A Bahá'í Approach to the Bible
A thorough and systematic examination of the Bahá'í approach to interpreting
the Bible remains to be written; this chapter can only begin the task. It is helpful
to begin one's examination by noting the interpretive approaches followed by other
groups, for the Bahá'í approach bears both points of similarity and of difference
Among modern American Christians there are two common approaches
to interpreting the Bible. Conservative Protestants (often called "fundamentalists"
or "evangelicals") prefer the "literal" or "face value"
approach to scripture. Conservative Protestant biblical scholars may not adhere
to a literalistic reading of scripture, but prefer traditional methods for reading
and interpreting the biblical text. Conservative approaches tend to emphasize
one basic assumptionthat the Bible is the precise and exact Word of Godthat
is, that every word in the Bible is inspired and means exactly what it says. This
denies the possibility that a historical fact in the Bible might be wrong. It
does not deny symbolic interpretation of many verses, but it sees no need to interpret
symbolically many things that it believes to be fact. It also argues that generally
each verse possesses only one correct meaning.
Liberal Christians (or simply "liberals") recognize
that the Old and New Testaments are also a product of history, and did not drop
from the sky miraculously complete. This approach, of necessity, must accept that
the Bible is partly a human product as well as being partly a divine product.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to devise a way to determine reliably which is
which; thus the liberal approach to the Bible inevitably threatens to undermine
its sacredness, and threatens to leave liberal Christians without a scripture.
Other groups of Christians hold other approaches. Conservative
Catholics, for example, see the Bible as only one source of belief, Catholic tradition
and the interpretations of the Popes being others; thus, biblical interpretation
is generally less central to their faith, and the conclusions of the historical-critical
system of interpretation seem less devastating (though conservative Catholics,
often, have tended to ignore the liberal approach to scripture in favor of traditional
methods). Other Christian groups, such as the Mormons and Christian Scientists,
have books of their own that they see as new forms of revelation, and their understanding
and interpretation of the Bible is shaped by them.
Most Christians fall in the middle of the spectrum, between
the liberals and the conservatives. They try to hold both approaches together,
seeing the Bible as scripture and historically conditioned, and are willing to
recognize that it cannot be interpreted literally. Others choose to ignore both
approaches, and the dilemmas they raise, altogether. Perhaps the biggest problem
faced by Christianity today is how to recognize the Bible's historical inaccuracies
and its theological diversity, and yet still retain it as scripture, as a source
of inspiration and guidance. The conservatives do this sometimes by denying that
any problems exist; they hold onto the old approaches and their conclusions, which
have been undermined by modern science. The liberals sometimes essentially ignore
the Bible, or use it to endorse whatever theologies they have developed based
on other sources of ideas. In Bahá'í terms, both sides have failed to maintain
the harmony of science and religion, of reason and revelation.
The Question of Biblical Inerrancy
What is the Bahá'í approach to biblical interpretation?
An important factor is Bahá'í reliance on a new revelation. Thus if Bahá'ís need
guidance for a problem they turn to the Bahá'í writings for their answers, and
not primarily to the Bible. They thus need not experience grave anxiety over how
to interpret crucial Bible passages, or over the implications of a particular
interpretive approach to the Bible.
Bahá'ís also have an assurance, in their own sacred writings,
that the Bible is holy scripture and contains a record of divine revelation. Some
Muslim divines had argued, based on interpretation of verses in the Qur'án, that
the Bible was totally corruptedthat is, that nothing valid remained of
the revelation that God had given through Moses and Jesus. This doctrine is called
hríf, "corruption" of the text. Bahá'u'lláh emphatically rejects
Reflect: the words of the verses [of the Bible] themselves eloquently testify
to the truth that they are of God. (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 84).
Can a man who believeth in a book, and deemeth it to be inspired by God, mutilate
it? (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 86).
We have also heard a number of the foolish of the earth assert that the genuine
text of the heavenly Gospel doth not exist amongst the Christians, that it hath
ascended unto heaven. How grievously they have erred! How oblivious of the fact
that such a statement imputeth the gravest injustice and tyranny to a gracious
and loving Providence! How could God, when once the Day-star of the beauty of
Jesus had disappeared from the sight of His people, and ascended unto the fourth
heaven, cause His holy Book, His most great testimony amongst His creatures, to
disappear also? What would be left to that people to cling to from the setting
of the day-star of Jesus until the rise of the sun of the Mu
What law could be their stay and guide? How could such a people be made the victims
of the avenging wrath of God, the omnipotent Avenger? How could they be afflicted
with the scourge of chastisement by the heavenly King? Above all, how could the
flow of grace of the all-Bountiful be stayed? How could the ocean of His tender
mercies be stilled? We take refuge in God, from that which His creatures have
fancied about Him! Exalted is He above their comprehension! (Kitáb-i-Íqán,
Thus, Bahá'u'lláh makes it very clear that it would be unjust
of God to give His people a revelation and then take it away from them. But it
is important to note that Bahá'u'lláh does not say that the Bible consists solely
of accurate divine revelation; He only insists that the Bible possessed an adequate
source of revelation to guide humanity rightly. In other words, even if the Bible
contains historically inaccurate information, and even if the words of Jesus were
often recorded inaccurately, enough revelation was recorded accurately to guide
the Christians adequately until the advent of Muhammad in 622 C.E. (and, perhaps,
until the advent of the Báb in 1844).
This understanding of the biblical text as adequately accurate,
but not inerrant, is reinforced by a statement made on Shoghi Effendi's behalf.
The Bahá'ís of Racine, Wisconsin, apparently asked Shoghi Effendi
whether Abraham had attempted to sacrifice Isaac, as the Bible says (Gen 22:1-19),
or Ishmael, as affirmed by the Qur'án and Bahá'u'lláh:
As to the question raised by the Racine Assembly in connection with Bahá'u'lláh's
statement in the Gleanings concerning the sacrifice of Ishmael; although His statement
does not agree with that made in the Bible, Genesis 22:9, the friends should unhesitatingly,
and for reasons that are only too obvious, give precedence to the sayings of Bahá'u'lláh
which, it should be pointed out. . . [are] fully corroborated by the Qur'án,
which book is more authentic than the Bible, including both the New and the Old
Testaments. The Bible is not wholly authentic, and in this respect not
to be compared with the Qur'án, and should be wholly subordinated to the
authentic sayings of Bahá'u'lláh. (Letter written on behalf of Shoghi
Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the
United States and Canada, 28 July 1936, published in Bahá'í News,
no. 103 (Oct. 1936), p. 1).
Elsewhere Shoghi Effendi has stated the following:
When 'Abdu'l-Bahá states we believe what is in
the Bible, He means in substance. Not that we believe every word of it to be taken
literally or that every word is the authentic saying of the Prophet (from a letter
written to an individual on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 11 February 1944).
We cannot be sure of the authenticity of any of the phrases
in the Old and New Testament. What we can be sure of is when such references or
words are cited or quoted in either the Qurán or the Bahá'í
writings. (from a letter written to an individual on behalf of Shoghi Effendi,
4 July 1947).
. . . we cannot be sure how much or how little of the four
Gospels are accurate and include the words of Christ and His undiluted teachings,
all we can be sure of, as Bahá'ís, is that what has been quoted
by Bahá'u'lláh and the Master must be absolutely authentic. As many
times passages in the Gospel of St. John are quoted we may assume that it is his
Gospel and much of it is accurate (from a letter written to an individual on behalf
of Shoghi Effendi, 23 January 1944)
From these and other statements of Shoghi Effendi, the Universal
House of Justice has concluded:
. . . The Bahá'ís believe that God's Revelation
is under His care and protection and that the essence, or essential elements,
of what His Manifestations intended to convey has been recorded and preserved
in Their Holy Books. However, as the sayings of ancient Prophets were written
down some time later, we cannot categorically state, as we do in the case of the
Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, that the words and phrases attributed to
Them are Their exact words (letter written on behalf of the Universal House of
Justice to an individual believer, 9 August 1984).
A scholarly examination of the Bible substantially confirms
the approach taken by the Bahá'í authoritative texts. One finds historical errors
in the New Testament. Perhaps the clearest example is the two genealogies of Jesus
(Matthew 1 and Luke 3). They frequently disagree about the ancestors of Jesus:
Abraham, father of
Abraham, father of
Both genealogies are given in full; the gaps exist simply
to make the lists line up where they agree. Places where the names on the two
lists are different are indicated with italics. As can be seen, there is substantial
difference between the two, even on such a detail as the name of Jesus's grandfather.
Matthew lists forty individuals between Jesus and Abraham, while Luke gives fifty-six;
only sixteen of the names on both lists are the same. Since Jesus cannot have
two genealogies through his father, one must conclude that one (or, more likely,
both) are wrong. It is very unlikely that in an illiterate culture, with no censuses
or birth and death records, an accurate two-thousand-year genealogy for any individualeven
a king!could exist anyway, unless there is evidence that the culture is concerned
about preserving such genealogies. There is no evidence of such concern in first-century
Hence, in this case, the Bible cannot be understood
literally. The authors of Luke and Matthew, however, each had important points
to make with their genealogies, and the points are more important than the contradictory
facts. Matthew, the former rabbi, was interested in establishing Jesus's credentials
to a Jewish audience; thus his list of ancestors includes the great king Solomon
and many of the kings of the house of David descended through him. He also includes
Zurubbabel, one of the Jewish governors who brought the Jews back to Jerusalem
under the Persians, and Zadok, the ancestor of the priestly families who ran the
Temple. He starts his genealogy with Abraham, the founder of the Hebrew people.
Luke, on the other hand, is concerned with placing Jesus in the context of all
human history. He is unconcerned with past kings who might be Jesus's ancestors.
His genealogy goes to Abraham, thence to Noah, thence to Seth, then to Adam, and
concludes with Adam as "the son of God," thus linking Christ back to God.
Some conservative Christians interpret Matthew's genealogy
to be through Mary because verse 1:16 says "And Jacob begat Joseph the husband
of Mary, of whom was born Jesus" (KJV). The text is careful to say that Joseph
did not beget Jesus so as to avoid contradicting the doctrine of the virgin birth,
but the text nevertheless is giving Joseph's genealogy. Even if the list were
giving Mary's genealogy, the two lists still contradict regarding the ancestors
of King David.
Interpretations of some Biblical
Subjects by the
When one examines the interpretations given to biblical
passages by Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, one is struck by how nonliterally They
interpret them. Occasionally Their interpretations totally ignore the interpretations
given to passages by Christian tradition. An example is the interpretation of
the term "Prince of this world" (John 14:30; 16:11) to refer to Bahá'u'lláh;
traditional Christianity has interpreted the term to refer to the devil since
at least the third century C.E.!
In short, their interpretations often break the rules about how one should interpret
the Bible. But this is understandable when one remembers that Bahá'u'lláh and
'Abdu'l-Bahá are offering their interpretations based on divine knowledge, not
human reasoning. While their interpretations are not illogical, many fly in the
face of commonly accepted interpretations or interpretive approaches.
The Garden of Eden and Myth
Undoubtedly the most symbolic and allegorical interpretation
of the Bible that can be found in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's book Some Answered Questions
concerns the story of the Garden of Eden (pp. 122-26). 'Abdu'l-Bahá notes that
if one takes the story literally, "the intelligence cannot accept it, affirm it,
or imagine it"; consequently He concludes that it "must be thought of simply as
a symbol" (p. 123). He offers a symbolic explanation where Adam represents the
"heavenly spirit" of Adam; Eve represents the soul of Adam; the tree of good and
evil from which Adam and Eve ate signifies the human world, with its mixture of
good and evil, light and darkness; the serpent signifies attachment to the human
world; and the tree of Life represents the Manifestation of God. 'Abdu'l-Bahá's
completely nonliteral interpretation converts the story of the Garden of Eden
into a powerful metaphor on human existence:
Now consider how far this meaning conforms to the reality.
For the spirit and soul of Adam, when they were attached to the human world, passed
from the world of freedom into the world of bondage, and His descendants continue
in bondage. This attachment of the soul and spirit to the human world, which is
sin, was inherited by the descendants of Adam, and is the serpent which is alwys
in the midst of, and at enmity with, the spirits and the descendants of Adam.
That enmity continues and endures. For attachment to the world has become the
cause of the bondage of spirits, and this bondage is identical with sin, which
has been transmitted from Adam to His posterity. It is because of this attachment
that men have been deprived of essential spirituality and exalted position. (Some
Answered Questions, 124-25)
At the end of His interpretation, 'Abdu'l-Bahá adds "This
is one of the meanings of the biblical story of Adam. Reflect until you discover
others" (Some Answered Questions,
126). This indicates that 'Abdu'l-Bahá
is not claiming to offer the only correct interpretation of the story of the Garden
of Eden, but one interpretation that is valid for Bahá'ís. Others can offer other
'Abdu'l-Bahá's metaphorical approach downplays the question
of whether the Garden of Eden was a literal, historical place; it does not deny
the possibility, but suggests that the question ultimately is not important. His
approach suggests that much of the Bible consists of symbols and images with many
possible valid interpretations; the Bahá'í writings only claim to offer one possible
Interpretation of Prophecy
An examination of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretations of passages
from the Hebrew prophets supports the hypothesis that biblical passages contain
many valid meanings. Bahá'ís often read the Bible primarily to find references
to Bahá'u'lláh in the text, and then think they have exhausted its meaning. But
much of what the Bible "means" is tied to the times which, and people
who, produced it, hence the meaning of the text is often contextual and plural.
Furthermore, the images and symbols of the biblical prophecies have been used
in countless ways by millions of people over thousands of years to make sense
out of their situation; one cannot declare all those other interpretations to
be invalid or wrong. Rather, one must recognize a Bahá'í interpretation of a biblical
verse as one possible valid meaning of the verse; God may have intended other
meanings as well.
A prominent example is Ezekiel 43:4, "And the glory of the
LORD came into the house by way of the gate whose prospect is toward the east."
Although no official Bahá'í interpretation of the verse is known to the writer,
Bahá'ís "know" that this refers to Bahá'u'lláh coming to the Holy Land by way
of "the Gate" (the Báb) from the east (Iran and Iraq).
"The glory of the LORD" is a good translation of the word Bahá'u'lláh. "LORD"
(in capital letters) is the standard English translation for "Yahweh," which is
God's name, just like "Allah" is a designation for the God, not any god.
"Glory" (Hebrew, kabod) can be translated into Arabic several waysmajd,
jalál, or bahá.
But Ezekiel wrote this passage to convey something very different
to his contemporaries, who, like he, had recently made a heartbreaking and exhausting
journey from Jerusalem to their exile in Mesopotamia (Iraq). He was promising
that God's "glory," that is, God's nimbus, or God's aura, or God's spirit, would
return to the Temple in Jerusalem through the east gate, that is, from Mesopotamia,
with the Jewish people who were in exile there. This verse, then, was part of
Ezekiel's promise to his people that God would eventually lead them back to Israel.
There is no reason for Bahá'ís to deny the possibility that
God had both of these meanings in mindand perhaps otherswhen He gave the vision
Another biblical prophecy frequently cited by Bahá'ís is
Hosea 2:15, "And I will give. . . the valley of Achor for a door of hope. . ."
According to Joshua 15:7which mentions it while delimiting the northeastern
border of the land of Judahthe Valley of Achor is located about half way between
Jerusalem and the northern end of the Dead Sea. It is near Jericho, but very far
from Akka. While the Israelites were camped there Joshua discovered that an Israelite
had secretly kept some of the loot from the capture of Jericho for himself, thereby
calling God's punishment down on all the people (Joshua 8). The hoarder was stoned
to death, and the text concludes that "therefore to this day the name of that
place is called the Valley of Achor" (Joshua 7:26). Achor, in Hebrew, means "trouble";
and the Valley of Achor came to symbolize trouble in the Hebrew Bible. Hosea (and
Isaiah, who refers to it in 65:10) mention Achor to suggest that in the last times
even a "valley of trouble" would become a door of hope. The verse is a clear word
play on the meaning of Achor.
Bahá'ís, of course, understand the verse to refer to Akka.
This conclusion is supported by Abdu'l-Bahá Himself:
It is recorded in the Torah: And I will give you the valley of Achor for a
door of hope. This valley of Achor is the city of 'Akká, and whoso hath
interpreted this otherwise is of those who know not. (Selections from the Writings
of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 162.)
There is no reason to assume that 'Abdu'l-Bahá was wrong
and did not know where the Bible says Achor is, or that He was ignorant of Hosea's
word play. Nor, perhaps, should one assume that 'Abdu'l-Bahá was denying that
Hosea meant to make the word play. Rather, perhaps, 'Abdu'l-Bahá was sayingin
hyperbolic languagethat from a Bahá'í perspective, Achor means Akka. That interpretation,
for Bahá'ís, is the important and valid understanding of the verse, and not others.
Interpretation of Miracles
Among the biblical subjects interpreted by Bahá'u'lláh
in the Kitáb-i-Íqán is the question of whether Jesus performed miracles. The New
Testament mentions approximately thirty miracles by Jesus, which scholars have
classified into three categories: exorcisms, healings, and nature miracles (such
as walking on water or feeding multitudes). One of the few positions held by all
biblical scholars is that Jesus was a miracle worker.
Bahá'u'lláh's approach is to emphasize the spiritual miracles
performed by Jesus, not the physical miracles. His discussion of healings is typical:
Through Him [Christ] the leper recovered from the leprosy of perversity and
ignorance. Through Him, the unchaste and the wayward were healed. Through His
power, born of Almighty God, the eyes of the blind were opened, and the soul of
the sinner sanctified.
Leprosy may be interpreted as any veil that interveneth between
man and the recognition of the Lord, his God. Whosoever alloweth himself to be
shut out from Him is indeed a leper, who shall not be remembered in the Kingdom
of God the Mighty, the all-Praised. We bear witness that through the power of
the Word of God every leper was cleansed, every sickness healed, every human infirmity
was banished. He it is Who purified the world. (Gleanings from the Writings
Clearly, if Bahá'ulláh is referring to stories in the Gospels
where Christ healed lepers (Matt 8:1-4; Mark 1:40; Luke 5:12-16) He is interpreting
them very nonliterally. He seems to be saying here that Christ's real miracles
were spiritual, not physical. He does not explicitly deny physical miracles; rather,
He focuses on their spiritual significance.
'Abdu'l-Bahá elaborates on this theme by saying that
while physical miracles are performed by all the Manifestations of God, they are
meant for those who witnessed them and who thus would be certain that they occurred.
Thus from Bahá'í perspective, the position of modern scholars that
the historical Jesus was a miracle worker is not incorrect; but theologically
it misses an important point. 'Abdu'l-Bahá notes that physical miracles
are of less importance than spiritual ones:
If we consider miracles a great proof, they are still only proofs and arguments
for those who are present when they are performed, and not for those who are absent.
For example, if we relate to a seeker, a stranger to Moses
and Christ, marvelous signs, he will deny them and will say "Wonderful signs are
also continually related of false gods by the testimony of many people, and they
are affirmed in the Books. . . ."
The outward miracles have no importance to the people of
Reality. If a blind man receives sight, for example, he will finally again become
sightless, for he will die. . . . If the body of a dead person be resuscitated,
of what use is it since the body will die again? But it is important to give perception
and eternal lifethat is, the spiritual and divine life. For this physical
life is not immortal, and its existence is equivalent to nonexistence. So it is
that Christ said to one of His disciples: "Let the dead bury their dead;" for
"That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit
is spirit." (Some Answered Questions, 100-101.)
The Bahá'í writings also explore the question of Jesus's
bodily resurrection. This is a subject of great importance to conservative Protestants,
who understand the biblical accounts very literalistically, and put great importance
on them. It is clear from the Gospels that the early Christians believed that
Christ underwent a resurrection of the body. The oldest account in the Bible,
that of Mark (16:1-8), is also the simplest; it makes no mention of such details
as soldiers being placed on guard at the tomb, but simply says that three women
went to the tomb to anoint Jesus's body on the Sabbath and encountered a young
man (presumably an angel), who told them that Jesus had risen. The last twelve
verses of the book (16:9-20) appear to be a later addition, though they are very
ancient; in them various appearances of Jesus are mentioned, but no details are
given. To this account Matthew adds that Roman guards were placed around the tomb
to prevent anyone from stealing Jesus's body (a detail not given in the other
gospels) and mentions that "Jesus came to" the disciples and instructed
them in Galilee, though without giving any details as to His appearance (27:62-66,
Luke, who wrote slightly later than Matthew, has an even
most detailed account of the burial and resurrection. In that book, not one man
but two (presumably angels) stand at the tomb and tell Mary that Christ has risen
(24:1-11). Later Jesus appears to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus (24:13-35).
He appears to the ten disciples and asks them to examine the holes in His hands
and feet (24:38-40); He even eats food with them to prove to them that His body
has been resurrected (24:41-43). The Gospel of John, written at an even later
date, has similar stories.
It is significant to note that neither Paul nor Markwho
wrote decades earlier than Lukeincluded any details about Christ's resurrection
appearances, and that later descriptions, found in books that never were included
in the Bible, give elaborate accounts of Jesus's physical appearances to His disciples.
This has prompted many biblical scholars to suggest that the oldest form of the
tradition included no details at alljust statements that he appeared to
certain peoplethat they were added later to convince the skeptical, and
that they became more and more elaborate over time, as orally repeated stories
tend to do.
When one examines Luke's account from a traditional and literal
standpoint, one finds many details that makes one wonder what sort of body the
resurrected Jesus had. The story about the appearance on the road to Emmaus is
the best example. Jesus walks with two disciples, but "their eyes were kept
from recognizing him" (24:16), suggesting that either His body was an apparition,
or that the disciples's eyesight was being controlled in some supernatural way.
Later Jesus breaks bread with them, and suddenly "their eyes were opened
and they recognized him" (24:31); presumably either the physical appearance
of Jesus changed or the supernatural control over the disciples's eyesight was
suspended. Then Jesus "vanished out of their sight" (24:31) something
an ordinary person, with an ordinary body, cannot do. One could argue that the
disappearance was a miracle, but one could just as easily argue that Jesus's appearance
to the disciples was a miraculous vision of some sort, and not the presence of
an actual, resurrected human body.
The story of Jesus's appearance before the ten is similar
(24:36-53). Jesus's manner of arrival is not described; it is simply said that
suddenly "he stood among them" (24:36), implying that He materialized
out of thin air. Jesus invites the disciples to touch His body and feel His wounds.
The account does not say that they did so, but if they had presumably they would
have experienced the touching of a body; if God can affect the sense of sight
(as in the Emmaus story), there is no reason to assume God cannot similarly affect
the sense of touch. Jesus then instructs the disciples, reviving their hopes and
faith, so that they experienced "great joy" (24:52); this is the important
occurrence in the story, for it is the point where Jesus resurrected the Christian
community. Finally, Jesus was "carried up into heaven" (24:51), an event
that would have resulted in the suffocation of an ordinary body in the thin air
of the upper atmosphere long before heaven were attained, unless the "body"
were special or protected by a space suit or a miracle.
A close reading of the above storieswithout raising the
question of their historicity, which is a serious issue itselfsuggests that
the disciples may have experienced Jesus in a spiritual way, instead of actually
seeing a resurrected physical body. This interpretation is supported by Paul himself,
who discusses bodily resurrection in great detail. He makes an analogy between
the physical body and the spiritual body that succeeds it, on the one hand, and
a seed and the plant that grows from it, on the other:
But some one will ask, "How are the dead raised? With
what kind of body do they come?" You foolish man! What you sow does not come to
life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare
kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he
has chosen. . . . There are celestial bodies and there are terrestrial bodies;
but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another.
. . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable,
and what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.
It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it
is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual
body. (I Cor. 15:35-44)
Precisely what Paul means by a "spiritual body" here is not clear; he seems to
be struggling to make analogies for ideas that are difficult to explain. He seems
to be avoiding the Greek word for soul (psyche
) and the philosophical implications
Another reason for avoiding "soul" is that he is already using it in the phrase
"physical body," which in the original Greek is soma psychikon,
body" or "soulful body."
Thus it is possible that by "spiritual body" (soma pneumatikon
) Paul is
referring to what Bahá'ís would call the soul and its divine attributes.
Like Paul, 'Abdu'l-Bahá's statements support a spiritual
interpretation of the references in the New Testament to bodily resurrection:
The resurrections of the Divine Manifestations are not of the body. . . it
is clearly stated in many places in the Gospel that the Son of man came from heaven,
He is in heaven, and He will go to heaven. . . . [for example] in John, chapter
3, verse 13: "And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but He that came down from
heaven, even the Son of Man which is in heaven."
Observe that it is said, "The Son of man is in heaven," while
at that time Christ was on earth. Notice also that it is said that Christ came
from heaven, though He came from the womb of Mary, and His body was born of Mary.
It is clear, then, that when it is said that the Son of man is come from heaven,
this has not an outward but an inward signification; it is a spiritual, not a
material, fact. . . . In the same way, His resurrection from the interior of the
earth is also symbolical; it is a spiritual and divine fact, and not material;
and likewise His ascension to heaven is a spiritual and not a material ascension.
Beside these explanations, it has been established and proved
by science that the visible heaven is a limitless area, void and empty, where
innumerable stars and planets revolve.
Therefore, we say that the meaning of Christ's resurrection
was as follows: the disciples were troubled and agitated after the martyrdom of
Christ. The Reality of Christ, which signifies His teachings, His bounties, His
perfections, His spiritual power, was hidden and concealed for two or three days
after His martyrdom, and was not resplendent and manifest. No, rather it was lost,
for the believers were few in number and were troubled and agitated. The Cause
of Christ was like a lifeless body; and when after three days the disciples became
assured and steadfast, and began to serve the Cause of Christ, and resolved to
spread the divine teachings, putting His counsels into practice, and arising to
serve Him, the Reality of Christ became resplendent and His bounty appeared; His
religion found life; His teachings and admonitions became evidence and visible.
In other words, the Cause of Christ was like a lifeless body until the life and
bounty of the Holy Spirit surrounded it. (Some Answered Questions, p. 102.)
Thus 'Abdu'l-Bahá emphasizes that the true resurrection that
occurred was of the Christian community, which even the New Testament refers to
as the "body of Christ" (cf. Romans 12:5; I Cor. 12:12-31). The visions
and apparitions of the resurrected Jesus did indeed fire the disciples with a
great devotion, so much so that they spread the teachings of Christ far and wide,
undeterred even by martyrdom.
This aspect of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's position is not unsupported
by Christian scholars. John Dominic Crossan, whose life of Jesus is a very significant
piece of scholarship, takes a very similar position:
If those who accepted Jesus during his earthly life had not continued to follow,
believe and experience his continuing presence after the crucifixion, all would
have been over. That is the meaning of resurrection, the continuing presence
in a continuing community of the past Jesus in a radically new and transcendental
mode of present and future existence (Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life
of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, p. 404).
'Abdu'l-Bahá mentions another argument against the belief
in bodily resurrection: "heaven" is not a physical place in the sky.
Rather, the Bahá'í writings explain that the "next world" is a spiritual
state, where matter, energy, and physical bodies do not exist.
'Abdu'l-Bahá even confirms Paul's statement that humans are
sown as a physical body, but raised as a spiritual body; He notes that "in the
other world the human reality does not assume a physical form, rather it doth
take on a heavenly form, made up of elements of that heavenly realm" (Selections
from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, 194). This would suggest that Paul was
attempting to describe the reality of human beings in the next world in vocabulary
current to his time and place.
The Universal House of Justice has elucidated 'Abdu'l-Bahá's
position in these words:
Concerning the Resurrection of Christ you quote the twenty-fourth
chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke, where the account stresses the reality of the
appearance of Jesus to His disciples who, the Gospel states, at first took Him
to be a ghost. From a Bahá'í point of view the belief that the Resurrection
was the return to life of a body of flesh and blood, which later rose from the
earth into the sky is not reasonable, nor is it necessary to the essential truth
of the disciples' experience, which is that Jesus did not cease to exist when
He was crucified (as would have the belief of many Jews of that period), but that
His Spirit, released from the body, ascended to the presence of God and continued
to inspire and guide His followers and preside over the destinies of His Dispensation
(from a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual
believer, 28 May 1984).
One further question regarding the bodily resurrection
remains: what happened to Jesus's body, if it did not ascend into heaven? Unfortunately,
it is virtually useless to speculate on this extremely important question, because
historical evidence is lacking. According to New Testament scholar John Dominic
Crossan, the disciples themselves did not know the answer to this question. His
careful study of the accounts of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection indicates
that they developed in the early Christian community purely through interpretation
of Old Testament passages that were believed to prophecy aspects of Jesus's sufferings.
Crossan notes that Roman practice was for the soldiers to bury the body, not turn
it over to others for burial. He believes that the disciples fled when their Master
was arrested and returned later to discover He had been crucified; and "nobody
knew what had happened to Jesus' body" (Crossan, p. 394; italics his).
It is intriguing to note that Bahá'í pilgrims who asked 'Abdu'l-Bahá
and Shoghi Effendi about Jesus's body say that both men stated that "the disciples
hid the body of Christ by burying it under the wall of Jerusalem, and that it
is now under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre." The Universal House of Justice
adds that there is "nothing in the Writings of the Faith, however, explicitly
confirming these statements."
While the Bahá'í writings reject Christ's bodily resurrection,
they affirm Jesus's virgin birth. The Qur'án also supports it (19:16-22). But
'Abdu'l-Bahá makes it clear that this miracle does not make Jesus superior to
other Manifestations of God: "If the greatness of Christ is His being fatherless,
then Adam is greater, for He had neither father nor mother." Rather, Jesus's greatness
is best demonstrated by His "heavenly perfections, bounties, and glory" (Some
Answered Questions, 89-90).
The above examples underline the importance of distinguishing
between two types of biblical interpretation found in the Bahá'í community. First,
there are many interpretations of the Bible found in the Bahá'í writings. Even
they usually do not claim to be the only "correct" interpretation of
a biblical passage, but rather to be one interpretation that has been endorsed
by the Faith and which, therefore, is an interpretation Bahá'ís know is valid
(as opposed to hundreds of interpretations which are not endorsed and thus may
or may not be valid).
Second, there are interpretations of the Bible made by individual
Bahá'ís. These are useful and good, but may not necessarily be endorsed by the
Bahá'í writings. Much of the content of books by Bahá'ís on the Bible falls in
this category; much of it is the personal interpretation of the authors, not the
official interpretation of the Bahá'í Faith. There is nothing wrong with personal
interpretation, as long as it is not confused with an authorized interpretation.
The Bahá'í writings do not dwell on the question of the accuracy
or inaccuracy of the Bible; rather, they make it clear that the Bible is a repository
of revelation and is a sacred work. Thus, Bahá'ís must not follow the tendency
of agnostics and a small number of liberal Christians, who essentially ignore
the Bible as a source of truth and inspiration. A veneration of the Word of God
is called for, no matter how much that Word is clothed in the phrases and interpretations
of humans. 'Abdu'l-Bahá repeatedly makes this clear:
Thou hast written that thou lovest the Bible. Undoubtedly,
the friends and maid-servants of the Merciful should know the value of the Bible,
for they are the ones who have discovered its real significances and have become
cognizant of the hidden mystery of the Holy Book. ('Abdu'l-Bahá to Wallesca
Pollock, Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, I, 218)
I beg of God through the confirmation and assistance of the
True One thou mayest show the utmost eloquence, fluency, ability and skill in
teaching the real significances of the Bible. Turn toward the Kingdom of ABHA
and seek the bounty of the Holy Spirit. Loosen the tongue and the confirmation
of the Spirit shall reach thee. ('Abdu'l-Bahá to Alma Knobloch, translated
by Ahmad Sohrab on 26 Dec. 1903; Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, II, 243)
My God! My God! Elohim
To this servant give the understanding of the Old Testament
and the New and enable her to speak forth with a mighty voice and to sing with
power the holy songs and discover the real meaning and the secret mysteries of
those verses, for Thou art the Powerful Inspirer and the Mighty One! ('Abdu'l-Bahá,
written on the flyleaf of Sarah Farmer's Bible, 26 March 1900; Tablets of Abdul-Baha
Abbas, II, 277-78)
The Bible is a sacred scripture for Bahá'ís. It is the account
of the lives of three manifestations of God, of numerous lesser prophets who revealed
God's truth in their shadow, and of the people who sought to follow and understand
Their teachings. Read both reverently and in a manner that recognizes its historical
origin, the Bible can teach us about both the struggles that humanity went through
as it developed, and the promises of a time when "swords will be beat into
plowshares and spears into pruning hooks" (Isaiah 2:4), a time that, Bahá'ís
believe, has now dawned in the world. It can illuminate the sacred writings of
the Bahá'í Faith, both by contrastthe social process that created the Bible
was very different from the process by which the Bahá'í scriptures came into beingand
by comparison, for through it we can see God's eternal truths clothed in yet another
form and expressed in another language. The Bible is a foundational link in the
chain that makes up the scriptures of the world's religions, and thus has eternal
significance for scholar and seeker alike.