George W. Bush wasn’t the first American President with an all-consuming interest in the Bible. Thomas Jefferson felt so inspired by his beliefs that he chose to re-write it. After reading his text, I can’t call what affected him “divine inspiration”, though. Our Third President decided to edit the Gospels and remove all references to Jesus’ divinity from them. He called this work The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Readers may know it more colloquially as The Jefferson Bible.
I’ll begin with the obvious question. What would possibly motivate someone to want to do this? The following quote opened my version of the work. It’s an excerpt from a letter Jefferson wrote to Charles Thompson.
I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials (The Gospels) which I call the Philosophy of Jesus. It is a paradigm of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of 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. It is a document in proof that I am a REAL CHRISTIAN, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and THEMSELVES Christians and preachers of the Gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the greater reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature.
One may not agree with Mr. Jefferson’s views, but it’s hard not to respect the strength of his convictions.
I attended Catholic schools for 13 years. Bible readings were a major part of the curriculum. I’d read or listened to the Gospels so often, that I thought it impossible to provide a new interpretation of them. The author of “The Declaration of Independence” proved me wrong. Reading Christ’s teachings presented this way, caused a few passages to really grab my attention.
LXII 22: Verily, verily I say unto you, the servant is no greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater that he that sent him.
XXVI 14 – 16 For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: all these things come from within and defile the man.
My personal favorite came from the Sermon on the Mount. It concerned judging others.
XI 88 – 89 Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
When reading the book, I did keep a close eye to see if Jefferson truly excised all references to Jesus’ divinity. I thought I found a few he missed. In Chapter IX Verse 12 Jesus healed people. In Chapter XIII Verse 13 He forgave sins. In Chapter XLVII Verse 4 Jesus said, “And he taught saying unto them, Is it not written, My house shall be called of all nations a house of prayer? But ye have made it a den of thieves.” I also found several references to “Fulfillment of the Scriptures.” Maybe it’s time for someone to secularize the Jefferson Bible.
I did find this book a very interesting read. The story of Jesus’ life and teachings presented in this manner came across much differently than I expected. While it may seem controversial on the surface, I’d still recommend The Jefferson Bible to Christians everywhere. It would have been tough to accuse Mr. Jefferson of doing anything improper by interpreting the Gospels in this fashion. You know what, it wouldn’t have bothered him, anyway. As he wrote,
Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life; if that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.