Back to your average book on apologetics. In defending the bible, and pointing out how perfect it is, it tends to point out how the bible is a wholly unique book. Josh McDowell, in Evidence that Demands a Verdict, lists six ways in which the bible is significantly different than any other book in history: In its continuity, circulation, translation, survival, teachings, and influence on literature.
This is all totally true. But does this prove the bible is valid? No. Unique does not mean true. Unique means unique. The Qu’ran is likewise unique in its circulation, translation (in that its translation is discouraged), survival, teachings, and influence on not only Arabic literature, but Arabic language—while present-day English has evolved away from the King James Version, present-day Arabic has deliberately stayed consistent with the Qu’ran, so that Arabic speakers don’t need a dictionary to read it. It is an impressively unique book; but does that make it the word of God? Christians would of course say no.
Uniqueness from adoration.
Many of the things that make the bible (and the Qu’ran, for that matter) unique have to do with the people who love the bible. From the very beginning, we Christians have been rightly taught to read the scriptures, learn their teachings, and teach them to others. And we have; we made disciples who likewise love the bible. Sometimes this love for the bible even surpasses our love for Jesus, but the general result is that we defended the bible’s existence, and spread it widely.
So, four of the six unique things about the bible that McDowell listed—circulation, translation, survival, and influence on literature—have been the product of our love for the bible.
Circulation. Every Christian, or at least every local church, has tried to get a copy of the bible; as a result many copies have been made. Scholars have wanted a copy of the original; as a result many copies have been made of the original. There are more copies of the bible in ancient and medieval literature than any other book. And, after the discovery of printing, Christians not only increased the output of bibles for themselves, but began to use the bible as an evangelism tool—making it far outpace the printing of any other book, even today.
Translation. The many English translations of the bible aside, Christians have translated the bible into every language we can get our hands on. We still are; linguists are actively looking for people-groups whose language has no bible in it, and send people there to learn the language, invent a written form of it if necessary, and translate the bible into it.
Survival. The bible has survived despite suppression and persecution because Christians who really were sold out for Jesus (or the bible, anyway) have fought to preserve it. Bibles have been smuggled into nations that banned it, and hidden from authorities who wish to destroy it.
Influence on literature. Considering how widely the bible is read, preached, and memorized, its influence on literature is kind of a given. Hebrew turns of phrase, translated for the King James Version and its predecessors, are now English turns of phrase. Even nominally Christian writers have borrowed biblical imagery to improve their own writing. And of course those writers have their own fans.
While Christians recognize that a lot of these things are influenced, brought about, or supported by the Holy Spirit—and we can point this out when we teach our fellow Christians about the uniqueness of the bible—we’re not gonna have a lot of success pointing this fact out to skeptics. They’ll argue that all this stuff could have been achieved without any help from the Spirit at all.
And as impressive as all these things are, we must again ask the question: Does the adoration of the bible by Christians, and the effects of this adoration, prove that the bible is valid? And again: No.
Hindus adore the Bhagavad-Gita. Rabbis adore the Talmud. Actors adore Shakespeare. Libertarians adore Atlas Shrugged. Some of those books are widely circulated, translated, and are influential. Some of them have even survived suppression. Doesn’t make any of them valid. As we constantly try to teach our children, popularity does not make something true and good. It only means it’s popular. You use other factors to judge whether something is true or good.
Arguing that it is good because it is popular is not only wrong; it shows that you’re willing to accept a flawed argument because you’re so biased in the bible’s favor that you’re willing to settle for any defense you can find. And any skeptic will see right through this, and demolish you.
Uniqueness from continuity.
Okay, so what does that leave us? Continuity and teachings. Well, I dealt with continuity already. The bible has contradictions and discrepancies. I showed you examples from Jesus’s resurrection in a previous Apologetics post.
I could show you others, but if you want a comprehensive look at bible discrepancies, there are whole books of them. Either Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties or Hard Sayings of the Bible or Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible will do. They’re much nicer than the lists of discrepancies that the atheists have put together. They even attempt to resolve some of those discrepancies. If the idea of discrepancies in the bible bothers you, they might even convince you. But then again, they might not.
Now, if you haven’t read those books—if you just plow forward in a debate with skeptics, and try to convince them that the bible has no discrepancies, are you in for a filleting. Many skeptics, especially the ex-Christians, are just waiting to gleefully quote them to you. (Including some passages that you probably weren’t expecting, ’cause some skeptics have no qualms about quoting the bible out of context. Remember, they have their own biases, and sometimes they will likewise use poor arguments to prove their point.)
But the argument from continuity? You can’t make it. Even if you firmly believe the bible has no discrepancies, you still can’t make it. This is not an argument that defends the bible; this is an argument that needs defending all on its own, and you probably don’t want to get sidetracked into it. Otherwise you’ll spend the rest of your time debating about who’s interpreting the bible properly, and not even touch on its validity.
Uniqueness from its teachings.
Certainly we can make the case that the bible is unique because of what it teaches. Jesus stands out from nearly every ancient teacher in what He taught, and of course His claims as to who He is (which I’ll discuss in more detail another time).
Other ancient religious books have introduced moral philosophies by which to live. But unlike the bible, they didn’t focus on the utter failure of people to live by it; and when they did, it was only to show the hubris and comeuppance of those people who dared to defy the philosophy. The bible doesn’t bother to varnish its heroes and make them look perfect or idealized; it includes their flaws and sins, and comments on them. And sometimes they get away with their crimes.
Despite the bible’s discrepancies, we nonetheless get a holistic picture of the religious thinking of the Hebrews and early Christians. We can see that it wasn’t monolithic—that everyone believed exactly the same way about God—but that it was harmonious nonetheless, and that an honest love for God and truth was what helped people resolve their differences. Other religions prefer monolithic beliefs or apathetic tolerance, crimes Christians have certainly been guilty of, but isn’t taught in our bible.
The bible’s historical accuracy is of a much higher degree than that of other religious books, most of which care nothing about history. The Hebrew religion, however, was grounded in the historical event of the Exodus, and Christianity is grounded in the historical event of Jesus’s resurrection; we have to care about history. Much of Western history has been influenced by the pull-no-punches coverage in the bible; much of what they report about the ancient Middle East comes from the bible, either directly, or through attempts to read between its lines.
The bible is unique in both the large number of its prophecies; it presumes a living God who talks to people, and talks a lot. Its predictions of the future have been demonstrably fulfilled, and are even still being fulfilled. Even those who argue the Old Testament was written later than most scholars, can’t help but recognize that Isaiah was written hundreds of years before Matthew, and accurately predicted Jesus (in ways that just couldn’t have been self-fulfilled) all the same.
The teachings of Jesus still stand out as an example of ideal human behavior… even though most people don’t bother to live that way, or even attempt to. Those who don’t believe He is God, or performed miracles, or is risen, are still willing to concede His greatness as a moral teacher, and are still struck by His challenging, standout personality when they read the gospels.
Does this uniqueness prove the bible is valid? Again, no. A good history book would summarize a lot of different moral philosophies, include some of their variants, and say whether they’ve seen any success or not; it would discuss the successes and failings of historical figures; if well-written, certain figures would really stand out. It may not have a lot of direct quotes from God, but other folks have written books that are supposedly all direct quotes from God. Accurate predictions of the future are a little more impressive, but as the scriptures point out, a good track record in prophetic predictions doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right to follow them. (Dt 13.1-3)
Again: Unique means unique.
If you were expecting, once I got to the end, to conclude that the bible’s uniqueness proves it is true, obviously you’ve forgotten what I wrote at the beginning: “Unique does not mean true. Unique means unique.” I didn’t change my view: The bible’s uniqueness proves nothing.
Even McDowell says so: “The above does not prove the bible is the word of God, but to me it proves that it is unique (‘different from all others; having no like or equal’).” (McDowell, Evidence, vol. 1, 24) Despite this, he tries to fudge a conclusion at the end of that chapter: “A professor remarked to me: ‘If you are an intelligent person, you will read the one book that has drawn more attention than any other, if you are searching for the truth.’ ” (McDowell 24) In other words, “It ain’t proof… but it could be.”
No, it’s not. The bible’s uniqueness proves nothing. If you’re looking for anything like proof, you have to actually read the bible. You don’t gain any proof by just noticing that the bible stands out in the crowd.
And this is where skeptics tend to flounder a bit. When you ask them, “Have you ever actually read the bible?” you seldom get a yes. The few that have—the occasional ex-Christians—have often only read parts of it, like the more popular Sunday school stories… in fact, sometimes their shaky faith was undermined by discovering that the bible’s stories are a bit more adult, and a lot less cut-and-dried, than the Sunday school version. Their objections to the bible are not based on personal knowledge of the bible, but secondhand information.
The bible’s uniqueness is neat. But not proof. So don’t waste your time using it as proof.
Reminder: The purpose of apologetics is to understand the history and logic behind Christianity. It is not ammunition for debating skeptics. Share your testimony with skeptics. Share your apologetics with fellow Christians.