The Jefferson Bible (1820)
It’s a curious thing to do: cut out passages from the four Gospels in the New Testament and paste them into your own version of the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s what Thomas Jefferson did.
I bought an ebook version of this work, and read it ‘cover-to-cover’. I didn’t agree with his chronology at times, but then I didn’t know then what I know now about who actually wrote the Gospels.
RELIGIOUS VIEWS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON
In a letter to his daughter, written in 1803, Mr. Jefferson said: “A promise made to a friend some years ago, but executed only lately, has placed my religious creed on paper. I have thought it just that my family, by possessing this, should be enabled to estimate the libels published against me on this, as on every other possible subject.” The “religious creed” to which he referred was a comparison of the doctrines of Jesus with those of others, prepared in fulfillment of a promise made to Dr. Benjamin Rush. This paper, with the letter to Dr. Rush which accompanied it. is a fit introduction to the “Jefferson Bible.”Jefferson, Thomas. The Jefferson Bible (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 9-14). . Kindle Edition
The test of this letter, dated April 21, 1803, is reproduced in the first part of the book. I could repeat it here in full, but that might prove tedious for some of you. But I will share some of it with you:
In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared. His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent. He was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence. The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.
1. Like Socrates and Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.
2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. I name not Plato, who only used the name of Socrates to cover the whimsies of his own brain. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing of his life and doctrines fell on unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.
3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about 33 years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.
4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective, as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.
5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian Sophist (Plato), frittering them into subtilties and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man. The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.
1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only god, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.
2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends, were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthrophy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
3. The precepts of philosophy and of the Hebrew code laid hold of action only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thought, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
4. He taught emphatically the doctrine of a future state, which was either doubted or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it with efficacy as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.Jefferson, Thomas. The Jefferson Bible (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 47-72). . Kindle Edition.
Finally Jefferson explains the real reason why he did this cut-and-paste job:
I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials (The Gospels) which I call the Philosophy of Jesus. It is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or 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, very different from the Platonists, who call ME infidel and THEMSELVES Christians and preachers of the Gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature.–Jefferson.Jefferson, Thomas. The Jefferson Bible (Illustrated) (Kindle Locations 72-78). . Kindle Edition.
There, is that now perfectly clear?