Ask Augustine with Dr. Paul Tambrino
Ask Augustine is a weekly column where professor/author Dr. Paul Tambrino discusses various theological questions with wit, clarity and substance.
Question #30 – What Is the Jefferson Bible?
The Jefferson Bible is a compilation made by Thomas Jefferson and consists of passages from the four gospels cut out and pasted unto a book according to a scheme of his own. Before beginning the work, Jefferson tried to get Dr. Benjamin Rush to compile such a work.
He sent Dr. Rush a comparative outline of the moral teachings of Jesus and those of certain ancient philosophers, and explained to his friend why his name should not be associated with the enterprise.“Jefferson found this work an agreeable and profitable escape from the affairs of state. He thought this first abridgement (digest or abstract) might be adapted for the use of the Indians.”
During his early political campaigns Jefferson had been widely denounced as an atheist and an unbeliever because he showed little interest in formal and conventional church work.
So the man who was the author of the Statute for Religious Freedom in Virginia and who more than any other was responsible for the provision in the Bill of Rights guaranteeing to Americans the free exercise of religion, wrote to Dr. Rush as follows:
And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies (slander). I am, moreover, adverse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public, because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquest over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves everyman who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasions of it in the case of others, or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own.
Unable to get another to do it, Jefferson, then serving his first term as President of the United States, began the work in 1804.
He bought two copies of the English Bible and spent two evenings at home in the White House cutting out and pasting into a blank book the words attributed to Jesus and some other passages in close accord with the words of the great teacher.“During his early political campaigns Jefferson had been widely denounced as an atheist and an unbeliever because he showed little interest in formal and conventional church work.”
This work he found an agreeable and profitable escape from the affairs of state. He thought this first abridgement (digest or abstract) might be adapted for the use of the Indians.
We learn from a letter to a friend that Jefferson was in the habit of reading from this volume every night before going to bed. In 1813 he wrote from Monticello to John Adams:
We must reduce our volume to the simple Evangelists; select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms (ambiguous) into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from Him, by giving their own misconceptions as His dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently His and which is as easy distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octave of forty-six pages.
In 1816 Jefferson wrote to Charles Thomson:
I, too, have made a wee little book from the same materials, which I call the philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma (model) of His doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time and subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.
Jefferson in his letter to Thomson added; “If I had time I would add to my little book the Greek, Latin and French texts, in columns side-by-side.”
About 1819 Jefferson found the time to complete the work by cutting out and pasting in parallel columns in a blank book the corresponding passages from New Testaments in Greek, Latin and French, three languages that Jefferson read with ease. “Jefferson never published his Bible. ‘I not only write nothing on religion,’ he said, ‘but rarely permit myself to speak on it.’
The finished work he entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. There are no notes or commentaries in the book except the section of the Roman law under which Jesus was brought to trial.
The lists of passages, the title pages and references are in Jefferson’s handwriting. Two maps, one of Palestine and another of the ancient world are pasted in front.
Jefferson never published his Bible. “I not only write nothing on religion,” he said, “but rarely permit myself to speak on it.”
In 1895 the Federal Government purchased this curious book from the Jefferson heirs and the original is now in the National Museum at Washington.
Nine years later the Fifty-seventh Congress issued a limited edition of the English section of the Jefferson Bible for distribution to its members.
Since then this interesting work, compiled in the White House by a President of the United States, has been printed by private publishers and is available to the public.
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Thomas Jefferson (1796) by Mather Brown (1761-1831). National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; bequest of Charles Francis Adams; frame conserved with funds from the Smithsonian Women’s Committee. NPG.99.66.