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.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Thomas Paine and the Bible, First Part

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-born American. As a youth he attended an English Grammar School (Thetford) for five years (1744-49) before he was apprenticed to his father as a corsetmaker at age thirteen. Later as a master corsetmaker he opened his own shop in Sandwich, Kent in England. He emigrated to America in 1774 at age thirty-seven, where he blossomed into a political activist, philosopher, political theorist, revolutionary, and Bible critic. He is best known for his political pamphlet (1776) Common Sense that had a profound influence on the common folk of the American colonies leading them to support the cause for independence from England.1

            He was born into a religious family (his father was Quaker and his mother, Anglican), but he himself in his maturity described himself as a Deist, which meant the following to Paine:

I believe in one God, and no more, and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe in the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.2

The true deist has but one Deity; and his religion consists in contemplating, the power, wisdom, benignity of the Deity in his works [i.e., nature], and endeavoring to imitate him in every thing, moral, scientific, and mechanical.3

When we behold the mighty universe that surrounds us, and dart our contemplation into the eternity of space, filled with innumerable orbs revolving in eternal harmony, how paltry must the tales of the Old and New Testaments, profanely called the word of God, appear to thoughtful man.4

            Paine was severely critical of organized religion of any sort5 and particularly harsh in his condemnation of Christianity and “revealed religion”:

The Christian mythologists, calling themselves the Christian Church, have erected their fable, which for absurdity and extravagance is not exceeded by anything that is to be found in the mythology of the ancients.6

As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of atheism; a sort of religious denial of God. It professes to believe in a man rather than in God. It is a compound made up chiefly of man-ism but with little deism, and is near to atheism as twilight is to darkness.7

[T]he church has set up a system of religion very contradictory to the character of the person whose name it bears. It has set up a religion of pomp and revenue in pretended imitation of a person whose life was humility and poverty.8

            He had no documented formal training in biblical criticism and did not know Latin or the biblical languages of Greek and Hebrew.9 Nevertheless he wrote several pamphlets critical of the Bible, which were collected to form the Age of Reason10 by applying what scholars have later come to know as “literary criticism” in analyzing the biblical texts. Basically his analysis relied on human reason and common sense in reading the texts. What is surprising is that he claimed to have written Part One of the Age of Reason without access to a written Bible at the time of writing but rather he was writing from memory.11

Paine was arrested in France on charges of treason and jailed in the French prison at Luxembourg on December 28, 1793.12 His release was secured by his friend James Monroe on November 4, 1794.13 Before he was arrested, he hurriedly finished Part One of the Age of Reason, and entrusted it to a friend, as he was on his way to prison.14 While he was in prison, Part One was translated into French and published without Paine having proofed it.15 Not knowing what might happen to him or the manuscript he had written, Paine says he committed it through his friend Joel Barlow “to the protection of the citizens of the United States.”16 Part Two of the Age of Reason was written in the home of James Monroe while he was recovering from his incarceration of nearly a year. Monroe found him in prison “more dead than alive from semi-starvation, cold, and an abscess. It was not supposed that he could survive.”17

After his release from prison, he acquired “a Bible and a Testament,” and commented “that I have found them to be much worse books than I had conceived. If I have erred in anything, in the former part of the Age of Reason, it has been by speaking better of some parts than they deserved.”18

Much of Paine’s critique of the Bible in the late 18th century surprisingly parallels many of the insights of contemporary critical biblical scholarship. Paine’s critique of the Bible and modern critical scholarship will be the subject of a second essay to follow.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


2Thomas Paine, Thomas Paine Collection. Common Sense, Rights of Man, Age of Reason, An Essay on Dream, Biblical Blasphemy, Examination of the Prophecies: Age of Reason (1793-94), 152. [No editor or publication information given.]

3Paine Collection, 173.

4Paine Collection, 233.

5Paine Collection, 152.

6Paine Collection, 156.

7Paine Collection, 167.

8Paine Collection, 162.

9Paine Collection, 169-70, 172.

10Age of Reason consists of two parts and a never published third part, consisting of several essays: an Essay on Dream, Biblical Blasphemy, Examination of the Prophecies, Appendix; and an essay entitled, My Private Thoughts on a Future State: Paine Collection. Table of Contents.

11Paine Collection, 183.

12Luxembourg Prison was formally a palace but turned into a prison during the French Revolution:,for%20crimes%20against%20the%20country.

13Paine Collection, 149.

14Paine Collection, 183.

15Paine Collection, 145, 183.

16Paine Collection, 183.

17Paine Collection, 149.

18Paine Collection, 184.