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
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: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdinand_Christian_Baur
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.
12Paine Collection, 186.
13Paine Collection, 159.
14Paine Collection, 200.
15Paine Collection, 216.