Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Jefferson snipped Easter from scripture
Dedicated to preserving the new nation, Thomas Jefferson tore apart the biblical Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
He believed the Bible was crammed with superstition, such as miracles. Moreover, Jefferson scorned religious dogma. It caused bitter divisions among colonial Christians. When superstition thrived and doctrinal debates increased, he worried that the dream would die of a new land dedicated to liberty.
Jefferson severely edited the Gospels. Why?
If people of good will agreed with Jesus’ basic morality, they would pull together. With fewer religious divisions and less debate over dogma, the Republic would flourish. A simpler Bible would help religious adversaries become amiable.
Jefferson didn’t treat the Bible as a holy relic, treasuring every word. He suspected that primitive superstitions permeated scripture. Like barnacles clinging to a boat’s hull, they must be scraped off in order to discover Jesus’ authentic message.
As president (1801-09), Jefferson wrestled with the Bible’s basic teaching. He believed dogma shouldn’t inhibit intellectual freedom.
Jefferson’s goal was to show what an enlightened person credibly believed. His edited Bible witnessed, he maintained, to Jesus’ excellent principles that shaped morality. He asked fundamental questions, wanting to separate “diamonds” of truth from the “dung” of superstitious waste.
Critics against historic Christian faith railed against clergy practicing ecclesiastical tyranny over peasants’ minds. Like Jefferson, scripture’s doubters pointed to the Bible’s layers of “holy mysticism” that fed erroneous notions, naive superstition and brittle dogmatism.
In 1804, working late into the evening before retiring in the President’s House (White House), Jefferson cut the Bible down to size. Wielding perhaps a penknife or a razor, he condensed Jesus’ authentic message, freeing it from superstitious tradition.
Lacking formal training in editing ancient manuscripts, the president used a simple rule of thumb to determine the Gospel’s veracity. If “the style and spirit” of the biblical words corresponded with how Jesus lived, he preserved the passage.
He called this edited Bible “The Philosophy of Jesus.” No copy of it survives, although we know of its existence because Jefferson refers to it in his correspondence. This slim volume was “the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed with other business,” Jefferson wrote, “and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure.”
During retirement at Monticello, Jefferson collected six Bibles: two copies each in English, French and a combined Latin/Greek text. Using some kind of sharp instrument, he carefully cut out what he agreed with in Jesus’ teaching and life. He kept the parables and passages like the “Sermon on the Mount,” in which Jesus is portrayed as the new Moses who articulated ethics for fulfilling life.
Christ’s resurrection from the dead wasn’t included. Jefferson’s Bible concludes with Jesus’ burial. Easter, as an historic event, made no sense to him. Jefferson organized his Bible by dividing loose-leaf notebook pages into four columns. Scripture in the four languages was lined up in parallel columns, giving a chronology of Jesus’ life.
In 1820, Jefferson paid Richmond printer Frederick Mayo to bind the 86-page volume in red morocco leather. Adopting a handsome French style, he entitled it “The Life and Morals of Jesus” in gold lettering. Keeping his spiritual convictions private, Jefferson produced no copies of this personal Bible.
This Bible exhibits what Jefferson believed about Christian faith stripped of idle superstition and dense dogma. Two years after taking the presidential oath in 1801, Jefferson affirmed, “I am a Christian in the only sense in which he (Jesus) 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.”
Christians who believe in Christ’s physical resurrection say Jefferson’s mental fingerprints cover his selective picture of Jesus, who died and wasn’t resurrected.
His Jesus looks a lot like Jefferson – erudite, morally intense and convicted of truth that rankled bland religion.
“No miracles, no metaphysics, no mystery” is how Martin E. Marty, historian of American religion at the University of Chicago emeritus, critiques Jefferson’s Bible. Parables and moral aphorisms are preserved in this Reader’s Digest version of the Bible.
Jefferson rejected Christ’s resurrection, the central truth of Christianity. “He made a Socrates out of Jesus,” says Professor Marty.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Eps 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 Eps’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.