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Christianity from a Bahá'í Perspective

by Robert Stockman

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Chapter 5

Apostolic Christianity

includes the sections:
      The Apostles and Books of the Bible
     
The Apostle Paul
      Paul's Genuine Letters, in Probable Order of Composition
      The Deuteropauline School
      The Pastoral Epistles
      Hebrews
      The Catholic Epistles
      The Book of Revelation
      Summary

      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 leaders.

      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 7—which may not be completely accurate, but which are our only historical source—say 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 gentiles—non-Jews—first 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 32 C.E.

      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 community—the Eucharist was still served as a full meal—the 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 Jerusalem church.

      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 Greece.

      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 revelation—this is all any evangelist, from Paul's day to the present, can hope to do—and 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."[1]

      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 setting—Matthew 16:13-23—with 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.[2] Shoghi Effendi alludes to the statement when he notes that Bahá'ís uphold the "primacy of Peter, prince of the apostles"[3] 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 controversy—Paul, after all, is the only source—it 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 later.

      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, and humility.

      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 very soon.

      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 other apostles.

      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 turn—fighting 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. 7:2:

            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 return—I speak as to children—widen 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 iniquity?"

      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 followed.

      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, but several.

      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 its circulation.

      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

      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 letters—Jude, I Peter, II Peter, and James—are 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."[4] 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 C.E.

      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 schools.

      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.[5]

      '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.

      Summary

      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.

Footnotes

[1] Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated 7 September 1938.
[2] Star of the West, vol. 3, no. 14, p. 9.
[3] Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, 109.
[4] Martin Luther, quoted in Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon Press, 1977), 259.
[5] 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.


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