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.

In February, 1804, Jefferson received two Bibles in English and two in Greek and Latin. He clipped his favorite passages and pasted them in double colums on 46 "octavo sheets." "It was the work of 2 or 3 nights only, at Washington, after getting thro' the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day," he wrote years later. He did not end up using the Greek and, in fact, the 46-page book was lost to history. Historian Dickenson Adams recently reconstructed the document by taking copies of the sliced up Bibles - which had been saved - and looking at which passages had been cut out. The book, which Jefferson never showed anyone, was called, "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazereth extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. Being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of faith beyond the level of their comprehensions."

Jefferson returned to the project in 1819. His goal was to still "justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers" in order "to rescue his character." This time, he used Greek, Latin, French and English translations, pasting the key passages in four vertical columns. While the Philosophy of Jesus included only moral precepts, The Life and Morals of Jesus included some of his actions as well. The Jefferson Bible's full title, handwritten by Jefferson in the front pages of his volume was "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English." The book is bound in red morocco, and Jefferson had a printer inscribe the words "The Morals of Jesus" in gilt on the back. He pasted a map of the ancient world and "Holy Land" in the front. The book is eight and a quarter inches by five inches wide.

Jefferson kept the book secret from most people. His own family only found out about it after his death. The book came into the possession of his only surviving child, Martha Jefferson Randolph. After her death, the book passed to her son, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. He allowed biographer Henry S. Randall to publish the title page in his biography in 1858, which was when the existence of the Bible first became public. The Bible then passed from one Jefferson ancestor to another until 1895 when Cyrus Adler, the Adler, the librarian of the Smithsonian, became aware of the bible when he came across the mutilated English Bibles Jefferson had used. Adler contacted the Jefferson's great granddaughter, Carolina Randolph, who at that point held the book. He purchased it for the government for $400. Eventually a Republican Congressman named John Lacey became aware of and read the document and arranged for Congress to have it printed in1904. Apparently, for some 50 years there was a tradition of giving new members of Congress a copy of the Jefferson Bible upon their swearing in, according to Jeffersons' Bible a forward by William Murchison in an edition of the Jefferson bible published by American Book Distributors. Read Adler's original introduction to the Jefferson bible here.

This book offered a religion sans miracles or supernatural interventions. Jefferson deleted Gabriel's explanation that the Holy Ghost would be coming to Mary. He placed Jesus in the manger but skipped the angels appearing to the shepherds. Jesus' baptism was mentioned but the heavens didn't open and God's spirit didn't descend like a dove. Portions of Jesus' life that dealt with morality -- kicking the money changers out of the temple and the sermon on the mount -- received great attention. Jesus was extraordinary but not holy. In presenting the beatitudes, he passed over Matthew's line "be ye perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect" and instead used "Be ye, therefore, merciful, as your Father in heaven also is merciful."

The best explication of the theological implications of Jefferson's choices comes from historian Edwin Gaustad who summarized: "If a moral lesson was embedded in a miracle, the lesson survived in 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." A most dramatic example: In Matthew 12:9-10, a man with a withered hand approached Jesus. Jesus responds to the Pharisees' questions about the lawfulness of healing on the Sabbath, and then heals the man. Jefferson kept only the disquisition on the Sabbath --"The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath" - but left the hand unhealed. Gaustad makes an insightful comparison between the messages of Jesus and Jefferson. In the Gospels, he noted, Jesus "distinguished between what was centralized and what was peripheral in the moral life. A man was defiled not because of what he ate but because of what he said and, even more, what he did." Jefferson, he said, "merely carried the principle of the essential versus redundant further," by eliminating material that obscured the essential truths. "Too much dross concealed the gold; too much dung buried the diamonds." Jefferson deleted all passages that asserted Jesus' divinity, many of which are in the Gospel according to John. "When quoting from John," Gaustad notes, "Jefferson kept his blade busy." Tellingly, the Jefferson bible ends with the line from Matthew, after Jesus is laid to rest. "There laid they Jesus, And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed." In Jefferson's bible, Jesus never rises.

In other writings, Jefferson elaborated on what he loved about Jesus. While other philosophers, like Socrates, focused on how humans could govern their passions to procure "our own tranquility," Jesus forced people to connect to a larger whole. While the early Jews thought like a parochial tribe, Jesus extended the principles of neighborliness to "all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids." Jewish law focused on actions, but Jesus "pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head." Moses had "bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries, and observances, of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue. Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance. The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit toward other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence." Though he did excise the miracles from the Bible, Jefferson praised Jesus for teaching "the belief of a future state." (Note, however, that Jefferson mostly applauded the idea of heaven's existence because of the practical effect it would have on temporal human behavior.)

For those who think that Jefferson was indifferent about which kind of religion was practiced (be there "20 gods, or no god"), it's worth noting that he clearly viewed the message of Jesus as superior to all others. In fact, he thought that if people could just see his unadulterated teachings, Christianity would conquer the world. "Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian."

And yet despite his clear love of Jesus, Jefferson was desperate to keep this Bible project secret. Each friend he showed it to was cautioned to practice discretion. Don't show it; don't discuss it; and whatever you do, don't let it get published, he said. "Every word which goes forth from me, whether verbally or in writing, becomes the subject of so much malignant distortion, and perverted construction, that I am obliged to caution my friends against the possibility of my letters getting into the public papers." After his friend Benjamin Rush died, Jefferson actually went to the trouble of asking the surviving family to return any letters in which he had expressed his views about Jesus. In explaining why he refused to make public his ethics-of-Jesus document, Jefferson wrote, "I was unwilling to draw on myself a swarm of insects, whose buzz is more disquieting than their bite." In showing the syllabus to Attorney General Levi Lincoln he warned that should it become public he "would become the butt" of endless priestly attacks.

How sad that Jefferson believed - accurately, no doubt -- that he did not yet live in a country free enough that he could publish his real views on religion without it leading to relentless attacks on his character. When one of his friends, Charles Thomson, broke the vow and showed it some people, a rumor spread that Jefferson had altered his religious views and became more orthodox. He sternly wrote to one woman who had inquired about the change, "A change from what? The priests indeed have heretofore thought proper to ascribe to me religious, or rather anti-religious sentiments, of their own fabric." Referring to himself in the third person, he continued, "They wished him to be thought Atheist, Deist, or Devil" but no curious onlooker can possibly know his heart. "I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our god and our consciences, for which we were accountable to him, and not the priests. I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another." And then the man who had been labeled an "infidel" throughout his life, declared, "My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest."

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