianity.
The third issue was biblical criticism. Careful, rigorous
examination of the Bible in its original languages took a new turn in the early
nineteenth century. Scholars became increasingly certain that none of the gospels
were accounts by eyewitness, that Isaiah did not write all of the Book of Isaiah,
and that Moses did not author the Pentateuch. These and other similar conclusions
undermined the assumption that the Bible was a revelation from God. Before the
Civil War, no one worried about whether the Bible was inerrant or literal; its
reliability was assumed, and adjectives were rarely used to define its reliability.
But after the Civil War debate about the nature of the Bible became increasingly
sharp. Since the Bible was the basis of Protestantism, the debate cut to the very
core of the movement.
Mainstream Protestantism began to bifurcate over these
three issues into liberals and conservatives starting in the 1880s and 1890s.
The debate became more sharp after 1900 and became a schism after World War One.
At that time the conservativeswho were dubbed Fundamentalists by their opponents,
and who accepted the namebecame vocal in their opposition to biblical criticism
and Darwinism. They moved to take over the Protestant denominations from the liberals,
who had controlled them. The Scopes trial, where a high school biology teacher
was put on trial for teaching evolution in 1925, made conservative Protestantism
the laughing stock of the nation, even though Scopes was found guilty and fined.
At the same time fundamentalism completely failed to conquer the denominations.
As a result, fundamentalism as a movement dropped out of the limelight after 1925.
However, it did not disappear. The mainline denominations
continued to have liberal and conservative factions and they continued to struggle;
the liberal/conservative split is one of the most fundamental aspects of American
religion in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Conservative Protestant
colleges grew rapidly during the depression and conservatives soon dominated the
new fields of radio and television evangelism. After World War Two a more moderate
evangelical Protestantism became respectableBilly Graham was its primary spokesman.
Starting about 1970 a new, more vocal evangelicalism emerged; the Moral Majority
and Jerry Falwell were manifestations of this movement. As the twentieth century
yielded to the twenty-first, a vocal and active evangelical Protestantism came
to dominate the conception of American religion in the minds of many, and acquired
enormous political influence. Liberal Protestantismwhich had been a major
voice in the civil rights movementremained active, but its churches were
losing membership and its voice was less influential culturally.
Sect formation has occurred rampantly in Protestantism
because of its concept of authority: authority is invested in the individual's
interpretation of the Bible. The Protestants have tried hard to curb variant interpretations
with catechisms and creeds, but ultimately they recognize no external authority
that can control the individual's interpretation beside the judgment of God. As
a result, Protestant sects have formed over every conceivable question. Some are
separated over the right form of church government (whether it should be congregational,
presbyterian, or episcopal); some are separated over the nature of the Christian
sacraments (such as the importance of baptism); others divide over theology (such
as universal salvation and free will). Some go beyond the Bible entirely: the
stress in Protestantism on individualism leaves open the possibility of a personal
revelation; thus the Mormons and Christian Scientists claim a new holy book, a
"third testament," revealed through a new prophet. Other churches have split over
seemingly irrelevant matters; the "Christian church" in the Midwest
split into two sects in 1906 over the question of whether local churches could
The United States was only the first example of a
country with rampant and continuous Christian sect formation. In the twentieth
century many Christian sects have formed in Africa as African Christians, reading
the Bible themselves, have rejected the European assumptions of their missionary
teachers and have interpreted the Bible in a way consistent with African culture
and experience. The spread of freedom of religion around the world has resulted
in many new Christian sects in Latin America and Asia as well.
Study of the process of sect formation helps Bahá'ís
appreciate the power of the Covenant in maintaining unity in belief and practice,
as well as the sense felt by all Bahá'ís of being members of one giant world-wide
family. It demonstrates clearly the difference between Christian heresy and Bahá'í
Covenant-breaking. Finally, it gives us a vision of what the Bahá'í Faith would
be like, if it did not have the Covenant to hold the believers together; in the
twenty thousand sects of Christianity we have a glimmer of those "thousand
sects" that 'Abdu'l-Bahá says would form in a day.