Vail Daily columnist Jack R. Van Ens: Jefferson erred editing out Easter
Vail, CO, Colorado
Like a wood carver whittling a miniature figure, Jefferson sidestepped Easter by cutting Jesus down to size.
The president regarded Jesus as a smart teacher, not a resurrected savior. Jefferson rejected Easter as an event that historically occurred. Not once, but twice he assembled a stripped-down version of the Bible. It revealed Jesus as a humanitarian whom Jefferson respected but didn’t worship.
After the Louisiana Purchase was signed, sealed and delivered to Jefferson in 1804, he reached for two Bibles from his bookshelf. Working late into the evening, the president used a razor to cut out texts from scripture that he deemed false.
Keeping what depicted Jesus as a moral leader, he patched together “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” This abridged Bible, its original text lost, focuses on Jesus’ moral teachings, what Jefferson referred to as a “precious morsel of ethics.”
During his retirement in 1820, the 77-year-old Jefferson again removed Easter from what is dubbed The Jefferson Bible. He deleted New Testament verses that portrayed Jesus as divine or a person in the Trinity. Jefferson’s Bible highlighted Jesus’ sharp mind, benevolent spirit and ethical ardor, with his resurrection deleted. Arranged in parallel columns in English, Latin, French and Greek, this Bible summarized Jesus’ life in stages. Jefferson titled it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”
The president saw himself as follower of this moral Jesus. Writing to Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, Jefferson spoke of a Christianity that didn’t depend upon Easter for its validity.
“I am a Christian, in the only sense he (Jesus) wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines,” stressed Jefferson, “in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”
Conservators at the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of History are repairing the Jefferson Bible’s tattered pages. It will be displayed in November 2011.
How did Jefferson determine what to keep in Jesus’ life and what to cut out? He honed in on passages referring to Jesus’ morality. These gems glistened with spiritual instruction because they appealed to what Jefferson understood in scripture. He called the Bible’s ethical sparkle “diamonds in a dunghill.”
What qualified as “dung,” the refuse that Jefferson cut from his Bible? He determined that superstition tainted scripture. The president dismissed as silly superstitions anything he couldn’t make sense of.
In his Bible, Jefferson blended two scriptural verses: “There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher and departed.” There’s no mention of Christ’s resurrection. Easter’s a superstition that corrupts the Bible, believed Jefferson. He rejected the angel’s announcement to women at an open tomb: “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen. He’s not here.” (Mark 16:6)?
Is this merely metaphorical language? As disciples rehearsed Jesus’ teachings after his death, did they imagine him alive again? Or did Christ actually arise from the dead?
Jefferson erred because he verified as reasonable only events in Jesus’ life that weren’t presented as miraculous. Consequently, resurrection from the dead wasn’t a logical fit for the president. He cut and pasted together a Bible that dovetailed with what made sense to him.
Can everything God is and does be circumscribed by our intellect? Our minds are limited.
Resurrection from the dead isn’t part of nature’s cycle, like daffodils blooming after winter’s chill. Robins return. Bears awake from hibernation. Spring follows winter. Resurrection trumps death. We hear this sentimental talk in some Easter sermons.
The Bible reports Christ’s resurrection as stupendous — beyond our ability to explain how it happened. God accomplishes what we can’t: He beats death. Such a happening is out of the ordinary. It doesn’t abide by natural laws.
Our minds can’t comprehend Easter. The human spirit doesn’t fully apprehend its mystery. We can’t explain Jesus’ empty tomb any more than we can fully decipher the mystery of birth.
Because Jefferson trusted only what his senses authenticated, he removed Easter from his Reader’s Digest version of the Bible. But what if there’s more to life than what we can define, measure and explain? Unlike us, God isn’t defined by birth and death. Could He then have resurrected Jesus from the grave?
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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