Jefferson’s Jesus: the Jefferson Bible Part I, Gospel Texts that are Absent

11/05/2017 03:58 pm ET Updated Nov 06, 2017

Jefferson’s Jesus: the Jefferson Bible Part I, Gospel Texts that are Absent

Dr. Christopher Rollston

Thomas Jefferson was certainly among the most learned of our presidents. Of course, he was also the author of the Declaration of Independence, a farmer of Virginia’s Monticello, a gifted and accomplished diplomat, someone enamored of the newest inventions of his time, and an ardent supporter of religious freedom. And he was perforce a voracious reader. Indeed, Jefferson’s library was then among the most impressive personal libraries in the entire country. Significantly, some six years prior to his death (d. 1826), he himself completed a book that he had been contemplating and working on for many years, a volume entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, and English (1820). Often this volume is called “The Jefferson Bible.”

The striking thing is that this volume is definitively *not* a volume that consists of Jefferson’s learned musings on the content of the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). In fact, there is no commentary from Jefferson in this volume at all, with the rare partial exception of a few glosses about historical background (such as section seventy-seven which has a few words about Roman law). Rather it is just a selection of sections (which could be referred to as “pericopes,” “paragraphs,” or “passages”) from the canonical Gospels, sections that Thomas Jefferson considered to be historical in nature and (or) sections that he considered to be paradigmatic of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. All of this is preceded by a three-page table of contents, written in Jefferson’s own hand. As for the selection of Gospel sections, there are a grand total of eighty-two in all. In terms of layout on the page, each section is given first in Greek (which is the original language of all four Gospels), then given in Latin (i.e., the Latin Vulgate), then French, and then English. The arrangement is in columns (and so the Greek and Latin of the Gospel section are on the left page, and the French and English are given on the right page, that is, the facing page). Jefferson literally cut these sections from printed Bibles which were part of his own library, and he then pasted these onto blank pages of a blank book. The final product is his “book,” that is, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”

It is useful to note some of the things that are present in Jefferson’s volume as well as some of the things that are absent. Because the absences are arguably the most revealing, it seems useful to focus on these in this article (a second article of mine will focus especially on the many things present). The canonical Gospel of Matthew is, of course, the first in the New Testament and its narratives about the birth of Jesus are thus the first. It is in Matthew that there are narratives about the coming of the wise men and also the narratives about the star pinpointing the location of the house in which the holy family was. The Gospel of Matthew also declares that Mary was a virgin (Matt 1:18-2:12). But none of this material is present in Jefferson’s Bible.

Rather, Jefferson’s first section is from the birth narrative of the Gospel of Luke. But Jefferson does not give a single word of the first chapter of Luke, the chapter that narrates the appearance of the angel Gabriel to the father of John the Baptist (i.e., Zechariah), the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, and the virgin birth (Luke 1:5-56). Thus, Jefferson’s Bible begins with the section about the census of Augustus Caesar (Luke 2:1-7). Within the Gospel of Luke, the succeeding verses details the angelic announcement to the shepherds that the “Messiah” and “Savior” had been born and was lying in a manger (Luke 2:8-20). But in Jefferson’s Bible this material about the angels referring to Jesus as Messiah and Savior is entirely omitted. The next verse (i.e., immediately after Luke 2:7 and the census) in Jefferson’s Bible is this: “And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called Jesus” (Luke 2:21). Within the canonical Gospel of Luke, the next few verses (i.e., Luke 2:22-38) refer to the glorious words of Simeon and Anna that portend the greatness and the suffering that will ultimately be part of the life of Jesus. But within Jefferson’s Bible, all of the material about Simeon and Anna is absent, omitted by Jefferson. After this omission, Jefferson’s Bible picks up with the narrative about Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple at the age of twelve (Luke 2:39-52). In sum, in Jefferson’s Bible, there are no angelic visitations at the birth of Jesus, no shepherds, no wise men, no Simeon, no Anna. And, of course, there is no virgin birth: Jesus is certainly born, but the references in Matthew and Luke to the virginity of Mary are omitted in Jefferson’s Bible. Thus, “section one” in Jefferson’s Bible has some stunning omissions.

Let’s move now to the very end of Jefferson’s Bible, the sections about the betrayal, trials, suffering, and death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. These are contained in sections seventy through eighty-two in Jefferson’s Bible. Here are the details: sections seventy through seventy-two are the Gospel narratives about things such as the decision of Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus, as well as some didactic material from Jesus, his washing of the disciples’ feet, and his prayers. Section seventy-three of Jefferson’s Bible are the Gospel narratives about Judas conducting the officers to Jesus. Sections seventy-four and seventy-five of Jefferson’s Bible are the Gospel narratives about the arrest of Jesus and then his appearance before the High Priest Caiaphas. Section seventy-six of Jefferson’s Bible contains the Gospel narratives about the appearance of Jesus before Pilate. Section seventy-seven contains the Gospel narratives about the appearance of Jesus before Herod. Section seventy-eight contains the Gospel narratives about Pilate’s command to have Jesus scourged and executed. Sections seventy-nine through eighty-two contain the narratives about the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus. And that is the end of Jefferson’s Bible. The Gospel accounts about the resurrection of Jesus are entirely absent. In Jefferson’s Bible, Jesus is buried. There is no resurrection.

But this is not all. In the narratives of the canonical Gospels, there are multiple stories about Jesus raising the dead, people such as Lazarus (John 11:28-44), the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17), the daughter of Jairus the ruler of the synagogue (Luke 8:40-56). All of these narratives are absent from Jefferson’s Bible. And within the Gospel narratives, Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52; cf. Matt 20:29-34; Luke 18:35-43), but this narrative is absent from Jefferson’s Bible. And in the Gospel narratives, Jesus casts a demon out of the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30), but this narrative is not present in Jefferson’s Bible. And in the Gospel narratives, Jesus cleanses ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19), but this too is absent from Jefferson’s Bible. And in the Gospel narratives, Jesus heals a man at the Pool of Bethesda, a man who had been unable to walk for some thirty-eight years (John 5:1-9). But this narrative is absent from Jefferson’s Bible as well. In fact, all of the Gospel narratives about the miracles of Jesus are absent from the Jefferson Bible. Entirely. In short, Jefferson’s Bible is without miracles.

Jefferson was a voluminous writer of letters. Some of these provide a window into Jefferson’s view of the writers of the Gospels (and thus the content of the Gospels) and into the historical Jesus himself. First and foremost, about the canonical Gospels, Jefferson said the following in a letter to Dr. Joseph Priestly, a letter written in Washington, dated April 9, 1803: “To do him [Jesus], justice, it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages his doctrines have to encounter, not having been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him; when much was forgotten, much misunderstood, and presented in very paradoxical shapes.” Similarly, in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, a letter written in Washington, dated April 21, 1803, he also said about the teaching of Jesus as contained in the canonical Gospels: they “have come down to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.” Thus, Thomas Jefferson considered the canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) to be poor and distant reflections of the actual words and deeds of Jesus. This is really quite a stunning fact. Of course, because Jefferson understood the canonical Gospels as dim reflections of the actual life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, it comes as no surprise that he wished to focus on the things that he believed were the facts about the life and teaching of Jesus. That is, the rationale for his putting together his “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” is not hard to discern.

Significantly, on a few occasions, Jefferson referred in his letters to his work on this very project. For example, it is clear that at first Jefferson was just using an English translation. Thus, in a letter to Charles Thomson, a letter written at Monticello, January 9, 1816: “I have made a wee-little book….which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts of out the book and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen.” But within this same letter Jefferson states, “If I had time, I would add to my little book the Greek, Latin, and French texts, in columns side by side.” Some of the motivations for Jefferson’s “Life and Morals of Jesus” are further articulated by Jefferson in a letter to John Adams, a letter written at Monticello on October 12, 1813. In that letter, Jefferson told Adams that Jesus was a reformer and that he (Jefferson) considers it essential to discern the nature of the life and teachings of Jesus and to produce a new volume. In it “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 easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.

In addition to providing a window into Jefferson’s Bible, these statements of Jefferson cause us to contemplate that which Jefferson believed about Jesus of Nazareth. That is, for Thomas Jefferson who was Jesus of Nazareth, did he perform miracles, and was he divine? Fortunately, there are enough statements in his letters to discern his views. For example, in his letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1803, he stated about Jesus: “his parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence.” Regarding the divinity of Jesus, Jefferson wrote in a letter to William Short, dated August 4, 1820 and penned at Monticello, that “That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore.” And in an earlier letter to William Short, Jefferson had been even more candid. That letter is dated October 31, 1819 and was written at Monticello. Jefferson referred (in the body of that letter) to “artificial systems” of certain aspects of the Christian tradition and in his own footnote in this letter he describes these “artificial systems” as belief, for example, in “the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of hierarchy, etc.” (similarly, in his letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, dated June 26, 1822, Jefferson refers to John Calvin’s “demoralizing dogmas” and included in his list is Calvin’s belief in “three Gods,” that is, the Trinity). In short, Thomas Jefferson considered Jesus of Nazareth to have been a great teacher of goodness and morality, but not born of a virgin, not capable of working miracles, not divine, and not resurrected.

Jefferson considered himself to be Christian. So, for example, in his letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush on April 21, 1803, Jefferson wrote: “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.” In his letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, written on June 26, 1822, Jefferson stated: “The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man: (1) That there is one only God, and he all perfect; (2) That there is a future state of rewards and punishments; (3) That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.

Jefferson is certainly a towering figure in American history. And his views of religion, and his views of the canonical Gospels, are particularly interesting and important. Along those lines, during the past forty years, I have often heard people talk about “the faith of the founding fathers.” That statement is often replete with a superabundance of assumptions (many of them not all that accurate). Therefore, the thing that I would wish to emphasize, as a historian of religion, is that Thomas Jefferson considered himself to be a person of faith, and to be a Christian. But his version of Christianity was an enlightened one, one in which Jesus of Nazareth was lauded as a great moral preacher of goodness and kindness. Sans miracles. And this is particularly clear from this priceless volume entitled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”

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