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
Missouri State University
16Paine Collection, 217, 219.
17Paine Collection, 210-16.
18Paine Collection, 212, 216.
19Paine Collection, 222.
20Paine Collection, 225.
Regarding Paine's "last word"... I notice that the decade of your eighties has been incredibly productive in terms of articles published in Westar's bimonthly publication, the 4thR, as scholars moved on from the Jesus Seminar to the Christianity Seminar and the God seminar. Thought others might be interested in the titles and be motivated to subscribe.
Jan-Feb 2020: Faith Critically Examined
Sep-Oct: 2019: Myth and Mystery: Profiling the Early Christian Mind
Jan-Feb 2019: Early Christian Confessions and the age of Faith
Jan-Feb 2017: Blind Alleys and Turning Corners: A Response to Robert Miller's 'The Pharisee and the Toll Collector'
Jul-Aug 2017: The Church's Gospel and the Idiom of Jesus
Mar-Apr 2017: At Work in the Coptic Museum
Sep-Oct 2016: Is the Bible the Word of God (Part 3 of 3) with Lee McDonald
Jul-Aug 2016: (Part 2 of 3) "
May-Jun 2016: (Part 1 of 3)
May-June 2015: How Relevant is the Christian Worldview Today?
Jan-Feb 2015: The Basic Problem of Historical Jesus Studies: Criticism is to make judgments in the light of evidence
Jul-Aug 2014: Questioning the Historical Reliability of the Gospels: A Hopeful Pessimism struggles between Optimism and Skepticism
Jul-Aug 2-13: Where Does Evil Come From?
May-Jun 2014: Yahweh--The God Who Changed His Ways
Maar-Apr 2013: Reading Scripture out of Context and God's "Plan of Salvation"
Also, I bought two of your books published during this time:
2016: Parabolic Figures or Narrative Fictions: Seminal Essays on the Stories of Jesus(Cascade Books: Eugene Oregon)
2014: The wisdom of Jesus: Between the Sages of Israel and the Apostles of the Church (Cascade)
Actually I regretted Westar's turn away from the Jesus material. I'd always hoped that each new decade a group of different and younger scholars would vote anew on the gospel materials thought to be historically authentic to Jesus. That's not to say that the 4thR ignored gospel studies altogether in the last decade, it didn't.
The God Seminar doesn't seem to understand that theology is not about God, it's about the world, about life. That's the only thing we know. Evan Paine, the Deist, thought that he had some kind of truthful grip on God; I doubt it.
Good Evening Charlie!
Many thanks to you Gene and Dennis for the enlightening responses to the question I asked in the previous blog regarding Luke 4:16-22. I learned a lot and had many issues clarified... which of course led to more questions ;-) However the only one I will trouble you with is number 5 point made by Charlie... But anyone is free to answer if you are inclined to to do so: Charlie stated "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."
My question is about oral tradition... What is your professional opinion of it? In other words, do you know much about it? Was the use of oral tradition common in ancient times and have you studied the practice of it? Was it only used in Christianity or did other religions/cultures make use of oral tradition to preserve historical data?
Is oral tradition considered to be reliable by respected scholars that you are familiar with?
My question for this current blog is in regards to your final excerpt from Paine: Do you agree with Paine that the study of theology is the study of nothing? Do you understand what he meant by that?? I'm not sure how he can say the study of theology rests on no principles... Aren't there some principles involved like the relationship between human nature and the belief in a divine creator? Creation and Creator? I'm not sure what he's getting at- but it still struck a nerve within me and got my attention... He's very direct and unambiguous about where he stands... Not a bad thing!
Wonderful as always!! Elizabeth
I think Tom Paine, though relatively unschooled, was a product of his time, a time of literary inquiry. In 1795 FA Wolf wrote “Prolegomena ad Homerum,” a philological analysis of the Illiad and the Odyssey showing that it reached its final form through revision and composition, that if there was a Homer, he was an illiterate singer. (In defense of the antiquity of Judaism, Josephus had said similar things in Against Apion 1.12.) JG Eichhorn, a student of Wolf, published “Einleitung ins Alte Testament,” which showed how to reconstruct texts that had changed over time and who coined the term “higher criticism.” Strauss, FC Baur and others came with their biblical criticism in the nineteenth century. The questioning of the historicity of Shakespearean plays came early as the late 1600’s (Ravenscroft) and early 1700’s (Pope). And, Herbert, comparing Greek and Roman religions had, in the 1600’, considered there to be nothing particularly special about Jesus or “incarnation.” (All religions had a number of precepts, said he, that made them worthy, and there was no reason to privilege Christianity. He was skeptical of miracles, prophecy and the like.)
I believe the stage had been set by the satirists of the time and earlier, people like Erasmus, Rabelais, More and Skelton, who skewered the corruption of Christianity of the time. (My personal favorite is Rabelais.) Paine was part of this age of inquiry. In England, the seller of “The Age of Reason” was subject to a 1000 pound fine and two years in prison. Since the seller had to be caught at the point of sale, an early version of the “vending machine” was invented so no money (literally) “changed hands.”
When Paine neared his death, he asked for permission to be buried in his town’s Quaker cemetery. He was refused, his bones dug up from the field they were buried by an admirer about a decade later, and they traveled about as much as he had in his life!
I “got this info,” except for my opinion, from Collins, The Trouble with Tom (Paine); Herbert, Pagan Religion; Josephus, Against Apion 1; Lindvall, God Mocks (Satirists); and Shapiro, Contested Will (early literary critics).
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good afternoon Gene,
Thanks for the list. I made a copy for my "At-a-Boy" file. It is a file containing comments of folk who have appreciated something one has done. One pulls it out and scans through it when one has had a particularly rough day. Its purpose is to encourage one to keep trying.
Here is a brief answer to your question about oral tradition. It is an approach to biblical literature recognized by all critically trained scholars. Much of the biblical literature existed in human memory and was passed on sometimes for multiple generations before being committed to written form. And even after it was written the oral tradition continued to compete with the written tradition. Oral tradition has played a positive role in understanding the development of the biblical literature as well as other religions and cultures. There are two lengthy articles on oral tradition on NT and early Judaism in the Anchor Bible Dictionary and several on the formation of the OT. Dennis below has provided an example of the role of oral tradition in the development of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
Paine's Study of Nothing: If God is spirit , then God does not exist as we usually think of things existing. Hence God is a concept, an invention of the human mind whose nature and character changes with the confessions of each religious group or individual or both. See Unmasking Biblical Faiths, pp. 168-177 for a series of brief essays on this issue,
Regarding Paine's total rejection of Christian theology and Elizabeth's response and inquiry regarding the principle of "creation and creator:"
By "Christian" I assume Paine meant theology based on the New Testament. That leaves the Old Testament and the creation story still standing. But, if I'm not mistaken the Deist God (unlike the Judaeo-Christian God) was generally conceived as a creator who did not intervene and left "his" creation to exist on its own power.
I came across this article in Westar's 4thR, Jan-Feb 2018 (17-19): "A Case for Theological Realism" by Byron Bangert.
"The idea of God as Creator, pre-existing humankind, co-existent with the world...bringing order and life into being, strikes me as non-negotiable within the Christian faith and tradition...a reality that pre-existed humankind and will not end regardless of what happens to the human species...is the implicit if not always articulated view of most religious believers...The God of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers was and remains the Creator of the world."
Perhaps Charley or Dennis would know if Paine's biggest complaint really was the Christian assertion that the biblical God "interferes" with life events.
It was more than that, Gene. In the first chapter, “The Author’s Profession of Faith,” among the statements are these two: “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek church, by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, nor by any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.” & “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” He not only looked at the “New,” but also the “Old” Testament, considering them “forgeries,” products of humans.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Good Sunday Morning Gene,
From my reading of Paine he reserved his harshest and sharpest criticism for what he called "the Bible" by which he meant the Old Testament, which includes the creation story.
I think your second point about the creator not interfering is correct. For the Deist Thomas Paine God speaks only in the creation; see pages 163-64 (In What the True Revelation Consists) and 167-69 (the Theology of the Christians and the True Theology) of The Thomas Paine Collection.
Paine's biggest complaint is that Christians regard the Bible (OT and NY) as God's revelation to human beings; see pages 222-26 of The Thomas Paine collection (Conclusion).
There is one typo that I see. Line 3 from the bottom should read:
...Christians regard the Bible (0T and NT) as God's revelation...
Here's some more on the subject of Jesus and scribal literacy:
I think that Jesus was likely orally literate, inventive and poetic.
In my opinion there is quite a bit of evidence in the Jesus Seminar votes which indicates that Jesus listened well in his developmental years at those meeting places where the Jewish scriptures were read:
He seems to have developed his own unique reactions to the tradition: creative, flexible, challenging, defiant, mocking, humorous, independent. His remarks span the Torah, Historical writings, the Prophets, Psalms.
A lot of this is summarized in my Attitudes Handbook in chapter 6: Be flexible in the use of tradition:
“Beware of the scholars” (Luke 20:46; also Mark 12:38−39; Matthew 23:5−7; Luke 11:43). Perhaps 3% to 5% of the indigenous population could read and write.
"...the kingdom of God is like leaven”(Genesis 18:1−15; Luke 13:20−21; also Matthew 13:33; Thomas 96:1−2)
"...the kingdom of God is like leaven" (Exodus 12:18; as above)
“..if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons..."(Exodus 7:5, 14:15; Luke 11:19−20; Matthew 12:27−28)
"...when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest (Kingdom) has come.” (Joel 3:13-14; Mark 4:26−29)
"...the kingdom of heaven can be compared to a mustard seed..." (Ezekiel 17:22-24; Thomas 20:2-4: also Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-19; Matthew 13:31-32)
“The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” (Exodus 20:8-11,Dueteronomy 5:1-22, Genesis 1:26, Psalms 4:4-8; Mark 2:23-24, 27; compare Matthew 12:1, 8; Luke 6:1-2, 5)
“Consider the lilies...even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. (2 Chronicles 1:12; Luke 12:27−28: also Matthew 6:28−30; Thomas 36:2)
In the Unjust Judge story the stereotyped helpless/poor/taken advantage of widow undermines the justice system by using privilege to pursue selfish gain. (Luke 18:2-5; Psalms 146:9, James 1:27, Acts 6:1−6)
Sorry for missing my whole point. First sentence, second paragraph should read:
"As compared to Paine's unforgiving rationalism, Jesus seems to have developed..."
Good Evening Charlie Gene and Dennis,
We just got back from being out of town, healthy and unscathed from you-know-what. It was good to have a change of scenery and eat some of my mother's delicious home cooking.
Thank you all for your answers and comments. This phrase Dennis quoted form Paine particularly struck me: “All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.”
To me, the power those religious institutions wield over humans to enslave and terrify has greatly diminished in recent years. I personally don't know many individuals who quake in their boots at the threat of being "sent straight to hell" because of some grievous sin or infraction... People today seem more reasonable and level headed with regard to scriptural rebuke. (with the exception of fundamentalists and perhaps devout Catholics) I'm speaking purely anecdotally.
What are your thoughts? Do you believe national institutions of churches still have the same power to enslave and terrify humans today? Compared to say 20, 30 years ago?? Or do you think humans are becoming more enlightened and empowered to think for themselves? Many thanks, Elizabeth
Welcome back Elizabeth!
I agree with you that the influence of traditional Christianity over the human mind has been steadily eroding over the past 50 years or so. I cite three things that show it: The surveys of public opinion polls on matters religious, the decrease of attendance at mainstream protestant churches, and the changing of certain social practices. For example, people are increasingly choosing celebration of life services over traditional funerals. There are no doubt other indicators.
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