Monumental Lies: Jefferson, Reconstructed
In 1820, at age 77, Thomas Jefferson sat down with scissors and cut up some Bibles. This was more deliberate than it sounds: Jefferson neatly excised passages from versions of the Gospels in four different languages. He then arranged the blocks of text chronologically and pasted them onto blank folios, Greek and Latin in columns on the left-hand page, French and English on the right. Before sending the whole thing off to a bookbinder, Jefferson wrote the title page in his own hand: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels. Today we call it The Jefferson Bible.
This was not the first time Jefferson took blade to Bible. In 1804, early in his second term as president, Jefferson found time to cut and paste from two copies of the King James Bible. This volume, which Jefferson called The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, is lost to history; regardless, it is clear that on both occasions Jefferson was engaging in an act of devotion when he edited the Gospels. In an 1813 letter to John Adams, he referred to Jesus’ teachings as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” The problem was the “corruptions” and “nonsense” added by later Christians: the virgin birth and faith healing, the idea of Jesus as both human and divine. In his version of the Gospels, Jefferson was looking to distill the “pure principles” of Jesus from the savior’s precepts, parables, and earthly biography.
Perhaps the most striking thing about The Jefferson Bible is its brevity—25,000 words, compared to the 80,000 of the Gospels in the King James Bible. The recent re-publication from Tarcher/Penguin can just about fit into your pocket. But the elisions are equally striking. Instead of the genealogy that opens the Book of Matthew—and the New Testament itself—Jefferson begins at Luke 2, with Joseph schlepping his pregnant wife to Bethlehem, his home city, to pay the Roman tax. (In an intriguing echo of colonial grievances, some version of the word “tax” comes up four times on the first page of The Jefferson Bible.)
Jefferson’s Jesus chases the moneychangers from the Temple, wrangles with the Pharisees, and preaches the Sermon on the Mount. He is arrested and mocked and crucified. But John 3:16 does not make it into The Jefferson Bible. There is mention of the afterlife; but there are no angels or annunciations, no voice of God. Nor does Jesus heal the sick, raise the dead, proclaim his own divinity, or change water into wine. And The Jefferson Bible ends tersely, with Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus at Jesus’ tomb: “There they laid Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.”