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Jefferson Bible

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Title page of the original copy of the Jefferson Bible
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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 8vo[note 1] of 46 pages of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed & acted on by the unlettered apostles, the Apostolic fathers, and the Christians of the 1st century.
—Thomas Jefferson in a letter to John Adams[1]:38-39[2]

The Jefferson Bible, officially titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, is an extract from the four gospels that was compiled by Thomas Jefferson.

As a young man, Jefferson was influenced by Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke,Wikipedia a proponent of the Enlightenment.[1]:20-24[3] Bolingbroke's writings caused a crisis of faith within Jefferson, which eventually caused him to examine the Bible more critically.[1]:20[3]

Whereas Bolingbroke believed that there was little in the Bible or in conventional Christian dogma worth saving, Jefferson believed that Jesus' ethical teachings were of value. Jefferson's first attempt at such an extraction was in 1804 when he was still President. The result was a 46-page unpublished book titled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth; Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines as Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. Being an Abridgment of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians Unembarrassed with Matters of Fact or Faith Beyond the Level of Their Comprehension.[1]:38-40[3] The 'Indian' in the title was likely not a reference to Native Americans, but rather to "Federalist critics and their clerical allies who had inaccurately labeled him an atheist."[1]:39,85[3]

After retirement, using a razor and glue, Jefferson embarked on creating The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth from the gospels — later known as the Jefferson Bible.[3] The book was intended to be for Jefferson's private use, but in 1892 Cyrus AdlerWikipedia on behalf of The Smithsonian was able to purchase the original from a descendant of Jefferson.[1]:85-86[3] It was exhibited to the public the following year, but access by the public did not begin until 1904 when Congress authorized the publication of 9000 copies.[1]:86-91[3]

Contents[edit]

The Jefferson Bible consists of the sayings attributed to Jesus taken from the four gospels, without the rest of the text. Jefferson's deism played a role in this, as Jefferson wrote to John Adams that he believed the teachings of Jesus were "diamonds in a dunghill", and also wrote in the same letter, "In extracting the pure principles 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."[1]:38[2] The book excludes references to supernatural elements in the four gospels, such as miracles and the resurrection. As you might expect, that makes it a rather short read, compared to the KJV.

Jefferson didn't have the scholarship that we have today, which has enabled a rough reconstruction of the Q gospel, but hey, give the guy credit for at least trying.

Publication[edit]

During the Congressional debates that led up to the 1904 publication, there was substantial public argument about the appropriateness of the government publishing the Jefferson Bible. The religious right of the time naturally created a moral panic.[1]:108-109[3] The Presbyterian Preacher's Association prepared a draft statement declaring "the publication of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth a direct, public and powerful attack on the Christian religion.'"[1]:108 Reverend John Peacock insinuated with thinly veiled anti-semitism that just because Adler was Jewish, he was therefore hostile to Christianity:[1]:109-110

There is an almost general misapprehension regarding the opposition to the publication by Congress of this work. We who oppose it do so on the ground that even if the ideas of Jefferson were harmless the fact that the 150-page introduction[note 2] to the work is by Cyrus Adler, a man whose hostility to Christianity is notorious, gives to the work the stamp of an anti-Christian publication.

On the other hand some in the Jewish community also objected to the publication based on in the principel of separation of church and state.[1]:110 The objection was despite Cyrus Adler being a Jewish religious leader and scholar who worked tirelessly finding, purchasing, exhibiting and preserving the book.[1] Was the Jefferson Bible a religious document, a philosophical treatise, or a precious artifact from the founding years of the United States that had nearly been lost? These were not mutually exclusive necessarily. In the end, Congress went ahead with the initial publication in 1904, and subsequently reprinted it and gifted copies of the Jefferson Bible to all new members of Congress for the next five decades."[1]:142[3]

The Jefferson Bible has been published numerous times, and several editions are in print today. Some editions are by commercial publishers such as Dover, while others are by groups with their own religious axes to grind. Two examples of the latter are one published by the Unitarian Universalist Church, which places Jefferson's deism in the context of a liberal religious tradition;[4] and one published by a religious right publisher with commentary making the case for Jefferson and the other Founders' faith in God. More obscure editions have been published by Noontide Press (a publisher once associated with Liberty Lobby),[5] and Sovereign Press,[6] both of them with rather anti-Semitic commentaries praising Jefferson's Bible for presenting the teachings of Jesus sans "Jewish" content. Exploitation by fringe groups aside, the Jefferson Bible is mainly regarded as an interesting curiosity and an example of the freethought of Jefferson.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. "8vo" (octavo) is a paper size.
  2. Because of the public anti-semitic rhetoric against him, Adler's introduction to the first edition of the Jefferson Bible was only 13-pages and focused on the physical description and provenance of the original book.[1]:110

References[edit]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 The Jefferson Bible: A Biography by Peter Manseau (2020) Princeton University Press ISBN 0691205698.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 12 October 1813 Founders Online.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 A New History Of Thomas Jefferson's Famous Testament by Rob Boston (November 2020) Church & State Magazine .
  4. The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth by Thomas Jefferson (2006) Beacon Press. ISBN 0807077143.
  5. The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth by Thomas Jefferson (1989) Noontide Press. ISBN 0939482142.
  6. An American Christian Bible by Thomas Jefferson & Erik Holden (1982) Sovereign Press. ISBN 0914752146.