Scripture in the Perspective of Comparative Religion and the Bahá'í Faith

By Robert Stockman

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #15
Bahá'í National Center: Wilmette, Illinois, USA
August 9–10, 1997
(see list of papers from #15)

    In both the field of comparative religion and in Bahá'í Studies, scripture is not a simple term to define. From a sociological point of view, a text becomes scripture when a group of people begin to treat it as such, by venerating it and viewing its authority as superhuman. But all religions recognize various levels of sacredness or authoritativeness in their scriptures. For example, Judaism has the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament, to Christians) and the Talmud, a body of commentary that is authoritative but is not necessarily sacred. Christianity recognizes Old and New Testaments, and has not always viewed them as being of equal weight; indeed, a major struggle in early Christianity was whether to accept the Jewish Bible as scripture at all, because of the strong discontinuities in doctrine between the two works. Within the New Testament, some Christians consider the gospels as having more weight than the letters of Paul, which have more weight that other documents. Both traditions recognize semicanonical "apocryphal" texts. Both traditions also have a history of sectarian groups producing their own scriptures (such as the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Book of Mormon).

    Islam emphasizes the peerless nature of the Qur'ánic text, which it regards as uncreated and eternal, but also gives authoritative weight to the hadíth qudsí.

    Concepts of scripture become even more complicated in traditions where the concept of prophet or Manifestation and the concept of God play smaller roles or no role at all. Hinduism recognizes two levels of scripture, shruti texts that the ancient rishis or sages heard murmured by the wind; these texts are described as eternal and said to go back to the creation of the world. The Vedas fall in this category. On the other hand, smriti texts were created by human beings and subsequently passed down to posterity. Ironically, India's most popular scriptural text, the Bhagavad-Gita, is usually regarded as falling in this category.

    Buddhism venerates the words of the Buddha highly and tends to base its teachings on them, but since it recognizes the possibility that the enlightened can recall words of the Buddha heard in their previous lives, its scripture contains thousands of alleged sermons of the Buddha recognized by only a few sects. The production of "remembered" sermons has been the impetus of much of Buddhism's doctrinal diversity. The scriptural core of the tradition-the Tripitaka represents an oral tradition about the Buddha's life and teachings that goes back to the Buddha, but it is not the normative text for all Buddhist groups.

    The Bahá'í Faith classifies its own "scripture" (if one may use the term in its broadest sense to encompass all authoritative texts) into various categories as well. The terms for each are not always found in the Bahá'í scriptures; some I have coined myself.
    1. Canonical Texts
      1. Divinely revealed Word: the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and the Báb.
      2. Sacred Texts: the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, the Báb, and 'Abdu'l-Bahá.
      3. Bahá'í writings: the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, the Báb, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi.
      4. Authoritative texts: The writings of Bahá'u'lláh, the Báb, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice.

    2. Semicanonical Texts
      1. Talks by 'Abdu'l-Bahá
        1. Those recorded in the original spoken language (Persian or Arabic)
        2. Those recorded in the language of translation (English, French, or another language)
      2. Pilgrim's Notes
      3. Translations of non-canonical works by Shoghi Effendi (Nabíl's Narrative)

      There are various issues about "Bahá'í scripture" to resolve. One is what to call the various categories (my terms are provisional and sometimes have problems). Second, what status to give Shoghi Effendi's translations of non-canonical works (the "folk tradition" regards them highly). Third, what terms should be used to describe the divine process behind the production of each (the words "revelation" and "revealed" work for the writings of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh; but they do not quite work for 'Abdu'l-Bahá's writings, even less so for Shoghi Effendi's, and less still for the writings of the Universal House of Justice; yet "inspired" seems too weak of a word to be of much use). Fourth, the status of the writings of the Báb in the Bahá'í canon requires elaboration and exploration, since some of His teachings have been superseded by Bahá'u'lláh's writings or by interpretations of them by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. One must also note that the writings of the Báb may not be binding, but can be used in worship settings such as Feast; the writings of Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice are authoritative and binding but cannot be used in a worship setting.

      Robert H. Stockman has a doctorate in history of religion in the United States from Harvard University. He is the author of The Bahá'í Faith in America, volumes 1 and 2, as well as various articles about Bahá'í history and theology. Currently he is coordinator of the Research Office of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States and an instructor in religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.

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