Evangelical apologists try to make much of the Bible's uniqueness. It is not clear whether they expect skeptics to be swayed, but their arguments seem intended less to change anyone's mind than to reassure Christians that their faith in the book is justified. A close look at the arguments might shed some light on how dogmas are defended against critical thought.
To get a focus for this essay, I did a Google search for the phrase "Bible is unique" and picked some sites that seemed typical and, among them collectively, thorough in their presentation of the uniqueness argument. I have cited them as follows.
(Note added 8/12/10: Most of the following links are no longer good. Either the sites either no longer exist or they trigger malware warnings. However, in my continuing debates with apologists since I originally wrote this essay, I observe that the opinions expressed in the quotations I have used are not atypical. Since they do represent opinions actually held by some Bible-believers, I have left them intact for this essay.)
(Note added 11/3/06: The Kercheville site has been revised and the article I cited is no longer online. The Reason site apparently has been discontinued. I'm assuming the authors still believe what they wrote, and so I have retained their material in this essay.)
If it is going to work at all, the uniqueness argument must demonstrate that the Bible not only is unique, but is unique in such a way as to logically imply a supernatural provenance. Every book ever written is, after all, unique in some respect. Gone with the Wind is the only book about the American Civil War ever written by a woman named Margaret Mitchell. A Tale of Two Cities is the only novel about the French revolution that has been required reading in many American high schools. For any book you can lay your hands on, it is a trivial task to find something about it that is true of no other book that has ever existed.
If the Bible is the word of God, then we would expect what we read to be unique. [Kercheville]
Actually, our expectations of what would be in God's word must depend on what we believe about God to begin with. Apologists base their perceptions of God on what they read in the Bible, so of course the Bible is going to meet any expectations that may be inferred from those perceptions.
We would expect words that are different from any other book we have ever read because all other books are the works of man. [Kercheville]
I don't know how many hundreds of books I have read in my lifetime, but I could not say of a single one that its words were not different from all the others. There were trivial similarities in some cases, but no two of them were really alike.
[T]he Bible writers claimed repeatedly that they were transmitting the very Word of God, infallible and authoritative in the highest degree. [ChristianAnswers]
This is simply false. Not one of them ever claimed that he was writing infallibly. Some of the Old Testament prophets claimed to be quoting some words that God spoke directly to them, but only the direct quotations were represented as God's words.
To illustrate this point, here are the first chapter and the first three verses of the second chapter of Ezekiel. The words that the author apparently claimed to be God's words are in red. The author makes no claim that the remaining words are anyone's but his own.
1Now it came to pass in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, in the fifth day of the month, as I was among the captives by the river of Chebar, that the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.
2In the fifth day of the month, which was the fifth year of king Jehoiachin's captivity,
3The word of the LORD came expressly unto Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the LORD was there upon him.
4And I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof as the colour of amber, out of the midst of the fire.
5Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance; they had the likeness of a man.
6And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings.
7And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf's foot: and they sparkled like the colour of burnished brass.
8And they had the hands of a man under their wings on their four sides; and they four had their faces and their wings.
9Their wings were joined one to another; they turned not when they went; they went every one straight forward.
10As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man, and the face of a lion, on the right side: and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle.
11Thus were their faces: and their wings were stretched upward; two wings of every one were joined one to another, and two covered their bodies.
12And they went every one straight forward: whither the spirit was to go, they went; and they turned not when they went.
13As for the likeness of the living creatures, their appearance was like burning coals of fire, and like the appearance of lamps: it went up and down among the living creatures; and the fire was bright, and out of the fire went forth lightning.
14And the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning.
15Now as I beheld the living creatures, behold one wheel upon the earth by the living creatures, with his four faces.
16The appearance of the wheels and their work was like unto the colour of a beryl: and they four had one likeness: and their appearance and their work was as it were a wheel in the middle of a wheel.
17When they went, they went upon their four sides: and they turned not when they went.
18As for their rings, they were so high that they were dreadful; and their rings were full of eyes round about them four.
19And when the living creatures went, the wheels went by them: and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up.
20Whithersoever the spirit was to go, they went, thither was their spirit to go; and the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
21When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.
22And the likeness of the firmament upon the heads of the living creature was as the colour of the terrible crystal, stretched forth over their heads above.
23And under the firmament were their wings straight, the one toward the other: every one had two, which covered on this side, and every one had two, which covered on that side, their bodies.
24And when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of great waters, as the voice of the Almighty, the voice of speech, as the noise of an host: when they stood, they let down their wings.
25And there was a voice from the firmament that was over their heads, when they stood, and had let down their wings.
26And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the likeness of the throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man above upon it.
27And I saw as the colour of amber, as the appearance of fire round about within it, from the appearance of his loins even upward, and from the appearance of his loins even downward, I saw as it were the appearance of fire, and it had brightness round about.
28As the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud in the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard a voice of one that spake.
1And he said unto me, Son of man, stand upon thy feet, and I will speak unto thee.
2And the spirit entered into me when he spake unto me, and set me upon my feet, that I heard him that spake unto me.
3And he said unto me, Son of man, I send thee to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that hath rebelled against me: they and their fathers have transgressed against me, even unto this very day.
Aside from the prophets, not one of the other authors wrote anywhere "This is what God said to me." Paul claimed that he learned the message of Christ's death and resurrection by revelation from God, but except to that extent he never claimed divine inspiration for any of his letters. In the Pentateuch and the so-called histories, God is often portrayed as communicating various messages to various people, but never the does the author himself claim to have been writing anything that God told him to write.
The Bible claims itself to be the very words of God. "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). [Kercheville]
That was not the Bible speaking. That was the author of II Timothy speaking. The Bible cannot claim anything for itself. No book can. Writers can make claims about what they write or about what other people write. The author of II Timothy was making a claim here about the writings of other men -- specifically, about certain documents that he called "scripture" and that, many years after his lifetime, were among many others included in a book now called the Bible. That book -- "the Bible" -- did not exist when its constituent documents were being written, and therefore none of those documents' authors could have referred to it.
According to the above scripture [II Tim. 3:16-17] all of the Bible was inspired by the Holy Spirit. [Miller]
That is not what it says. "Scripture" means "Bible" to evangelical Christians, but that is not what it meant to anyone alive during the years when the New Testament was being written.
His primary reference is the Old Testament . . . . This is not to say that the verse doesn't apply to the New Testament as well. [Reason]
There is nothing to say it does apply to it, either, except in fundamentalist dogma. There is not a scrap of evidence for supposing that when referring to "scripture," the author of II Timothy or any other New Testament author was thinking of any document written, by himself or anyone else, during his lifetime or within many generations thereof.
The Apostle Peter wrote that holy men composed the books of the Bible as they were "moved" by the Holy Spirit. [Miller]
We have no idea what the apostle Peter might have believed about divine inspiration, but whoever wrote the books with his name on them said nothing about "the books of the Bible." His specific reference was to "prophecy of the scripture." Here it is in context:
For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty.
For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount.
We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.
For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.
II Peter 1:16-21
Fundamentalist apologists routinely discuss the Bible as if it had written itself. Despite their pro forma acknowledgements of its human authorship, they seem oblivious to the fact that it was, just like every other book in existence, in fact produced by human beings. Not one word in it is not the word of some man. Whether some or all of those words were also the words of God is the point at issue.
Most apologetic arguments on this issue are circular, as in the II Timothy citation. We do not actually know with certainty exactly which writings the author had in mind when he referred to "scripture," but in any event we have no reason to simply take his word for it that those writings were divinely inspired -- no reason, that is, unless we assume what the apologists are trying to prove, which is that the entire Bible in its present form was divinely inspired.
if the greatest and most influential book of the ages, containing the most beautiful literature and the most perfect moral code ever devised, was written by deceiving fanatics, then what hope is there for ever finding meaning and purpose in this world? [ChristianAnswers]
Countless people throughout the ages have found meaning and purpose without ever having heard of the Bible or entertaining any notion about its being God's word.
To characterize the Bible as "the greatest" book ever written, or its literature as "the most beautiful" is again to assume the apologists' conclusion about its provenance. Likewise regarding the perfection of its moral code. This is another circular argument. The Bible does not have one moral code. It has several codes, and they are contradictory except according to the inerrantist dogma of the Bible's unity of message.
This particular claim also exhibits another favorite apologist fallacy, the false dichotomy. For those unconvinced of the Bible's divine provenance, there are many possible alternative explanations for how it came to be written and what was on its authors' minds. Some skeptics do lean toward deceitful fanaticism, but most of us favor hypotheses that are not so cynical.
[T]here is no valid reason to believe that the men who wrote the Bible were lying or trying to deceive.
I agree. But there is ample reason to suspect that they could have made a few mistakes.
The New Testament particularly shows that the character of the writers was beyond reproach.
The New Testament shows nothing of the sort about the men who wrote it.
Each of them suffered and were executed because because they would not recant their position that the teachings of the Bible are true and accurate.
For all the evidence that supports it, this claim might as well be pure imagination. Christian tradition even contradicts it, since John, the purported author of five NT books, is supposed to have died not by execution but apparently of old age while in exile.
Although it is a collection of 66 books, written by 40 or more different men over a period of 2,000 years, it is clearly one Book, with perfect unity and consistency throughout. [ChristianAnswers]
This is yet another circular argument. The Bible's unity and consistency are apparent only to inerrantists who have conjured up tortuous resolutions to a mass of contradictions that are plainly manifest to everyone else.
Just try to bring together a national leader, a military general, two kings, a shepherd, a tax collector, a doctor, some fishermen, and a rabbi and see if they can agree upon the simplest message. [Kercheville]
Allow me as much interpretational latitude as apologists demand for themselves, and I will make all those people agree on any message you want -- especially if they are not around to say "That is not what I meant."
Throughout the Bible, the way to redemption is stressed. [Frandson]
That seems to depend largely on the doctrinal lenses through which one reads it.
From the 15th verse of Genesis 3, God's promise of salvation is revealed. [Frandson]
Here is that verse in context.
12And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.
13And the LORD God said unto the woman, What is this that thou hast done? And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat.
14And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life:
15And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
16Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.
17And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and hast eaten of the tree, of which I commanded thee, saying, Thou shalt not eat of it: cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;
18Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;
19In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
There is no explicit promise of salvation there. There is no promise even implicit except on the assumption of a certain dogma-based symbolism. As evidence of the Bible's unity, this is another circular argument.
The Bible has been read by more people and published in more languages than any other book in history. [Harder]
Some book had to be No. 1. It should surprise nobody if the winner happened to be the sacred text of the developed world's largest religion. And besides, as a defense of the Bible, this argument in effect presupposes that we can judge the truth of a religion by its popularity.
Evangelicals really ought to be embarrassed for even thinking about using this argument. A substantial portion of their dogma flatly contradicts any supposition that world's most beloved book would be the word of God.
The Bible is unique in that it teaches the history of the Israelites. [Frandson]
This claim is absurd. Evangelicals might not believe any book that presents a different version of Israel's ancient history, but that does not mean there are no other books teaching that history.
By repeatedly quoting from the Bible, Jesus authenticated the words we hold in our hands today. [Kercheville]
There was no Bible in Jesus' day. There were some writings, called "the scriptures," that many Jews considered authoritative. If Jesus was a devout Jew, he would naturally have shared that opinion. We do not know for a fact what Jesus said about those writings, though. What we know is that the gospel writers attributed various sayings about the scriptures to Jesus. Nothing that Jesus could have said about the scriptures of his day can prove anything at all about the documents that came to be known, long after his lifetime, as the New Testament. To claim otherwise is to argue in a circle.
Jesus said to his apostles, "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come." (John 16:13). [Kercheville]
So wrote the author of John's gospel. There is no reason outside of evangelical dogma to believe that the author had any reliable information about anything Jesus ever said or did.
Jesus clearly declared the Bible to be the word of God. [Kercheville]
No, he did not. He spoke of "the scriptures," which were documents that would become part of "the Bible," but they were not the Bible during the early first century because the Bible did not then exist. And he never "clearly declared" that those documents were the word of God. He treated them as authoritative, but he made no pronouncement for or against their having been divinely inspired.
Anyone who makes the claim that the Bible has contradictions, let them prove it. [Kercheville]
If proof is defined as whatever would convince an inerrantist, then there obviously can be no proof that the Bible contradicts itself. However, if proof is whatever would persuade an impartial observer, then the existence of contradictions is trivially easy to demonstrate. For that matter, many inerrantists have been convinced. Countless atheists and other skeptics used to be Bible-believing Christians until they saw the contradictions and could not accept the convoluted, question-begging resolutions offered by standard apologetics.
The Bible has been examined, dissected, and attacked by some of the greatest minds in history, yet no one has ever made a charge stick [Kercheville]
That is quite true, but only if a charge can never be said to stick unless the defendant confesses.
Other books may teach that there is a God, but only the Bible teaches God as three distinct persons who share one divinity. [Kercheville]
Christianity is the only religion that worships a trinity. Of course its holy book will be the only one teaching it.
The Bible is set apart in its teaching about the nature of God. [Kercheville]
So is every other book that addresses the nature of God. Every one of them is unique in that respect. If being different from everybody else makes you right, then nobody is wrong.
The Bible is also set apart in its teaching about Jesus. [Kercheville]
Yes, it supports what Christians believe about Jesus. That might tend to validate the Bible if we could assume the infallibility of Christians.
Further, only the Bible teaches the whole truth about mankind. [Kercheville]
Calling anything in the Bible the "whole truth" is blatant question-begging.
No other book has changed the course of human history the way the Bible has. [Kercheville]
That could be true. The next question, if we could pursue it, would be whether the change was for the better.
Hundreds of Bible prophecies have been fulfilled, specifically and meticulously. [ChristianAnswers]
Apologists love to say this, and their followers love to hear it. But it just isn't so.
The vague, and usually erroneous, prophecies of people like Jeanne Dixon, Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, and others like them are not in the same category at all, and neither are other religious books such as the Koran, the Confucian Analects, and similar religious writings. Only the Bible manifests this remarkable prophetic evidence. [ChristianAnswers]
Actually, to an impartial observer, the Bible is not significantly different from those other sources. Christians can deny it all they want, but they cannot prove their case except by arguing in circles.
Another striking evidence of divine inspiration is found in the fact that many of the principles of modern science were recorded as facts of nature in the Bible long before scientist confirmed them experimentally. [ChristianAnswers]
We don't see this particular argument very often, probably because Muslims have discovered a similar set of a scientific facts in the Quran. Most apologists have their special-pleading limits. Some of them, though, just don't have a problem claiming that an argument is invalid if it supports Islam but valid if it supports Christianity.
Here are the facts that, according to ChristianAnswers, the Bible authors knew and could not have known except by divine revelation. We'll examine the scriptural references after an initial comment on each.
A spherical earth is not a modern idea. It goes back at least to Pythagoras. Alternative hypotheses that were given some consideration before his time included worlds that were round in other senses. There were proposed worlds that had a flat surface but a round edge, like a pizza pan, or a convex surface and round edge like a Frisbee. There is not a shred of evidence that everybody in the ancient world during any historical period assumed that the world was not only flat but square.
So, just how scientifically precocious were the Bible's writers on this topic? ChristianAnswers offers the following.
It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth (Isaiah 40:22
That would certainly be as consistent with an earth shaped like a Frisbee as one shaped like a basketball.
If the Bible had referred to anything as "almost infinite," we would have yet another good reason to doubt its divine inspiration. Not that any inerrantist would agree, of course, but it is no more possible to be almost infinite than it is to be almost pregnant.
Anyhow, no biblical author ever said that anything was almost infinite. ChristianAnswers is referring here to another passage from Isaiah and trying to construe it as a statement about the size of the universe.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9)
To call this a claim about the actual, scientifically established size of the universe is just silly, to put it charitably.
Might someone living in the Middle East during the first century have had an idea, without hearing it from God, that neither matter nor energy can be created or destroyed? Yes, rather easily, in fact. The prevailing philosophies in that part of the world at that time were Greek, and Greek intellectuals had been discussing such things for a few centuries prior to New Testament times. But did any New Testament author actually ever discuss such a thing? Let's see . . . .
But the heavens and the earth, which are now, by the same word are kept in store, reserved unto fire against the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men. (II Peter 3:7)
That, according to ChristianAnswers, is an expression of the Law of conservation of mass and energy.
These are not stated in the technical jargon of modern science, of course, but in terms of the basic world of man's everyday experience.
I would be far more impressed by the biblical authors' prescient insights if they had, under God's direction, written in the language of modern science. (It was within God's power, was it not, to give them the modern scientific terminology?) If Isaiah had written about the "globe of the earth" instead of the "circle of the earth," then I might believe that he knew something about which his contemporaries were ignorant. But at least it was clear that he was saying something about (a) the earth and specifically about (b) its shape. To read into Peter's polemic an observation about matter and energy is rank nonsense. And the author most certainly was not talking about anybody's "everyday experience."
The hydrological cycle is less a principle of science than a simple observation: The biosphere recycles water. Living things use it and then lose it. After it is excreted it evaporates into the atmosphere and then sooner or later returns to the surface as rain, snow, or other precipitation. Living things then suck it up and the process is back to square one. Might this have been noticed during ancient times? Well, they certainly would have observed that rivers and lakes dry up between rains and then are replenished during rains. That surely would have given the author of Ecclesiastes a hint or two:
All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. (Eccl. 1:7) That didn't require any revelation. It it took was paying a little attention to the real world. In this case we do indeed have just a remark about the "basic world of man's everyday experience."
According to ChristianAnswers, the Bible's writers knew before anybody else did that there was a "vast number of stars." If this claim is to mean anything at all in the context, one must suppose that the ChristianAnswers Web site author defines vast in some way as to imply a number significantly larger than the number of stars visible to the naked eye on a clear night. But he does not give us his definition. All he says is that Jeremiah knew the number of stars was vast and that Jeremiah could not have known this unless God had told him it was so.
And what does Jeremiah actually say?
As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured: so will I multiply the seed of David my servant, and the Levites that minister unto me. (Jer. 33:22)
OK. I'm very comfortable interpreting "the host of heaven cannot be numbered" as "the stars are too numerous to count." And I have no problem saying that there is a vast number of things if there are too many of them to count. But did Jeremiah, after looking at the night sky, have to be moved by God in order to say that there were too many stars for anyone to count them all? I really just don't think so.
Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth: and the heavens are the work of thy hands. They shall perish, but thou shalt endure: yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment; as a vesture shalt thou change them, and they shall be changed: But thou art the same, and thy years shall have no end. (Psalms 102:25-27)
According to ChristianAnswers, this is equivalent to a statement of the second law of thermodynamics, "stated . . . in terms of the basic world of man's everyday experience." I cannot even guess how they derived that interpretation.
Evangelicals frequently give the appearance of thinking that ordinary human beings are not only incorrigibly wicked but also stupid beyond measure. To many ancient peoples, blood was symbolic of life because it was patently obvious, even in a prescientific culture, that any man or animal that lost a lot of blood always died. No one could have needed any divine inspiration to conjure up the notion that "the life of the flesh is in the blood." (Lev. 17:11)
Thoughts about the wind might have taxed ancient intellects a little bit more, but the author of Ecclesiastes shows not so much insight as just good guessing.
The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. (Eccl. 1:6)
This idea probably would not have occurred to just anybody, but it is hardly so far-fetched that we should expect nobody to have thought of it. At approximately the same time, historically speaking, Greek philosophers were kicking around such notions as atoms and evolution by natural selection.
Job 26:7 -- "He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing" -- is offered as evidence that the Bible's authors, or at least one of them, knew what modern scientists know about gravity. That is, to put it charitably, not the most obvious interpretation of this verse. I dare say nobody but an inerrantist would be surprised if the author of Job was picturing the earth as suspended by an invisible skyhook.
It is significant also that no real mistake has ever been demonstrated in the Bible -- in science, in history, or in any other subject. [ChristianAnswers]
That is not exactly the case. What is the case is that no inerrantist has ever admitted there was any real mistake in the Bible. But that is not exactly true, either. Countless inerrantists have indeed made the admission; but then, having done so, they stopped being inerrantists.
When apologists say, "No one has ever proven the Bible wrong about anything," they really mean, "No one has convinced us that the Bible is wrong about anything." Nevertheless, the ranks of skeptics are thick with former apologists.
Many [mistakes] have been claimed, of course, but conservative Bible scholars have always been able to work out reasonable solutions to all such problems. [ChristianAnswers]
The solutions no doubt seem reasonable to conservative Bible scholars. Others beg to differ, in part because the solutions invariably presuppose the infallibility of the Bible's authors.
Multitudes of people, past and present have found from personal experience that its promises are true, its counsel is sound, its commands and restrictions are wise, and its wonderful message of salvation meets every need for both time and eternity. [ChristianAnswers]
That much is true. But it is also true that additional
multitudes have found otherwise. They used to believe the Bible, until they
found its promises false, its counsel unsound, its commands and restrictions
foolish, and its message of salvation incoherent, unsubstantiated, and
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