The Gospel According to Jefferson

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The Gospel According to Jefferson

Cullen Nutt

The third president’s take on Jesus of Nazareth.

Read Time:
4m 57sec

Last week I ventured a few hundred yards from the WQ’s offices to see a Smithsonian exhibit of Thomas Jefferson’s theological magnum opus. Popularly known as the Jefferson Bible, its official title is more ambitious: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English.

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. 

That, one guesses, is why Jefferson left it out. He doubted Jesus’ divinity, and omitted from his 84-page New Testament aggregation anything he considered supernatural. Curators Harry Rubenstein and Barbara Clark Smith, who accompanied me through the exhibit, said Jefferson was applying Enlightenment principles of reason to Christianity. Why, by Jefferson’s reckoning, sully the “most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man” with the virgin birth, miracles, and the redemption?

Jefferson was intensely private in these beliefs. Throughout his political career, both before and after the birth of the new United States, he lobbied for religious freedom. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God,” he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia. On the eve of the 1800 election, Jefferson’s detractors accused him of being impious or, worse, an atheist. Presbyterian minister and university president William Linn warned that electing Jefferson would “destroy religion, introduce immorality and loosen all the bonds of society.”

Jefferson won, and the republic got along fine (and, in fact, doubled in size thanks to the Louisiana Purchase in 1803). Ten years into his retirement at Monticello, at age 76, Jefferson finally began compiling his text, about which he had been corresponding with like-minded Enlightenment intellectuals for decades. None of Jefferson’s peers appears to have gone so far as to dismember and rearrange the Bible. “It’s extremely unique,” said Rubenstein. Clark Smith attributed it to Jefferson’s intellectual audacity. “It’s the same attitude he has toward the monarchy.”

Jefferson used six copies of the New Testament for his task: two each in English and French, and two more that combined Latin and Greek. The two in English—King James New Testament versions from 1804—are also on display in the exhibit. They bear gaping voids where Jefferson manually extracted boxes of text.

Jefferson meant for the final product to be private, but it didn’t remain that way. In 1895, Smithsonian librarian Cyrus Adler bought the volume from Carolina Randolph, Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, for $400. Exhibitions brought greater public awareness. In 1902, John F. Lacey, a congressman from Iowa, proposed that every member of Congress receive a copy of the book, provoking a backlash from some Christians. Lacey, himself a practicing believer, fired back: “No one that examines this little volume, whether he be saint or sinner, will rise from his perusal without having a loftier idea of the teaching of our Savior.”

Lacey’s proposal passed, and Jefferson’s work won broader readership in the 20th century, beginning with the first publication by the Government Printing Office two years later. (Senators received copies until the 1950s, when the 1904 press run was exhausted.) The original book showed its age, however. The Smithsonian eventually removed it from public display. Ninety-eight percent of the pages contained cracks or tears. A painstaking conservation process completed in 2011 restored the book’s structural integrity and brought it back into public view. (The exhibit will remain open until July 15, 2012.) Rubenstein and Clark Smith have also written an authoritative introduction to a new edition of the book, now available from the Smithsonian.

The curators said the public reception of the exhibit has been warm, and surprisingly free of controversy. Jefferson himself anticipated—and dismissed—the doubters. “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be,” he wrote to a counterpart, “sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”

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