|Synopsis||This strange book was hidden from history for the first century of its existence, but when it was discovered it showed some of the secrets of the faith of Thomas Jefferson.|
|Author||Thomas Jefferson, assembled from the text of the New Testament|
|Release Date||Completed: 1820, Congressional Edition: 1904, Smithsonian Edition: 2011|
Thomas Jefferson is one of the most important members of the founding fathers of the United States. He wrote the Declaration of Independence, served as the United States’ representative to France throughout the war, and became the third president of the country from 1801-1809. Anyone who has seen Hamilton or 1776 can tell you that much, though.
What’s less discussed nowadays are the ideas the man put forward during the foundation of the country. In that regard, he was a Virginian, an anti-federalist, an advocate of the French Revolution, and something of a religious dissenter. Despite attending Anglican services throughout his life, he privately revealed deep reservations about the Christian faith to his closest friends and publicly advocated for the separation of church and state. Because of this, he was often dismissed as an atheist by his political enemies.
The truth was far more complicated than he ever let on, though. A strange document in his library was revealed decades after his death, revealing some of the most complex, heretical, and fascinating thoughts that Jefferson had kept secret his entire life.
Spiritual Content: The book is comprised of elements of the four New Testament Gospels rearranged and organized to remove supernatural elements and miracles.
Violence: Some Biblical violence
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: Some Biblical references to sexuality
Drug/Alcohol Use: Some Biblical references to alcohol consumption
Other Negative Themes: Some readers may find the material overtly offensive or heretical
Positive Content: Fascinating and revealing text that offers insight into the founding fathers
There’s an outstanding tension at the core of America’s founding ideology. More than 250 years later, it still hasn’t been resolved. What was the role of religion in the founding of the United States?
Christians maintain that the values of Judeo-Christian heritage infused the ethics and lives of the founding fathers. Atheists maintain that the texts of the founders were first and foremost the product of enlightenment reason, which shackled the role of Christianity to a secondary status. In truth, the answer is somewhat in between. Many of the founding fathers were ambivalent about religion. Others were strict fundamentalists. It’s hard to argue, though, that Christianity wasn’t the air society breathed at the time. Even religiously ambivalent people appealed to God in their speeches or tacitly admitted that God existed.
Thomas Paine, John Adams, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson were all criticized by Christians for their relative ambivalence towards the faith. Each man had his own complicated relationship with the divine. It was in this atmosphere of tension, apprehension, and uncertainty that one of the most profound and fascinating documents of the founding fathers found its way into existence – The Jefferson Bible.
The President’s Bible
Jefferson wasn’t an atheist or an anti-theist. Officially, he was an Anglican. He was fairly ambivalent about religion but he never went out of his way to chastise his fellow man. As Jefferson wrote in 1819, “I am of a sect of myself, as far as I know.”
His Bible makes for a good window into that sect. He constructed the book himself over the course of several years by individually cutting quotes out of copies of Greek, Latin, French, and English texts of the Bible with a razor. He carefully arranged and glued them together in chronological order. Then, he sent the scrapbook off to a bookmaker who bound the volume in fine red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Two versions of the book were made, one in 1804 and a second in 1820. The first volume is lost to history but the second is owned by the Smithsonian.
If you buy the Smithsonian Edition of the book which I am reading, you get to see just what kind of detail, focus, and organization he put into the text. The 82-page volume is carefully and delicately carved to look neat and organized on paper. Jefferson also handwrote a table of contents in the opening pages and glued a map of the ancient world into the book’s cover.
Amusingly, this edition takes careful efforts to even recreate some of the original book’s errors. On page 52, a small pop-out insert is glued to the side of the page which contains Mark 12:27, which he had evidently forgotten to add until late in the process. He thus glued it to the side of the page and folded it to avoid giving the book’s binding an uneven edge.
For all his ambivalence, he took the project very seriously, more seriously than most Christians and atheists would give him credit for. Jefferson was primarily a student of reason. He couldn’t abide by superstition and miracles. Whatever respect he had for the Gospels, he couldn’t handle their religious elements. At the same time, he was a student of Aristotle and took for granted that God’s existence was rationally self-evident.
While Jefferson owned multiple copies of the Bible in many languages, Life and Morals seems to be the one he most frequently consulted. Jefferson once said, “I never go to bed without an hour, or half hour’s previous reading of something moral”. His own personal Bible appears to have been one of the books he most revisited in the final decade of his life. He clearly had a deep and personal connection with the wisdom of Jesus Christ yet kept it at arm’s length.
Interestingly enough, the project appears to have been somewhat encouraged by his religious friends. He was close friends with the founding father Benjamin Rush. Rush had been Pennsylvania’s representative to the continental congress. He was a well-regarded scientist and physician as well as an evangelical Presbyterian. As the introduction to my edition describes him, “His faith laid emphasis on one’s personal and emotional communion with God, the importance of fellowship among believers and the reliance on the Bible rather than the teachings of learned clergymen.”
One might see at a glance why the rigidly anti-authoritarian Jefferson might have felt more comfortable discussing religious matters with Rush than with other fundamentalists. Both men were advocates for religious dissent and the separation of church and state. Rush was a man of science and faith in equal measure and never seemed to have let the two forces come into tension. He was quoted as saying “the truths of Christianity dwell alike in the mind of the deity, and reason and religion are equally the offspring of his goodness.”
The formulation of the Life and Morals may have come about because of their friendship. Rush had encouraged Jefferson in their correspondence to try and write out his feelings about religion on paper and to fully formulate his beliefs. He eventually did. During his first term as President in 1803, he wrote out what he called his “Syllabus of the Estimate of the Merit of the doctrines of Jesus”. This would serve as his outline and template going into the actual project. Within a year, he’d finished the first 46-page rendition of his Bible.
It should say something about Jefferson that he never wanted others to know he personally tore several bibles apart. During his life, he only told a few of his closest friends. When he repaired his relationship late in life with John Adams, he shared details about the book with him. Beyond his immediate circle, he took the book’s existence to his grave. When Jefferson died in 1826, it found its way into the late president’s library and fell into obscurity for decades.
People found out about it well after his death. Its existence was revealed in the late 19th century, when it was rediscovered and sold to the Smithsonian. Immediately, the book’s contents were made public and copies of the book started being recreated. In 1904, Congress commissioned a set of lithograph recreations which were given as gifts to every member until the 1950s, when they ran out of copies. Book publishers immediately took the contents and recreated public domain versions of The Jefferson Bible for the public. They sold quite well!
In recent decades, Life and Morals became a front in the culture wars. The book was latched onto by atheist groups who considered the book a notch in their favor. In 2013, the American Humanist Association picked up the old tradition and started printing their own editions of the book to hand out to members of government who wanted them, including President Barrack Obama. Jefferson’s writing, alongside other less religious founding fathers, has found its way into more than its fair share of atheist campaigns and websites. The Freedom From Religion Foundation‘s website proudly displays this oft-abused Jefferson quote from 1787:
Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear. … Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find inducements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.
Such arguments are flimsily made. Jefferson was never a flag-waving anti-theist who believed that public displays of religion were unconstitutional and oppressive. As Jonah Goldberg writes in his book The Tyranny of Clichés, the founding fathers “had no objection to official displays of religiosity. Until well into the nineteenth century, the largest weekly church service in the United States took place in the U.S. Capital building. At the request of President Jefferson, music was provided at federal expense by the United States Marine Band.”
On the flip side, many conservative Christians have flatly refused to acknowledge the book’s existence. The popular historian David Barton, in his book The Jefferson Lies, all but denies the book’s existence and other conservative historians deny its significance. As TownHall wrote in 2019, “This abridgment… was not a biography of Jesus, only His ‘philosophy’ as the title states. As such it left out most material found in the Gospels that did not fit the goal of compiling a ‘philosophy,’ but there is no evidence of a motive to delete all of the miracles or evidences of Jesus’ divinity.”
It’s asinine to pretend like carving the Holy Bible with a razor blade ISN’T a big deal. If he wasn’t writing some sort of esoteric wisdom literature, why else would he have carved the Bible up? Why would he have hidden it from the public? All historical evidence suggests it was to soothe his religious anxieties.
Maybe Jefferson’s instinct to hide his Bible was more profound than he realized. Jefferson may have written the phrase “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights,” but his idea of the Creator is very different than either side is prepared to acknowledge. Both sides merely want to use the founding father’s dearly held beliefs as a cudgel in the culture wars. If we want to actually extract some value from the text, we need to look at the book itself, what it contains and explore how the intellectual roots of the book were seeded in the mind of America’s third president.
Contents of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth
Unlike previous books in the Classics series, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth isn’t something I can review like a traditional book. It was never meant to be published or read, unlike The Illiad or Fahrenheit 451. Functionally speaking, it’s hardly a book at all. It’s more like a diary or a mixtape. It’s something far more fragile than those texts.; it was a secret that should’ve died with its creator. That said, there are plenty of ways we can approach the book from a literary perspective. Like any good mixtape, its contents are chosen for specific reasons. We can learn about its creator by figuring out what he did, and didn’t, choose to leave in.
As one might infer, the book specifically focuses on the ministry of Jesus Christ. It starts from his birth, works its way through Christ’s adulthood, and then ends with his death. The book is textually extracted from the four Gospels of the New Testament and specifically focuses on the wisdom and historical events of the life of Christ. It mostly draws from Mark, Matthew, and Luke but does use some verses from John. If you’re familiar with the Bible, it’s not surprising why. If Jefferson’s goal was to avoid discussing the divine elements of Christ’s ministry, he likely wouldn’t have found that book the most useful one for his work, given that the Gospel of John is deeply concerned with the nature of Christ’s divinity.
The book’s index does list several verses he individually pulls for the book, including verses from John 2-3, 7-10, and 18-19. However, it is the most liberally avoided of the four Gospels. The segments he does include primarily concern events: Christ driving away the money changers from the Temple (John 2), the feast of the Tabernacle (John 7), preaching at the Mount of Olives (John 8), Christ healing the blind man (John 10, although Jefferson cut out the actual miracle), and Simon Peter’s betrayal (John 18).
At times, the book is insanely chopped to the point where almost none of the original text is present. The book begins chronologically at the beginning of Luke 2:1-7, then cuts to 2:21, skips again to look 2:39-48, and lastly moves to 2:51-52. It reads like this:
And she brought forth her first born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name ws called Jesus, And when they had perfomred all things, according to the law of the lord, they returned to galileee, to their own city Nazareth.
That’s one way to ruin Christmas… Every celebrated aspect of the story is completely excised. The heavenly host doesn’t appear to the shepherds watching their flocks by night. The three wise men make no appearance. Mary and Joseph don’t flee in exile to Egypt to avoid Pilot’s massacre of the firstborn sons.
The entire book is like this. The ending is even more religiously controversial and doesn’t depict the resurrection. The final pages of the book cut between Matthew 19 and Matthew 27. It reads like this:
Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen cloths with the spices as the manner of the Jews is to bury. Now in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulachre and departed.
It’s a cryptic and somber ending if there ever was one. So what is left of the text? What does this strange collage of mismatched quotes and rearranged stories tell us about Jefferson’s faith?
Functionally speaking, the book reads less like a religious text and more like Plato’s Last Days of Socrates. It feels like the story of a man like Cicero, Seneca, or Cato the Elder – a story of a great man and a radical philosopher living in an unjust time. Like Socrates and Cicero, this story rewrites Christ as a politician and a moral teacher. His message is so radical that it disrupts the religious establishment and forces them to have him put to death. Socrates’s story was naturally about one man’s bravery, stubbornness, and illnesses to embrace death without fear. Both stories involved innocent men being falsely accused, tried, and executed by the state; but they win a better fate than their enemies. Their martyrdom cements their legacy and wisdom for the rest of time.
Certainly, a radical revolutionary and an enemy of authority would find such a story virtuous and appealing. We also know for a fact that Jefferson had such ideas in mind when he first set out to create the book. One of his inspirations was the radical Anglican theologian Joseph Priestly. His books An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782) and Socrates and Jesus Compared (1803) were well-regarded by Jefferson. He enjoyed the way that Priestly argued that the dogma of the Bible had been corrupted by the church, that elements of Biblical superstition were falsehoods, and that Christ’s moral teachings were much like the work of Socrates.
What set Jesus apart from those radical philosophers to Jefferson was his universality. As Rubinstein and Smith write in the Smithsonian Edition’s introduction:
Jefferson concluded that Jesus of Nazareth had challenged and reformed the Judaism of his day. Advising his followers to love their neighbors, Jesus had extended a code of ethics beyond the individual’s outer life, or the mere performance of social obligations, to encompass each person’s inner state. Equally important, Jesus had made the moral duties of affection, benevolence, and philanthropy incumbent on all mankind.
The astute reader should be aware that Jesus and Socrates are very different historical figures. Their deaths mean very different things and to conflate them misses the central message of their lives. As G.K. Chesterton writes in his work Everlasting Man (1925):
No two things could possibly be more different than the death of Socrates and the death of Christ. We are meant to feel that the death of Socrates was, from the point of view of his friends at least, a stupid muddle and miscarriage of justice interfering with the flow of a humane and lucid, I had almost said a light philosophy. We are meant to feel that Death was the bride of Christ as Poverty was the bride of St. Francis.
Humane as it may be on Jefferson’s part, such a perspective does have the side effect of neutering the text. Jefferson’s literary habit was to ignore the miracles and supernatural elements of Christ’s ministry, but elements of them remained. As a result, there’s a subtextual whiplash in the material. As Peter Manseau writes in his book The Jefferson Bible:
In following closely Jefferson’s account of Jesus’s life, one begins to see that despite Jefferson’s insistence that performing miracles and other divine attributes were later additions to essential teaching, without them there is often not much to say about the immediate effect of Jesus’s ministry had on those around him. We are given chapter upon chapter of what Jefferson believed to be the words of Jesus but no real sense of why anyone would have listened to him. With miracles hinted at but never delivered, forgiveness discussed but never offered, the text often has the feeling of a series of jokes without their punch lines. Jefferson’s Jesus stories are all set up and no payoff (71-72).
In some ways, Jefferson is tracking in a very modern heresy – the desire to make Jesus into a person who vindicates our lives and prejudices. We see this now across the political spectrum. Socialists quote Christ’s scathing invective towards the rich while ignoring his strict sexual and personal virtues. Nationalists appeal to Christ as a great warrior of the faith who teaches the virtues of family and sacrifices while ignoring Christ’s complete ambivalence towards politics and cultural chauvinism. Christ is not a character designed to make us feel better about ourselves. He’s a man who was supposed to be followed with abandon.
By rewriting the life of Christ, Jefferson created new problems where old ones hadn’t existed before. Whatever can be said about the legitimacy of the Bible by Christians and atheists, most would agree that the book is intended to be complete. It’s a whole unit. It’s cohesive. It’s self-referential and intertextual. The moment you start taking stories and motifs out of the Bible, you’re metaphorically pulling blocks out of the Jenga tower. More aptly, it’s like ripping random pages out of a book and trying to understand the story with a only few dozen pages out of several hundred.
Lest we forget, the Bible itself speaks very negatively about altering scripture:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. – Revelation 22:18 (NIV)
The Contradictions of Reason and Faith
Jefferson’s ambivalence towards religion wasn’t unique to him. He was a member of what we today call the Deist Movement. Deism is something of a lost ideology in modern theology. The questions it aimed to solve are no longer relevant to modern religious discourse. Religious fundamentalism and scientific reason have grown much farther apart in the past two hundred years.
Deism is an archaic and mostly abandoned philosophy that was popular in Europe at the time of the American Revolution. Jefferson, as well as many of his cohorts, were students of the idea that God existed but that he was mostly a distant and unengaged actor in the universe. They believed God was necessary to create life and the universe but that appealing to revelation or miracles to explain religious narratives was irrational. God’s reality was unquestioned, but nothing else could be discerned about his nature that couldn’t be learned through reason.
Deism is no longer relevant because the central argument of Aristotelian metaphysics, namely the concept of the “unmoved mover”, is no longer considered rational. A rationalist has plenty of grounds to explain the origin of life and the universe without the necessity of God. Revelation is useless to the modern enlightened mind because it is functionally unprovable in an empirical sense.
That doesn’t mean that the central tension of Deism doesn’t exist within modern society. If anything, it’s gotten worse; its ideas can be felt everywhere. As late as the New Atheist movement, the challenges between reason and religious fundamentalism have ripped society apart. We don’t seem to have a cultural precedent for how to resolve reason and faith without throwing out one or the other.
That’s part of why I find Life and Morals to be so interesting. This book sits comfortably at the exact intersection where the two great tensions of modern spirituality continue to rip and tear at one another. It’s a diary filled with contradictions and heresies yet feels fully human and relatable. It tells us the story of every person who ever stayed up late at night staring at the ceiling and struggling to decide what he believes.
The Jefferson Bible is an artifact of that irresolution. It shows a desire to graft the best aspects of Christendom into the most important insights of the enlightenment. That said, it’s an ill-advised project in execution. Jefferson was one of the greatest minds in American history, and it speaks to the nature of his thoughts that his most private intellectual failures still ring so powerfully after two hundred years. Even he couldn’t fully work through the tension between these ideas.
Then again, he was a man of many contradictions: a defender of liberty who owned slaves, a Christian who denied the divinity of Christ, a rationalist who couldn’t put the Bible down, and so on. This book, the last creation he left behind, is evidence of that nature.
At the time of this writing, it’s been 202 years since Thomas Jefferson first finished The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. The existence of this book merely confirms just how tortured and unresolved his faith and mind were throughout his life, just as they are to many people right now. So long as we fail to resolve the benevolence of Christ with the rationality of the philosophes, we will continue to benefit from the worst aspects of both extremes.
+ Deeply Personal and Fascination Revelations about the Faith of a Founder of our Country
+ Thematically Fascinating Retelling of the Life of Christ
+ Invaluable Historical Document
- Potentially Heretical Implications
- Easy to Disabuse as Propaganda in the Culture Wars
The Bottom Line
The Jefferson Bible is a text any student of American history ought to page through. It's an invaluable artifact of history that speaks to the modern tensions between science and religion.