Why Thomas Jefferson Rewrote the Bible Without Jesus' Miracles and Resurrection

Why Thomas Jefferson Rewrote the Bible Without Jesus' Miracles and Resurrection


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The ex-president bent over the book, using a razor and scissors to carefully cut out small squares of text. Soon, the book’s words would live in their own book, hand bound in red leather and ready to be read in private moments of contemplation. Each cut had a purpose, and each word was carefully considered. As he worked, Thomas Jefferson pasted his selections—each in a variety of ancient and modern languages that reflected his vast learning—into the book in neat columns.

Thomas Jefferson was known as an inventor and tinkerer. But this time he was tinkering with something held sacred by hundreds of millions of people: the Bible.

Using his clippings, the aging third president created a New Testament of his own—one that most Christians would hardly recognize. This Bible was focused only on Jesus, but none of his mystical works. It didn’t include major scenes like the resurrection or ascension to heaven, or miracles like turning water into wine or walking on water. Instead, Jefferson’s Bible focused on Jesus as a man of morals, a teacher whose truths were expressed without the help of miracles or the supernatural powers of God.

Made for his private use and kept secret for decades, Jefferson’s 84-page Bible was the work of a man who spent much of his life grappling with, and doubting, religion.

READ MORE: The Bible Says Jesus Was Real. What Other Proof Exists?

Prepared near the end of the ex-president’s life, the Jefferson Bible, as it is now known, included no signs of Jesus’s divinity. In two volumes, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth and The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson edited out biblical passages he considered over-the-top or that offended his Enlightenment-era sense of reason. He left behind a carefully condensed vision of the Bible—one that illustrated his own complex relationship with Christianity.

The book was kept private for a few reasons. Jefferson himself believed that a person’s religion was between them and their god. Religion is “a matter between every man and his maker, in which no other, & far less the public, [has] a right to intermeddle,” he wrote in 1813.

But there was another reason for Jefferson to keep his revised Bible private. In the early 19th century, taking a knife to the Bible was nothing less than revolutionary. If the book had been known, argues Mitch Horowitz, who edited a reissue of Jefferson’s book, “it likely would have become one of the most controversial and influential religious works of early American history.”

READ MORE: Why Bibles Given to Slaves Omitted Most of the Old Testament

Jefferson’s editorial work happened in a United States that was deeply rooted in state-sponsored religion. Though many emigrants had come to America to flee religious persecution, laws about religious practice were part of pre-Revolutionary life. Even after the founding of the United States and the ratification of the First Amendment, states used public funds to pay churches and passed laws upholding various tenets of Christianity for over a century after the passage of the Bill of Rights. Massachusetts, for example, didn’t disestablish its official state religion, Congregationalism, until 1833.

Jefferson, a believer in rational thought and self-determination, had long spoken out against such laws while keeping his own views on religion fiercely private. In 1786, he wrote a Virginia law forbidding the state from compelling anyone to attend a certain church or persecuting them for their religious beliefs. The law unseated the Anglican Church as the official church of Virginia. Jefferson was so proud of his accomplishment that he told his heirs he wanted it inscribed on his tombstone, along with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence and his founding of the University of Virginia.

During his political career, Jefferson’s religious views—or lack thereof—drew fire from his fellow colonists and citizens. The Federalists charged him with atheism and rebellion against Christianity during the vicious 1800 election. Among them was Theodore Dwight, a journalist who claimed that Jefferson’s election would shoo in the end of Christianity itself. “Murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, the nation black with crimes,” he prophesied.

Jefferson continued to wrestle with his own views on Christianity after his presidential term ended. His personal correspondence often dealt with religion and religious freedom, and in 1820, when he was 77 years old, he began excising the portions of the New Testament he found unnecessary.

“Even when this took some rather careful cutting with scissors or razor,” writes historian Edwin S. Gaustad, “Jefferson managed to maintain Jesus’ role as a great moral teacher, not as a shaman or faith healer.” Jefferson didn’t intend for the Bible to be read by others, Gaustad notes. “He composed it for himself,” he writes. “He cherished the diamonds.”

During Jefferson’s lifetime, few people knew about the former president’s revised Bible, which he willed to Martha Randolph, his eldest daughter. But in the 1880s, a Johns Hopkins University student, Cyrus Adler, found the cut-up books in a private library. When he learned they were Jefferson’s, he began a search for the book they became.

In 1895, Adler finally got access to Jefferson’s Bible. By that time, the first volume, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, was lost. But Jefferson’s great-granddaughter agreed to sell the second volume, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, to the Smithsonian Institution.

Now the world knew about Jefferson’s private Bible, and from 1904 to the 1950s, incoming Senators received their own copy of the Bible. That practice ended once the government-sponsored printing ran out, but in the 1990s, economist Judd W. Patton revived the tradition, and began mailing it to each member of Congress. Today, Jefferson’s secret Bible is held by the Smithsonian Institution, which has digitized the book for anyone to read.

READ MORE: Was Abraham Lincoln an Atheist?

READ MORE: Why the Quran Was a Bestseller Among Christians in 18th Century America


Did Jefferson Really Edit Out the Miracles from his Bible?

Once in a while, the myth that Thomas Jefferson edited down the Bible in order to remove the miraculous, resurfaces. He supposedly did this because he was essentially an unbeliever who thought that religion had no place in the public square.

A couple of years ago, I teamed up with a pastor from Jefferson&rsquos home town of Charlottesville, Virginia, Dr. Mark Beliles, to write a book on the faith of our third president. The book is Doubting Thomas: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson(MorganJames, 2014).

There are two main points to our book.

1) Whatever serious doubts he may have privately held later in life, Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic. In fact, when he was most productive and helpful to the country, he was from all outward appearances a practicing Christian. This would include when he wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1777, passed in 1786), which says that because of the example of the &ldquoholy author of our religion&rdquo (Jesus), people should be free to believe or disbelieve.

2) Regardless of whatever theological unorthodoxy he held (later in life), he did not believe in the separation of God and government&mdashwhich is the way the ACLU and other secularists try to portray him.

For example, on a regular basis, when he was president, Jefferson attended the Christian worship services held at the U.S. Capitol building&mdashservices he approved of, which continued long after he was president.

As president, Jefferson took time one night in 1804 to cull through the sayings of Jesus as found in the four Gospels. Why did he do this?

The title he himself put on this unpublished work gives us a clue:The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted From the Account of His Life and Doctrines as Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians Unembarrassed with Matters of Fact or Faith Beyond the Level of Their Comprehensions.

This abridgment, clearly intended for the Indians, was not a biography of Jesus, only His &ldquophilosophy&rdquo as the title states. As such it left out most material found in the Gospels that did not fit the goal of compiling a &ldquophilosophy,&rdquo but there is no evidence of a motive to delete all of the miracles or evidences of Jesus&rsquo divinity.

As our third president, Jefferson had made the largest land addition in American history with the Louisiana Purchase. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of Native-Americans, many of whom had never heard about Jesus, were added to American territory. He wanted them to benefit from the moral teachings of Jesus Christ.

Jefferson believed: &ldquoOf all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus.&rdquo (Letter to William Canby, September 18, 1813).

Much thought in the Christian world has gone toward important theological matters like the nature of Christ (as fully divine and fully human), and the nature of the Godhead---Three Persons, One God (the Trinity). Jefferson felt (perhaps condescendingly) that such matters of theology and philosophy were beyond the Indians. As a result, he wanted to simplify Christ&rsquos teachings. He may have been misguided, but there&rsquos no evidence that his motive was secularization or anti-supernaturalism, as many today claim.

Jefferson wanted the Native-Americas benefit from Jesus&rsquo moral teachings--things we take for granted, like the golden rule (i.e., do unto others as you would have them do unto you, Matthew 7:12) or the command to love one another, as Christ loves us (John 13:33).

There is no evidence I am aware of that Jefferson ever published &ldquoThe Philosophy of Jesus.&rdquo There is evidence that around 1819, he created a second version of his private book, this time in English (the King James Version), in French, in Latin, and in Greek (the language of the Gospels). It was only published long after his death.

Apparently, he used this compilation of the teachings of Jesus for his own personal edification.

Here are some miracles that remain the so-called &ldquoJefferson Bible&rdquo:

&bullJesus sent His disciples to &ldquoheal the sick,&rdquo &ldquocleanse the lepers,&rdquo &ldquoraise the dead,&rdquo &ldquocast out devils&rdquo (Matthew 10:8).

&bullHe healed a man on the Sabbath (Luke 14:1-6)

&bullHe raised Jairus&rsquo daughter from the dead (Matthew 9:18-25)

&bullHe healed the bleeding woman (Matthew 9:20-22)

&bullJesus healed two blind men (Matthew 9:27-31).

Jefferson&rsquos approach to the Bible, to strip away some of its rich doctrine in Christology or in the beauty of the Godhead, is not commendable or worthy of imitation. But contrary to what some atheists say today, Jefferson was not on a crusade to edit the miracles out of the Bible.


Jefferson’s Hatred for the Catholic Church

In my last article, I demonstrated how the beliefs of Thomas Jefferson were founded on Bacon, Newton, Locke and Epicurus. In this article, I hope to expose his malice towards the True Faith and show just how opposed his views of government are to the Catholic view on this matter.

Thomas Jefferson made no attempt to hide his hatred for the Holy Catholic Church, which he deemed to be the enemy of any free man. Pretending to admire the teachings of Our Lord, he interpreted them to suit his own selfish ideals and worldly interests.

Jeffersont held up as an American idol

His false respect for the person of Christ is shown in his blasphemous scorn of Christ’s Divinity, which can be verified in the quotes that follow.

In a letter addressed to John Adams on January 24, 1814, Jefferson states that "the whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine.

"In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills." (1)

Jefferson compares God to
the three headed monster Cerberus

In another later letter to John Adams on April 11, 1823, Jefferson specifies what he means by “defective and doubtful” history:

"And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

"But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors." (2)

In another of his writings, he compares the Holy Trinity to the monstrous Ceberus: "The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God, like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs." (3)

The god & bible of Jefferson

If Thomas Jefferson so scorns the True God, who could he possible mean by “the Creator” and “Nature’s God,” to which he refers in the Declaration?

Indeed, the god to which he refers is not the Catholic God, for he speaks of the God of the New Testament and the God of the Old as if they are two different beings: one evil and the other good.

Deciding for himself what was true or false in Holy Scriptures, he used his razor to cut out passages and whole pages from the Bible and wrote The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Essentially it is "Jefferson’s Bible," as it came to be called: a bible without miracles or the Resurrection and without the entire Old Testament.

Jefferson 'rewrote' the Bible excluding the divinity of Jesus Christ

On August 4, 1820, Jefferson wrote a letter to William Short in which he scorns Moses and the "empty rituals of the Old Testament," rituals that prefigured the rules and rites of the Catholic Church:

"[Jesus’] object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. .

"Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue. Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance. The one [i.e., Moses] instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit towards other nations the other [Jesus] preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence.

"The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation is ever dangerous. Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion: and a step to right or left might place him within the grip of the priests of the superstition, a bloodthirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel." (4)

In his writing of April 21, 1803, Doctrines of Jesus Compared with Others, Jefferson spoke thus about Our Lord: "According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, [Jesus] fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne." (5)

For Jefferson Jesus was just an exceptional man who reformed a bad religion

As can be determined from the above quotes, Jefferson considered Our Lord to be no more than a reformer who had extraordinary natural qualities and taught a good moral doctrine that was distorted by His followers. In his mind, Our Lord would simply be a precursor to the Enlightenment thinkers, like Jefferson, who would have perfected His ideas.

Additionally, Jefferson’s claim that Jesus was a "victim of the altar and the throne" shows his disdain for the established Church – the true Jewish Synagogue established by God in the Old Testament – and the secular authority that was hierarchical in nature – the Roman Empire.

In Christendom, the altar became the Holy Catholic Church and the throne became the Holy Roman German Empire. These two building blocks of Catholic Civilization were the object of Jefferson's most intense hatred. As a principle writer of the Founding documents, it is not surprising that Jefferson imbued this distaste for the altar and throne into every document and every principle that he set forth for the new nation.

Priests as the enemies of Liberty

Yet Jefferson’s hatred of the Church did not stop there. He directs more attacks against priests, who, in his view, undermine the rights of man. The priest, particularly the Catholic priest, was the enemy of his most-prized liberty.

Jefferson scorns the power of the priest

Writing to Dr. Benjamin Rush in a letter dated September 23, 1800, Jefferson stated:

"The clergy . believe that any portion of power confided to me [as President] will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: For I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” (6)

Now what is this tyranny other than the claim of Truth, which the Catholic Church wields over men? For any claim to Truth that forbids “free-thought” Jefferson brands as tyranny. And upon which altar do we suppose Jefferson is swearing? Certainly it is not a Catholic altar.

Jefferson further indicates his disdain for priests and those who follow them in a letter to Alexander von Humboldt on December 6, 1813:

"That they [Mexicans] will throw off their European dependence I have no doubt but in what kind of government their revolution will end I am not so certain. History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes." (7)

Jefferson proposes we all live like Quakers
following ‘the oracle of conscience’

Again, in a letter to Horatio G. Spafford on March 17, 1814, Jefferson claims: "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty." (8)

Addressing William Short on April 13, 1820, Jefferson bemoans the fact that mankind will never improve with the existence of priests: "The serious enemies are the priests of the different religious sects, to whose spells on the human mind its improvement is ominous.” (9)

Finally, Jefferson writes to John Adams in 1813: "We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe for I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition." (10)

A liberal society can only exist without the Catholic Church

The ideal government and American society that Jefferson had in mind was a society devoid of priests: An individualistic society where each man would decide for himself what is right or wrong.

How can a nation founded on such principles be said to be founded on Christian principles? The very principles and prerequisites for Jeffeson's liberty demand a people who are not obedient to Church doctrine and follow their own ideas instead. On the other hand, a Catholic nation would be opposed to the revolutionary liberty of conscience, because, with the teaching of the Church, all people would obey the Catholic Faith rather than their own consciences .

A ridiculuous depiction of Jesus Christ ‘inspiring’ the Declaration

We can be assured of Jefferson’s stance in his final testimony in the last letter he penned, written to Roger C. Weightman on June 24, 1826:

"May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.

"All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God." (11)

Need we further proof that Jefferson was not friend of Catholics? It is not possible to claim that the Declaration was founded on Christian principles if the man who wrote it was so opposed to true liberty – the liberty of the Catholic who obeys his Holy Mother the Church in all things.


How Thomas Jefferson Created His Own Bible

Thomas Jefferson, together with several of his fellow founding fathers, was influenced by the principles of deism, a construct that envisioned a supreme being as a sort of watchmaker who had created the world but no longer intervened directly in daily life. A product of the Age of Enlightenment, Jefferson was keenly interested in science and the perplexing theological questions it raised. Although the author of the Declaration of Independence was one of the great champions of religious freedom, his belief system was sufficiently out of the mainstream that opponents in the 1800 presidential election labeled him a “howling Atheist.”

From This Story

Video: Conserving the Jefferson Bible

Thomas Jefferson created his own gospel by taking a sharp instrument to existing copies of the New Testament and pasting up his own account of Christ's philosophy. (Hugh Talman / National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution) Jefferson believed that his version of the New Testament distilled "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man." (Universal History Archive / Getty Images)

Photo Gallery

In fact, Jefferson was devoted to the teachings of Jesus Christ. But he didn’t always agree with how they were interpreted by biblical sources, including the writers of the four Gospels, whom he considered to be untrustworthy correspondents. So Jefferson created his own gospel by taking a sharp instrument, perhaps a penknife, to existing copies of the New Testament and pasting up his own account of Christ’s philosophy, distinguishing it from what he called “the corruption of schismatizing followers.”

The second of the two biblical texts he produced is on display through May 28 at the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (NMAH) after a year of extensive repair and conservation. “Other aspects of his life and work have taken precedence,” says Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of the NMAH political history division. “But once you know the story behind the book, it’s very Jeffersonian.”

Jefferson produced the 84-page volume in 1820—six years before he died at age 83—bound it in red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He had pored over six copies of the New Testament, in Greek, Latin, French and King James English. “He had a classic education at [the College of] William & Mary,” Rubenstein says, “so he could compare the different translations. He cut out passages with some sort of very sharp blade and, using blank paper, glued down lines from each of the Gospels in four columns, Greek and Latin on one side of the pages, and French and English on the other.”

Much of the material Jefferson elected to not include related miraculous events, such as the feeding of the multitudes with only two fish and five loaves of barley bread he eschewed anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” His idiosyncratic gospel concludes with Christ’s entombment but omits his resurrection. He kept Jesus’ own teachings, such as the Beatitude, “Blessed are the peace-makers: for they shall be called the children of God.” The Jefferson Bible, as it’s known, is “scripture by subtraction,” writes Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University.

The first time Jefferson undertook to create his own version of Scripture had been in 1804. His intention, he wrote, was “the result of a life of enquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system, imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions.” Correspondence indicates that he assembled 46 pages of New Testament passages in The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. That volume has been lost. It focused on Christ’s moral teachings, organized by topic. The 1820 volume contains not only the teachings, but also events from the life of Jesus.

The Smithsonian acquired the surviving custom bible in 1895, when the Institution’s chief librarian, Cyrus Adler, purchased it from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Carolina Ran­dolph. Originally, Jefferson had bequeathed the book to his daughter Martha.

The acquisition revealed the existence of the Jefferson Bible to the public. In 1904, by act of Congress, his version of Scripture, regarded by many as a newly discovered national treasure, was printed. Until the 1950s, when the supply of 9,000 copies ran out, each newly elected senator received a facsimile Jefferson Bible on the day that legislator took the oath of office. (Disclosure: Smithsonian Books has recently published a new facsimile edition.)

The original book now on view has undergone a painstaking restoration led by Janice Stagnitto Ellis, senior paper conservator at the NMAH. “We re-sewed the binding,” she says, “in such a way that both the original cover and the original pages will be preserved indefinitely. In our work, we were Jefferson-level meticulous.”

“The conservation process,” says Harry Rubenstein, “has allowed us to exhibit the book just as it was when Jefferson last handled it. And since digital pictures were taken of each page, visitors to the exhibition—and visitors to the web version all over the world—will be able to page through and read Jefferson’s Bible just as he did.”

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer and author of the book Elegant Solutions.

About Owen Edwards

Owen Edwards is a freelance writer who previously wrote the "Object at Hand" column in Smithsonian magazine.


The third president had a secret: his carefully edited version of the New Testament.

The ex-president bent over the book, using a razor and scissors to carefully cut out small squares of text. Soon, the book’s words would live in their own book, hand bound in red leather and ready to be read in private moments of contemplation. Each cut had a purpose, and each word was carefully considered. As he worked, Thomas Jefferson pasted his selections—each in a variety of ancient and modern languages that reflected his vast learning—into the book in neat columns.

Thomas Jefferson was known as an inventor and tinkerer. But this time he was tinkering with something held sacred by hundreds of millions of people: the Bible.

Using his clippings, the aging third president created a New Testament of his own—one that most Christians would hardly recognize. This Bible was focused only on Jesus, but none of his mystical works. It didn’t include major scenes like the resurrection or ascension to heaven, or miracles like turning water into wine or walking on water. Instead, Jefferson’s Bible focused on Jesus as a man of morals, a teacher whose truths were expressed without the help of miracles or the supernatural powers of God.


The Bible According to Thomas Jefferson

The president sat at his desk in the White House on a winter evening. He’d finished his work for the day and was ready for something more enjoyable. He took out two Bibles and opened them to the story of Jesus. Then he grabbed a knife—or perhaps a razor— and began cutting up one Bible, then the other. The president was Thomas Jefferson. The year was 1804.

Working methodically, Jefferson sliced out the parts of the Bible that he believed and pasted them onto a folio of blank pages. The rest—the parts he didn’t believe— he left behind in two maimed, mutilated Bibles.

Thomas Jefferson was editing the Bible, a book regarded by most of his fellow Americas as the word of God. The act was certainly presumptuous, perhaps blasphemous. But Jefferson found the task simple. The worthy parts of the Bible were easily distinguishable from the worthless—“as distinguishable,” he later wrote in a letter to John Adams, “as diamonds in a dunghill.”

Using the passages he sliced out of his Bibles, Jefferson created a new book, which he called, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” He had it bound but he never published it, and he told only a handful of close friends about it. His copy—the only copy that ever existed—later disappeared and is now lost to history.

But 16 years later, he created another. In 1820, retired from politics and living at Monticello, his Virginia estate, Jefferson, at 77, again sat down to edit the Bible. He purchased six Bibles—two in English, two in French, and two containing both Latin and Greek—and cut them up, creating a second edited version of the New Testament, in four languages.

In this book, he kept the words of Jesus, and some of his deeds, but left out the miracles, and any suggestion that Jesus is God. The virgin birth is gone. So is Jesus walking on water, multiplying the loaves and fishes, and raising Lazarus from the dead. Jefferson’s version ends with Jesus’ burial on Good Friday. There is no resurrection, no Easter Sunday. Jefferson called this version “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”

That book has survived. It’s smaller than you might expect—roughly 5 by 8 inches—with a faded red leather cover. It’s now in a basement room in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where conservators are painstakingly repairing rips and restoring it for a new exhibition. On November 11, the book will go on display at the Smithsonian for six months, along with two of the Bibles that Jefferson cut up to create it.

The exhibition is sure to generate questions: Why did one of America’s beloved founding fathers cut up Bibles? Was it an act of piety or of blasphemy? Was Jefferson a Christian or a heretic? And what does this book, commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible,” tell us about America’s religious heritage?

Those questions have no easy answers. Experts argue about all of them, as we shall see. But one thing seems certain: If Jefferson was running for president today, his Bible-slicing experiments would surely torpedo his candidacy.

“There is no way Jefferson could get elected president today,” says Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, a best-selling history of the role of religion in America’s creation. “You can practically see the attack ad that would be run about him: You see the Bible and you see a hand with a scissors cutting up the Bible. And that’s not going to play too well in the red states—or the blue states for that matter.”

“I am a sect by myself,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, commenting on his eccentric religious views. Born into the Church of England, Virginia’s official religion, Jefferson studied under Anglican clergymen from elementary school through college, and attended Anglican services all his life, although not always faithfully. He wasn’t the kind of man who accepts dogmas uncritically. Brilliant and intellectually curious, Jefferson preferred to make his own judgment in matters of religion, and advised others to do the same.

“Question with boldness even the existence of God,” he urged his nephew in 1787, “because if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”

Influenced by the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, Jefferson scoffed at biblical stories of miracles but believed that the study of nature proves the existence of God. He thought deeply about religion all his life, and although his views sometimes shifted, one opinion never changed: He believed that no government had the right to impose any religion on any individual. He wrote Virginia’s statute on religious freedom and famously coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state.”

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia. “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Today, that statement seems uncontroversial but in 1800, many people, particularly clergymen, considered it evidence of atheism. “They were of the opinion that not caring about that meant you were not a man of faith,” says Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Sphinx, a best-selling biography of Jefferson.

When Jefferson ran for president against John Adams in 1800, Adams’ Federalist allies distorted Jefferson’s defense of freedom of religion to portray him as an enemy of God. Alexander Hamilton called Jefferson “an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics.” William Linn, a New York minister, claimed that voting for him constituted “a rebellion against God.” Yale President Timothy Dwight warned Americans that if they elected Jefferson they would “see the Bible cast into a bonfire…and our children united in chanting mockeries against God.”

Despite all that, Jefferson won the election.

But the various lies about his religious beliefs angered him and hardened his antipathy to the clergy, who he described in Latin as “genus irritable vatum”— irritable tribe of priests—and in English as “soothsayers and necromancers.”

The nasty campaign of 1800 rendered Jefferson reticent about making public statements on religion. But he remained fascinated with the topic and continued to comment on religion in letters to trusted friends. Those comments are so voluminous and so varied that, for two centuries, both Christians and secularists have cherrypicked Jefferson quotes to “prove” that the sage of Monticello was a believer—or not.

Want to prove that Jefferson was a committed Christian? It’s easy.

Jefferson wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He called Christ’s teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He urged “getting back to the plain and unsophisticated precepts of Christ.” He suggested that the defeat of Napoleon “proves that we have a god in heaven.” In his first inaugural address, he invoked the blessings of “that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe.” In his second inaugural address, he sought the blessings “of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”

Want to prove that Jefferson was a militant secularist? That’s easy, too.

Jefferson wrote that “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” He called the writers of the New Testament “ignorant, unlettered men” who produced “superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” He called the Apostle Paul the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” He dismissed the concept of the Trinity as “mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” He believed that the clergy used religion as a “mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves” and that “in every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.” And he wrote in a letter to John Adams that “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

So which Jefferson was the real Jefferson—the serious Christian or the angry heretic?

Both, says Waldman. Jefferson’s beliefs don’t conform to the “stereotypes created by modern culture warriors,” Waldman wrote. “He was anti-Christian and pro-Jesus. He was anti-religion and pro-God. He was against blind faith and in favor of reason-based belief. He resented being considered a heretic because he believed that his approach to God and Jesus was more faithful to both of them.”

On January 29, 1804, Jefferson wrote to his friend Joseph Priestley, the British scientist and dissident theologian, suggesting that Priestley compile a book of Jesus’ “moral doctrines,” extracted from the Bible.

“It would be,” Jefferson said, “short and precious.”

Priestley died a week later, so Jefferson did the job himself, spending a couple nights at the White House, cutting and pasting. He titled it “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth” and identified it as “an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians.”

That last phrase has since kicked up a controversy. Some Christian historians note that Jefferson had earlier signed a law appropriating federal money to subsidize missionary work among the Indians, and they suggest that perhaps Jefferson’s first cut-and-paste Bible was designed to serve as a sort of Reader’s Digest Condensed Bible for Indians. Other historians disagree, noting that Jefferson never attempted to use his Bible to educate Indians, never mentioned that idea in his letters, and later wrote to John Adams, saying that he created the book “for my own use.”

Who’s right? Nobody really knows.

In 1816, seven years after he left the White House, Jefferson wrote to a friend, discussing his edited Bible, and adding this thought: “It was too hastily done, however, being the work of one or two evenings only while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed by other business, and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure.”

Sometime in late 1819 or early 1820, Jefferson finally found the time to do exactly that. He purchased Bibles in Greek, Latin, French and English and, working very meticulously, cut them up, extracting the passages he wanted and carefully pasting them in four vertical columns, two columns to a page. He added two maps of the Holy Land, and sent his 86 pages to Frederick Mayo, a Richmond bookbinder, who bound them in an elegant red leather cover.

When Jefferson finished the project, he wrote to his friend William Short, explaining that he had edited the Bible in order to separate the sublime from the ridiculous. “I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.” It wasn’t difficult to tell the “lovely benevolence” from the “absurdity,” he added: “I found the work obvious and easy.”

Pleased with both versions of his cut-and-paste Bible, Jefferson later wrote to a friend that he was “in the habit of reading nightly from them before going to bed.”

After Jefferson died in 1826, the first of his Bibles disappeared, but the second remained in his family. In 1895, Cyrus Adler, a librarian at the Smithsonian, purchased the book from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter for $400. When the Jefferson Bible was exhibited, it caught the eye of Rep. John F. Lacey, an Iowa Republican. In 1902, Lacey proposed that Congress appropriate $3,227 to print 9,000 copies—3,000 copies for the Senate and 6,000 for the House. The bill passed, despite opposition from ministers angry that the government would print a “Bible” with the miracles removed, along with any suggestion that Jesus might be God.

“The preachers generally oppose the publication,” reported the Richmond Dispatch, “and so do the publishers, the latter wanting the job for themselves.”

House members quickly gave their copies of the book to constituents, but the Senate saved enough of them to provide a volume to each incoming freshman senator for the next 50 years. In 1957, Frank Church, a newly elected senator from Idaho, took the oath of office and was presented with a copy of Jefferson’s Bible. Two years later, he gave it to his son, Forrest Church, who eventually became a prominent Unitarian Universalist minister and the editor of an edition of the Jefferson Bible.

Over the last century, countless editions of the book were published, many containing introductions that attempt to prove that Jefferson held the same religious views as whoever was writing the introduction— Jefferson as Unitarian, as evangelical, as agnostic.

In 1996, Judd W. Patton, a professor of economics at Bellevue University in Nebraska—aided by the Nebraska Christian Coalition—published an edition that he distributes to every incoming senator and congressman. If those politicians take the time to study Jefferson’s book, Patton wrote in his introduction, they might “begin the process of restoring and reclaiming our moral bearings and moral heritage.”

In 2009, Cari Haus, an accountant and Christian author, published The Reverse Jefferson Bible, which contains the parts left out of Jefferson’s version. “Unfortunately, Jefferson missed the point that the morals of Jesus were linked to the Way, the Truth and the Life,” she wrote in her introduction. She also issued a “warning” to Jefferson in the form of a quotation from the Book of Revelation: “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophesy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life.”

Haus did not quote Jefferson’s 1825 description of the Book of Revelation: “merely the ravings of a maniac.”

Meanwhile, the vast army of Jefferson biographers, as well as religious scholars of various views, continue to debate the meaning of Jefferson’s Bible and our third president’s spiritual musings.

“Doctrinally, he’s a heretic,” says Waldman. “He doesn’t believe in Jesus’ divinity or the miracles or many of the central tenets of orthodox Christianity. And yet, when you read Jefferson’s Bible you come away with the sense that he is quite religious in his own way, quite spiritual in his own way.”

“In Jefferson, there’s a lack—I really think it’s a learning disability—a lack of understanding about spirituality,” says Garrett Ward Sheldon, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia and author of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. “He was a brilliant man but he was very practical, very scientific. He just didn’t get spirituality.”

“Jefferson was a deist,” says Ellis. “He believed God created the world but doesn’t have much to do with it any more.”

“Jefferson was not a true deist,” says Waldman. “Jefferson believed in a God who intervened in the course of history.”

Sheldon, who is a Baptist minister as well as a political scientist, is amused that Jefferson cut up the Bible. “Madison wrote commentary on the Bible. Jefferson edited it,” he says, laughing. “As a God-fearing Christian, I find it presumptuous to edit the Bible. But to him, it wasn’t.”

Actually, almost everybody edits the Bible, says Lori Anne Ferrell, author of The Bible and the People and a professor of history and literature at Claremont Graduate University. “Even people who read the Bible regularly only read parts of it. People read selectively. They read the parts they believe or the parts that give them comfort. For most people, the Bible is a cut-and-paste job. It’s just that Jefferson actually takes a scissors or a knife and actually excises the parts he doesn’t think should be in there.”

“Jefferson did this in a somewhat audacious way, but I think it’s also respectful,” says Harry Rubenstein, the Smithsonian curator who worked on the Bible. “He’s not trashing Jesus. He’s writing to his colleagues saying this is the greatest moral teacher of all time, and these moral principles can be the basis for the new republic.”

Arguments over Jefferson’s religious views have been going on since the presidential campaign of 1800, and they are unlikely to end any time soon for one simple reason: Americans care deeply about religion, and about Jefferson.

“The battle over Jefferson’s religious legacy is kind of crazy,” says Ellis. “But Thomas Jefferson is a powerful trophy. Having Jefferson on your side is a big thing. And having him on the other side is bad news.”

Waldman agrees, but he doesn’t believe Jefferson truly belongs on either side of current cultural debates.

“Looking at the Jefferson Bible should teach people on all sides of the debate to be very skeptical when someone of their tribe quotes a founding father to prove that he was an ally in their cause,” Waldman says. “It’s easy to cherry-pick the founding fathers’ quotes to ‘prove’ that they were either orthodox Christians or they were secular. They were neither. Their religious views were complex and fascinating and they don’t lend themselves to being pigeonholed or used in the modern culture wars. When you do that, you distort reality.”

Peter Carlson is American History’s articles editor

Originally published in the October 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.


The Bible According to Thomas Jefferson

Editor’s note: in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s 271st birthday on April 13, TheHumanist.com looks back at two articles from the March/April 2012 issue of the Humanist magazine. Read Peter Carlson’s examination of Jefferson’s Bible below, and click here to read “Jefferson’s Women” by Cleo Fellers Kocol.

The president sat at his desk in the White House on a winter evening. He’d finished his work for the day and was ready for something more enjoyable. He took out two Bibles and opened them to the story of Jesus. Then he grabbed a knife—or perhaps a razor—and began cutting up one Bible, then the other. The president was Thomas Jefferson. The year was 1804.

Working methodically, Jefferson sliced out the parts of the Bible that he believed and pasted them onto a folio of blank pages. The rest—the parts he didn’t believe—he left behind in two maimed, mutilated Bibles.

Thomas Jefferson was editing the Bible, a book regarded by most of his fellow Americans as the word of God. The act was certainly presumptuous, perhaps blasphemous. But Jefferson found the task simple. The worthy parts of the Bible were easily distinguishable from the worthless—“as distinguishable,” he later wrote in a letter to John Adams, “as diamonds in a dunghill.”

Using the passages he sliced out of his Bibles, Jefferson created a new book, which he called, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” He had it bound but he never published it, and he told only a handful of close friends about it. His copy—the only copy that ever existed—later disappeared and is now lost to history.

But sixteen years later, he created another. In 1820, retired from politics and living at Monticello, Jefferson sat down again, at the age of seventy-seven, to edit the Bible. He purchased six Bibles—two in English, two in French, and two containing both Latin and Greek—and cut them up, creating a second edited version of the New Testament, in four languages.

In this book, he kept the words of Jesus and some of his deeds, but left out the miracles and any suggestion that Jesus is God. The virgin birth is gone. So is Jesus walking on water, multiplying the loaves and fishes, and raising Lazarus from the dead. Jefferson’s version ends with Jesus’ burial on Good Friday. There is no resurrection, no Easter Sunday. Jefferson called this version “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”

That book has survived. It’s smaller than you might expect—roughly five by eight inches—with a faded red leather cover. Conservators at the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History in Washington, DC, painstakingly repaired rips and restored the book. It’s currently on display at the museum, along with two of the Bibles that Jefferson cut up to create it.

The exhibition is sure to generate questions: Why did one of America’s beloved Founding Fathers cut up Bibles? Was it an act of piety or of blasphemy? Was Jefferson a Christian or a heretic? And what does this book, commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible,” tell us about America’s religious heritage?

Those questions have no easy answers. Experts argue about all of them, as we shall see. But one thing seems certain: If Jefferson was running for president today, his Bible-slicing experiments would surely torpedo his candidacy.

“There is no way Jefferson could get elected president today,” says Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, a best-selling history of the role of religion in America’s creation. “You can practically see the attack ad that would be run about him: You see the Bible and you see a hand with a scissors cutting up the Bible. And that’s not going to play too well in the red states—or the blue states for that matter.”

“I am a sect by myself,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote, commenting on his eccentric religious views. Born into the Church of England, Virginia’s official religion, Jefferson studied under Anglican clergymen from elementary school through college, and attended Anglican services all his life, although not always faithfully. He wasn’t the kind of man who accepts dogmas uncritically. Brilliant and intellectually curious, Jefferson preferred to make his own judgment in matters of religion, and advised others to do the same.

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God,” he urged his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1787, “because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”

Influenced by the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, Jefferson scoffed at biblical stories of miracles but believed that the study of nature proves the existence of God. He thought deeply about religion all his life, and although his views sometimes shifted, one opinion never changed: He believed that no government had the right to impose any religion on any individual. He wrote Virginia’s statute on religious freedom and famously coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state.”

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others,” he wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia. “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Today, that statement seems uncontroversial but in 1800, many people, particularly clergymen, considered it evidence of atheism. “They were of the opinion that not caring about that meant you were not a man of faith,” says Joseph J. Ellis, author of American Sphinx, a best-selling biography of Jefferson.

When Jefferson ran for president against John Adams in 1800, Adams’ Federalist allies distorted Jefferson’s defense of freedom of religion to portray him as an enemy of God. Alexander Hamilton called Jefferson “an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics.” William Linn, a New York minister, claimed that voting for him constituted “a rebellion against God.” Yale President Timothy Dwight warned Americans that if they elected Jefferson they would “see the Bible cast into a bonfire…and our children united in chanting mockeries against God.”

Despite all that, Jefferson won the election.

But the various lies about his religious beliefs angered him and hardened his antipathy to the clergy, who he described in Latin as “genus irritable vatum”—irritable tribe of priests—and in English as “soothsayers and necromancers.”

The nasty campaign of 1800 rendered Jefferson reticent about making public statements on religion. But he remained fascinated with the topic and continued to comment on religion in letters to trusted friends. Those comments are so voluminous and so varied that, for two centuries, both Christians and secularists have cherry-picked Jefferson quotes to “prove” that the sage of Monticello was a believer—or not.

Want to prove that Jefferson was a committed Christian? It’s easy.

Jefferson wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He called Christ’s teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” He urged “getting back to the plain and unsophisticated precepts of Christ.” He suggested that the defeat of Napoleon “proves that we have a god in heaven.” In his first inaugural address, he invoked the blessings of “that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe.” In his second inaugural address, he sought the blessings “of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life.”

Want to prove that Jefferson was a militant secularist? That’s easy, too.

Jefferson wrote that “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” He called the writers of the New Testament “ignorant, unlettered men” who produced “superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” He called the Apostle Paul the “first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” He dismissed the concept of the Trinity as “mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.” He believed that the clergy used religion as a “mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves” and that “in every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.” And he wrote in a letter to John Adams that “the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

So which Jefferson was the real Jefferson—the serious Christian or the angry heretic?

Both, says Waldman. Jefferson’s beliefs don’t conform to the “stereotypes created by modern culture warriors,” Waldman wrote. “He was anti-Christian and pro-Jesus. He was anti-religion and pro-God. He was against blind faith and in favor of reason-based belief. He resented being considered a heretic because he believed that his approach to God and Jesus was more faithful to both of them.”

On January 29, 1804, Jefferson wrote to his friend Joseph Priestley, the British scientist and dissident theologian, suggesting that Priestley compile a book of Jesus’ “moral doctrines,” extracted from the Bible.

“It would be,” Jefferson said, “short and precious.”

Priestley died a week later, so Jefferson did the job himself, spending a couple nights at the White House, cutting and pasting. He titled it “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth” and identified it as “an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians.”

That last phrase has since kicked up a controversy. Some Christian historians note that Jefferson had earlier signed a law appropriating federal money to subsidize missionary work among the Native Americans, and they suggest that perhaps Jefferson’s first cut-and-paste Bible was designed to serve as a sort of Reader’s Digest Bible condensed for American Indians. Other historians disagree, noting that Jefferson never attempted to use his Bible to educate Indians, never mentioned that idea in his letters, and later wrote to John Adams, saying that he created the book “for my own use.”

Who’s right? Nobody really knows.

In 1816, seven years after he left the White House, Jefferson wrote to a friend, discussing his edited Bible, and adding this thought: “It was too hastily done, however, being the work of one or two evenings only while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed by other business, and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure.”

Sometime in late 1819 or early 1820, Jefferson finally found the time to do exactly that. He purchased Bibles in Greek, Latin, French, and English and, working very meticulously, cut them up, extracting the passages he wanted and carefully pasting them in four vertical columns, two columns to a page. He added two maps of the Holy Land, and sent his eighty-six pages to Frederick Mayo, a Richmond bookbinder, who bound them in an elegant red leather cover.

When Jefferson finished the project, he wrote to his friend William Short, explaining that he had edited the Bible in order to separate the sublime from the ridiculous. “I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.” It wasn’t difficult to tell the “lovely benevolence” from the “absurdity,” he added: “I found the work obvious and easy.”

Pleased with both versions of his cut-and-paste Bible, Jefferson later wrote to a friend that he was “in the habit of reading nightly from them before going to bed.”

After Jefferson died in 1826, the first of his Bibles disappeared, but the second remained in his family. In 1895 Cyrus Adler, a librarian at the Smithsonian, purchased the book from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter for $400. When the Jefferson Bible was exhibited, it caught the eye of Rep. John F. Lacey, an Iowa Republican. In 1902 Lacey proposed that Congress appropriate $3,227 to print 9,000 copies—3,000 copies for the Senate and 6,000 for the House. The bill passed, despite opposition from ministers angry that the government would print a “Bible” with the miracles removed, along with any suggestion that Jesus might be God.

“The preachers generally oppose the publication,” reported the Richmond Dispatch, “and so do the publishers, the latter wanting the job for themselves.”

House members quickly gave their copies of the book to constituents, but the Senate saved enough of them to provide a volume to each incoming freshman senator for the next fifty years. In 1957 Frank Church, a newly elected senator from Idaho, took the oath of office and was presented with a copy of Jefferson’s Bible. Two years later, he gave it to his son, Forrest Church, who eventually became a prominent Unitarian Universalist minister and the editor of an edition of the Jefferson Bible.

Over the last century, countless editions of the book were published, many containing introductions that attempt to prove that Jefferson held the same religious views as whoever was writing the introduction—Jefferson as Unitarian, as evangelical, as agnostic.

In 1996 Judd W. Patton, a professor of economics at Bellevue University in Nebraska—aided by the Nebraska Christian Coalition—published an edition that he distributes to every incoming member of Congress. If those politicians take the time to study Jefferson’s book, Patton wrote in his introduction, they might “begin the process of restoring and reclaiming our moral bearings and moral heritage.”

In 2009 Cari Haus, an accountant and Christian author, published The Reverse Jefferson Bible, which contains the parts left out of Jefferson’s version. “Unfortunately, Jefferson missed the point that the morals of Jesus were linked to the Way, the Truth and the Life,” she wrote in her introduction. She also issued a “warning” to Jefferson in the form of a quotation from the Book of Revelation: “And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophesy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life.” Haus did not quote Jefferson’s 1825 description of the Book of Revelation: “merely the ravings of a maniac.”

Meanwhile, the vast army of Jefferson biographers, as well as religious scholars of various views, continue to debate the meaning of Jefferson’s Bible and our third president’s spiritual musings and proclivities.

“Doctrinally, he’s a heretic,” says Waldman. “He doesn’t believe in Jesus’ divinity or the miracles or many of the central tenets of orthodox Christianity. And yet, when you read Jefferson’s Bible you come away with the sense that he is quite religious in his own way, quite spiritual in his own way.”

“In Jefferson, there’s a lack—I really think it’s a learning disability—a lack of understanding about spirituality,” says Garrett Ward Sheldon, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia and author of The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson. “He was a brilliant man but he was very practical, very scientific. He just didn’t get spirituality.”

“Jefferson was a deist,” says Ellis. “He believed God created the world but doesn’t have much to do with it any more.”

“Jefferson was not a true deist,” says Waldman. “Jefferson believed in a God who intervened in the course of history.”

Sheldon, who is a Baptist minister as well as a political scientist, is amused that Jefferson cut up the Bible. “Madison wrote commentary on the Bible. Jefferson edited it,” he says, laughing. “As a God-fearing Christian, I find it presumptuous to edit the Bible. But to him, it wasn’t.”

Actually, almost everybody edits the Bible, says Lori Anne Ferrell, author of The Bible and the People and a professor of history and literature at Claremont Graduate University. “Even people who read the Bible regularly only read parts of it. People read selectively. They read the parts they believe or the parts that give them comfort. For most people, the Bible is a cut-and-paste job. It’s just that Jefferson actually takes a scissors or a knife and actually excises the parts he doesn’t think should be in there.”

“Jefferson did this in a somewhat audacious way, but I think it’s also respectful,” says Harry Rubenstein, the Smithsonian curator who worked on the Bible. “He’s not trashing Jesus. He’s writing to his colleagues saying this is the greatest moral teacher of all time, and these moral principles can be the basis for the new republic.”

Arguments over Jefferson’s religious views have been going on since the presidential campaign of 1800, and they are unlikely to end any time soon for one simple reason: Americans care deeply about religion, and about Jefferson.

“The battle over Jefferson’s religious legacy is kind of crazy,” says Ellis. “But Thomas Jefferson is a powerful trophy. Having Jefferson on your side is a big thing. And having him on the other side is bad news.”

Waldman agrees, but he doesn’t believe Jefferson truly belongs on either side of current cultural debates.

“Looking at the Jefferson Bible should teach people on all sides of the debate to be very skeptical when someone of their tribe quotes a Founding Father to prove that he was an ally in their cause,” Waldman says. “It’s easy to cherry-pick the Founding Fathers’ quotes to ‘prove’ that they were either orthodox Christians or they were secular. They were neither. Their religious views were complex and fascinating and they don’t lend themselves to being pigeonholed or used in the modern culture wars. When you do that, you distort reality.”

Article and sidebar reprinted with permission, American History, October 2011, copyright Weider History Group.


2 thoughts on &ldquo The Myth of the “Thomas Jefferson Bible” &rdquo

You say , “In creating this “Thomas Jefferson Bible,” we are told, Jefferson clipped out all references to miracles, to divine intervention in people’s lives, to God speaking directly to human beings, and to anything else to which a typical modern day college campus atheist might object. Jefferson, the story goes, created a Bible in which God plays no significant role.”

Whether you call it the “Jefferson Bible” as many do colloquially or not, the story is fact. The work exists. Jefferson did literally cut out and reassemble into a bound book the passages he considered to be rationally acceptable as the words of Christ. He never had the effrontry to call it the “jefferson Bible” but his intent was clear. He sought to remove “all references to miracles, to divine intervention in people’s lives, to God speaking directly to human beings, and to anything else” not directly attributed to Christ. You don’t need to be an atheist to want to hear the actual words of Jesus!

This story of a Thomas “Jefferson Bible” is neither phony nor hypothetical. It is fact. The only mistake is that there are some who now call it the Jefferson Bible rather than the title he might have wished it would be remembered by.

Most importantly, the mere act of completing such a project, the thought and care he used, the rationalist logic, the so quintessentially 󈬂th Century Enlightenment” approach, all show how close he was to the French philospohes he associated with during his sojourn in Paris.

Bravo to Jefferson! Shame on the misinformation you propagate.

Al, It should now be “the late Dr. James Kennedy”. He passed away a year or two ago.


16 Comments

The old and the new testament both alike speak about fallen angels that war on G-D and us.
Jesus, was not G-D but a Jewish man, that over came the fallen of heaven the Watchmen and Kerchiefs, and called them sons of Devils and seeds of Satan. These are spoken in scripture many times, the hunt the souls that seek the One whom the soul does love. Read Song of Solomon 3:3 the Watchmen that took in Solomon with all his great wisdom, into the lie and deceit of who G-D was and who he is to G-D Most High. Ezekiel 13:20-21-22-23 tells they hunt us down and feed us lies and deceits they are called the Kerchiefs. Psalm 14:4 says they eat us like bread and Psalm 75:8 speaks of the mixed seeds that make the red mixture of wine, that G-D holds in His hand in a cup. This mixed wine is our mixed DNA. The fallen of heaven have put their DNA in mankind and beast. Out of all this chaos G-D has sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man, and with the seed of beast. read Jeremiah 31:27 and 32:27. G-D has given all the same: all have hope and all have free-wills, to chose G-D likeness to grow in or the likeness of the fallen of heaven.

Sons of G-D grow in the likeness of G-D read Psalm 17:15 and sons of men and beast grow in the likeness of the fallen, having but one breath read Ecc. 3:18-19.

The church suppress the Book of Enoch and the other lost books they the fallen of heaven in high places put out of our sight so not to be uncovered. You will find them in the books of Jubilees, Jasher, and Testimony of the Twelve Patriarchs, they rebelled against G-D and attempted to enslave the whole world and provoke G-D. And according to the Lost Book of Jasher they not only tweaked with the DNA of mankind, but also with the animals . They once before G-D'S DNA was added to control, creation, we had such beast as the Pegasus, Minotaur, the unicorn and the dinosaurs.

Eph. 6:12 For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against Principalities, against Powers, against The Rulers of Darkness of This World, against Spiritual Wickedness In High Places.

In truth they are still here and it is not a movie, they make them so we laugh when this comes up.
http://daughtereponymous.wordpress.com?
http://thechildrenoftherainbow.blogspot.com/

I think Jefferson, knew more than what he put down.

http://daughtereponymous.wordpress.com/ gives a lot about the lie and deceit that great horror of darkness that covers truth. and http://thechildrenoftherainbow.blogspot.com/ has much to say.

God's advesary will do and say anything to steal and kill the souls of humanity, its the New Age one world religion of the illuminati NWO.

"No one will enter the New World Order unless he or she will make a pledge to worship Lucifer. No one will enter the New Age unless he will take a Luciferian Initiation." D. Spangler, Director of Planetary Initiative, United Nations.

Note: in 1782 The Symbol of the Illuminati was adopted by the Masons and Freemasons as the "all seeing eye of God" (what GOD?). I believe only the highest level "initiates" of these secret societies thrunout America had any knowledge of the true,

"The seal of the pyramid was created by the Rothschild family and brought to North America by BENJAMIN FRANKLIN and ALEXANDER HAMILTON before 1776. The Rothschild family is the head of the organization in which I entered in Colorado.

All the Occult Brotherhoods are part of it. It is a Lucifer Organization to install his reign in the whole world. The eye on the pyramid is the eye of Lucifer . Supposedly the Rothschilds have personal dealings with the Devil. I have personally been in his villa and have experienced it. I know it is true". John Todd, Masonic Council of Thirteen

I keep getting marked as spam. I do not understand why, this is just a test.

Sorry about that. That happens on posts that have links from new members to prevent spam. As you can see your posts have been published. Thanks!

im really impressed brother,, RON PAUL REVOLUTION! now in this day and age, we have the opportunity and the knowledge to really make the constitution relevant and really consider all one another equal.. thomas jefferson just set things up for us to end slavery and restore equality, in his day it wasnt possible for him to do it right then and there but he set it up for us, and now at this time we can improve on it and make it a more perfect document to protect our god given rights and liberty, Ron Paul is my president,, JESUS IS MY KING, as well as dr pauls, lets keep the revolution going and keep educating yourselfs and lets save the future as one, in one heart, one mind, one love,, GOD BLESS ALL. IMPEACH OBAMA QUICK, STRIP HIM OF HIS NOBEL PEACE PRIZE, RESTORE ITS HONOR ALONG WITH THE HONOR OF BEING PRESIDENT BY HANDING IT OVER TO RON PAUL,, WE GOVERN OURSELVES AND HAVE ALMIGHTY GOD FOR OUR RULE, I LOVE ALL OF YOU

Just want to say this is a great Article!

I love his idea of Cascadia in the North West!

It inspired me to give this Angelic Realm the name: CASCADIA (spirit wise spirit diameter)
What was at the Diameter? Some evil 1 eyed black triangle put there by the evil god RA,
called gotsu. and the evil 1eyed black triangle that was in our sun called GAOTO

Supreme Angel Lord Alextron is the protector
of this Angelic Realm.

This is a very fantastic article. It has clearly shown that Christianity as we know it today is only but a compromise of Pagan practices and Christianity as practiced by the Essenes and disciples of Jesus. Paul in his many writings mentions milk being fed to little children and bones to mature people.In that regard, christianity is two-fold, one for the carnal and the other for the spiritual. I conclude that Jefferson belonged to the spiritual and all opposed to his views are carnal.

so how do you feel about the one world religion being implemented by the Freemasons?

"No one will enter the New World Order unless he or she will make a pledge to worship Lucifer. No one will enter the New Age unless he will take a Luciferian Initiation." D. Spangler, Director of Planetary Initiative, United Nations. -

Jefferson's public life was not without turmoil, failure and scandal, nor was his private life without tragedy and trouble. His beloved wife died at a young age. Five of his six children died prematurely, four in infancy. In all his adult life he was never free from the burden of seriously threatening indebtedness.

The character of Jefferson's religion is one of the most interesting aspects of his intriguing life. Certain evangelicals, who were also his political opponents, tried very hard to make Jefferson's religion a factor in elections. They filled the press with scurrilous attacks on his "deistical" beliefs. He made it his steadfast policy never to respond to any of these attacks or, indeed, to make any public statement at all concerning his faith. Ironically, in spite of the attacks, evangelicals flocked to support Jefferson because they favored the end of tax support for established churches—which meant freedom for their independent churches—as passionately as did he. Today religious conservatives portray Jefferson as a sympathetic figure, unaware of his religious beliefs, his understanding of religious freedom or his criticisms of evangelical religiosity.

These facts about Jefferson's religion are known. He was raised as an Anglican and always maintained some affiliation with the Anglican Church. He was also known to contribute financially, in fair proportion, to every denomination in his town. While a student at William and Mary College, he began to read the Scottish moral philosophers and other authors who had made themselves students of church history. These scholars opened the door for Jefferson's informed criticism of prevailing religious institutions and beliefs. But it was the world renowned English Unitarian minister and scientist, Joseph Priestley, who had the most profound impact on his thought. According to Priestley's Corruptions of Christianity, published in 1782, and many other of his books, the teachings of Jesus and his human character were obscured and obfuscated in the early Christian centuries. As the Church Fathers adapted Christianity to Mediterranean-primarily Greek-forms of thought, they contrived doctrines altogether foreign to Biblical thought, such as the doctrine of the Trinity. Jefferson assumed that a thoroughly reformed Christian faith, true to Jesus' teaching, would be purged of all Greek influence and doctrinal absurdity.

Jefferson never joined a Unitarian church. He did attend Unitarian services while visiting with Joseph Priestley after his immigration to Pennsylvania and spoke highly of those services. He corresponded on religious matters with numerous Unitarians, among them Jared Sparks (Unitarian minister, historian and president of Harvard), Thomas Cooper, Benjamin Waterhouse and John Adams. He was perhaps most open concerning his own beliefs in his long exchange of letters with John Adams during their late years, 1812-26.

It is probably safe to say that Jefferson first acquired from Joseph Priestley features of his world view and faith which he found confirmed to his satisfaction by further thought and study for the rest of his life. These included a withering a scorn for Platonic and all forms of Neoplatonic metaphysics a fierce loathing of all "priestcraft" whose practitioners he held guilty of deliberately perpetrating rank superstition for centuries, thus maintaining their own power a serene conviction that Jesus' moral teaching was entirely compatible with natural law as it may be inferred from the sciences and a unitarian view of Jesus. These features are all well attested in his voluminous private correspondence.

Jefferson's earliest writings on religion exhibit a natural theology, a heavy reliance on reason, and the belief that morality comes not from special revelation but from careful attention to the inward moral sense. In a letter to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787, Jefferson advised, "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god."

He considered Jesus the teacher of a sublime and flawless ethic. Writing in 1803 to the Universalist physician Benjamin Rush, 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 in which 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."

Jefferson found the Unitarian understanding of Jesus compatible with his own. In 1822 he predicted that "there is not a young man now living in the US who will not die an Unitarian." Jefferson requested that a Unitarian minister be dispatched to his area of Virginia. "Missionaries from Cambridge [that is: Harvard Divinity School] would soon be greeted with more welcome, than from the tritheistical school of Andover." Jefferson's christology is apparent in these and similar letters, and also in one of his most famous writings, the "Jefferson Bible."

Of immense appeal is the image of President Jefferson, up late at night in his study at the White House, using a razor to cut out large segments of the four Gospels and pasting the parts he decided to keep onto the pages of a blank book, purchased to receive them. This original project of 1804, which he titled "The Philosophy of Jesus," he refined and greatly expanded in his later years. The final product, completed in 1820, he called the "Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," which was the version Congress published. Jefferson's "Life and Morals" argues no theology. It is simply his edited version of the Gospels. He literally cut out the virgin birth, miracle stories, claims to Jesus' divinity and the resurrection. Some scholars believe he first assembled his collage of Jesus' teachings for his own devotional use. A late reference to the "Indians" who could benefit from reading it, was likely directed at those public figures, often Christian ministers, who had viciously attacked his religious beliefs without in the least understanding them or—as Jefferson believed—Jesus.

Thomas Jefferson's genius is everywhere apparent in his thirst for and his comprehension of the best enlightened philosophy, history, science, political theory, agriculture and religion of his age. Tragically, he failed utterly to engage, in any substantively practical way whatsoever, the massive realities of American racial oppression and injustice. Jefferson's writings display deep reservations as well as moral anguish concerning Negro slavery yet he never freed his own slaves. Much attention, in Jefferson's time and in ours, has focused on his alleged sexual relations with his mixed-race slave, Sally Hemings, the light skinned half-sister of his wife. There is now compelling DNA evidence that Jefferson was the father of at least one of Hemings' children. He did free two of Hemings' children in his will and Hemings was given her freedom shortly thereafter. But millions of African Americans have had to suffer many more decades of cruel economic slavery, even after legal slavery was ended in the 1860s, because of the common, absurd notion, which Thomas Jefferson shared and only mildly questioned, that the "dark" races were inferior to the "white." Moreover, Jefferson's presidential removal policies proved horribly destructive to Native Americans. They set the pattern for the Bill for Indian Removal, signed by President Jackson in 1830, whose cruel enforcement resulted in the Trail of Tears of 1838-39 and other atrocities. Jefferson's prophetic advancement of human liberty is deeply tainted by his shameful legacy in matters of race.


Jesus Without Miracles

My, isn&rsquot it nice of Harper&rsquos Magazine to mark December with not one, but two articles about Christians losing their faith.

I&rsquoll just take on the cover piece: "Jesus Without the Miracles" by Erik Reece, writer and son of a Baptist preacher. The conceit is to compare Thomas Jefferson&rsquos Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth with the Gospel of Thomas.

The article is quite long, strange, and completely untethered from historical considerations. Completely.

The project, as Reece puts it, is to recover a "truly American gospel" in which otherworldly considerations have been banished, and we are encouraged and inspired to attend to the here and now.

The conceit fails miserably, though, because Reece walks that usual path of ignorance, in which profound thinkers tend to forget, or ignore, the fact that those who have thrown themselves most vigorously into helping individuals afflicted with earthly misery are those who also believe in the entire Gospel, which includes those other-worldly aspects like Resurrection.

It also fails because Reece&rsquos preferred redaction of the Gospels posits a totally false dichotomy:

"In all of his teacings, the Jesus that Jefferson recovers has one overarching theme &mdash the world&rsquos values are all upside down, in relation to the kingdom of god. Material riches do not constitute real wealth those whom we think of as the most pwerful, the first in the nation-state, are actually the last in the kingdom of god being true to one&rsquos self is more imprtant than being loyal to one&rsquos family the Sabbath is for men, men are not for the Sabbath those who think they know the most are the most ignorant&hellip.."

Oh, yes. This Jeffersonian gospel is nothing like the Gospel preached by Christian traditions that take the entire Gospel at its world. The Resurrection of Jesus has nothing to do with worldy values being turned upside down. Jesus healing on the Sabbath has nothing to do with the Sabbath being for human beings rather than vv.

The igorance is amusing &ndash it&rsquos an ignorance, not simply of Christian tradition, but of the function and meaning of Jesus&rsquo miracles within the context of his ministry. But I suppose if you are predetermined to believe that these miracles and such are just proof-texts added by later writers, there you go.

There&rsquos also weird discourse on Alexander Hamilton, and how the miracle-based Christianity is Hamiltonian and leads to a manufacturing-based economy.

Then there&rsquos the treatment of the Gospel of Thomas which is uncritical and historically bereft.

It&rsquos rather shocking &ndash but not so much, given the mag&rsquos recent history under Lapham &ndash that such a ridiculous piece would be published and, at such length. It&rsquos really long.

The question one ends up asking in the end is &ndash why not just let go of Jesus completely? In the end, he is a genial philosopher who says nothing more startling than any other major world religious leader, all of whom, almost without exception, extol the superiority of spiritual values to worldly values (well, but of course&hellipthat&rsquos why they are spiritual leaders!) cast a suspicious eye on the things of this world, and tell their followers to be kind. Why the determination to pursue the project that the Jesus of Christianity must be a lie, cannot be the real Jesus? That is not to say Jesus has not been variously interpreted over the centuries. That is not to deny the multitude of groups, calling themselves Christian, that embody that identity in different ways and even stand in judgment of each other.

But the core remains: a determination to accept the truth of what we have been given the reasoned assessment of these texts and their historical authority, and the commitment to the entire package, sayings, miracles and life, as mysterious and challenging as it might be.

And if that is not your bag..well, okay. But why not just admit you are haunted? The Jesus of Jefferson is a bore, and the Jesus of Thomas even more so. There is nothing to recommend them rather than Kahil Gibran. Why not just let go completely?