Reason, by Ethan Allen

Chapter xii.

Section i. Of the Impossibility of Translating an Infallible Revelation from its Original Copies, and Preserving it Entire Through All the Revolutions of the World, and Vicissitudes of Human Learning to Our Time

Admitting for argument sake that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were originally of divine supernatural inspiration, and that their first manuscript copies were the infallible institutions of God, yet to trace them from their respective ancient dead languages, and different and diverse translations, from the obscure hieroglyphical pictures of characters, in which they were first written, through all the vicissitudes and alterations of human learning, prejudices, superstitions, enthusiasms and diversities of interests and manners, to our time, so as to present us with a perfect edition from its premised infallible original manuscript copies would be impossible. The various and progressive methods of learning, with the insurmountable difficulties of translating any supposed antiquated written revelation would not admit of it, as the succeeding observations on language and grammar will fully evince.

In those early ages of learning, hieroglyphics were expressive of ideas; for instance, a snake quirled (a position common to that venomous reptile) was an emblem of eternity, and the picture of a lion, a representation of power, and so every beast, bird, reptile, insect and fish, had in their respective pictures, particular ideas annexed to them, which varied with the arbitrary custom and common consent of the several separate nations, among whom this way of communicating ideas was practised, in some sense analogous to what is practised at this day by different nations, in connecting particular ideas to certain sounds or words written in characters, which according to certain rules of grammar constitute the several languages. But the hieroglyphical manner of writing by living emblems, and perhaps in some instances by other pictures, was very abstruse, and inadequate to communicate that multiplicity and diversity of ideas which are requisite for the purpose of history, argumentation or general knowledge in any of the sciences or concerns of life; which mystical way of communicating ideas underwent a variety of alterations and improvements, though not so much as that of characters and grammar has done; for in the hieroglyphical way of communicating their ideas, there was no such thing as spelling, or what is now called orthography, which has been perpetually refining and altering, ever since characters, syllables, words or grammar have been brought into use, and which will admit of correction and improvement as long as mankind continue in the world. For which reason the original of all languages is absorbed and lost in the multiplicity of alterations and refinements, which have in all ages taken place, so that it is out of the power of all Etymologists and Lexieonists now living, to explain the ideas, which were anciently connected with those hieroglyphical figures or words, and which may have composed the original of any language, written in characters, in those obsolete and antiquated ages, when learning and science were in their infancy: since the beneficial, art of printing has arrived to any considerable degree of perfection, the etymology of words, in the scientifical and learned languages, has been considerably well understood: though imperfectly, as the various opinions of the learned concerning it may witness. But since the era of printing, the knowledge of the ancient learning has been in a great measure, or in most respects, wholly lost; and inasmuch as the modern substitute is much better, it is no loss at all. Some of the old English authors are at this day quite unintelligible, and others in their respective latter publications, more or less so. The last century and a half has done more towards the perfecting of grammar, and purifying the languages than the world had ever done before.

I do not understand Latin, Greek or Hebrew, in which languages, it is said, that the several original manuscripts of the Scriptures were written; but I am informed by the learned therein, that, the other languages, they have gone through their respective alterations and refinements, which must have been the case, except they reached their greatest perfection in their first composition; of which the progressive condition of man could not admit. So that the learned in those languages, at this day, know but little or nothing how they were spoken or written when the first manuscript copies of the Scriptures were composed; and consequently, are not able to inform us, whether their present translations do, any of them, perfectly agree with their respective original premised infallible manuscript copies or not. And inasmuch as the several English translations of the Bible do materially differ from each other, it evinces the confused and blundering condition in which it has been handed down to us.

The clergy often informs us from the desk, that the translation of the Bible, which is now in use in this country, is erroneous, after having read such and such a passage of it, in either Latin, Greek or Hebrew, they frequently give us to understand, that instead of the present translation, it should have been rendered thus and thus in English, but never represent to us how it was read and understood in the antiquated and mystical figures or characters of those languages, when the manuscripts of Scripture were first written, or how it has been preserved and handed down entire, through every refinement of those languages, to the present condition of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Probably this is too abstruse a series of retrospective learning for their scholarship, and near or quite as foreign from their knowledge as from that of their hearers.

It is not to be supposed that all the alterations which have taken place in language, have been merely by improving it. In many instances, ignorance, accident or custom has varied it to its disadvantage, but it has nevertheless been subject to correction, and generally speaking has been altered for the better, yet, by one means or other has been so fluctuating and unstable, as that an infallible revelation could not have been genuinely preserved, through all the vicissitudes and revolutions of learning, for more than seventeen hundred years last past to this day.

The diversity of the English language is represented with great accuracy by Mr. Samuel Johnson, the celebrated lexicographer, in the samples of different ages, in his history of the English language, subjoined to the preface of the dictionary, to which the curious are referred for the observance of the various specimens.

Section ii. The Variety of Annotations and Expositions of the Scriptures, Together with the Diversity of Sectaries Evinces Their Fallibility.

Every commentary and annotation on the Bible, implicitly declares its fallibility; for if the Scriptures remained genuine and entire, they would not stand in need of commentaries and expositions, but would shine in their infallible lustre and purity without them. What an idle phantom it is for mortals to assay to illustrate and explain to mankind, that which God may be supposed to have undertaken to do, by the immediate inspiration of his spirit? Do they understand how to define or explain it better than God may be supposed to have done? This is not supposable; upon what ground then do these multiplicity of comments arise, except it be pre-supposed that the present translations of the Bible have, by some means or other, become fallible and imperfect, and therefore need to be rectified and explained? and if so, it has lost the stamp of divine authority; provided in its original composition it may be supposed to have been possessed of it.

To construe or spiritualize tie Bible is the same as to inspire it over again, by the judgment, fancy or enthusiasm of men; and thus the common people, by receiving God’s supposed revelation at secondary hands (whether at the thousandth or ten thousandth remove from its first premised inspiration they know not) cannot in fact be taught by the revelation of God. Add to this the diverse and clashing expositions of the Bible, among which are so many flagrant proofs of the fallibility and uncertainty of such teachings, as must convince even bigots, that every one of these expositions are erroneous, except their own!

It has been owing to different comments on the Scriptures, that Christians have been divided into sectaries. Every commentator, who could influence a party to embrace his comment, put himself, at the head of a division of Christians; as Luther, Calvin, and Arminius, laid the foundation of the sectaries who bear their names; and the Socinians were called after the Scismatical Socinius; the same may be said of each of the sectaries. Thus it is that different commentaries or acceptations of the original meaning of the Scriptures, have divided the Christian world into divisions and subdivisions of which it consists at present. Nor was there ever a division or subdivision among Jews, Christians or Mahometans, respecting their notions or opinions of religion, but what was occasioned by commentating on the Scriptures, or else by latter pretended inspired revelations from God in addition thereto. The law of Moses was the first pretended immediate revelation from God, which respects the Bible, and after that in succession the several revelations of the prophets, and last of all (in the Christian system) the revelations of Jesus Christ and apostles, who challenged a right of abolishing the priesthood of Moses; Christ claiming to be the antitype of which the institution of sacrifices and ceremonial part of the law of Moses was emblematical; but this infringement of the prerogative of the Levitical priests gave such offence, not only to them, but to the Jews as a nation, that they rejected Christianity, and have not subscribed to the divine authority of it to this day, holding to the law of Moses and the prophets. However Christianity made a great progress in the world, and has been very much divided into sectaries, by the causes previously assigned.

“Mahomet taking notice of the numerous sects and divisions among Christians, in his journies to Palestine, &c, thought it would not be difficult to introduce a new religion, and make himself high priest and sovereign of the people.” This he finally effected, prosecuting his scheme so far, that he new modelled the Scriptures, presenting them, (as he said,) in their original purity, and called his disciples after his own name. He gained great numbers of proselytes and became their sovereign in civil, military and spiritual matters, instituted the order of mystical priesthood, and gave the world a new Bible by the name of the Alcoran; which he gives us to understand was communicated to him from God, by the intermediate agency of the angel Gabriel, chapter by chapter. “His disciples at this day inhabit a great part of the richest countries in the world, and are supposed to be more numerous than the Christians,” and are as much, if not more, divided into sectaries, from causes similar to those which produced the division of Christians, viz.: the different commentators on, and expositions of the Alcoran. The Mufti, or priests, represented the doctrines and precepts of the Alcoran in a variety of lights different from each other, each of them claiming the purity of the original and infallible truths prescribed to the world by Mahomet, their great reformer of Christianity. For though the several sectaries of Mahometans differ, respecting the meaning of their Alcoran, yet they all hold to the truth and divine authority thereof, the same as the Christian sectaries do concerning their Bible: so that all the different opinions which ever did, or at present do subsist, between Jews, Christians and Mahometans, may be resolved into one consideration, viz.: the want of a right understanding of the original of the Scriptures. All sat out at first, as they imagined, from the truth of God’s word, (except the impostors,) concluded that they had an infallible guide, and have, by one means or other, been guided into as many opposite faiths as human Invention has been capa-ble of fabricating; each sect among the whole, exulting in their happy ignorance, believing that they are favored with an infallible revelation for their direction.

It alters not the present argument, whether the Scriptures were originally true or not; for though they be supposed to have been either true or false, or a mixture of both, yet they could never have been handed down entire and uncorrupted to the present time, through the various changes and perpetual refinements of learning and language; this is not merely a matter of speculative and argumentative demonstration, the palpable certainty of it stands confessed in every Jewish, Christian and Mahometan sectary.

Section iii. On the Compiling Op the Manuscripts of the Scriptures into One Volume, and of its Several Translations. The Infallibility of the Popes, and of Their Chartered Rights to Remit or Retain Sins, and of the Impropriety of Their Being Trusted with a Revelation from God.

The manuscripts of Scripture, which are said to have been originally written on scrolls of bark, long before the invention of paper or printing, and are said to compose our present Bible, were in a loose and confused condition, scattered about in the world, deposited nobody knows how or where, and at different times were compiled into one volume. The four gospels are by the learned generally admitted to have been wrote many years after Christ, particularly that of St. John: and sundry other gospels in the primitive ages of Christianity were received as divine by some of its then sectaries, which have unfortunately not met with approbation in subsequent eras of the despotism of the church.

The translation of the Scriptures by Ptolemy Phila-delphus, king of Egypt, was before Christ, and therefore could not include the writings of the New Testament in his translation, and “whether by seventy-two interpreters, and in the manner as is commonly related, is justly questioned.” But where, at what time, and by whom, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament were first compiled into one volume, is what I do not understand: but was it a longer or shorter period after Christ, it alters not the present argument materially, since the scattered manuscripts were in a loose and confused condition for a long time; and the grand query is, when the compilers of those manuscripts collected them together in order to form them into one volume, how they could have understood the supposed divine writings, or symbolical figures, with the ideas originally connected with them, and distinguish them from those which were merely human, and in comparison of the others are called profane. To understand this distinction would require a new revelation, as much as may be supposed necessary for composing the original manuscripts themselves; but it is not pretended that the compilers or translators of the Bible were inspired by the divine spirit in the doing and completing their respective business; so that human reason, fancy, or some latent design, must needs have been substituted, in distinguishing the supposed divine and human writings apart, and in giving a perfect transcript of the original manuscripts. Now admitting that the compilers were really honest principled men, (which is more than we are certain of,) it would follow, that they would be obliged to cull out of the mixed mass of premised divine and human writings, such as to them appeared to be divine, which would make them to be the sole arbitrators of the divinity that they were compiling to be handed down to posterity as the infallible word of God, which is a great stretch of prerogative for mortal and fallible man to undertake, and as great a weakness in others to subscribe to it, as of divine authority.

Mr. Fenning, in his dictionary definition of the word Bible, subjoins the following history of its translations:

“The translation of this sacred volume was begun very early in this kingdom,” [England,] “and some part of it was done by King Alfred. Adelmus translated the Psalms into Saxon in 709, other parts were done by Edfrid or Ecbert in 730, the whole by Bede in 731 Trevisa published the whole in English in 1357. Tindal’s was brought higher in 1534, revised and altered in 1538, published with a preface of Cranmers in 1549. In 1551, another translation was published, which was revised by several bishops, was printed with their alterations in 1560. In 1607, a new translation was published by authority, which is that in present use.” From this account it appears, that from the first translation of the Bible by Trevisa, into English, in 1357, it has been revised altered, and passed through six different publications, the last of which is said to have been done by authority, which I conclude means that of the king, whose prerogative in giving us a divine revelation, can no more be esteemed valid than that of other men, though he may be possessed of an arbitrary power within the limits of his realm to prevent any further correction and publication of it. As to the changes it underwent previous to Trevisa’s translation, in which time it was most exposed to corruptions of every kind, we, will not at present particularly consider, but only observe that those translations could not, every one of them, be perfect, since they were diverse from each other, in consequence of their respective revisions and corrections; nor is it possible that the Bible, in any of its various editions could be perfect, any more than all and every one of those persons who have acted a part in transmitting them down to our time may be supposed to be so: for perfection does not pertain to man, but is the essential prerogative of God.

The Roman Catholics, to avoid the evils of imperfection, fallibility and imposture of man, have set up the Pope to be infallible; this is their security against being misguided in their faith, and by ascribing holiness to him, secure themselves from imposture; a deception which is incompatible with holiness. So that in matters of faith, they have nothing more to do, but to believe as their church believes. Their authority for absolving or retaining sins is very extraordinary; however, their charter is from Christ, (admitting them to be his vicars, and the successors of St. Peter,) and the present English translation of the Bible warrants it. The commission is in these words: “And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven. Whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them, and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” That St. Peter or his successors should have a power of binding and determining the state and condition of mankind in the world to come by remitting or retaining sins, is too great a power to be intrusted to men, as it interferes with the providence and prerogative of God, who on this position would be exempted from judging the world, (as it would interfere with the chartered prerogative of the Popes in their remitting or retaining of sins, admitting it to have been genuine,) precluding the divine retribution of justice; we may, therefore, from the authority of reason, conclude it to be spurious. It was a long succession of ages that all Christendom were dupes to the See of Rome, in which time it is too evident to be denied, that the holy fathers obtruded a great deal of pious fraud on their devotees; all public worship was real to the people in unknown languages, as it is to this day in Roman Catholic countries. Nor has the Bible, in those countries, to this time, been permitted to be published in any but the learned languages, which affords great opportunity to the Romish church to fix it to answer their lucrative purposes. Nor is it to be supposed that they want the inclination to do it. The before recited grant of the power of the absolution of sin, to St Peter in particular, was undoubtedly of their contrivance.

In short, reason would prompt us to conclude, that had God, in very deed, made a revelation of his mind and will to mankind, as a rule of duty and practice to them, and to be continued as such to the latest posterity, he would in the course of his providence have ordered matters so that it should have been deposited, translated, and kept, in the hands of men of a more unexceptionable character than those holy cheats can pretend to.

Witchcraft and priestcraft, were introduced into this world together, in its non-age; and has gone on, hand in hand together, until about half a century past, when witchcraft began to be discredited, and is at present almost exploded, both in Europe and America. This discovery has depreciated priestcraft, on the scale of at least fifty per cent, per annum, and rendered it highly probable that the improvement of succeeding generations, in the knowledge of nature and science, will exalt the reason of mankind, above the tricks and impostures of priests, and bring them back to the religion of nature and truth; ennoble their minds, and be the means of cultivating concord, and mutual love in society, and of extending charity, and good will to all intelligent beings throughout the universe; exalt the divine character, and lay a permanent foundation for truth and reliance on providence; establish our hopes and prospects of immortality, and be condusive to every desirable consequence, in this world, and that which is to come; which will crown the scene of human felicity in this sublunary state of being and probation; ‘which can never be completed while we are under the power and tyranny of priests, since as it ever has, it ever will be their interest, to invalidate the law of nature and reason, in order to establish systems incompatible therewith.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 12:59