A largely forgotten late-life work by Thomas Jefferson offers remarkable insight into the complexities of the faith and philosophies of the Founding Fathers.
It also helps Americans answer the question: Is the United States a Christian nation?
Jefferson, the third U.S. president, completed “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” in 1820 after 15 years of effort.
It’s more commonly known as “The Jefferson Bible.”
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Yes, the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence and shook an angry fist at the world order when he declared that “all men are created equal” also wrote his own version of the Bible.
The book was a distillation of the teachings of Jesus — minus the religious doctrine of divinity — in which Jefferson, after his presidency, literally cut and pasted together his own new version of the gospels.
“We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus,” Jefferson wrote in 1813 while explaining the project to John Adams.
“There will be remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
The book’s existence has largely been ignored by history, even though it offers fascinating insight into a brilliant mind that helped ignite the greatest intellectual revolution in human history.
“We must reduce our volume to … the very words only of Jesus. There will be remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
“‘The Jefferson Bible’ is arguably the most controversial religious text in American history,” Thomas S. Kidd, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, wrote last year for the Text & Canon Institute.
“Thomas Jefferson never published his Bible in his lifetime. Indeed, ‘The Jefferson Bible’ never got published at all during the 1800s, despite publishers’ offers to do so. Congress finally produced an edition of it in 1904.”
Kidd also wrote the 2022 book, “Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh.”
Jefferson, and his Bible, claimed that Jesus Christ was the most important teacher of morality in human history — yet also denied his divinity.
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“Jefferson denies Jesus is the son of God. He denies the resurrection. He denies the trinity,” Kidd told Fox News Digital.
“All of these are key doctrines of Christianity. So in that sense, he was not a Christian. Yet he also believed Jesus was a moral human teacher — not only a teacher, but the greatest teacher ever.”
“The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” marked the culmination of decades of research into the Bible, the New Testament specifically, by a giant of human history.
Jefferson and many of the other Founding Fathers not only knew the Bible intimately, they studied it in multiple languages — in what appears to have been an inconceivable sort of intellectual one-ups-manship.
“Jefferson seems to have read the Bible regularly, including the Greek New Testament, and the Septuagint, or the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible,” wrote Kidd in his book.
“‘The Jefferson Bible’ is arguably the most controversial religious text in American history.”
“Other prominent founders, including James Madison and John Adams, could also read Hebrew, but Jefferson never learned that biblical language. Indeed, Jefferson got irritated at Adams for suggesting that a truly educated man needed to be able to read both the Old and New Testaments in the original languages.”
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It’s a testament to the extraordinary confluence of intellect among the Founding Fathers that they not only studied and discussed the Bible and other historical and philosophical texts — they did so in multiple languages to increase their understanding of the documents.
The original 86-page “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” is housed today at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
It’s bound in red Moroccan leather and stamped with gold lettering.
“It was crafted in the fall and winter months of 1819 and 1820 when the 77-year-old Jefferson used a razor to cut passages from six copies of the New Testament — two in Greek and Latin, two in French and two in English,” Smithsonian Magazine noted in 2020.
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He then “rearranged and pasted together the selected verses, shorn of any sign of the miraculous or supernatural in order to leave just the life and teachings of Jesus behind.”
“The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” begins with Joseph and Mary, “being great with child,” traveling to Bethlehem to answer the “decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1).
Jefferson’s book ends with the disciples rolling “a great stone to the door of the sepulchre” (Matthew 27:60) and leaving behind the body of the crucified Jesus.
“The 77-year-old Jefferson used a razor to cut passages from six copies of the New Testament — two in Greek and Latin, two in French and two in English.”
There is no discussion of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, nor any reference to the resurrection of Jesus and the continuing mission of the Apostles, each miracle essential to the traditional Christian narrative.
The paradox of “The Jefferson Bible” speaks to a rich complexity of thought among the Founding Fathers that defies the simplistic storylines offered by many modern academics.
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American history and culture today appear reduced to only a binary narrative on many issues — for example, race defined simplistically as victims vs. oppressors or, in this case, religion defined as wholly Christian or wholly not Christian.
There is no in-between in contemporary thought.
The Founding Fathers, however, inhabited a nation of more intellectual nuance and sophistication.
Jefferson “has this historical third way. You don’t run into people like him today,” said Kidd.
“He doesn’t have the traditional doctrinal beliefs many subscribe to Christianity. But he’s also very attached to the moral teachings of Jesus — enough so that he composed his own Bible.”
It was no small effort, consuming many years of Jefferson’s life. He first conceived of the idea to annotate the teachings of Jesus in the 1790s, before he became president.
He also committed to the painstaking physical effort to personally cut and paste the document. Clearly, the Bible was foundational to his beliefs, even if doctrine was not.
“When Jefferson wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ it was a profoundly theological statement. He does believe in a creator. He does believe in a God.”
The Founding Fathers were each raised within Christian tradition — but within that tradition expressed a wide diversity of philosophy and orthodoxy representing their diverse intellect.
It’s no coincidence, given this vast command of global thought, that religious freedom was foremost on their minds when it came time to draft the Constitution in the late 1780s.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” reads the very first line of the First Amendment. Commitment to religious discourse is literally the first guarantee of liberty in the Bill of Rights.
“Not all the Founding Fathers were Christians in the sense we may consider today. But if you frame it as, ‘Does Christianity influence the founding of the nation?’ Oh my goodness, it’s everywhere,” Kidd said.
“When Jefferson wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ it was a profoundly theological statement. He does believe in a creator. He does believe in a God and that our rights come from God.”
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