Angela's Reviews > The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

The Jefferson Bible by Thomas Jefferson
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Sep 01, 2010

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Read from August 30 to 31, 2010 , read count: 1

To thoroughly grasp the hubris, imagine it in modern day: a US president whose religious beliefs are widely regarded as insufficient and blasphemous towards Christian doctrine, deciding that he doesn't really care for the Bible as it's written--too many miracles, and that Paul character, he's gotta go--so he'll just take some scissors, snip out the good parts, and rearrange them into a better order. Clearly, Thomas Jefferson predated cable news networks. Apparently, the Jefferson Bible is now distributed to members of the US Congress; I can't help but wonder how many of them have actually read it before lauding the Protestant religiosity of founding fathers. (The introductory matter in this edition claims that Jefferson's beliefs tended towards Unitarian, although it is published by the Unitarian church, and I'm having difficulty confirming anything more concrete than a "close alignment" with Unitarianism.)

Jefferson doesn't set out as many religious scholars do in an attempt to quarantine a historical Jesus from the embellishments of later generations' evangelizing competitiveness. If this were his goal I would expect a heavier reliance on the earlier gospels, especially Mark, but this isn't the case; basically, Jefferson snips out the miraculous and supernatural, leaving barebones biographical detail and the words attributed to Jesus himself, and rearranges things into an approximation of Chronological order (though several of the stories that appear in more than one gospel are separated by several pages). The translation is King James with almost no deviations, despite Jefferson using a side-by-side English/French/Greek/Latin edition. (Again, here a modern dedicated biblical historian would, I imagine, try to go back to the most original texts possible, though one can imagine the limitations of this in 19th century Virginia.)

One of the things that is both problematic and intensely lucky about Christianity, as opposed to more recent religions such as Islam, is that the details of Jesus's life and sayings were not recorded as they happened. We have, for example, a huge body of information via Hadiths and the Qu'ran about Muhammed that borders on TMI (a recent reading of Fatima Mernissi's The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women's Rights in Islam underscored this to me). Without too much information on the trivial details of Jesus's life, Christians are free to deviate from them rather than have every small dietary or sartorial choice be regarded as a religious pronouncement. This, at least, is consistent with the message of Jesus in the gospels. The downside, of course, is the resultant disagreement over resolving conflicts among spiritual texts written long after the fact.

The Jesus that is left after Jefferson's clippings is not unfamiliar, and perhaps more interesting for attracting followers through his Temple-reforming rabble rousing and philosophical questioning rather than miracle-performance. It worked well enough for Martin Luther, after all, I suppose. In the end, though, it probably gives more insight into Jefferson and his religious beliefs than it does into Christianity.
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message 1: by Brien (new)

Brien Angela, Thanks for the insightful review. I haven't read it, but I appreciate your thoughtful commentary. I guess I am a little more forgiving of Jefferson since people today are always messing with the wording of the Bible. Strange how we was so resistant to any mentioning of Miracles. If Jesus claimed to be God, or claim powers that only God could have (forgive sin), one would expect some Miracles. I wonder if his rejection of Paul's letters isn't primarily because Paul only met Christ through a miraculous event. Without a first person connection, maybe T. Jefferson didn't think Paul's comments merited inclusion. I definitely want to read it sometime, not to gain insight into the Bible, but as you said into Jefferson the person.

Robert He does not accept that Jesus is God, or even the son of God. He is interested in the purported philosophy of Jesus. He was Deist, not a Christian, according to what he himself says. He says he is a Christian only in the sense that he meditates on Jesus' philosophy and so is a "follower" of Jesus. The religious parts of the bible he has no interest in, so he cut them out. It seems more like an experiment than anything else.

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