Making good on a promise to a friend to summarize his views on Christianity, Thomas Jefferson set to work with scissors, snipping out every miracle and inconsistency he could find in the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
Then, relying on a cut-and-paste technique, he reassembled the excerpts into what he believed was a more coherent narrative and pasted them onto blank paper -- alongside translations in French, Greek and Latin.
In a letter sent from Monticello to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson said his “wee little book” of 46 pages was based on a lifetime of inquiry and reflection and contained “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
He called the book “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” Friends dubbed it the Jefferson Bible. It remains perhaps the most comprehensive expression of what the nation’s third president and principal author of the Declaration of Independence found ethically interesting about the Gospels and their depiction of Jesus.
“I have performed the operation for my own use,” he continued, “by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter, which is evidently his and which is as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill.”
The little leather-bound tome, several facsimiles of which are kept at the Huntington Library in San Marino, continues to fascinate scholars exploring the powerful and varied relationships between the Founding Fathers and the most sacred book of the Western World.
The big question now, said Lori Anne Ferrell, a professor of early modern history and literature at Claremont Graduate University, is this:
“Can you imagine the reaction if word got out that a president of the United States cut out Bible passages with scissors, glued them onto paper and said, ‘I only believe these parts?’ ”
“He was a product of his age,” said Ferrell, whose upcoming book, “The Bible and the People,” includes a chapter on the Jefferson Bible. “Yet, he is the least likely person I’d want to pray with. He was more skeptical about religion than the other Founding Fathers.”
In Jefferson’s version of the Gospels, for example, Jesus is still wrapped in swaddling clothes after his birth in Bethlehem. But there’s no angel telling shepherds watching their flocks by night that a savior has been born. Jefferson retains Jesus’ crucifixion but ends the text with his burial, not with the resurrection.
Stripping miracles from the story of Jesus was among the ambitious projects of a man with a famously restless mind. At 71, he read Plato’s “Republic” in the original Greek and found it lackluster.
Ever the scientist, he inoculated his wife, children and many of his slaves against smallpox with fresh pus drawn from infected domestic farm animals, according to Robert C. Ritchie, W.M. Keck Foundation director of research at the Huntington Library.
“For a lot of people, taking scissors to the Bible would be such an act of desecration they wouldn’t do it,” Ritchie said. “Yet, it gives a reading into Jefferson’s take on the Bible, which was not as divine word put into print, but as a book that can be cut up.”
Jefferson, a tall vigorous man who preferred Thucydides and Cicero to the newspapers of his day, was not the only 18th century leader who questioned traditional Christian teachings.
Like many other upper-class, educated citizens of the new republic, including George Washington, Jefferson was a deist.
Deists differed from traditional Christians by rejecting miraculous occurrences and prophecies and embracing the notion of a well-ordered universe created by a God who withdrew into detached transcendence.
Critics of the time regarded deism as an ill-conceived attempt to reconcile religion with scientific discoveries. For rationalists in the Age of Enlightenment, deism was one of many efforts to liberate humankind from what the deists viewed as superstitious beliefs.
Jefferson was a particular fan of Joseph Priestley, a scientist, ordained minister and one of Jefferson’s friends. Priestley -- who discovered oxygen and invented carbonated water and the rubber eraser -- published books that infamously cast a critical eye upon biblical miracles. Jefferson was particularly fond of Preistley’s comparison of the lives and teachings of Socrates and Jesus.
Discussions and letters between Jefferson and another friend, Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush, led Jefferson to compile his “wee little book.” In a letter to Rush on April 21, 1803, Jefferson said his editing experiment aimed to see whether the ethical teachings of Jesus could be separated from elements he believed were attached to Christianity over the centuries.
“To the corruption of Christianity I am indeed opposed,” he wrote to Rush, “but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.”
Therefore, Ritchie said, “for Jefferson, the Bible was a book that could be made and unmade.”
The Jefferson Bible remained largely unknown beyond a close circle of relatives and friends until 1904, when its publication was ordered by Congress. About 9,000 copies were issued and distributed in the Senate and the House.
Today several editions of the Jefferson Bible are available through booksellers. A few online versions exist, including one on the website of the Jefferson Monticello, www.monticello.org/library/links/jefferson.html.
It is hard to say whether Jefferson would have objected to publication of the book.
“Say nothing of my religion,” Jefferson once said. “It is known to myself and my God alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life; if that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.”