Printed from http://tektonics.org/paine01.php
Though he wrote hundreds of years ago, the influence of Thomas Paine remains with us, much more so than we may expect.
Over the 12+ years this ministry has been active as of this writing, I have seen that the very same tactics and attitudes fostered by Paine persist even to this day, in the efforts of many Skeptics, who evidently have Paine as their inspiration and source. Even Skeptical scholars, such as Gerd Ludemann, defer to Paine for their views.
I am not saying of course that age is the key to truth or falsity. But it is an important consideration when so much has been done to advance Biblical scholarship since Paine and his ideological partners wrote their material. That many Skeptics automatically trust Paine as a reliable (and up to date) source is telling.
Paine can hardly be blamed for not being up to the knowledge level of the 21st century. Modern Skeptics, however, can be blamed for thinking and/or writing as though Paine is a reliable source whose arguments have not been soundly refuted time and time again -- even in his own day, as it happens, when he was regarded with far less respect.
A word about Paine personally. He was not, despite what you may have heard, an atheist; he was a deist. One suspects that if he had had Darwin at his disposal, that might have been different; nevertheless, it is a charge that should not be levied against him.
And with that, we proceed to some particulars gleaned from the pages of The Age of Reason, which may be offered as a preface to a more in-depth critique linked below. The following are simply examples I chose for their clarity and ability to be explained easily, and in some cases because they reflect modern Skeptical efforts which were to some extent derived from Paine.
- As a supposed parallel to the
virginal conception, Paine offers the story of Jupiter and Leda. This was a story
wherein Jupiter disguised himself as a swan, snuck up to this poor
girl, and -- well, this is a family website I'm doing; you'll need to
piece together the rest. But Paine thought that this offered a
parallel to the virginal conception, and in part he established this parallel by
reading into the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit by Mary, a case
of her being "debauched by a ghost" .
Today I have seen many Skeptics repeat this idea, as though Matthew and Luke depict some sort of divine sexual intercourse in the manner of Jupiter taking advantage of Leda; when in fact there is nothing but simple creative fiat. The comparison makes well for scurrilous allegation, but has no basis in fact.
- Paine said: The Gospels "do not give a
history of the life of Jesus Christ, but only detached anecdotes of
But so it was of all ancient Greco-Roman biography, and perhaps Paine should shoulder some blame for this miscue, since even in his time many such ancient biographies (like the Agricola of Tacitus) were well at hand.
- Paine tells us that in the time of the church, forgery of documents was
so common that "the probability is at least equal, whether (any of
the NT documents) are genuine or forged."  We shake our head at such
vague and vain arguments today; though they do still appear in places like The Da Vinci Code.
Even so, this was the beginning of the time when Enlightenment prejudice would charge that nearly any ancient document might be forged. Even Tacitus' Annals was supposed to have been forged. But in general, Paine offered no epistemic tests for deciding whether a document was forged. He did not advance an argument -- merely an accusation without substance.
An Australian reader has added this observation:
There is one thing I found interesting about "Age of Reason" that you don't mention. Paine uses the following "logic" to "prove" that parts of the Bible are a forgery.
- Deuteronomy records Moses' death.
- Moses could not have recorded his own death.
- As it contained something that Moses didn't write, Deuteronomy therefore was not written by Moses.
- Deuteronomy is therefore a forgery.
- It being a forgery, it can be ignored as useless.
My copy of "Age of Reason" was electronic, on a CD-ROM containing books from the "Library of the Future". The edition of "Age of Reason" they reproduced contained the following footnote:
"* The former part of the Age of Reason has not been published in two years, and there is already an expression in it that is not mine. The expression is, The book of Luke was carried by a majority of one voice only. It may be true, but it is not I that have said it. Some person, who might know of the circumstance, has added it in a note at the bottom of the page of some of the editions, printed either in England or in America; and the printers, after that, have placed it into the body of the work, and made me the author of it. If this has happened within such a short space of time, notwithstanding the aid of printing, which prevents the alteration of copies individually, what may not have happened in a much greater length of time, when there was no printing, and when any man who could write could make a written copy, and call it an original by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John?"
Using Paine's own "logic", then, I can conclude the following:
- At is contained something that Paine didn't write, "Age of Reason" therefore was not written by Paine.
- "Age of Reason" is therefore a forgery.
- It being a forgery, it can be dismissed.
- Paine said: "Human language is local and
changeable, and is therefore incapable of being used as the means
of unchangeable and universal information." 
Indeed? Yet Paine himself used human language to tell us this. Robert Price wasn't the first to use this self-defeating argument. "Unchangeable and universal" also sounds a lot like, the laws of logic, for example.
- Thinking of studying ancient languages? Paine says it isn't worth the effort:
"The best Greek linguist that now exists does not understand Greek
so well as a Grecian plowman did, or a Grecian milkmaid" -- really? That comes from someone who actually knows ancient Greek, right? Someone like Daniel Wallace, the author of the leading Greek grammar today?
It does not. Paine had no knowledge of Biblical Greek (or Hebrew) and had no authority to make such a statement. A reader noted that Paine may be alluding here to a comment made by the leading expert in Greek in his day, Richard Bentley, who compared his own knowledge of ancient Greek to that of an Athenian blacksmith -- though I have to think that Bentley was being self-effacing, or else hyperbolically emphasizing the complexity of Greek rather than being literal. In any event, the state of knowledge has changed vastly since Paine's day; Bentley likely did know very little compared to a Wallace.
- Paine asks: If we
accept the miracles in the Bible, then why not also those in
Josephus, or for example, Tacitus' account of Vespasian healing a
blind man and a lame man? 
I have no problem accepting any of this, actually; but there's more to the issue that that. Nor do we have reason to doubt that Tacitus is making an accurate report...if we understand what is going on. The old politician seemed a bit "surprised" by the miracles himself. At the same time, if this is all that Vespasian did that was miraculous, I don't think parallels to Jesus are going to hold much water, unless Vespasian went around doing more healings, etc. -- and according to our sources, he didn't. (See this excellent article for more details.)
- Paine also objected that there was no record of the Slaughter of
the Innocents, with the added comment than no provision was made to
protect the infant John the Baptist.
I can understand why not: Herod was not interested in infants that far from Bethlehem. Did Paine not realize that John was not a resident of Bethlehem?
Paine also offers an objection that Matthew does not tell us more about the resurrected saints, like whether or not they had clothes on, who they visited, and wondering why they left no letters or notes behind. This is hardly something people in the Biblical era would have been interested in knowing. Why should Paine's personal interests govern the content of another document?
- Paine set an example for modern Skeptics inasmuch as he insisted that he would read the Bible on his own terms. As Paine puts it: "...I mean not to go
out of the Bible for evidence of anything, but to make the Bible
itself prove" the points he wishes to make. 
Taking this approach to any other piece of ancient or extra-cultural literature would be entirely unreasonable, and ought to raise a charge of cultural imperialism. Yet few seem to see this as a flaw in Paine, or in modern Skeptical literature.
- Paine did little in the way of interaction with opposing views, charaicterizing them in summary and ilicit fashion: "Supposition proves nothing; and if the advocates for the
belief that Moses wrote (the books of the Pentateuch) himself have
nothing better to advance than supposition, they may as well be
Opposing viewpoints offered much more than "supposition;" they appeled to linguistic, historical, and literary factors, even today. But Paine merely characterized these things as "supposition" -- and it seems clear that he did so as a way of throwing the burden of proof illicity to his opponents, because he was not able to validate his own interpretive claims through data and arguments.
Paine also interpreted scholarly interaction and dispute as working in his favor . However, he did nothing to engage any side of any debate seriously -- and since he was not versed in ancient languages, literature, or customs, it seems likely that this was his way of avoiding such engagements.
- Paine assures his readers that
his first part of Age of Reason is irrefutable, even "with a library of Church
books"  at the disposal of any prospective apologist.
Really? Did Paine read any of those books, much less all of them? Isn't this just a tad, well....presumptuous of Paine?
- Arguing by outrage was one of Paine's minor staples as well. He didn't use this one as often as some do today, but he
did commit a common circular fallacy we find in this regard:
- God is good and just (as I define good and just).
- The atrocities described in the Bible are not good or just (by my estimation).
- God would not do anything that is what I consider to be not good or just.
- Therefore, the God of the Bible is obviously false.
- Many of Paine's comments come across as what can only be charitably be called bigotry and intolerance towards other cultures and persons:
- The Book of Revelation Paine describes as "a book of riddles"
 -- there is no regard for apocalyptic literature and those who
understood and appreciated it is to be found here. Paul is a
"manufacturer of quibbles"  -- no, not an educated student of
the OT, as scholars agree. His writings are "interlarded with quibble, subterfuge and
pun" -- no, not a master of Greco-Roman rhetorical practices; not
a brilliant mind, as even many hostile biographers of Paul admit
today, but merely a quibbler, and also a fanatic? This is so far from an academic evaluation of the text that it deserves little but scorn.
Ruth is dismissed as "an idle, bungling story, foolishly told"  -- can you imagine the literature of other cultures being so described, and the person who says so getting away with it?
Isaiah is "one of the most wild and disorderly compositions ever put together", "prose gone mad". Really? It'd be nice to have some explanation as to "why" but we are given none. That said, Isaiah is an anthology of prophetic oracles; Paine seems to have assumed that it was intended to be read straight through as a single work/
- Jesus could not have wanted to found a new religious system,
for if he had, he "would undoubtedly have written this system
Really? What did Paine know of oral transmission, the use of writing in ancient times as a supplement to the spoken word, the ancient memory and the use of mnemonics in the teachings of Jesus? Isn't this simply graphoocentrism -- the assumption that what is important MUST, of necessity, appear in writing, because Paine's own culture has happened to have had great success in writing things like Common Sense?
Elsewhere he makes it a point to imply that there is some significance to the fact that "the art of printing was wholly unknown at the time Christ lived."  Having just finished a good deal of reading on the subject of oral societies, I can say that Paine's comment here would be dismissed as exceptionally bigoted by specialists in oral transmission. Indeed, Paine failed to appreciate that the printing press had disadvantages as well as advantages; it changed the way people thought about communication, and caused a steady downward trend in the use and practice of memory. For more on this question -- the one about writing, not about togas -- see our item here.
- The Book of Revelation Paine describes as "a book of riddles"  -- there is no regard for apocalyptic literature and those who understood and appreciated it is to be found here. Paul is a "manufacturer of quibbles"  -- no, not an educated student of the OT, as scholars agree. His writings are "interlarded with quibble, subterfuge and pun" -- no, not a master of Greco-Roman rhetorical practices; not a brilliant mind, as even many hostile biographers of Paul admit today, but merely a quibbler, and also a fanatic? This is so far from an academic evaluation of the text that it deserves little but scorn.
- How was the canon formed? We are told that "church mythologists" simply "collected all the writings they could find, and managed them as they pleased."  Everything was decided by vote. We refer the reader to our essay refuting this far-too-simplified vision of canonical compilation.
- The book of Proverbs could not have been authored by Solomon, we are told,
because they "discover a knowledge of life which his situation
excluded him from knowing."
They did? How? Paine does not tell us how; he says so without a single justification. Where is Paine's knowledge of Hebrew society and culture? How has he been so informed of the life details of Solomon as to make such an assessment?
- Why was Jesus crucified? According to Paine, if he came to die for our sins, then dying by fever or by old age would have been just as sufficient. That's far from the case, given the matter of penal substitution involved, as well as the dialectic of honor and shame.
What can be said in conclusion? Paine is truly a father of modern skepticism. His tactics and his arguments, though proven without meir many times over, are still in use today. Celsus is not alone in his legacy.
We do a more in-depth, point by point review here.
- Pain.AR - Paine, Thomas. The Age of Reason. New York: Gramercy Books, 1993.