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Christianity from a Bahá'í Perspective

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 4

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.[1] Fearing John's influence might cause rebellion, Antipas had him imprisoned and then executed.

      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).[2] 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.[3] 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 stories—nature miracles, involving walking on water, stilling the sea, and changing water into wine—Crossan and some other scholars think are not historical.[4] Crossan argues that the reason Jesus performed miracles was to prove the power of the Kingdom. He called on His disciples to heal people—a miracle that is relatively easy to accomplish, since much of human illness has a psychological dimension—in order to impress on people the power of God's rule and the power of Faith in God.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

      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.[8] 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 utter beyondness.

      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 inmost essence.[9]

      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).[10] 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 form—that God consists of three separate parts or "persons," a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the 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 this approach:

      Now if we say we have seen the Sun in two mirrors—one the Christ and one the Holy Spirit—that 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 Oration—On 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 Oration—On the Spirit," 195).[11]

      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 cycle—the 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 most Manifestations.

      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 Oration—On 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 to God.

      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 of God:

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, 330-31)

      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 constitute salvation.

      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 spirit—an acquisition which occurs when the Word of God is accepted into one's heart and works a transformation in one's soul—then 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 returned—that 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.[12] 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 uses—the Oxford English Dictionary lists 24—some 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.


[1].John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of as Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1991), 231-32.
[2].Another 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.
[3].Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 310-11.
[4].Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 396-98.
[5].Crossan, The Historical Jesus,336-38.
[6].Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 339-40.
[7].Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 367-94.
[8].To 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.
[9].It 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 Studies, 1982).
[10].The writings of Ignatius are available in Cyril C. Richardson, ed. trans., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 87-120).
[11].Gregory 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 Press, 1954).

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