Baha'i mindset on historicity of the scriptures
By JoAnn Borovicka, Dec 26 2018 05:35PM
One of the participants in a course on Judaism for Deepening and Dialogue asked about what the Baha'i mindset might be in regards to the historicity of stories presented in the Torah. I'd like to share some of my response:
When asked about dates of the ancient Prophets, Shoghi Effendi stated that "Tentatively we can accept what historians may consider accurate." (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated November 25, 1950, to an individual, in Compilation of Compilations, vol. I, no. 64) I think the key word here is "tentative." History is not an authoritative list of what happened, it's fluid. Ancient history isn't a list of facts, it's a complex debate. Theories change with new findings. Scholars can look at the same archeological data and come to different conclusions. Understanding this, and in a spirit of appreciation for scientific and academic research (harmony of science and religion), Baha'is can, like others and to the degree that it interests them, tentatively understand the historicity of the scriptural stories according to whatever evidence and interpretations make sense to them at the time.
For a specifically Baha'i mindset, that would be to focus on the spiritual meaning of the stories. I think that Bahá’u’lláh's "Responses to questions of Mánikchí Sáhib” found in The Tabernacle of Unity really demonstrates this principle. Mánikchí Sáhib had requested distinct rulings on an array of outwardly contradictory (and ancient) religious traditions. Which was right? Who was right? What was most acceptable in the sight of God? In His response, Bahá’u’lláh does not engage in the disputes between those traditions but confirms the unity of the divine process that is evident in all of them (the spiritual meanings). In His discourse on these differing traditions Bahá’u’lláh states, “These differences are not worthy of mention. The eye of divine mercy casteth its glance upon all that is past. It behoveth us to mention them only in favourable terms, for they do not contradict that which is essential.” [TU 2.18] Then Bahá’u’lláh repeatedly states the following imperative as the ultimate answer to all of Mánikchí Sáhib’s inquiries about different and contradictory religious traditions: “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and centre your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” [TU 2.5, 2.7, 2.16, 2.31]
I see the message as don't get involved in disputes about old traditions, look to the essential spiritual truths in those traditions, and apply these spiritual truths to the problems of today. So, in any conversation having to do with Hebrew scriptural events, our mindset can be to speak of them in favorable terms, don't get involved in the disputes (there will always be disputes), look to the essential spiritual meanings in the stories, and apply their spiritual messages to oneself and the needs and exigencies of today.
One more consideration as we work on our Baha'i mindset. We will notice that the Central Figures often refer to stories of the ancient biblical scriptures in Their discourses. If we examine these references, we will see that they are always in the context of instruction having to do with Baha'i teachings for this age such as progressive revelation, evils of social oppression, the unique station of the Manifestation of God, the ancient eternity of God's guidance, the world's persecution of the Manifestation of God. The Bab's first Tablet upon His Declaration was on the story of Joseph -- in the Bab's discourse, the story of Joseph symbolizes the violent reception and ultimate victory of every Manifestation of God and everything in between. The story of Joseph isn't important because once there was a prophet named Joseph (we don't know that). It's important because the story of Joseph symbolically conveys essential spiritual truths about every Revelation of every Manifestation of God. It's about the spiritual message.
It is tempting to conflate the authority and authenticity of the Baha'i Writings with the need to interpret all of the discourses literally and to assume, for example, that if the Bab discourses on the story of Joseph then the story of Joseph must be historical fact. Or if Baha'u'llah refers to the Israelites enslaved under a tyrannical Pharaoh, then it must mean that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt under a tyrannical Pharaoh. We have guidance that indicates that this is not always the case. Here are some brief quotes on the topic:
· Tablets may be “revealed according to the prevailing understanding of the people of that time.” [Bahá’u’lláh, Ayát-i-Iláhi, vol. 2, p. 68]
· Discourses may be conducted “conformably to those authoritative accounts which all nations are agreed upon.” [‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 75]
· “[C]ertain matters are in reality just stories, but the Divine Manifestations bring them out as though it were truth and discourse upon them.” [‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Amr va Khalq, 2:211]
· The Central Figures may use terms of certain religious sects “in conformity with the concepts of its followers.” [Shoghi Effendi cited in “Socrates” Memorandum, 22 October 1995. http://bahai-library.com/compilation_socrates_bwc#15]
· “The fact that Bahá’u’lláh makes such statements for the sake of illustrating the spiritual principles that He wishes to convey, does not necessarily mean that He is endorsing their historical accuracy.” [Universal House of Justice,“ Socrates” Memorandum, 22 October 1995. http://bahai-library.com/compilation_socrates_bwc#15]
Those are some things about a Baha'i mindset having to do with the historicity of scripture. The example of the Central Figures is to speak of traditions favorably, avoid disputes, focus on the divine truths in those traditions, and, when wisdom dictates, engage the essential spiritual meanings in those stories for our own improvement and the illumination of others.