The Jefferson Bible, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth as it is formally titled, was a book constructed by Thomas Jefferson in the latter years of his life by cutting and pasting (literally with a razor and glue) numerous sections from the New Testament as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus. Jefferson’s condensed composition is especially notable for its exclusion of all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural, including sections of the four gospels which contain the Resurrection and most other miracles, and passages interpreted to support divinity of Jesus Christ.
Using a razor, Jefferson cut and pasted his arrangement of selected verses from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in chronological order, mingling excerpts from one text to those of another in order to create a single narrative. Thus he begins with Luke 2 and Luke 3, then follows with Mark 1 and Matthew 3. He provides a record of which verses he selected and of the order in which he arranged them in his “Table of the Texts from the Evangelists employed in this Narrative and of the order of their arrangement”.
Consistent with his naturalistic outlook and intent, most supernatural events are not included in Jefferson’s heavily edited compilation. Paul K. Conkin states that “For the teachings of Jesus he concentrated on his milder admonitions (the Sermon on the Mount) and his most memorable parables. What resulted is a reasonably coherent, but at places oddly truncated, biography. If necessary to exclude the miraculous, Jefferson would cut the text even in mid-verse.” Historian Edwin Scott Gaustad explains, “If a moral lesson was embedded in a miracle, the lesson survived in Jeffersonian scripture, but the miracle did not. Even when this took some rather careful cutting with scissors or razor, Jefferson managed to maintain Jesus’ role as a great moral teacher, not as a shaman or faith healer.”
Therefore The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels (at that time), genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from his collection.
He described it in a letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813: In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurges, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines.
Thomas Jefferson believed that the pure-principled teachings of Jesus should have been separated from the dogma and abuse of organized religion of the day. This led him to recast, by cutting and pasting from the gospels, a new narrative of the life and teachings of Jesus, where, according to Jefferson, “there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
Thomas Jefferson, together with several of his fellow founding fathers, was influenced by the principles of deism, a construct that envisioned a supreme being as a sort of watchmaker who had created the world but no longer intervened directly in daily life. A product of the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson was keenly interested in science and the perplexing theological questions it raised. Although the author of the Declaration of Independence was one of the great champions of religious freedom, his belief system was sufficiently out of the mainstream that opponents in the 1800 presidential election labeled him a “howling Atheist.”
In fact, Jefferson was devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ. But he didn’t always agree with how they were interpreted by biblical sources, including the writers of the four Gospels, whom he considered to be untrustworthy correspondents. So Jefferson created his own gospel by taking a sharp instrument, perhaps a penknife, to existing copies of the New Testament and pasting up his own account of Christ’s philosophy, distinguishing it from what he called “the corruption of schismatizing followers.”
The second of the two biblical texts he produced is on display through May 28 at the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH) after a year of extensive repair and conservation. “Other aspects of his life and work have taken precedence,” says Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of the NMAH political history division. “But once you know the story behind the book, it’s very Jeffersonian.”
Jefferson produced the 84-page volume in 1820—six years before he died at age 83—bound it in red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He had pored over six copies of the New Testament, in Greek, Latin, French and King James English. “He had a classic education at [the College of] William & Mary,” Rubenstein says, “so he could compare the different translations. He cut out passages with some sort of very sharp blade and, using blank paper, glued down lines from each of the Gospels in four columns, Greek and Latin on one side of the pages, and French and English on the other.”
Much of the material Jefferson elected to not include related miraculous events, such as the feeding of the multitudes with only two fish and five loaves of barley bread; he eschewed anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” His idiosyncratic gospel concludes with Christ’s entombment but omits his resurrection. He kept Jesus’ own teachings, such as the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God.” The Jefferson Bible, as it’s known, is “scripture by subtraction,” writes Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University.
The first time Jefferson undertook to create his own version of Scripture had been in 1804. His intention, he wrote, was “the result of a life of enquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system, imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions.” Correspondence indicates that he assembled 46 pages of New Testament passages in The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. That volume has been lost. It focused on Christ’s moral teachings, organized by topic. The 1820 volume contains not only the teachings, but also events from the life of Jesus.
The Smithsonian acquired the surviving custom bible in 1895, when the Institution’s chief librarian, Cyrus Adler, purchased it from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Carolina Randolph. Originally, Jefferson had bequeathed the book to his daughter Martha.
The acquisition revealed the existence of the Jefferson Bible to the public. In 1904, by act of Congress, his version of Scripture, regarded by many as a newly discovered national treasure, was printed. Until the 1950s, when the supply of 9,000 copies ran out, each newly elected senator received a facsimile Jefferson Bible on the day that legislator took the oath of office. (Disclosure: Smithsonian Books has recently published a new facsimile edition.)
The original book now on view has undergone a painstaking restoration led by Janice Stagnitto Ellis, senior paper conservator at the NMAH. “We re-sewed the binding,” she says, “in such a way that both the original cover and the original pages will be preserved indefinitely. In our work, we were Jefferson-level meticulous.”
“The conservation process,” says Harry Rubenstein, “has allowed us to exhibit the book just as it was when Jefferson last handled it. And since digital pictures were taken of each page, visitors to the exhibition—and visitors to the web version all over the world—will be able to page through and read Jefferson’s Bible just as he did.”
By Owen Edwards, a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.
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- The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (The Jefferson Bible) by Thomas Jefferson -1819
- The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (the Jefferson Bible) Index