Baha'i Library Online

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COLLECTIONSUnpublished articles, Books
TITLEChristianity from a Bahá'í Perspective
AUTHOR 1Robert Stockman
ABSTRACTIncludes two topics: "A Bahá'í approach to the Bible" and "Bahá'í Writings on Jesus Christ."
NOTES See also Stockman's notes on Judaism and notes on Islam.

Prepared for the Wilmette Institute.

CROSSREFThe Bible: Extracts on the Old and New Testaments (BWC compilation), and Bible Stories and Themes in the Bahá'í Writings and Guidance (2021)
TAGS- Christianity; - Interfaith dialogue; - Persecution; Adam and Eve; Apocrypha; Authenticity; Bible; Gnosticism; Gospel of Thomas; Interpretation; Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ, Crucifixion of; Jesus Christ, Resurrection of; Jesus Christ, Virgin birth of; Miracles; Nag Hammadi; Names and titles; Prophecies; Reformation; Resurrection; Sin (general); United States (documents)

  1. A Bahá'í Approach to the Bible
  2. The New Testament
  3. Preserving the Jesus Tradition
  4. Jesus Christ in History and in the Bahá'í Writings
  5. Apostolic Christianity
  6. Christianity in the Classical World
  7. Christianity in the Middle Ages
  8. The Reformations
  9. Christianity in America

Chapter 1

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 to them.

      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 assumption—that the Bible is the precise and exact Word of God—that 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 corrupted—that is, that nothing valid remained of the revelation that God had given through Moses and Jesus. This doctrine is called tahríf, "corruption" of the text. Bahá'u'lláh emphatically rejects this interpretation:

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 Muhammadan Dispensation? 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, 89-90.)

      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 individual—even 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 Judaism.

      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.[1]

      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
Bahá'í Writings

      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.![2] 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 interpretations.

      '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.

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).[3] "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 ways—majd, 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 mind—and perhaps others—when He gave the vision to Ezekiel.

      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 15:7—which mentions it while delimiting the northeastern border of the land of Judah—the 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 saying—in hyperbolic language—that 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.[4]

      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 of Bahá'u'lláh, 86)

      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 life—that 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.)

Jesus's Resurrection

      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, 28:1-20).

      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 Mark—who wrote decades earlier than Luke—included 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 all—just statements that he appeared to certain people—that 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 stories—without raising the question of their historicity, which is a serious issue itself—suggests 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 it had.[5] 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, "psychical body" or "soulful body."[6] 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."[7]

      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 contrast—the social process that created the Bible was very different from the process by which the Bahá'í scriptures came into being—and 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.

Chapter 2

The New Testament

      The New Testament is the traditional scripture of the Christian dispensation. None of the authors of the books of the New Testament set out to compose scripture; they were writing down their own understandings of Christianity, in response to the needs of their communities. The first two or three generations of Christians wrote hundreds of works, a hundred of which have survived, and about a quarter of which were accepted into the New Testament. Of the New Testament's twenty-seven books, four are about Jesus Christ, His life and teachings; they are called gospels. The Book of Acts, a companion work to the Gospel of Luke, describes the actions of Christ's apostles after His death.

      Of the remaining twenty-two books, twenty-one are either letters or are sermons composed as if they were letters. Letter writing became important because the earliest significant Christian documents were the letters that the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches he had established; these letters very quickly acquired a special status, and they made letter writing the genre in which early Christians recorded their thoughts. Even the Book of Revelation is composed as if it were a letter, and the author expressed part of the revelation he claimed to receive in the form of a series of letters. The Book of Hebrews, which is a sermon, not a letter, closes using the same concluding forms as ancient letters.

      No church council ever finalized the contents of the New Testament; rather, its contents were gradually settled by tradition. The collection of works did not even have a name until about 200 C.E., when the Latin theologian Tertullian coined the term New Testament. Many independent Christian groups had other collections of writings that they considered foundational to their beliefs, but which were never considered sacred or even correct by the mainstream of Christians. The Nag Hammadi library, a collection of forty-six works buried in southern Egypt about 400 C.E. and found in 1945, is the best example.

      Bibles of the third and fourth centuries—the oldest that are known—often included books that are no longer considered part of the canon, such as First Clement, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Apocalypse of Peter, and the Epistle of Barnabas. Christians outside the Roman Empire, such as in eastern Syria and Ethiopia, often included works in their Bibles not accepted by the later Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, such as the Diatessaron. Medieval Catholic Bibles sometimes included a collection of books called the Apocrypha, a kind of appendix. When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in the mid sixteenth century he decided to exclude the Apocrypha. His Bible became the standard among Protestants, and remains the standard for American Christianity today.

      Christians have studied, and disagreed about, the New Testament since it first emerged as a collection of works in the late second and early third century. Since the early and mid nineteenth century, sophisticated techniques for examining the language, style, and historical context of the New Testament books have developed and are collectively referred to as higher biblical criticism (where "criticism" refers to analysis of the New Testament, not criticizing it). There are several important aspects of higher biblical criticism. One is comparison of biblical texts describing the same topics side by side, so that differences of language and content can be studied carefully. Another important technique involves comparing biblical texts to other Christian nonbiblical texts of a similar age, on the assumption that nonbiblical texts also contain important information about Jesus and His early disciples. A third important aspect of the approach involves minute study of non-Christian texts of the same age, to gain a more detailed understanding of the usage of common biblical terms and phrases in the language of the day. A key assumption throughout is that when apparent contradictions between biblical texts are noted, the contradictions should not be glossed over or reconciled theologically, but should be studied rigorously and thoroughly to determine what they tell us about the range of assumptions held by the early Christians. In short, higher biblical criticism assumes that scripture is the product not only of a revelatory process, but also of a social process, and the social component of the composition of scripture can be studied rigorously using the modern techniques of sociology, psychology, and literary criticism.

      Higher biblical criticism has produced a much deeper understanding of the biblical text than traditional techniques, but some of its conclusions are startling, even shocking. The most important point of disagreement between liberal and conservative Christians is whether to accept higher criticism and its conclusions about the Bible. This book presents the conclusions of higher biblical criticism largely without questioning its results because it will be decades before a competent critique of them can be created by Bahá'í scholars.

      One of the most important conclusions of higher-critical biblical scholarship is that not one book in the New Testament was written by an individual who met Jesus Christ. All of them were written later, usually by the second and third generation; the latest books in the New Testament were composed about 140 or 150 C.E. Many of the books are pseudonymous—that is, they claim to be written by someone other than the real author. Examples are First and Second Peter, the Epistle of James, and the Epistle of Jude; the quality of the Greek and the theological issues addressed indicate the authors were native Greek speakers and writers, composing decades after Peter, James, and Jude died. First Timothy, Second Timothy, and Titus are attributed to Paul but are very different in vocabulary and theology from Paul's genuine letters. The Book of Hebrews is anonymous, that is, its author is not given at all; it was attributed to Paul very early, but the attribution has been questioned since the third century.

      It may seem strange to modern people that so many books of the Bible were pseudonymous or anonymous, but the process of writing books in the first and second centuries was very different than it is today. Ancient books had to be hand-copied and thus were incredibly expensive; consequently unknown authors often attributed their works to great men long dead to give the books weight and increase the likelihood they would be copied. Ancient books did not have copyrights or title pages; often the only place the author's name would be mentioned was in the text itself.

      A second major conclusion of higher biblical criticism is that all the New Testament books were originally written in Greek, not in Aramaic, which was the language of Christ. Thus the teachings of the Manifestation of God had to be translated, not only into a new language, but a new culture as well.

      Closely related to this conclusion is another, that the stories about Jesus and accounts of His words were transmitted orally for one or two generations. Detailed study of the gospels has shown that the miracle stories, parables, and sayings of Jesus were preserved not because the first generation of Christians realized they had an obligation to posterity to serve as impartial and thorough transmitters of the Jesus tradition, but because of the stories' usefulness in the mission to convert others to Christ. Preserved in the missionary context, the stories about Jesus were gradually written down as brief collections of sayings or miracles, and these short documents were later incorporated into the gospels, either completely or in part.

      Because of the missionary needs that preserved accounts about Jesus, and the oral milieu that transmitted them, one can expect that some of Jesus's teachings were lost, and others may have been garbled. This is not to say that Jesus's teachings did not survive; on the contrary, enough revelation survived for Christianity to flourish for almost two thousand years. However, Christianity is not in the same situation as the Bahá'í Faith, where the revelation was written down by the Manifestation of God Himself. Rather, Bahá'ís can think of the scriptures of Christianity as being similar to pilgrim's notes: descriptions of the words of the Manifestation written down at a later date. Nevertheless, Bahá'ís should respect, even venerate the New Testament and treat it as sacred text, for it contains God's Word (see chapter one, on the Bahá'í understanding of the Bible, for details).

      A third major conclusion of modern biblical scholarship is that the New Testament is not theologically unified, but contains within it diverse and conflicting opinions about the nature of Christianity. This is an extremely important discovery because it shows that Christianity was never a single united religion, but always contained sharp disagreements and diverging tendencies—the sources of its sects. Bahá'ís, used to thinking of their own religious community as being in theological agreement, must understand that never in its history did Christianity experience similar unity. It had no golden age of unity in the first generation, from which it fell away. Paul's letters, which constantly complain about and warn against the teachings of rival Christian groups, make this clear (see I Cor. 1: 10-17; Gal 2:1-21). The Bahá'í Faith has a Covenant that maintains its unity. According to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Christianity never had a Covenant:

At most, His Holiness Jesus Christ gave only an intimation, a symbol, and that was but an indication of the solidity of Peter's faith. When he mentioned his faith, His Holiness said "Thou art Peter"—which means rock—"and upon this rock I will build My church." This was a sanction of Peter's faith; it was not indicative of his (Peter) being the expounder of the Book, but was a confirmation of Peter's faith.[8]

Were it not for the protecting power of the Covenant to guard the impregnable fort of the Cause of God, there would arise among the Bahá'ís, in one day, a thousand different sects as was the case in former ages.[9]

      Some Christians are fully aware of the disaster, indeed, of the sin, of sectarianism. According to H. Richard Niebuhr, one of America's greatest Protestant theologians:

      Denominationalism. . . . is a compromise, made far too lightly, between Christianity and the world . . . . It represents the accommodation of Christianity to the caste-system of human society. It carries over into the organization of the Christian principle of brotherhood the prides and prejudices, the privilege and prestige, as well as the humiliations and abasements, the injustices and inequalities of that specious order of high and low wherein men find the satisfaction of their craving for vainglory. The division of the churches closely follows the divisions of men into castes of national, racial, and economic groups. It draws the color line in the church of God; it fosters the misunderstandings, the self-exaltations, the hatreds of jingoistic nationalism by continuing in the body of Christ the spurious differences of provincial loyalties; it seats the rich and the poor apart at the table of the Lord, where the fortunate may enjoy the bounty they have provided while the others feed upon the crusts their poverty affords.[10]

      According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, Christianity had about 1900 sects in the year 1900; by 1985 the number had increased to about 22,190; and currently sects come into existence at the rate of 270 per year, or five per week![11] There is no reason to assume that Christianity's fragmentation will slow down or reverse in the near future. Indeed, many Christians believe that sectarianism is good: Liberals argue that it allows greater diversity of expression of the Christian truth; conservatives maintain that it permits the "true" believers to be separated from the "false."

      The sectarian tendency in Christianity goes all the way back to its earliest days. The followers of Jesus understood the purpose of His mission in several sharply divergent ways, and they remembered His words and actions creatively, not passively. Thus the story of Jesus is also the story of His followers; and of both the weaknesses of their efforts to remember His life and their ultimate genius in preserving and creatively transforming the Jesus tradition.


[1] Many biblical scholars have studied the genealogies of Jesus and noted their contrasting purposes. See, for example, David L. Tiede, Luke, in Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988), 96-97; Robert H. Smith, Matthew, in Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1989), 30-35.
[2] Origen (185-254) understands the phrase "prince of this world" to refer to Satan; see G. W. Butterworth, trans, Origin on First Principles (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973), 45, 50.
[3] It is important to note that Shoghi Effendi does offer an interpretation of the verse "the gate that looketh towards the East" as being an allusion to the city of Akka (God Passes By, 184). But this probably refers to a different verse: Ezekiel 43:1-2. In Ezekiel this probably refers to the east gate of a new Jerusalem temple.
[4] See, for example, John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1991). Chapter 13 summarizes his view of Jesus's miracles; he succinctly summarizes other scholars on page 320.
[5]See Norman Perrin, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch, 1974), 104.
[6] For commentary on I Corinthians 15:35:49 see William F. Orr and James Arthur Walther, I Corinthians: A New Translation, Introduction With a Study of the Life of Paul, Notes, and Commentary, in William Foxwell Albright and David Noel Freedman, eds., The Anchor Bible, vol. 32 (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1976), 341-49.
[7]"The Resurrection and Return of Jesus," a memorandum of the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice to the Universal House of Justice, 9 October 1989, p. 3.
[8]'Abdu'l-Bahá, Star of the West, vol. 3, no. 14, p. 9.
[9]'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'í World Faith, pp. 357-58.
[10] H. Richard Niebuhr, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Meridian Books, 1929), p. 6.
[11] The World Christian Encyclopedia, ed. David B. Barrett (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1982).

Chapter 3

Preserving the Jesus Tradition

      Because of the discovery that the first generation of Christians served not as a pure transmitter of the Jesus tradition, but as a filter of the tradition, a study of Christianity must start not with Jesus, but with the earliest Christians. Their interests and needs determined what traditions about Jesus were preserved, and how they were modified.

      It may seem easy to assume, almost twenty centuries after the death of Jesus, that the first generation must have had historical consciousness; in other words, that they knew posterity was depending on them to preserve the precious acts and pronouncements of their Lord. There are many examples, from all around the world, of stories and sayings that have been accurately transmitted orally for centuries; the rabbinic tradition in Judaism itself was a vehicle for this. Usually cultures that transmit a body of tradition, however, organize the material into rhyming form, to ease memorization, and establish a class of professional memorizers. The early Christian community did neither. When scholars examine the New Testament text closely they find little evidence for a systematic effort to record the story of Jesus.

      Furthermore, critical biblical scholarship has shown there were good reasons that a historical consciousness was largely absent from the first generation. As the Gospel of Mark and the genuine letters of Paul indicate, much of the first generation believed that Jesus would return soon, within their own lifetimes; and since the world was about to end, there was no need to preserve their memories of Him.

      Furthermore, the early Christian community believed that Jesus's coming had brought them new gifts. The first generation was very charismatic, and the exercise of the "gifts of the spirit," such as speaking in tongues, were important components of community life. Such gifts were not unique to the early Christians; speaking in tongues occurred in Hellenistic Judaism and probably in pagan religious circles as well. Among the important gifts of the spirit was the power of prophecy. Christian "prophets" spoke ecstatically, giving the words of Christ as He spoke to them. Because the words of the risen Christ in the worship experience were more immediate and were as real as those spoken by the historical Jesus, Christians probably made little or no distinction between them.

      Finally, from its very beginning the early Christian community interpreted Jesus's life and words, and often they did not distinguish between historical materials and their own interpretations. A good example is the parable of the sower and its interpretation (Mark 4:10-12; Matthew 13:10-13; Luke 8:9-10). Biblical scholarship strongly suggests that while the parable is probably genuine, the interpretation was produced by the early church, even though the gospels also place it in the mouth of Jesus.

      As a result, there are many reasons to assume that the gospels contain a mixture of accurate information about Jesus, material attributed to Him that arose in the early Christian community, and interpretations of His life and words. Study of the early Christian community has also revealed that it possessed several understandings of the significance of Jesus. Helmut Koester, a leading biblical scholar, has sketched four: Jesus as an envoy of Wisdom; Jesus as divine human; Jesus raised from the dead; and Jesus as Lord of the Future.[1]

      Jesus and Wisdom

      Many Christians—usually of Jewish background—saw Jesus as the embodiment of Sophia or Wisdom. The wisdom tradition in Judaism envisions God as having produced a being or emanation, Wisdom, who revealed His truth to individuals or to humanity. The Wisdom tradition was mystical and often esoteric; it focused on wise aphorisms and cryptic proverbs. Many early Christians saw Jesus as an emissary of Wisdom, or as Wisdom itself. They assembled lists of His "wisdom sayings": proverbs, parables, and other words that Jesus uttered. Two works of this sort have survived: the Gospel of Thomas and Q.

      The Gospel of Thomas

      Although there are many gospels, acts of the apostles, and letters that were never included in the New Testament, most of them were written after 140 C.E., which is about the time the last works included in the New Testament were composed. One of the significant exceptions is the Gospel of Thomas. It is very old, possibly being composed as early as 60 C.E. (though the text was edited, possibly as late as the early second century). The work is attributed to Thomas, one of Jesus's disciples. The original Greek text, so far, has not been found; the extant version is in Coptic translation (Coptic is the ancient Egyptian language, written in a modification of the Greek alphabet).

      The Gospel of Thomas is not like the gospels in the New Testament, in that it contains no passion narrative (description of Christ's crucifixion) and no resurrection accounts; thus it ignores the most important event around which the canonical gospels were written. It has no mention of Jesus's birth or childhood, no narration of Jesus's life, and only one miracle story. Instead, it consists of one hundred fourteen sayings of Jesus, one after the other, with no context for each and no transition between them. Often the text does not even include the question that Jesus was asked. The arrangement of the sayings is based on similar words in them. In organization, it is a "wisdom" piece.

      The work is significant for several reasons. Many of its sayings are also found in the synoptic gospels, though in different wording. All reference to a future messiah, and to Jesus as the "Son of Man" are absent, even though the work contains sayings that in the canonical gospels includes the term "Son of Man." Careful study suggests that the Gospel of Thomas may preserve the older form of the sayings.

      The Gospel of Thomas also claims to present "secret" sayings; and those that have been included are those that support gnostic interpretations of Jesus's teachings. Liberation of the soul from the body is a common theme; it was a common theme for gnostics. Traditional Jesus sayings appear to have been modified to give them a gnostic interpretation. There also are many admonitions to recognize one's true self.

      The Synoptic Sayings Source (Q)

      Since the 1830s biblical scholars have recognized that Matthew and Luke contain a large amount of common material. Much of it is also found in the gospel of Mark, but a considerable amount is found only in Matthew and Luke. The common material exhibits some important patterns that are clues to its origin: almost all of it consists of sayings; only one miracle is included; there is no common material in the Lukan and Matthean birth stories or passion narratives; and when scholars are fairly certain what the original version of the common material was—for example, when a phrase from the Hebrew Bible was alluded to in the original text—both Matthew's and Luke's versions may differ from the original.[2] This suggests that rather than Matthew using Luke as a source when writing his gospel, or vice versa, they both read another, lost work, and borrowed from it. Scholars call this lost work the Synoptic Sayings Source or Q (from the German word Quelle, source).

      Q consisted mostly of sayings of Jesus, with no narrative and virtually no stories to give the context of the sayings. The Gospel of Thomas lends credence to the idea that a document just listing sayings could have existed. Q, like Thomas, appears to be a work written in the Jewish Wisdom tradition. Matthew and Luke arrange the Q sayings in very similar order, suggesting that the original order has often been preserved, especially by Luke.[3]

      One hundred six units of text (fragments of sentences, sentences, and groups of sentences on the same topic) can be identified in Matthew and Luke that came from Q. The sayings concern various topics: Jesus and John the Baptist; Christian discipleship and mission; controversies with Israel; fearless preaching; and especially apocalyptic concerns. Particularly significant are the subjects missing from Q: Jesus's baptism, passion, and resurrection. While Matthew and Luke often give Q phrasing that is identical (suggesting Q was a written source), sometimes there are significant differences in phrasing (for example, the Sermon on the Mount, which Matthew may have constructed by collecting and rearranging Q sayings, versus the Sermon on the Plain, which Luke took from Q). Research on Q has advanced to the point where scholars think the document underwent at least two redactions (modifications and editings); the later version was more apocalytic, the earlier more interested in wisdom. Q cannot be dated except to say it had to be composed after Jesus's death (about 30 C.E.) and before it was used by Matthew and Luke (about 80 C.E.); most scholars, though, suspect it was composed between 40 and 60. A likely setting for the composition of Q is a Syrian Jewish-Christian community that sought to follow most of the Jewish law but maintained friendly relations with Gentile Christians, and that was bitterly criticized by Pharisaic Jews (such as Paul, before his conversion) as a result.[4]

      Q may have circulated fairly widely, for The Gospel of Thomas, the apostle Paul, and the authors of the epistles of James, I Peter, and I Clement may have been familiar with versions of it.[5] One intriguing possibility is that Q was composed by or based on sayings collected by the apostle Matthew, that the work began to circulate widely, and that the Matthean community continued to develop the Q material, eventually incorporating it into the Gospel of Matthew.[6]

      The Christians who saw Jesus as the envoy of Wisdom preserved many of His sayings that were later used in the writing of the gospels. They may have considered the view that Jesus was Lord of the Future or that he was raised from the dead as unimportant. As already noted, the Gospel of Thomas ignored both views; Q originally ignored both as well, though a concern for Jesus as Lord of the Future apparently was edited into the document later.

      Jesus as Divine Human

      Yet another group of Christians interpreted Jesus primarily as a divine human. This is a concept that existed in Hellenistic culture. Hercules exhibits some of the traits of a divine human, such as his ability to perform remarkable feats. Biographies of Alexander the Great and of an obscure Greek seer, Apollonius of Tyana, offer good examples of the tradition of the divine human: he performed healings, exorcisms, miracles, had ecstatic experiences, and saw visions. Sometimes divine humans were born as a result of a union of their mother with a god. Christians who saw Jesus as a divine human were among those who referred to Him by the title "Son of God." This title probably would have been unacceptable in traditional Judaism because the unknown, transcendent God could never have had a son. These Christians assembled collections of stories of miracles and exorcisms performed by Jesus and apparently wrote them down. They also assembled the stories of Jesus's miraculous birth. It is thought that a "Signs Source" or Semeia—a collection of miracle stories—was used by the writer of the gospel of Mark; the author of John may have used it as well.

      The Signs Source (Semeia)

      Unlike the Q, it is not possible to reconstruct the original text of the Semeia, though it is possible, from the parallel stories found in the gospels of Mark and John, to trace its contents:

      Mark 4:35-6:44:                                     Mark 6:45-8:26:
      4:35-41   Stilling tempest                 6:45-52   Walking on sea
      5:1-20    Gerasene demoniac                5:22-43   Daughter of Jarius
      5:25-34   Woman with issue of blood        7:24-30   Canaanite woman
                                                 7:32-36   Healing of deaf mute
      6:30-44   Feeding 5000                     8:1-10    Feeding 4000
                                                 8:22-26   Healing blind man
                    John 2:1-11:45:
                    2:1-11     Wine miracle at wedding feast at Cana
                    4:46-54    Healing of son of royal official
                    5:2-9      Healing of lame man at Bethzatha pool
                    6:5-14     Feeding 6000
                    6:16-25    Tempest and walking on the sea
                    9:1-7      Healing blind man
                    11:1-45    Raising Lazarus

Mark apparently preserved the cycle of miracle stories twice, as independent collections; John used it once. In both gospels the miracle stories included an account of feeding thousands; stilling a tempest and walking on the sea; and various healings. Both gospels preserved other miracle stories that were not part of these collections.

      The Johannine collection is particularly significant because it appears to imitate the collections of miracles stories, or aretologies, that were told about various Greek gods. It opens with the changing of water to wine, a miracle Greeks attributed to the god Dionysos. The first two miracles also close with "this is the first of the signs which Jesus did in Cana" (John 2:11) and "this is the second sign when he came from Judea into Galilee" (John 4:54), wording that would be expected if the signs had been copied from an existing written source. Possibly the original ending of the Signs Source is preserved in John 20:30-31, "Jesus did many other signs before his disciples which are not written in this book."[7]

      The Signs Source apparently only focused on Jesus as a divine human and ignored the other three ways of viewing Jesus.

      Jesus, Raised from the Dead

      Probably the oldest of the four ways to view Jesus, and perhaps the most decisive for later writing about Jesus, was Jesus raised from the dead. One of the most significant results of modern biblical scholarship has been the recognition that Jesus's death was one of the most important influences on the understanding of Jesus's life. Consider the impact that Jesus had on His disciples. They believed He performed miracles. They experienced His life and were overwhelmed by it. They heard His words and were mesmerized by them, even if they didn't understand them perfectly. He was more than a human being to them; in some sense He was divine.

      Then He was arrested and cruelly murdered. How could Jesus allow such an injustice to be perpetrated against Him? The disciples could not understand; their faith was severely shaken. One can understand why the standard Islamic understanding of the crucifixion is that Jesus Himself was not crucified, but someone who looked like Him; the ideal that a divine messenger could be martyred seems to contradict the idea that He has divine power. The crucifixion shattered the Christian community. The gospels testify that it was Christ's resurrection appearances that revived the dead body of Christianity.

      To understand the seemingly meaningless turn of events, the disciples turned to their Bible—the Hebrew Bible. An apocryphal Christian work, the Kerygma Petrou (The Proclamation of Peter) says that the leading disciples examined the last days of Jesus's life, event by event, and searched the Hebrew Bible for prophecies that had been fulfilled in order to understand the tragedy. The Kerygma Petrou puts the description of the disciples' action in the mouth of Peter:

But we opened the books of the prophets which we had, which partly in parables, partly in enigmas, partly with certainty and in clear words name Christ Jesus, and found his coming, his death, his crucifixion and all the rest of the tortures which the Jews inflicted on him, his resurrection and his assumption to heaven.-.-. how all was written that he had to suffer and what would be after him. Recognizing this, we believed God in consequence of what is written of (in reference to) him.[8]

      The apostles also conducted the process in the reverse direction: They considered the prophecies that the Bible contained and examined the life of Jesus in order to determine which prophecies were fulfilled. Over time stories about Jesus developed that were based on the fulfillment of many biblical prophecies by Him; thus passages in the Old Testament shaped the memory of Jesus's death.

      The result was eventually formed into the passion narrative, the account of Christ's arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It was the first part of Christ's life to be systematically organized, and may have been the first part to be written down. The similarity of the passion accounts in the four canonical gospels strongly suggests that they had access to a written passion account, now lost. One scholar has even given this lost document a name—the Cross Gospel—and has attempted to reconstruct its original text. The prominence of Peter's name in all of the accounts suggests that Peter may have been the ultimate source for much of the Passion narrative. This possibility is reinforced by two apocryphal accounts of the passion, the Gospel of Peter and the Kerygma of Peter, which both bear his name.

      Peter was not the only prominent Christian to focus on Jesus's death; Paul did also. Paul's summary of his basic teaching, presented in I Corinthians 15:3-8, exclusively emphasized Jesus's death and resurrection:

      For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures [Hebrew Bible], that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve [apostles]. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James [Jesus's brother], then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.

      Paul's summary of the message of Christianity is purely the proclamation of the risen Christ; His life is not even mentioned, nor are His words or miracles. Paul's genuine letters contain very few references to the words and deeds of the historical Jesus. Note that Paul, also, refers to the influence of the Hebrew Bible on the community's understanding of Jesus's crucifixion.

      Because Jesus's death came to dominate the understanding of His life, His biography, when it was finally composed, was written backwards, starting from the end. The passion became the shaping event for structuring the gospels. All traditional materials about Jesus, such as sayings, miracle stories, parables, and prophecies—preserved by other Christians—were written into a single story, using the passion as the framework.

      Jesus, Lord of the Future

      Closely related to belief in Jesus as raised from the dead was belief in Jesus Christ as Lord of the Future, as the one who would return as judge and redeemer. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians is a good example: after he mentions the Christian belief that "Jesus died and rose again" (4:14) he speaks of "we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord" (4:15), which refers to belief in Christ's imminent return. The gospel of Mark reflects a similar belief. Expectation of the imminent return of Christ persisted until 70 C.E., when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple and Jesus did not return to prevent it.

      Important to some of the Christians who focused on Jesus's passion and return was the title "Son of man" (or "Son of humanity," if one wishes to avoid sexist language), which comes from the book of Daniel. Some biblical scholars believe that the sayings where Jesus refers to Himself as the "Son of man" did not originally include that term. A careful study by John Dominic Crossan of the forty "Son of man" sayings that are found in first-generation Christian writings indicates that sixteen of the sayings are independently attested in two or more sources; but the term "Son of man" itself is found more than once in only one saying.[9] (In the other cases the same saying refers to Jesus using words and phrases like "I" or "the Lord.")

      Christians who focused on Jesus as the future redeemer also referred to him as "Lord." They called him "the Anointed One," mashiah (messiah) in Hebrew, a term that was translated into Greek as christos. (Before Christianity, the word christos could have meant "ointment" as well as "anointed.")

      Not all Christians who saw Jesus as the Lord of the Future also focused on him as one raised from the dead. Q contained many sayings about Christ's return, but apparently contained no passion narrative, and no reference to his crucifixion.

      The Distinctiveness of the Four Views of Jesus

      While there were Christians who saw Jesus according to more than one of these four ways, it is striking to note that the earliest documents are often dominated by one or at most two ways of conceptualizing Jesus and completely ignore the other ways. The genuine letters of Paul stress Jesus raised from the dead and emphasize His role as Lord of the future, but contain only three complete sayings attributed to Jesus, and make no mention of His miracles. The ideas of Jesus as divine human or Jesus as envoy of wisdom apparently were not important to Paul. The Gospel of Thomas is a piece in the wisdom tradition, but has few references to miracles, contains no passion narrative, and rarely refers to Jesus as Lord. The Q document used by Matthew and Luke is a piece in the wisdom tradition and contains sayings about the future (possibly added later), but has no passion narrative and no miracle stories. The signs source was dominated by miracles and seems to have contained no reference to the passion or return and contained few if any sayings of Jesus.

      It is interesting to note that the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century American Bahá'í community was divided into groups similar to the early Christians. Some early American Bahá'ís saw the Bahá'í Faith primarily as a fulfillment of biblical prophecy (like the early Christians who emphasized Jesus as raised from the dead and as judge and fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy). Other early American Bahá'ís saw the Bahá'í Faith primarily in terms of esoteric religious truth (such as those Christians who emphasized Jesus as envoy of Wisdom or as a divine human). Bahá'í communities included individuals with both points of view, and some Bahá'ís saw the Faith both ways.

      The Bahá'í community had access to the writings of its Founder and thus the divergent tendencies in the community gradually faded. The different groups did not write works that later were incorporated into Bahá'í scripture. The early Christian community had no definitions of true belief or of heresy, consequently divergent beliefs could exist together in a group or within an individual. All of these groups spoke about Jesus; all of them had "prophets" who received Jesus's words; and all of them wrote accounts of Jesus, probably within a decade or two of His death. From these short works many gospels were later compiled. Since the new gospels had not yet acquired any special status, they were edited, rewritten, and paraphrased in yet later gospels. (This even includes the Gospel of Mark, which was used as a source by the authors of Matthew and Luke, who edited and modified the information they obtained from it.) The earliest documents, having been incorporated into more sophisticated works, were gradually lost.

      The Gospels

      Standing near the end of this literary process are the four gospels in the New Testament. They are among the oldest accounts that are preserved. Three of them are called the synoptic gospels because they see Jesus through the "same eye" (which is what synoptic means in Greek). These three are Mark, Matthew, and Luke; they were composed between 70 and 90 C.E.

      There is no parallel for the genre of the gospel in Hellenistic literature, for they are not biographies or histories, but statements of the theological significance of an individual using examples from that individual's life and words. The works thus proclaim and interpret Jesus, not simply describe Him. This is the principal reason why the historical Jesus is so difficult to reconstruct; the early Christians' understanding of Him dominates the accounts about Him. An examination of the gospels, and works associated with them, reveals this.


      Mark has been described as "a passion story with a long introduction." Fundamentally, the book is an apocalyse; Jesus is expected to return imminently. Most likely the work was composed about 70 C.E., when the Roman siege of Jerusalem raised Christian expectations of His return to a height. The many references to gentiles in Mark suggest its author was very interested in the mission to teach the gentiles. Jesus is equally called "Son of God" (a Hellenistic title for Him) and "Son of Man" (a Jewish title for Him); two Son of Man statements are often followed by two Son of God statements (for example, 1:1, 1:10; 2:10, 2:28; 3:11, 5:7). In Mark, Jesus constantly refuses to disclose His identity until the end; this feature of Mark is called the "Messianic secret" (Bahá'ís, notably Christopher Buck, have seen a similar "messianic secret" theme in the Kitáb-i-Íqán, composed before Bahá'u'lláh's declaration). Jesus even orders demons not to divulge His identity (c.f. 3:12). The gospel gives the reason for Jesus's death on the cross as a "ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

      The book breaks into five sections, each of which begins with a summary and ends with an allusion to the passion (Christ on the cross). The passion allusions occur in verses 3:6, 6:1-6:6, 8:17-8:21, 10:45, and 12:44. The entire section from 8:27 to 10:45 has the overall theme of interpreting the passion.

      The gospel of Mark must have circulated quickly, for both Matthew and Luke used it. Ninety percent of Mark may be found in reused form in Matthew, and fifty percent of it in Luke. The ways these authors reused Mark (for example, by changing the wording of quotes of Jesus) tells us much about the reasons that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels.


      The Gospel of Matthew was apparently composed by a Christian of Jewish background. The book is constantly in dialogue with the Jews. Jesus is quoted as describing His mission as "to fulfill the law and the prophets" (Matt 5:17). His genealogy is used to tie Jesus to Abraham and demonstrates His Jewish lineage; each birth story about Him highlights a passage from the Hebrew Bible.

      The gospel is believed to have been composed between 70 and 100 C.E. because it reflects the concerns of that period: It deals with the problem of the delay of Jesus's return; it focuses on the organization of church structure; and it culminates in the "Great Commission," when Jesus tells His disciples to go out and "make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28:19), thus endorsing the mission to teach the gentiles.

      Matthew does not describe Jesus's life chronologically. He likes to place similar materials together; for example, chapters five, six, and seven are mostly ethical teachings. Chapters eight and nine are mostly healings. Chapter ten is instructions to His disciples. Chapter thirteen consists solely of parables. Chapters twenty-four and twenty-five consist of teachings about the Kingdom.

      The book has five major discourses by Jesus, which end with the formula "when Jesus finished these sayings" or some similar phrase (7:28, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, and 26:1). The five sections may be an intentional parallel to the five books of the Pentateuch. Jesus's teachings are presented as the new law (an idea that Paul would not have liked!) and the disciples are portrayed as the new rabbis.


      Of the three synoptic gospels, the gospel of Luke most closely resembles a work of history. The book sets Jesus in a "sacred history" at the "midpoint of time." That is, Luke divides all of human history into three periods:

  1. The Jewish dispensation ("the law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the Kingdom of God is preached" [Luke 16:16]).
  2. The time of Jesus.
  3. The time of the church.

      The last is described in great detail, for Luke is also the author of the book of Acts, and the two books were originally written as one complementary whole. For Luke, the immediacy of Christ's return has faded; Christianity has a period in history given to it, and the church must recognize the fact and seize the opportunities it offers. The book was probably written about 85 C.E., plus or minus five years.

      The book begins with a prologue in good Greek literary style; clearly, Luke is intentionally writing a polished literary work. His description of the birth of Jesus includes Psalm-like hymns, in imitation of the style of the Septuagint (the Greek edition of the Hebrew Bible); this shows that Jesus's birth is still part of the first period of human history.

      Luke treated John the Baptist very differently than did Matthew. Matthew has Jesus baptized by John the Baptist (3:13-17), and draws many parallels between John and Jesus. In contrast, Luke has John arrested and thrown in prison immediately before Jesus begins His mission, and instead of a baptism, Luke has a dove descend upon Jesus from heaven (3:20-22). (`Abdu'l-Bahá describes the dove as symbolic; see Lights of Guidance, 3d ed., number 1642). Thus Luke see John as the end of the old dispensation and Jesus as the inauguration of the new, and allows no overlap in their missions.

      Half of the gospel of Luke consists of the teachings that Jesus supposedly gave while on His way from Galilee to Jerusalem (the "Lukan travel narrative," 9:51-18:14). None of this material is from Mark; most of it is about the Christian life, a kind of manual for living.

      Luke's concept of salvation is unique; he does not see Christ's death as an expiation, a sacrifice for sins, like Paul and the early church. Rather, Jesus is an example to us how to live our lives, and in the contemplation of His life Luke sees individual salvation.


      Since Luke also composed the Book of Acts, it is best to describe that work and the gospel together. Luke wrote Acts in a fashion parallel to his gospel. The book begins with a description of the early Jerusalem church and is written in an intentionally archaic Greek style, just as the gospel began with an archaic-sounding description of Jesus's birth. The "great commission" that appears at the end of Matthew appears at the beginning of Acts. Stephen's martyrdom is portrayed in a way similar to Christ's death (Acts 7:54-60). Paul, Peter, Stephen, and the other early disciples are portrayed as Hellenistic "divine men" and as examples to follow, as Jesus was portrayed in the gospel. One third of Acts describes Paul's journey to Rome; one half of Luke describes Jesus's journey to Jerusalem.

      Luke supposedly was one of Paul's disciples, though the book of Acts presents no evidence for this. The historical accuracy of Acts has been hotly debated by scholars. The book places many speeches in Paul's mouth—a significant fraction of the text consists of speeches—and when one examines the content of the speeches closely one notes that it is often inconsistent with the teachings of Paul given in his genuine letters. Furthermore, a cursory examination of Greek historical works and romances (the early forerunner of the modern novel) shows that inventing speeches of major characters was extremely common in Greek writing. Acts appears to be written in the style of Greek romance: in addition to many speeches it has travel, adventures, danger, magical escapes, and dramatic dialogue. It even has a shipwreck, which was obligatory in Greek romance. The only thing it lacks is a love story!

      A key piece of evidence in the debate over the historical reliability of Acts are the so-called "we passages," or places where the text of Acts lapses into the first person plural (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16). It has been argued that Luke was utilizing a travel diary or some other personal record of his travels with Paul, and therefore the "we passages" were evidence of the document's historical reliability. However, recent research has shown that Greek romances frequently lapsed into the first person plural whenever sea travel was involved, in order to make the account more vivid. Virtually all of the "we passages" in Acts are connected with sea travel. Thus evidence that at first glance appeared to strengthen the case for the historical reliability of Acts in the long run has weakened the case instead.

      Sources Used by Luke and Matthew

      Scholars have long noted that in many places Matthew, Luke, and Mark overlap in content, which has led to the question whether one of the documents was the oldest and the other two used it as a source. As already noted, examination of the three has brought most biblical scholars to the conclusion that Mark is the oldest of the three, and that Matthew and Luke both used Mark when writing their gospels. Since Mark was not yet seen as a sacred text—just as a source—both Matthew and Luke felt free to paraphrase, edit, and rewrite the text they were borrowing.

      There are also many places where Matthew and Luke contain stories absent from Mark, and scholars have asked whether Matthew borrowed from Luke or vice versa. As already noted, most scholars think a lost work called Q was used by both writers, and this explains the two gospels' overlap.

      In addition to Mark and Q, Luke, at least, probably had access to another written document (called L by scholars). Some say Matthew may also have had a written document (called M by scholars) as a source for his stories. Both Mark and John appear to have used a Signs Source or Semeia that lists miracles of Jesus. None of these works exist today.

      The Gospel of John

      The fourth gospel is very different from the first three, in content, style, and presentation. It has no parables, for example, no proverbs, and has many stories that are absent from the synoptics. The book appears to have been edited considerably by "John" or his school of disciples and the changes are all in the same style as the original, making them very difficult to detect. The editing, however, did not fix all the problems with the original text; chapters 5, 6, and 7 are best read in the order 6, 5, 7. Various individual verses seem out of place, also.

      The attribution of the gospel to John, a disciple of Jesus, is suggested by the reference in John 21:20 to "the disciple whom Jesus loved"; church tradition maintains that John of Zebedee was this man. But many scholars believe chapter 21 is a later addition to the gospel. The text itself does not give the author's name.

      A letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi on 23 January 1944 noted that "as many of the passages in the Gospel of Saint John are quoted we may assume that it is his Gospel and much of it is accurate."[10] This reinforces the consensus of biblical scholarship that the gospel ultimately can be traced to John. This is important, because even ancient writers questioned whether Matthew was the ultimate sources of his gospel (Papias believed Matthew wrote down the gospel according to Peter), and Luke—who is identified as the author in the Gospel that bears his name—converted to Christianity through Paul and never met the historical Jesus. It is not clear whether the statement written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi implies that John himself was the author of the Gospel (a view rejected by most liberal biblical scholarship) or whether his account could have been recorded by others. Biblical scholarship has not yet attained a consensus about the accuracy of the Johannine text relative to the synoptic gospels; but clearly it preserved information about Jesus that was not preserved in other sources.

      The Gospel of John begins with the classic words, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." This section is a hymn in Greek. Theologically, the gospel begins with a preexistent Christ and shows considerable development in its Christology (theology about Jesus).

      The chronological structure of the gospel is quite different from the synoptics. The synoptics have Jesus preach in Galilee, go to Jerusalem, and die. John has Jesus go to Jerusalem several times. The synoptics tell the story of the cleansing of the Temple at the end of the story, just before the passion; John tells it early in his gospel. In John, Jesus never preaches that the Kingdom will come soon; this suggests the book was written considerably after 70 C.E., and when the community had ceased to expect His imminent return. In John, Jesus is constantly describing Himself, which He rarely does in the synoptics. He does this by beginning with the words "I am. . .." which is the usual way Jesus starts to talk about Himself in John, but which is a rare phrase in the synoptics. John is familiar with gnosticism and portrays the world very dualistically, in terms of light and darkness, good and evil, truth and lies, the saved and the condemned.

      John's stories about Jesus follow a standard pattern: first there is an action, then a dialogue, then a monologue (usually by Jesus), then an appendix. The pattern has variations: sometimes there are two dialogues, or the action or appendix may be absent. John also follows the "law of stage duality," a convention in Greek plays where there could only be two actors on stage at one time. Thus, whenever Jesus is in dialogue with several people, He only speaks with one person at a time. The best example is Jesus's trial:

      18:19-24 — Jesus speaks with Annas.

      18:29-32 — Pilate goes out of his palace and speaks with the messengers of the Sanhedrin. Jesus is absent.

      18:33-38 — Pilate goes into his palace and speaks with Jesus. The Jews are absent.

      18:38-40 — Pilate goes out and speaks with the Jews; Jesus is absent.

      This arrangement is in contrast to Mark 15:1-5, Matthew 27:1-2, 27:11-26, and Luke 23:1-25, where Jesus, the high priests, and Pilate are all present together. John's rearranging of the material to match the conventions of Greek drama—in order to make the scene more dramatic, by conventional standards—is clear evidence that he rewrote the material that had been handed down to him by tradition.

      John's passion narrative is distinctively different from the synoptics. Jesus is crucified not on Passover, but the day before. The last supper is not portrayed as a seder, or Passover meal. Jesus's trial is the center of the passion drama.

      John was probably written without a copy of either Mark, Matthew, or Luke available to its author, though some scholars suggest the author may have known about the gospel of Mark or possibly Luke, or that the gospel was later edited to make it consistent with them. The author apparently had available to him a "signs source," a book written in Greek that described Jesus's miracles. Probably the gospel was written about 90 C.E.; it must have been written by 100 or 110 because a fragment of the Gospel has been found in Egypt that was copied before 150 C.E.

      The Johannine School

      In addition to the gospel, John is said to have written the three letters in the New Testament that bear his name. Probably they were written by disciples of his, who are collectively called the "Johannine School" for convenience. The letters show a slight difference in language and theology when compared to the gospel. They are clearly associated with the author of the gospel of John, however, because their theology and language is similar.

      I John is the longest and most important of the letters. It is really a sermon, edited to resemble a letter, which shows how strong the influence of letter writing was in the early Christian community. It focuses on the question of how to interpret the gospel of John, for some members of the local church were interpreting it in a way to deny that Christ ever came in the flesh. John warns against this interpretation.

      II John and III John are by the "presbyter," or elder. No one knows who he was; based on the content of the letters, he seems to have been a supervisor of itinerant missionaries. Second John warns of heresy in the church—apparently gnosticism —and III John urges that Christians give hospitality to each other.

      The Johannine school is also represented by a gnostic work, the Acts of John, perhaps by the group against which I John warns. The work, which is not in the Bible and which is only partially preserved, is an account of "John" written in the form of a romance. Part of the work has survived under the name of The Gospel Preaching of John, which describes Christ in docetic terms (that is, that Jesus Christ never really had a body or suffered on the cross, but only appeared to have a body for the convenience of humans). It portrays Jesus as constantly changing His bodily form; among other things, it says that when He walked on a sandy beach, His feet left no footprints![11]


      The complexity and diversity of the various textual sources about the great manifestation of God, Jesus Christ, make it difficult to reconstruct a single portrait of Him that is detailed and faithful. His message seems to have been one of unconditioned love for God and of radical obedience to the divine will. It was a message delivered in the form of parables, which were simple yet profound enough to survive in oral transmission and to puzzle and inspire persons for two thousand years. Because of the state of human society, a more complete survival of Jesus's message may not have been possible; indeed, it may not have been advisable. Had Jesus's message been accurately written down in complete detail, and had He established a system for interpreting and leading His Faith, the immature state of human society might have perverted that truth and converted that system into a powerful instrument for suppressing human individuality and monopolizing power. Instead, perhaps God intentionally gave humanity a message that would be preserved only imperfectly, because God intended to update and supplement the teaching later with new revelations.

      In order to understand the historical Jesus, the layers of tradition that have accumulated around the original events must be removed. This is extremely difficult to accomplish; but scholars have been able to peel off some of the accretions, to begin to understand the process whereby the gospels were written, and to commence the painting of a portrait of the Founder of Christianity. We now turn to that portrait.


[1]. Helmut Koester, "The Structure and Criteria of Early Christian Beliefs," in James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, Trajectories Through Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 205-31. Much of the following discussion on the four understandings of the significance of Jesus comes form this source.
[2].For example, Matthew 7:23 and Luke 13:27 contain common material, but whereas the Matthean text quotes the first half of Psalm 6:9 and paraphrases the second half, the Lucan text paraphrases the first half and quotes the second. See Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1990) 131, for details of the argument.
[3].In some cases the author of Matthew appears to have skimmed Q and removed sayings related to a particular topic, and then reproduced the sayings in the order he copied them from Q.
[4].Koester, Early Christian Gospels 170-71.
[5].Koester, Early Christian Gospels, 53-107.
[6].This is suggested by Helmut Koester in Ancient Christian Gospels, 166-67. It would explain the statement by Papias of Hierapolis—a second=century bishop—that Matthew "composed the sayings," which does not adequately describe the Gospel of Matthew, with its miracles, birth stories, and other materials other than sayings. It would also explain the ancient Christian tradition that Matthew's gospel is the oldest, for the tradition could then refer to Q. Finally, attribution of Q to Matthew might explain the fact that early Christian documents that preserve stories of apostles asking Jesus questions usually prominently feature Matthew among the questioners, suggesting that there was a tradition of Matthew being interested in the sayings of Jesus (see Koester, 166-67).
[7].The above summary of the Signs Source comes from Koesterm Early Christian Gospels, 201-05.
[8].Wilhelm Schneemelcher, New Testament Apocrypha, volume two: Writings Relating to the Apostles; Apocalypses and Related Subjects, trans. R. McL. Wilson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964), 101-02.
[9].Gos. Thom. 44, "Jesus said 'Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the Son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either on earth or in heaven,'" versus Luke 12:10, "and everyone who speaks a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven."
[10].From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual Bahá'í dated 23 January 1944 and quoted in "Extracts from the Bahá'í Writings and From Letters of the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice on the Old and New Testaments," unpublished compilation assembled by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice.
[11].The Gospel Preaching Of John may be located in Ronald D. Cameron, ed., The Other Gospels: Introductions and Translations (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 87-96.

Chapter 4

Jesus Christ in History and in the Bahá'í Writings

      When one becomes aware of the divergent understandings of Jesus that existed in the early Christian community, one sees the difficulty of reconstructing what Jesus's life and teachings really were. One is reminded of the story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. The first generation of Christians groped to describe Him and to experience Him in worship. What has survived is a composite not only of the first generation's recollections, but of their interpretation of Jesus and of their experience of the risen Christ as well, often edited and assembled into one story by the second generation. But in the last century scholars have made considerable progress in reconstructing the life and teachings of Jesus. The discovery of lost books has made it possible to establish scholarly criteria for determining which information about Jesus is reliable and which is later interpretation or invention. Scholars focus on two criteria in particular: information from the oldest sources generally is more likely to be reliable than information found only in later sources; and information found in more than one source, if the sources were composed independently of each other, is more likely to be reliable than information found in one source alone.

      The Historical Jesus

      Jesus was born of Jewish parents. They, and Jesus's four brothers (James, Joses, Judas, and Simon) had Hebrew, not Greek names. Thus His parents were probably not Hellenized Jews, but Palestinian Jews who spoke Aramaic at home. Jesus probably knew some Greek, but apparently He preached in Aramaic; the gospels do not mention that He preached in any of Palestine's Greek-speaking cities. Galilean villages and towns are mentioned frequently in the gospels, so probably He spent most of His time there. Nazareth, where He probably lived much of His life, is in southern Galilee.

      Before Jesus began His mission He apparently had some sort of connection with John the Baptist. John was probably slightly older than Jesus, and supposedly of priestly birth. He was a wandering prophet, traveling throughout Palestine and trans-Jordan. His principal message was that the Kingdom of God is coming; this resembles Jesus's proclamation of the rule or kingship of God. Some scholars suggest that John's baptism of people in the Jordan worried Herod Antipas; possibly John also reenacted the crossing of the Jordan, which symbolized entry into and conquest of the Promised Land.[1] Fearing John's influence might cause rebellion, Antipas had him imprisoned and then executed.

      John's importance to Christianity is difficult to determine because so little is known about him and about his relationship to Jesus. John baptized people and may have introduced that rite to Jesus. Many scholars speculate that there may have been a connection between John and the Essenes, and that he was a conduit for influence of the Essenes on Jesus. But this claim is difficult to substantiate because so little is known of the messages of John and Jesus. John's influence has persisted to this day; not only is he an important figure in the New Testament, but a group of people in Iraq, the Mandeans, claim to be his followers and to be descended from his original followers.

      Jesus soon began his own movement, featuring teachings that were different from John's. In founding his own movement, Jesus seems to have broken the prevailing models available to Him or His people. He did not conduct sacrifices, like a priest. He did not experience a divine call or visions, like an Israelite prophet. He never started a school of thought, like a philosopher. His interpretation of the Law avoided the legalistic techniques of the Pharisees; rather, He claimed to proclaim the Will of God directly. His wisdom sayings were simple and proverbial, not speculative, as was common in the first century.

      Jesus spoke constantly of the basileia of God. The word is often translated kingdom, but its meaning is more like rule, reign, or kingship. The rule was not apocalyptic and did not involve God's impending judgment, as John the Baptist stressed. Many scholars believe Jesus did not proclaim that a messianic figure would come to bring God's rule; in other words, that Jesus did not promise to return. They draw their conclusions by studying the many different literary sources about Jesus; the sayings attributed to Jesus where He speaks about a return are not multiply attested in independent sources. While such a conclusion may seem startling to Bahá'ís, if this is true it makes Jesus's message more like Muhammad's, for Muhammad, in the Qur'án, never promised to return and never spoke of a messianic figure who would come; rather, Muhammad, like John the Baptist, stressed the time when God would rule and judge (Qur'án 56).

      According to some scholars, Jesus primarily proclaimed that the kingship of God was within each person, or among the believers ("in the midst of you"; Luke 17:21). He proclaimed the rule of God primarily through parables. The parables, because they are stories, have been fairly accurately preserved, but they are extraordinarily difficult to understand. All of the parables involve an element of surprise; they challenge the hearer. The Kingdom is a kingdom of nobodies: it is a kingdom for children (Mark 10:13-16; Matthew 18:1-4) and the poor (Luke 6:20), which rich men will have grave difficulties entering (Mark 10:25). The kingdom is like weeds that grow and take over a field of wheat (Gospel of Thomas 57) or like a mustard plant, which is also a noxious weed (Mark 4:30-32). The kingdom involves socially unacceptable behavior (Matthew 13:44). The parables often challenge the individual to become involved in Jesus, for they imply that this is the way for an individual to participate in the rule of God.

      Many parables illustrate a new human situation, one in which God demands the whole person; not just obedience, but surrender of the reality of the person. To put it in Islamic terms, God demands submission of the will of humans to the will of God. This requires a new form of conduct: radical love, of one's enemies as well as one's friends; sacrifice of all one's property for others; doing not just what is necessary, but what is right. Scholars have called this eschatological ethics (ethics of the eschaton or rule of God).

      In additional to talking about the Kingdom, Jesus also demonstrated it. One of the most important ways He demonstrated it was by eating with anyone; Jesus observed none of the social conventions that divided rich from poor or upper class from lower. Scholars refer to such behavior as open commensality. Jesus's willingness to eat with anyone caused some to complain about those with whom he associated, and how he ate his meals, prompting Jesus to complain "For John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say 'Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!" (Matt 11: 18-19).[2] It would seem that he could not win either way.

      Scholars are much more cautious in drawing conclusions about Jesus's miracles than His sayings because the evidence for miracles is generally less reliable. John Dominic Crossan calculates that while there are as many as six independent sources for some of the sayings of Jesus, there are never more than two independent sources describing a particular miracle.[3] While collections of Jesus's sayings are known, the evidence for a collection of miracle stories is considerably weaker, and the document is much harder to reconstruct. The miracle stories also show more evidence of rewriting and reinterpretation, probably because the Christian community was more embarrassed about them. Finally, an entire class of miracle stories—nature miracles, involving walking on water, stilling the sea, and changing water into wine—Crossan and some other scholars think are not historical.[4] Crossan argues that the reason Jesus performed miracles was to prove the power of the Kingdom. He called on His disciples to heal people—a miracle that is relatively easy to accomplish, since much of human illness has a psychological dimension—in order to impress on people the power of God's rule and the power of Faith in God.[5] The Bahá'í authoritative writings are cautious about literal interpretation of miracles, favoring a "spiritual meaning" to them instead (letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, August 14, 1934, in Lights of Guidance, 3d ed., number 1649).

      Jesus did not establish a church or a school of thought to propagate His beliefs, but He apparently did establish a mission to propagate His teachings about the Kingdom. He sent his disciples out in twos (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1), enjoined them to heal the sick and "eat what they will set before you" (Gospel of Thomas, 14:1-3)—in other words, to practice open commensality. The various references to the places the disciples should go suggests Jesus sent them into the Galilean countryside, and thus the mission He established was primarily to rural Jewish peasantry.[6] The disciples apparently were to wander as itinerants, and to carry no bread or money with them on the journey; thus they were totally dependent on the reception they received at each new village.

      Jesus appointed the twelve apostles as a body or group, but there is no evidence that He meant them to be the leadership body of a religion; rather, they were to serve some sort of function in the reign of God. Most of them were from Galilee, and Peter was their leader.

      The various places where Jesus visited that are mentioned in the gospels are almost all in Galilee, strongly suggesting that most of Jesus's ministry occurred in his home district. The synoptic gospels describe Jesus as going to Jerusalem only once, at which time He was arrested. According to extremely early Christian tradition, Jesus celebrated some sort of messianic meal with His disciples the night before His arrest. Many modern scholars doubt the tradition, however, because some early Christian sources (such as the Didache, a late first-century church manual) are unaware of it. It seem more likely that Jesus's practice of open commensality evolved into the Eucharist instead of Jesus's inauguration of the Eucharist being forgotten by some Christians.

      Jesus was arrested, perhaps because of His preaching about the Temple or His action against the moneychangers outside the Temple. Since the Jews did not have the power to execute anyone, they turned him over to the Romans. He was probably crucified the day before Passover (following John's account instead of the Synoptic Gospels; it is likely that some sources moved the time of His arrest so that His last supper could be the Passover meal). The accounts of Jesus's trial and crucifixion in the four gospels are remarkably uniform in content, but this apparently is caused by their common dependence on a lost work called by a few scholars the Cross Gospel. John Dominic Crossan, who is one of the world's experts on the passion narrative, argues that the disciples probably fled Jerusalem when Jesus was arrested and thus knew nothing about His trial and crucifixion; he maintains the entire account was constructed later through careful reading of the Hebrew Bible and searching for prophecies Jesus fulfilled.[7]

      After Jesus's crucifixion, He appeared to His followers as a resurrected Christ. The resurrection appearances renewed the first Christians and inspired them to go out and conquer the world for Him.

      Many modern scholars doubt that Jesus referred to Himself as Messiah, or Son of Man, or Son of David, or Son of God, or Lord. We cannot be sure how He referred to Himself, because quotations that include one title in one source include a different title in another source.

      Jesus in the Bahá'í Scriptures

      Modern critical biblical scholarship has reached only a fraction of modern Christians; for most Christians the various traditional views of Jesus remain important. Modern biblical scholarship itself is not unified in its view of Jesus either. Thus, among Christians there exists a very wide range of views about Jesus Christ. A natural and inevitable question to ask is, where does the Bahá'í view of Jesus fall within the spectrum of Christian views? To answer this question one must first consider the descriptives that Bahá'ís and Christians use to define His station. Some Christians describe Jesus as God Godself. Other terms they use are "Son of God," "Son of Man," "Lord," "Savior," and "Incarnation of God." Another important Christian approach to understanding Jesus, which is not in the New Testament but is very ancient, is the Trinity. The Bahá'í Faith uses different descriptives for Jesus, such as "Manifestation of God" and "Spirit of God." What do the Bahá'í terms mean? What is the Bahá'í understanding of the Christian descriptives?

      Bahá'u'lláh classifies Jesus Christ, Moses, Abraham, Muhammad, Zoroaster, the Báb, and Himself as Manifestations of God.[8] To understand the Bahá'í concept of the Manifestation, one must also understand the Bahá'í concepts of God, creation, and humanity. This is because Bahá'u'lláh says the Manifestations of God have a twofold station; one is "pure abstraction and essential unity," not only with each other, but with God as well; the second is the "station of distinction, and pertaineth to the world of creation, and to the limitations thereof" (Gleanings, 51, 52). Thus Manifestations are bridges between a perfect, ineffable, and transcendent God, on the one hand, and a physical world and humanity on the other. Traditional Christianity views the station of Jesus in a similar way, for traditionally, Jesus can not save humanity unless He is part of humanity and part of God simultaneously.

      Bahá'u'lláh, like Islam, describes the nature of God by emphasizing its transcendence. The innermost essence of God is beyond anything we can understand and experience, because we are limited and God is infinite; we are creatures and God is the Creator (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 151; 193). As 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains, the difference between God and humanity is like the difference between a painter and a painting; just as a painting is incapable of understanding the painter, so we are limited in our ability to understand our Creator (Some Answered Questions, 5). This does not deny the reality of mystical experience; rather, it asserts that however intensely an individual may experience God's love, God is capable of loving the person even more intensely; so intensely that the frail human soul would be totally destroyed by the power of the love. It is in this sense that the Bahá'í writings strongly emphasize God's utter beyondness.

      The Bahá'í writings add, however, that even though the innermost essence of God is sanctified beyond our ken, nevertheless humans can know something about God; this is because God chooses to manifest Godself through attributes. Examples of attributes would be love; knowledge; compassion; justice; mercy; wisdom; strength; power; honesty. Bahá'u'lláh, in a prayer, says "I testify that Thou hast been sanctified above all attributes and holy above all names" (Bahá'í Prayers, 12), indicating that even God's attributes do not fully express God's inmost essence.[9]

      The Christian equivalent to the Bahá'í concept of Manifestation is the concept of incarnation. The word to incarnate means "to embody in flesh" or "to assume, or exist in, a bodily (esp. a human) form" (Oxford English Dictionary). From a Bahá'í point of view, the important question regarding the subject of incarnation is, what is it that Jesus is supposed to incarnate? Bahá'ís can certainly say that Jesus incarnated God's attributes, in the sense that in Jesus, God's attributes were perfectly reflected and expressed. The Bahá'í scriptures, however, reject the belief that the ineffable essence of the Divinity was ever perfectly and completely contained in a single human body, because the Bahá'í scriptures emphasize the greatness and transcendence of the essence of God.

      Bahá'u'lláh defines creation and humanity in considerable detail. He says that on "every created thing He [God] hath shed the light of one of His names" (Gleanings, 65). In other words, everything reflects an attribute of God; thus Bahá'u'lláh endorses a major insight of nature mysticism. Bahá'u'lláh adds that on the human soul, however, God "hath focused the radiance of all His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self" (Gleanings, 675). Thus the essence of human beings includes all the attributes of God in potential form (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 101), and in this sense we are all linked to, and expressions of, God (though we are separate from the inmost essence of God).

      Bahá'u'lláh asserts that the principal bridge between God and all of creation is the Manifestations of God; individuals in whom all the attributes of God exist not just potentially, but in whom they are all perfectly expressed. Manifestations are the mouthpieces of God; the exemplars of God's qualities; they are God's vicegerents on earth. An analogy for the Manifestations found in the Bahá'í writings (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 79, 142; Gleanings, 74; Some Answered Questions, 147-48; Promulgation of Universal Peace, 114-15) is that they are like perfect mirrors, reflecting the light of the sun so faithfully that the image of the sun, seen in such a perfect mirror, is indistinguishable from the sun in the sky. Ordinary human beings, no matter how much they polish the mirrors of their own souls, can never become perfect mirrors; and nature also, however much it reflects God's beauty and magnificence, remains an imperfect mirror. To see God truly, we need to turn to the Manifestations. It is interesting to note that the mirror analogy was not unknown to early Christians; the great theologian Origen (185-254), citing the biblical Book of Wisdom, called Christ "the spotless mirror" of God's workings (Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth [Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1973], 26).

      Two philosophical terms might be useful to clarify the twofold station of the Manifestations that Bahá'u'lláh describes. One is ontology, "the science or study of being" (Oxford English Dictionary). Ontology pertains to the nature or essence of things. The other term is epistemology, "the theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge" (Oxford English Dictionary). Epistemology pertains to what we can know about things. What we can know about a thing is not necessarily identical to the thing itself.

      One can argue that Bahá'u'lláh is asserting that epistemologically the Manifestations are God, for they are the perfect embodiment of all we can know about Godself; but ontologically they are not God, for they are not identical with God's essence. Perhaps this is the meaning of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospel of John: "If you had known me, you would have known my Father also" (John 14:7) and "he who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).

      Bahá'u'lláh uses the concept of the twofold station to explain seemingly contradictory statements in the Qur'án and hadíth about Muhammad:

The first station, which is related to His [the Manifestation's] innermost reality, representeth Him as One Whose voice is the voice of God Himself. To this testified the tradition: "Manifold and mysterious is My relationship with God. I am He, Himself, and He is I, Myself, except that I am that I am, and He is that He is." And in like manner, the words: "Arise, O Muhammad, for the Lover and the Beloved are joined together and made one in Thee." He similarly saith: "There is no distinction whatsoever between Thee [God] and Them [the Manifestations], except that They are Thy servants." The second station is the human station, exemplified by the following verses: "I am but a man like you." "Say praise be to my Lord! Am I more than a man, an apostle?" (Gleanings, 66-67).

      The New Testament, similarly, contains statements where Jesus describes Himself as God, and others where He makes a distinction between Himself and God. For example, "I and the Father are One" (John 10:30); and "the Father is in me, and I am in the Father" (John 10:38); but on the other hand, "the Father is greater than I" (John 14:28); and "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). These statements make sense and do not contradict if one assumes they assert an epistemological oneness with God, but an ontological separateness from the Unknowable Essence.

      The Christian concept of the trinity arose out of the need to explain statements such as these. The earliest Christians tended to be "binitarian," that is, they stressed the Father and the Son. The third person of the trinity was added because of the experience of the Spirit in Christian worship and in order to explain many doxologies and expressions used in worship that included the Holy Spirit, such as the baptismal formula in Matt. 28:19, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." When the baptismal formula was coined it was not meant to be a trinitarian statement. Nor did it standardize the views of Christians; Ignatius, a prominent second-generation bishop (died c. 115) used various formulas in his writings, such as "Christ God" (Smyr. 10:1), "Son, Father, and Spirit" (note the order) (Magn. 13:1), and "in honor of the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Apostles" (Tral. 12:2).[10] Tertullian, the first great Latin theologian, coined the word trinity about the year 200 C.E.; the doctrine reached its traditional form by about 325 C.E.

      In its most literal form—that God consists of three separate parts or "persons," a Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the trinity contradicts the Bahá'í view that God consists of a single, transcendent, unknowable essence. But even the most literalistic conception of the trinity can be related to the Bahá'í concept of God. For example, one could identify the transcendent, unknowable essence of God as the "Father" part of the trinity. The Son and the Holy Spirit can be seen as manifestations of the essence and thus are expressions of God's attributes. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, using the analogy of the perfect mirror previously mentioned, endorses this approach:

      Now if we say we have seen the Sun in two mirrors—one the Christ and one the Holy Spirit—that is to say, that we have seen three Suns, one in heaven and the other two on the earth, we speak truly. And if we say there is one Sun, and it is pure singleness, and has no partner and equal, we again speak truly. (Some Answered Questions, 114)

      This is one Bahá'í explanation of the symbol of the trinity. There are others, for the concept can be understood in many different ways. When one examines the concept of the trinity historically one finds that a literal understanding was not originally intended. The word "person," two thousand years ago, never meant an individual human being, as it does today. The word is believed to come from the Latin per, "through" and sona, "sound"; its etymology refers to the masks that actors in plays frequently wore, which had mouthpieces in them to amplify the actor's voice. When the actor wished to represent a different character he put on a different mask or persona. Thus the concept of "person" in the trinity could also be translated into modern English by words such as "personality," "character," "face," or "expression" instead of "person" (Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought, 46-47). The original idea of the Greek theologians was that God had multiple forms of expression, not multiple individualities, and that these multiple forms, nevertheless, were one.

      When faced with the problem of defining the three personas in precise terms, the theologians turned to theology by description and analogy. A good example comes from Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-c. 391): "The Father is the begetter and emitter; without passion, of course, and without reference to time, and not in a corporeal manner. The Son is the begotten, and the Holy Spirit is the emission; for I know not how this can be expressed in terms altogether excluding visible things" ("The Third Theological Oration—On the Son," 161). Another place, using the analogy of light, Gregory says God can be comprehended "out of light" [the Father], as "light" itself [the Son], and "in light" [the Spirit] ("Fifth Theological Oration—On the Spirit," 195).[11]

      It is interesting to note that 'Abdu'l-Bahá takes this analogical approach to describing the trinity as well. In a tablet He revealed to an American Bahá'í in 1900, He says:

      But as to the question of the Trinity, know, O advancer unto God, that in each one of the cycles [dispensations of a Manifestation].-.-. there are necessarily three things, the Giver of the Grace, and the Grace, and the Recipient of the Grace; the Source of the Effulgence, and the Effulgence, and the Recipient of the Effulgence; the Illuminator, and the Illumination, and the Illumined. Look at the Mosaic cycle—the Lord, and Moses, and the Fire (i.e., the Burning Bush), the intermediary; and in the Messianic cycle, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost the intermediary; and in the Muhammudan [sic] cycle, the Lord and the Apostle (or Messenger, Muhammad) and Gabriel (for, as the Muhammadans believe, Gabriel brought the Revelation from God to Muhammad,) the intermediary. Look at the Sun and its rays and the heat which results from its rays: the rays and the heat are but two effects of the Sun, but inseparable from it and sent out from it; yet is the Sun one in its essence, unique in its real identity, single in its Attributes, neither is it possible for anything to resemble it. Such is the Essence of the Truth concerning the Unity, the real doctrine of the Singularity, the undiluted reality as to the (Divine) Sanctuary. ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablets from Abdul Beha Abbas to Some American Believers in the year 1900 [New York: New York Board of Counsel, 1901], 9. Note: this is an old translation.)

      In addition to discussing Jesus Christ in general terms, and in terms of the Trinity, the Bahá'í writings discuss Jesus Himself. Jesus's death on the cross is recognized as an atonement for humanity (God Passes By, 188; Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, 543). Bahá'u'lláh describes Jesus's impact on the world in very specific terms:

      Know thou that when the Son of Man yielded up His breath to God, the whole of Creation wept with a great weeping. By sacrificing Himself, however, a fresh capacity was infused into all created things. Its evidences, as witnessed in all the peoples of the earth, are now manifest before thee. The deepest wisdom which the sages have uttered, the profoundest learning which any mind hath unfolded, the arts which the ablest hands have produced, the influence exerted by the most potent of rulers, are but manifestations of the quickening power released by His transcendent, His all-pervasive, and resplendent spirit.-.-.-. He it is who purified the world. Blessed the man who, with a face beaming with light, hath turned towards Him. (Gleanings, 86)

      Bahá'u'lláh states that while all the Manifestations of God hold an equal spiritual station, they are not equal in terms of the intensity and potency of their revelations (Kitáb-i-Íqán, 104). The above suggests that Jesus Christ, the Manifestation who founded what is today the largest religious community on the planet, had an impact exceeding that of most Manifestations.

      A Bahá'í View of Jesus's Titles

      The Bahá'í writings do not discuss all of the titles used by Christians for Jesus, but they often imply approaches that Bahá'ís can take to the titles that are not discussed. A key element in the Bahá'í approach is the uniqueness of each Manifestation; Bahá'u'lláh says that each has "a distinct personality, a definitely prescribed station, a predestined revelation, and specially designated limitations" (Gleanings, 52). Thus Bahá'ís do not have to recognize the validity of, say, the title "Son of Man" by attributing it to Muhammad, Bahá'u'lláh, and the other Manifestations as well. Jesus can be the Son of Man; Muhammad can be the Seal of the Prophets; Bahá'u'lláh can be the Glory of God; each is different, yet none is better than the other because of His unique titles.

      In the previously quoted passage Bahá'u'lláh appears specifically to endorse the title "Son of Man" (or "Son of Humanity," as some modern Christian theologians prefer to translate it) as referring to Jesus. Bahá'u'lláh does not say what the term means, and Christian tradition has been fairly vague about the term's meaning as well. It ultimately comes from the Book of Daniel, where it refers to the Messiah, and is frequently used in the Gospels as a title of Jesus. Possibly the title is symbolic of the perfect humanity that Jesus represented.

      "Son of God" is an extremely important title of Jesus for Christians, so much so that in the minds of many Christians "Son of God" defines the relationship of Jesus with His Father. But often Christians do not think about the symbolic meaning of the title; indeed, many seem unaware that the title is a symbol at all. What does the term "son" mean? Normally, the word has a simple biological meaning, but that meaning is the very one that cannot apply to the relationship between God and Jesus, for God does not have genetic material to confer upon Jesus, nor does God have a body with which He could unite with Mary to produce a son. Christian theology has long recognized this and has never meant the term to be understood literally; as the above quote from Gregory of Nazianzus emphasizes, God begot Christ "without passion, of course, and without reference to time, and not in a corporeal manner" ("The Third Theological Oration—On the Son," 161). The Qur'án echoes Gregory's recognition of God's transcendence when it says "Allah is only one God. Far is it removed from His transcendent majesty that He should have a son" (Qur'án 5:171). 'Abdu'l-Bahá explained that the term "Son of God" referred to the fact that Christ "found existence through the Spirit of God" (Some Answered Questions, 63). Thus the term is symbolic of Christ's connection to the divine.

      "Son of God" has been interpreted in many other ways by Christians and Bahá'ís as well. One possible meaning of Son, rejected early by the mainstream of Christian theology, was the "adoptionist" interpretation; that Jesus was an ordinary man, "adopted" by God as His Son. The Bahá'í writings would also seem to reject this approach, since they do not see Manifestations of God as ordinary human beings; rather, the Bahá'í writings say that Manifestations are preexistent, in contrast to ordinary human beings, whose souls come into existence at the moment of conception. Manifestations are indeed unique creations of God, as the word "begotten" attempts to convey; it describes Jesus's mode of creation through an analogy with the physical world, an analogy that Gregory of Nazianzus, by qualifying the word in the above passage, admits has its limitations.

      Another symbolic interpretation of the term "Son" would be to argue that Jesus was the "spiritual" Son of God. One could say that all humans, Jesus included, are "sons" of God in the sense that all were created by God. This is true, but it undercuts the uniqueness of the title's application to Christ, perhaps unnecessarily, and undercuts the distinction that Bahá'ís would make between Jesus Christ and creation.

      Another approach is exemplified by a statement on behalf of Shoghi Effendi that the meaning of the title "Son of God" is

entirely spiritual, and points out to the close relationship existing between Him and the Almighty God. Nor does it necessarily indicate any inherent superiority in the station of Jesus over other Prophets and Messengers. As far as their spiritual nature is concerned all Prophets can be regarded as Sons of God, as they all reflect His light, though not in an equal measure, and this difference in reflection is due to the conditions and circumstances under which they appear (letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, November 29, 1937, in Lights of Guidance, 3d ed., number 1644).

      The above statement on Shoghi Effendi's behalf uses the term "Son of God" in a specific way, and perhaps does not preclude the possibility that Bahá'ís could also acknowledge the term as a title referring solely to Jesus, in the sense that perhaps He exemplified "sonship" uniquely, just as Moses, the "friend of God," exemplified a different sort of relationship to God.

      The term "Savior" is another Christian title for Jesus. It is also used in the Bahá'í scriptures for Him ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 62, 211). A savior must save one from something; in the physical world one can be saved from a physical disaster, such as drowning or a sickness; in the spiritual realms one is saved from the spiritual disaster of ignorance of oneself, of God, and of God's laws. Bahá'u'lláh makes it clear that "salvation," in the term's broad sense, is the purpose of all the Manifestations of God:

The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Day Spring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of His creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof, has gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the Source of Divine inspiration. (Gleanings, 330-31)

      This passage states that acceptance of the Manifestation of God, and obedience to His laws, are crucially important to one's spiritual growth; thus one could argue that acceptance of and obedience to the Manifestation constitute salvation.

      An ingenious, though personal, interpretation of the term salvation was offered by Thornton Chase, the first American Bahá'í. Chase began with 'Abdu'l-Bahá's discussion of the five kinds of spirit. Plants possess the vegetable spirit, which consists of the power of growth; animals possess the animal spirit, which includes growth and perception; humans possess the human spirit, which includes growth, perception, and cognition. Above these three is the "heavenly spirit" or the "spirit of faith," which 'Abdu'l-Bahá calls "the power which makes the earthly man heavenly, and the imperfect man perfect" (Some Answered Questions, 144). Fifth is the Holy Spirit, "the mediator between God and His creatures" (Some Answered Questions, 145). Chase argues that when a person acquires the fourth spirit—an acquisition which occurs when the Word of God is accepted into one's heart and works a transformation in one's soul—then the person has experienced salvation. This, he says, is what is meant by the phrase "ye must be born again" (John 3:7). (Thornton Chase, The Bahai Revelation [Chicago: Bahai Publishing Society, 1910], 119-21).

      Thus Bahá'ís would not claim that only Jesus offered salvation to humanity; all the Manifestations convey salvation, through their words and through their sacrifice. In this sense all Manifestations could be termed a "Savior." American Bahá'ís frequently apply the title to Bahá'u'lláh in their songs, and Shoghi Effendi refers to Bahá'u'lláh as "Savior of the whole human race" (Promised Day is Come, 114).

      Bahá'ís would also apply the title "Lord," which Christians apply to Jesus, to any Manifestation, including Bahá'u'lláh. "Lord" is a title of respect in the English language that is applied not only to Jesus, but to kings, nobility, masters, and others. The term kyrie in Greek had a similarly wide range of uses.

      Modern Christians sometimes use passages from the New Testament as titles or descriptives of Jesus. Perhaps the best example would be John 14:6, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me." Bahá'ís would not reject this passage from the Gospel of John, but they would interpret it differently than most Christians. Two possible approaches come to mind. One would be to examine the word "I"; to whom is Jesus referring? To Himself, certainly, but could He not be referring to all Manifestations in general, since, as Bahá'u'lláh explains, one of the stations of the Manifestations is "pure abstraction and essential unity" (Gleanings, 51)? Thus, Jesus's statement would never have been meant to exclude the other Manifestations, especially not Himself when He returned—that is, in the person of Bahá'u'lláh. A Christian theologian, John Hick, has also recognized the ambiguity of "I" and has suggested that the "I" refers not to the historical Jesus, but to the eternal logos manifested in Jesus.[12] In Bahá'í terms, Hick is suggesting that the "I" refers to the holy spirit common to all the Manifestations, or to their station of unity.

      One could also examine the word "am." The verb to be has many uses—the Oxford English Dictionary lists 24—some of which are normally distinguished from each other only by context. One grammatical usage is the universal present, which is used to make statements that are always true, such as "triangles are three-sided." Another usage applies to the present, but may not apply to the future as well, such as "I am young" or "I am alive." Christians usually understand the statement "I am the way, and the truth, and the life," as a universal present, but could it not be meant to apply only to some period of time in the past? Could not Abraham have been the way, truth, and life for the peoples of the Middle East from 2000 B.C.E. to the time of Moses; then Moses was the way, truth, and life until the time of Jesus; then Jesus was the way, truth, and life until the time of Muhammad; and then Muhammad was the way, truth, and life until the time of the Báb; and the Báb was the way, truth, and life until the time of Bahá'u'lláh? Similarly, Bahá'u'lláh will be the way, truth, and life until He is superseded by another Manifestation, which He assures us will occur in a thousand years or more (Gleanings, 346).

      In summary, Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Bahá'ís, do not reject the uniqueness of Jesus Christ; on the contrary, they respect, love, and emphasize it. However, they seek to balance that uniqueness by recognizing the uniqueness of other Manifestations of God as well. The balance is achieved by seeing Manifestations as perfect expressions of the divine will and purpose to the people of their places and times. They bring eternal and unchanging religious teachings to the people as well as principles designed for the society to which they minister. Jesus, thus, is seen by Bahá'ís as divine, as the Son of Man and the Son of God, and as the way, truth, and life to His world. Ironically, this is more than many Christians believe about Jesus; Bahá'ís often find themselves defending the station of Christ to individuals who claim to be His followers. The Bahá'í view of the station of Jesus falls near the middle of the spectrum of views that Christians hold, and claims to understand Jesus in a way fitting to our modern, pluralistic, and historically-minded world.


[1].John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of as Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1991), 231-32.
[2].Another version of the saying may be found in Luke 7:31-34. While scholars think the saying is a genuine, some doubt the phrase "son of man" is original.
[3].Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 310-11.
[4].Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 396-98.
[5].Crossan, The Historical Jesus,336-38.
[6].Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 339-40.
[7].Crossan, The Historical Jesus, 367-94.
[8].To this list, 'Abdu'l-Bahá added the Buddha; Bahá'u'lláh does not seem to have mentioned eastern Asian religions at all. A letter written by Shoghi Effendi includes Krishna as a manifestation of God.
[9].It is interesting to note that 'Abdu'l-Bahá refers to some attributes as essential to God's nature, such as preexistence (Some Answered Questions, 148-49). But which attributes are essential? It would seem that the definition of the word God necessitates that God be all-powerful and omniscient; therefore one could argue that these are qualities of God's inmost essence. But can God choose whether or not to be loving and compassionate, and remain God? Is it a necessary part of God's essence that God be loving? Questions such as these await the thought of Bahá'í philosophers and theologians. An excellent foundation for study of them has been laid by Juan Ricardo Coles' Concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í Writings, in Bahá'í Studies, vol. 9 (Ottawa: Association for Bahá'í Studies, 1982).
[10].The writings of Ignatius are available in Cyril C. Richardson, ed. trans., Early Christian Fathers (New York: Macmillan, 1970), 87-120).
[11].Gregory of Nazianzus was one of the three great Greek theologians who, after the Council of Nicaea, defined the nature of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in trinitarian terms acceptable to virtually all Christians. He is considered one of the great fathers of the Greek church and is highly respected by all Christian traditions. A selection of Gregory of Nazianzus's writings may be found in Edward Rochie Hardy and Cyril C. Richardson, eds., Christology of the Later Fathers, in The Library of Christian Classics, Ichthus edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954).

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
      The Catholic Epistles
      The Book of Revelation

      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 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.


      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.


[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.

Chapter 6

Christianity in the Classical World

      Christianity spread very fast in the Roman Empire, partly because the first and second centuries were a time of political stability and prosperity. The roads and shipping routes were relatively safe from highwaymen and pirates, thus allowing Christian preachers to travel freely and to dispatch messengers and letters easily. Travel was costly, but the Christian communities, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, had the money to support it because they shared in the empire's prosperity. The empire had relative freedom of religion; as long as a citizen was loyal to Rome, was willing to swear an oath of allegiance to the emperor as a god, and did not disturb the social order, he or she was not disturbed in religious matters.

      Christianity was not the only religion with missionaries. There were hundreds of wandering philosophers who offered their brand of peace of mind and happiness to whoever would listen, and preferably to whoever would pay. Dozens of mystery religions sprang up that, through secret rites and ceremonies, claimed to offer salvation or the secret of life. The ancient world was very much like modern America, where one can investigate thousands of philosophies, forms of meditation, and religions. If anything, the Greco-Roman world was too pluralistic; there were so many religious choices people became religiously cynical.

      The most successful missionaries of all were the Jews. Hellenistic culture had a tendency toward monotheism, and only one people firmly believed in one God. Jewish missionaries, like modern Christian evangelists, were self-appointed and itinerant. They preached in synagogues and in the marketplaces. A group o       f people, called God fearers, came into existence who read the Hebrew Bible (in its standard Greek translation), who often attended synagogue, who did not work on the Sabbath, yet who did not desire to undergo the pains of circumcision, the rigors of the Jewish dietary laws, or the inconvenience of following all the moral principles. Nor did they think highly of the Jerusalem Temple, which to them was a symbol of an ethnic group rather than a religion. But sometimes the children of God-fearers became Jews. No one knows what fraction of the diaspora Jews were converts, but it is known that of the Roman Empire's approximately sixty million people, between four and six million were Jews. Most cities in the eastern Roman Empire had significant Jewish populations; Alexandria, Egypt was reported to be one third Jewish.

      For those God-fearers who hesitated to join Judaism because of its laws and its ethnicity, Christianity represented an ideal alternative. As a result they joined Christianity in great numbers; Jewish missionaries had unconsciously laid the foundation for Christian growth. Christian missionaries followed the same approaches used by Jewish missionaries; they spoke at synagogues, gave speeches in the marketplace, and met with fellow members of their ethnic group or profession. According to the Book of Acts (16:13), on the Sabbath Paul visited a "place of prayer," probably a synagogue. By attending synagogue services, early Christian missionaries would have made contact with those sympathetic to the new religion such as the God-fearers. The early American Bahá'ís acted similarly; they often taught their Faith by attending a local church.

      What sort of people became Christians? The evidence is scanty, but has been assembled. Ancient cities did not have upper, middle, and lower economic classes like the modern west. On top was a hereditary aristocracy made of a relative small number of families—perhaps a hundred—who ran the city and controlled much of its land and wealth. Beneath them were various groups. Merchants often were wealthy, but did not have aristocratic status or its attendant privileges. Artisans made most of the goods the city needed—clothing, pottery, metal goods, glass, furniture, etc.—but were heavily taxed and often were as impoverished as rural peasants. Slaves and an urban proletariat performed the menial tasks—unloading ships, building houses, slaughtering animals, and providing muscle power, since there was no machine power. A certain fraction of the proletariat was permanently unemployed, and the aristocracy distributed free grain to prevent them from rioting. Street gangs were often well organized and in the pay of aristocrats, who used them to exert political power. Finally, peasant farmers or slaves on large estates raised most of the city's food. Smaller cities were largely self sufficient, raising most of the food they needed on local lands, farmed by peasants living in villages outside of the city. The few very large cities in the empire, like Rome, had to import food, usually from Egypt, and thus were dependent on the maintenance of safe trade.

      From the beginning, Christianity seems to have attracted individuals from many classes, but especially from the merchant and artisan classes. The aristocracy and proletariat were little represented in the new faith, although the few aristocrats often became prominent Christian leaders.[1] At first Christianity did not spread in the countryside at all, so peasants were rarely Christians. Paul himself was a tentmaker, according to Acts 18:3; Paul himself says (I Thes. 2:9) that he worked for a living so as not to burden the local Christian community. Probably whenever Paul visited a new city he would find the tent maker's guild, make friends there, acquire employment from them, and teach them about Jesus.

      Social scientists have also debated the techniques used to spread Christianity. The Book of Acts speaks of Paul and other apostles preaching to large crowds, resulting in mass acceptance of the new Faith. Sociologists are skeptical, however, because preaching to crowds is easier to dramatize than one-on-one instruction, but is far less effective in producing committed followers. Most likely, the bulk of the successful evangelism involved individual Christians teaching their friends by word and deed. If Christianity grew in membership by about 3.5% a year—40% per decade—the numbers increase from about 1,000 in the year 40 C.E. to 7,500 by 100 C.E., 218,000 by 200 C.E., 6,300,000 by 300 C.E., and 34,000,000 by 350 C.E. In this manner, an insignificant religious group could have become more than 50% of the Empire's population in a bit over 300 years.[2]

      In addition to its early diversity of ethnicity and social class, Christianity also contained considerable diversity of belief, and as the churches grew the different understandings of Christianity became an increasingly serious problem for some. Paul expended much of his literary effort in arguing against Judaizers and gnostics. While Jewish Christianity faded as a threat, gnosticism grew stronger as a competing interpretation of Christianity.


      Gnosticism was not just a religion, but a broad philosophical and spiritual movement, rather like Existentialism, New Thought, or Transcendental Meditation in nineteenth and twentieth-century America. Christians apparently became interested in gnosticism from the beginning of the Jesus movement; in Christianity, gnosticism became highly developed.

      Gnosticism stressed dualism, the idea that the world was divided into paired opposites: matter and spirit, light and darkness, good and evil, God and the devil, angels and demons, heaven and hell. It believed that the human spirit was an emanation from God, a "divine spark" that must be reunited with its Creator. This spark was trapped in the world of matter in a body. Gnosticism saw the body and physical existence as the cause of sin and evil. Salvation was escape from the physical world and reunion with God; it was achieved not through faith, but through knowledge of one's condition. For example, the non-Christian gnostic devotees of the god Hermes Trismegistus believed that the soul, after its creation, had to pass from the starry sphere (which was the highest heaven) through the lower levels of heaven (each of which corresponded to a planet) to the earth, which was the lowest, dirtiest, and most corrupt level of existence. This gnosticism thus combined religion with the most advanced science and astronomy of the day (which was astrology, in modern terms). The journey of the soul resulted in accretions to the soul at each level:

As the souls descend, they draw with them the torpor of Saturn, the wrathfulness of Mars, the concupiscence of Venus, the greed for gain of Mercury, the lust for power of Jupiter; which things effect a confusion in the souls, so that they can no longer make use of their own power and their proper facilities.[3]

The qualities one acquired were appropriate to each planet: Saturn is the slowest of the planets in its orbit and Mercury is the fastest; Venus was the goddess of love and therefore of lust; Mars was the god of war and therefore of anger; Jupiter was the king of the gods and therefore the god of power. Knowledge of one's condition as it was shaped by astrology was seen as half the struggle to obtain salvation. Some non-Christian groups claimed to give to the devotee the "passwords" that he or she would need after death to pass back through each heavenly sphere, shedding the accretions he or she acquired at each, and thus enabling him or her to reach the highest heaven successfully.

      Christian gnostics avoided detailed astrology and favored a mythological interpretation of Genesis to describe the universe. They believed that creation began when the Fore-Father produced a series of twenty-nine emanations from Himself, who were progressively more remote from Him; together these constituted a kind of Godhead that was called the pleuroma. Some gnostics believed that the physical universe represented the solidified or crystallized passions for the Fore-Father produced by His most distant emanation, named Sophia (Wisdom). Each passion became a different element (Greek science believed there were four elements, earth, water, air, and fire). A semi-divine being, the Demiurge, was formed from them and he shaped creation out of them, including the starry and planetary spheres, the earth, and humanity. He also was the God who created Judaism. In contrast, Christ was a special emanation of the Fore-Father, sent by Him to the earth in order to lead the divine spark in humans back to union in the pleuroma. Because of the belief that Judaism and Christianity had different ultimate sources, Christian gnostics often argued that the two religions and their scriptures were incompatible.

      Since matter and the body were seen as evil, often these groups denied that Jesus ever had had a body. They refused to recognize the fact that He was born, ate food, and really suffered on the cross. Bodily resurrection, to them, was not only absurd but disgusting; it would maintain ones entrapment in matter and therefore would be a form of hell.

      Since the body was the source of evil, these groups had unusual beliefs about sexuality. Some advocated complete celibacy, for sex was seen as the embodiment of evil and a trick by the devil to continue his rule on earth. Marcion, one of the greatest of the Christian thinkers influenced by gnosticism, forbade his followers to marry. Other gnostic groups went to the opposite extreme and said that since the body was not reality, it didn't matter what you did with it. These groups were accused of tremendous sexual licentiousness.

Gnosticism and the Development of Christian Doctrine

      The existence of gnostic groups impelled the early church to define many of its basic beliefs. Gnosticism offered significantly different doctrines in several areas: in christology (the nature of Christ); soteriology (the nature of salvation, how Christ saves, and from what); and anthropology (the basic nature of human beings). The church defined its teachings on the Trinity, original sin, and the nature of Christ's mission partly in reaction to gnosticism and other heretical movements.

      Gnosticism also gave impetus to the creation of the Christian canon. Until the mid second century the Christian movement considered the Hebrew Bible to be its sacred scripture; all references to "the scriptures" in the New Testament refer to the Old. But by the mid second century, Christianity had produced a large corpus of writings. Some, such as the four gospels and the letters of Paul, were read very widely and were venerated. Others had a more restricted usage; gnostic groups, for example, had written their own special works since the late first century. Today these are popularly known as the "gnostic gospels." In Christian worship it became customary to read not only passages from the Hebrew Bible, but from Christian writings as well (which Christian writings were read, however, depended on the beliefs of the man who organized the service).

      This custom was upset by Marcion (c. 100 - c. 150), who rejected the Hebrew Bible; borrowing from gnostic beliefs, he argued that it had been created by the god of the Jews, who was the petty and legalistic Demiurge, and not by the Creator God who had sent Jesus to the world. Having rejected the only works that Christians believed were sacred scripture, Marcion felt the need to create a new Christian canon. Since there could be only one gospel—that is, only one good news, one Christian message—his scripture could only include one gospel book. He chose Luke because its theology was closest to his own. He also included the genuine letters of Paul and the deuteropauline epistles in his sacred writings. However, Marcion was dissatisfied with the texts as they existed because they seemed to show signs of tampering by the Demiurge; for example, they often quoted, or alluded to, the Hebrew Bible. Marcion solved the problem by editing the texts in order to remove all signs of "tampering." In this fashion Marcion acquired a text that he believed was the original Christian message.

      Most Christians were angered that Marcion had altered their oldest and most venerable writings, but his idea that Christianity should have a scripture of its own was accepted, partly because the best way to fight Marcion's canon was to create a rival canon. Between 150 and 200 C.E., the idea of a New Testament emerged, especially as a result of the writings of the mid second-century theologian and pastor Irenaeus. He argued that the canon should be as broad and inclusive as possible, as long as the works included in it were not gnostic. He especially sought to overcome the attitude that since there could be only one gospel message, there could only be one gospel book. He favored the inclusion of the four gospels that circulated the most—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—in spite of the fact that they occasionally seem to contradict each other. Until the late second century, some of the four were favored in some regions, and others had circulated little in other areas.

      By the year 200 C.E., most of the books included in the New Testament were those found in it today. However, no Christian council has ever officially defined the content of the Christian sacred writings, and Christian churches outside the Roman empire evolved their own canons, which were slightly different from the canon that came to be accepted inside the Roman empire.

      One way the churches battled gnosticism was to establish a systematized, professional leadership. The Christian churches, like all other groups in the Roman empire (including the empire itself) were only loosely organized, especially when the churches were first formed. The need to define correct belief, and the need to carry out that belief in acts of Christian charity, gradually resulted in a detailed church structure.

The Establishment of Church Structure

      When people became Christians they joined a new community of people, one called an ekklesia. In Greek the word literally means "calling out" and refers to a gathering where one can speak; it roughly translates as "meeting" or "assembly."[4] The first Christian groups were "house churches," that is, they consisted of the members of a household who met at home. Wealthier Christians would invite other Christians to worship with them in their large houses. Christianity spread through ties of family and patronage. The head of the family was often the head of the house church.

      Churches were not the only voluntary associations in the Hellenistic cities. A typical Greek city had burial societies, to which one periodically contributed money and which provided a large funeral when one died. There were eating clubs, which held meals weekly or monthly; some pagan temples had outbuildings that included kitchens and dining facilities for their use. There were ethnic organizations, which one could join when one moved to a new city and where one could associate with one's countrymen; and mystery cults, which provided their members with religious experience and sometimes religious community. Finally there were Jewish synagogues, which maintained an extensive system of private welfare in addition to their religious services and social opportunities.

      From the beginning, a major focus of many Christian churches was the care of widows, orphans, the sick, and the aged. This effort alone required considerable organization, and as Christianity expanded the welfare systems of local churches soon grew larger than those of synagogues. The Roman empire had no welfare, unemployment relief, hospitals, or orphanages; furthermore, pagan temples provided few services. The ultimate success of Christianity had a lot to do with the fact that Christians took care of each other.

      One sociologist has dramatically demonstrated the impact that Christian values would have had during the plagues of 165-80 and 250-60 (which probably represent, respectively, the first-time arrival of smallpox and measles to the Empire).[5] Each plague killed between one quarter and one third of the entire population. Entire cities became deserted as the population fled, taking the disease with them to the countryside. But basic nursing care can reduce the death rate to about ten percent. Thus if Christians nursed each other, far fewer would have died, which in the ancient world would have looked like a miracle. If Christians nursed their pagan neighbors, the latter would have been strongly impressed by Christian virtue and possibly attracted to the faith. Other disasters—huge fires, earthquakes, riots—struck ancient cities about once every decade or two, giving the Christians plenty of opportunities to practice their beliefs.[6]

      From the first, Christian charity was both an individual and a collective effort. The latter required some sort of organizational system. Christian churches were concerned about both spiritual power—through such activities as speaking in tongues and experiencing divine inspiration—and with creation of at least a minimal amount of ecclesiastical authority. In I Cor. 12:28 the Apostle Paul speaks of a hierarchy in the body of Christ consisting of "first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then healers, helpers, administrators, [and] speakers in various kinds of tongues." Initially the principle of charismatic authority ("apostles, prophets, teachers") was more important than administrative authority. In the churches founded by Paul administration seems to have been rudimentary; each local church had one or more "overseers" (Greek episcopos, from which comes the English word "bishop") and a series of assistants, servants, or messengers (Greek diakonos, "deacons.") Presumably Paul was alluding to them when he referred to "administrators" and "helpers."

      While this organizational structure apparently became standard among the gentile churches, Jewish Christians seemed to have followed the model of the synagogue more closely. Synagogues were governed by a council of elders. The Greek term used by the Christians for the elders was presbyteros, from which come the English words "presbyter" and "priest." Within a generation or two the gentile and Jewish Christian churches merged, as did their organizational systems. When a gentile church originally had more than one overseer, they came to be considered elders, and these elders or presbyters became priests; above them was an overseer or bishop; below them were the deacons. This created three levels of local church officers.

      Only gradually, during the second and third centuries, did the administrative positions surpass the charismatic positions as the most important in the churches. The office of apostle died out because only the Christians who had met Jesus were entitled to that title. The teaching function became a task of the bishops and priests. The prophetic function gradually disappeared; when the New Testament became codified the guidance of the first generation of Christians became readily available, and as local churches became better organized "prophecy" proved a common source of disruption, especially since it came to be dominated more and more by gnostics and other heretics.

      Since the gnostics favored a speculative and personal religion, and apparently did not engage in extensive charity, they favored charismatic offices over administrative ones; hence when a city's Christians organized, gnostics usually did not seek to become bishop or presbyter. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, writing about 115 C.E., was a tireless champion of the monarchal episcopate, that is, the principle that each city should have one Christian bishop who was exclusively in charge of all Christian activities in that locality. He stressed the monarchal episcopate mainly as an instrument to fight gnosticism and other heresies, and this became one of its principal functions.

      Gradually, the office of bishop became the dominant one in the local Christian churches. Originally deacons and presbyters were chosen by the local church and were not under the bishop's authority; but gradually they became subordinates to him. The disciplining of Christians who committed immoral acts, such as adultery, became the bishop's task; in Paul's day disciplining was carried out by the entire congregation (I Cor. 1:1-5). A ritual for ordaining the bishop became defined, orders of widows were created, and rules for Christian community life were formulated. Since Christianity had no organization at all beyond the local level—there were no archbishops, no pope, and, until the third century, no councils of bishops—innovations in one city only gradually spread to another. Letters written by bishops to churches in other cities became an important means for exchanging ideas and allowed a bishop to become influential in his region.

      Rome was one of the first churches to establish an episcopate; its bishop possessed authority over the Roman Christian community by the mid second century. By the end of the second century the monarchal episcopate was firmly established everywhere. In many cities the appointment of a bishop marked the beginning of an "orthodox" Christian community; for example, Christians in Alexandria seems to have first chosen a bishop in 189 C.E. Before that, gnostic Christianity dominated the city and the rest of Egypt.

      To legitimize themselves further in their fight against gnostics, bishops claimed that their office had been established by the apostles themselves. Many bishops codified the history of Christianity in their city for the first time and claimed a series of venerable local church leaders as previous bishops in order to show that their own office had been created by an apostle, and that they were the most recent of an unbroken succession of bishops. This claim that the bishops were the successors of the apostles is called apostolic succession. The idea was not new; gnostics claimed apostolic succession as well, possibly before bishops did. Rome claimed the most elaborate apostolic succession, with Peter as the city's first bishop and Paul as the cofounder of the Roman church. When the great church historian Eusebius wrote his Ecclesiastical History, about the year 300, he published many cities' bishop lists, thereby legitimizing them.

      With the establishment of the office of bishop in most cities, bishops began to meet together to discuss regional affairs, and the bishop of a region's capital city gradually acquired prestige and influence over the bishops of smaller cities. Carthage, Athens, Antioch, and Alexandria emerged as important Christian centers; since Rome was the capital of the empire, the bishop of Rome emerged as a particularly influential bishop.

The Rise of Christian Scholarship and Theology

      Christians have always done theology, in the sense of thinking about the nature of God and Christ, but until about 150 C.E. their theology was done without any systematic use of Greek philosophy. In the early second century the waning of the emphasis on Christ's immediate return made the study of Greek philosophy more acceptable, and its use by gnostics (who had never had an apocalyptic perspective) made knowledge of Greek philosophy necessary in the fight against heresy. Further, Christianity's growing size and strength made its lack of legal status a concern for many church leaders. Several Christian writers, called apologists, wrote essays addressed to the emperor in which they defended the legitimacy of Christianity and called for its recognition. One of the most famous apologists was Justin Martyr (c. 100 - c. 167), who had some familiarity with Greek philosophy. He wrote several works that defended Christianity from external attacks—one of which addressed objections raised by Jews—and started a Christian school in Rome. He was one of the first to elaborate on the idea that Christ was God's logos ("word," an idea from Greek philosophy) in order to define the relationship between God and Christ. He also wrote about how Christ's death established salvation, about the eucharist and baptism, and about the role of demons (spirits) in creating Greek mythology and philosophy. The quality of his thinking and writing was not high, but it helped to lay a theological foundation for Christian thought.

      A little later, Irenaeus (c. 130 - c. 180) wrote a work against heresies and defined a Christian position on such matters as original sin, redemption, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the canon, and church structure. He has been called the "first consciously literary theologian of the Christian church."[7]

      Tertullian (c. 155 - c. 222) wrote the first Christian theology in Latin; though some of the other theologians had lived in the western Roman Empire, they had written in Greek. Tertullian coined the term trinitas (trinity) and first defined the concept of God having three personae, three aspects or modes of being. He also coined the Christian terms Old Testament and New Testament.

      Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 - c. 215) became the first Christian philosopher and wrote extensively, though not systematically, on Christian questions. Having been influenced by gnosticism, he argued that Christianity was based on knowledge (gnosis), not faith. He made the Christian teacher extremely important in a Christian's spiritual development. He also described the universe hierarchically, although he rejected both the basics and the details of the gnostic concept of creation.

      His successor in Alexandria, Origen (c. 185 - 254) was one of the greatest Christian thinkers who ever lived and was a philosopher as great as any who lived during his day. He was highly respected by non-Christians for his learning, the first Christian to be so treated. He was Christianity's first systematic Bible scholar; he produced an edition of the Old Testament with eight parallel versions, so that the various alternate readings could be compared easily. He wrote commentaries on many biblical books, some of which have survived to this day. He questioned some commonly held assumptions about the New Testament, such as the belief that Paul authored the Book of Hebrews. He was without a doubt the most prolific writer in classical Christianity. His theology, however, was tinged by gnosticism. His christology was especially speculative. After his death, as Christian doctrine became more clearly and rigidly defined, his popularity waned. Eventually many of his works were declared heretical and were altered or destroyed, making it difficult for modern scholars to study his thought.


      The growth of Christianity also produced one nearly fatal problem, the reaction of the Roman government. One of the first serious persecutions occurred in Bithynia, a province in northwestern Asia Minor, in 112-113 C.E. Christianity had spread so much in that region, in the countryside as well as in the cities, that temples had become empty and were unable to sell the meat of sacrificed animals (Christians generally refused to buy it, because it was a product of paganism). The Roman governor of the province, Pliny the Younger, began to arrest Christians and order them to sacrifice to the emperor as a god. Since Christians could not consider the emperor a god, they refused to sacrifice—an act equivalent to refusing to salute the flag, or refusing to repeat the pledge of allegiance. Consequently, they were executed for disloyalty to the Roman state.

      However, Pliny soon realized that those who were revealing the names of Christians had their own ulterior motives. He decided to stop searching out Christians, but if any were arrested for other reasons they would be required to sacrifice to the emperor or be executed. He wrote to the emperor to state his policy, and the emperor concurred. Since Pliny was an excellent writer he eventually published a collection of his letters, for they were beautiful examples of Latin style, and among them was his letter to the emperor about the Christians.

      Anti-Christian edicts were occasionally promulgated by an emperor; Marcus Aurelius issued one in 164-68 and Lucius Verus announced another in 176-78 C.E. But they were enforced only in Asia Minor and Gaul respectively. Pliny's persecution was the standard type that Christians had to endure in the late first and second centuries: localized attacks, authorized by a local governor, which lasted a short time and which produced a few martyrs. Usually the bishop was one of the first to be martyred; Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and the great bishop, Polycarp (c. 70 - c. 166) were all executed for their beliefs in this way. The rank and file of ordinary Christians were often undisturbed because Greco-Roman religions did not expect any loyalty of their followers, and Roman officials assumed that Christianity was the same. From their perspective it was only necessary to kill a religion's leaders to debilitate the religious community, and they did not understand that Christianity was different from pagan religious groups until it had grown substantially.

      Hence, generally Christianity was left alone by officials. By the late second and early third centuries the Christian communities had become large enough in many cities to build impressive church buildings and pay for full-time bishops. Intellectual attacks were not absent, however; the first systematic anti-Christian work, produced by the philosopher Celsus, was published about 178 C.E. It was followed by others.

      Christianity's social environment changed greatly after 200 C.E. Its growth led to an intellectual revival of paganism, probably as a reaction against the religion of Christ. Furthermore, the empire's two centuries of political stability and prosperity had come to an end. The Roman frontiers became very difficult and expensive to defend, and to raise the money necessary to maintain the armies, coins with less than the correct amount of silver were issued. This debasement of the currency caused inflation and led to serious economic problems. Plagues ravaged the empire and drastically decreased its population (which was shrinking naturally anyway, because of infanticide and low marriage rates). The quality of the emperors declined.

      The empire's increased difficulties had to be blamed on someone, and the Christians were a convenient scapegoat; their refusal to sacrifice to the gods was said to have made the gods angry. Since the society believed in many gods and the Christians did not, they were accused of atheism. Earlier charges—that the eucharist was cannibalism and the love feast an orgy—surfaced again.

      The first coordinated, empire-wide persecution of Christians was initiated by the emperor Septimus Severus in 202-03 C.E. It resulted in perhaps several hundred martyrs from all over the empire, mainly educated Christians and ecclesiastical leaders, such as most of the pupils of Clement of Alexandria, and Origen's father. Among the martyred was a remarkable young woman in Carthage named Perpetua; the account of her imprisonment includes a portion probably composed by her, one of the earliest Christian works by a woman.[8] The next emperor, Alexander Severus, tolerated Christianity; his mother was said to be a Christian. A generation and a half of tolerance followed.

      In 248 C.E. the Roman empire suffered a major invasion by the Goths, then a plague, and popular hostility against Christianity again increased sharply. In 250 the new emperor, Decius, suddenly decided to initiate an imperial persecution of Christians by ordering everyone to sacrifice to the gods. Many Christians, even many bishops, recanted their faith and sacrificed. Others refused and were martyred. In 251 the persecution ended when Decius was killed in a battle with the Goths. Many lapsed Christians then sought readmission into the church, sparking an enormous controversy about their status. A few lapsed Christians even became bishops; others, who had suffered for the Faith, refused to recognize them. Carthage and Rome, for a time, had two rival Christian communities and two rival bishops.

      Peace proved short-lived; in 257 C.E. the emperor Valerian initiated another wave of persecutions. This time the churches were prepared; their organizational structures remained strong and most Christians and their bishops stood firm. Many bishops were exiled, then martyred. In 260 Valerian died fighting the Persians and the persecution ended.

      The Christians enjoyed relative peace until 303, by which time some eastern provinces were heavily Christian, and the entire empire was perhaps ten percent Christian. In that year the Emperor Diocletian (reigned 284 - 304) sought to reform the empire radically in order to increase its religious and social unity and thus ensure its survival, and the Christians were seen as a potentially divisive factor. When a pagan priest in the imperial court claimed he could not divine the future because of the presence of Christians, in 303, the emperor decided to act. He ordered all churches destroyed, all Bibles and sacred vessels confiscated, and all Christian meetings banned. Later that year he ordered all priests and bishops arrested. Finally, in 304, he required all citizens in the empire to sacrifice or be executed. His orders were enforced only to a limited degree—the Roman empire was not a totalitarian state, and its bureaucracy and police powers were limited—but nevertheless hundreds, perhaps as many as a thousand, Christians were martyred. Only in Gaul, Britain, and Spain were Diocletian's orders mostly ignored; the caesar in charge of the region, who was named Constantine, limited the persecution to the destruction of church buildings.

      In 304 Diocletian retired, but his successor in the eastern Roman empire, Gallerius, was even more anti-Christian. Only when he was on his death bed in 312 did Gallerius order the persecution of Christians to stop. It has been estimated that as many as 3,000 Christians were martyred between the years 303 and 313. In Asia Minor an entire town that had been completely Christian was massacred. In Egypt, where the persecution was the most systematic, the most number of martyrs occurred, and the province almost lapsed into civil war.

      But one spiritual result of the sacrifice was the conversion of the first Christian emperor. Constantine's mother and sister had been Christians and he had always been favorable to the religion. In October 312, on the eve of a battle that would make him sole emperor of the western Roman empire, Constantine reportedly had a vision of a cross with the legend under it, "by this sign conquer." He ordered crosses painted on the shields of his soldiers, and his army won the battle. Later that year he and the new emperor of the eastern empire granted religious freedom to Christians and all other religions. In 324 Constantine, as a result of several civil wars, emerged as the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. He extended the protection and financial support of the state to the church throughout the empire.

      One result was a flood of converts, for being a Christian was no longer dangerous; indeed, it could be advantageous if one were seeking a job in the army or civil service. When Constantine died in 327 his sons, all of whom were Christians, split the empire among themselves. After the last one died a new emperor for the entire empire was selected named Julian who had been raised Christian and who had a Christian wife but who loved Greek philosophy. He became sole emperor in 360 C.E.; in 361 he renounced Christianity and attempted to revive paganism. All pagan temples were converted into temples of the one god, Helios (the sun); state money was given to them so that they could inaugurate works of charity, such as those the churches were running. Christians were not persecuted, but were placed under grave restrictions; they were not allowed to become teachers, for example, and all teachers were required to teach the old pagan values. When pagan crowds rioted and destroyed churches, the emperor did not interfere; when Christians attacked each other as heretics, Julian did not seek to impose one form of Christianity on them.

      Julian's reforms are particularly noteworthy because they sought to modify paganism so that it could compete against Christianity. His effort to make paganism monotheistic and to make pagan temples the center of social services are noteworthy imitations of Christianity. But it was too late; the temples did not know how to organize social services, their attendance had declined too sharply for them to be revived, their facilities were in such poor shape the money had to be spent on repairs, and Christianity was too strong to be rivaled. A year and a half later, in 363, Julian died in a battle with the Persians; his successor was a Christian, and his reforms were easily swept away. Paganism continued to exist in the Roman Empire, but it was confined to two groups: peasants in the remote countryside and many of the old aristocratic class. In Rome, the Senate was a bastion of paganism until the fifth century; in Athens, the philosophical schools led a losing struggle against Christianity until the Christian emperor Justinian closed them in 529.

The Trinitarian and Christological Controversies

      Christianity's victory against paganism, and the gradual end of persecution of the church, allowed theological differences to become expressed in politics, both ecclesiastical and imperial. The church's intellectual victory over paganism also necessitated clearer definition of many basic Christian ideas, especially the nature of Christ, His relation to the father, and how He saves. The result was the eventual creation of the classical definition of the trinity and the nature of Christ.

      Christ's nature had been a subject of Christian thinking from the beginning. The biblical terms Son of God and Son of Man/Human Being show that the thinking about Jesus was a concern of the first generation. Greek philosophers, especially the Stoics, had developed the concept of the logos or "word" as the divine principle that gave the world its order and shape. The first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria used the idea of the logos as the agent for bringing creation into being, and as the intermediary between the biblical God and creation. Thus it was natural to utilize the logos to define the nature of Christ. It was the first christological formulation in early Christianity and is found in John 1:1.

      But the logos doctrine had several problems. If Christ was understood as an emanation from God, as a logos naturally would be, then Christ was subordinate to God. If, on the other hand, the logos was viewed as the creative force in the universe, Christ could be set up as a rival God. This became a problem as theories of soteriology, or how Christ saves, were defined more clearly. In order for Christ's death on the cross to save humanity from sin, Christ had to be fully human, in order to represent humans fully; yet He also had to be fully God, in order to be a worthy sacrifice. Efforts by some Christian thinkers to subordinate Christ to God (notably Arius, c.250-326) were consistently rejected by the mainstream as heretical. The logos doctrine risked either subordinationism, where Jesus was less than God, or polytheism, when there was more than one Christian god.

      Further complicating the picture was an apostolic baptismal formula where one baptized in the name "of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit" (Matt. 28:19). No one knew what the formula meant, but it became a formula on which the relationship between Jesus and God was understood. Apparently it was not originally meant to be a trinitarian statement; rather, the idea of the trinity developed from the baptismal formula. Thus the role of the spirit was added to those of the father and son to constitute the essential problem in formulating a definition of the Godhead.

      The problem was how to develop imagery and language that made the father, son, and spirit different, but not too different; if they were too different one risked either tritheism—three separate, different and equal gods—or subordinationism—three separate, different, but unequal beings. One had to create distinctions that were worthy of the three members of the trinity, but distinctions that did not make one member of the trinity better than another. It took the finest minds in Christianity, using the most powerful intellectual tool of the day—Greek philosophy—almost the entire fourth century to accomplish the task. Because of the history of philosophical speculation in the Hellenistic east, the question of the nature of Christ assumed great importance in church culture there, and became emmeshed in ecclesiastical as well as imperial politics. Hence the trinitarian controversy was the ostensible motive for the deposing of many bishops, the smearing of lives and careers, the violent clashes of personalities, and some shedding of Christian blood by Christian hands.

      The first stage of the controversy was fought over the question of whether the three members of the trinity were homoousion, "of the same substance," or homoiousion, "of similar substance." The only difference between the words was a single letter (the Greek letter iota). If the three members of the trinity were understood to be of the same substance, some theologians feared that no distinction would remain between them; but if they were merely of similar substance then the Son and Holy Spirit could be seen as subordinate to the Father, and some church fathers, led by Arius, strongly favored such a view. The controversy grew so fierce that the emperor Constantine called a council in 325 to resolve the issue; held in Nicea, it was the first universal council of the Catholic church. The council formulated the Nicene Creed, which declared the members of the trinity to be homoousion, and excommunicated the party of Arius, who strongly emphasized Jesus Christ's greatness, but denied He was equal to the Father. Several subsequent councils were held, however, and depending on which side was in the majority, one side or the other was declared unchristian.

      In the late fourth century three young theologians from eastern Asia Minor finally developed workable language that everyone could accept. They took another word, hypostasis (usually translated into Latin as substantia, "substance")— originally used by Greek philosophers as a synonym for ousia (usually translated into Latin as essentia, "essence")—and developed trinitarian distinctions between the two terms. The trinity, they said, consisted of three hypostases but only one ousia. This allowed homoousion to be used by all, because it no longer implied subordinationism or tritheism. One difficulty with this solution was that neither ousia nor hypostasis was found in the New Testament, hence the solution had a certain non-Christian quality to it. However, the three theologians wrote extensively about the persons of the trinity and through imagery and analogy developed workable distinctions that infused meaning into the distinction between hypostasis and ousia.

      The relationship between the father and the son was resolved to the satisfaction of most Greek Christians by 400, but soon a new question arose: what was the relationship between Christ's divine nature and His human nature? How could two natures exist in the same person? There was again the tendency either to subordinate Christ's divine nature to His human side or vice-versa.

      The first phase of the controversy developed in the 420s, as a result of a personality clash between the bishops of Alexandria and Constantinople. In sermons the former bishop referred to the virgin Mary as theotokos, "bearer of God," but the latter bishop preferred the term christotokos, "bearer of Christ," and saw the former term as heretical. Both men had extensive networks of friends in high church and government positions and drew them into the fight; both also misrepresented the position of the other. In 431 a church council was called; as the bishops slowly arrived to participate in the council the strength of the two sides fluctuated, and the decision of the council shifted back and forth. The emperor was appealed to and he initially deposed both bishops, but eventually favored the term theotokos and confirmed the deposition of Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople. He was exiled to Egypt where he eventually died, a seemingly forgotten man.

      The second phase focused on a new issue: did Christ have two separate natures existing in one body and personality, or one only? Those who maintained that Christ could only have one nature were called monophysites (mono, Greek for one; physis, Greek for nature). The majority maintained that Christ had to have a fully human nature and a fully divine nature in order to save humanity. They excommunicated the Monophysites. Christ's nature was the major issue discussed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which declared Christ to be "truly God and truly man, of rational soul and body, of the same substance [homoousion] with the Father according to the Godhead, and of the same substance [homoousion] with us according to the manhood."[9]

      However, Monophysitism did not die out. It eventually came to dominate the Christian churches in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Syria, thereby permanently splitting the eastern churches. Some Monophysites entered the Persian realms as well, where their ideas were attributed to Bishop Nestorius and became the nucleus of the Nestorian church. Because Nestorianism was considered heretical in the Roman realms the Persian kings were willing to let it spread; they had been suspicious of orthodox Christianity because it was associated with Rome, Persia's greatest enemy.

      The third phase of the controversy over the nature of Christ did not occur until the rise of Islam in the 620s and 630s, which necessitated new efforts to heal the split among the eastern churches. A compromise formula was offered: that Christ, regardless of his nature, had only one will. This seemed intuitively correct, for how could one argue that a person had two wills? Other Christians, however, replied that in order to be fully divine, Christ had to have a divine will, and to be fully human He had to have a human will; hence Christ had to have two wills, which presumably always operated together and in perfect agreement with each other. This view eventually carried the day and the monotheletists—those who said Christ had one will—were excommunicated by the sixth and last church council, held in Constantinople in 680-81. While many of the previous heresies persisted, and new ones arose, the mainstream of Christians had now reached a consensus about the trinity and Christ's nature, so the controversy died down. Furthermore, the eastern churches were now fighting for their very existence against the spread of Islam and had no time for theological speculation.

Latin Christianity in the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Centuries

      While Greek Christian theology focused on the nature of Christ, Latin theology focused on the nature of human beings and the world they lived in. The difference reflected the philosophical, speculative tendency of Greek culture and the legalistic, practical, organizational tendency of Roman culture respectively. The acute social crises engendered by the collapse of the western Roman Empire also demanded the urgent consideration of Latin theologians.

      The west was spared some of the controversy over the trinity and the nature of Christ because the Greek theological terms did not translate well into Latin. In the early third century Tertullian had used Latin legal terminology to define the trinity as three personae (masks; persons; parties in a legal action) in one substantia (substance or presence), distinctions that worked well and did not lead to the problems that the Greek terms had created. The chief difficulties over trinitarian doctrine arose later, when some barbarian invaders were converted to the Arian version of Christianity.

Instead, Latin theology focused on the nature of the church. The bishop of Carthage, Cyprian (c. 200 - 258), devoted much of his writing to the question of the nature of the church; he is the author of the famous statement "there is no salvation outside the church."[10] Cyprian also argued that meetings of bishops were an important part of the church structure and that while all bishops were equal, the Bishop of Rome was the first among equals. In this way Cyprian laid the foundation for the establishment of the papacy. Since the western Empire had no cities of the size, age, and prestige of Rome, and no churches that could compete with the church of Rome, Rome acquired an importance over the western church that had no parallel in the east.

      In fourth century the Latin church benefited from several important theologians. Ambrose (339 - 97), bishop of Milan—which at that time was the administrative center of the western empire—was a tireless administrator and promoter of the church, a wise counsel for western emperors, and an active disseminator of Greek theology. Jerome (c. 341 - 420), learned in Hebrew and Greek, edited and retranslated the Bible into Latin, thereby creating the Latin text that was standard for a thousand years. He also translated many Greek theological works into Latin.

      But without question the supreme Latin theologian of the day was Augustine (354 - 430), who ranks with Origen, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin as one of the greatest thinkers in Christendom. Augustine was born to a Christian mother (Saint Monica) and a pagan father and was raised Christian, but as a young man he turned to philosophy. After extensive reading he became, for a time, a Manichaean; the Manichaeans were followers of Mani (219 - c. 277), a Babylonian-born Persian who claimed to be a divine revelator and successor to Christ, Zoroaster, and Buddha and who established a religion based on gnostic conceptions of the world. Moving to Milan, Augustine met Bishop Ambrose, was very impressed, and studied Christianity; he was baptized in 386. Two years later he permanently returned to Africa, where he had been born, and became bishop of the Mediterranean city of Hippo.

      Augustine wrote extensively on a wide range of topics; 113 books, over 200 letters, and over 500 sermons have survived. His De Trinitatae (On the Trinity) became one of the standard works on the trinity in the Latin church. His Confessions, which described his spiritual journey to Christianity and his meditations on the meaning of the journey immediately became a classic on the Christian spiritual life, and remains widely read today. But most significant was his masterpiece De Civitate Dei, "On the City of God," which was written over a fourteen-year period to make sense of the sacking of Rome by the Goths in 410 and of the collapse of the Roman Empire, which was a profoundly disturbing phenomenon to the intellectuals of Augustine's generation. Pagans argued that Rome had been sacked because the gods were angered by the spread of Christianity. Augustine replied that there had always been two cities, the city of God and the city of this world; Rome was part of the latter. Drawing from his own vast knowledge of Roman philosophers, poets, and essayists, he pointed out how checkered the history of the city of Rome had always been. But the City of God was the true city; it was dominated by the love of God; all good persons, Christian or not, were members of it; as Christianity spread, it was growing in the world, regardless of the economic and social state of the world around it. In this way Augustine set the collapse of the western Roman Empire in the framework of eternity, and thus minimized its theological importance. His thinking became central to the understanding of society in medieval Christian Europe. Because he wrote in Latin, his thought had little influence on the Greek-speaking east, and thus helped to widen the gap growing between the two halves of the church.

National and Cultural Divisions

      Throughout its first four centuries, mainstream Christianity had to wage a fierce battle against ethnic and cultural differences as well as heresy. As the church grew in size and strength, cultural differences began to produce regional variants of Christianity. Since the vast majority of Christians lived in the Roman Empire, the church there was called the universal (catholic, in Greek) church. But in semi-independent areas on the border of the Roman Empire, such as Armenia, Iraq, eastern Syria, north Africa, and southern Egypt, churches developed that had their own national hierarchies and used their own native languages. These churches were never completely a part of the catholic church. Thus Christian sects began to form along national and cultural lines. In Egypt, a Coptic church emerged; in Armenia, an Armenian church; in Mesopotamia, a Syriac church; in southern Tunisia and Algeria, a Donatist church. Beyond the Roman Empire, churches formed in Ethiopia, Georgia, Iran, and even southern India.

      The eastern part of the Roman Empire spoke and wrote Greek, the western part Latin. As has been noted, as Christian theology developed in both the Latin and Greek languages, divergent understandings of the nature of Christianity began to grow between the eastern and the western churches. When military and administrative realities necessitated the splitting of the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves, the two halves of the church were psychologically divorced from each other as well. The growing power of the Bishop of Rome over Latin Christianity—his rise to the status of Pope—and the growing status of the Bishop of Constantinople among the churches in the eastern half of the empire split the administration of the church. Consequently, the Latin and Greek halves of the catholic church grew farther and farther apart. In the 800s serious theological differences emerged between the "Catholics" and the "Orthodox." Finally in 1054 Pope Justinian excommunicated the Eastern Orthodox, and the bishop of Constantinople replied by excommunicating the Catholics; thus the largest pat of the body of Christ was formally rent in half. After the collapse of Rome a distinctive form of Catholic Christianity emerged in the west, as the church accommodated itself to the social and cultural conditions of the early middle ages.


[1] Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth, ed. trans. John H. Schútz (Philadephia: Fortress, 1982), 72.

[2] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996), 7.

[3] Quoted in Hans Jonas, The Gnostic Religion: The Message of the Alien God and the Beginnings of Christianity, 2d ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), 157.

[4] It is interesting to note that the word mahfil, the Arabic-Persian word for "assembly" (as in "spiritual assembly") originally had a similar range of meanings, and was translated variously as "gathering," "meeting," and "assembly" in early translations of the Bahá'í scriptures into English. The English word "assembly" also possesses a wide range of meanings. In the early days of the Bahá'í Faith in the Occident the word for a Bahá'í community was "assembly," there being no standard term yet for the community's governing body.

[5] Stark, The Rise of Christianity, chapter 4.

[6] Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 160.

[7] Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Greek Church, trans. Stanley Godman (New York: Pantheon, 1959), 26.

[8] To read the account of the martyrdoms of Perpetua and Felicitas, see Herbert Musurillo, ed., trans., The Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, Clarendon Press, 1972), 106-131.

[9] Quoted in Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity, Volume I: to A.D. 1500, rev. ed. (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1975). 171.

[10] Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought from its Judaic and Hellenistic Origins to Existentialism, ed. Carl E. Braaten (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968), 100.

Chapter 7

Christianity in the Middle Ages

      While Christianity was spreading in the Greco-Roman world, that world was itself undergoing revolutionary changes. The reasons for the decline and eventually collapse of the Roman Empire were numerous, and no single explanation is adequate. Internally, the empire never solved the problem of a stable, peaceful succession of competent leaders. Emperors usually appointed their successors, but some proved incompetent, emotionally imbalanced, or evil. From the beginning, the rule of force was established as superior to the rule of law, allowing many generals to contest the succession, often successfully; the result was a military challenge to almost every new emperor, devastating civil wars every decade or two, and sometimes frequent changes in leadership. The simple technology of the day placed limitations on the empire's growth; for example, a peaceful society allowed for increased trade and greater prosperity, which produced larger cities, but the unsanitary conditions of the larger cities also stimulated disease, which the improved transportation systems spread empire-wide. Thus the empire suffered from several serious plagues in the first and second centuries, in addition to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

      Externally, the empire faced enemies close and far. Along the eastern border the Persian Empire revived under the Sassanian dynasty in the mid third century and became a serious threat; Romans and Persians fought many wars, and as the frontier shifted back and forth Mesopotamia and Syria were devastated. Along the northern border, the tribes of northern and central Europe came in contact with Roman civilization, adopted aspects of it, and consequently became increasingly civilized, organized, powerful, and envious. Increasingly, emperors had to be good generals and had less time to devote to the development of the empire's cities or the maintenance of its roads and aquaducts. Eventually the empire had to be split into eastern and western halves so that there were two emperors to handle the two major frontiers.

      Throughout the second, third, and fourth centuries Roman military spending rose, forcing taxes upward ruinously and weakening the empire's economy. When enough tax revenue could not be raised the emperors ordered the gold and silver content of the coins to be decreased, in order to mint more coins using the same amount of precious metal; but this debased the currency and caused inflation, further damaging the economy.

      In Central Asia, the movement of peoples out of what is today Mongolia triggered a domino effect, displacing tribe after tribe westward; by the third and fourth centuries the frontiers no longer could hold them out, and Germanic and Slavic tribes began to pour into the empire, either to settle peacefully or to conquer and destroy sections of it. The eastern Empire, with its higher population density and older civilization, survived fairly well; relatively few of the major cities were destroyed. But after the 630s the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire faced a new and much more powerful enemy: Islam, which quickly conquered all of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and North Africa. Islamic armies steadily advanced on the Byzantines, finally capturing Constantinople itself in 1453.

      The western empire collapsed under the pressure of the migratory tribes. Rome was sacked in 410 and 455 and was besieged three times in the sixth century; its population, nearly a million in the first and second centuries, declined to less than fifty thousand by the end of the sixth century. By the eleventh century it was only thirty thousand. In Britain urban life was completely swept away by the tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who were entering, conquering, and settling. Latin became extinct as a spoken language in Britain, and the Celtic peoples were assimilated or driven into the hills of Wales and Cornwall. Gaul was overrun by various tribes, among them the Franks, from whom the country acquired the name of France; urban life there collapsed as well. Spain and Portugal were overrun by the Goths.

      One result of the invasions was a steady shrinkage of Christendom. In the north, Britain was completely lost, any gains in Germany were eliminated, and even in France and Spain Christianity was imperiled. The invasion of the Bulgars and southern Slavs swept away Christianiy in parts of the Balkans; then the Magyars occupied Hungary, destroying Christianity there. But the worst blow to Christendom was undoubtedly the spread of Islam, which ultimately eliminated or drastically weakened Christianity in the eastern and southern half of the former Roman Empire. It would be hundreds of years before these losses were reversed, primarily through conversion of the Germanic and Slavic peoples north of the former Roman Empire to the Catholic and Orthodox faiths.

      As the roads became unsafe for commerce, the towns that survived had to be concentrated along waterways. But with the rise of Islam the Byzantine navy could no longer control pirates and maritime commerce ceased. In the north, the Vikings began their raids about 800, snuffing out whatever peaceful trade that had begun to develop along the North Sea and Atlantic Coast. Towns became the targets of organized looting by both Saracens and Vikings, causing urban life to shrink further. With it went the merchant and aristocratic classes, the theatres and libraries, most knowledge of reading and writing, and most familiarity with the accumulated wisdom of the ancient Mediterranean civilizations. With the virtually cessation of trade, life became purely local; food had to be raised locally and thus land became the principal source of wealth. Even coins largely disappeared from circulation and any trade that did occur had to be conducted by barter.

      The extent of the changes to Western European culture is measurable in many of the words that entered the Latin language or changed their meanings. Domus, Latin for house, disappeared from the Latin spoken in France, Italy, and the Iberian peninsula; in all those areas except France it was replaced by the word casa, which originally meant "cottage." The Latin word for city, civitas, was swept away in France and replaced by the word ville, from the Latin word villa; this suggests that most cities were destroyed, and settled life mostly survived around the villas of powerful noblemen. The Latin laborare, "to work," was replaced in French, Portuguese, and Spanish by a word from which we get travail, "strenuous exertion; toil; tribulation or agony; anguish." From Italy to the Atlantic, the Latin word bellum, "war," was replaced by words of German origin. Such changes bespeak of the decline of living standards and social order.

      In the rising tide of chaos one institution stood out as a source of hope: the church. Not only did the church come to represent the City of God and the hope for humanity's future, but it was blessed by many able leaders who were able to use the church's size and prestige to preserve what civilization remained. Bishops often were able to persuade barbarian chiefs not to sack their cities; in Rome, the Pope largely ran the city, organizing the collection and distribution of food and other essentials. Gregory the Great (c. 540 - 604) was the most distinguished example of leadership. Son of a Roman senator, in 590 he was force to abandon a monastic life of prayer when he was unanimously elected Pope. He used the church's estates in southern Italy and Sicily to grow food for Rome's poor. He appointed governors to run other Italian cities. He negotiated a peace treaty with the Lombards, a German tribe then occupying northern Italy. He sent missionaries to England to reestablish Christianity there (the German invasion had destroyed it two centuries earlier). He also help bring about the conversion of many barbarian tribes to Catholicism from Arianism, a rival form of Christianity based on the teachings of Arius. His efforts to missionize pagan areas of western Europe strengthened the claim of the bishop of Rome to primacy over the church in western Europe. This greatly fostered the development of the papacy.

      Monasteries also developed as the focal points of civilization. Celibacy as a tendency in Christianity can be traced back to the first century (I Cor. 7:1-9). First Timothy 5:3-16 (a letter attributed to Paul, though written in the early second century) speaks of an orders of widows, presumably the forerunner of nuns. In the late third century, Antony of Egypt (251-356) began to organize the Christian hermits living in the desert into a monastic community. Possibly gnosticism influenced the strong monastic tendency that developed in Egypt; indeed, the so called "gnostic gospels" found in southern Egypt in the 1940s are thought to represent the gnostic library of a ruined monastery nearby, which were probably buried as a result of an order that monasteries destroy all heretical works.

      Jerome was one of the earlier monks in the western Roman empire, having been a hermit in the Syrian desert for five years. Augustine established a monastery in North Africa. As Christianity went from a religion of a small, dedicated minority to the dominant form of religion in the Roman Empire the zeal of the majority of its followers declined somewhat, and monasticism provided a new outlet for zealous Christians to pursue a religious life different from their contemporaries. Thus its influence steadily grew in the fourth and fifth centuries.

      The collapse of the western empire also made monastic life increasing attractive. It provided some measure of safety, since few monasteries were destroyed. Because monasteries were usually self-sufficient, they had a reliable food supply, and the brothers or sisters took care of their own when they were sick or old. Celibacy meant that domestic responsibilities would not be a distraction. Learning was prized, so monks had the time to learn Latin and sometimes even Greek, to read and study—not just the Bible, but the old philosophical and literary classics—and to write. Under the circumstances of the times, what Mediterranean and Christian civilization that survived was mostly to be found in the monasteries. The monasteries also initiated educational programs to teach Christianity to the masses, which had been partially de-Christianized by the empire's collapse. The rural areas of the western Empire had never been completely Christianized anyway; the monks completed the job.

      Ironically, one of the great powerhouses of monasticism was Ireland. Because of its isolation Ireland never suffered barbarian invasions, until the Vikings in the tenth century. Christianity arrived in Ireland about 600 under Saint Patrick and quickly conquered the island. Irish Christianity was initially monastic; monks went into virgin territory, established a new monastery, and from it converted the population. Initially Ireland had no dioceses and parishes, just monasteries; the local abbot, not the local bishop, was powerful. Working with Rome, in the eighth and ninth centuries hundreds, if not thousands, of Irish monks spread out over Gaul, Germany, Switzerland, even northern Italy, founding monasteries. Usually thirteen monks traveled together to found a new monastery, in imitation of Christ and his twelve disciples.

      A significant figure in the development of monasticism in Europe was Benedict of Nursia (c. 480-547), an Italian monk who acquired a reputation as a holy man and who consequently attracted many disciples. Benedict organized many monasteries, and the experience he acquired culminated in the rule of Saint Benedict, a document that sets the basic principles of monastic life. Such a life is dominated by unconditional obedience to God's will and to the exercise of humility; it views the abbot as central in a monk's spiritual development; and it advocates a daily life that balances worship, prayer, reading of scripture, and useful work. Benedict's rule was a synthesis of existing monastic practices with Benedict's own insights. Upon it a monastic order—the Benedictines—was founded. It was the first organized monastic order in the Catholic church.

      It is easy for Bahá'ís, aware of the Bahá'í prohibition of monasticism, to view the development of Christian monasticism with suspicion, but it is not clear that such suspicion is justified in the context of those times. Christ may not have created monasticism, but He did not forbid it either. In many ways, the creation of a clergy and a monastic lifestyle were positive developments in early Christianity. A clergy, with its sacramental powers, adapted Christianity to the folk religion of Greco-Roman culture; monasticism allowed the religion to develop and spread under the adverse social conditions after the collapse of the western Roman Empire. Convents provided women with their only opportunity to escape the burden of near-constant pregnancy, child rearing, and domestic drudgery and to learn to read. Monasteries provided one of the few opportunities for men to avoid constant work to support a family and to learn to read and write. Thus monasteries and clergy were effective responses to the needs of the day.

      The monastic spirituality that developed in the fourth and fifth centuries represented a refinement and extension of the spiritual life expected of a Christian layperson. That lifestyle started with baptism, which washed away one's original sin. Confession of sins before a priest engaged the church's power to forgive sins and allowed one to reduce one's time in purgatory (the church claimed no power over hell, however). Taking the sacraments were a means of obtaining God's grace and assisting in one's salvation. Confessing one's sins on one's death bed completed the cycle. However, if one wanted to be a good Christian, one became a monk; there was no definition of spirituality for the laity. A celibate, cloistered, ascetic, prayer-filled life was seen as superior and more "Christian" than the life of a married layperson, who was mired in domestic drudgery and tempted by sexual pleasure.

      By the late middle ages (1200-1500 C.E.) the redevelopment of an urban culture put this system of salvation under strain. The growing strength of the monarchies resulted in safer highways and sea routes. The Crusades re-established trade with the Middle East, brought new ideas to Europe, and created the conditions for a new prosperity. Towns became cities. A class of artisans (craftsmen) and merchants arose that had not existed for hundreds of years; this new "middle" class existed between the peasants and the nobility. A money economy spread for the first time since the fall of Rome. The new "middle" class wanted economic and political power and saw religion in a new way as well. They yearned for a less monastic spirituality; as a result the late middle ages saw the establishment of many lay religious orders that permitted marriage and worldly employment and that promoted a new style of popular mysticism. The artisans and merchants often disliked the idea that salvation was available through the mechanical process of attending mass and confessing sins, and sought a more direct link to God.

      The late Middle Ages also saw the founding of universities across Europe to teach Christianity and classical learning. Returning Crusaders and Jewish and Christian visitors from Islamic Spain brought books. Aristotle, totally ignored by classical Christianity, had become a central influence on Arabic philosophy and his assumptions had shaped Islamic theology. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries Aristotle was introduced to western Europe in Latin translation from Arabic along with Avverhoes (Ibn-Rushd), Avicenna (Ibn-Síná), and Algazal (Al-Ghazálí), major Muslim philosophers and theologians. The translations were poor and the Islamic content suspect, generating confusion and heresy in many universities. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), who obtained a doctorate in Theology at the University of Paris, produced over fifty treatises in his short scholarly career, notably his Summa Theologica, where he reconciled Aristotelianism to Christianity, thereby producing a new formulation of the latter. Somewhat controversial in his own lifetime, Aquinas soon emerged as the primary theologian of the medieval Catholic church and remains a central voice in Catholic thought to this day. His Summa became the principal textbook of Catholic theology; six thousand commentaries have been written on his works.

      In the fifteenth century several major events changed European culture forever. The European conquest of the civilizations of Central and South America flooded Europe with unprecedented quantities of gold and silver, causing inflation but greatly expanding investment capital. Cities expanded even more. Movable type and the development of a process for making cheap paper revolutionized book production. From 1450 to 1500, six million books were printed—far more than monks and scribes had copied by hand in the previous thousand years. Individuals, especially those in the new "middle" class, could now purchase books. The development of a book market stimulated writing books in the vernacular languages; use of Latin began to decline. The expansion of the supply of books and the decrease in their cost fostered learning and expanded literacy. Newspapers pamphlets, and posters were produced in large numbers, the latter two extensively illustrated as a result of another invention: the woodcut, which created black and white illustrations.

      The growing powers of monarchies and the spread of vernacular publishing accelerated the creation of national cultures, weakening Europe's cultural and religious unity based on Latin and the church. The kings asserted the right to appoint bishops in their kingdoms, thereby claiming control over their national churches. Just as the "universal" church of the old Roman Empire faced a split as the Latin west developed a Christianity distinct from the Greek east, so now the Catholic church faced national tensions. Northern Europe—speaking Germanic languages, more recently Christianized, and more recently urbanized than the older Latin lands—developed cultural expressions and political institutions of its own as it developed economically and socially.

      The fifteenth century saw the Bible translated and printed in most of western Europe's major languages. For the first time in the history of Christianity it became available to large numbers of readers. As a result many Christians discovered that masses, confession, baptism of infants, and other central features of their religion were not mentioned in the Bible at all, and other features—like the trinity and priesthood—were only implied at best. The stage was set for a major reform of Christianity throughout Europe. It is no coincidence that the phrase sola scriptura—"only scripture"—was to become the rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation.

Chapter 8

The Reformations

Crucial to the Reformation of the sixteenth century was Europe's new prosperity, the cultural developments that prosperity entailed, and the availability of printed Bibles. Reading the Bible became a new religious activity, and the truths Christians found there shaped a new Christian spirituality that was independent of the church. The wide circulation of printed pamphlets spread new understandings of Christian truths to the peasantry and nobility as well. Emphasis on the importance of reading the scripture eventually became a major force for the establishment of universal literacy.

      With the reading of the Bible came a new fascination for the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul's stress on the individual's direct relation to God and his rejection of all good works as completely irrelevant for salvation matched the interests of the merchants and artisans who wished to pursue a Christian life that was not dependent on priests with their confessions, mass, and penances.

      Exemplifying these new ideas was Martin Luther (1483-1546), a Catholic monk and scholar. As a young man, Luther sought to become a "monk's monk" among other things by confessing every sin he had ever committed, even as a small child. His spiritual obsession was relieved about 1513-15 when he meditated on Paul's statement that "the righteous shall live by faith" (Romans 1:17); it caused him to realize that penance was a human institution, not a divine one. While Eric Erikson, a leading psychologist, maintains that Luther was plagued by constipation much of his life and had his spiritual breakthrough simultaneously with a bowel movement, most historians interpret Luther's description of his spiritual transformation as occurring in a moment of great spiritual humility in the monastery's library.

      Luther's realization that penance was a human institution sharpened his opposition to indulgences, which the Pope issued to raise money for the church. Purchase of an indulgence reduced the time one had to spend in purgatory, so one could go to heaven more quickly; one could reduce one's stay in purgatory by up to thousands of years if one paid enough. In practice, much of the money supported the luxuries of the Vatican court, the Pope's construction and artistic projects, even local civic projects such as construction of bridges. In 1517 Luther nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany, a list of ninety-five theses, which disputed key Catholic teachings and practices, including the Pope's power to forgive sins. This act is considered the opening shot in the Reformation.

      The Catholic Church's first response was to ignore Luther, but he proved to be the most brilliant and prolific theologian of the age. Not only did he turn out theological works justifying his beliefs, but he penned commentaries on most books of the Bible, drafted catechisms to explain his faith to laypeople and even to children, engaged in a massive correspondence, composed scores of hymns, produced hundreds of written sermons, and wrote popular works that, illustrated by woodcuts of the Pope dressed as Satan, took his ideas to ordinary people. He translated the entire Bible into German, producing a work that standardized the language. He advocated a Christian lifestyle based on marriage, child rearing, and a vocation, and demonstrated them by renouncing celibacy, marrying a former nun, and starting a family. With Luther, the ideal Christian life ceased to be that of a monk or nun. The church went from a dispenser of salvation to an institution for bringing Christians together in their efforts to live a life in Christ. Priests were replaced by preachers who expounded the word and educated the laity.

      Luther was a skilled debater who brilliantly defended his positions in a court trying him for heresy, and who had the wisdom to flee before it condemned him to death. Germany was a welter of semi-independent city-states and principalities, many of whose princes sympathized with Luther's theology. The sympathetic princes adopted Lutheranism and forcibly reformed the Catholic church in their jurisdictions; other princes (especially those bishops who were the civil leaders of their cities) persecuted Lutherans and sought Luther's head. A century of warfare descended upon Germany.

      As a reform movement gathered momentum, however, a spectrum of opinions emerged as to how the church should be reformed.

Radical Ref.     Zwingli   Calvin   Luther          Catholic Reform
Menno Simon                Melanchthon                      Erasmus

      On the "left" or extremist end of the spectrum were the Radical Reformers, especially the Anabaptists. They rejected on biblical grounds all Christian participation in war and in government, and argued that the Bible called for the baptism of believing adults only, and not of infants. By rejecting infant baptism—which was seen not only as washing the babies of original sin, but as introducing them into society as new members—the Anabaptists were seen as subversive of the social order. In Germany and Switzerland thousands of them were martyred for their beliefs. From the Anabaptists come the modern Mennonites and Amish.

      On the "right" or conservative end of the spectrum were the reformers who sought to reform the Catholic church without breaking from it. Erasmus (1469?-1536), the great Catholic scholar, was one example. These reformers sought to curb the worst abuses of the penance system, to decentralize the church structure, and to renew its spiritual life. Ignatius Loyola (c. 1491-1556) and the new monastic order that he founded—the Jesuits—were the principal agents for Catholic renewal and reinvigoration. This movement is often called the "Counter-Reformation," but because it is not simply a reaction against Protestantism, the term "Catholic Reformation" is now preferred by most scholars.

      In the middle of the spectrum were the "Magisterial Reformers," a band of reformers who, with the help of princes and city councils, broke from the Catholic church and created new Christian sects along the lines of their new theology. Luther was only the most prominent of these men. Equally important to the creation of Lutheranism was Philip Melanchthon, a colleague of Luther and an excellent theologian. Lutheranism spread throughout Germany and Scandinavia, in each case becoming a national church; thus a Swedish Lutheran church organized that was separate from a German Lutheran church. Christian sects thus formed along national lines. Because the culture of each country was a bit different, the theology of the churches came to differ slightly also. Other Protestant Reformers were Huldreich Zwingli in Zurich, Martin Bucer in Strasbourg, and John Oecolampadius in Basel.


      John Calvin (1509 - 64) was the man who gave the Protestant Reformation one of its classic expressions. A French Protestant who fled to Geneva, Switzerland, he came to dominate that city's Christianity and made it into an international center of Protestantism. Like Luther, Calvin was incredibly prolific, writing commentaries on biblical books and producing dozens of treatises. But his greatness lay in the magnificent book that he wrote and re-wrote most of his life, Institutes of the Christian Religion, his summary of Christian theology. Before his conversion, Calvin had been a lawyer and had learned how to present an argument clearly and cogently. Institutes is one of the great classics in Protestant theology; it was printed in Latin and French and was widely read, even in Italy and Spain where it was banned. The individuals who agreed with Calvin usually did not have the power to take over their national churches—the exceptions were Netherlands and Scotland—and thus had to form Calvinist minority sects, usually referred to as "Reformed" Churches. These sects based their beliefs on Calvin, but over time their beliefs inevitably took on distinctive aspects not elaborated by Calvin in his writings. The Puritans who founded New England were Calvinists.

      The basic teachings of Calvinism were succinctly formulated in 1618 at the Synod of Dort. A synod is a meeting of church ecclesiastics; Dort is a town in the Netherlands. Calvin himself did not always hold all of these points—they represent an extreme position—nor did many Calvinists, but the New England Puritans initially did. This radical or "pure" Calvinism had five points:

      Total Depravity — As a result of eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, humanity became totally corrupted. Not even the faculty of reason is an adequate and reliable means for finding God; all our faculties are unreliable.

      Unconditioned Election — God chooses, or "elects" those whom He will save, freely and unconditionally of any outside influence, there is absolutely nothing one can do to become elect. One can do good deeds every day of one's life, and make a mighty effort not to sin; one can, in short, live like a saint; but if God decides you will go to hell, you will, and there is nothing anyone can do to change His mind.

      Limited Atonement — Christ died to save humanity from sin, but the power of that act was not absolute; it does not tie the hands of God and guarantee that all can be saved. Thus His atonement for sin was limited in its efficacy.

      Irresistible grace — If God has chosen to save you, you cannot resist His power. His grace will transform you even against your will.

      Perseverance of the Saints — Once God has saved you, you cannot backslide; you are saved eternally.

      These five might be thought of as the "basic principles" of Calvinism. They may be abbreviated "TULIP," from the first letter of the first word of each principle. They stress the absolute sovereignty of God and His grace, a rather Islamic notion that only God is powerful in this world and we must submit our wills to Him. The power of the individual to work on his or her salvation and the importance of good works are totally denied. Rather, the Calvinist assumes that good works will follow from the grace, and that a saint will do good works because he is saved; thus good works may be evidence of election, but cannot bring about election in the first place. Such an approach to human beings strikes most modern people as unnecessarily pessimistic and oppressive, but five hundred years ago, when life was short and most humans were confined in rigidly hierarchical societies that gave them few rights and options, it seemed more plausible and natural.

      The English Reformation

      Both Calvinism and Lutheranism were brought to England, and both had an effect on thinking there. The English Reformation began in 1529, just twelve years after Luther's efforts, when Pope Clement VII refused to grant King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47) a divorce; his wife had failed to bear him a son, he blamed the failure on her, and argued that for the good of his country he had to father a male heir. Henry also asserted that as King of England he should have control over the Church in England, an idea that in the twentieth century seems strange, but which had considerable precedent in the Middle Ages. Henry took over the church from the Pope by an act of Parliament and was excommunicated as a result. But he made only a few changes in the church at first. He appointed new bishops loyal to himself and closed the monasteries, confiscating all their land for the crown. He opposed Protestant reforms and actually wrote a law forbidding women, peasants, and others from reading the Bible. Only toward the end of his life did he allow changes to be made in the Church of England's theology.

      When Henry died in 1547 his son, Edward VI, was only ten years old, consequently the kingdom was placed in the hands of a regent. He was a Protestant; Lutheran and Calvinist ideas poured in. But when Edward VI died in 1553 he was succeeded by his stepsister, Mary, who was Catholic. She converted the Church of England back to Catholicism and persecuted the Protestants. She died in 1558 and was succeeded by Elizabeth I, who re-established Protestantism.

      The English Reformation had no central figure, like Luther, but did have a spectrum of opinions with a radical left, a conservative right, and middle, like the Reformation on the Continent:

Ranters     Quakers        Puritans      Moderate Angl.    AngloCatholics

      The more radical Protestants became disillusioned that the Church of England could ever be correctly and completely reformed and separated themselves from it. On the far "left" or radical end of the spectrum were those who went beyond the scriptures to claim direct revelation or inspiration from God. Most of these sects either died out or were exterminated; the Quakers, with their stress on the "light within," were among the more moderate of the radicals. On the other hand, the Church of England retained a lot of conservatives who sought reunification with Rome; to this day the Church of England (or Anglican church, as it is also called) contains an "Anglo-Catholic" party.

      Closer to the middle of the reformation spectrum were the Calvinists, who fell into several camps depending on the way they organized their churches. Many read the letters of the Apostle Paul closely and advocated a "presbyterian" governmental system for the church: individual churches would have a minister and a council of elders; local churches would be grouped into "presbyteries," which would oversee ordination and discipline of ministers; presbyteries would be grouped together into "synods"; and synods would be members of the general assembly, the single supreme legislative body of a presbyterian church. In Scotland the Calvinists won control of the national church and reformed it along these lines; to this day most Scots are members of the Church of Scotland, which is a presbyterian church. When Scots came to the United States they became the main founders of the Presbyterian church.

      Other Calvinists advocated a purely local organization of churches, where each local church was independent and the local congregation owned the church building, chose the minister, paid him, and fired him if they didn't like him. These Calvinists were called "Separatists" and were persecuted because they were seen as subversive of the church; they fled England for the Netherlands, and in 1620 some of them sailed to Plymouth, Massachusetts, becoming what Americans call the pilgrims. Other Calvinists remained within the Church of England and sought to reform it from within. Some of them eventually withdrew from the Church of England, to form Congregational, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches; others remained within it to this day, and represent a Calvinist "low-church" tendency within Anglicanism.

      The entire range of English Protestant sects eventually came to British North America. The lack of established political and ecclesiastical structures in North America made control of the various sects almost impossible. Many took advantage of the opportunities that a frontier offered to create their own sectarian villages and towns, where religious principles dominated local social life and culture. As a result the tendencies unloosened by the Reformation took unexpected turns, and produced many unexpected developments.

      Many scholars believe that Protestantism, by reshaping the culture and society of northern Europe, made possible both capitalism and modern individualism. Its rejection of the Pope and much of church tradition in favor of reliance on the Bible opened the door for thousands of variant interpretations of the gospel. Reliance on the Bible also had the consequence that Protestants stressed literacy so that everyone could read the scriptures themselves. This set the stage for mass education in northern Europe and North America. Protestant's distrust of ecclesiastical authority also helped undermine aristocratic authority somewhat. The religious diversity that resulted caused the old assumptions about the need for a society to have religious uniformity to collapse and opened discussion about separation of church and state and religious rights. Congregational forms of church organization put the decision-making in the hands of all male members and set the stage for new concepts of democracy. Thus Protestantism set the stage for many ideals in the modern world.

      The Bahá'í authoritative writings say relatively little about the Reformation, but Shoghi Effendi did approve of the following text written on his behalf:

What contribution the Reformation did really make was to seriously challenge, and partly undermine, the edifice which the Fathers of the Church had themselves reared, and to discard and demonstrate the purely human origin of the elaborate doctrines, ceremonies and institutions which they had devised. The Reformation was a right challenge to the man-made organization of the Church, and as such was a step in advance. In it origins, it was a reflection of the new spirit which Islam had released, and a God-sent punishment to those who had refused to embrace its truth (letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, January 14, 1938, published in Lights of Guidance, 3d ed., number 1653).

The Reformation particularly focused on the Papacy and the numerous powers it had accumulated, powers, the Bahá'í writings note, that were not implied in the biblical text that Jesus would build His church on the "rock" of the Apostle Peter. Islam unquestionably did exert an influence on late medieval Catholic theology via such Aristotelians as Avicenna and Averrhoes, although the text above suggests a spiritual influence that is hard to trace in a specific way. Possibly the Islamic insistence on the absolute transcendence and authority of God reinforced Saint Paul's own voice, thereby easing the way for Protestantism to stress justification by faith and reject the Pope's claim to the keys to the gate of heaven. But Protestantism did have a side to it that may explain Shoghi Effendi's description of it as a "God-sent punishment," for it further split the unity of Christendom and opened the door to a vast multiplication of Christian sects.

Chapter 9

Christianity in America

      The discovery of North and South America created many new challenges for Europe. The wealth of the central and south American civilizations catapulted Spain to the forefront of world powers and had a profound impact on the European economy. All western European states were soon clambering to establish their own American colonies and experimented with a variety of cash crops to find an economic basis for them. Most also sent Catholic missionaries to convert the natives.

      Because of its relatively late arrival on the scene, Britain got the colder eastern coast of North America, which offered few opportunities for gold and no native urban civilizations to conquer. A major problem it faced was finding colonists willing to leave their native land for potential poverty and death far from family and friends. Britain solved the problem by charting private companies to send out profit-making colonies. The first successful enterprise was the Virginia Colony, which established Jamestown in May 1607. Within the wooden palisade were a storehouse, a number of houses, and a church. The colony, established by wealthy Anglican merchants, only recognized the Church of England, but for many years the company paid for no priest to settle there. Immediately attacked by the local Indians, the colony had no economic basis for years, made no profit, and the colonists suffered an immensely high death rate from warfare, disease, and starvation. Eventually the arrival of African slaves, the raising of tobacco, and the importation of London criminals (who faced execution or extensive imprisonment if they refused to emigrate) caused the colony to expand. A series of incompetent or unpopular governors chosen by the company's wealthy London owners cause the colonists to establish an elected legislative body in 1619 to establish the colony's laws. But the Virginia Colony had no printing press for over half a century; the first university in Virginia, the College of William and Mary, was not established until 1696.

      In Virginia and later in the Carolinas and Georgia, the Church of England was the only recognized church; but priests didn't want to leave warm and comfortable England to settle in the swamps, Indian-infested woods and crude hamlets of England's south Atlantic colonies. As a result, there was about one priest for every four or five churches in the American south, and the priests were often of low quality. The Church of England is an episcopal church, that is, power resides in bishops. The bishops appoint and direct the priests, and traditionally the lay people had very little to do with the running of a local church. But in the South there was no bishop at all and few priests, so the laymen ran the churches and often administered communion or performed baptisms, which was against church law. Because of the shortage of priests, even in the south the congregational form of church organization became the dominant one. As the population of the colonies grew, the local Anglicans themselves opposed the appointment of an American bishop, lest he take away privileges they had grown used to.

      Thirteen years after the founding of Jamestown, a colony of a different sort formed four hundred miles to the north. A group of separatist Puritans, disillusioned by Anglicanism's refusal to reform, first emigrated to the Netherlands (a good Calvinist nation) in 1608, but as their children began to become Dutch, they decided to emigrate to "northern Virginia" instead. They landed in what today is Massachusetts in December, 1620. They learned how to raise corn from the Indians—whose numbers had been decimated by European illnesses brought by fishermen a few years earlier—received some additional settlers from England in the next decade, and survived fairly well in their new environment.

      In 1630 King Charles I appointed a new Archbishop of Canterbury (the head of the Anglican Church), who favored a middle path to reforming the English church. This entailed rejecting the much more extreme demands of the Puritans, whom he began to persecute severely. Puritan ministers were deprived of their churches; Puritan laypeople were discriminated against. In response, a group of Calvinist businessmen organized the Massachusetts Bay Company and obtained a charter for it from the King, which included a claim over a large stretch of land. Like the Virginia Company, the company was a joint stock company; individuals who invested in the company owned shares and had voting privileges in choosing a governor. Unlike the Virginia Company, however, the company bylaws did not require the annual meeting to be held in London (the place of the annual meeting was unspecified). Stock was mainly sold to hundreds of middle class Puritan artisans and small businessmen, who then used the company proceeds to purchase ships for their own emigration. As a result, in 1630 four ships loaded with a thousand colonists arrived in Boston harbor and had the legal framework for electing their own governor, setting up their own government, and making some changes in the ways the company's charter would be interpreted.

      The Puritan colonists decided their colony that would demonstrate the truth of their beliefs by example; it would be a utopian society proving the superiority of their understanding of Christianity. As Calvinists they believed that some people were chosen by God to be saved; these people could more or less be known by their good character, their good works (which were a fruit of salvation, not a cause of it), and by the experience of receiving God's grace. Since they were sure their senior clergy were among God's elect, they formed a committee of the saved to interview the others for evidence of election. Since those who fled to Massachusetts were among the most determined of the Puritans, most were found to be saved. Those who were determined to be saints were made full members of the churches; their children could be baptized and they could receive communion. The others were to pray, attend church every Sunday, follow God's laws (include complete abstinence from labor on the Sabbath) and await God's act of saving grace. Only those judged to be among God's elect could vote in elections and be voted for; in this way the civil government of the colony, based on the royal charter, was secured from gross immorality and corruption.

      The flood of immigration continued for a decade, until the death of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1640 and his replacement by a man less opposed to Puritanism. Over ten thousand Puritans arrived and spread out over Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, founding towns. Each town used the church as its meeting hall, all male members of the church as its legislative body (the New England town meeting), and elected officers to carry out various executive functions. Every town organized schools to educate boys (girls were not sent to school until the eighteenth century). In order to assure themselves a reliable supply of ministers, one of the first things the Puritans did was to establish Harvard College (1636; far sooner than any college in Virginia).

      Those who found Puritan theological uniformity stifling moved to Rhode Island, a colony established by dissenters from strict Calvinism. Roger Williams, the founder of the town of Providence, became a Baptist and gave that town a Baptist character. He later withdrew even from Baptism, but not before declaring that complete religious freedom reigned in Rhode Island and that even Turks (Muslims) would be welcome there.

      In the Middle Colonies, many different groups settled and the area acquired considerable religious diversity. William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania, was a Quaker, and he settled many Quakers there. Because there weren't enough Quakers willing to move to the New World, Penn invited many persecuted German sects to settle in Pennsylvania, such as the "Pennsylvania Dutch" (Mennonites and Amish). Often the sects were part of Germany's radical Reformation, just as the Quakers were part of England's; thus the groups often felt an affinity with each other. Other Germans came over to settle near their countrymen; they established the Lutheran church in America and the German Reformed (Calvinist) church.

      New York was first settled by the Dutch, who brought the Calvinist Dutch Reformed church (the national Dutch church) to America. Later when the English conquered New Amsterdam they introduced Anglicanism and declared it the official faith, but found it impractical to persecute the Dutch and English Calvinists. New England Puritans migrated south to Long Island, New York, and northern New Jersey and brought the their church; many of them later joined the Scots, who had especially settled in New Jersey, to establish the Presbyterian church. Delaware was first settled by Swedes who established Lutheran churches. Maryland was established as a colony for Roman Catholics, though Anglicans quickly became the majority.

      Because there was effectively no national church, Calvinism soon became the dominant form of Christianity in British North America, spreading into the rural south from New England and the Middle Colonies and replacing Anglicanism. This is in sharp contrast to Europe, where the Calvinists usually were in the minority.

      No sooner were the various Protestant groups established in America than they began to change, and often to split. The American environment and Protestantism's basic assumptions—a stress on the individual's relationship with God and on the Bible as the only ultimate source of guidance to the individual—caused the changes. When one makes the Bible and the individual's consciousness the standards of personal growth, the conscience can insist on unusual interpretations of the Bible. In Europe the Calvinist sects were small and often subject to persecution by the state and the state church; but in America, generally, there was freedom of religion, and thus there was no external force to control unusual interpretations. In Massachusetts the Puritans did hang several women for being Quaker missionaries in 1659 and 1661, but they were isolated cases. As a result of religious freedom, religious imaginations ran wild, new interpretations of the Bible were set forth, and new sects began to appear in America.

      American culture was different from the culture of late medieval Europe in several crucial respects. In America a white man could always acquire land simply by packing up his wagon and riding to the frontier. In England few owned land, and property ownership defined whether one could vote; in America virtually all white men owned land and thus could vote. In New England virtually all white men could read and write also, which was practically unprecedented in human history. The country had no hereditary aristocracy and very little poverty. By and large, there was rule of law. In colonial America there were no European-style wars; wars with the American Indians rarely resulted in extensive destruction to European settlements. There was no starvation after the first decade, and because the population was scattered, no plagues. Medical care, while rudimentary, was no worse than in Europe; Boston was one of the first towns to use vaccination to combat smallpox. A typical New England farmer and his wife would have eight to twelve children, and three quarters survived to adulthood. Thus America experienced a population explosion nearly unprecedented in human history.

      One result was a culture that was extremely optimistic about the ability of individuals. The average person was seen to have "common sense"—an idea that in Europe did not immediately become a commonly accepted assumption because of the hierarchical nature of society. Because the average American could read the Bible himself and had "common sense," he was capable of making up his own mind about the truths in religion; this further encouraged the tendency toward sect formation and individualism. The doctrines of TULIP, which stress the complete powerlessness of the individual to change his own situation, came to be seen as unnecessarily pessimistic and harsh. Gradually the Protestant churches moved away from it.

      New England Puritans, because of their congregational organization, had very few mechanisms above the local church level that could control the theology of the ministers, and consequently they underwent the most theological diversification and drift. One of the biggest issues that arose among the Congregational churches concerned whether infants should be baptized, or only confessing adults; the churches baptized infants, but Jesus never did. Those who insisted that baptism was a sacrament reserved only for the born again gradually withdrew to form Baptist churches.

      Anglicans moved in a liberal direction as well. Presbyterians had a hierarchy of ministers and elders who controlled ordination and could discipline errant clergymen, so they resisted the efforts to modify Calvinism more successfully.


      To combat a tendency toward laxity, many churches sought to create conditions in which God's grace could more easily be given to souls and they could become saved. In spite of Calvinism's emphasis on the absolute sovereignty of God to decide who would receive the gift of eternal life and on the complete helplessness of the individual before God's power, some Calvinists began to promulgate doctrines of "preparation" whereby souls could prepare themselves for grace and preachers could create conditions where people yearned for salvation. The first large-scale revivals occurred in the 1730s in Massachusetts, and subsequently in all the other colonies. Thousands accepted Christ and joined churches. Revival was the first pan-American experience; denominational leaders traveled between colonies to foster revival and established contacts and networks; the thirteen colonies acquired common experiences and forged a modicum of common culture. In many ways, the First Great Awakening (1730-60) laid the foundation for the American Revolution.

      The American Revolution proved to a religious revolution as well. The big loser was Anglicanism; after the war was won, it was impossible for an American to be a member of the Church of England. Many members had already joined lay-organized Methodist "societies" within Anglicanism, and on the frontier the Methodist societies were the only religious organization available to many; it became a separate Methodist denomination soon after the end of the Revolution. With its itinerant bishops to coordinate lay-organized local churches, Methodism was perfectly organized for chaotic frontier conditions. It soon became America's largest denomination. The older, more established Anglican churches formed the Episcopal Church of America and sent several men to Britain to be ordained as bishops, thereby acquiring the leadership the church had sorely lacked in the colonial period. The New England Puritans—now known as the Congregational Church—the Presbyterians and the Baptists were the ones who supported the American cause the most and who gained the most prestige as a result.

      But as the eighteenth century yielded to the nineteenth, America was on the move—to the west—and American religion had to change to accommodate. Most religious innovation occurred on the frontier. This was partly because churches had not yet been established there, so new ideas faced less resistance. Furthermore, most frontiersmen had come from small settled towns where everyone had known everyone else; in contrast, the frontier was a place where complete strangers were thrown together. Because they experienced considerable personal upheaval on the frontier, people had to think in new ways, and yearned to establish homes and churches where the familiarity of settled life back east could be duplicated.

      As a result, many sects arose on the frontier or came there and flourished. The Universalists said that no one was damned eternally to hell, but everyone eventually would be saved (their name comes from their doctrine of "universal" salvation). Free Will Baptists championed free will over total depravity and unconditioned election. Both of these sects first became strong in northern New England right after the Revolution, when that area was undergoing rapid settlement. Both opposed the doctrines of TULIP with more optimistic views of human nature. Baptists grew along the New England frontier and spread south. The Methodists stressed free will and the perfectibility of human beings, ideas very appealing to frontiersmen.

      The need to convert the frontier population to Christ and organize it into local churches often caused Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists to band together to plan revivals. These four denominations, and a few smaller regional churches (like the Disciples of Christ) came to be called the "evangelical" or "mainline Protestant" churches because of their theological affinities.

      However, revivals often created as much disunity as unity and furthered the tendency toward religious individualism. In western New York state in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, sect creation became unusually common. Most of the people settling there had been born into New England Puritan families and were reacting against its strictness. So many evangelists toured the area, holding "camp meetings" in order to save souls, that the area came to be called the "Burned Over District." Joseph Smith started Mormonism there, partly in reaction against all the conflicting revivals and theological claims. William Miller lived on the edge of the Burned Over District and preached there; he proclaimed that Christ would return in 1844, starting a movement that would eventually produce the Seventh Day Adventists. The Oneida colony experimented with eugenics and a religious-based socialism. The Fox sisters heard the rappings of spirits in their house in western New York state and started Spiritualism, with its seances, communication with the dead, and ouija (pronounced "wee-jee") boards. Ann Lee, the founder of Shakerism, settled there, and the movement (which advocated communal living and strict celibacy) flourished.

      In the cities, especially in New England, new ideas from Europe also brought new sects into existence. In Boston, European philosophy caused many to reject total depravity, the trinity, and other traditional Calvinist doctrines, and become Unitarians (the name refers to their rejection of the trinity and their belief in the unity of God). Later, Unitarianism spawned Transcendentalism, which rejected all Christian dogmas in favor of an individual mystical relation with nature and with God. The Transcendentalists studied Hindu and Confucian texts, helped to introduce the study of world religions in America, and were among the first to do modern higher biblical criticism. Unitarianism, by the end of the nineteenth century, came to include a large number of persons who did not consider themselves Christians—only theists—and a few who, rejecting belief in God, considered themselves humanists.

      Late nineteenth-century Boston also became the center of Christian Science, which stresses spiritual healing. Toward the end of the nineteenth century millions of rural Americans began to move to the cities to get manufacturing jobs. Among them were many Methodists, who were shocked by how lax Methodism had become in the cities. To protect their children against the sins of liquor and dancing these people formed the Church of the Nazarene. Other, poorer Methodists, stressing the ideas of personal perfection and speaking in tongues, spawned the Pentecostal and Holiness churches.

Confrontation with New Ideas

After the Civil War, new issues arose which were unlike any that Christianity had ever faced before, and which eventually proved fatal to the unity of mainline Protestantism. The first was Darwinism. The Origin of Species was published in 1859, but not until after the Civil War did it become widely read and debated in the United States. The initial reaction was quite favorable, and by the turn of the century most Protestants had accepted evolution. It was only after World War One, when conservative Protestantism became increasingly vocal, that it became an issue.

      The second issue was comparative religion. Western Europeans and Americans, before the nineteenth century, had virtually no contact with non-Christians, except occasional Turks (in Europe) and Indians (in America). With the creation of factories, steam ships, railroads, and the telegraph, imperialistic empires were established that brought westerners in contact with nonwesterners on a large scale. Western missionaries went out to enlighten the poor, ignorant, immoral heathen (as they believed), and discovered that the nonwesterners were considerably more intelligent, sophisticated, and capable than they had imagined. The naive view that everyone would convert to Christianity as soon as the non-Christians were exposed to true religion quickly proved naive. Chinese and Japanese immigrated into the western United States as early as the 1870s and quietly established Buddhist temples for their own use. By the 1890s Hindu swamis and Buddhist teachers were touring the United States and publicly criticizing Christian missionaries. Middle Eastern Muslims began to settle in American cities and even on the prairies as farmers and built America's first mosques. This is the time the Bahá'í Faith arrived in America as well. American Christians had to reevaluate their view of other religions, and in the process had to face the question of the uniqueness of Christianity.

      The third issue was biblical criticism. Careful, rigorous examination of the Bible in its original languages took a new turn in the early nineteenth century. Scholars became increasingly certain that none of the gospels were accounts by eyewitness, that Isaiah did not write all of the Book of Isaiah, and that Moses did not author the Pentateuch. These and other similar conclusions undermined the assumption that the Bible was a revelation from God. Before the Civil War, no one worried about whether the Bible was inerrant or literal; its reliability was assumed, and adjectives were rarely used to define its reliability. But after the Civil War debate about the nature of the Bible became increasingly sharp. Since the Bible was the basis of Protestantism, the debate cut to the very core of the movement.

      Mainstream Protestantism began to bifurcate over these three issues into liberals and conservatives starting in the 1880s and 1890s. The debate became more sharp after 1900 and became a schism after World War One. At that time the conservatives—who were dubbed Fundamentalists by their opponents, and who accepted the name—became vocal in their opposition to biblical criticism and Darwinism. They moved to take over the Protestant denominations from the liberals, who had controlled them. The Scopes trial, where a high school biology teacher was put on trial for teaching evolution in 1925, made conservative Protestantism the laughing stock of the nation, even though Scopes was found guilty and fined. At the same time fundamentalism completely failed to conquer the denominations. As a result, fundamentalism as a movement dropped out of the limelight after 1925.

      However, it did not disappear. The mainline denominations continued to have liberal and conservative factions and they continued to struggle; the liberal/conservative split is one of the most fundamental aspects of American religion in the twentieth and early twenty-first century. Conservative Protestant colleges grew rapidly during the depression and conservatives soon dominated the new fields of radio and television evangelism. After World War Two a more moderate evangelical Protestantism became respectable—Billy Graham was its primary spokesman. Starting about 1970 a new, more vocal evangelicalism emerged; the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell were manifestations of this movement. As the twentieth century yielded to the twenty-first, a vocal and active evangelical Protestantism came to dominate the conception of American religion in the minds of many, and acquired enormous political influence. Liberal Protestantism—which had been a major voice in the civil rights movement—remained active, but its churches were losing membership and its voice was less influential culturally.


      Sect formation has occurred rampantly in Protestantism because of its concept of authority: authority is invested in the individual's interpretation of the Bible. The Protestants have tried hard to curb variant interpretations with catechisms and creeds, but ultimately they recognize no external authority that can control the individual's interpretation beside the judgment of God. As a result, Protestant sects have formed over every conceivable question. Some are separated over the right form of church government (whether it should be congregational, presbyterian, or episcopal); some are separated over the nature of the Christian sacraments (such as the importance of baptism); others divide over theology (such as universal salvation and free will). Some go beyond the Bible entirely: the stress in Protestantism on individualism leaves open the possibility of a personal revelation; thus the Mormons and Christian Scientists claim a new holy book, a "third testament," revealed through a new prophet. Other churches have split over seemingly irrelevant matters; the "Christian church" in the Midwest split into two sects in 1906 over the question of whether local churches could have organs.

      The United States was only the first example of a country with rampant and continuous Christian sect formation. In the twentieth century many Christian sects have formed in Africa as African Christians, reading the Bible themselves, have rejected the European assumptions of their missionary teachers and have interpreted the Bible in a way consistent with African culture and experience. The spread of freedom of religion around the world has resulted in many new Christian sects in Latin America and Asia as well.

      Study of the process of sect formation helps Bahá'ís appreciate the power of the Covenant in maintaining unity in belief and practice, as well as the sense felt by all Bahá'ís of being members of one giant world-wide family. It demonstrates clearly the difference between Christian heresy and Bahá'í Covenant-breaking. Finally, it gives us a vision of what the Bahá'í Faith would be like, if it did not have the Covenant to hold the believers together; in the twenty thousand sects of Christianity we have a glimmer of those "thousand sects" that 'Abdu'l-Bahá says would form in a day.

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