Did you know that Thomas Jefferson edited a copy of the Christian gospels? In this episode, Smithsonian curator and author Peter Manseau joins us to talk about the so-called “Jefferson Bible” or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. We explore Jefferson’s religious beliefs and how his “Bible” was appropriated by later generations.
Thomas Jefferson did not believe that the Bible was divinely inspired. In fact, as we have noted here and here, he removed parts of the life of Jesus that did not conform to his rational form of religion.
Nevertheless, Jefferson believed that the Bible was a moral guide. In fact, he was a very devout follower of Jesus’s moral teachings. It was for this reason that he created his famous “cut and paste” Bible in the first place. He wanted a devotional in morality. Indeed, my chapter on Jefferson in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? is entitled “Thomas Jefferson: Follower of Jesus.”
Now Richard Dawkins, the famous British atheist, is encouraging children to read the King James Version of the Bible. But unlike Jefferson, he does not want kids to read it for its moral value. He wants them to read it for its literary value.
Read his piece at The Guardian, which is a response to British education secretary Michael Gove’s plan to put the King James Bible in schools. Here is his conclusion:
Whatever else the Bible might be – and it really is a great work of literature – it is not a moral book and young people need to learn that important fact because they are very frequently told the opposite. The examples I have quoted are the tip of a very large and very nasty iceberg. Not a bad way to find out what’s in a book is to read it, so I say go to it. But does anybody, even Gove, seriously think they will?
The blog of The Wilson Quarterly has a nice post on Thomas Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English, otherwise known as “The Jefferson Bible.”
When I taught at Valparaiso University I used to have students compare the texts of Jefferson’s “Bible” with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It was a wonderful exercise. Students could see first-hand how Jefferson cut out the passages of the Gospels that did not fit his religious world view.
Here is a taste of the post at The Wilson Quarterly:
The original copy of the slender red volume, which Jefferson constructed in retirement in 1819 and 1820, sits on display in a glass box in the National Museum of American History. The book is open to a two page spread. Hastily sketched dividing lines break each page into two columns for a total of four across—Greek and Latin in the two on the left, French and English in the two on the right. The columns carry verses cut out from elsewhere and pasted onto the pages. The second chapter of Luke, verse 46, appears in English at the top right, separated from the modern reader by glass and a few inches. Mary and Joseph are searching Jerusalem for the 12-year-old Jesus, who went missing after the Passover feast. They discover their precocious son dazzling the religious teachers in the temple. Verse 48 reads: “And when they saw him, they were amazed: and his mother said unto him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.” Then—scissor and paste work fully evident—the narrative jumps to verses 51 and 52, whereupon Mary and Joseph, Jesus safely in tow, return to their native Nazareth.
Welcome to the religious world of Thomas Jefferson, where scripture he deemed implausible or inaccurate fell to the cutting room floor. The offending two verses in this case are crucial: “And he said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” Why, Jesus asks, did you not first search for me in the temple, where I attend to “my father’s business”? This is the first intimation in Luke’s gospel that Jesus is the son of God.