Our subject today is the "Jefferson Bible", or as Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, called it, "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth". He didn't write a bible: he was a man of considerable ego, but nothing like that. He didn't translate one, either. In fact he combined four translations in languages he well knew: Greek, Latin, French and English. He abridged the gospels—"scripture by subtraction", if you will. What he created was useful for him and has attracted others for almost 200 years.
As you know, Thomas Jefferson was one of the founders of the United States of America and served as its first secretary of state, its second vice-president and its third president. He was intelligent, educated, spoiled, and not in all regards a good man. He was full of contradictions:
His correspondence, late in his life, with the second president, John Adams, shows Jefferson perhaps in his best light. Their discussions on moral, political and historical subjects show two old men still looking for answers.
It is in his relationships and correspondence with the intellectuals of his day—Adams, Benjamin Rush, Joseph Priestley and others— that we get the best idea of Jefferson's thinking. Most of the Jefferson quotes I'll be reading come from that correspondence.
It's often stated that Jefferson wrote the inscription on his tomb. This does not seem to be true. He expressed a wish that the words would reflect what he had given the world, not what had been given to him. The words written there are:
Here was buried
Author of the Declaration
Of American Independence,
Statute of Virginia
And Father of the
University of Virginia.
For most of his life, Jefferson probably thought of himself as a Christian rationalist and as a Unitarian. Late in his life he wrote a friend who asked what worship he attended,
The population of my neighborhood is too slender, and is too much divided into other sects to maintain any one preacher well. I must therefore be contented with being a Unitarian by myself.
I suspect he, like many of us, was less certain of what he believed than in what he was interested in. He had a life-long curiosity about theology, morals and the social effects of religion.
Jefferson's own beliefs should be looked at apart from his political judgment about state establishment of religion He recognized the power of religion and Americans' seemingly ubiquitous (and diverse) need for it. He suspected that attempts by the state (in this case the States) to favor one sect over another would be ruinous for the new United States. (And keep in mind that two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut still collected taxes to support state churches—Congregational and Presbyterian, respectively—twelve years after the adoption of the Constitution.) The Virginia statute for Religious Freedom, disestablishing the Church of England in Virginia, did not pass until 1786. It's preamble begins
Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free;
That all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do....
These are Jefferson's words and they are decidedly anti-clerical in implication. In defending religious freedom, Jefferson also wrote
...our rulers can have authority over [our religious] rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
These are essentially political statements, and the political reactions, which included accusations of impiety, infidelity and even atheism against Jefferson, don't tell us much about his true beliefs, either.
Fortunately Jefferson left us with some evidence of his religion. He was a Christian rationalist:
To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to him every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.
In order to better understand the doctrines of Jesus, Jefferson turned to the New Testament and the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Cutting and pasting (in the old, physical, sense—this was before Microsoft Word became popular—passages from the gospels onto blank sheets,
He did this with four bibles: A Greek testament; the Vulgate (latin); a French Protestant bible; and the Authorized or King James version in English.
How did it turn out? I'm passing a facsimile around the congregation now. I will put in the fellowship library after the service if you want to spend more time with it. As you can see, it's quite short. Less than 25% of the original words passed his filters. It would probably have been even shorter had not Jefferson decided to retain connecting passages to provide context. And it is a much different narrative, We'll see some of the differences in a few minutes.
When Jefferson had the loose pages bound, he included a title page, "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English." He took a "polyglot" or side-by-side translation approach to "smooth out" any differences caused by translation. The book was intended for his own use, as a guide to the study of his religion as he described it above. For 90 years, there was but one copy. 9,000 copies were printed in 1904, by act of Congress, and for many years a copy was distributed to every new member of Congress.
The Jefferson Bible begins with the first seven verses of the second chapter of Luke:
1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
It thus skips over the Annunciation, the immaculate conception, all the oracles and portents, and goes right to the life. It then jumps to verse 21—the circumcision. What was left out in between? Some passages you probably know very well: "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night...."—the adoration of the shepherds. And then it jumps to verse 39 (the return to Galilee); this time leaving out the prophecies of Simeon and Anna.
Jefferson's narrative ends with verse 41 and the first 4 words of verse 42 of John Chapter 19:
41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.
42 There laid they Jesus...
concatenated with the last half of Matthew 27:60
and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away.
What's left out thereafter? Just the resurrection, the discovery of the empty tomb, the encounter with the disciples on the road, the harrowing of hell ....
Jefferson chose the plainest language and the barest reporting from among the gospelers. Even in the sometimes inflated language of 17th-century England, the narrative unfolds simply and usually with a ring of authenticity. Jefferson claimed it is easy to pick out the 'true' passages in the gospels because they are written so differently from the additions and digressions.
As I said, it's a very different narrative. What is left is
... the reliable moral and biographical core of the four gospels. After its completion, Jefferson claims to have studied it nightly.
So, that's the story of the Jefferson Bible. What does it mean to us?
For one thing, it confirms that our modern UU method of intellectual inquiry into spiritual things is not a recent innovation. Here we have Thomas Jefferson doing it 200 years ago.
For another it shows us one way to seek: privately, by the application of reason to the huge overlay of dross that covers nuggets of truth.
It also suggests that we can know and get value from a system of religious beliefs without solving, or even addressing, all its problems. In this case, we can learn about and learn from the moral teachings of Jesus without having to deal with his divinity.
And if we buy into Jefferson's way of thinking we get a potentially valuable way of looking at the lessons of Christ: