In a time of easy access to so many different Bible versions, even as electronic options trump the need to turn pages in search of texts, the time has come to explore the utter distinctiveness of this single-volume library. This article reviews the Bible’s strength in six areas: origin, monotheism, prophecy, focus, historicity, and transforming power.
The Bible is very different from other ancient literature—as the psalmist notes: God “declares His word to Jacob, His statutes and His judgments to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any [other] nation” (Ps. 147:19).1
Converted rabbi Paul calls the Scriptures “the oracles of God” (Rom. 3:2), a compilation unlike anything produced by other ancient people or nation. Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations left behind written materials, including poetry and narrative. But nothing remotely similar to the biblical material with its history, biography, ethical discussion, laws, letters, and prophecy, penned over thousands of years and written by dozens of different people.
Yet despite its diversity of authors and genres, the Bible demonstrates thoroughgoing consistency. Its divineAuthor intended that the books of its collection be a blessingto all humanity, bringing the “everlasting gospel” to “every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Rev. 14:6), a truly cross-cultural gift.
While the peoples surrounding Israel served multiple gods and goddesses, biblical writers allow for the existence of only one true God. In striking contrast to the bloodthirsty, polytheistic pantheons around, He is a loving, self-sacrificing Savior (John 3:16).
No other oracles from other ancient gods included predictions reaching hundreds and thousands of years into the future and attaining precise fulfillment. The sweeping prophecy of Daniel 2, with its march of nations from Babylon to the climactic establishment of God’s kingdom, is without parallel in other ancient oracles. So too are other long-range, timed, biblical predictions such as the 1260- and 2300-day prophecies.
I remember sharing the Daniel 2 prophecy with a woman who listened carefully with a faraway look in her eyes. Then she responded, “Yes, that’s how it was. I’ve been a history teacher for years.”
Those who find numerous Old Testament prophecies of the Messiah fulfilled in the New Testament are sometimes accused of “reading Jesus back into the Old Testament.”
“Yes,” she said, “that’s how it was. I’ve been a history teacher for years.”
Jesus Himself, on Resurrection Sunday, would then be accused of doing the same, and doing it twice! To two disciples on the road to Emmaus His instruction becomes a paramount text of hermeneutics. Jesus’ denunciation was stern: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Ought not the Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?” Having issued His rebuke, He led them in an Old Testament review through Moses, the Prophets, and the Scriptures, on “the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:25-27), leaving them to exclaim, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (verse 32).
As He later He summed up with the disciples in Jerusalem, His life was the necessary fulfillment of all that was “written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning [Him]” (verse 44).
Ellen White underscores Christ’s hermeneutic: “The strongestproofs that [Jesus] is the world’s Redeemer are found in the prophecies of the Old Testament compared with the history of the New. Jesus said . . . , ‘Search the Scriptures; for . . . they are they which testify of me’ ”—a clear reference to the Old Testament, since “there was no other scripture in existence save that of the Old Testament.”
Jesus mentioned this same perspective to leading religious clergy who rejected Him: “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46).
Old Testament promises of a coming Redeemer feature myriad details, perhaps as many as 190, that are all strikingly fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Such prophetic prediction is beyond human ability. Daniel acknowledges this to pagan King Nebuchadnezzar: “There is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and He has made known . . . what will be” (Dan. 2:28).
God Himself issues the challenge through Isaiah: “Show the things that are to come hereafter that we may know that you are gods” (Isa. 41:23). No question, biblical prophecies are unique.
The many gods and goddesses of Israel’s neighbors fought nasty battles, becoming drenched in blood, flinging body parts around with glee, even eating each other’s children. Their gory and violent story reflects the passions of fallen humans, while the unique God of Scripture strives to restore His sin-stricken and sin-damaged human family to a wholeness we have lost.
From the first promise of redemption right after the Fall
(Gen. 3:15) to the final assurance and fulfillment depicted in the book of Revelation, the Bible presents a singular record of God in search of a lost and broken humanity. He is overwhelmingly the subject of most of the verbs, and His commitment to our present and ultimate good is unrelenting.
With the miraculous incarnation of Jesus, God went to the extreme to assure salvation, all the while continually contending with human ignorance, willful stubbornness, and disobedience. Jesus voluntarily took our death sentence. He hung naked on the cross, bearing in His own body the storm of the wrath of God against sin. He drew into Himself the deadly hostility of Satan, along with the hatred, sinfulness, and malice of the entire human race, to banish all evil to eternity and save us who hardly realize we need to be saved.
Psalm 130 begins with acknowledgment of the depths of human wretchedness: “Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord. . . . If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (Ps. 130:1-4, NASB).3
This is an astonishing sequence: God’s forgiveness of sins does not leave us with a cheerful, domesticated idea about Him. Rather, it draws from us a new awe for the humanly incomprehensible majesty and greatness of the God who can redeem us sinners from so grave a predicament.
With all due respect to the religions of the world, no other knows such a being: God, the Exalted, choosing to come under His own judgment against sin in order to deliver us from our deserved condemnation! In a reversal that has no parallel in the history of religion, the incarnate Lord gives His own body and blood to save us, offering whole-person salvation—body and soul—contrary to the prevailing Greek philosophical thinking that disparaged the value of matter and the human body.
Like the Bible writers, ancient polytheists claim that their gods act in human history. But biblical uniqueness once again becomes clear on this point: Yahweh’s actions are always consistent with His long-term purpose of bringing salvation, even using His enemies to accomplish His long-range goals; even seeking to save His enemies!
As Joseph explains to his brothers who sold him into slavery: “You meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, . . . to save many people alive” (Gen. 50:20).
Perhaps this is what led Paul to write that “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Rom. 8:28). Yahweh superintends all of history’s vast complex as He strives for each person’s heart, a truth demonstrated in Jesus’ long-suffering dealings with Judas, his betrayer. Ellen White observed: “Nothing that could be done to save Judas” was left undone. “Though Jesus knew Judas from the beginning, He washed his feet. And the betrayer was privileged to unite with Christ in partaking of the sacrament. A long-suffering Savior held out every inducement for the sinner [Judas] to receive Him, to repent, and to be cleansed from the defilement of sin.”
4 A God of such faithful mercy is impossible in any other ancient literature.
Uniquely, among ancient Near Eastern religions, biblical writers also insist that decisions made in this life are of ultimate importance, with no reincarnation to undo and redeem ourselves. Individuals are given one life in which to accept or reject the salvation God offers in Jesus (Heb. 9:27, 28).
Theology emerges from God’s actions in history. In Scripture He provides and preserves the faithful record that we may check and analyze. Bible prophets are instruments through whom He speaks for Himself, declaring that the supernatural, unique, nonrepeatable events in the Bible are fundamentally crucial for knowing who He is.
Archaeology has confirmed hundreds of details from Luke’s first-century historical account, such as wind direction, depth of water at a certain distance from shore, the type of disease a particular island has, and names of local officials. Colin J. Hemer gives more than a dozen reasons Acts had to have been written before A.D. 62, or only about 30 years after Jesus’ crucifixion.
5 Luke, the book’s author, has been validated as an impeccable historian, consistently proven right in hundreds of details in his history of Jesus and the first-century church, written while eyewitnesses were still alive and could have disputed him.
The same is true of the Bible’s other historical books. Overall, human history as a majorconcern in the canon finds no equivalence in the records of Israel’s neighbors, supporting the suggestion that modern history may derive from ancient Hebrew Scripture.
Despite its factual reliability, Christian faith in the Bible is never a matter of pure reason. For saving faith cannot be engendered simply by the force of accurate data. As Peter reminds, persuasion comes when the gospel is preached “by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven” (1 Peter 1:12). The Holy Spirit exactly fulfills Jesus’ promise by bearing witness to Him who is our resurrection and our life (John 15:26; 11:25).
In John Calvin’s words: “The testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason” because “the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.”
This is a critical issue: it is not enough to suggest that Jesus was an excellent teacher. Buddha teaches many things about compassion; Muhammad speaks about the one true God. But only Jesus can change sinful lives and restore us to fellowship with Him. And He awaits us in His Word, promising to comfort us and pardon our iniquity (Isa. 40:1, 2).
But we must be willing to listen to that Word, so we can learn from God what we could not otherwise know. Sometimes “God is forced by our deafness to shout the good news.”
7 But if we listen, everything will sound differently once we have heard God speak.
The Bible is a thoroughly geographical and historical book that calls us to a relationship with the God-man of history. It is a complete system of truth that each one may examine for themselves as both a high privilege and a moral duty. Because it is of God, there will forever be more to learn. Society’s growing inability to deal at length with serious issues must not undermine our work of engaging the full biblical context with ears and eyes of faith. Nothing in the Bible makes any religious sense unless we accept that God Himself speaks in His living Word.
Committed to its truth and submitted to His authority, we may access the life-giving power that renews God’s people generation after generation.
Jo Ann Davidson is a professor of theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University.