A Rebuttal to Thomas Paine’s “Age of Reason” – Letter V



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Letter V

At length you come to two books, Ezra and Nehemiah, which you allow to be genuine books, giving an account of the return of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity about 536 years before Christ. But then you say, “Those accounts are nothing to us, or to any other persons, unless it be to the Jews, as a part of the history of their nation; and there is just as much of the Word of God in those books as there is in any of the histories of France, or in Rapin’s History of England.”

Here let us stop a moment, and try if from your own concessions it be not possible to confute your argument. Ezra and Nehemiah, you grant, are genuine books “but they are nothing to us!”

The very first verse of Ezra says – the prophecy of Jeremiah was fulfilled. Is it nothing to us to know that Jeremiah was a true prophet? Do but grant that the Supreme Being communicated to any of the sons of men a knowledge of future events, so that their predictions were plainly verified, and you will find little difficulty in admitting the truth of revealed religion.

Is it nothing to us to know that, five hundred and thirty-six years before Christ, the books of Chronicles, Kings, Judges, Joshua, Deuteronomy, Numbers, Leviticus, Exodus, Genesis, every book the authority of which you have attacked, are all referred to by Ezra and Nehemiah, as authentic books, containing the history of the Israelitish nation from Abraham to that very time?

Is it nothing to us to note that the history of the Jews is true? It is everything to us; for if that history be not true, Christianity must be false.

The Jews are the root, we are branches “grafted in amongst them;” to them pertain “the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom, as concerning the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”

The history of the Old Testament has, without doubt, some difficulties in it; but a minute philosopher, who busies himself in searching them out, whilst he neglects to contemplate the harmony of all its parts, the wisdom and goodness of God displayed throughout the whole, appears to me to be like a purblind man, who, in surveying a picture, objects to the simplicity of the design, and the beauty of the execution, from the asperities he has discovered in the canvas and the coloring.

The history of the Old Testament, notwithstanding the real difficulties which occur in it, notwithstanding the scoff’s and cavils of unbelievers, appears to me to have such internal evidences of its truth, to be so corroborated by the most ancient profane histories, so confirmed by the present circumstances of the world, that if I were not a Christian, I would become a Jew.

You think this history to be a collection of lies, contradictions, blasphemies. I look upon it to be the oldest, the truest, the most comprehensive, and the most important history in the world.

I consider it as giving more satisfactory proofs of the being and attributes of God, of the origin and end of human kind, than ever were attained by the deepest researches of the most enlightened philosophers.

The exercise of our reason in the investigation of truths respecting the nature of God, and the future expectations of human kind, is highly useful; but I hope I shall be pardoned by the metaphysicians in saying, that the chief utility of such disquisitions consists in this – that they bring us acquainted with the weakness of our intellectual faculties.

I do not presume to measure other men by my standard; you may have clearer notions than I am able to form of the infinity of space; of the eternity of duration; of necessary existence; of the connection between necessary existence and intelligence, between intelligence and benevolence.

You may see nothing in the universe but organized matter; or, rejecting a material, you may see nothing but an ideal world.

With a mind weary of conjecture, fatigued by doubt, sick of disputation, eager for knowledge, anxious for certainty, and unable to attain it by the best use of my reason in matters of the utmost importance, I have long ago turned my thoughts to an impartial examination of the proofs on which revealed religion is grounded, and I am convinced of its truth.

This examination is a subject within the reach of human capacity; you have come to one conclusion respecting it, I have come to another; both of us cannot be right; may God forgive him that is in an error!

You ridicule, in a note, the story of an angel appearing to Joshua. Your mirth you will perceive to be misplaced, when you consider the design of this appearance; it was to assure Joshua that the same God who had appeared to Moses, ordering him to pull off his shoes, because he stood on holy ground, had now appeared to himself.

Was this no encouragement to a man who was about to engage in war with many nations? Had it no tendency to confirm his faith? Was it no lesson to him to obey, in all things, the commands of God, and to give the glory of his conquests to the Author of them, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

As to your wit about pulling off the shoes, it originates, I think, in your ignorance; you ought to have known, that this rite was an indication of reverence for the divine presence; and that the custom of entering barefoot into their temple subsists, in some countries, to this day.

You allow the book of Ezra to be a genuine book; but that the author of it may not escape without a blow, you say, that in matters of record it is not to be depended on; and as a proof of your assertion, you tell us that the total amount of the numbers who returned from Babylon dost not correspond with the particulars; and that every child may have an argument for its infidelity, you display the particulars, and shew your own skill in arithmetic, by summing them up.

And can you suppose that Ezra, a man of great learning, knew so little of science, so little of the lowest branch of science, that he could not give his readers the sum total of sixty particular sums?

You know undoubtedly that the Hebrew letters denoted also numbers; and that there was such a great similarity between some of these letters, that it was extremely easy for a transcriber of manuscript to mistake a__ for a __ (2 for 20) and _ for a __ (or 3 for 50) a __ for __ (or 4 for 200.) now what have we to do with numerical contradictions in the Bible, but to attribute them, wherever they occur, to this obvious source of error – the inattention of the transcriber in writing one letter for another that was like it?

I should extend these letters to a length troublesome to the reader, to you, and to myself, if I answered minutely every objection you have made, and rectified every error into which you have fallen; it may be sufficient briefly to notice some of the chief.

The character represented in Job under the name of Satan is, you say, “the first and the only time this name is mentioned in the Bible.” Now I find this name, as denoting an enemy, frequently occurring in the Old Testament; thus II Samuel 19:22. “What have I to do with you, ye sons of Zeruiah, that you should this day be adversaries unto me?”

In the original it is Satan’s unto me. Again, 1 Kings v. 4, “The Lord my God hath given me rest on every side, so that there is neither adversary, nor evil occurrent” – in the original, neither Satan nor evil.

I need not mention other places; these are sufficient to shew, that the word Satan, denoting an adversary does occur in various places of the Old Testament; and it is extremely probable to me, that the root Satan was introduced into the Hebrew and other eastern languages, to denote an adversary, from its having been the proper name of the great enemy of mankind.

I know it is an opinion of Voltaire, that the word Satan is not older than the Babylonian captivity. This is a mistake, for it is met with in the hundred and ninth Psalm, which all allow to have been written by David, long before the captivity.

Now we are upon this subject, permit me to recommend to your consideration the universality of the doctrine concerning an evil being, who in the beginning of time had opposed himself, who still continues to oppose himself, to the supreme source of all good.

Amongst all nations, in all ages, this opinion prevailed, that human affairs were subject to the will of the gods, and regulated by their interposition. – hence has been derived whatever we have read of the wandering stars of the Chaldeans, two of them beneficent, and two malignant – hence the Egyption Typho and Osiris – the Persian Arimanius and Oromasdes – the Grecian celestial and infernal Jove – the Brama and the Zupay of the Indians, Peruvians, Mexicans – the good and evil principle, by whatever names they may be called, of all other barbarous nations – and hence the structure of the whole book of Job, in whatever light of history or drama, it be considered.

 Now does it not appear reasonable to suppose, that an opinion so ancient and so universal has arisen from tradition concerning the fall of our first parents; disfigured indeed, and obscured, as all tradition must be, by many fabulous additions?

The Jews, you tell us, “never prayed but when they were in trouble.” I do not believe this of the Jews; but that they prayed more fervently when they were in trouble than at other times, may be true of the Jews, and I apprehend is true of all nations and all individuals.

But “the Jews never prayed for anything but victory, vengeance, and riches.” – Read Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, and blush for your assertion, – illiberal and uncharitable in the extreme!

It appears, you observe, “to have been the custom of the heathens to personify both virtue and vice, by statues and images, as is done now-a-days both by statuary and by paintings. But it does not follow from this that they worshipped them any more than we do.”

Not worshipped them! What think you of the golden image which Nebuchadnezzar set up? Was it not worshipped by the princes, the rulers, the judges, the people, the nations, and the languages of the Babylonian empire?

Not worshipped them! What think you of the decree of the Roman senate for fetching the statue of the mother of the gods from Pessinem? Was it only that they might admire it as a piece of workmanship?

Not worshipped them! “What man is there that knoweth not how that the city of the Ephesians was a worshipper of the great goddess Diana and of the image which fell down from Jupiter?

Not worshipped them! The worship was universal.

“Every nation made gods of their own and put them in the houses of the high places, which the Samaritans had made; the men of Babylon made Succoth-benoth, and the men of Cuth made Nergal, and the men of Hamath made Ashima, and the Avites made Nibhaz and Tartak, and the Sepharvites burned their children in the fire to Adrammelech, and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim.”

(II Kings chapter 17). The heathens are much indebted to you for this your curious apology for their idolatry; for a mode of worship the most cruel, senseless, impure, abominable, that can possibly disgrace the faculties of the human mind.

Had this your conceit occurred in ancient times, it might have saved Micha’s teraphims, the golden calves of Jeroboam, and of Aaron, and quite superseded the necessity of the second commandment!! Heathen morality has had its advocates before you, the facetious gentleman who pulled off his hat to the statue of Jupiter, that he might have a friend when heathen idolatry should again be in repute, seems to have had some foundation for his improper humor, some knowledge that certain men esteeming themselves great philosophers had entered into a conspiracy to abolish Christianity, some foresight of the consequences which will certainly attend their success.

It is an error, you say, to call the Psalms – the Psalms of David – this error was observed by St. Jerome, many hundred years before you were born. His words are, “We know that they are in an error who attribute all the Psalms to David.

You, I suppose, will not deny, that David wrote some of them. Songs are of various sorts; we have hunting songs, drinking songs, fighting songs, love songs, foolish, wanton, wicked songs.

If you will have the “Psalms of David to be nothing but a collection from different Song-writers,” you must allow that the writers of them were inspired by no ordinary spirit; that this is a collection, incapable of being degraded by the name you give it; that it greatly excels every other collection in matter and in manner.

Compare the book of Psalms with the odes of Horace or Anacreon, with the hymns of Calmachus, the golden verses of Pythagoras, the choruses of the Greek tragedians, (no contemptible compositions any of these) and you will quickly see how greatly it surpasses them all, in piety of sentiment, in sublimity of expression, in purity of morality, and in rational theology.

As you esteem the Psalms of David a song-book, it is consistent enough in you to esteem the Proverbs of Solomon a jest-book; there have not come down to us above eight hundred of his jests; if we had the whole three thousand, which he wrote, our mirth would be extreme.

Let us open the book, and see what kind of jests it contains: take the very first as a specimen – “the fear of the Lord is beginning of knowledge; but fools despise wisdom and instruction.” –

Do you perceive any jest in this? The fear of the Lord! What Lord does Solomon mean? He means that Lord who took the posterity of Abraham to be his peculiar people – who redeemed that people from Egyptian bondage by miraculous interposition of his power – who gave the law to Moses – who commanded the Israelites to exterminate the nations of Canaan.

Now this Lord you will not fear; the jest says. You despise wisdom and instruction.

Let us try again, “My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother.” If your heart has been ever touched by parental feelings, you will see no jest in this.

Once more, “My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not.” These are the three first proverbs in Solomon’s “jest-book”.

If you read it through, it may not make you merry. I hope it will make you wise, that it will teach you, at least, the beginning of wisdom – the fear of that Lord whom Solomon feared.

Solomon, you tell us, was witty. Jesters are sometimes witty, but though all the world, from the time of the Queen of Sheba, has heard of the wisdom of Solomon, his wit was never heard of before.

There is a great difference, Mr. Lock teaches us, between wit and judgment, and there is a greater between wit and wisdom. Solomon “was wiser than Ethan the Ezahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol.”

These men you may think were jesters and so you may call the seven wise men of Greece. But you will never convince the world that Solomon, who was wiser than them all, was nothing but a witty jester.

As to the sins and debaucheries of Solomon, we have nothing to do with them but to avoid them and to give full credit to his experience, when he preaches to us his admirable sermon on the vanity of every thing but piety and virtue.

Isaiah has a greater share of your abuse than any other writer in the old Testament, and the reason of it is obvious – the prophecies of Isaiah have received such a full and circumstantial completion, that, unless you can persuade yourself to consider the whole book, (a few historical sketches excepted) “as one continued bombastically rant, full of extravagant metaphor, without application, and destitute of meaning.”

You must of necessity allow its divine authority, you compare the burden of Babylon, the burden of Moab, the burden of Damascus, and the other denunciations of the prophet against cities and kingdoms, to the “story of the knight of the burning mountain, the story of Cinderella, &c.”

I may have read these stories, but I remember nothing of the subjects of them; I have read also Isaiah’s burden of Babylon, and I have compared it with the past and present state of Babylon, and the comparison has made such an impression on my mind, that it will never be effaced from my memory.

I shall never cease to believe, that the Eternal alone, by whom things future are more distinctly known than past or present things are by man, that the eternal God alone could have dictated to the prophet Isaiah the subject of the burden of Babylon.

The latter part of the forty-fourth, and the beginning of the forty-fifth chapter of Isaiah, are, in your opinion, so far from being written by Isaiah, that they could only have been written by some person who lived at least a hundred and fifty years after Isaiah was dead.

These chapters you go on “are a compliment to Cyrus, who permitted the Jews to return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian captivity above one hundred and fifty years after the death of Isaiah. And is it for this, sir, that you accuse the church of audacity and the priests of ignorance, in imposing, as you call it, this book upon the world as the writing of Isaiah?

What shall be said of you, who, either designedly or ignorantly, represent one of the most clear and important prophecies in the Bible, as a historical compliment, written above one hundred and fifty years after the death of the prophet!

We contend, sir, that this is a prophecy and not a history; that God called Cyrus by his name; declared that he should conquer Babylon; and described the means by which he should do it, above one hundred years before Cyrus was born, and when there was no probability of such an event.

Porphyry, could not resist the evidence of Daniel’s prophecies, but by saying that they were forged after the events predicted had taken place; Voltaire could not resist the evidence of the prediction of Jesus, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, but by saying, that the account was written after Jerusalem had been destroyed:

and you, at length, (though for aught I know, you may have had predecessors in this presumption) unable to resist the evidence of Isaiah’s prophecies, contend that they are bombastical rant, without application, though the application is circumstantial; and destitute of meaning, though the meaning is so obvious that it cannot be mistaken; and that one of them is not a prophecy, but a historical compliment written after the event.

We will not, sir, give up Daniel and St. Matthew to the impudent assertions of Porphyry and Voltaire, nor will we give up Isaiah to your assertion. Proof, proof is what we require, and not assertion.

We will not relinquish our religion, in obedience to your abusive assertion respecting the prophets of God. That the wonderful absurdity of this hypothesis may be more obvious to you, I beg you to consider that Cyrus was a Persian, had been brought up in the religion of his country, and was probably addicted to the Magian superstition of two independent Beings, equal in power, but different in principle; and the author of light and of all good and the other the author of darkness and all evil.

Now is it probable that a captive Jew, meaning to compliment the greatest prince in the world, should be so stupid as to tell the prince that his religion was a lie? “I am the Lord, and there is none else, I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil; I the Lord do all these things.”

But if you will persevere in believing that the prophecy concerning Cyrus was written after the event, peruse the burden of Babylon; was that also written after the event? Were the Medes then stirred up against Babylon?

Was Babylon, the glory of the kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees, then overthrown, and become as Sodom and Gomorrah! Was it then uninhabited?

Was it then neither fit for the Arabian’s tent nor the shepherd’s fold? Did the wild beasts of the desert then lie there?

Did the wild beasts of the islands then cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant places? Were Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, the son and the grandson, then cut off?

Was Babylon then become a possession of the bittern, and pools of water? Was it then swept with the besom of destruction, so swept that the world knows not where to find it?

I am unwilling to attribute bad designs, deliberate wickedness, to you, or to any man. I cannot avoid believing, that you think you have truth on your side, and that you are doing service to mankind in endeavoring to root out what you esteem superstition.

What I blame you for is this – that you have attempted to lessen the authority of the Bible by ridicule, more than by reason; that you have brought forward every petty objection which your ingenuity could discover, or your industry pick up from the writings of others; and without taking any notice of the answers which have been repeatedly given to these objections, you urge and enforce them as if they were new.

There is certainly some novelty, at least in your manner for you go beyond all others in boldness of assertion, and in profaneness of argumentation; Bolingbroke and Voltaire must yield the palm of scurrility to Thomas Paine.

Permit me to state to you, what would, in my opinion, have been a better mode of proceeding; better suited to the character of an honest man, sincere in his endeavors to search out truth.

Such a man, in reading the Bible, would in the first place, examine whether the Bible attributed to the Supreme Being any attributes repugnant to holiness, truth, justice, goodness; whether it represented him as subject to human infirmities; whether it excluded him from the government of the world, or assigned the origin of it to chance, and an eternal conflict of atoms.

Finding nothing of this kind in the Bible, (for the destruction of the Canaanites by his express command, I have shewn not to be repugnant to his moral justice) he would, in the second place, consider that the Bible being, as to many of its parts, a very old book and written by various authors, and at different and distant periods, there might, probably, occur some difficulties and apparent contradictions in the historical part of it.

He would endeavor to remove these difficulties to reconcile these apparent contradictions, by the rules of such sound criticism as he would use in examining the contents of any other book and if he found that most of them were of a trifling nature, arising from short additions inserted into the text as explanatory and supplemental or from mistakes and omissions of transcribers, he would infer that all the rest were capable of being accounted for, though he was not able to do it: and he would be the more willing to make this concession, from observing, that there ran through the whole book a harmony and connection, utterly inconsistent with every idea of forgery and deceit.

He would then, in the third place, observe, that the miraculous and historical parts of this book were so intermixed, that they could not be separated; that they must either both be true, or both false; and from finding that the historical part was a well or better authenticated, than that of any other history, he would admit the miraculous part; and to confirm himself in this belief, he would advert to the prophecies; well knowing that the prediction of things to come, was as certain a proof of the divine interposition, as the performance of a miracle could be.

If he should find, as he certainly would, that many ancient prophecies had been fulfilled in all their circumstances, and that some were fulfilling at this very day, he would not suffer a few seeming or real difficulties to overbalance the weight of this accumulated evidence for the truth of the Bible.

Such, I presume to think, would be a proper conduct in all those who are desirous of forming a rational and impartial judgment on the subject of revealed religion. – To return –

As to your observation, that the book of Isaiah is (at least in translation) that kind of composition and false taste, which is properly called prose run mad – I have only to remark, that your taste for Hebrew poetry, even judging of it from translation, would be more correct, if you would suffer yourself to be informed to the subject by bishop Lowth, who tells you in his Prelection “that a poem translated literally from the Hebrew into any other language, whilst the same forms of the sentences remain, will still retain, seen as far as relates to versification, much of its native dignity, and a faint appearance of versification.” (Gregory’s translation.)

If this is what you mean by prose run mad, your observation may be admitted.

You explain at some length your notion of the misapplication made by

St. Matthew of the prophecy in Isaiah – “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” That passage has been handled largely and minutely by almost every commentator, and it is too important to be handled superficially by any one, I am not on the present occasion concerned to explain it.

It is quoted by you to prove, and it is the only instance you produce – that Isaiah was “a lying prophet and an impostor.” Now I maintain, that this very instance proves, that he was a true prophet, and no imposter.

The history of the prophecy, as delivered in the seventh chapter is this – Rezin, King of Syria, and Pekah, King of Israel, made war upon Ahaz, King of Judah; not merely, or perhaps, not at all, for the sake of plunder or the conquest of territory, but with a declared purpose of making an entire revolution in the government of Judah, of destroying the royal house of David, and of placing another family on the throne.

Their purpose is thus expressed – “Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal.”

Now what did the Lord commission Isaiah to say to Ahaz? Did he commission him to say, “The kings shall not vex thee?” No. The kings shall not succeed against thee? No.

He commissioned him to say, “It (the purpose of the two kings) shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass?” I demand – Did it stand, did it come to pass? Was any revolution affected? Was the royal house of David dethroned and destroyed? Was Tabeal ever made king of Judah? No. the prophecy was perfectly accomplished.

You say, “Instead of these two kings failing in their attempt against Ahaz, they succeeded. Ahaz was defeated and destroyed.” I deny the fact; Ahaz was defeated, but not destroyed “and even the two hundred thousand women, and sons, and daughters,” whom you represent as carried into captivity, were not carried into captivity.

They were made captives, but they were not carried into captivity. For the chief men of Samaria, being admonished by a prophet, would not suffer Pekah to bring the captives into the land.

“They rose up and took the captives, and with the spoil clothed all that were naked among them, and arrayed them, and shod them, and gave them to eat and to drink, and anointed them, and carried all the feeble of them upon asses.(Some humanity, you see, amongst those Israelites, whom you every where represent as barbarous brutes) and brought them to Jericho, the city of palm-trees, to their brethren.” II Chronicles 27:15.

The kings did fail in their attempt, their attempt was to destroy the house of David and to make a revolution; but they made no revolution, they did not destroy the house of David, for Ahaz slept with his fathers; and Hezekiah, his son, of the house of David, reigned in his stead.

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