The Bible: How is it unique?
The Bible! No other book in history has been loved so much and reviled as much. Millions have staked their life and hope on its promises, and many have spent their lives attacking its credibility. To many it provides vital answers to questions of life and death, present and future, sin and salvation. To others, it is nothing more than a book of myths and fables.
Regardless of what its admirers and critics might say, one fact stands out without any dispute: The Bible is a unique book—in its historicity, origin, monotheism, prophecies, and redemptive focus. Other books may contain similar concepts and uplift high moral principles, but the Bible is different from all others in many respects.
Unique in historicity
Historicity is one of Scripture’s distinctive characteristics. While other religious literature contains many myths and legends, the Bible presents straightforward historical narratives.1 Critics may claim that much of the Bible is mythological and that its historical narratives are full of errors, but the facts contradict such claims. Archaeological discoveries of the last two centuries have highlighted the historical nature of Scripture in numerous ways. Archaeology cannot prove that the Bible is the Word of God, but it certainly has illuminated and at times provided verification for the historical records of the Scriptures.2 Responding to accusations that biblical history is riddled with errors, Donald Wiseman, a respected professor of Assyriology, has well argued that archeological evidence has for the most part eliminated such “supposed errors.” Indeed, “the majority of errors can be ascribed to errors of interpretation by modern scholars and not to substantiated ‘errors’ of fact presented by the biblical historians. This view is further strengthened when it is remembered how many theories and interpretations of Scripture have been checked or corrected by archaeological discoveries.”3
Unique in its origin
Another uniqueness of the Bible is its distinctiveness of origin. Why is the Old Testament so different from other ancient contemporary literature? One psalm provides an answer: “He [God] declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any nation; and as for His judgments, they have not known them” (Psalm 147:19-20).* Israel was deeply conscious of the fact that Yahweh, the Creator of heaven and earth, had revealed Himself to Abraham and his descendants in a way that He had not done to other nations. The apostle Paul, who was trained in Judaism but became the foremost apostle of the gospel, agrees with the claim of the Psalmist that God gave special revelation to Israel. “To them,” he says, “were committed the oracles of God” (Romans 3:1,2). The oracles mean the same as “the Holy Scriptures” (2 Timothy 3:15). No other nation or group of people–be it Babylonians, Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans—ever produced a collection of writings like the Bible. These nations did leave a legacy of history, literature, poetry, and drama, but none had left anything similar to the Hebrew Scripture—a coherent, unified body of writings covering history, biography, ethics, and a religious system that have arched over a period of more than a thousand years and written by many different authors. The uniqueness lies in the source from which the Old Testament arose: the unique, divine revelation given to Israel.
Of course there was a divine purpose behind this revelation. God intended that the Israelites, as the privileged recipients of Yahweh’s revelation, would share their knowledge of God with other nations. From the beginning, God stated His purpose that in Abraham and his descendants, “‘all the families of the earth’” would be blessed (Genesis 12:3; 22:18). It was God’s plan that the Holy Scriptures, originally entrusted to the Jews, would eventually become the common heritage of “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Revelation14:6). The Scriptures were not only given to Israel, but through Israel to the whole human family.
Unique in monotheism
Monotheism is another unique feature that sets the Hebrew Scriptures apart from all other religious literature of ancient times. Other ancient nations were polytheists, and much of their sacred literature consists of myths about multitudinous gods and goddesses. By contrast, the Old Testament speaks about Yahweh as the only true God and admits no other: “‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength’” (Deuteronomy 6:4, 5). This confession of Yahweh as the one God, the living God, the Creator of heaven and earth was the foundation of Israel’s religion. It is true that through the centuries many Israelites succumbed to the lure of polytheism. But the prophets consistently called them back to the faith in the oneness of God. Eventually, monotheism did prevail in Israel. Despite disclaimers of modern critics, the Bible–the Old as well as the New Testament–knows of only one God. This unique monotheism of the Bible is neither the result of human genius nor the end product of an evolutionary process in the history of Israel’s religion, but it “is an inspired insight revealed by God to his people.”4 Without this special revelation, Israel would have gone the way of all other ancient nations. There would have been no Holy Scriptures with their distinctive portrayal of the one supreme, sovereign God.
Unique in prophetic predictions
Prophetic predictions constitute another evidence to the uniqueness of the Bible. Other nations did have prophets, but they never made predictions that reached hundreds of years into the future and were fulfilled. For example, the prophecy of Daniel 2, portraying the march of history from Babylon through Medo-Persia, Greece, Rome, the splintered nations of Europe, and the establishment of God’s kingdom, is without parallel in any literature. Such a predictive prophecy is beyond human wisdom or foresight. Indeed, Daniel himself acknowledged the divine source of that prophecy as he explained it to King Nebuchadnezzar: “‘There is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known . . . what will be in the latter days’” (Daniel 2:28).
That predictive prophecy is taken in the Holy Scripture seriously as indicative of the nature of the true God is seen in the challenge that Yahweh puts out: “‘Show the things that are to come hereafter, That we may know that you are gods’” (Isaiah 41:23). Only the true God can reveal the future, and only in the Bible do we find predictive prophecies that have accurately been fulfilled over long periods of time. This provides powerful evidence that the Bible is uniquely the Word of God.
Critics, of course, have disparaged the distinctive character of the prophetic revelations by claiming that they are nothing more than history written after the fact. To substantiate such claims, they often have to twist the evidence ruthlessly. For instance, they claim that the prophecies of Daniel, including chapter 2, were written in the second century B.C. by an unknown author rather than by the prophet Daniel in the sixth century B.C. Even that, however, would not explain how this unknown writer could foresee that the fourth empire, Rome, would be the most powerful of the four empires and that it would be followed by a divided condition that would exist for more than 1,500 years. So, against the clear evidence of history and the internal evidence of the Book of Daniel, the fourth kingdom is said to refer to Greece rather than Rome, making the prophecy of Daniel 2 (and other predictive prophecies in that book) refer to events already transpired or just about to transpire at the time of writing. But archaeological, historical, and linguistic evidence strongly favors a sixth century B.C. date for the book of Daniel.5 This leads to the conclusion that the matchless prediction of Daniel 2 still testifies to the fact that God is its true author.
Unique in its redemptive focus
The predictive prophecies of the Bible were never intended, however, to gratify human curiosity. They were given to reveal the true character and purposes of God to save humanity from sin. This divine plan for the redemption of the human race was progressively unfolded over hundreds of years–first in anticipation through revelations given to patriarchs and prophets, and then in fulfilment in the incarnation of the Son of God. More than anything else, it is this redemptive focus that characterizes the uniqueness of the Bible–both the Old and New Testament–as the Word of God. From the first promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15 till the final assurance of the grace of Jesus Christ in Revelation 22:21, the Bible constitutes a unique, coherent revelation of God in search of lost human beings.
The Old Testament promises of a Redeemer and their fulfilment in the incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus of Nazareth as recorded in the New Testament, provide supreme evidence that these writings are truly divine. Paul rightly exalted the redemptive uniqueness of the Word of God: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16, 17).
Jesus Himself frequently appealed to the Old Testament to show that His ministry, death, and resurrection, fulfilled those promises and prophecies. But many of the Jewish leaders rejected Jesus’ claims and His interpretation of the Scriptures. He told those leaders in no uncertain terms: “‘You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me. But you are not willing to come to Me that you may have life. . . . Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you–Moses, in whom you trust. For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?’” (John 5:39, 40, 45-47). Are these words not applicable today to many Christian scholars, who while claiming to pursue a rigorous scientific exegesis of the Bible, nullify the obvious meaning of the prophecies in the Old Testament and frequently attribute their interpretation and application in the New Testament to the prejudiced or misinformed understanding of the early church?
If we believe that Christ is what He claims to be—“‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’” (John 14:6)—then we should, like Him, accept the Scriptures as “the word of God” (Mark 7:13), as Holy Scripture which “cannot be broken” (John 10:35). There is no evidence that Jesus ever appealed to any other writings than the Scriptures. In His conflict with Satan’s temptation in the wilderness Scripture was His only weapon. He said, “‘It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God”’” (Matthew 4:4).
Unique for me
I grew up in a secular home. We had no prayer, no reading of the Bible, no worship of God. At 19 I left home to study law at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, my native land. I did not understand the purpose of my existence and was earnestly seeking for meaning in life. Through the reading of the Bible, I came to believe that it had the answers to my search. I accepted Jesus Christ as my Saviour and Lord. To me the Bible became a very precious book, and I wholeheartedly received it as the unique Word of God. I gave up studying law and trained for the ministry, worked for 10 years as a pastor and missionary, and then went for advanced theological studies.
At the theological seminary, a myriad of critical questions about the Bible confronted me. Did Moses really write the books attributed to him? Was David the author of all the psalms that go under his name? Was the Book of Isaiah written by three or more unknown people instead of the prophet Isaiah? Did the Book of Daniel originate in the second century B.C. rather than in the sixth? Were the narratives in the Book of Genesis myths rather than historical accounts? Were the four Gospels riddled with contradictions and factual errors? My trust in the Bible as divine revelation was wavering. I began to wonder whether the Bible really was what I had believed it to be at my conversion, 14 years earlier. I realized that if I lost my trust in the Bible I would sooner or later lose my faith in Christ, for it was through the Scriptures He had revealed Himself to me and was speaking to me continually.
After much prayer and study, I determined that I would cling to Christ and His Word, even though I could not answer all the critical questions at that time. Now, nearly 30 years later, years filled with study and prayer, many questions have been answered; other questions remain unresolved. However, I trust that one day God will provide me with the answers, either in this life or in the world to come. But over the years, while studying as much evidence as I could and through my personal relationship with a loving and compassionate Saviour, I am more than ever convinced that the Bible is truly the Word of God. No other book qualifies for that title.
Peter van Bemmelen (Th.D., Andrews University) is professor of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. His address: Andrews University; Berrien Springs, Michigan 49104; U.S.A.
*All Scripture passages in this article are from the New King James Version.
Notes and references:
1. For example, note what Ellen White wrote in 1876 at a time when higher criticism was attempting to undermine the historical accuracy of the Bible: “The lives recorded in the Bible are authentic histories of actual individuals From Adam down through successive generations to the times of the apostles we have a plain, unvarnished account of what actually occurred and the genuine experience of real characters.” (Testimonies for the Church [Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948], vol. 4, p. 9).
2. See Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1966).
3. Donald J. Wiseman, “Archaeology and Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal 33 (1970-1971): 151, 152.
4. Ronald Youngblood, “Monotheism,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Walter A. Elwell, ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1984), p. 731.
5. See Frank B. Holbrook, ed., Symposium on Daniel: Introductory and Exegetical Studies (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Research Institute, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1986).