What Do You Know about the “Jefferson Bible”?
THE LIFE AND MORALS OF JESUS OF NAZARETH Also known as "The Jefferson Bible" Thomas Jefferson wrote two religious works in his lifetime focused on the teachings and morals of Jesus Christ. The first one was called
THE LIFE AND MORALS OF JESUS OF NAZARETH
Also known as “The Jefferson Bible”
Thomas Jefferson wrote two religious works in his lifetime focused on the teachings and morals of Jesus Christ. The first one was called The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, which he finished in 1804. However, all copies of that work have been lost throughout time.
The one that remained and exists to this day is known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Texturally from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English. Jefferson finished this work at Monticello in 1819 and it was later taken into possession by the Smithsonian Institution in 1895, where it is still located today. It has since been repaired and preserved, so as not to be further damaged by the elements of time.
Most people know this document as “The Jefferson Bible”, though few know the actual and historical facts about the book. That is what we will expound on here today.
A Bit about Jefferson’s Personal Beliefs
Jefferson always believed that the Bible held great amounts of wisdom, as his spiritual upbringing began in the Anglican Church in the 18th century, strictly according to Virginia standards of the day. However, he soon began to question religion, and continued to do so for most of his life.
While Jefferson did consider himself a Christian, he held to a great many thoughts that point otherwise. For instance, he considered the divinity of Jesus and the virgin birth as irrational ideas that were utterly implausible. In fact, at one time, he was quoted as saying that he was looking forward to the time “when we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three.”
He also wrote, in 1803:
…to the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, & believing he never claimed any other.
Simply stated, he did believe and care deeply for the teachings of Jesus, but he believed that Jesus never claimed a particularly divine nature. He believed this was something that the followers of Jesus had imposed on him after his death, as a sort of memorial. Jefferson cared far more about his own standard of rationality and reason than the Truth of the Scriptures and the warning about adding to or removing anything from them.
In a letter written to William Short in 1820, Jefferson further explained his ideals:
We find in the writing of his [Jesus’] biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First a ground work of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticism & fabrications, intermixed with these again are sublime ideas of the supreme being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambitions & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.
Jefferson definitely believed that “religion” was a matter of personal reflection only. It was this belief that became the bedrock for the Virginian Statute for Religious Freedom, thus securing the ever-popular separation of church and state. Of this statute, he wrote:
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
The Professor of History at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial foundations states that Jefferson never had any intention of preaching to others and further stated that presidents should never have a say in matters of religion, preferring their silence on these matters. On this belief, many of his peers considered him “a confirmed infidel” as well as a “howling atheist”. Jefferson, himself, wrote, I am a sect by myself, as far as I know.
Early Ideas for the Book
Jefferson wrote a letter to Joseph Priestley in 1803, and mentioned the idea he had for getting his view of the “Christian system” down on paper. He told of a conversation he had had with Dr. Benjamin Rush in the latter part of 1798, where discussions had been made on reviewing the morals of some of the most noted ancient philosophers, but then moved on to Jewish ethics, including deism. At that time, however, Jefferson stated that his time would not allow him to write the book, and urged Priestley to take the task on, as he was more equipped to do so.
His first attempt at this project, the lost version, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, was finished in 1804. While we no longer have a copy of that work, we do have a letter he wrote to John Adams that describes a bit about it. In the letter, dated October 13, 1813, Jefferson had this to say:
In extracting the pure principals which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists and Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurges, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of…or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for other what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines.
Jefferson also stated that “The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus Himself are within the comprehension of a child”. He wrote a letter to Reverend Charles Clay later, where he wrote:
Probably you have heard me say I had taken the four Evangelists, had cut out from them every text they had recorded of the moral precepts of Jesus, and arranged them in a certain order; and although they appeared but as fragments, yet fragments of the most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man.
Jefferson often said that he was not content with that earlier work however, and that the latter, 1820 version, was more of a fulfillment of the desire he had to create an edition that had been carefully thought through and assembled.
Creation of the Book
Jefferson managed to compile this book by using a sharp object – believed to be a razor or penknife – to cut portions from the gospels. He did this after comparing the Greek, Latin, French and English versions of the texts that were available to him. He then took the portions, which he had cut out and placed them on blank pages until he had a compilation with which he was satisfied.
It has been a notable work, in that Jefferson chose to leave out all of the miracles Jesus performed as well as stories of Jesus’ resurrection and divine nature. He did not believe Jesus Himself, to be divine, but did like his ideology and manner of teaching, which is why he undertook the writing of the Jefferson Bible. In fact, claiming that Jesus’ followers were not trustworthy because of their fierce loyalty was one of the reasons he gave for choosing, rather, the logical portions of the original Bible.
As Jefferson put this edition together, he began with Luke chapters 2 and 3, following that with Mark chapter 1 and then, Matthew chapter 3, putting everything into a single piece that created a story in chronological order. He was careful to make record of exactly which verses he had chosen, as well as their order, which he listed in the Table of the Texts from the Evangelists employed in this Narrative and of the order of their arrangement.
Heavily edited for naturalistic content, supernatural events were purposely left out. In fact, Paul K. Conkin had this to say about the edition:
For the teachings of Jesus he concentrated on his milder admonitions (the Sermon on the Mount) and his most memorable parables. What resulted is a reasonably coherent, but at places oddly truncated, biography. If necessary to exclude the miraculous, Jefferson would cut the text even in mid-verse.
Of the same situation, Edwin Scott Gaustad, a Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside, gave his thoughts on the matter:
If a moral lesson was embedded in a miracle, the lesson survived in the Jeffersonian scripture, but the miracle did not. Even when this took some rather careful cutting with scissors or razor, Jefferson managed to maintain Jesus’ role as a great moral teacher, not as a shaman or faith healer.
Here are some of the major facts left out of the Jefferson Bible:
- Reference to angels around the birth of Jesus
- Jesus’ genealogy
- References to the divinity of Jesus
- Jesus’ resurrection
- Receiving the Holy Spirit
- Mentions of Noah’s Ark
- Mentions of the Great Flood
- Second Coming
- Resurrection of the Dead
- Future Kingdom of Jesus
- Eternal Life
- Punishment by means of everlasting fire
- The devil
Since he rejected the idea of Jesus’ resurrection, the entire work is ended with these few words:
Now, in the place where He was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”
While these words do correspond to the text listed towards the end of John Chapter 19, it leaves out His glorious Resurrection.
The Purpose of the Work
In some cases, it has been rumored that this work, and that of the previous 1804 version, were for the specific use in bringing Native Americans to Christ. Of course, the government did support activity of a Christian nature amongst the Indian population, and Jefferson was known to have a perpetual mission among the Indian tribes. He even provided financial support that placed both a church and a priest in the presence of the Kaskaskia Indians. However, he did not make these versions public, only admitting of their existence to his closest friends. He stated that he read them as he lay down to sleep at night and always spoke of them as severely private and personal.
In fact, Gaustad touched on this topic when he said:
The retired President did not produce his small book to shock or offend a somnolent world; he composed it for himself, for his devotion, for his assurance, for a more restful sleep at nights and a more confident greeting of the mornings.
It is a wonder, having left out all of the miracles of Jesus, His deity, resurrection and promise of a second coming, that he was able to sleep at all.
However, Ainsworth Rand Spoffard, of the Library of Congress who died in 1894, spoke on the Native American theory and what Jefferson’s original intentions were:
His original idea was to have the life and teachings of the Saviour, told in similar excerpts, prepared for the Indians, thinking this simple form would suit them best. But, abandoning this, the formal execution of his plan took the shape of the described, which was for his individual use. He used the four languages that he might have the text in them side by side, convenient for comparison. In the book he pasted a map of the ancient world and the Holy Land, with which he studied the New Testament.
Publication of the Jefferson Bible
During his lifetime, Jefferson would not allow Life and Morals to be published, only sharing its very existence with a choice few friends. In fact, the first published copy, which went to press in 1895 by Washington’s National Museum. The original copy was acquired from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Carolina Randolph, who sold it to the curator of world religions for the Smithsonian Institute for a price of $400. Others attribute Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, as the one who sold the original. Whatever the case, it was first a lithographic production, also, brought about by a 1904 act of the US Congress.
From 1904 until the 1950’s, members of Congress were given a copy of Jefferson’s “Bible” every single year. Those copies were made possible by the Government Printing Office. The practice as again revived in 1997 when the private Libertarian Press brought it back to life.
The American Humanist Association, in January of 2013, created another edition of the Jefferson Bible and made sure that every member of Congress, as well as then-President Barack Obama, received a copy. Unlike previous copies, however, A Jefferson Bible For the Twenty-First Century adds not only passages that Jefferson himself had left out, but also examples of the “best and worst” from the Book of Mormon, the Buddhist Sutras, the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran and, of course, the Hebrew Bible.
Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name be the glory
Because of Your love and your faithfulness!