In November, the so-called “Jefferson Bible” will go on display at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington D.C. and American Christians will thus soon be confronted by the fact that not all of the founding fathers had a “high view of Scripture.” With conservation efforts under way, it is a good time to reflect on just what Jefferson was trying to accomplish in editing this Bible.
Thomas Jefferson loved to read the four gospels, but he did not believe that the Bible was the inspired Word of God. The Bible was useful for moral improvement, but it should ultimately be read like any other great book. He told his nephew, Peter Carr, to read the Bible with a critical eye, “as you would Livy or Tacitus.” When Carr began to study the Old Testament story in which Joshua asked God to command the sun to stand still so he could finish his battle with the Amorites (Josh. 10:1-15), his uncle informed him to read the passage in the way that any good astronomer would read it. Such a biblical story needed to be examined rationally, in accordance with the “law of probabilities.”
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