Is the Bible Unique?

A response to Chapter 1 of Josh McDowell's Evidence that Demands a Verdict


Introduction

In this chapter, arch Christian apologist Josh McDowell attempts to show that the Bible is unique among all the books of religious significance.We shall examine his evidence point by point, following his own numbering system.

It should be noted at the outset that there is a fundamental problem with this entire approach. Even if it were possible to show that the Bible is unique, it still would not add anything to the discussion of whether it is true or not. Simply because a document is unique does not automatically mean that one will be assured of an afterlife in Paradise by following its precepts. McDowell mentions this point several times, but it still did not seem to prevent him from expending much ink and energy on the subject.

2B. The Bible is Unique

1C. Unique in its Continuity

1. Written over a 1600 year span.

There is a rather severe logical gap that underpins this point. It assumes that the Bible is a unit, which, obviously, it is not. It would indeed be remarkable to find a single work continuously written over such a timespan, but the Bible is not such a work. It is in fact a collection of books, all of which had different authors and origins. These books were collected into volumes in various groupings at various points along the historical timeline. The timespan of the Bible is thus more an artifact of its history, rather than relating in any way to its supposed inspiration.

This point also assumes that the traditional dating of the Biblical books is correct. Unfortunately, in reality the date and provenance of many of the books that make up the Bible are difficult to pin down. In addition, there is the added problem that a number of these books show signs of multiple authorship, as well as later redaction and editing. This further complicates the question of absolute dating.

Critical scholarship holds that the Pentateuch did not achieve its final form until well after the Exile, although the sources that make up the early Old Testament are probably pre-exilic. This means that it is basically impossible to determine when the earliest parts of the Bible were written. (For this and other references, see the suggested reading list at the end of this article).

If we assume that the four books of Kings were based on primary sources, they would date back to about 1000 BCE, although such an early date is generally rejected by higher critics. The prophet proto-Isaiah probably dates to around 800 BCE. Thus we can say that the earliest recognizable parts of the Old Testament probably began to appear in about 1000 BCE, if we allow the books of Kings as primary sources.

The youngest part of the (Protestant) canonical Old Testament would probably be the book of Daniel, written during the reign of the Greek emperor Antiochus IV, around 164 BCE.

This then gives us a range of about 830 years for the Old Testament.

The books of the New Testament probably range from about 45 or 50 CE for the letters of Paul, to 96 CE for the Apocalypse of John. Some higher critics place some of the letters of pseudo-Paul early in the second century, but this position, although based on good scholarship, is not easily defended due to a lack of historical witness.

This then gives us a range of about 1000 BCE to about 100 CE for the whole Bible, roughly 1100 years. This is about 500 years short of McDowell's assessment.

However, even if we allow the 1600 year span given by McDowell, it is still not easy to see how this makes the Bible unique. In terms of age, there are religious texts which have their origin before the earliest parts of the Old Testament. The Hindu text known as the Rig (royal) Veda dates from sometime before 1000 BCE, possibly as early as 1500 BCE, making it at least as old as the Old Testament, and probably older. Likewise, the Hindu Upanishads date from sometime between 1400 and 800 BCE, again on par with the earliest Old Testament documents. The Hindu scriptures are a vast body of literature, which include such epic poems as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata (which contains the famous Song Celestial, the Bhagavad-Gita). The collection and writing of the Hindu scriptures continued well into the Christian era, giving them a span at least as long as the Bible, and probably longer.

Ironically, this very fact is mentioned by McDowell in his Handbook of Today's Religions. On page 284, we find the following statement:

The Hindu scriptures, written over a period of 2,000 years (1400 B.C.-500 A.D.) are voluminous. They reflect the practices and beliefs which arose during the different long periods of Hindu history.

One is forced to ask how a putative span of 1600 years makes the Bible unique, while a span of 2000 years for a different set of Scriptures passes without comment.

Therefore, we conclude that the Bible is not unique in this regard.

2. Written over 60 generations.

See point number 1. The same applies.

3. Written by 40 plus authors from every walk of life, including kings, peasants, philosophers, fishermen, poets, statesmen, scholars, etc.

The same objection that we raised in point 1 can be raised here. Just as we don't know exactly when the various books of the Bible were written, so we cannot be sure who the authors were. The books of the Bible are, for the most part, anonymous, and even when the author is given, we still cannot be sure that an anonymous author has not simply co-opted the name of a famous historical personage in order to give his book more credence. This practice has a long tradition outside of the Bible, and there is no reason to assume that the Jewish and Christian authors did not engage in similar duplicity.

The book of Daniel is an excellent example. Although the book itself claims that it was written by the historical Daniel (mentioned in Ezekiel 14:14, 14:20 and 28:3), internal and external evidence places the origin of the book in the late Hellenistic period, about 164 BCE.

In a similar vain, the Pentateuch is usually ascribed to Moses, even though it consistently refers to him in the third person, and even records his death. An analysis of the Pentateuch shows that it was created from a number of different sources by unknown editors.

McDowell lists Moses, Peter, Amos, Joshua, Nehemiah, Daniel, Luke, Solomon, Matthew and Paul as authors of the Bible. Of these, only Nehemiah and Paul can be substantiated. The Gospels are anonymous; their ascription to Jesus' disciples and their aides is part of a later Church tradition. There is no hard evidence that Moses or Joshua are even historical personages; even Solomon is something of an enigma.

Again, even if we allow the traditional authorship as listed by McDowell, it still does not make the Bible unique. The Hindu scriptures, too, are the result of the combined input of many different authors from many different times and stations.

4. Written in different places

This point only follows if one accepts the traditional authorship of the books of the Bible. And again, it still does not make the Bible unique in any way.

5. Written at different times.

McDowell here gives David in times of war, and Solomon in times of peace. Quite aside from the problem of authorship (it has not been established that David wrote any of the Psalms, nor that Solomon wrote any of the Proverbs), it is difficult to see the point here. One is forced to ask exactly how this bears on the uniqueness of the Bible.

6. Written in different moods.

See point 5.

7. Written on three continents.

McDowell does not specify which authors wrote on which continents, but he lists Asia, Africa and Europe. This is somewhat deceptive, since he really means Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Italy. This is a much smaller area than his sweeping inclusion of "three continents" would imply.

Again, the same objections of unknown authorship would apply. It is almost certain the the book of Daniel, for example, was not written in Babylon or Persian, but rather in Palestine by an unknown Jew in the second century BCE. Nor is it certain that parts of Jeremiah were written in Egypt, as has been asserted.

As with the previous points, we are forced to ask how this contributes anything to the Bible's putative uniqueness.

8. Written in three languages

McDowell lists Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. In fact, only parts of Daniel and a few other very brief sections of the Bible are written in Aramaic (a fact, by the way, that directly argues against an early date for Daniel). The Old Testament was written almost exclusively in Hebrew, and the New in Greek.

Having said this, however, it is still not easy to see how this makes the Bible unique. The Hindu scriptures, too, are written in several different forms of Sanskrit for the early works, and various local dialects for the later works.

9+10. Biblical authors spoke on hundreds of controversial subjects with harmony and continuity from Genesis to Revelation.

McDowell fails to list these "hundreds of subjects" (except for one - see later). The reason is not hard to find - the statement is simply untrue. One does not have to read the Bible for very long to find that its various authors disagree on even the very basic issues.

For example, the New Testament speaks volumes about Heaven and Hell as the ultimate destination for mankind, but one would be very hard pressed to find the Old Testament referring to Heaven as the eternal destination of the righteous. Even the concept of Hell in the Old Testament is subtly different to that of the New. The Old Testament writers, for the most part, used Hell either as a metaphor for the destruction of Israel's enemies, or as a synonym for the grave, the final resting place of all men, whether good or bad.

Polygamy is another good example. Although the New Testament seems to be set on the ideal of monogamy (though this is never explicitly stated), the Old Testament embraces the subject freely. The Patriarchs were all polygamous, and never once were they censured for it. Solomon was berated for having many wives, and then only because they did not belong to the faith of Yahweh. The Mosaic Law even contained provisions relating to inheritance for the children of multiple wives (Deuteronomy 21:15-17).

Far from affirming the unity of the Bible, the apostle Paul invalidated huge sections of it with one stroke, by claiming that the Mosaic Law no longer had any force over Christians (Galatians 2:16).

McDowell's one reference is to "God's redemption of man". Even this is a subject that is read into the Bible, not out of it. The Old Testament knows nothing of an atoning sacrifice made by a semi-divine Messiah. Biblicists insist that this is implied by the Jewish sacrificial system, but this is nowhere stated in the Old Testament. The ancient Jews had no concept of being "born again". This is a strictly New Testament concept. Nowhere does the Old Testament teach that the Messiah would sacrifice his life for the sins of mankind, except for one solitary passage - Isaiah 53:4-6, which does not even explicitly refer to the Messiah, despite the claims of Biblicists.

In short, this claim can only be described as misguided at best, and completely dishonest at worst. There are very few, if any, New Testament concepts that are explicitly stated in the Old. The mere fact that Christianity is composed of literally hundreds of splinter sects, all of whom can affirm their own unique views of the Faith with long lists of proof texts, argues eloquently for the view that the Bible is simply contradictory on many important issues.

2C. Unique in its Circulation

McDowell here gives a number of facts and figures for the distribution of the Bible by various Bible publishing concerns. While there is no reason to doubt these figures, McDowell is mistaken in claiming that they "...factually show the Bible is unique". At best, they simply show that the Bible is an outstanding member of a certain class of books, that of religious scriptures that have been widely disseminated. The Book of Mormon, for example, is made freely available by the Mormon Church, and is widely distributed in many different countries.

Another logical fallacy is implicit here. The Bible's wide distribution is an attribute of its adherents - it is not a feature of the text itself. Thus, this point actually applies to the Christian Church, not directly to the Bible.

3C. Unique in its Translation

McDowell here commits the same logical fallacy as the previous point. The fact that the Bible had been widely translated is due solely to the efforts of Christian believers. It is in no way a feature of the text itself.

English translations of The Koran and the Bhagavad-Gita are available. The Book of Mormon is available in a number of different languages. Once again, despite McDowell's claim, this does not make the Bible unique, merely an outstanding example of a certain class of documents.

4C. Unique in its Survival

1D. Survival through Time

McDowell here lists the vast number of manuscript copies of the Old and New Testaments. Again, these figures are beyond dispute, but it has to be asked how they bear on the Bible's uniqueness. Simply because we can be sure of the New Testament text does not indicate that the text itself is reliable. The text of the Koran is, if anything, even more secure than the Bible, yet McDowell would no doubt reject it out of hand as a work of divine inspiration.

Further, McDowell fails to mention that the text of some books is still very much in doubt, despite the vast manuscript tradition. The book of Jeremiah, for example, is attested by two sharply different texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of which supports the Masoretic tradition, and the other the Greek Septuagint. It is not possible to tell which text, if any, best represents the original.

2D. Survival through Persecution

McDowell here points out that the Bible is still circulated despite repeated attempts to have it banned or outlawed. While this is probably true, it is a feature of a large number of religious texts, not simply the Bible. The Islamic offshoot known as Bahai ran into severe persecution at the end of the nineteenth century in Persia. The sect itself was outlawed, and its members threatened with death. The writings of Baha'a'ullah were outlawed and burned, yet the sect still persists today, with all of its writings intact.

Further, the survival of the Bible, despite repeated attacks, is a testament to the stubbornness of its adherents, not a feature of the text itself.

3D. Survival through Criticism

McDowell here points out that the Bible is still read, studied and revered, despite the flood of critical works that have been unleashed upon its pages.

The Book of Mormon is still studied, read and believed by millions of people worldwide, despite the fact that both archaeology and textual criticism have conclusively proven that the book is nothing more than an amateurish fake. McDowell would no doubt agree with this statement.

It is still studied and accepted as true in spite of the facts, not because it is true, but simply because its believers lack the capacity of rational thought necessary to realize that it is a fake. One does not have to look very far for a reason why the Bible is still believed, despite the fact that critics have conclusively shown that it cannot be God's inerrant Word.

McDowell commits a number of blunders in this section. He declares the Documentary Hypothesis invalidated because it has been established that the art of writing did, in fact, exist in the time of Moses. This is not the primary thrust of the Hypothesis. Instead, the Documentary Hypothesis holds that the early parts of the Old Testament are constructed from a number of different sources, combined by later redactors into one set of books. This theory is still the best explanation of many puzzling features of the Pentateuch, such as its wildly variable style of narrative, and the fact that it contradicts itself on countless occasions, sometimes in the same story.

McDowell trumpets the fact that the walls of Jericho fell outwards as proof of the Bible's accuracy. What he fails to mention is that archaeology has established that Jericho was not inhabited during the time of the Conquest. The destruction of the city dates from a much earlier period.

5C. Unique in its Teachings

1D. Prophecy

The issue of prophecy is a complex one which has been dealt with a number of times by various competent writers. The bottom line is that a close examination of the putative prophecies of the Messiah will reveal that they are little more than wishful thoughts, wrenched out of their proper context by writers who did not understand the texts they were dealing with.

McDowell, quoting Wilbur Smith, makes the statement that "Mohammedism cannot point to any prophecies of the coming of Mohammed uttered hundreds of years before his birth".

In fact, this is incorrect. A number of Muslim apologists have pointed to John 14:16 and 16:7-14 as a prophecy of Mohammed. (For example, the Muslim apologist Akbarally Meherally used this defense in his pamphlet Did Jesus and Isaiah prophesy the coming of Muhammad?) Christian apologists would no doubt counter that this statement of Jesus, in context, refers to the Holy Spirit, and was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost. The Christian apologist has thus accused the Muslim of doing the same with the Scriptures as Matthew did with Isaiah (Matthew 1:23) and Jeremiah (Matthew 2:18).

2D. History

McDowell here states that the intricate history of the Jews recorded in the four books of Kings is unique among all the ancient historical works. In fact, this is not entirely correct. Robin Lane Fox (The Unauthorized Version, page 164) explains:

In Babylonia, especially during the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the past was a lively subject for those who were literate. It was recorded in the diary records of astronomers, the books which were concerned with omens and predictions from them, and also in a long and remarkable continuous chronicle. This Babylonian Chronicle is a most significant rediscovery of recent scholarship. We are now aware of a long sequence of texts which listed major events and dated them year by year, beginning in 747 BC and running on past 539 BC (the coming of the Persians) and beyond Alexander the Great.

Further, McDowell fails to point out that there are some significant problems with Jewish history. While the later reigns of the Kings, from the Assyrian captivity of the Northern Kingdom, down to the Babylonian captivity of the Southern Kingdom, are fairly well attested by external sources, the earlier Kings are not. Saul is completely alone in history. The House of David is referred to once (possibly twice) on a carved stone monument. Solomon is not mentioned at all.

3D. Personalities

McDowell here points out that the Bible unflinchingly records the sins and failures of its characters. This is true, although, of course, other religious texts also contain polemics against the faithful for straying from the course.

In Section 3 of the Doctrine and Covenants, one of the standard works of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith himself is chided for placing his trust in a '...wicked man, who has set at naught the counsels of God, and has broken the most sacred promises...' (Martin Harris, a close associate of Joseph Smith during the formation of the Mormon Church, and one of the Witnesses to the Book of Mormon).

In addition it should be noted that the Bible also records the murders and atrocities committed by God himself, such as his act of genocide against the Amalekite nation, as recorded in I Samuel 15. Here, we find the just and loving God of the New Testament (I John 4:8, II Peter 3:9, James 1:17) commanding the Israelites to massacre men, women, children and infants.

6C. Unique in its influence on surrounding literature

Here we find ourselves in agreement with McDowell. The Bible, especially the King James Version of the Bible, has had an enormous impact on English thought and literature, and spawned a flood of supporting literature, studies, dictionaries, commentaries and countless hymns. However, the same could be said of other religious documents. One simply has to look at the huge volume of writing that has sprung up around the Koran over the centuries.

One is forced to ask, again, how much of this is due to the Book itself, and how much is due to the efforts of the Bible's army of adherents and interpreters?

3B. The Conclusion is Obvious

And indeed it is. We find no compelling reason to believe that the Bible is unique, in the sense of a one-of-a-kind, God-breathed Book. The feats here listed by McDowell are easily matched by a number of other works of religious significance. In many cases, we find that the points that McDowell raises in defense of the Bible's uniqueness

a) are actually points in favor of the Bible being an outstanding member of a class of documents. The Bible's dissemination and translation are two such areas.
b) have no bearing on the issue of uniqueness, such as the places and moods in which the Bible was written.
c) are actually features of the Bible's believers, not the text itself. Such points would be survival under persecution and criticism.
d) are simply untrue, such as the statement that the Bible is a harmonious whole, or that it is unique in the type of history it portrays, or that it contains fulfilled prophecy.
e) are superseded by other works, such as the 1600 year span for the Bible, compared to the 2000 year span of the Hindu Scriptures.

Works Cited and Suggested Reading

Evidence that Demands a Verdict Josh McDowell, Campus Crusade for Christ, 1972

Handbook of Today's Religions Josh McDowell and Don Stewart, Here's Life Publishers, 1983

Did Jesus and Isaiah Prophesy the coming of Muhammad? Akbarally Meherally, published by A.M.TRUST, P.O.Box 81075, BURNABY B.C. V5H 4K2 Canada.

The Unauthorized Version - Truth and Fiction in the Bible Robin Lane Fox, Vintage Books, 1993

Who Wrote the New Testament? Burton L. Mack, HarperCollins, 1995

Bible Prophecy - Failure or Fulfillment Tim Callhan, Millennium Press, 1997

The Mythmaker - Paul and the Invention of Christianity Hyam MacCoby, HarperCollins, 1986

Gospel Fictions Randel Helms, Prometheus Books, 1988

Christianity and Bible Critical Links


Contents Copyright 1997 Curt van den Heuvel

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