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.
Regarding Paine's "critical spirit" (Last sentence):
Could you share some thoughts about the origin and nature of the "critical spirit" which takes hold of persons such as Thomas Paine (and yourself) and never seems to let go. Where do you think its origins might lay on the nature/nurture continuum?
I don't think I ever became a full member of the club; I became a partial member after learning of biblical inaccuracies and the application of historical interpretation in college/seminary and being persuaded later of the conclusions of the Jesus Seminar - that would have been about 18 years ago (age 58) when I became aware of the Seminar's work.
The Seminar's work gave me a way to give equal value to the authority of the life of Jesus as are given to the claims of the resurrection community. But the resurrection community brings an emotional and interpersonal "truth"/hope to one's life that is greater than what reason (critical spirit) has to offer.
I really don't know how or why I began to identify with the resurrection community, but it was at a very early age (early grade school?), and it's been that way all my life. I still find my self singing the youth hymn "I Serve a Risen Savior." Hypocritically I haven't attended worship regularly for years because the earthly life part seems to be usually missing.
If you don't wish to discuss matters in this personal way, please ignore me!!!
Fascinating as always Charlie, thank you!
"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." Wow! No wonder John Adams referred to him as a "blackguard." He was definitely unorthodox and what today's fundamentalists would refer to as a "liberal." At least when it came to religious beliefs.
This blog is packed with juicy quotes from Age of Reason- thank you so much for selecting such penetrating insights from Paine's collection of essays. You have an eye for clarity and consistency in the analysis of Paine's words. "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." I must admit- I've never heard it put quite like that and was surprised to see it in that light. Mike Bickle certainly never preached that from his pulpit on high.
I am surprised that he refers to "our Lord" when writing of the canonical gospels and their disparate, unrelated, undocumented sources... I do wonder if he really saw Jesus as "Our Lord." Or if it was a slip of the tongue.
I greatly appreciate Gene's comment about John Adam's reference to the "blackguard" Paine from his diary... Wow what I would give to be a fly on the wall back then and take in all the different discussions and perspectives. Diversity of thought is to be celebrated and appreciated, not denigrated... It really is the spice of life.
"... 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." Charlie, do you think the Word of God exists in something else? Do you think it exists at all? I'd love to hear your thoughts... I'd also love to know what Paine meant when he wrote the word of God exists in "something else." What exactly would that "something else" be?
Thank you as always, Elizabeth
Good morning Gene,
I really do not know how to definitely answer your question. Here is a short response. I think that it begins with curiosity and having the skills to follow up on the curious issue and transporting that combination to every area of life. One begins to see everything through eyes that demand an answer to one's questions.
Your question sounds like an issue that leads to a grant application for money to study such persons.
I wish I could do better.
Good Morning Elizabeth.
I too was surprised to hear him use the expression "our Lord," but whether it was a slip of the tongue or not, I don't know. Here is what he thought of Jesus: "He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and even though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers many years before, by the Quakers since, and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any" (Paine Collection, p. 154).
Paine would say that the Word of God is evident in the creation. Just look about you at the music of the eternal spheres.
In The Age of Reason, “our Lord” is used in regard to several quotes from Boulanger that use it, where Boulanger is quoting or paraphrasing from a fictive argument of Augustine, it seems. Here is the quote, which is about disputes, after a paragraph in which he quote Boulanger using the same term. “Our Lord” is the term the aforementioned used in this and the previous paragraph, so he is merely continuing with the same term, either for consistency or possibly sarcastically.
“And in another place, addressing himself to the advocates of those books, as being the word of God, he says, "It is thus that your predecessors have inserted in the scriptures of our Lord many things which, though they carry his name, agree not with his doctrine." This is not surprising, since that we have often proved that these things have not been written by himself, nor by his apostles, but that for the greatest part they are founded upon tales, upon vague reports, and put together by I know not what half-Jews, with but little agreement between them; and which they have nevertheless published under the name of the apostles of our Lord, and have thus attributed to them their own errors and their lies. [I have taken these two extracts from Boulanger's Life of Paul, written in French; Boulanger has quoted them from the writings of Augustine against Fauste, to which he refers.--Author.]
Dennis Dean Carpenter
I hunted down the Paine “extracts,” which in this case meant a translation of a (French) quote from Boulanger of “Contra Faustum.” I looked for Boulanger’s quote in “Contra Faustum” by Augustine. I couldn’t find the exact quote, which could be the case of translation from Latin to French to my English copies of the two, or not taking the time to looking carefully enough, but in places Boulanger (writing around 1747) seems to be using the thoughts of Faustus (the Manichaean straw man) in Boulanger’s arguments against Paul, which can be summarized in this sentence from his conclusion: “Let us be just, benevolent, peaceable, let us leave to St. Paul, and to those who take him for a model, their lofty ambition, their turbulent fanaticism, their obstinate vanity, their persecuting spirit, and above all things their bitter zeal, which they term an interest for the salvation of souls.” Anyway, here is a link to a free copy of Boulanger’s book:
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Thank you very much Dennis! I will check it out today.
Good Hot Humid Evening Charlie!
I was intrigued by this sentence you quoted of Paine: "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." What did he mean by "no new system?" I know I've asked you this before, but I can't remember your answer... What evidence suggests that Jesus was not Torah observant? If he ware not observant of the mitzvahs, would he have been allowed to come into the Temple to read from the scrolls?? That doesn't seem possible.
Also, why do Christians believe Jesus founded a "new system?" Is it because early Christians said he did, or is it because the early Catholic church fathers implemented the "new system" and then retroactively attributed it to Jesus?
One last quote from Dennis's extract from Boulanger: "... they are founded upon tales, upon vague reports, and put together by I know not what half-Jews, with but little agreement between them; and which they have nevertheless published under the name of the apostles of our Lord, and have thus attributed to them their own errors and their lies." Did Paine include the word "lies" in his rendition of this paragraph? Because that's a strong word- and I'm sure he received strong blowback from the likes of John Adams and others... Do you think the word "lies" is going a bit too far?? However, the quote about "bitter zeal" which they term "an interest in salvation of souls," I find to be very reasonable and fair minded criticism... (and in my opinion quite true) Also his description of the "persecuting spirit" and "turbulent fanaticism" really hit the nail on the head- very apropos. Many thanks to Dennis for carving out that nugget for us to examine. Have you ever heard of Boulanger?
Many thanks as always- and Happy Independence Day! Elizabeth
Yes, Paine used the word “lies” several times in "The Age of Reason," to describe the Bible and miracles. In this chapter, “The New Testament,” Paine points out that the gospels were pseudonymous, written a generation or two after Jesus in an age where there was no printing, and that since it was hand copied people could amend it as they wished, writing what they chose to write. “Misrepresentation” is a “lie,” though it might have a euphemistic ring to some that “lie” doesn’t have when speaking of the Bible. Origen, in the third century, complained much of the same thing about the Christian writings of his time, speaking of the “perverse audacity” of copyists, who would lengthen, shorten or "correct" parts of the Bible as they saw fit, so Paine was not the first.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Independence Day afternoon, Elizabeth,
1. Torah observant: I do not think that "Torah observant" is an expression that would have been used in Jesus' day. Judeans in Jesus day had only the Torah to guide their living. Very few of them could read or do precisely all the things required in Torah.
2. Offhand I cannot think of a passage where Jesus "read the Scrolls in the Temple." if Jesus could read, he might have done it in synagogues, assuming there were synagogues in first century Palestine.
3. Jesus did not found Christianity. What we call Christianity evolved over time out of the belief of the early followers of Jesus believing Jesus was divine. Early believers in that idea became the basis of what became Christianity in the fourth century. Neither Jesus nor Paul were "Christians" by the definition of Christianity in the fourth century.
4. Yes Paine does use the word "lies" about what is found in the Old and New Testaments. It is a very strong word. I would not use such a word. I think in terms of a tradition that exaggerates. These folk lived in a pre-Enlightenment time period. They found credible what we living in a post-Enlightenment time period know to be impossible. Is it a "lie" if they are telling the "truth" as they see it?
5. I had never heard of Boulanger before reading Paine.
If I may offer my two-cents Elizabeth:
Apparently Jesus was a non-traditional Jew and at times could be interpreted as challenging the authority of the Torah and scribal interpretation:
"love your enemies"
"The Sabbath was made for humanity not humanity for the Sabbath."
You might be interested in Chris Keith's book, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite: The Origins of the Conflict (Baker Academic, 2014). He concludes: "Jesus was most likely not a scribal-literate teacher..." (89). Keith is a British scholar interested in social memory theory.
I always welcome your two cents Gene- and thank you! I'm interested in that book and how Jesus was most likely not a scribal literate teacher... I wonder what he really was?
Charlie, many thanks for clarifying between the Temple and the synagogue... I confused those two terms. I was specifically referring to Jesus being handed the scrolls to read in the synagogue (Isaiah 61) in Luke 16-22 when he stood up and announced "The spirit of the Lord is upon me..." I don't see how he was given permission to do such a thing if he did not keep the commands of the Torah, written or oral. If he and other Israelites could not read, how did they know to keep the rules of the Shabbat? Or circumcision requirements? I know they didn't walk around with copy of the Law of Moses in their pockets, but they had to know something about a "Sabbath day's journey" and the dietary commandments, etc. Surely you don't think they went around eating pork and shellfish do you? So they had to have at least some idea of the mitzvahs... And surely Jesus kept them.... ??
Last question: Did you know that Jesus improvised in the reading of Isaiah 61 by inserting the phrase "recovery of sight to the blind?" Why did he he ad-lib? Do you think there are any Christian pastors who notice or care that Jesus just plain made up his own scripture right there in the synagogue? If the average Christian was shown that that phrase is not in chapter 61 of Isaiah (all you have to do is look up and see for yourself)... Do you think they'd an have answer for it? I'd love to know what explanation they would give, those apologists like Josh McDowell and Max Lucado.
Thank you again! Elizabeth
*The scroll reading took place in Luke 4:16-22*
You seem to be confusing Jesus the historical person with Jesus as presented by the authors of the gospel passages. If we go by the Jesus Seminar conclusions, we have a very minimal historical record.
Jesus is often pictured as engaging with others in meeting places (synagogues).
The statement about the blind is in both the LXX and the oldest extant copies of Isaiah 61.1-2, the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). It doesn’t seem to be in the Masoretic or the KJV, but I wouldn’t use that to debate apologists. The most evangelical of my translations includes it with a footnote saying “LXX.”
The LXX of Isaiah 61.1-2 is “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to summon the acceptable year of the Lord and and the day of retribution , to comfort all who mourn.”
The oldest copies of Isaiah 61.1-2 (1QIsa, DSS, probably late 2nd c. bce, also in 4QIsa, probably as late as 1st c. ce.): “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed and to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness [or opening of the eyes] for the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.”. ( Flint & Ulrich, “The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible” is where I found this.) The Bible was not completely static when Luke was written. But, for Luke’s myth, this nit was not as important as the theological message of Luke, contained in the 4.16-20 chiasm and the following references to Elijah and Elisha. “The blind” was also used as a motif in the gospels to signify one that couldn’t perceive the reality Jesus wanted them to “see,” which is also used in prophetic writings.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Gene, to elucidate on what you are saying, this is what makes it non-historical to me.
The major rhetorical feature that is evident in Luke 4.16-20 is the chiasm, which begins with “He stood up to read and was given the small book... He unrolled it” and ends with “He rolled up the small book, gave it to the assistant and sat down.” Jesus in verse 21 says the scripture has been fulfilled, therefore Jesus is claiming that he has been “anointed” and “delegated” to announce this. That is Luke’s version of Jesus, a human like Isaiah who has been specially commissioned to do the bidding of God, which is to free the poor from their debts, release prisoners, free the oppressed and help the “blind” to see. (The blind is a term that in the gospels and Isaiah also meant a lack of perception.)
The chiasm was crafted by the author in order to iterate (which chiastic structure supports) and to drive home the message of Luke; his Jesus had the spirit of God working in him like (especially) Elijah and Elisha, who he mentions in vss. 26-27 in order to imply that God’s message was also for foreigners, a difference in Luke and, for instance Matthew. Set as his inaugural sermon, it foreshadows his message to the poor, which is more in the forefront of Luke than the other gospels, and is idealized in the sharing of all property of the congregation in the early chapters of Acts of the Apostles. This seems to be completely the creation of the author.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Morning Elizabeth,
There are several things that one needs to keep in mind when reading the quotations of the Old Testament in the canonical gospels.
1. "By and large the OT is quoted according to the Septuagint [Greek translation of the Hebrew], rarely reflecting any knowledge of the Hebrew text" (Kendrick Grobel. "Quotations" in Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 977-78.
2. The Septuagint frequently differs from the Hebrew in significant ways.
3. The thousands of Greek manuscripts of the Greek NT do not agree between themselves in all particulars.
4. Hence what one reads in modern translations are based on a critical text of the Greek NT established over time by those we call Textual Critics.
5. The canonical gospels reflect the beliefs and ideas of their authors about what took place some forty to 80 years earlier during the time of Jesus. They are not eye witness accounts but at best based on oral tradition.
6. From my perspective there are few reliable sources for first century Judean religious traditions and practices to consult in order to know close details of what life was like during the time of Jesus. The best sources are the stories Jesus told, if one regards the stories as coming from Jesus.
That's the best interpretive summary of the subject I can remember seeing. Thank you.
Really appreciate those analyses Dennis!
Gene, thank you.
Looking into Luke 4.16-20 I discovered something I didn’t know. I was looking at the word “blind” as used in Tanakh and found something interesting about the notion of “releasing captives/prisoners.” When the author of Luke and the LXX write something to the effect of “release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,” these perhaps go together. In Isaiah 42.7, “opening the eyes deprived of light” is an idiom which means to free the imprisoned, according to the footnote in my Tanakh. (The author of Deutero-Isaiah and Luke, however, were pointed to Lev. 25.10... or perhaps one could look at it both ways.
Isaiah 42.7 (JPS)
“Opening eyes deprived of light
rescuing prisoners from confinement,
from the dungeon those who sit in darkness.”
Now, I need to look into prison confinement in the first and second century. I’m fairly familiar with 16th-19th century incarceration in England (which was a death sentence for many), but haven’t looked at this earlier history. History tends to peel like an onion, only many times without a core.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Post a Comment