Introduction to the Jefferson Bible

BY: Cyrus Adler

 
In 1895, Cyrus Adler, the librarian of the Smithsonian, became aware of the existence of the Jefferson when he became aware of the bible when he came across the mutilated English Bibles Jefferson had used. He purchased it from a family member for $400. In 1904, Congress printed the text. Adler wrote the following introduction.

The so-called Jefferson Bible, more accurately "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," is now the property of the United States National Museum at Washington, having been obtained by purchase in 1895. The following is a description of the volume:

Measurements: Height, 8 1/4 inches; width, 4 15/16 inches; thickness at back, 1 1/4 inches; in middle, 1 5/8 inches; at edge points, 1 inch.

Binding: Full red leather with gilt tooling. The back divided in five (5) panels; in second (2d) panel from top title in gold: "Morals of Jesus."

The margin of the covers of all four sides on the outside, and on the three outer ones on the inside, as well as on the edges, are tooled in gold. Inside of the upper cover is on the left side top a label containing the words: "Bound by Fred A. Mayo, Richmond, Va."

The cover inside as well as the fly-leaves are covered with gray paper in marble designs.

Order: Upper cover; two (2) manuscript leaves in the handwriting of Jefferson, containing on the first two and a half pages the table of texts; the rest is blank; fly-leaf; three (3) blank leaves; title ?page in manuscript in Jefferson's handwriting, reading

"THE
LIFE AND MORALS
OF
JESUS OF NAZARETH
EXTRACTED TEXTUALLY
FROM THE GOSPELS
IN
GREEK, LATIN
FRENCH & ENGLISH;"

folded printed maps of Palestine and Asia Minor, taken out from a book; that of Palestine has on top in print: "page 1," and that of Asia Minor "page 414;" blank page excepting for a black line in its middle, running from top to bottom. Then come, on numbered leaves, begin ning on the left side of the first (the reverse of the page just described), and closing on the right side of the last, the extracts arranged in two columns, separated by a black line, on each page, in the following order: On the left hand page Greek and Latin, on the right, French and English. The sources are indicated in the margin in Jefferson's handwriting. The numbers of the leaves, which run from 1 to 83, are on the left side top of the left hand pages. Leaf 83 has extracts on the right hand page, the left hand page has only the black line; it is, followed by three (3) other blank leaves, the first of which has the black line on both sides; then come the fly-leaf and the cover. Between each of the leaves, with the exception of the blank ones, there are alternately one and two narrow strips of paper bound in.

 

That Jefferson had in mind the preparation of such a book, and that he actually prepared it, has been known to students of his letters and writings, and especial attention was drawn to the fact in "The Life and Times of Thomas Jefferson," by Henry S. Randall, published in three volumes, New York, 1858.

It was, moreover, brought to the attention of the Government very definitely in the form of a report, Fifty-first Congress, First Session, Senate Report 1365, presented June 14, 1890, by Senator Evarts of the Committee on Library, and ordered printed. This report was with reference to a bill relative to the proposed purchase of the manuscript papers and correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, which does not appear to have been followed by favorable action. In it the following description is given of the book in question, which was written by Mr. Ainsworth R. Spofford, then Librarian of Congress:

"'The Morals and Life of Jesus of Nazareth,' extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English. Title and very full index in his own hand. Texts were cut by him out of printed copies of Greek, Latin, French and English Testaments and pasted in this book of blank pages, which was handsomely bound in red morocco, ornamented in gilt, and titled on the back in gilt letters, 'The Morals of Jesus.' 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 above described, which was for his individual use. He used the four languages that he might have the texts 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."

In 1886 I was engaged, when a fellow at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in cataloguing a small but very valuable Hebrew library gathered together by Dr. Joshua I. Cohen. Amongst the books were two copies of the New Testament mutilated, which contained on the inside of the cover a newspaper slip giving an account of what Jefferson had undertaken, and referring to a letter to John Adams, dated October 13, 1813, followed by the words here given:

"This and the corresponding vol. are the identical copies alluded to in the above article. They were purchased by me at the sale of Dr. Macaulay's Medical Library, by whom they had been bought at the sale of Mr. Jefferson's library.

"See letter to John Adams,
"Jefferson's Works, vol. vi, 217.

"JOSHUA I. COHEN."

The following is the title page of each of these volumes:

THE
NEW TESTAMENT
OF OUR
LORD AND SAVIOUR
JESUS CHRIST,
TRANSLATED OUT OF THE
ORIGINAL GREEK:
AND WITH THE
FORMER TRANSLATIONS,
DILIGENTLY
COMPARED AND REVISED.

PHILADELPHIA,

PUBLISHED BY JACOB JOHNSON & CO.
NO. 147 HIGH STREET,
1804 .

With the approval of the family I did not include these books, nor others of general interest, in the privately printed catalogue, which was intended to describe only the contents of a special department of the library. But I undertook to search for the volume, first through Miss Sarah N. Randolph, who, just as I was about to call on her on the subject, died, and, after a lapse of some years and with steps that it is not necessary to detail, obtained it from Miss Randolph, her sister, then living at Shadwell, Va. The latter, in a communication dated July 27, 1895, states of Jefferson that "the idea he had at first was to compile ?a book which would be valuable for the use of the Indians."

 

This little book was one which occupied a great deal of Jefferson's attention, and the following statements and extracts from his letters directly bear upon its making.

On April 9, 1803, he wrote from Washington to Dr. Priestley, referring to Priestley's comparative view of Socrates and Jesus, that in a conversation with Dr. Rush in the years 1798 and 1799 he had promised some day to write a letter giving his view of the Christian system. This letter he had as yet only sketched out in his mind. It was evident that he considered the Gospels as having much extraneous matter and that by careful pruning there could be selected out those sayings which were absolutely the words of Jesus himself. After discussing the injustice done by these later additions, he says to Priestley, "you are the person who of all others would do it best and most promptly. You have all the materials at hand, and you put together with ease. I wish you could be induced to extend your late work to the whole subject"

In a letter of ten days later, April 19, 1803, to Edward Dowse, he writes that he considers "the moral precepts of Jesus as more pure, correct and sublime than those of the ancient philosophers."

Under date of April 21, 1803, Jefferson wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush, sending him the syllabus of an estimate of the merits of the doctrines of Jesus compared with those of others. This is the communication towhich he had referred ?in his letter to Dr. Priestley. In the letter accompanying the syllabus he tells Dr. Rush that he is sending this for his own eye, simply in performance of his promise, and indicates its confidential character in the following words: "And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies. I am, moreover, averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public, because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavoured to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquest over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed. . It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasions of it in the case of others, or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own."

 

On January 29, 1804, Jefferson wrote to Priestley from Washington that he was rejoiced to hear that Priestley had undertaken to compare the moral doctrines of Jesus with those of the ancient philosophers. He writes: "I think you cannot avoid giving, as preliminary to the comparison, a digest of his moral doctrines, extracted in his own words from the Evangelists, and leaving out everything relative to his personal history and character. It would be short and precious. With a view to do this for my own satisfaction, I had sent to Philadelphia to get two testaments (Greek) of the same edition, and two English, ?with a design to cut out the morsels of morality, and paste them on the leaves of a book, in the manner you describe as having been pursued in, forming your Harmony. But I shall now get the thing done by better hands."

 

This is the first definite statement of Jefferson's purpose to prepare such a book, which he apparently at the time abandoned in the hope that Priestley would take it up. In the year 1808 Jefferson was greatly interested in the translation of the Septuagint made by Charles Thomson, the Secretary of the first Continental Congress, and wrote several communications to Thomson on the subject. In 1813 John Adams began a voluminous correspondence with Jefferson on religious subjects, the letters following each other very closely. Adams had access to a number of Priestley's letters written to various persons and in a communication dated at Quincy, July 22, 1813, he reminds Jefferson of his intention of preparing the work which he (Jefferson) had handed over to Priestley. He writes: "I hope you will still perform your promise to Dr. Rush. If Priestley had lived, I should certainly have corresponded with him."

On August 9, John Adams again writes to Jefferson, sending further extracts of letters of Priestley and saying that he did so because " I wish it may stimulate you to pursue your own plan which you promised to Dr. Rush."

In a letter to Adams written from Monticello, October 12, 1813, Jefferson gives a description of the volume as follows: "We must reduce our volume ?to the simple Evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphiboligisms 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 others 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 distinguished as diamonds in a dung-hill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages."

 

It would appear from this that Jefferson made two such books, one a volume of forty-six pages which he later enlarged to the book which is here given.

Under date of January 29, 1815, Jefferson wrote from Monticello to Charles Clay: "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." In this letter however Jefferson disclaims any intention of publishing this little compilation, saying: " I not only write nothing on religion, but rarely permit myself to speak on it."

Again, in a letter to Charles Thomson, written ?from Monticello, under date of January 9, 1816, he says: "I, too, have made a wee little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus."

 

Later in the letter Jefferson makes a statement which indicates that he is not describing the volume now in the National Museum, but the preliminary one of 46 pages, for he adds: "If I had time I would add to my little book the Greek, Latin and French texts, in columns side by side."

In a letter dated April 25, 1816, written from Poplar Forest, near Lynchburg, addressed to Mr. Fr. Adr. Vanderkemp, Jefferson gives further details as to how he made this preliminary volume. After telling his correspondent that he was very cautious about not having. the syllabus, which he had prepared, get out in connection with his name, being unwilling to draw on himself "a swarm of insects, whose buzz is more disquieting than their bite," he writes: "I made, for my own satisfaction, an extract from the Evangelists of the text of His morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own. It was too hastily done, however, being the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed with other business, ?and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure. This shall be the work of the ensuing winter. I gave it the title of 'The Philosophy of Jesus Extracted from the Text of the Evangelists.'"

 

Vanderkemp was undertaking a publication and desired to use Jefferson's syllabus and extract, which Jefferson agrees to, with the following condition: "I ask only one condition, that no possibility shall be admitted of my name being even intimated with the publication."

October 31, 1819, he writes from Monticello to William Short, speaking of the extract from the Evangelists and his desire to see a proper one made: "The last I attempted too hastily some twelve or fifteen years ago. It was the work of two or three nights only, at Washington, after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day."

This concludes the references in Jefferson's writings that bear directly upon the little volume in question. They are brief extracts from a collection made from all sources, published and manuscript.

Randall, in his life of Jefferson, already quoted, volume 3, page 451, says: " It was in the winter of 1816-17, it is believed, that Mr. Jefferson carried out the design last expressed. In a handsome morocco-bound volume, labeled on the back, 'Morals of Jesus,' he placed the parallel texts in four languages. The first collection of English texts, mentioned in the letter to Thomson, is not preserved in Mr. Jefferson's family, but his grandson, Mr. George Wythe Randolph, has ?obtained for us a list of its contents. That, in different languages, is in the possession of his oldest grandson, Colonel Thomas Jefferson Randolph." Randall gives a list of the passages of both volumes in his appendix, and adds, " It is remarkable that neither of these collections were known to Mr. Jefferson's grandchildren until after his death. They then learned from a letter addressed to a friend that he was in the habit of reading nightly from them before going to bed."

 

It would appear from the letter to Short that Randall's deduction as to the date of this larger compilation is not warranted and that it was actually made in 18 19 or subsequent to that year, although it is true that in the letter to Vander-kemp (April 25, 18 16) he speaks of the larger compilation as being the work of the ensuing winter.

In Appendix No. XXX to Randall's work, he gives the list of the contents of the first compilation of forty-six pages as well as the list of the contents of the present book. These are not exactly identical. It is interesting to note the title of the first compilation, which reads as follows:

 

"THE PHILOSOPHY OF JESUS OF NAZARETH"

"Extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and 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 comprehensions."

The National government had purchased Mr. Jefferson's papers and had published an edition ?of his writings. Considerable interest was expressed in the so-called Bible after it came into the possession of the United States National Museum, and it was in consequence of this interest that the present compilation is published.

 

It is printed in pursuance to the following concurrent resolution adopted by the Fifty-seventh Congress, first session:

"That there be printed and bound, by photo-process, with an introduction of not to exceed twenty-five pages, to be prepared by Dr. Cyrus Adler, Librarian of the Smithsonian Institutitution, for the use of Congress, 9,000 copies of Thomas Jefferson's Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, as the same appears in the National Museum; 3,000 copies for the use of the Senate and 6,000 copies for the use of the House."

 

CYRUS ADLER

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