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Heart of the Gospel:
The Bible and the Bahá'í Faith

by George Townshend

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Chapter 11


Jesus did not bring His Revelation to a people whose minds were open, who loved truth for truth's sake and were ready to welcome it from whatever quarter it came. On the contrary, He brought it to a people lifted up with the most extravagant pride of religion and of race, who believed themselves the favourites and confidants of God and who were led by a group of divines that preyed on the fanatical prejudices of the laity.

Circumstances more uncongenial for the presentation of a new, a progressive and a highly spiritual Revelation could hardly be imagined. One might almost think it would have been easier to proclaim the Gospel in Rome itself, the capital of the Western world, where men were tolerant and interested in Eastern philosophies, and where there was no organised hierarchy nor closed system of orthodoxy to idealise human tradition and stifle thought.

Rome, however, had no first claim to the New Teaching, nor had any land other than Palestine. The New Revelation was a continuation of the Old Revelation given by Moses. To the Jews alone belonged the sublime and awful privilege of first receiving it; and to them belonged too the responsibility of using their great privilege aright. The Gospel could not be understood save as the fulfilment of the prophecies and promises recorded in the Old Testament, and in particular in its relation to the work of Mosaism. This connexion was a

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vital part of the Message itself, linking it with the eternity of God and His redemptive love. Because of it, the Gospel in a special sense belonged to the Jews, and was, so to speak, an indigenous product in the Holy Land. Yet by a strange and tragic irony it was this very connexion which blinded the Jews to the truth of the New Teaching and which caused the divines to denounce and martyr their Messiah.

The goodness and charm of Jesus have captivated and held the imaginations of men for centuries; sceptics, if they deny His claims in their fullness, admit with readiness the ideal beauty of His life, of His character and of His teaching; history has made evident the reality of His power over men, and there has seldom been a time when men, conscious of their unworthiness, have looked towards Him with a greater longing than now. We are altogether at a loss to understand the dullness of the Jews in refusing to pay Him honour; and we cannot express our bewilderment at their associating His name with that of Beelzebub and their procuring His crucifixion as a public enemy.

We may dismiss the matter, supposing perhaps that they, in spite of their zeal for God and for Moses and their loyalty and generosity towards their church, were persons of unparalleled depravity and their action was due to some fatality.

But the Jewish divines and the multitudes were not alone in their lack of faith. The disciples themselves were slow of understanding, feeble in faith, prone to doubt. 'Their actions show this abundantly. Jesus said so expressly. Their lack of faith astonished Him, wearied Him; He used to rebuke them for it and for their doubts; their

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faith was not as big as a mustard seed; conscious of their infirmity they prayed Him rather helplessly to increase their faith for them.

The divines, indeed, martyred Jesus and destroyed their nation; the disciples confessed Him, served Him and through them Christ's saving Message was carried to mankind. But the difference between the two was not that between jet black and purest white, between no faith at all and perfection of faith. The disciples, too, had their spiritual temptations and difficulties, which some of them overcame more fully than did others; they were not quick to apprehend the bearing or the essence of the new revelation. If their glorious record shows nothing whatever of that cruel envy which blighted the Pharisee and the Scribe, yet the disciples shared the narrowing prejudices of every orthodox Jew. That which in this respect distinguished the disciple from the divine was that the divine surrendered abjectly to his prejudices, while the disciples struggled and persevered and conquered, and through their conquest attained the vision of God and became messengers of His truth.

'Blessed are the poor,' said Jesus in his ordination address. The disciples who stood before Him proved the truth of His statement; for it was the privileges and the leadership. of the Scribes and Pharisees that made more difficult for them the independence of mind which the disciples, 'babes' as they were, abundantly evinced.

If they were as 'babes', yet the most serious and formidable problem which confronted the disciples was in its nature intellectual. It was not a sin of the flesh but a sin of the mind which ruined the Scribes and Phariees and wrecked the Jewish nation. The harlots and sinners

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and publicans and outcasts found easier access to Jesus than did those afflicted with pride of caste and intellect. The great difficulty that beset every conforming Mosaist was that of setting the New Message of Christ in its right relation to the Message of the older Dispensation. The Scribes and Pharisees utterly failed to surmount this 'obstacle:' they did not even try. The disciples succeeded, but only after much delay and many mistakes. If we, with another tradition and at this distance of time, are to understand the frame of mind of the first-century Jew and to appreciate his dilemma, we shall need imagination and dramatic sympathy. The point of view from which the modern Christian naturally looks on the life and the teaching and the surroundings of Jesus of Nazareth is wholly different from that of Jesus' compatriots. We look back across nineteen centuries of Christian civilisation and see its lowly founder illuminated by the glory of his posthumous achievement. We know the Gospel as the Magna Charta of the West, and as more. We see it stand in independent and dominating splendour. When we open our Bibles, that to which our hearts and minds first turn is the New Revelation. The Gospel of the Lord Christ stands in full view, filling the foreground of our thoughts. Behind it in a distant perspective, we descry the cruder preparatory teaching of Judaism out of which Christianity arose. But the Israelite who listened to Jesus was nursed in a religious tradition more than two thousand years old, which he cherished as the one hope and glory of his nation and of himself; while the Christian Faith existed only in its pure essence and its germ, and the great system with which we are familiar had not begun to take shape even in imagination.

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To us, the two major problems of Christianity are its influence on life and on civilisation, and secondly, its extension throughout the earth. But in the New Testament there was a third major problem which has now no practical meaning and little interest, but which, in that age, was of vital and urgent importance. It was the problem of development, of transition, of passing over from Mosaism to Christianity and of making between the two systems the right connexion. We may regard with cold eyes the flowering of Judaism into Christianity and scrutinise it as a matter of history, as a process of intellectual development. But in its own day it had another appearance. The New Testament with its warm humanity and faithful realism shows that to the disciples and other Jewish Christians the transition was a cause of inward stress and mystical struggle, a cause of heart-searchings and heart-burnings, a cause of difference of opinion and sharp division. If we think of that transition as an issue long past and now dead, we ignore the strong testimony of the Gospel-narrative. Around this issue gathers much that is darkest in the misunderstandings, the mistakes, the failures, the tragedies, the crimes of the story. To it may be traced the blindness of the Jewish divines, their rejection and their crucifixion of their Lord.

It has more than an historical — it has, too, a profound psychological and religious interest, and its significance still lives. Their failure was due to a mistake to which, in principle, human nature is always open-the mistake of confusing what is accidental in religion with what is essential, what is formal with what is vital. They did not understand — perhaps they chose not to understand-that

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religion is a living, growing force and that God's method of revelation is continuous and progressive. Their history shows in a manner as realistic and dramatic as can well be imagined how spiritual bigotry and ignorance may weaken and deprave the human soul, and with unseen hands produce inexorably the most momentous changes in the fate of men and of nations. The Israelites were in religion a self opinionated and highly exclusive people. This characteristic marked them out not only when they were in their own land among their own kind, but also when they travelled and dwelt in foreign parts. Roman writers such as Tacitus (Hist. v. 5) and Juvenal (Sat. 14, 103) advert to it. They had their own fixed and immovable ideas about Mosaism. They venerated all Scripture as verbally inspired. They took it in the most literal sense. For its greater protection, they had enclosed it within an elaborate system of Traditions which had been deduced from Scripture or were thought either to be implied in it or to be needed for its amplification. These traditions of the Elders were as sacred as the Word of God itself. They were fixed and unchangeable. Divine knowledge consisted in knowing them, and righteousness in keeping them. None could expound either Holy Writ or Tradition authoritatively save the Scribes; and whatever the Scribe said on any question must be and always was the last word, the express truth.

These views were not confined to men such as Caiaphas and Simon the Pharisee and Gamaliel and Nicodemus but were the common property of all orthodox Israelites, both those who believed in Jesus and those who did not.

Amongst those who confessed their faith in Christ, not the least ardent in their churchmanship were the two

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leaders who figure so prominently in the New Testament -Paul and Peter: Paul who described himself as 'a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees', who wrote: 'Did God cast off his people? God forbid. For I also am an Israelite' (Romans xi.I); who loved his fellow-Israelites to the end and said of them: Theirs 'is the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God and the promises; (theirs) are the fathers, (theirs) is Christ as concerning the flesh, who is over all, God blessed for ever.' (Romans ix. 4-5.) Paul, whose interpretations of Christianity are so coloured with Judaism that sometimes one can hardly understand his allusions or his argument without some knowledge of rabbinical lore — and Peter, who clung to outworn Mosaic customs with an unreasoning obstinacy that called down a just rebuke from Paul.

Every good Jew, whether a cleric or a layman, whether he came from Judaea or Galilee, believed in the finality of Moses' Revelation and in the everlasting permanence of all the Mosaic rites, customs, sacrifices and laws. He believed that his people were the elect of God among all nations, that the Scribes were the only teachers of true religion in the world, and that the Messiah when he came would reduce the Gentiles to their proper position of subordination and establish for ever the sovereignty of the Jewish people and their theocratic system.

When Jesus appeared and announced that the Revelation of Moses was not final, that its moral precepts were not exhaustive nor the highest possible; that the secular and ecclesiastical laws of Mosaism were subject to modification and to repeal; when He announced that the appointed time for these changes and for a new Independent

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Revelation had come, He challenged the accepted view and the established belief of every Israelite who heard Him. If a Jew were in his heart more interested in the observances of his traditional religion than in its spirit, he would view the new teaching with little comprehension and with much distaste; if these observances were the chief occupation of his life, he would view it with fear and hate.

The young prophet from Nazareth was indeed asking of His auditors a great deal. He was asking them to give up usages and customs, ways of thought and habits of belief which had been honoured among them for centuries and which had become firmly entrenched in the hearts and the lives of all. He called upon them to trust themselves, soul, spirit, and body too, to the new teaching of one who offered them no recognised human credentials whatever.

The crisis was indeed a test of spiritual faith and of moral courage. It was meant to be so. It was designed to separate the true-hearted from the insincere, those who genuinely believed in God from those who played a game of make-believe. But Jesus was not demanding of his generation the impossible. He was not trying the Israelites beyond their strength nor seeking to exact from them more than they could give. 'The Jews were quite capable of recognising the New Revelation: their tragic refusal to do so was not inevitable, it was of their own free choice. Who will imagine that God would have sent His Son into the. world with inadequate powers to achieve His purpose? Who will imagine that God condemned the Jews and punished them with an era-long exile and humiliation for an offence for which they were not truly responsible?

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The fact that their rejection of their Messiah was their own uncompelled, free act was in so many words affirmed by Jesus when he said:

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate. (Matt. 23. 37-38u)

Had the divines of the day consented to examine dispassionately the new doctrine, they soon would have found proof of its authenticity. But they refused. Prejudice, envy, love of leadership, closed their minds. So soon as they perceived that their privileges were threatened, they hugged their exclusiveness tighter than before, and their fear roused them to hatred and cruelty.

'The same emergency that showed up the falsity of the Scribes and Pharisees brought to light the sincerity and true-heartedness of the apostles. 'Their faith may have been weak, their understanding not great: but they chose to follow Christ. They struggled against their infirmities; if they wandered into error they turned back into the way of truth. By slow degrees they were put by their patient Master through the difficult lessons they had to master. They learned that this man whom they loved and trusted was the Messiah: they learned that He was a spiritual Messiah, and finally they learned that He was independent of Mosaism and brought with Him a new law and a new book.

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