Separating 'Diamonds' from the 'Dunghill'
The fascinating history of the 'Jefferson Bible'
Done with his official work for the day, Thomas Jefferson sat in the new presidential mansion in Washington in 1804, and opened his Bible --- not to pray, but to cut. He scoured the text for Jesus' greatest teachings, sliced out his favorite portions and glued them into an empty volume. He called it "The Philosophy of Jesus." In 1819, he started over and created a new version called "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," often referred to now as The Jefferson Bible. In Jefferson's version, Jesus was not divine.
The virgin birth - gone.
Christ's bodily resurrection - gone.
The miracles of the loaves, walking on water, raising Lazarus - none of them made Jefferson's book.
He transformed the Bible from being the Revelation of God into a collection of teachings of a brilliant, wise, religious reformer - author of "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."
Why did Jefferson do this, and what is the history of the Jefferson Bible's journey?
Jefferson's first efforts to slice up the Bible were, to some degree, about justifying his own life and faith. During the 1800 election, political opponents called Thomas Jefferson an atheist and infidel. In the second year of his presidency, he sensed the criticisms rising again, in part because Tom Paine, now famous for his Deist writings, had returned to America from France. About his first Jesus book, "The Philosophy of Jesus," Jefferson wrote: "It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians." In a separate letter, he asserted again the authenticity of his faith: "I am a Christian, in the only sense 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."
So Jefferson set out to create a Bible as he thought Jesus would have wanted it. This meant pulling "diamonds" (the wisdom of Jesus) from the "dunghill" (the conglomeration of lies and fiction that made up the rest of the bible). Poor Jesus, he said, has for centuries "been inveloped by Jugglers to make money of him" who have "dressed up in the rags of an Imposter." Jefferson's task was to remove the artifice to reveal that "a more precious morsel of ethics was never seen." In 1803, Jefferson created a "syllabus" outlining the key points about Jesus' story and teachings. In May, he got from Joseph Preistley copies of a Unitarian analysis of the Bible called A Harmony of the Evangelists in English and A Harmony of the Evangelists in Greek. Initially he had hoped to get Priestley - who had fled Britain to escape religious persecution for his universalist views -- to undertake the task of creating an authentic Bible. But Priestly died before making much progress.