Mike Kueber's Blog

April 17, 2012

The Jefferson Bible and kindred spirits

Filed under: Philosophy,Religion — Mike Kueber @ 7:38 pm
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While talking religion with a friend a few days ago, he mentioned the Jefferson Bible.  According to my friend, POTUS-3 had taken the Christian Bible and removed those parts that he believed were unbelievable.  Sounds like the first Cafeteria Catholic.  As someone who doesn’t believe in miracles, I thought that was an interesting concept and made a note to research the concept. 

Then yesterday, another friend posted a comment on my Facebook wall about his non-Christian (agnostic/atheist) friend who was considering marrying a Christian who would raise their children as Christians because he so admired the values taught by Christianity and wanted his children raised in that environment.  That comment prompted me to follow-up on the Jefferson Bible.

I have previously blogged about the religious beliefs of our nation’s Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, and have suggested that most of the leading Founders are more accurately characterized as Deists than Christians and the Jefferson Bible is further evidence of this.    

According to Wikipedia, the Jefferson Bible is also known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  It is taken from the first four books in the New Testament (gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and it contains “a chronological version of Jesus’ life, distilling his moral teachings, excluding those aspects which appeared to him ‘contrary to reason.’”

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, however, there were two Jefferson Bibles:

  1. The book that the Smithsonian is preparing to put on display is actually one of two Jefferson Bibles. Jefferson produced the first over the course of a few days in 1804. Not long after completing the Louisiana Purchase, he sat down in the White House with two Bibles and one razor, intent on dividing the true words of Jesus from those put into his mouth by “the corruptions of schismatising followers.” The result was “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth“: a severely abridged text (now lost) that, like the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, consisted entirely of Jesus’ sayings. In this “precious morsel of ethics,” as Jefferson put it, Jesus prayed to God and affirmed the afterlife, but he was not born in a manger and did not die to atone for anyone’s sins.
  2. In 1820, after retiring from public life, Jefferson produced a second scripture by subtraction—the book that is now being restored in D.C. In “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” he again sought to excise passages “of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, or superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” This time, however, he arranged his material chronologically rather than topically, and he included both the sayings and actions of Jesus. He also included passages in English, French, Latin and Greek.  To readers familiar with the New Testament, this Jefferson Bible, as it is popularly called, begins and ends abruptly. Rather than opening, as does the Gospel of John, in the beginning with the Word, Jefferson raises his curtain on a political and economic drama: Caesar’s decree that all the world should be taxed. His story concludes with this hybrid verse: “There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” Between these points, there are no angels, no wise men, and not a hint of the resurrection.  After completing this second micro-testament, Jefferson claimed in a letter to a friend that it demonstrated his bona fides as a Christian. “It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”  That, of course, has been hotly debated from the election of 1800 to today, and Jefferson has been called an infidel, a Deist and more. What is most clear is that he was not a traditional Christian. He unequivocally rejected the Nicene Creed, which has defined orthodoxy for most Christians since 381. And he was contemptuous of the doctrine of the Trinity, calling it “mere Abracadabra” and “hocus-pocus phantasm.”  None of that prevented Jefferson from claiming to represent real Christianity, or from dismissing his clerical despisers as “Pseudo-Christians”—imposters peddling a counterfeit faith. Religion is about doing good, he insisted, not abstract theologizing.

A FoxNews.com article by Lauren Green provides some context to Jefferson’s aversion to miracles:

  • Jefferson was very much a product of thinking of the time, known as the Enlightenment,” said Andrew O’Shaughnessy, director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. “And so he was unwilling to accept anything that couldn’t be proved on the basis of evidence. So he was determined to remove what he felt couldn’t be substantiated.”  Jefferson was also a man of reason, says Dr. Peter Onuf, of the University of Virginia. “Miracles would upset the lawful universe Jefferson believed in. If there was going to be enlightenment and therefore the popularity of self-government, there had to be law.”

Thomas Jefferson and I seem to be kindred spirits.


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