The Bible According to Thomas Jefferson: How the Founding Father cut and paste the Bible to create his own morality
March 1, 2012
The president sat at his desk in the White House on a winter evening. He’d finished his work for the day and was ready for something more enjoyable. He took out two Bibles and opened them to the story of Jesus. Then he grabbed a knife—or perhaps a razor—and began cutting up one Bible, then the other. The president was Thomas Jefferson. The year was 1804.
Working methodically, Jefferson sliced out the parts of the Bible that he believed and pasted them onto a folio of blank pages. The rest—the parts he didn’t believe—he left behind in two maimed, mutilated Bibles.
Thomas Jefferson was editing the Bible, a book regarded by most of his fellow Americans as the word of God. The act was certainly presumptuous, perhaps blasphemous. But Jefferson found the task simple. The worthy parts of the Bible were easily distinguishable from the worthless—“as distinguishable,” he later wrote in a letter to John Adams, “as diamonds in a dunghill.”
Using the passages he sliced out of his Bibles, Jefferson created a new book, which he called, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” He had it bound but he never published it, and he told only a handful of close friends about it. His copy—the only copy that ever existed—later disappeared and is now lost to history.
But sixteen years later, he created another. In 1820, retired from politics and living at Monticello, Jefferson sat down again, at the age of seventy-seven, to edit the Bible. He purchased six Bibles—two in English, two in French, and two containing both Latin and Greek—and cut them up, creating a second edited version of the New Testament, in four languages.
In this book, he kept the words of Jesus and some of his deeds, but left out the miracles and any suggestion that Jesus is God. The virgin birth is gone. So is Jesus walking on water, multiplying the loaves and fishes, and raising Lazarus from the dead. Jefferson’s version ends with Jesus’ burial on Good Friday. There is no resurrection, no Easter Sunday. Jefferson called this version “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”
That book has survived. It’s smaller than you might expect—roughly five by eight inches—with a faded red leather cover. Conservators at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, DC, painstakingly repaired rips and restored the book. It’s currently on display at the museum, along with two of the Bibles that Jefferson cut up to create it.
The exhibition is sure to generate questions: Why did one of America’s beloved Founding Fathers cut up Bibles? Was it an act of piety or of blasphemy? Was Jefferson a Christian or a heretic? And what does this book, commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible,” tell us about America’s religious heritage?
Those questions have no easy answers. Experts argue about all of them, as we shall see. But one thing seems certain: If Jefferson was running for president today, his Bible-slicing experiments would surely torpedo his candidacy.
“There is no way Jefferson could get elected president today,” says Steven Waldman, author ofFounding Faith, a best-selling history of the role of religion in America’s creation. “You can practically see the attack ad that would be run about him: You see the Bible and you see a hand with a scissors cutting up the Bible. And that’s not going to play too well in the red states—or the blue states for that matter.”
“I am a sect by myself,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, commenting on his eccentric religious views. Born into the Church of England, Virginia’s official religion, Jefferson studied under Anglican clergymen from elementary school through college, and attended Anglican services all his life, although not always faithfully. He wasn’t the kind of man who accepts dogmas uncritically. Brilliant and intellectually curious, Jefferson preferred to make his own judgment in matters of religion, and advised others to do the same.
“Question with boldness even the existence of a God,” he urged his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1787, “because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
Influenced by the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, Jefferson scoffed at biblical stories of miracles but believed that the study of nature proves the existence of God. He thought deeply about religion all his life, and although his views sometimes shifted, one opinion never changed: He believed that no government had the right to impose any religion on any individual. He wrote Virginia’s statute on religious freedom and famously coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state.”
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia. “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Today, that statement seems uncontroversial but in 1800, many people, particularly clergymen, considered it evidence of atheism. “They were of the opinion that not caring about that meant you were not a man of faith,” says Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Sphinx, a best-selling biography of Jefferson.
When Jefferson ran for president against John Adams in 1800, Adams’ Federalist allies distorted Jefferson’s defense of freedom of religion to portray him as an enemy of God. Alexander Hamilton called Jefferson “an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics.” William Linn, a New York minister, claimed that voting for him constituted “a rebellion against God.” Yale President Timothy Dwight warned Americans that if they elected Jefferson they would “see the Bible cast into a bonfire…and our children united in chanting mockeries against God.”
Despite all that, Jefferson won the election.
But the various lies about his religious beliefs angered him and hardened his antipathy to the clergy, who he described in Latin as “genus irritable vatum”—irritable tribe of priests—and in English as “soothsayers and necromancers.”
The nasty campaign of 1800 rendered Jefferson reticent about making public statements on religion. But he remained fascinated with the topic and continued to comment on religion in letters to trusted friends. Those comments are so voluminous and so varied that, for two centuries, both Christians and secularists have cherry-picked Jefferson quotes to “prove” that the sage of Monticello was a believer—or not.
Want to prove that Jefferson was a committed Christian? It’s easy.
Jefferson wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He called Christ’s teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He urged “getting back to the plain and unsophisticated precepts of Christ.” He suggested that the defeat of Napoleon “proves that we have a god in heaven.” In his first inaugural address, he invoked the blessings of “that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe.” In his second inaugural address, he sought the blessings “of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”
Want to prove that Jefferson was a militant secularist? That’s easy, too.
Jefferson wrote that “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” He called the writers of the New Testament “ignorant, unlettered men” who produced “superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” He called the Apostle Paul the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” He dismissed the concept of the Trinity as “mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” He believed that the clergy used religion as a “mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves” and that “in every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.” And he wrote in a letter to John Adams that “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”….