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.