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).