An Ex-Believer Looks at the Synoptic Gospels and Their Evangelical Christian Whitewashers
Introduction: The Evangelical Christian Whitewash of the Synoptic Gospels
By “the evangelical Christian whitewash” I mean the ongoing attempt by evangelical Christian theologians and apologists to deny that there are errors, contradictions, inconsistencies, and other discrepancies in the synoptic Gospels, and to conduct a massive rescue operation by trying to explain away the errors and to harmonize the contradictions and discrepancies, thereby concealing these blemishes with a heavy coat of fresh paint—which is exactly what whitewashers do.
Theologians and apologists are expected (and even paid) to do this sort of thing. But why are evangelical laypersons so willing (and even eager) to dismiss these allegations and to accept these “solutions”? I can think of at least two reasons.
First, they have allowed themselves to be browbeaten into submission by some charismatic and seemingly well-informed pastor, youth leader, or popular apologist who jovially assured them that these allegations are completely unfounded. Second, to the typical evangelical layperson, these allegations are mere hearsay—secondhand information presented in the form of broad generalizations about the “biased” nature of these “godless” allegations accompanied by hearty assurances that these alleged errors, contradictions, inconsistencies, and other discrepancies are only apparent and easily resolved. Laypersons are expected to accept this diagnosis on the authority of their spiritual mentors who have theology degrees, know (or claim to know) Greek, and, in some cases, have written books on the subject themselves. Unfortunately, most of them do accept it.
2. “Bible Study”
The true nature of the carefully choreographed travesty popularly known as “Bible study” may be seen by savoring the following example of the kind of evangelical Christian “exegesis” of the New Testament I have in mind.
While I was in seminary many years ago, I once pointed out an obvious discrepancy to our professor of New Testament. According to Matthew 27:5, Judas Iscariot hanged himself; however, according to Acts 1:18, he purchased a field, fell headlong into it, and “burst asunder.” I added that these passages are inconsistent and cannot both be true. One cannot hang oneself and then purchase a field and die falling into it. Or vice versa. With a reassuring smile which suggested that he had heard it all before he strode confidently to the chalkboard, drew a picture of a solitary tree situated precariously at the edge of a sharp cliff with a long branch jutting out over the precipice, and thereupon learnedly explained that a man might very well have hanged himself from such a tree; that his weight might very well have caused the branch to snap; and that such a man, in such a predicament, might very well have plummeted to the ground, branch and all, and “burst asunder” in what might very well have been the field he had previously purchased. I could hardly believe my ears. After all, this was seminary, not the amateur hour. I resisted the mad impulse to ask, amid all these “might very well have beens,” what would have ever prompted Judas Iscariot to climb such an inconveniently located tree in the first place, inch his way to the end of its suicide-inviting branch, secure a piece of rope to it as well as to himself—not to mention, how the branch thoughtfully defied the laws of physics and waited to snap until these elaborate preparations were complete. Instead, I courteously replied, “Thank you, sir.” It was obvious to me (but to none of my utterly convinced classmates) that here was a man who was prepared to say anything, no matter how ludicrous, rather than admit that the passages are inconsistent. I left his classroom wondering whether theologians could be sued for malpractice.
If anybody is inclined to dismiss this example as the admittedly absurd interpretation of a senile old professor that no responsible New Testament theologian would endorse, I hereby promise that they will find it (and others equally absurd) in passages that I will be citing from books by theologians and popular apologists who have made a name for themselves in evangelical Christian circles as defenders of the faith and who assure their readers that “careful and unbiased reasoning” and “an honest look at the textual evidence” will lead any “open-minded-person” to the conclusion that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant word of God.
As a preview, here is a priceless specimen from a book fatuously entitled I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek (p. 284). According to Matthew 28:5, Mary Magdalene arrived at the empty tomb of the risen Christ and saw an angel; however, according to John 21:12, she saw two angels. Are not these passages inconsistent? Not according to these endlessly resourceful interpreters who “resolve” the alleged inconsistency as follows: It is true that John says Mary Magdalene saw two angels. It is also true that Matthew says she saw one. But he does not say she saw only one. The critic has to “add a word”—i.e., the word “only”—to make the charge of inconsistency stick. Mary might very well have seen two angels. So where is the problem? The passages are perfectly consistent.
By way of response, I can only say that if this is what Matthew meant, he was just a smart aleck or a practical joker. This bizarre solution, according to which numbers should not be taken literally unless they are prefixed by the term “only,” must be rejected. Geisler and Turek cannot reasonably disagree. That this is so may be seen by using the same argument against them. According to Mark 6:8, Jesus fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. However, it does not say he fed them with only five loaves and only two fish. Does that license us to conclude that Jesus might have had a cartload of loaves and fish and that there was no miracle at all? Again, according to 1 Timothy 2:5, there is one mediator between God and man. However, the passage does not say that there is only one mediator. Does that license us to conclude that there might be two, or ten, or any number of mediators between God and man? Geisler and Turek would scoff at such “exegesis” and dismiss it as patently absurd. Which, of course, it is. But if they themselves would reject this argument in these passages, why do they ask their readers to accept it in others? Does that look like “careful and unbiased reasoning” by “open-minded” persons “honestly looking at the textual evidence”? Or like devious subterfuge by verbal tricksters trying to have it both ways? The answer is obvious. Like my old seminary professor, Geisler and Turek are prepared to say anything, however ludicrous, rather than admit that these passages are inconsistent.
Lest I be accused of making hermeneutical mountains out of textual molehills, two preliminary comments are in order. First, some of these inconsistencies, contradictions, and discrepancies are admittedly minor and occasionally even trivial. Whether Mary Magdalene saw one angel or two is a case in point. Many other similar examples could be cited. For example, according to Matthew 8:5-6, as Jesus entered the village of Capernaum, he was met by a centurion who explained that his servant was “sick of the palsy” and asked Jesus to heal him. However, according to Luke 7:1-4, Jesus was not met by the centurion but by “the elders of the Jews” who asked him to heal the centurion’s servant. Clearly both accounts cannot be true. Either the centurion asked Jesus to heal the servant or somebody else did. So either Matthew or Luke got it wrong. Again, according to Matthew 5:1, before delivering the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus “went up into a mountain.” However, according to Luke 6:12-17, before delivering it, he “came down [from a mountain] and stood in a plain, thereby presumably delivering the Sermon on the Plain. Again, both accounts cannot be true. It was either a mountain or a plain. So again either Matthew or Luke got it wrong. In both cases, the only sensible answer is: Who cares? These discrepancies are too inconsequential to grumble about. I fully agree. And nobody would grumble about them were it not for the fact that evangelical Christians strenuously deny that such inconsistencies and discrepancies exist. Their denials invite a rebuttal. In this book I accept the invitation.
That leads to the second preliminary comment. Although some of the inconsistencies, contradictions, and discrepancies are admittedly minor and occasionally even trivial, many others are not. On the contrary, they are so fundamental and so incapable of being “harmonized” that they not only render the narrative confusing to the point of being incoherent, but undermine the credibility of the author and the historicity of the events reported. I am not asking anybody to take my word for that. I ask only that readers work through these passages with me so they can see for themselves that my claim is true. The whole idea of serious “Bible reading” needs to be reexamined.
Actually, many evangelical Christian laypersons who revere (or claim to revere) the Bible have never read it—except perhaps for a favorite Psalm or two, the story of Jesus’s nativity, and a handful of verses they memorized in Sunday School. The few who do read it—at least, the New Testament—seldom read the whole thing, seldom study it systematically, usually rely on translations, and almost never read books written by New Testament theologians. The typical evangelical (“born-again,” “Bible-believing”) Christian reads the synoptic Gospels naively and uncritically, assuming that they were written by eyewitnesses and that they contain a wealth of reliable firsthand information about the life and teachings of Jesus. These laypersons are seldom, if ever, encouraged to investigate these matters for themselves—firsthand, independently, objectively, and without the “guidance” of a spiritual mentor—and allowed to arrive at their own conclusions. More pointedly, they are seldom, if ever, encouraged to read the New Testament critically, examining specific allegations of errors or contradictions and wrestling with them honestly and with open Bibles rather than through the blinkers of an uncritically accepted body of doctrine, so they can decide for themselves whether the allegations are true or false. That is what I will be asking readers of this book to do.
3. The Whitewashers
Although my primary purpose in this book is expository, my secondary purpose is frankly polemical and I want to lay my cards on the table at the very outset. Mainstream nineteenth and twentieth century New Testament scholarship has unearthed many errors, contradictions, inconsistencies, and discrepancies in the synoptic Gospels. “Liberal” theologians candidly acknowledge that and view the New Testament (and the Bible as a whole) as a human document (or collection of documents) that must be read and studied like any other ancient document. Evangelical Christian theologians strongly disagree. When confronted with allegations of errors, contradictions, and inconsistencies, they typically respond in two ways. First, they acknowledge that many existing copies of the original manuscripts (as well as some translations) contain passages that seem to be errors, contradictions, inconsistencies, and other discrepancies. But they go on to say that these alleged errors and inconsistencies are only apparent and can be corrected and harmonized. Second, they assert that the original manuscripts were free of all such logical defects.
Until quite recently, the details of this controversy were largely unknown to evangelical Christian laypersons. However, during the last several decades this situation has changed due to the publication of several influential books by evangelical Christian theologians and apologists like Norman L. Geisler (Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 and I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist coauthored with Frank Turek, popular apologist Josh McDowell (New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, and Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft (Handbook of Christian Apologetics coauthored with Ronald K. Tacelli). These books not only continued the centuries-old battle against (what they consider) the abuses of mainstream New Testament scholarship; they also brought it to the attention of evangelical laypersons. They are energetically marketed and endorsed by names that have enormous clout in evangelical Christian circles. Each claims to have refuted allegations about errors and inconsistencies once-and-for-all. Each claims that its defense of the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible is a mission accomplished. These books are infused with an air of effortless brilliance and confident finality that prompted one impressed reviewer of I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist to say: “I suspect that anyone who has read this book and is still a religious skeptic is living in denial”—a sentiment their authors seem to share. I strongly disagree. These books cry out for critical scrutiny: not because they present a serious challenge to mainstream New Testament scholarship—professional theologians completely ignore them—but because they are superficially impressive, very influential among evangelicals, and therefore in urgent need of being unmasked and refuted.
There are, of course, many others like them; but I propose to focus on these three as representative of the dubious quasi-theological genre that I will be examining in this book. I call it “Operation-Rescue.” These authors are the chief evangelical Christian whitewashers of the New Testament referred to in its subtitle.
The magnitude of their misunderstanding of the methods and aims of mainstream New Testament criticism is evident from their superficial summaries and facile refutations of it and, above all, from their inaccurate description of it as destructive biblical criticism—as if New Testament scholars of the stature of Friedrich Scheiermacher, Albert Schweitzer, David Friedrich Strauss, Ernest Renan, Rudolf Bultmann, and the Catholic theologians who made up the Tübingen School led by Ferdinand Christian Baur, were nothing more than the theological equivalent of a demolition crew hired to obliterate the Bible. These theologians had a Goliath-like stature that dwarfs these lightly armed Davids whose puny slingshots and five smooth stones reveal how seriously they have underestimated their opponents.
The suppression of knowledge by Christians is nothing new. From the very beginning, the Church did everything in its power to impede intellectual progress. It opposed free inquiry in the name of authority, it denied facts in the name of faith, it obstructed science in the name of Aristotle, and it prohibited the expression of honest opinion in the name of revelation. It censored books, tortured people who possessed them, executed heretics, sent geniuses to the gallows, and consigned thinkers to dungeons. The list is long and disgraceful: Arius, Pelagius, Abelard, Campanella, Bayle, Galileo, Kepler, Copernicus, Bruno, Servetus, Spinoza, Kant, Voltaire, Paine, Linnaeus, Buffon, and Darwin—to name just a few of the most prominent. Even more revolting than the list itself are the “crimes” for which these intellectual giants were identified, hunted down, tortured, and murdered: maintaining that human beings have free will, denying that Adam named every existing animal and that Noah preserved every known species in the ark, denying the doctrine of the Trinity, maintaining that the earth revolves around the sun, inventing the telescope, discovering new planets, denying the existence of fixed stars and the fixity of species, denying that comets are activated and controlled by demons, and maintaining that human life evolved from lower forms. The minute mainstream New Testament criticism appeared on the horizon, orthodox and evangelical Christian theologians took aim at it.
I am not for a moment suggesting that Geisler, McDowell, Kreeft, Turek, and Tacelli would have participated in these proceedings or even approve of them. The fact remains, however, that they are equally determined to suppress accuracy about the Bible—especially about the New Testament. They, too, denounce those who make allegations about factual errors and logical inconsistencies. They, too, respond to perceived heresy by tracing it to “unbelief,” “rebellion,” and other evil motives. Whenever somebody brings to light a Biblical passage containing an error or an inconsistency, their response is always the same. Instead of honestly trying to determine whether the allegation has any force, they assume as a matter of course that it does not and immediately go into counterattack mode: they either find some excuse for the Biblical writer, no matter now farfetched, or they make some ad hoc distinction, no matter how tenuous, that enables them to “correct” the alleged error or to “resolve” the alleged discrepancy and thereby make the passage under discussion say what they want it to say. The “How Many Angels Did Mary Magdalene See?” gambit is a luminous example.
I wrote this book from the sincere conviction that these authors have done incalculable harm by discouraging Christian laypersons from reading the Bible attentively and critically and by encouraging them to close their eyes to contrary evidence, thus training them to deny what every honest reader can see. I hope to undo some of that harm.
McDowell’s book has gone through several editions whose titles are all variations on the original Evidence That Demands a Verdict (first published in 1972). The title suggests that McDowell arrived at his “verdict” that the Bible is the inspired and inerrant Word of God as a result of a careful sifting of evidence—textual, historical, archeological, linguistic, etc. However, a perusal of the book confirms on almost every page that his belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Gospels (and of the Bible as a whole) is based on a faith commitment that he brought to his investigation, not on a conclusion he derived from it. In short, McDowell had arrived at his “verdict” long before he ever consulted the “evidence.” As we will see again and again, the same is true of Geisler, Turek, Kreeft, and Tacelli.
This phenomenon was unforgettably described by Samuel Butler in his 1903 novel entitled The Way of All Flesh:
A clergyman … can hardly ever allow himself to look facts fairly in the face. It is his profession to support one side. It is impossible, therefore, for him to make an unbiased examination of the other. We forget that every clergyman with a living or curacy is as much a paid advocate as the barrister who is trying to persuade a jury to acquit a prisoner. We should listen to him with the same suspense of judgment, the same full consideration of the arguments of the opposing counsel, as a judge does when he is trying a case. (p. 137)
Does it follow that all clergymen are intellectually dishonest? Not necessarily, according to Butler:
You should not call them dishonest for this any more than a judge should call a barrister dishonest for earning his living by defending one in whose innocence he does not seriously believe; but you should hear the barrister on the other side before you decide upon the case. (p. 284)
That I am not exaggerating the influence of McDowell’s book (and others like it) is borne out by the lavish praise and heartfelt testimonials on Amazon.com. But I did not have to go online for confirmation of this. Having taught courses in the Philosophy of Religion in colleges and universities for over forty years, I know it from personal experience. During those years I encountered a steady stream of evangelical Christian students wielding the eagerly snatched exegetical magic wands provided by McDowell & Co. My response was always the same. When a rational, honest, and open-minded person encounters evidence that calls into question a cherished belief, he or she rethinks the belief and either modifies it or abandons it; he or she does not tamper with the evidence. Thus when one discovers that reindeer cannot fly or cope with a sled large enough to hold enough Christmas presents for every child on the planet earth, one does not postulate an annual Yuletide transportation miracle; one abandons one’s belief in Santa Claus. Again, when one discovers that wishing upon a star does not rescue relatives from Nazi concentration camps, prevent children from dying of leukemia, or even ensure that one’s favorite team will win the Super Bowl, one does not rebuke oneself for lack of faith; one stops wishing upon that star. One should do the same thing when one finds evidence that calls into question one’s belief in the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible.
4. Two Predecessors and Role Models
In writing this book, I have stood on the shoulders of many great New Testament scholars. But I have especially tried to follow in the footsteps of two writers who managed to make the results of New Testament scholarship accessible to nonscholarly readers: Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason (published in 1794), and Steve Allen in Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, & Morality and More Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, & Morality (published in 1990 and 1993). My primary purpose in this book is to carry on the task undertaken by these important but sadly neglected books.
As both authors would have been the first to admit, few of their criticisms and objections were completely original. In writing their books, they were to a large extent disseminating criticisms and objections that had already been advanced by many prominent 19th century European theologians—especially in Germany. Their great achievement was that they communicated these criticisms and objections in popular and eminently readable books with engaging titles rather than in ponderous and jargon-ridden tomes with jawbreaking mouthfuls like VorlÃ¤ufig zu Beherzigendes bei Würdigung der Frage über die historische oder mythische Grundlage des Lebens Jesu.
Some might find Thomas Paine and Steve Allen a decidedly odd couple. After all, the former was an eighteenth century English pamphleteer and an influential revolutionary figure in France and later in colonial America, whereas the latter was a twentieth century comedian, the creator of the “Tonight” show, and a regular panelist on popular 1950s TV game shows like “What’s My Line?” and “I’ve Got a Secret.” But the pair had more in common than first meets the eye. Although neither had a theology degree, both were keen students of the Bible with a remarkable fund of Biblical knowledge that put most Christians to shame. Paine wrote part one of The Age of Reason while awaiting execution in a French prison and without access to a Bible. He not only quoted extensively from both the Old and New Testament, but often cited chapter and verse—later justifiably boasting that he had produced a book that “no Bible believer, writing at his ease and with a library of theological books at his disposal, could refute” (pp. 100-101). Allen’s knowledge was also impressive. Roughly half of the material in his books was written in hotel rooms across America as he read the Gideon Bibles left in bureau drawers or nightstands as spiritual food for impoverished wayfarers. However, in his case the result was exactly the opposite. Far from providing him with answers, his reading raised so many questions that he started taking copious notes and jotting down his thoughts, thus unknowingly embarking on (what turned out to be) a twenty-year study of the Bible. These two massive volumes—totaling more than eight hundred pages—were the result. Both contain an enormous amount of material and are scholarly and well researched, but they are eminently readable and often witty. The overarching question is “whether the Bible is in fact what it has been represented to be for 2,000 years—i.e., the totally straightforward, literal word of God.” Allen’s investigation led him to the conclusion that it is not. Those who remember Steve Allen only as an articulate and urbane television personality will probably be astonished to learn that he wrote two four hundred-page books about the Bible. His wit and self-deprecating manner was a mask for his extraordinary intelligence and erudition. (He had the temerity to debate politics publicly with William F. Buckley, Jr.) A prodigiously talented man, he was the founder and first host of the “Tonight” show, a creditable actor, a sophisticated comedian, a prolific composer and lyricist, a published poet and novelist, an accomplished pop and jazz pianist, a formidable talk-show host, an able moderator, and the creator and host of PBS’s acclaimed series “Meeting of the Minds” that aired during the late1970s and featured a group of actors cast (and appropriated dressed) as great thinkers of the past—Plato, Thomas Aquinas, Galileo, Martin Luther, Voltaire, Karl Marx, Susan B. Anthony, and many others—seated around a table and embroiled in political, scientific, and philosophical discussions that were as stimulating as they were entertaining. (Allen wrote all the scripts). He also wrote more than 50 other books—most of them unabashedly and uproariously funny, a few deadly serious.
The most serious by far were his two books about the Bible in which he patiently and dispassionately examined the Biblical texts (and many scholarly books and articles about them), sweeping nothing under the rug and following the evidence wherever it led. Although his own views were usually obvious, his approach was not argumentative but remarkably fair-minded and unfailingly courteous to those holding opposing views. He ungrudgingly acknowledged the poetic and comforting passages in the Bible, but insisted that it is unreasonable and unfair for believers to constantly quote them but completely ignore “the far more numerous passages in which not comfort and encouragement but terror, moral revulsion, and puzzlement are perfectly reasonable reactions” (p. xxxi). He cited many of these “sorry and embarrassing” passages in which the incessant and savage exploits of the Israelites are graphically (and often jubilantly) chronicled: the slaughters, the massacres, the annihilation of hundreds of thousands of innocent men, women, and children—sometimes entire cities—most of whom had neither wronged nor provoked the Israelites in any discernible way, and, in the case of the singularly unlucky Canaanites, for no better reason than that they happened to inhabit a geographical region which Yahweh had promised to his “chosen people.” These massacres were not carried out by sinful men acting contrary to the law of God, but by revered spiritual leaders like Moses, Joshua, and Elijah at the explicit command of God These morally revolting passages, combined with the many contradictions, inconsistencies, and factual errors about history, geography, science, chronology, and much else, led Allen to conclude that the Bible is not the logically consistent, factually accurate, historically reliable, and unfailingly edifying book—or, rather, collection of books—that it is said to be, but very mixed bag that most people revere only because they are largely ignorant of its contents.
Allen did not present this information as a rabid infidel determined to turn Jews and Christians into militant atheists, but as an objective reporter determined to acquaint them with a multitude of awkward and largely ignored facts that they needed to know if they were ever to arrive at an informed and rational assessment of the book they uncritically regard as sacred. Contrary to many idle and Christian-inspired rumors, he was not an atheist who “hated” God, but a lifelong Catholic until he was automatically excommunicated by the church at the age of thirty-two for the “sin” of divorcing his first wife and remarrying. But while he ceased to be a Catholic, he continued to believe in a God—albeit not the God of the Bible. One of his chief reasons for not believing in this God, and for denying that the Bible is His word, is that he was convinced that a God who is worthy of worship and good in any sense conceivable by man would never sanction the savage behavior found in the Old Testament or ever issue such immoral commands in the first place.
While I am on the subject of “hating” God, it is worth pointing out that, according to Allen, it is not atheists who are guilty of this offense—one cannot hate a being in whom one does not believe—but rather the (mostly unknown) authors of the Old Testament who attribute these criminal acts and commands to him, acts of such enormity that we would detest any human being who behaved in such ways. Although Allen’s intention was benign, his book elicited a good deal of hostility and resentment. That should not come as a surprise to anybody. The one thing that evangelical Christians deplore even more than people who do not search the Scriptures are diligent and intellectually honesty people like Steve Allen who do.
In the Introduction to his first volume he confesses that he had originally planned to publish it posthumously and explains why he changed his mind with rhetoric that is even more timely and more desperately in need of being heard today than it was in 1990:
[A]n element of urgency has entered into the public dialogue that was not present at the outset. Because of the constitutional freedoms wisely established by our nation’s founding fathers, Americans are at liberty to hold any religious beliefs at all, or none whatever. But there is a negative aspect to this, as there always is in the context of freedom. Along with beautiful, inspiring, uplifting, and morally instructive beliefs that flourish in such a climate, there will inevitably be a certain amount of destructive, superstitious nonsense preached. Many of our nation’s fundamentalist Christians, who, by and large, believe that the Bible is reliable as history and science, are no longer content with teaching their freely gathered congregations their theology and publishing their views, which they have every right to do. But just as my freedom to swing my arms about stops at the point of another’s nose, so the freedom to preach unscientific superstition deserves to be limited when it attempts to impose itself on those who have not requested it and who may, in fact, hold contrary opinions, or none at all. When, for example, America’s fundamentalist believers in the inerrancy of the Bible insist on having historical and scientific errors taught in our nation’s public schools, then they must be opposed by all legal means. That is a reason I have decided to delay publication of my views no longer … I believe it is the imposition of a dictatorship that increasing numbers on the Christian Right now wish to construct in the United States. I refer specifically to a group of believers who call themselves Christian Reconstructionists. Some harmful organizations, throughout history, have disguised their basic agenda while in the process of appealing to a broad base of support. The Reconstructionists are quite frank about their social prescriptions. They believe that Christianity should be the official religion of the United States and that American laws should be specifically Christian. (pp. xxix-xxxii)
He thereupon quotes a remark made by Bill Moyers in his “fascinating and strangely ignored” program, telecast by PBS on December 23, 1987, in which he alleged that the Christian Reconstructionists—the contemporary successors of the Moral Majority of the 1970s and 1980s—”want to invent America all over again, with the Bible as its primary charter, and Washington D.C., as a new kind of government where God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven” (p. xxxii). They have resolved to abolish our democracy in which the only legitimate basis of governmental authority is the consent of the governed, and replace it with a Christian theocracy in which governmental authority does not derive from the people—and from representatives they elect—but from God and anyone arrogant and presumptuous enough to step forward as His earthly mouthpiece. So far, the major claimants to that title have been monumentally unimpressive: gay-bashing windbags like the late Reverends Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, and agenda-driven, Bible-thumping evangelical Christians like the still very much alive and kicking Pat Robertson, John Haggee, Rod Parsley, Rick Warren, and ex-presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee.
Allen’s response to the ominous prospect of a Christian America was a characteristically droll suggestion that it would be hard to improve upon. As a “proper punishment” for people found guilty of trying to impose their beliefs on everybody else, he proposed that they should be sentenced to a 12-year course in world history with particular attention to what transpired in Europe during the dreadful and blood-drenched centuries during which large provinces and even whole countries were ruled by Catholic priests or popes or Protestant reformers. He suggested that this sorely neglected curriculum would remedy the present paucity of knowledge about the tortures and executions of the Inquisition, the pillages and massacres of the Crusades, the intolerance and tyranny of the Protestant Reformers, and many other systematically ignored ecclesiastical horrors. Ordinary people were persecuted, tortured, and even executed for eating meat on Friday, for eating sweets during Lent, for espousing heretical opinions, for reading (or even possessing) a book written by a heretic, for allowing a heretic to live under their roof, for criticizing a cleric, and even for reading the Bible. For centuries people were seized and imprisoned without warning, presumed to be guilty without a trial and without the testimony of witnesses, forbidden to ask questions, and denied all recourse to justice. Equal rights and equal protection were nonexistent, free inquiry was suppressed, due process was unheard of, dissent was silenced, and dissenters were subjected to the most gruesome forms of torturing before being executed or left to die from wounds sustained. Christians breezily boast that Christianity improved the lot of humankind in countless ways, but an objective look at the historical record leads to the opposite conclusion. Since its inception, the Church has operated in a tyrannical manner that is categorically condemned by the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and The United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights. Allen went on to point out that this centuries-long disregard of morality and the fundamental principles of justice was one of the chief reasons that America’s founding fathers felt so strongly about keeping the church and the state separate—a principle, I might add, that guarantees not only freedom of religion, but also freedom from religion and its endemic evils of mind-control and the oppression of all who dissent. To their eternal credit, the founding fathers realized that the best way to ensure that was by making it constitutionally impossible for any particular religion to become the official national religion whose doctrines everybody must endorse and whose moral values everybody must embrace. During the almost twenty years that have elapsed since the publication of Allen’s book, Christian Reconstructionism has made alarming gains in American private and public life. Millions have been deceived by its alleged mandate to bring the United States of America under the “dominion” of Jesus Christ, thereby transforming our country into a Christian nation, and by its demonstrably false claim that the principle of separation of church and state was not advocated by America’s Christian founding fathers but is rather an invention of secular humanism. In light of all this, the need for a strong and effective antidote to Christian Reconstructionism’s relentless assault on religious and moral freedom is greater than ever.
Allen’s strategy was bold. He was not content to indict past persons and religious institutions—like the Protestant Reformers, the Inquisition, the Papacy—for their moral atrocities and crimes against humanity, thereby implying only that these corrupt persons and institutions had betrayed their own theological doctrines and moral principles. He went further in two important ways: first, he conducted a searching investigation of those doctrines and principles themselves and found many of them both rationally indefensible and morally objectionable; second, he traced these doctrines and principles to their ultimate source, which was neither the Inquisition nor the Papacy not Protestant Reformers, but the Bible.
In addition to deploring the fact that most people know next to nothing about history and are, at best, only vaguely aware of the theologically motivated atrocities of the past, Allen deplored the fact that most people (including most Christians) know next to nothing about the Bible and are only vaguely aware of the atrocities and other moral outrages that fill its pages. Although he occasionally alluded to the first kind of ignorance—ignorance of “the obvious atrocities found in Christian history, of which there are more than enough to gratify the prejudice of the antireligious and to shame all decent Christians” (p. xxiii)—his primary goal was to dispel the second kind—ignorance of the moral atrocities found in the Bible.
As Martin Gardner rightly observed in his Foreword to Allen’s first volume: “No other work by an American can be likened more favorably to Thomas Paine’s classic The Age of Reason” (p. xii). Like Allen, Paine objected to the Bible—Old and New Testaments alike—and its evil and capricious God and its blatant immorality. This is what he wrote:
There are matters in [the Old Testament], said to be done by the express command of God, that are as shocking to humanity and to every idea of moral justice as anything done by Robespierre … or by any other assassin in modern times. When we read in the books ascribed to Moses, Joshua, etc., that they (the Israelites) came by stealth upon whole nations of people, who, as history itself shows, had given them no offense; that they put all those nations to the sword; that they spared neither age not infancy; that they utterly destroyed men, women, and children; that they left not a soul to breathe—expressions that are repeated over and over again in these books, and that, too, with exulting ferocity—are we sure that these things are facts? Are we sure that the Creator of man commissioned these things to be done? And are we sure that the books that tell us so were written by His authority? … To believe, therefore, the Bible to be true, we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of God; … And to read the Bible without horror, we must undo everything that is tender, sympathizing, and benevolent in the heart of man. Speaking for myself, if I had no other evidence that the Bible is fabulous than the sacrifice I must make to believe it to be true, that alone would be sufficient to determine my choice. (pp. 104-5)
Paine documents all these claims with dozens of passages from the Old Testament in which these blood-thirsty and divinely sanctioned massacres are gleefully recorded.
Commenting on these “shameful atrocities,” Allen makes two trenchant observations. First, most of them go unpunished. It is easy to understand why. I said earlier that an attentive reading of these passages reveals that almost all of them were committed at God’s (Yahweh’s) explicit command and with his complete approval. This has an important but seldom recognized ethical implication. Although we are assured again and again that “The Lord, He is good,” it is hard to understand what “good” means in such contexts. If Yahweh is good, what would an evil God be like? Allen’s second observation is closely connected to his first. Whereas atrocities like the ones previously specified go unpunished (and are sometimes rewarded and even celebrated as models of true faith), trivial offenses are often punished with shocking and inexplicable violence: Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and individually punished further for eating forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:15-24); Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt for taking one final look at Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:26); Uzzah is struck dead for trying to prevent the Ark of the Covenant from falling and being smashed (2 Samuel. 6:6-7); forty-two boys are ripped to pieces at God’s command for calling the prophet Elisha “baldhead” (2 Kings 2:23-24)—clearly the most morally outrageous passage in the entire Old Testament. I could go on.
It is alarming to contemplate the political and moral harm that has been perpetrated and justified by defending inerrancy claims in a way that legitimizes these gruesome stories that present as good what is in fact evil, thereby rendering individuals and even whole populations uncritical.
Nor did Paine mince his words in denouncing Christianity:
Of all the systems of religion that were ever invented, there is none more derogatory to the Almighty, more unedifying to man, more repugnant to reason, and more contradictory in itself, than this thing called Christianity. Too absurd for belief, too impossible to convince, and too inconsistent for practice, it renders the heart torpid, or produces only atheists and fanatics. As an engine of power, it serves the purpose of despotism; and as a means of wealth, the avarice of priests; but so far as respects the good of man in general, it leads to nothing here or hereafter.(p. 186)
Unread and all-but-unknown among evangelical Christians today, Paine’s impassioned expose of the Bible shocked and outraged believers in England and on the Continent. Eighteenth and nineteenth century Christians denounced The Age of Reason with their customary venom, calling it a “vicious assault” and a “vituperative attack” on the Bible by “a filthy little atheist” (the latter phrase was Theodore Roosevelt’s).
These ill-informed and vitriolic comments betray two serious misunderstandings. First, a sober reading of the The Age of Reason, as opposed to a selective wrenching of passages from their contexts, reveals that it is far from a gratuitous—much less, a “vicious” or “vituperative”—attack on the Bible. On the contrary, it is a sustained attempt to apply reason to the Bible by subjecting its contents to rational criticism and arriving at a rational assessment of it. Second, Paine was not an atheist, but a deist. Here is his “profession of faith”:
I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow creatures happy. (The Age of Reason, p. 50)
The Age of Reason is admittedly a critique of the Bible and false religion generally, but in the name of true religion—which, according to Paine, is deism.
In addition to being falsely vilified for being an atheist, Paine was found guilty of blasphemy and hanged in effigy; his publisher was imprisoned, and even ordinary citizens were subject to arrest for possessing a copy of his book or for displaying his portrait. The book received an equally hostile reception in colonial America from Christians who could not tolerate anybody sufficiently educated (and sufficiently fearless) to enlighten them about the horrifying contents of the book they would rather revere than read. It came as a shock to them, as it still does to evangelical Christians today, to discover that The Age of Reason was greatly admired by Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Monroe—all of whom were also deists deeply influenced by Paine. Monroe actually saved his life (in 1795 when he was Minister to France) by rescuing him from a French prison and taking him into his own home to recuperate. These men—all of them founding fathers and future presidents of the United States not only defended Paine’s views but, as we will see in the next chapter, held identical views themselves. In addition to defending his views, they befriended him, gave him political sanctuary, and invited him to join them in defending religious freedom and freedom of speech in America.
In view of recurring but utterly false Christian Reconstructionist pronouncements about the piety of the founding fathers and their alleged desire to base the United States on Christian principles, many Americans would also be shocked to discover that Thomas Jefferson fully agreed with Paine’s approach to the Bible and advocated the same approach:
Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear … Read the Bible, then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts that are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy or Tacitus … But those facts … which contradict laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates. (Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787 (Cousins, p. 127)
Like Paine, Jefferson scoffed at the idea of an inspired Bible and argued that factual claims it contained should be scrutinized closely. He would have warmly endorsed Robert G. Ingersoll’s characteristically trenchant quip, “I don’t care whether a statement is inspired; I only care whether it’s true; true statements don’t need to be inspired.” Paine writes:
It has often been said, that anything may be proved from the Bible, but before anything can be admitted as proved by the Bible, the Bible itself must be proved to be true. For if the Bible be not true, or the truth of it be doubtful, it ceases to have authority, and cannot be admitted as proof of anything. (The Age of Reason, p. 103)
He, too, rejected the idea of the Bible as inspired divine 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 somethinghas been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is a 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 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. (p. 52)
Both Paine and Jefferson repeatedly argued that alleged events of the kind reported in the synoptic Gospels (and in the Bible as a whole) are not supported by adequate and publicly available evidence, and that consequently nobody should be required to believe that they actually occurred. Paine was particularly adamant about this:
A thing which everybody is required to believe requires that the proof and evidence of it should be equal to all … Instead of this, a small number of persons … are introduced as proxies for the whole world to say they saw 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 ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I, and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas. (p. 54)
Paine’s critique of the synoptic New Testament—and specifically of the synoptic Gospels—was as searching as his critique of the Old. He criticizes them on several grounds. First, the stories are often derived from pagan mythology:
[Jesus] was born at a time when the heathen mythology had still some fashion and repute in the world, and that mythology had prepared people for the belief of such astory. Almost all the extraordinary men that lived under the heathen mythology were reported to be the sons of some of their gods. It was not a new thing to have been celestially begotten; the intercourse of gods with women was then a matter of familiar opinion. (p. 53)
Second, the events narrated are scientifically impossible and credible only to the ignorant, the naÃ¯ve, and the simple:
Were any girl that is now with child to say … that she was begotten with child by a ghost, and that an angel told her so, would she be believed? Certainly she would not. Why, then, are we to believe the same thing of another girl, whom we never saw, told by nobody knows who, nor when, nor where? (p. 160)
Third, the claims found in the Gospels are obscure to the point of being unintelligible. Jefferson writes:
No on sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in its advances towards rational Christianity. When we shall have done with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples … The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies, and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable as to shock reasonable thinkers. (Letter to Timothy Pickering, February 27, 1821 (Cousins, p. 157)
The truth is, that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those, calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. (Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823 Cousins, p. 289)
On the other hand, Paine had nothing but respect and admiration for Jesus Christ:
He was a virtuous and amiable man. The morality that he preached and practised was of the most benevolent kind; and 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. (The Age of Reason, p. 53).
Paine’s objections were not to Jesus and his authentic teachings, but to “the wretched contrivance” that “the Christian mythologists” and “Bible-makers” have installed in their place (p. 54). He does not believe for a moment that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he performed miracles, that he raised people from the dead, or that he rose from the dead himself. These alleged events are part of the “wretched contrivance.” That Jesus Christ actually existed and that he was crucified may be readily accepted. But the miraculous circumstances surrounding his birth and alleged return from the dead, together with all the other alleged miracles, must be rejected by every rational person:
It is in vain to attempt to palliate or disguise this matter. The story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it. (p. 54)
Fellow-deist Thomas Jefferson, no mean New Testament scholar himself, and compiler of the so-called “Jefferson Bible,” emphatically concurred:
[T]he whole history of [the synoptic Gospels] is so defective and doubtful, that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right from that cause to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills. (Letter from Jefferson to John Adams, January 24, 1814) (Cousins, p. 257)
In compiling the so-called “Jefferson Bible” (whose actual title is The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth ), Jefferson extracted “the diamonds” and ignored “the dunghills”—i.e., everything miraculous or supernatural or otherwise unworthy of a wise teacher or a good God. His enthusiasm for the project is evident in a letter written to Mr. F. A. Van der Kemp (April 25, 1816):
I made for my own satisfaction, an Extract from the Evangelists of his morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own [the “diamonds”]; and they are as distinguishable from the matter in which they are embedded [“the dunghills”] … I gave it the title of “The Philosophy of Jesus extracted from the text of the Evangelists.” To this Syllabus and extract, if a history of his life can be added, written with the same view of the subject, the world will see, after the fogs shall be dispelled, in which for fourteen centuries he has been enveloped by jugglers to make money of him, when the genuine character shall be exhibited, which they have dressed up in the rags of an imposter, the world, I say, will at length see the immortal merit of this first of human sages. (Cousins, p. 172-73)
Both Paine and Jefferson were convinced that the true greatness of Jesus can be appreciated and preserved only by omitting a good deal of the material found in the synoptic Gospels.
But while he rejected the Bible as divine revelation, Paine held fast to the idea of revelation itself:
But some, perhaps will say: Are we to have no Word of God—no revelation? I answer, Yes; there is a Word of God; there is a revelation. The Word of God is THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and it is in this word which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, independently of human speech or human language … It is an ever-existing original, which every man can read. It cannot be forged; it cannot be counterfeited; it cannot be lost; it cannot be altered; it cannot be suppressed. It does not depend upon the will of man whether it shall be published or not; it publishes itself from one end of the earth to the other. It preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this Word of God reveals to man all that it is necessary for man to know of God.
His power, His wisdom, His munificence, His mercy—all this and more is evident in the Creation. Hence:
Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the creation. (pp. 69-70)
Few evangelical Christians are familiar with Paine’s or Jefferson’s sustained critiques of the Bible. And if you call their attention to it—or, better still, use The Age of Reason as a textbook in a Philosophy of Religion course, as I have done for many years—your evangelical Christian students will not hungrily devour its contents and shower you with tears of gratitude for providing them with the eye-opening experience of discovering what is really in the Bible. Nor will they be shamed by Paine’s and Jefferson’s astonishingly detailed knowledge of it and their own lamentable ignorance. On the contrary, they will become (by degrees) irritated, belligerent, and finally downright angry. Inter-Varsity and Campus Crusade for Christ types are the most vocal and the most argumentative. I have always welcomed them into my classes (and even solicited) their objections. Predictably, most of them dropped the course, but a few always remained in the class. Having listened to their objections, my response was always the same: “I didn’t write The Age of Reason. Thomas Paine did. Is he wrong? Did he misquote the Bible or misrepresent what it says? I don’t think so. But don’t take my word for it. Go home and read your own Bibles. Check him out. If you can find a single passage that he has misquoted or misinterpreted, write an essay in which you convincingly demonstrate his error(s) and I will give you a grade of “A” for the course and urge you to submit your essay for publication in a reputable philosophical or religious journal with my enthusiastic recommendation.” I have been teaching philosophy for forty-three years and during that time no evangelical Christian student has ever submitted such an essay. The reason is obvious: The Age of Reason is accurate and its textual documentation is irrefutable.
Anybody who denies the many intellectual, political, and religious affinities between Paine and America’s founding fathers and breezily assures us that the latter were devout Christians intent on founding the United States of America on Christian principles betrays a monumental ignorance of what they actually believed and repeatedly committed to print in their autobiographies, public documents, and voluminous correspondence which contradicts on practically every page the historical distortions and fabricated propaganda disseminated by the Christian Reconstructionists.
Paine vigorously opposed and vehemently protested against European kings and princes who used the authority of the Church to reinforce their political power and against priests, popes, and Protestant clergymen who were only too willing to be used and thereby enhance their control over their parishioners and the masses generally. His experience in France, where at the invitation of Lafayette and Concordet he assisted in drawing up a constitution and writing the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, alerted him to the negative, self-serving, and largely reactionary attitude of the clergy about political affairs and the close alliance between them and the aristocracy and monarchy. A tireless opponent of ecclesiastical oppression and a tireless champion of human rights, he was determined to dissolve this alliance in France and throughout Europe, and he was only to happy to throw in his lot with Jefferson and the other founding fathers to prevent the same thing from happening in colonial America.
How do the highly vocal and ebulliently confident leaders at the forefront of the Christian Right reconcile passages like those I have quoted from the writings of Thomas Jefferson with their own resounding assurances that he was a devout Christian who wanted America to be based on Christian principles? With few exceptions, the founding fathers are on record as being undisguised deists who not only rejected Christianity, but detested it. Have these aggressive but shockingly ill-informed Christian leaders who presume to instruct the American public about the founding fathers (and what they allegedly believed and intended) ever read their writings? I doubt it.
The emergence in contemporary America of Christian Reconstructionism—the Christian Right—as a social and political force to be reckoned with—coupled with the fact that conservative presidential candidates shamelessly woo them, court their approval, and yield to their every demand—is a grim reminder that the time is ripe for another Thomas Paine or Steve Allen. Although their books have sadly disappeared into oblivion, their work—the work of reason and rationality—must go on in every area of life, but especially in religion. The battle against intellectual, theological, and moral oppression must be fought anew by each generation. This book is my entry into the fray. I am no Thomas Paine or Steve Allen. But, as with food when one is starving, anything is better than nothing.