Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine

--“Reader, whoever thou art, put thy trust in thy Creator, make use of the reason he endowed thee with, and cast from thee all such fables.”—Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason Part III.

Why I Read This Book
          This book has been on my radar ever since I read a short biography of Thomas Paine a few years back.  The author briefly mentioned that after the American Revolution, Thomas Paine published a book called The Age of Reason in which Paine argued that no reasonable person could believe in the Bible stories.
            Naturally I was curious.  Having grown up religious, I wanted to see what Paine’s arguments were, and see how well they held-up. 
            I was also curious to see what types of arguments were being made against the Bible in the 18th century.  Nowadays science and evolution have disproved the creation stories in the Bible, and modern archeology has disproved much of the history in the Bible.  But what were the arguments Paine could make in the 1790s?  How much of the Bible could Paine refute just using his wits?

            I became further curious when I read Christopher Hitchens’ book God is not Great.   In his section on the Old Testament, Christopher Hitchens refers to Thomas Paine’s arguments to show that Moses could not possibly have written the first 5 books of the Bible traditionally ascribed to him.

            More recently, I was listening to Christine Hayes’ lectures on the Old Testament.  On the subject of Mosaic authorship, Christine Hayes said that various anachronisms in the Pentateuch began to be noticed as early as the middle ages. 
            Hayes didn’t mention Thomas Paine by name, but no doubt Paine would be drawing on traditions of these earlier writers when he was making his own case against Mosaic authorship. 
            This kind of literary detective work intrigues me.  I’m not smart enough to do it on my own, but I enjoy following the thought process of a mind sharper than my own.  And so I decided I wanted to read in full what Thomas Paine thought about the Bible.

            I didn’t have any luck finding this book in bookstores, but since it long ago passed into the public domain, it’s readily available on-line.  I found several different websites that hosted free copies. 
            For parts 1 and 2, I used this website [LINK] but there are numerous other sites.  For whatever reasons many of these websites don’t include Part 3, but Part 3 contains some good arguments and is also worth reading.  Part 3 is available here [LINK].
            (Just out of curiosity, is this book widely available in print?  Has anyone seen it in bookstores recently?)

The Review

          Because this is such an old book, I suppose the first comments should be on readability.
          If you’re like me, you get intimidated by old books.  To modern sensibilities they seem dry, boring, and written in archaic prose.  Even novels from the 18th century novels can be boring, so what chance does an 18th century treatise have?
          The good news is that this book is surprisingly easy to read.  One of the reasons Thomas Paine’s political works (Common Sense, and The Rights of Man) were so successful is that Thomas Paine had a reputation for writing in clear direct language that the everyday working man could understand.  The Age of Reason is written in the same clear writing style, and it holds up well even 200 years later.

          For example, read this paragraph:

            Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon, than the word of God.  It is a history of wickedness, that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel. (From Part I)

            Now that is from a writer who knew how to pack his punches!

          This book contains all the reasons why Thomas Paine thinks that no reasonable person could possibly believe in the Bible.

            As with any book that is a collection of arguments, it is difficult to speak in generalities.  To thoroughly review this book would require going through and analyzing each argument by itself, because some of Thomas Paine’s arguments work quite well, and some of his arguments are pretty weak.
            If one were assessing Paine simply on the number of good arguments he makes, I would say he’s batting at about 50%.

            But of course it’s never about percentages.  Paine’s bad arguments do not invalidate his good arguments. And if you look at the strength of the valid arguments Paine does make, I think it is very devastating against the Bible.

            Plus, because the Bible must be taken as an all-or-nothing package, Paine is playing at a zero-sum game here.  If he can successfully argue against even one part of the Bible, then he is casting doubt over the whole thing.

            Paine himself is writing from the perspective of a Deist.  He believes that there is a supreme God who created the Earth and everything in it, but he does not believe that this God did any of the things attributed to him in the Bible.  Furthermore, Paine believes we do God a disservice to attribute to him all the cruel stories in the Bible. 
            “What can be greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty?” writes Paine in Part II.
            And then later “Had the cruel and murderous orders with which the Bible is filled, and the numberless torturing executions of men, women and children, in consequence of those orders, been ascribed to some friend whose memory you revered, you would have glowed with satisfaction at detecting the falsehood of the charge, and gloried in defending his injured name.  Is it because ye [priests] are sunk in the cruelty of superstition, or feel no interest in the honor of your Creator, that ye listen to the horrid tales of the Bible, or hear them with callous indifference.”

            Paine is writing both to disprove the Bible, but also to try and prove that a benevolent creator God does exist.  In this respect, he is not entirely in step with modern atheists like Christopher Hitchens, even though Hitchens freely borrows from Paine’s analysis of the Bible.

            The book was originally published in 3 parts. 
            If you’re a history nerd, one of the added interest bonuses of this book is that its publishing history intersects with some of the major historical crises of Paine’s life.

            Thomas Paine lived an interesting life because he was very influential in both the American Revolution and also the French Revolution.  Because of his reputation for fighting for liberty in America and England, Thomas Paine was invited to France to participate in their revolution.  However when the French Revolution started to eat its own children, Paine was arrested and put in jail.  Robespierre wrote a note ordering Thomas Paine’s execution, but because of an oversight Paine was never executed and later released from jail.

            Paine wrote the first part of The Age of Reason right before his arrest in Paris, and in fact the first part ends with a brief note from Thomas Paine describing how he has just been arrested, and that his jailors have agreed to help him send his manuscript to the publishers anyway.  (How is that for a dramatic ending!)

            The second part of The Age of Reason was written after Thomas Paine got released from jail and begins with a brief description of what had happened to him.  (In the second part of The Age of Reason, Paine uses Robespierre’s name as a shorthand for pure evil, much the way people today would use Hitler’s name. For example when talking about the Old Testament, Paine writes “There are matters in that book, said to be done by the express command of God, that are as shocking to humanity and to every idea we have of moral justice as anything done by Robespierre.”)

            The first part of The Age of Reason was written by Paine without access to an English Bible, because he was stuck in France and he knew his arrest was imminent.  Paine is able to make some general comments about the nature of the Bible in the first half, but he is not able to cite many particulars. 
            After he was released from prison, Paine wrote the second half of The Age of Reason with a Bible by his side and examines the bible stories much more thoroughly.  He goes back to reinforce many of the points he made in the first half, and because of this there is some repetition in the work.
            No doubt if Paine had been able to work on and publish both parts together, a much smoother draft could have been produced, but at the time he felt there was an urgency to publish first because he wasn’t sure he would live to write the second half.  (As it is, I think the interesting publishing history of the book makes up for any repetition.)

            The 3rd part of the book is made up of a list of responses and further thoughts.  Again, Paine does revisit some of the same arguments he made earlier, so there is some more repetition here, but it’s still interesting and worth reading.

            So, that’s the structure of the book.  Now, what did I think of it?  Where was Paine right, and where was he wrong? 
            Obviously I’m not going to go through and redline the whole book, but I’ll comment on some of the things that caught my interest.

On Deism Versus Christianity Versus Agnosticism
          Paine wrote this book with the dual purpose of combating Christianity, but also combating the rise of atheism in France.  Paine wanted to argue that reason showed that the Bible was ridiculous, but also that the same reason showed their must be a creator God.  Furthermore Paine believed that this creator God must be kind and benevolent, because he has created for us a good earth and provided for our needs.  Paine also believed that an afterlife was very possible, because since this God had the power to create us in one form, he must have the power to sustain us in another form after we die.

            As an agnostic, my own view is that it’s possible that there is a benevolent creator God, and an afterlife, but it is by no means certain.  And I don’t believe Paine has proven this creator God, so these sections of his book strike me as little more than wishful thinking, and not really suitable for a book entitled The Age of Reason.  (Fortunately for me, these sections make up only a small part of the book.)

            It is of course important to judge Paine by the standards of his time.  Modern scientific theories about the origin of the universe and evolution did not yet exist, and so it was much more difficult for Paine and his contemporaries to imagine a world without a God. 
            Paine essentially argues the existence of God simply from the existence of the world.  No man can create himself, Paine say, so there must have been something that created us all.
            It is an old, old argument, and very simple, but it is no less powerful for being old and simple, and to my mind the atheists have never satisfactorily answered this.  But it doesn’t definitively prove the existence of God, because the God hypothesis creates just as many questions as it solves.  (Who is this God?  Where did he come from?  Who created God?  Why did he create us?  Why are we here?  Why is there suffering? Why do we have to die?)  Religion of course was formed as an attempt to answer some of these questions, but since Paine rejects religion, it is not clear how he deals with all the problems of the God hypothesis.

            Paine’s assumption that the creator God must be benevolent also seems to me to be a stretch.  Nature appears to be designed to be cruel.  Almost every living thing is designed to kill another living thing, and many animals suffer cruel and painful deaths.  Paine never even addresses this.
            It’s possible this was less of an issue to him than it is to us.  Paine was not ignorant of this, but it is a lot more in our face in our time than it was in his.  Because of nature documentaries, I now see plenty of footage of animals killing each other everyday on TV. Among the handful of channels on my cable package are The Animal Planet, National Geographic, and The Discovery Channel.  Most of the shows are just clips of one unfortunate animal getting eaten by another one, often with voice over narration that goes something like, “Although it may seem cruel, this is how nature is designed…blah, blah, blah.”  After watching a half hour of TV, I always come away with a much more pessimistic view of nature and its creator.
             Thomas Paine was an 18th century English gentleman, and it’s easy to imagine him simply walking around outside, feeling the warm sunshine on his face and enjoying the beauty of the plants.  Perhaps it’s no wonder he had a much more benevolent view of nature and its creator.

            In terms of Paine’s worldview, his God is not all that dissimilar to that of the Christian church.  Paine believes in a monotheistic, benevolent, omnipotent creator God, and the probable immortality of the soul.  (Paine is perhaps more influenced by Christianity than he would like to admit.  It is interesting to wonder what his worldview would have been if he had grown up in India.)  Paine is essentially a Christian in terms of worldview, he just doesn’t like the Bible stories.
            There is, to be fair, an element of reason in this.  The history of western religion is that mankind evolved from ridiculous superstitions and the unbelievable gods of ancient myths to a belief in a rational universe created and maintained by a single deity.  Christianity has a day-to-day attitude that reflects this modern outlook, but still retains many of the ancient myths from a less rational time.  Paine wants to update religion by purging it of the ancient myths.
            It is entirely rational if you assume Paine’s point of view.  Assuming there is a benevolent God, that God can in no way be the God described in the Bible.

The Difference Between Revelation and Hearsay

          Paine believes in God’s general revelation through nature, but he disagrees with the idea of special revelation to individuals.

            Paine explains himself so well on this argument that rather than trying to paraphrase him, I’ll just quote from him:

            Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals.  The Jews have their Moses; the Christians their Jesus Christ, their apostles and saints; and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God was not open to every man alike.
            Each of these churches show certain books, which they call revelation, or the word of God.  The Jews say, that their word of God was given by God to Moses, face to face; the Christians say, that their word of God came by divine inspiration; and the Turks say that their word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from Heaven. Each of these churches accuse the other of unbelief; and for my own part I disbelieve them all.
            As it is necessary to affix right ideas to words, I will, before I proceed further into the subject, offer some other observations on the word revelation.  Revelation, when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.
            No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication, if he pleases.  But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only.  When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and consequently they are not obliged to believe it.
            It is a contradiction in terms and ideas, to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second-hand, either verbally or in writing.  Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication—after this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation, made to him; and although he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner; for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.
            When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hands of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so.  The commandments carry no internal evidence of divinity with them; they contain some good moral precepts, such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver, or a legislator, could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural invention.
            When I am told that the Koran was written in Heaven and brought to Mahomet by an angel, the account comes too near the same kind of hearsay evidence and second-hand authority as the former.  I did not see the angel myself, and therefore, I have a right not to believe it.
            When also I am told that a woman called the Virgin Mary, said, or gave out, that she was with child without any cohabitation with a man, and that her betrothed husband, Joseph, said that an angel told him so, I have a right to believe them or not; such circumstance requires a much stronger evidence than their bare word for it; but we have not even this—for neither Joseph nor Mary wrote any such matter themselves; it is only reported by others that they said so—it is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief upon such evidence.

            Paine returns to this a few paragraphs later:
            The resurrection and ascension, supposing them to have taken place, admitted of public and ocular demonstration, like that of the ascension of a balloon or the sun at noon-day, to all Jerusalem at least. A thing which everybody is required to believe, requires that the proof and evidence of it should be equal to all, and universal; and as the public visibility of this last related act was the only evidence that could give sanction to the former part, the whole of it falls to the ground, because the evidence was never given.  Instead of this, a small number of persons, not more than eight or nine, are introduced as proxies for the whole world, to say they say it, and all the rest of the world are called upon to believe it. But it appears that Thomas did not believe the resurrection, and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself.  So neither will I, and the reason is equally good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas.
            It is in vain to attempt to palliate or disguise this matter.  The story, so far as it relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it.  Who were the authors of it is as impossible to know, as it is for us to be assured that the books in which the account is related were written by the persons whose names they bear; the best surviving evidence we now have respecting that affair is the Jews. They are regularly descended from the people who lived in the times this resurrection and ascension is said to have happened, and they say, it is not true.  It has long appeared to me a strange inconsistency to cite the Jews as a proof of the truth of the story.  It is just the same as if a man were to say, I will prove the truth of what I have told you by producing the people who say it is false. (From Part I).

            And how do we know the Bible is the word of God, Paine asks.
            These books, beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation (which, by the by, is a book of riddles that requires a revelation to explain it), are, we are told, the word of God.  It is, therefore, proper to for us to know who told us so, that we may know what credit to give to the report.  The answer to this question is, that nobody can tell, except that we tell one another so.  The case, however, historically appears to be as follows:
            When the Church Mythologists established their system, they collected all the writings they could find, and managed them as they pleased.  It is a matter altogether of uncertainty to us whether such of the writings as 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.
            Be this as it may, they decided by vote which of the books out of the collection they had made should be the WORD OF GOD, and which should not.  They rejected several; they voted others to be doubtful, such as the books called the Apocrypha; and those books which had a majority votes, were voted to be the word of God.  Had they voted otherwise, all the people, since calling themselves Christians, had believed otherwise—for the belief of the one comes from the vote of the other.  Who the people were that did all this, we know nothing of; they called themselves by the general name of the Church, and this is all we know of the matter.

            Later Paine adds: Did the book called the Bible excel in purity of ideas and expressions all the books that are now extant in the world, I would not take it for my rule of faith, as being the word of God, because the possibility would nevertheless exits of my being imposed upon.  But when I see throughout the greater part of this book scarcely anything but a history of the grossest vices and a collection of the most paltry and contemptible lies, I cannot dishonor my Creator by calling it by this name. (From Part 1).

            Paine presses the point several pages later in his discussion on miracles:
            If we are to suppose a miracle to be something so entirely out of the course of what is called nature, that she must go out of that course to accomplish it, and we see an account given of such a miracle by the person who said he saw it, it raises a question in the mind very easily decided, which is, is it more probable that nature should go out of her course, or that a man should tell a lie?  We have never seen, in our time, nature go out of her course; but we have good reason to believe that millions of lies have been told in the same time; it is therefore, at least millions to one, that the reporter or a miracle tells a lie. (From Part I).

On Mosaic Authorship of the Pentateuch
          In the second part of The Age of Reason, Paine spends a great deal of space arguing that Moses couldn’t possibly have written the first five books of the Bible traditionally ascribed to him.  Therefore we really don’t know who wrote the Pentateuch, and therefore those books have no authority.
            There are really two questions here:
            1) Did Moses write the Pentateuch?
            2) Does it matter?

            Paine was not the first thinker to question Mosaic authorship of the Pentatuech, and I can only assume that at least some of this section is drawing on the ideas of other writers before him.  (Although Paine never gives any credit to anyone else, and presents everything as his own.  Perhaps in the 18th century intellectual plagiarism was not as big of a deal as it is today?)
            Today we know even more than Paine did.  In the late 19th century, German scholars would prove that the Pentateuch couldn’t possibly have been written by Moses because it was a compilation of 4 different sources edited together at a much later date—the JEDP theory (W).  (For a clear and understandable explanation of the JEDP theory, see the Old Testament lectures by Christine Hayes.)
            Although Paine’s writing is not up to date with the latest scholarship, it is interesting because it shows what was known at the time.  Paine (and the contemporaries he doesn’t give credit to), even without the knowledge of the JEDP theory, are able to do a fair amount of literary detective work to disprove Mosaic authorship.
            To summarize Paine’s arguments:
            1) There is no internal evidence inside the Pentateuch which would indicate Moses wrote it.  Nowhere does the author identify himself as Moses or refer to Moses in the first person.
            2)  The author of the Pentateuch writes about Moses in a style which would be highly awkward if Moses was writing about himself (for example the author of the Pentateuch calls Moses the greatest prophet whoever lived, and also praises Moses's humility.) 
            3). There are a lots of anachronisms in the Pentateuch in which the author refers to events that took place after Moses died, or refers to place names that didn’t exist in Moses’s day.  (Not even the excuse of prophecy can be used to excuse this, Paine says, because no one prophesizes in the past tense.)
            4).  And finally the author of the Pentateuch writes in a style that makes it obvious he is writing about events that took place in the distant past.
            (This is only a short summary of Paine’s arguments.  To see him list several examples of each point, go and read his book.)

            So Moses couldn’t possibly have written the Pentateuch.
            Despite the fact that this was discovered hundreds of years ago, it may still come as a shock to those of us who grew up in the church.  As a child, I was taught by both Sunday School teachers and Christian School teachers that Moses had written the first five books of the Bible.  I would now like to go back and ask my old teachers if they had been knowingly lying to me, or if they had just been ignorant of the fact that Mosaic authorship had been disproved hundreds of years before.
            I suspect it is the latter.  The last 200 years have seen an explosion of Biblical scholarship, and virtually none of it has filtered down to the average church goer, who are just as ignorant as they were 200 years ago.
            At the Christian universities, however, it is a different story.
            My religion professors at Calvin College were well aware of the JEDP theory, and knew that Moses couldn’t have written the Pentateuch.  But it didn’t matter to them.  They believed that the books were inspired by God, and it didn’t much matter which human vessel was responsible for writing down the words.
            After all, the rest of the historical books in the Old Testament were written anonymously, and Church tradition has accepted that they were written anonymously.  Nobody knows who wrote the book of Judges, for example, or 2nd Kings, and nobody is much bothered by it.  So why should anyone care if the first five historical books of the Bible are also written by an anonymous author?
            Paine is actually somewhat confused on this point, because after he gets done with the Pentateuch, he then wastes time trying to prove that the book of Joshua couldn’t possibly be written by Joshua, and that 1st and 2nd Samuel couldn’t possibly be written by Samuel.  But very few people actually claimed that they were.  The book of Joshua is so titled because it focuses on the exploits of Joshua, not because Joshua is supposed to have written it.
            To be fair to Paine, there are some Christian and Jewish traditions that do ascribe authorship of the books of Joshua and Samuel to the historical Joshua and Samuel.  (Josephus, for example, believed that 1&2 Samuel were written by Samuel, and that God gave him the power of prophecy to predict what would happen after his death.)  But this is not the mainstream view.
            (Or at the very least, this was not the view I was brought up with.  Perhaps this view was more popular in Paine’s day?  Does anyone know?) 
            But even Paine admits that books like Judges and Kings are anonymous on the face of it.

            So, does it even matter that Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, or is Paine just wasting his time when he goes on for pages and pages on the subject?

            Paine seems to think it matters.  He gives his rationale before beginning on the examination:
            But , before I proceed to this examination, I will show wherein the Bible differs from all other ancient writings with respect to the nature of the evidence necessary to establish its authenticity; and this is the more proper to be done, because the advocates of the former part of the Age of Reason, undertake to say, and they put some stress thereon, that the authenticity of the Bible is as well established as that of any other ancient book; as if our belief of the one could become any rule for our belief in the other.
            I know, however, but of one ancient book that authoritatively challenges universal consent and belief, and that is Euclid’s Elements of Geometry; and the reason is, because it is a book of self-evident demonstration, entirely independent of its author , and of everything relating to time, place, and circumstances.  The matters contained in that book would have the same authority they have now, had they been written by any other person, or had the work been anonymous, or had the author never been known; for the identical certainty of who was the author, makes no part of our belief of the matters contained in the book.  But it is quite otherwise with respect to the books ascribed to Moses, to Joshua, to Samuel, etc; these are books of testimony, and they testify of things naturally incredible; and therefore, the whole of our belief as to the authenticity of those books rests, in the first place, upon the certainty that they were written by Moses, Joshua, and Samuel; secondly upon the credit we give to the testimony.  We may believe the first, that is we may believe the certainty of the authorship, and yet not the testimony; in the same manner that we may believe that a certain person gave evidence upon a case and yet not believe the evidence that he gave.  But if it should be found that the books ascribed to Moses, Joshua and Samuel were not written by Moses, Joshua, and Samuel, every part of the authority and authenticity of those books is gone at once; for there can be no such thing as forged or invented testimony; neither can there be anonymous testimony, more especially as to things naturally incredible, such as that of talking with God face to face, or that of the sun and moon standing still at the command of a man.  The greatest part of the other ancient books are works of genius; of which kind are those ascribed to Homer, to Plato, to Aristotle, to Demosthenes, to Cicero, etc. Here, again, the author is not essential in the credit we give to any of those works of genius, they would have the same merit they have now, were they anonymous.  Nobody believes the Trojan story, as related by Homer, to be true—for it is the poet only that is admired, and the merit of the poet will remain, though the story be fabulous.  But, if we disbelieve the matters related by the Bible authors (Moses, for instance), as we disbelieve the things related by Homer, there remains nothing of Moses in our estimation, but an imposter.  As to the ancient historians, from Herodotus to Tacitus, we credit them as far as they relate things probable and credible, and no farther; for if we do, we must believe the two miracles which Tacitus relates were performed by Vespasian, that of curing a lame man and a blind man, in just the same manner as the same things are told of Jesus Christ by his historians.  We must also believe the miracle cited by Josephus, that of the sea of Pamphilia opening to let Alexander and his army pass, as is related of the Red Sea in Exodus.  These miracles are quite as well authenticated as the Bible miracles, and yet we do not believe them; consequently the degree of evidence necessary to establish our belief of things incredible, whether in the Bible or elsewhere, is far greater than that which obtains our belief to natural and probable things; and therefore the advocates for the Bible have no claim to our belief of the Bible, because that we believe things stated in other ancient writings; since we believe the things stated in these writings no further than they are probable and credible, or because they are self-evident, like Euclid

            Later Paine adds: Take away from Genesis the belief that Moses was the author, on which only the strange belief that it is the word of God has stood, and there remains nothing of Genesis but an anonymous book of stories, fables, and traditionary or invented absurdities, or of downright lies.  The story of Eve and the serpent, Noah and his ark, drops to a level with the Arabian tales, without the merit of being entertaining; and the account of men living to eight and nine hundred years becomes as fabulous as the immortality of the giants of the Mythology (from Part 2).
            Paine’s not wrong on this, but how far can the point be pushed?
            It is possible for Christians to lose the tradition that the Pentateuch was written by Moses.   As long as Christians believe that the Pentateuch was still inspired by God, whichever human transcribed the words doesn’t much matter.

            But here’s the thing: it is true that some books in the Old Testament were anonymous by Church tradition, and some books were not, but all of these books derive their divine authority from tradition.  We have only Church tradition as a basis for believing any of the Bible was inspired by God.  And part of that same tradition is that Moses wrote the first 5 books under God’s inspiration.  If you lose the tradition of Mosaic authorship, then I think it calls into question the whole tradition, including divine inspiration.
            The basic question is how can we really tell that the Bible, any part of the Bible, is inspired by God.
            And Paine’s answer?
             I quoted it before, but it’s worth repeating: The answer to this question is, that nobody can tell, except that we tell one another so.

Other Highlights
          Paine argues some points so well that I’m tempted just to make the next section a list of long quotations.
            But I won’t.  The book is available on-line or in print for anyone who wants to read it at length.  I’ll just briefly list what I thought were the highlights.

* Paine did a very good job of arguing how ridiculous the idea of Satan is in Christian mythology, and pointing out the many contradictions in how much power Satan appears to have under the Christian system

* In Part II of the book, Paine has his Bible in hand and systematically goes through the Bible in chronological order pointing out everything which no reasonable person can believe.  It’s a masterful tour-de-force.

* Paine also does a good job of pointing out all the horrible stories collected in the Bible.  In particular, Paine recounts many of the divinely sanctioned massacres in the Old Testament, such as in Numbers 31, when Moses orders all the captive Midian woman and children killed, except for the Midian virgins who are divided up among the soldiers for their personal use instead.

* Paine points out all the different contradictions between the 4 Gospels in their resurrection accounts, and shows that this is reason to doubt that the event ever occurred.

* Of the many stories Paine pokes holes in, I thought one of the more devastating points was Paine’s take down of Matthew 27:50-53.  The verses are as follows:
            Jesus again gave a loud cry and breathed his last.  Then the curtain hanging in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split apart, the graves broke open and many of God’s people who had died were raised to life.  They left the graves, and after Jesus rose from death, they went into the Holy City, where many people saw them.
            Paine points out the many logical problems with these verses.  If this really had happened, wouldn’t it have been sort of a big deal?  How come it was never mentioned by any other writer?  No non-Christian source even mentions it, and of the 3 Gospels, only Matthew bothers to write about it. And Matthew never mentions what became of these people raised from the dead.  Did they go back into their graves, or did they pick up their lives where they had left off?
            Eventually Paine concludes: It is an easy thing to tell a lie, but it is difficult to support the lie after it is told.

* In Part III, Paine examines the Old Testament passages that the Gospels use to try and connect Jesus’s life to old prophecies.  Paine shows that these Old Testament verses really had nothing to do with Jesus.  They have been taken out of context by the Gospel writers to mean something the original authors never intended, and in some cases the Gospel writers even altered the grammar or wording of these Old Testament passages to change their original meaning.  (Robin Lane Fox argues this point as well in The Unauthorized Version). 
            Furthermore many of the so-called prophecies are completely unremarkable, even if applied to Jesus.  Most of the prophecies could be about several people.  For example, vague Old Testament passages about unnamed innocent people suffering are useless as prophecy.   Innocent people suffer in every era, Paine argues, you don’t need a prophecy to predict this.  The value of prophecy should be in predicting something that is unexpected.  It does no good to predict something that could happen to any common man.
            As Paine writes: They [the Gospel writers] tell us that Jesus rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven.  It is very easy to say so; a great lie is as easily told as a little one.  But if he had done so, those would have been the only circumstances respecting him that would have differed from the common lot of man; and, consequently, the only case that would apply exclusively to him, as a prophecy, would be some passage in the Old Testament that foretold such things of him.  But there is not a passage in the Old Testament that speaks of a person, who, after being crucified, dead, and buried, should rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven. (from Part III).

* Paine also highlights the absurdity of using the vehicle of Jesus Christ as the salvation of the whole human race.
            According to the Bible, salvation for humans lies in the knowledge that Jesus was crucified and then rose from the dead.  Consequently it is logical that after Jesus arose from the dead, he would appear to as many people as possible to establish this fact so necessary for salvation.  But instead what does the Bible record him as doing?  After his resurrection, Jesus hides away, appears only to his disciples, and making no public appearances.

            Furthermore, the time it takes for the knowledge of Jesus to spread throughout the world is incredibly inefficient.  As Paine says:
            The Old Testament tells us that God created the heavens and the earth, and every thing therein, in six days. [...] 
            Now as the eternal salvation of man is of much greater importance than his creation, and as that salvation depends, as the New Testament tells us, on man’s knowledge of, and belief in the person called Jesus Christ, it necessarily follows from our belief in the goodness and justice of God, and our knowledge of his almighty power and wisdom, as demonstrated in the creation, that ALL THIS, if true, would be made known to all parts of the world, in as little time at least, as was employed in making the world.  To suppose the Almighty would pay greater regard and attention to the creation and organization of inanimate matter, than he would to the salvation of innumerable millions of souls, which he himself had created, “as the image of himself” is to offer an insult to his goodness and justice.
            Now observe, reader, how the promulgation of this pretended salvation by knowledge of, and a belief in Jesus Christ went on, compared with the work of creation.
            In the first place, it took longer time to make a child than to make the world, for nine months were passed away and totally lost in a state of pregnancy. [….] Secondly; several years of Christ’s life were lost in a state of human infancy. […]  Thirdly; Christ, as Luke asserts, was thirty years old before he began to preach what they call his mission.  Millions of souls died in the mean time without knowing it. Fourthly; it was above three hundred years from that time before the book called the New Testament was compiled into a written copy, before which time there was no such book. Fifthly; it was above a thousand years after that, before it could be circulated; because neither Jesus nor his apostles had knowledge of, or were inspired with the art of printing: and , consequently, as the means for making it universally known did not exist, the means were not equal to the end, and, therefore, it is not the work of God.
            Now, had the news of salvation by Jesus Christ been inscribed on the face of the Sun and the Moon, in characters that all nations would have understood, the whole earth would have known it in twenty-four hours, and all nations would have believed it; whereas, though it is now almost two thousand years since, as they tell us, Christ came upon earth, not a twentieth part of the people of the earth know any thing of it, and among those who do, the wiser part do not believe it. (from Part III)

Where Paine Gets It Wrong
          Despite all the good arguments Paine makes, there’s plenty he gets wrong as well.
            There are lots of factual mistakes in the book.  (I’m guessing that 18th Century printing presses didn’t have much of a fact checking department, so if Paine got confused about something, there was probably no one around to correct him.)

            Many of these small factual mistakes don’t actually affect Paine’s overall argument.
            For example, when arguing how inadequate human language is to God’s revelation, and how much can be lost in translation, Paine says, But how was Jesus Christ to make anything known to all nations?  He could speak but one language which was Hebrew (from Part 1).
            Actually Jesus spoke Aramaic, not Hebrew, but either way the point still stands.

            And there were all sorts of other mistakes like this throughout the book.
            Other Mistakes:
*Paine doesn’t understand the term immaculate conception is used by Catholics to refer to the conception of Mary, not the conception of Jesus.
* Paine doesn’t fully understand the difference between Kings and Chronicles.  He doesn’t understand that the writer of Chronicles is intentionally writing about the history of the Southern Kingdom only.  (Although Paine is right that the author of Chronicles and the author of Kings often contradict each other.)
* Paine says, "The kingdom of Judah followed the line of David, and the kingdom of Israel that of Saul." 
            The Kingdom of Judah did follow the line of David, but the Kingdom of Israel was ruled by several different dynasties over its history.  (All of Saul’s descendents were wiped out under the reign of King David.)
* Paine doesn’t understand that the category of lesser prophets refers to the Prophets about whom less is written, and is not supposed to mean that they are any lesser in quality to the so-called greater Prophets.
* Paine doesn’t believe that any of the Gospels were written by their supposed authors.  This is probably true (and modern scholarship supports him on this.)  However Paine misunderstands who the supposed traditional authors were.  Paine mistakenly thinks Luke and Mark were supposed to be members of the 12 disciples.

            And some of Paine’s mistakes aren’t even his fault.  A few of Paine’s theories have been disproved by scholarship that occurred after his death, and that he couldn’t possibly have known about.

            On the account of Jesus’s resurrection and ascension, Paine writes that, "it was the necessary counterpart to the story of his birth.  His historians having brought him into the world in a supernatural manner, were obliged to take him out again in the same manner, or the first part of the story must have fallen to the ground."

            Actually, it’s the other way around.  The earliest Christian documents, Paul’s letters, mentioned Jesus’s resurrection, but not his birth.  Likewise for the earliest Gospel, Mark.  It is only with the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke that the nativity stories appear.  Once the story of the resurrection was established, the Gospel writers were obliged to invent a miraculous birth for Jesus, not vice-versa.
            However Paine is not to blame for this.  Although all the pieces had been there, according to Robin Lane Fox in The Unauthorized Version, it was not until the 19th century that scholars realized the nativity myths must have been a later addition.
            Likewise the book of Daniel.  (In an attempt to be generous, Paine says the book of Daniel could possibly have been written by Daniel himself, but modern scholarship has shown the book is written sometime between 167 and 164 BC—see the Yale lectures.)

            Also, in the Yale lectures on the Bible, Christine Hayes talks about how 18th and 19th century criticism of the Old Testament suffered from a Protestant bias.  It was assumed, without any good evidence, that the all the emphasis on priestly rites and rituals in the Old Testament was a later corruption of religion. 
            Paine’s writing also reflects that bias.  Parts of the Bible that Paine thinks fit with his Deist world view (such as Psalm 19, and parts of Job) Paine asserts must be from an earlier tradition.

            Perhaps the most serious charge is that Paine, in his hatred of the Old Testament, will occasionally get carried away and condemn not only the books of the Old Testament, but the entire race from which this tradition came.  I really hate to say this of Paine, but there are one or two passages which make him sound anti-Semitic. “the Jews never prayed but when they were in trouble, and never for anything but victory, vengeance and riches” Paine writes at one point.  And a little further down the same page, Paine writes of the Pagans, "as far as we know to the contrary, they were a just and moral people, and not addicted like the Jews, to cruelty and revenge."
            Paine becomes reluctant to give the Jews credit for anything good.  Books of the Old Testament that seem to glorify cruelty, Paine is happy to assign to the Jewish race.  Books of the Old Testament that Paine actually likes, such as Job, parts of Proverbs, and Jonah (which Paine suspects is a written as a satire on the idea of prophets) he argues must have come from a pagan tradition.
            Christine Hayes, in her lectures on the Old Testament, says that there is a contradiction between the theological views of different books of the Bible (Job and Jonah do contradict the views of the Deuteronimistic historian) but that this should be taken as one part of the Hebrew tradition in dialogue with another part.   Paine, however, is unable to give the Jews credit for any redeeming scriptures.

            Along the same lines, Paine is far too happy to condemn the ancient Jewish Kings as violent scoundrels, based on the account in Kings, without fully realizing the nature of the Bible’s polemic. Paine has trouble distinguishing between violence condemned by the Bible and violence condoned by the Bible.
           Granted, the Old Testament presents a bizarre polemic.  Violence in support of the cult of Yahweh is praised, violence not sanctioned by the cult of Yahweh is condemned. 
            But flawed though this polemic is, one must at least take it for what it is. 
            So when Paine complains that the book of Kings glorifies Jehu’s slaughter of Ahab’s 72 descendents, he is correct.  In the book of Kings, after Jehu has mercilessly wiped out all of Ahab’s relatives and descendents, God says to Jehu : “You have done to Ahab’s descendents everything I wanted you to do.” 2 Kings 10:30.  (Not all of the Bible writers were operating off of the same memo.  The writer of Hosea condemns Jehu for exactly the same thing the writer of Kings praises him for.  But leaving that contradiction aside for now….)
            But Paine is wrong to complain that the 2 Kings records that King Menahim “smote the city of Tiphsah, because they opened not the city to him, and all the women therein that were with child he ripped up” because according to the polemic in Kings Menahim is one of the sinful Kings, and the Bible is not condoning this violence, but simply recording it to illustrate what a wicked King Menahim was.

            Paine claimed that the political rivalry between northern Israel and southern Judah was responsible for some of the partisan prophets who took Judah’s side.  And he’s not wrong about this.  (In her lectures on the Old Testament, Christine Hayes emphasizes that the book of Kings was written with a pro-Southern bias, which is part of the reason all the rulers of the Northern Kingdom of Israel come out looking so bad.)  However, some Old Testament stories which are clearly set up to highlight the difference between Yahweh and Baal prophets Paine confuses as a difference between Northern and Southern prophets.

            And one final note—Paine claims that Vigilius was condemned to be burned for asserting the antipodes, or in other words that the earth was a globe, and habitable in every part where there was land.”  However when I googled this, I found that Paine had got his facts completely wrong [LINK HERE]. 
            And there were other mistakes, but I’ll stop my list here.
            (I’m curious, would a modern edition of this book have annotated some of these mistakes?  Has anyone read a recently published edition of this book?)

            Paine makes a few mistakes in his writings, and so should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.  But as I said before I do not believe his bad arguments invalidate his good arguments.  Paine deserves to be judged by his strongest arguments, and not his weakest arguments.

Christopher Hitchens and Thomas Paine
          The late Christopher Hitchens, both in print and in his debates, often praised Thomas Paine.
            After finishing this book, however, I’ve begun to think that Hitchens owes even more to Paine then he acknowledged.  Just about all of the points Hitchens used in his debates appear to have their origin in Paine.
            For example, in refuting the idea of Christ dying to redeem humanity, Hitchens often used to talk about how monetary debts can be paid by someone else, but a moral debt can never be assumed by another person.  Guess what?  Turns out the point was made by Paine first.
            Other points Hitchens seems to have borrowed from Paine:
            Like Paine, Hitchens is fond of the Bible story of the dead rising from their graves at Jesus’s crucifixion.
            Like Paine, Hitchens believes miracles can not prove religion, and that reports of miracles from other people should be considered not as evidence but as hearsay.        
           Like Paine, Hitchens says that religion combines mankind’s strange appearance of humility with its boldest presumptions. 
            Like Paine, Hitchens makes a distinction between writings which are self-evident, like Euclid, and religious writings which rely on some mysterious type of belief in divine revelation for their truth content.
             Like Paine, Hitchens thinks it is ridiculous to take Isaiah's prophecy to King Ahaz of a virgin giving birth (young woman in Hebrew) and apply it to Jesus. because Isaiah is specifically talking about King Ahaz's own time and military situation.

            I hate to kick Hitchens now that he’s dead, but I’m now wondering if his reputation as one of the brilliant new atheists might have been largely based on just recycling arguments Thomas Paine made 200 years ago.  (Also Christopher Hitchens wrote a book on Thomas Paine back in 2007 (A), and I almost wonder if this was the impetus for Hitchens to begin his anti-religion crusade when he did.)

Other Notes

            Because I’m a slow reader, I’ve been working at this book for months before I got around to writing this book review.
            During that time, I previously referenced this book in earlier blog posts—here and here

Link of the Day
Hitting Society With A Sledgehammer

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