The Jefferson Bible

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A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.

-Thomas Jefferson

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This quote from our third president is in defense of his beliefs after he created an abridged edition of the Gospels (the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). His version of the story removed nearly all mentions of the supernatural, including miracles and claims that Christ was the son of God. He titled it: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

To accomplish his goal, Jefferson took a razor blade to the four books; cutting and pasting verses in the correct order. In this process, not only did he remove the supernatural, but he also unified all four books into a single narrative. It begins with the birth of Christ in Jerusalem (with no appearance of divine intervention) and ends when Jesus is laid to rest in his tomb (with no mention of resurrection). Controversial is an accurate description of his work.

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But his goal was never to publish and cause controversy. Instead, he created this book for his own satisfaction and only revealed it to friends. The book wouldn’t become publicly available until his grandson published it in 1895. In 2011, the Smithsonian published a full-color facsimile in print and digitally on the Smithsonian National Museum of American History website.

A conservationist mending tears using surgical tools and reversible processes
A conservationist mending tears using surgical tools and reversible processes

There remains one unsolved mystery about the work, however. What was Jefferson’s intent in the 1804 title:

The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, being Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrased with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.

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What did he mean by “for the Use of the Indians”? Perhaps he thought Native Americans would be more receptive to a less supernatural Christ? But then, why wouldn’t he publish it? Maybe the title was a scapegoat if the wrong person found it. Some theorize that the word “Indians” doesn’t even refer to Native Americans, but instead his Federalist opponents. Whatever the truth is, it remains that Jefferson had a unique view.

You say you are Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself as far as I know.

-Jefferson in an 1819 letter to Ezra Stiles Ely

String Quartet No. 6 in B Flat Major by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by the Musopen String Quartet

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