Thursday, July 9, 2020

Thomas Paine and the Bible, Third Part

Readers of the Age of Reason should not assume that Paine is in step with all positions of modern critical scholarship. One way that he is out of step with the results of modern scholarship is his view of the canonical gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Judging by the current state of scholarship, Paine correctly understood that the gospels were anonymous and that their authors were not eye witnesses; that they contradicted one another in many ways both large and small; that they were written many years after the times they describe by persons he described as “half-Jews”16 (meaning, I gather, that they were from a mixed culture); that they were not written by apostles.17 He thought, however, that the canonical gospels were independent of one another,18 whereas the dominant position in modern scholarship postulates that a literary relationship exists between Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source drawing on another source no longer extant (Quelle, “source”) for material Matthew and Luke shared but does not exist in Mark. The dominant position on the Gospel of John is that John was written independent of the other three gospels.

            Paine, however, was not really interested in advancing the cause of critical scholarship of the Bible. He was primarily interested in the Bible only as a means of debunking Christianity as a religion of revelation, for Christians argued that the Bible was the word of God, God’s revelation to the world. Paine, on the other hand, argued that it is “fraudulent” to classify the Old and New Testaments as “being all revelation”:

The most detestable wickedness, the most horrible cruelties, and the greatest miseries, that have afflicted the human race have had their origin in this thing called revelation, or revealed religion. It has been the most dishonorable belief against the character of the divinity, the most destructive to morality, and the peace and happiness of man, that ever was propagated since man began to exist. It is better, far better, that we admitted, if it were possible, a thousand devils to roam at large, and to preach publicly the doctrine of devils, if there were any such, than that we permitted one such imposter and monster as Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and the Bible prophets, to come with the pretended word of God in his mouth, and have credit among us. Whence arose all the horrid assassinations of whole nations of men, women, and infants, with which the Old Testament is filled; and the bloody persecutions, and tortures unto death and religious wars, that have laid Europe in blood and ashes; whence arose they, but from this impious thing called revealed religion, and this monstrous belief that God has spoken to man? The lies of the [Old Testament] have been the cause of the one, and the lies of the [New Testament the cause of ] the other.19

Nevertheless, Paine should probably be regarded as something like an “independent” scholar in the history of biblical scholarship. In contemporary language the term means that the individual so designated is not connected to an institution of higher learning, but has the requisite credentials and demonstrated learning to be included among the “guild” of scholars. In Paine’s case he would qualify as a scholar who demonstrated sufficient knowledge of the subject to be taken seriously by others in the field of the critical study of religion. “Layman” is an ecclesiastical term, meaning that that an individual is not ordained clergy, and hence would not be familiar with the professional knowledge of clerics. This term is surely not appropriate for Paine because of his demonstrated hostility against both the church and members of the clergy. As a deist, he would not want to be associated in any way with traditional Christianity.

Although his writing does not reflect the discipline of a mind academically trained, his insights were original for his day. He deserves to be included among the vanguard of modern critical scholarship and required reading for theological seminaries.

Paine deserves the last word. To close this essay, here is a challenging comment from Thomas Paine completely dismissing the entire theological enterprise as practiced in a Christian context, which relies on the Bible for its data:

The study of theology as it stands in Christian churches, is the study of nothing; it is founded on nothing; it rests on no principles; it proceeds by no authorities; it has no data; it can demonstrate nothing; and admits of no conclusion. Not anything can be studied as a science without our being in possession of the principles upon which it is founded; and as this is not the case with Christian theology, it is therefore the study of nothing.20

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

16Paine Collection, 217, 219.
17Paine Collection, 210-16.
18Paine Collection, 212, 216.
19Paine Collection, 222.
20Paine Collection, 225.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Thomas Paine and the Bible, Second Part

It is surprising to me that, although my graduate education was in the critical study of the New Testament literature in its historical context, I never read Paine’s Age of Reason. I cannot recall offhand that anyone ever cited Paine as a part of the history of biblical criticism. Because of the character of his book, one would think that at some point I should have encountered Paine’s work since he preceded both D. F. Strauss and F. C. Baur in describing the importance of mythology and its influence on Christianity and was interested in the historical Jesus before Ernst Renan.1

Paine’s writings reflect a better than competent knowledge of the content of the biblical texts. Although he lived at a time when public education was not compulsory, on his own initiative he read in translation many of the Greek and Roman classics, especially in the sciences.2 He was basically self-educated with respect to the biblical texts yet he anticipated many of the positions that critical scholarship has come to hold today.

            For example, Paine anticipated the necessity for textual criticism, a basic approach to the Bible in modern criticism, but did not have the requisite skills or training to follow it through. Textual criticism is an investigation of the ancient manuscripts of the Bible with a view to producing a version of the biblical texts that restores the readings of the originals.3

It is a matter altogether of uncertainty to us whether such of the writings as they now appear under the name of the Old and New Testament, are in the same state in which those collectors say they found them; or whether they added, altered, abridged, or dressed them up.4

The continually progressive change to which the meaning of words is subject, the want of a universal language which renders translation necessary, the errors to which translations are again subject, the mistakes of copyists and printers, together with the possibility of willful alteration, are of themselves evidence that human language, whether in speech or in print cannot be the vehicle of the Word of God.—The Word of God exists in something else.5

Paine’s Age of Reason is a part of the Quest for the historical Jesus, an attempt to separate what can be known of the historical man from the Christ of early Christian faith. Paine viewed Jesus as the son of God “in like manner that every other person is; for the Creator is Father of All.”6 The canonical gospels do not present a “history of the life of Jesus Christ but only detached anecdotes of him.” Little is known of his childhood.

Where he lived, or how he employed himself during this interval, is not known. Most probably he was working at his father’s trade, which was that of a carpenter. It does not appear that he had any school education, and the probability is that he could not write, for his parents were extremely poor, as appears from their not being able to pay for a bed when he was born…Jesus Christ founded no new system. He called men to the practice of moral virtues and the belief of one God. The great trait in his character is philanthropy.7

The public career of Jesus was short, lasting “not more than eighteen months.”

            Paine raises the issue of traditional material being found in the Bible, meaning that it was not invented by the author in composing the text in which it appears but was material passed down until its inscription. For example, he says of the Genesis account of creation:

[I]t has all the appearance of being a tradition which the Israelites had among them before they came into Egypt; and after their departure from that country, they put it at the head of their history, without telling, as it is most probable that they did not know how they came by it.8

The canonical gospels he regarded as “founded upon tales, upon vague reports, and put together by I know not what half-Jews, with but little agreement between; and which they have nevertheless published under the names of the apostles of our Lord…”9 The recognition that the Bible contains traditional material anticipates at least two contemporary critical approaches to the biblical literature: Form Criticism (the attempt to identify oral forms in Old and New Testaments before they became incorporated into the biblical texts),10 and Tradition Criticism (the study of Hebrew and Christian oral traditions).11

            Here are a few of the conclusions that Paine shared with contemporary critical scholarship: Moses did not write the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible);12 the Book of Proverbs was not written by a single author but it is a collection;13 David is not the author of the Psalms; they are rather a collection;14 and the canonical gospels were not written by eyewitnesses.15 It seems clear that Paine shared the critical spirit of modern scholarship.

            The third part of Thomas Paine and the Bible will follow.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1Paine Collection, 148, 153, 156, 161, 170. See Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus. A Critical Study of its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1968) 1968. For Strauss, pp. 68-77; for Renan, pp. 180-92. For F. C. Baur see:
2Paine Collection, 172, 186.
3W. Randolph Tate, “Textual Criticism,” in Interpreting the Bible. A Handbook of Terms and Methods (Hendrickson: Peabody, MA, 2006), 368.
4Paine Collection, 158.
5Paine Collection, 160.
6Paine Collection, 161.
8Paine Collection, 158,
9Paine Collection, 217.
10Tate, Interpreting the Bible, 137-38.
11Ibid., 374-75.
12Paine Collection, 186.
13Paine Collection, 159.
14Paine Collection, 200.
15Paine Collection, 216.