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Christianity from a Bahá'í Perspective

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 2

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 letters.

      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 centuries—the oldest that are known—often 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 today.

      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 pseudonymous—that 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 well.

      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 tendencies—the 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 Covenant:

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.[8]

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.[9]


      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.[10]

      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![11] 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.

Footnotes

[1] 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.
[2] 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.
[3] 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 temple.
[4] 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.
[5]See Norman Perrin, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1974), 104.
[6] 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), 341-49.
[7]"The 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, p. 3.
[8]'Abdu'l-Bahá, Star of the West, vol. 3, no. 14, p. 9.
[9]'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í World Faith, pp. 357-58.
[10] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Meridian Books, 1929), p. 6.
[11] The World Christian Encyclopedia, ed. David B. Barrett (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982).

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