The People's Bible Goes to Washington
Thomas Jefferson's edited version of the New Testament again makes its way into the hands of members of Congress.
After 50 years, a controversial version of the Bible is again making its way through the halls of Congress. The individual sending it is not a minister, but an economist named Judd W. Patton. He is, by his own description, a "traditional values" Christian, not an evangelical. But in 1997, Patton was moved to do something that observers might think went against his grain: He mailed copies of the Bible to every member of Congress.
This wasn't your standard, "traditional" Bible, however. Patton sent copies ofThe Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth
, the so-called "Jefferson Bible
," to the politicians. And he has continued to do so in alternate years, including 2005, when he mailed out 50 copies around the time of President Bush's second inauguration.
What is the Jefferson Bible? In 1820, just six years before his death, Thomas Jefferson set about editing the New Testament, physically removing with scissors all verses that pertained to miracles, resurrection, and anything supernatural, and pasting the rest together. What he was left with was, he believed, a purely moral document.
Almost two centuries later, Patton was doing some research in the library at Bellevue University in Nebraska, where he is a professor of economics. On the shelf, he discovered a 1904 edition of Jefferson's work. In that year, Patton later learned, 9,000 copies of the 80-page volume were printed-by Congress itself.
Patton looked into it and found a bit of a mystery. It seems that distributing the Jefferson Bible to new members of Congress every other year was a tradition from 1904 until 1957, when the practice quietly stopped. But in a spirit of entrepreneurship, Patton set about publishing a new edition of the volume, with Jesus' words printed in red for easier reading as well as emphasis. He has sent a total of 753 copies to members of Congress since 1997.
How does Jefferson's endeavor, which eliminates some of the most profound testaments to Christian faith including Jesus' miracles and his resurrection, square with Patton's own conservative theology as a member of the United Church of God?
"I don't take it that he was making a statement of Christian theology," Patton said in an interview. "He wasn't into doctrinal matters. It is a statement of Christian morality." Jefferson, Patton said, was searching for a "pure Christianity" that elevated the moral principles contained in Jesus' life and the parables he told.