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Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World
by Josh McDowell
Learn More | Meet Josh McDowell
THE UNIQUENESS OF THE BIBLE
People often say to us, "Oh, you don't read the Bible, do you?" Or they say, "The Bible is just another book. You really ought to read ..." Then they name some of their favorite books. Others have a Bible in their library, describing how it sits on the shelf next to other "greats," such as Homer's Odyssey, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, or Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Their Bible may be dusty, not broken in, but they still recognize its historical influence, thinking of it as one of the classics. Still others make degrading comments about the Bible because they are surprised that anyone might take it seriously enough to spend time reading it. I (Josh) was once like them. I even tried to refute the Bible as God's Word to humanity. I finally concluded, however, that not accepting the Bible must result from being either biased, prejudiced, or simply unread.
Voices like those above brought up many issues with which I grappled. As a result of all my research about the Bible, I concluded that the best word to describe the Bible is the word unique.
This chapter focuses exclusively on the unique origin and nature of the Bible, the profound impact it has had on western civilization, and its responsibility for much of the progress of human history. This chapter will not attempt to demonstrate the validity or truth of the Bible, nor its claims to inspiration, infallibility, or inerrancy, which will be addressed in subsequent chapters.
II. Unique in Character
There are several uncommon and distinctive features of the Bible's history, composition, and content. F. F. Bruce, former Rylands Professor of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at the University of Manchester, summarizes these characteristics:
The Bible, at first sight, appears to be a collection of literature — mainly Jewish. If we enquire into the circumstances under which the various Biblical documents were written, we find that they were written at intervals over a space of nearly 1400 years. The writers wrote in various lands, from Italy in the west to Mesopotamia and possibly Persia in the east. The writers themselves were a heterogeneous number of people, not only separated from each other by hundreds of years and hundreds of miles but belonging to the most diverse walks of life. In their ranks we have kings, herdsmen, soldiers, legislators, fishermen, statesmen, courtiers, priests and prophets, a tentmaking rabbi and a Gentile physician, not to speak of others of whom we know nothing apart from the writings they have left us. The writings themselves belong to a great variety of literary types. They include history, law (civil, criminal, ethical, ritual, sanitary), religious poetry, didactic treatises, lyric poetry, parable and allegory, biography, personal correspondence, personal memoirs and diaries, in addition to the distinctively Biblical types of prophecy and apocalyptic. (Bruce, BP, 79)
Now let us look in more detail into some of these specific characteristics.
A. Unique in Its Time Span
While most scholars agree that all the books of the New Testament were completed by the second half of the first century AD (Kitchen, OROT, 500), there is sufficient evidence to confirm that the earliest forms of the Bible were written during the time of the Hebrew exodus out of Egypt (c. 1400–1200 BC). This means that the composition of the biblical writings, from the earliest book of the Bible to the last of the New Testament writings, spans a period of 1,300 to 1,500 years. In comparison to other literary and historical works, the Bible is exceptional in that it was written and assembled over a vast number of generations.
B. Unique in Its Geographical Production
Unlike most other literary works, the composition and transmission of the biblical books did not emerge from a homogenous community located in a single region of the ancient world. Rather, these works were written by peoples in areas as diverse as Rome in the West, Egypt in the South, and Mesopotamia in the East. This amazing geographical and ethnic diversity distinguishes the Bible's origins from that of all other books.
C. Unique in Its Authorship
The Bible is as diverse in its authorship as it is in its production over a long period of time and the multiple geographical regions in which it originated. Authored by approximately forty different people (some known, some unknown) and edited and preserved by countless scribal schools and communities, the Bible preserves for us the writings of a vast array of different personalities from widely divergent social circumstances. We discover kings surrounded by power and wealth (e.g., Solomon) on the one hand, to lower class Galilean fishermen (e.g., Peter and John) on the other. Between these two socioeconomic extremes one finds an exiled prince (Moses), military leaders (e.g., Joshua and David), trained philosophers (e.g., the authors of Job and Ecclesiastes), a tax collector (Matthew), a historian (Luke), and a zealous Pharisee (Paul). These authors recorded the stories of all kinds of people. Professor Mary Ellen Chase remarks:
The story-tellers of the Bible ... understood men and women of all sorts and in all conditions. There is literally no type of person whom they have neglected. All are here: the wise and the foolish, the rich and the poor, the faithful and the treacherous, the designing and the generous, the pitiful and the prosperous, the innocent and the guilty, the spendthrift and the miser, the players of practical jokes and their discomfited victims, the sorry, the tired, the old, the exasperated young, misled and impetuous girls, young men who lusted and young men who loved, friends who counted no cost for friendship, bad-mannered children and children well brought up, a little boy who had a headache in a hay-field, a little servant girl who wanted so much her master's health that she dared to give him good, if unpalatable, advice. Once one discovers such persons as these, still alive after many centuries, they become not only fascinating in themselves but typical of persons whom we know today. (Chase, BCR, 5)
D. Unique in Its Literary Genres
The Bible is also unique in that a multitude of distinct literary forms and genres can be found within its pages, as complete compositions consisting of a single genre (e.g., Song of Songs) or complete compositions imbued with multiple genres (e.g., Exodus). Gerd Theissen, professor of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg, highlights the importance of biblical genres:
Biblical texts are of various sorts. Treatment of one sort of text provides practice in dealing with all texts of the same sort. Narrative, poetic, legal, and argumentative texts of the Bible can therefore be treated as exemplary, as well as the various biblical genres identified by that area of biblical scholarship called form criticism. In principle no single sort of text is privileged. Central themes appear in all forms: creation is recorded as narrative; trust is expressed in prayer (Psalm 23); monotheism is mandated in a commandment (Exod. 20:2); justification is expounded in a disputatious letter (Romans); theodicy — the question of God's justice — is examined in wisdom dialogue (Job). The Bible is not a homogenous text but a compendium of different forms and genres. Each must be appreciated on its own terms. (Theissen, BCC, 30–31)
Other ancient literary works utilize a multiplicity of literary genres, but the biblical authors use them in order to focus their audience's attention on one supreme metanarrative. Alison Jack, professor of Bible and Literature at the University of Edinburgh, illustrates the interplay between this unifying biblical motif and the multiplicity of literary forms:
While one overarching story may be discerned, involving the central character of the one God, creator and sustainer of the earth, and his relationship with those who accept a relationship with him, and those who do not, there are many different voices behind the books of the Bible. A multitude of literary genres are found here, from long and short narratives to poetry and song, genealogies and historical accounts, biography, letters and apocalyptic writing. These voices tell different versions of the story, from a variety of perspectives. (Jack, BL, 6)
E. Unique in Its Languages
The Bible is written in three different languages (two Semitic and one Indo-European), each with a unique character and essence. Larry Walker, former professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, outlines each of the biblical languages:
Hebrew is actually one of several Canaanite dialects which included Phoenician, Ugaritic, and Moabite. Other Canaanite dialects (for example, Ammonite) existed but have left insufficient inscriptions for scholarly investigation. Such dialects were already present in the land of Canaan before its conquest by the Israelites. ... Hebrew belongs to the Semitic family of languages; these languages were used from the Mediterranean Sea to the mountains east of the Euphrates River valley, and from Armenia (Turkey) in the north to the southern extremity of the Arabian peninsula. ... Hebrew, like the other early Semitic languages, concentrates on observation more than reflection. That is, things that are generally observed according to their appearance as phenomena, not analyzed as to their inward being or essence. Effects are observed but not traced through a series of causes. Hebrew's vividness, conciseness, and simplicity make the language difficult to translate fully. It is amazingly concise and direct. For example, Psalm 23 contains fifty-five words; most translations require about twice that many to translate it. ... Hebrew is a pictorial language in which the past is not merely described but verbally painted. Not just a landscape is presented but a moving panorama. The course of events is reenacted in the mind's sight. ... Many profound theological expressions of the Old Testament are tightly bound up with Hebrew language and grammar. Even the most sacred name of God himself, "the Lord" (Jehovah or Yahweh), is directly related to the Hebrew verb "to be" (or perhaps "to cause to be"). (Walker, BL, 218–221)
Walker also explains:
Aramaic is linguistically very close to Hebrew and similar in structure. Aramaic texts in the Bible are written in the same script as Hebrew. In contrast to Hebrew, Aramaic uses a larger vocabulary, including many loan words, and a greater variety of connectives. It also contains an elaborate system of tenses, developed through the use of participles with pronouns or with various forms of the verb "to be." Although Aramaic is less euphonious and poetical than Hebrew, it is probably superior as a vehicle of exact expression. Aramaic has perhaps the longest continuous living history of any language known. It was used during the Bible's patriarchal period and is still spoken by a few people today. Aramaic and its cognate, Syriac, evolved into many dialects in different places and periods. Characterized by simplicity, clarity, and precision, it adapted easily to the various needs of everyday life. It could serve equally well as a language for scholars, pupils, lawyers, or merchants. Some have described it as the Semitic equivalent of English. ... Gradually, especially after the Babylonian exile, Aramaic influence pervaded the land of Palestine. Nehemiah complained that children from mixed marriages were unable to speak Hebrew (Neh. 13:24). The Jews seem to have continued using Aramaic widely during the Persian, Greek, and Roman periods. Eventually the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Aramaic paraphrases, called Targums, some of which have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. ... Aramaic served as a transition from Hebrew to Greek as the language spoken by Jews in Jesus' day. In that sense Aramaic connects Old Testament Hebrew with New Testament Greek. (Walker, BL, 228–230)
The Greek language is beautiful, rich, and harmonious as an instrument of communication. It is a fitting tool both for vigorous thought and for religious devotion. During its classic period, Greek was the language of one of the world's greatest cultures. During that cultural period, language, literature, and art flourished more than war. The Greek mind was preoccupied with ideals of beauty. The Greek language reflected artistry in its philosophical dialogues, its poetry, and its stately orations. The Greek language was also characterized by strength and vigor. It was capable of variety and striking effects. Greek was a language of argument, with a vocabulary and style that could penetrate and clarify phenomena rather than simply tell stories. ... The conquests of Alexander the Great encouraged the spread of Greek language and culture. Regional dialects were largely replaced by "Hellenistic" or "koine" (common) Greek. Koine Greek is a dialect preserved and known through thousands of inscriptions reflecting all aspects of daily life. The koine dialect added many vernacular expressions to Attic Greek, thus making it more cosmopolitan. Simplifying the grammar also better adapted it to a worldwide culture. ... Translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek was an epochal event. The Septuagint (the earliest Greek translation of the Old Testament) later had a strong influence on Christian thought. ... The New Testament epistles blend the wisdom of Hebrew and the dialectic philosophy of Greek. Sermons recorded in the New Testament combine the Hebrew prophetic message with Greek oratorical force. (Walker, BL, 230–234)
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