The Uniqueness of the Bible (1997)
In ETDAV, McDowell begins his defense of the Bible with the claim that it is unique. He parades before us an array of "scholars" to testify to various features of the Bible that qualify it to be considered "different from all others" [books], as if anyone would seriously try to deny that the Bible is unique, i.e., different from all others. At the very beginning of my analysis of this chapter of ETDAV, I will concede that the Bible is undeniably unique. Certainly, there is no other book like it, but this fact, as we will see, becomes more of an embarrassment to the Bible than proof of its divine origin.
The answer to this question is that it doesn't prove anything. If one wanted to quibble, he could argue that all books are unique in that each is different from all others, but nothing is ever gained by quibbling, so let's cut to the heart of what McDowell really means when he speaks of the "uniqueness" of the Bible. He means that its storyline, its survival, its circulation, its influence, etc. aren't just slightly but radically different from all other books. McDowell develops points like these at length (aided by the testimony of carefully selected "scholars" who, of course, have nothing but words of praise for the Bible) only to arrive at a rather anti-climatic conclusion. "The above does not prove the Bible is the Word of God," he states at the end of this chapter, "but to me it proves that it is unique (different from all others; having no like or equal)." So all of the "evidence that demands a verdict" on this particular point leads McDowell to the conclusion that none of the evidence about the uniqueness of the Bible proves that it is the word of God, but the uniqueness of the Bible certainly proves that it is unique. His circular conclusion was hardly worth the effort he put into reaching it.
Although I certainly don't consider Josh McDowell a profound biblical scholar, I will credit him with more intelligence than his conclusion to this chapter implies. When he said this, he probably understood principles of persuasion enough to know that nothing that he had said in this entire chapter in any way proved the divine origin of the Bible, but he also understood human nature sufficiently to know that uncritical readers would nevertheless be impressed with his parade of "scholars" testifying to the uniqueness of the Bible. We might equate his strategy here to that of a trial lawyer who makes a statement in court that he knows the judge will not allow the jury to consider, but the lawyer also knows that no matter how much the judge tells the members of the jury that the statement is inadmissible as evidence, they will still take it into consideration. So what McDowell very likely wanted his readers to do was to read his "evidence that demands a verdict" with a preconceived notion that the alleged uniqueness of the Bible has established its divine origin before any other type of evidence has even been considered.
Examination in detail of all of the "scholarly" testimony to the Bible's uniqueness that McDowell presented in this chapter would require the writing of an entire volume, so I will have to confine myself to general rebuttals of what he apparently hoped to imply by his major examples of uniqueness. Then we will look at some unique characteristics of the Bible that McDowell conveniently left out of his array of "evidence that demands a verdict."
In this section of the chapter, McDowell makes a hackneyed appeal that has been elevated almost to the status of creed in many fundamentalist denominations. The Bible was written over a period of 1500 years (so the appeal goes) by 40 different writers, living in different places and even on different continents, writing in different languages, working in different occupations, etc., etc., etc., yet despite all of this diversity, the Bible presents a unified theme from beginning to end. The implication, of course, is that such marvelous continuity could not have been achieved without divine guidance.
The central point of McDowell's claim is simply not true. Without even attacking the overstated tradition of the circumstances under which the Bible was written, one can easily show that the Bible is not unified in its theme. In 1C.9, McDowell stated that the Bible "includes hundreds of controversial subjects" and then went on to explain that "(a) controversial subject is one which would create opposing opinions when mentioned or discussed." McDowell's claim is that such opposing opinions on controversial issues don't exist in the Bible. "Biblical authors spoke on hundreds of controversial subjects," he claims, "with harmony and continuity from Genesis to Revelation."
I could cite dozens of examples that dispute McDowell's claim that the Bible is completely unified in its theme, but space constraints must limit me to just a few examples of disharmony and discontinuity in the Bible. First, there is the obvious fact that disagreement among prophets in biblical times did exist. Jeremiah, in particular, complained about prophets that didn't agree with him on contemporary issues:
This quotation was long, but it was necessary to establish that even the Bible itself acknowledges that serious disagreements and wranglings among prophets were common in biblical times. If there is any truth at all to Jeremiah's narration of contemporary events, Judah in his day was filled with prophets uttering lies. This complaint was recurrent in his book (27:9-10; 29:8-9), and in chapters 28 and 29:21-32, he even singled out individuals by name and accused them of speaking false prophecies. Inerrantists like McDowell, of course, will argue that these others were false prophets, and so what they prophesied cannot be compared to what was spoken and written by "true" prophets of Yahweh. This, however, would be a naively simplistic view that ignores the Bible's own allusions to the prevalence of prophets in biblical times. Prophecy was a sort of national institution, and there were even schools maintained to train them, where the students were known as "sons of the prophets" (2 Kings 2:3; 4:1; 9:1). Prophets were so common that kings could summon them by the hundreds to give them advice in times of national emergency, and 1 Kings 22:1-28 relates an incident involving rival opinion between 400 prophets, whose counsel king Ahab had asked for prior to an attack on Ramoth-gilead, and Micaiah, a prophet whom Ahab despised for always "speaking evil" against him.
In such a scenario as this, it would be naive to think that no differences of opinion found their way into the biblical text. Just as winners always write the histories of nations, we can be certain that the same principle prevailed when the "inspired" books were arbitrarily selected by those whose theological views had triumphed, so this alone would account for whatever degree of unity there may be in the biblical canon. The process, however, was far from successful, because some dissenting views managed to survive the cutting. In 2 Kings 9-10, for example, the story of Jehu's massacre of the royal family of Israel at Jezreel is related with the obvious approval of whoever wrote the account. At the end of this account, the writer declared Yahweh's approval of Jehu's actions: "Yahweh said to Jehu, 'Because you have done well in carrying out what I consider right, and in accordance with all that was in my heart have dealt with the house of Ahab, your sons of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel'" (10:30). The following chapters relate the reigns of Jehu's sons, who were described as kings who "did evil in the sight of Yahweh"; nevertheless, the writer claimed that Yahweh allowed them to reign to the fourth generation in order to fulfill his promise to Jehu. When Zechariah, the fourth-generation descendant of Jehu was assassinated in Samaria after a reign of only six months, the writer said in summarizing the end of the dynasty that began with Jehu, "Shallum son of Jabesh conspired against him [Zechariah], and struck him down in public and killed him, and reigned in place of him. Now the rest of the deeds of Zechariah are written in the Book of the Annals of the Kings of Israel. This was the promise of Yahweh that he gave to Jehu, 'Your sons shall sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation.' And so it happened" (2 Kings 15:1-12).
Whoever wrote the record of Jehu's and his descendants' reigns obviously thought that Jehu had pleased Yahweh in the massacre of the royal family of Israel in order to usurp the throne. Several years later, however, the prophet Hosea expressed an entirely different opinion of Jehu's actions. When his wife Gomer bore a son, Hosea claimed that Yahweh said to him, "Name him Jezreel; for in a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel" (Hosea 1:4). So the writer of 2 Kings heaped praise on Jehu for the Jezreel massacre of the royal family, but years later the prophet Hosea apparently said that Yahweh would avenge the blood of Jezreel and end the reign of the house of Jehu. This was apparently a retrojected prophecy to explain the assassination of Zechariah, the last Israelite king from the house of Jehu, but, regardless, in making the "prediction," Hosea put himself into obvious disagreement with the writer of 2 Kings, who thought that Jehu had done "all that was in [Yahweh's] heart" in the matter of Jezreel. It's hard to see perfect agreement and harmony in these two views of the same event.
I would have to write a book to discuss in detail even a fraction of all of the inconsistencies and conflicting theological views in the Bible, but just a few more briefly analyzed examples should be sufficient to show the absurdity of McDowell's claim that the Bible is perfectly harmonious. All through the Old Testament, there are stories of animal sacrifices that were both commanded and savored by Yahweh. The book of Leviticus, in fact, is for the most part a catalog of the various sacrifices that Yahweh required of his "chosen people." Here and there, however, we see indications that some biblical writers were in disagreement with this practice. The prophet Jeremiah even claimed that Yahweh said, "For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Jer. 7:22). This statement stands in flagrant contradiction of what the last four books of the Pentateuch say in too many places even to list a fraction of them. Biblical inerrantists have leaned over backwards to try to explain this discrepancy by claiming that what Jeremiah really meant was that Yahweh wanted sincerity, honesty, and mercy to accompany the outward compliance to his commands concerning burnt offerings, but this is not what the text says. It plainly states that Yahweh did not speak to the Israelites or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. If Jeremiah had meant only that Yahweh wanted certain inward attitudes to accompany the offering of sacrifices, he could have said so. But he didn't.
If Jeremiah were the only biblical writer to express this opinion, we could perhaps be convinced that we have misunderstood this particular passage, but the same view was stated elsewhere. In Psalm 40:6, the writer speaking to Yahweh said, "Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required." Isaiah 11:10-11; Psalm 51:16; Jeremiah 6:20; and Amos 5:22 are other passages that show that some writers did not attach to sacrifices and offerings the supreme importance that was expressed in the book of Leviticus, which was undoubtedly written by an Aaronic priest intend on securing his livelihood, which would have been dependent on a continual parade of animals to be sacrificed at the temple altar.
The Bible also states that God shows no favoritism to people (Acts 10:34; Deut. 10:17; Rom. 2:11; Gal. 2:6: Eph. 6:9; Col. 3:25; 1 Peter 1:17), but it also states that Yahweh selected one people "above all people on the face of the earth" to be his chosen people (Deut. 7:6). That hardly sounds like perfect unity and harmony.
The Bible claims in far too many places to try to list them all that God is a god of love, mercy, and kindness, but the Old Testament is filled with atrocities that Yahweh presumably commanded his chosen people to commit against non-Hebraic people. In Deuteronomy 7:3, he commanded the Israelites to invade Canaan and "utterly destroy" the people living there and "show no mercy to them." Joshua 10:40 and 11:11 state that the Israelites obeyed these orders by utterly destroying the people in the Canaanite cities and leaving nothing alive to breathe. Joshua 11:15, 20 declares that in doing these things, they were merely obeying what Yahweh had commanded Moses.
There are many more points of contradiction and inconsistency in the Bible, but even these few of the hundreds known to exist are sufficient to show that it can hardly be claimed that the Bible is "unique in its continuity."
In these three sections, McDowell seems to be arguing that numbers are somehow sufficient to establish truth. His claim is that the Bible has been circulated more, translated into more languages, and survived more attacks and criticisms longer than any other book; therefore, the Bible must be the word of God. Any beginning student of logic knows that truth is never decided by the number of those who adhere to a premise or claim, so there is nothing in any of these points that even comes close to establishing the truth of the Bible. Most of what McDowell said in these sections can be explained by the personal zeal and fanaticism of those who have believed the Bible through the centuries. Because of their commitment, these believers circulated the Bible, translated it, and protected it more than is usual for books. No one denies that zealous commitment has long been characteristic of Bible believers, but much more than this is required to establish the truth of any philosophical belief.
Being a Christian, McDowell would believe that although Judaism was originally instituted by Yahweh, it is no longer his true religion, but it has been the dedication of believers in this religion that has enabled it to survive through centuries of persecutions and tribulations that have far exceeded anything that Christians have had to endure. Furthermore, the circulation and survival of almost two thirds of the books in the Bible have been the result of dedicated adherents of Judaism, but McDowell would certainly not see this as any indication that Judaism is the religion that God now wants people to practice.
Much of what McDowell sees as biblical "uniqueness" is actually the result of political and social chance and circumstance. Christianity happened to take root and thrive in a geographical area that became more technologically advanced than other parts of the world, and it also enjoyed favored status from governmental institutions that suppressed opposition to it. In such circumstances, it is no wonder that the adherents of this religion would take advantage of the favored status to propagate their religion as extensively as possible. The growth and prosperity of any institution will always be the result of many factors, so it is naively simplistic of Christians to believe that their religion has thrived only because it is the "true" religion.
As for the Bible's survival of more criticisms and attacks than any other book, McDowell surely knows that public criticism of the Bible has only recently become possible where Christianity has for centuries been the dominant religion. Until the evolution of democratic ideas within the past two centuries--and even more recently than that in some places--public criticism of the Bible was punishable by imprisonment and, in some instances, even death. As recently as the 19th century, the Reverend Robert Taylor, a clergyman who became a critic of the Bible, was imprisoned in England for blasphemy as a result of publishing materials deemed offensive to Christianity. In such an environment, criticism of the Bible could not have been as widespread as McDowell apparently wants his readers to believe. Now that freedom of expression is granted by most democratic societies where Christianity is the dominant religion, there is no wonder that the Bible has become the target of widespread critical analysis. There is much in it that needs to be criticized.
While western societies have moved in a direction that permits freedom to criticize religion, this has not been so in other societies in which Christianity is just another minority religion. A critic of the Qur'an in an Islamic society takes a great risk and understands that he could be imprisoned or even executed for blasphemy. In such an environment attacks on the Qur'an will be very limited. If, however, freedom of religious expression should be adopted in Islamic societies, does McDowell doubt for a moment that Qur'anic criticisms will increase substantially?
As for the survival of the Bible, it isn't nearly as old as some holy books. Sections of the Zoroastrian Avesta are older than even the oldest parts of the Old Testament and so are many of the Hindu Vedas. To argue that the length of time a religion has survived is somehow an indicator of its truth, would make many religions "true religions." The history of religion is that they arise out of political and social circumstances of the times, thrive, decline, and die. There is no reason to believe that the same will not happen to Christianity and other ancient religions that have survived for centuries. Information is religion's greatest enemy, and in an age when information is just a few keyboard strokes away from anyone with a computer, this is going to pose a greater threat to Christianity than anything it has yet "survived."
Of all the unique attributes that McDowell listed in the opening chapter of ETDAV, this one is probably second in absurdity to his perfect-continuity-and-harmony claim. A serious study of the history of religions will show that there is nothing unique about the teachings of the Bible. The first 11 chapters of Genesis were derived from Babylonian mythology, as all serious Bible scholars know. The Hebrews thought their god Yahweh could be appeased by incinerating animals in homage to him, but all of the societies around them believed that they too could appease their gods with animal sacrifices. The Hebrews built a temple to their god, but the nations around them also built temples to their gods. The Hebrews believed that their god rewarded them when they acted "righteously" and punished them when they "did that which was evil in Yahweh's sight," but contemporary records like the Moabite Stone and pagan temple inscriptions show that the nations around them believed the same. Not even the highly touted "monotheism" of the Hebrews was unique to them, because Egyptian records show that monotheism was introduced in Egypt by Pharaoh Akhenaton (Amenhotep IV) before it had established roots with the Hebrews.
The New Testament story of a virgin-born, miracle-working, dead-and-resurrected savior-god was not unique to Christianity. Such figures abounded in the pagan religions that preceded Christianity. Even the famous golden rule (do unto others as you would have them do unto you) had its counterpoint in the ethical teachings of other religions that required its adherents to believe that they should not do to others anything that they would not want done to them.
Much of this section of McDowell's "uniqueness" chapter was devoted to the subject of prophecy, which was about the worst topic that he could have chosen to try to make a case for the inspiration of the Bible. McDowell quoted Wilbur Smith, who said, "It [the Bible] is the only volume ever produced by man, or a group of men, in which is to be found a large body of prophecies relating to individual nations, to Israel, to all the peoples of the earth, to certain cities, and to the coming of One who was to be the Messiah." Whether no other religious book has presented any sizable body of prophecies is a matter I am not qualified to speak to, but I certainly do feel qualified to say that there is a twofold problem in what Smith has alleged here: (1) many of the prophecies that have been identified by New Testament writers and Christian apologists are prophecies only in the fertile imaginations of those who have claimed them to be prophecies, and (2) many of the prophecies that were undoubtedly intended by their writers to be understood as prophecies were never fulfilled.
The Old Testament prophecies against Tyre and Egypt are excellent examples of prophecy failure. Ezekiel prophesied that Nebuchadnezzar would completely destroy Tyre and that it would never be rebuilt (26:7-14, 21; 27:36; 28:19). We know from historical records, however, that Nebuchadnezzar's invasion destroyed only Tyre's mainland villages, but his siege of the island stronghold was unsuccessful. Even Ezekiel himself acknowledged later in his book that his prophecy against Tyre had failed, and so Yahweh, as compensation for his unpaid labors at Tyre, was going to give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar (29:17-20).
That prophecy also failed miserably, as we will notice later, but first there is a matter of contradiction between Ezekiel's prophecy against Tyre and one that Isaiah also made that we should look at first. As Ezekiel did, Isaiah uttered prophecies of destruction against the nations around Israel, and one of those prophecies was against Tyre. In 23:1, he said, "The burden of Tyre. Howl you ships of Tarshish; for it is laid waste, so that there is no house, no entering in: from the land of Kittim it is revealed to them." The prophecy continues in typical fashion through the chapter, predicting waste and devastation, and beginning in verse 13, Isaiah clearly indicated that the destruction of Tyre would be only temporary, not permanent:
So we see that Isaiah had a very different opinion of Tyre's destiny. He said that it would be destroyed and forgotten 70 years but at the end of the 70 years, Yahweh would visit Tyre and it would be restored. Obviously, one could make a much better case for the fulfillment of this prophecy than for Ezekiel's. Nevertheless, Isaiah's prophecy against Tyre poses a serious problem for biblical apologists. They must explain why Isaiah predicted only a temporary destruction of Tyre, whereas Ezekiel predicted an everlasting destruction.
That brings us back to Ezekiel's promise that Yahweh would give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar as compensation for his failure to receive "wages" for his labors against Tyre. The prophecy against Egypt was very specific: Egypt would be laid completely desolate by Nebuchadnezzar and remain so for a period of 40 years.
Notice that the prophecy is very specific in stating that Egypt would be "an utter waste and desolation, from Migdol to Syene, as far as the border of Ethiopia." Ethiopia was on the southern border of Egypt, and Migdol was in the northern delta of the Nile. Hence, the prediction was that the country would be laid waste from its northern border to its southern border. The next verse says that no human foot or animal foot would pass through it for 40 years. There is no historical evidence of any kind to suggest that Egypt was ever desolate and uninhabited for the space of 40 years. Hence, the prophecy obviously failed.
Some inerrantists try to claim that this is a prophecy that will be fulfilled at a future date, but the prophecy was specifically addressed to Pharaoh king of Egypt, and the rule of the pharaohs ended long ago. Furthermore, as the verses below show, the prophecy made Nebuchadnezzar Yahweh's instrument of vengeance against Egypt, and Nebuchadnezzar has been dead for 25 centuries.
The tirade against Egypt continued on into the next chapter. An analysis of the chapter would show other specific details in the prophecy that were never fulfilled, but these are enough to establish that this is a clear example of a prophecy failure. Biblicists like Josh McDowell, who boast of perfect fulfillments of biblical prophecies, depend upon the ignorance of their readers to accept this claim without bothering to verify it, but it is a claim that is patently false.
McDowell has parroted that old Christian claim that if the Bible were destroyed, it could be reproduced in its entirety from biblical quotations that could be found in books on the shelves of city libraries. This may be true, but I seriously doubt if this is a claim that would be uniquely true. Does McDowell doubt that the Qur'an, if destroyed, could be reproduced from quotations found in books on the shelves of Islamic libraries? There are even Islamic zealots who have committed the entire Qur'an to memory and could be depended on as sources to reproduce it if it were ever destroyed. Essentially all that McDowell has focused on in this chapter are factors that result from the fanaticism of religious zealots, but much of what he has said would be true of other religions too. This just isn't as apparent to him as the "uniqueness" of the Bible is, because he lives in a society that is permeated with and dominated by Christian thinking.
In many other ways, however, I'm inclined to agree with McDowell's claim that the Bible has been unique in its influence. Of all the religious holy books that I personally know about, I know of none whose influence has been as negative and detrimental to society as the Bible has been. I know of no book that rivals it in the barbarity and cruelty of the god that it presents as the creator of the world and then has the audacity to call him supremely "good." In that respect the Bible is certainly unique, but this is a uniqueness that biblical apologists like McDowell never want to talk about. They prefer not to mention the unique doctrine of eternal punishment in hellfire for all who do not obey even the pettiest of the Bible god's decrees. They prefer not to mention the uniqueness of the persecutions, inquisitions, intolerance, and ignorance that the Bible has left in its historical wake. McDowell's smorgasbord approach of selecting only those features of the Bible that present it in a favorable light and even at times flagrantly falsifying facts such as his claim of perfect "continuity" in the Bible is unworthy to be called biblical "scholarship." About the only truth in this chapter was McDowell's admission that the alleged "uniqueness" of the Bible "does not prove [that it] is the Word of God."
Links to various essays which address the errancy of the Bible.
"The Jury Is Insane: Chapter 1: A Tekton Parody" (Off Site) by James Patrick Holding
A childish parody of a previous version of my essay largely devoted to insults and name-calling.
"Who's Minding the Till?" (Off Site) by James Patrick Holding
Holding's substantive rebuttal to this essay. (Strangely, Holding does not provide a link to this essay.)
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