RLST 4260 The Bible in Judaism and Christianity – Prof. Sacks
Thomas Jefferson is known as one of the Founding Fathers of our nation and the author of the Declaration of Independence. While most Americans can recognize him as the 3rd President, many do not know that he also held a rather unorthodox view toward the Bible. For a large portion of his life, Jefferson desired to undertake a vast editing of the four Gospels into a form more in line with his morals. In 1819 he finally undertook this task, and by literally cutting and pasting the verses he wanted to use, put together his story of Jesus, called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. In this paper I want to first look at the unique techniques Jefferson used in creating The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth and a few of his reasons for these techniques before exploring a few examples from the actual text. Finally, I will offer a few reasons why I find Jefferson’s approach to the Bible compelling, but ultimately unconvincing.
For this course’s discussion on Thomas Jefferson we were given as background information two letters written by him to his friend William Short. The first letter was penned on October 31, 1819 and the second on August 4, 1820. These two letters, while not necessarily academic in nature, give an insight into Jefferson’s view of the Bible. In the second letter, much more explicit in its wording, Jefferson told Short that he “asked only what is granted in reading every other historian,” also be granted in reading the gospel accounts of Jesus. (8/4/1820, p. 1435) To this end, Jefferson felt that there were clearly two separate aspects of the Gospels: that which could be attributed to Jesus and that which was added by the “groveling authors.” (8/4/1820, p. 1436) He undertook the task of separating these two biblical natures because Jesus’ outstanding moral character, caught up within and surrounded by the chaff of his authors, needed to be rescued and justified “against the fictions of his pseudo-followers.” (8/4/1820, p. 1435)
Jefferson concluded that the parts of the Gospels clearly attributable to Jesus were the “sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms, and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence,” and that those texts should be liberated “of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications” of the authors. (8/4/1820, p. 1436) The parts to be deleted, literally by razor and scissors if necessary, included any references to Jesus’ “deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection, […] his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, […] etc.” (10/31/1819, p. 1433) Jefferson urged the use of reason to accomplish this removal of “things against the course of nature,” from the biblical texts, (8/4/1820, p. 1435) and he thought the task shouldn’t be that difficult for a person who read the Gospels with a critical eye.
I want to first look at a few examples of how Jefferson employed his technique and reasoning before addressing the coherence of each. During class we took for our discussion Jefferson’s treatment of Luke 12: 1-15, from which he removed verses 8-12. In the remaining verses, Jesus teaches an “innumerable multitude” some moral platitudes. In summary, he urges his followers to avoid the “leaven of the Pharisees,” (which he clarifies to mean hypocrisy) and to act justly even when those actions are hidden because “there is nothing covered that shall not be revealed.” He goes on to explain how they should also not act in a covetous way, because a man’s life is “not in the abundance of things” that he owns. Curiously, in between those two very human moralistic teachings, Jefferson left in a reference by Jesus to a being who “hath power to case into hell,” and an explanation that the disciples should fear this being alone. I will discuss this curiosity in a later section. (All Bible quotations taken from The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.)
More interesting is what Jefferson removed in verses 8-12. Here, Jesus exhorts his disciples to confess him, the Son of man, before other men. In return, he will confess them “before the angels of God,” but if they deny him, he shall deny them as well. Additionally, Jesus references the Holy Ghost in these deleted verses, telling his followers to trust during times of tribulation, “for the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.” One can see why Jefferson would delete these final lines referencing the Holy Ghost as an account of the Trinity, explicitly placed on his list of unacceptable impostures. The other lines, however, only imply that Jesus is imposing a divine form upon himself. He is definitely saying that he has the power to testify on the behalf of these followers before angels, and is therefore very important in the grand scheme, but not explicitly divine. Nonetheless, Jefferson removed the reference.
In my second example from The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson took his razor to John 18: 28-38 and removed a single verse: John 18: 33 did not make the cut – literally. By this point in the story, Jesus has been arrested and Pontius Pilate is preparing to question him. Not wanting any trouble, Pilate tells the crowds to go and judge him by their own laws, but the rabble responds, “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death.” Enter here the scissors of Jefferson. Laying upon the floor of Monticello, the next line reads, “That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spoke, signifying what death he should die.” This deleted verse is an aside within the story arch, and one that implies a miraculous aspect of Jesus’ character: prophecy. Predicting the type of death one will die would certainly be considered miraculous, if not also somewhat morbid. The importance in the minds of later Christians of Jesus’ death and its relation to his divinity almost certainly added to Jefferson’s decision to remove a hint of prophecy such as this. I chose the deletion of this single verse to show how Jefferson had no problem removing sections big or small if they did not fit his standard.
Having discussed Jefferson’s argument and technique for viewing and editing the Bible, I want to explain three reasons why I am not convinced that he had good reason to do so. First, I think his original premise, that the Gospels can be treated the same as other history books, inherently misunderstands and does a disservice to the Gospels. Simply put, the Gospels are each unique and complete narratives. These narratives contain elements of history, but they are not primarily historical sources. For a reader to pick and choose aspects of the message that each Gospel posits about Jesus without understanding the contextual narrative is bad enough, but to actually take razor and glue to the pages is much worse. I see editing like this to weaken the overall narrative. For example, readers can find within Jefferson’s own edit, specifically in the Sermon on the Mount, references to Jesus changing the Law of Moses. In his letters Jefferson even lists this as one of Jesus’ more laudable undertakings. The Jewish people, however, believed that this Law was divinely given, and in such a case only a divine entity would have the authority to actually change it. In this reading, Jesus is implicitly gesturing at his divine nature, and the fact that people listen to his teachings shows that they understood from where his authority came. If Jesus didn’t actually believe he was divine but implied the same so others would listen to him, is this not an immoral power grab by him? The gospel texts, as complete narratives, were written and imbued with the idea of Jesus’ divinity. By removing only the explicit references to this inherent theme, Jefferson did a disservice to the unity of the texts.
Second, I don’t believe one can so easily separate the more miraculous aspects from the moral teachings of Jesus with Jefferson’s reason-based technique. Jefferson reasoned that the superstitious parts attributed to Jesus go against his “well known and established” character, in the same way that claiming Caesar was not interested in politics would go against what we know of the Roman leader’s nature. (8/4/1820, p. 1435) I saw here an immediate problem in Jefferson’s logic. We know Caesar’s character only from the extant writings of his life, but if those writings said Caesar had different attributes, we would have since accepted those within his overall character. In the same way, all we reliably know of Jesus comes from the gospel texts, so to claim that some parts of the text point to Jesus’ accepted character while others go against that same character is a strange form of begging the question. As they exist now, the Gospels show that the authors believed Jesus to at least be imbued with miraculous powers, just as Caesar’s authors believed him to be a great military general. Jefferson added that he had been convinced of this character argument – specifically regarding Jesus’ divinity – by “men more learned” than himself, but he offered no evidence from these learned scholars. (8/4/1820, p. 1438) In his defense, the lack of a more reasoned explanation was probably the result of the letter format within which this discussion was framed.
Finally, in an issue related to the other two, I think that Jefferson did not always follow his own guidelines on what aspects of the Gospels should be deleted and kept. The two examples I listed above actually both contain instances of this problem. I mentioned how in John 12 Jefferson left in a reference to a being, presumably Satan in some form, who can cast persons into hell. Granted, that verse does not explicitly name Satan or a devil as the being to be feared, but knowing that Jefferson did not like to view the Supreme Being as wrathful or cruel, I do not know what other being he could be talking about. He clearly decided to delete other references to angels and heavenly beings, but in these verses we find some power other than God that inexplicably survived his edit. Similarly, Jefferson removed from John 18 Jesus’ prophecy concerning his death, but left in an earlier scene in Gethsemane that is filled with implicit prophecy of the same. What fills the cup that Jesus is asking the Father to take from him if not his impending suffering and death? Perhaps Jefferson read that scene differently, but in the absence of such an explanation, I cannot imagine any other reason to leave the entire passage within his story of Jesus. Lastly, Jefferson offered as one of the positive attributes of Jesus his “emphasis and precision” in teaching the doctrine of a “future state of existence.” (8/4/1820, p. 1437) I would want to then ask him how the concept of an afterlife is in any way less reasonable or more naturally provable than something like Jesus’ divinity or a recorded miraculous event?
Additionally, why did Thomas Jefferson feel the need to rescue and justify the character of Jesus at all? I have asked myself this question from the beginning of my inquiry into his version of the Bible. Couldn’t Jefferson have just taken what he wanted from the Gospels and ignored the rest? I think the answer to these questions shows at once a redeeming quality of the 3rd President and a problem in his following logic. As a sound-minded individual, I don’t think Jefferson could follow the moral code of a man he ultimately viewed as an imposter. At the same time, he really valued the moral code he saw attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, and so set about proving that Jesus was not an imposter. I view this logic as proceeding backwards, but at least it was well-intentioned.
I value that Thomas Jefferson took his ideas to their ultimate conclusion within The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, but at the same time I cannot agree with those conclusions. Even with the questions of his consistency and at times questionable logic set aside, Jefferson ultimately did a disservice to the texts by picking through them and not treating each Gospel as a coherent narrative within itself.
Jefferson, Thomas. 8/4/1820. “Jesus and the Jews.” Letter to William Short. Course material.
Jefferson, Thomas. 10/31/1819. “I too am an Epicurean.” Letter to William Short. Course material.
Jefferson, Thomas. 1819. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Accessed from:
http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/62/The_Jefferson_Bible_The_Life__Morals_of_Jesus_of_Nazareth_1.html. (All Bible citations taken from here.)