The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly referred to as the Jefferson Bible, is one of two religious works constructed by Thomas Jefferson. The first, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, was completed in 1804, but no copies exist today. The second, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, was completed in 1820 by cutting and pasting with a razor and glue numerous sections from the New Testament as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus. Jefferson’s condensed composition excludes all miracles by Jesus and most mentions of the supernatural, including sections of the four gospels that contain the Resurrection and most other miracles, and passages that portray Jesus as divine.
In an 1803 letter to Joseph Priestley, Jefferson stated that he conceived the idea of writing his view of the “Christian System” in a conversation with Dr. Benjamin Rush during 1798–99. He proposes beginning with a review of the morals of the ancient philosophers, moving on to the “deism and ethics of the Jews”, and concluding with the “principles of a pure deism” taught by Jesus, “omitting the question of his deity”. Jefferson explains that he does not have the time, and urges the task on Priestley as the person best equipped to accomplish it.
Jefferson accomplished a more limited goal in 1804 with The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, the predecessor to The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He described it in a letter to John Adams dated October 12, 1813:
In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurges, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms 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, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines.
Jefferson wrote that “The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus Himself are within the comprehension of a child”. He explained these doctrines were such as were “professed & acted on by the unlettered apostles, the Apostolic fathers, and the Christians of the 1st century”. In a letter to Reverend Charles Clay, he described his results:
Probably you have heard me say I had taken the four Evangelists, had cut out from them every text they had recorded of the moral precepts of Jesus, and arranged them in a certain order; and although they appeared but as fragments, yet fragments of the most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man.
Jefferson never referred to his work as a Bible, and the full title of this 1804 version was The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, being Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrased [uncomplicated] with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.
Jefferson frequently expressed discontent with this earlier version, which was merely a compilation of the moral teachings of Jesus. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth represents the fulfillment of his desire to produce a more carefully assembled edition which includes what, in his estimation, can be known of the life of Jesus, whose deeds were the embodiment of his teachings.
Using a razor and glue, Jefferson cut and pasted his arrangement of selected verses from the King James Version of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in chronological order—putting together excerpts from one text with those of another to create a single narrative. Thus he begins with Luke 2 and Luke 3, then follows with Mark 1 and Matthew 3. He provides a record of which verses he selected, and of the order he chose in his Table of the Texts from the Evangelists employed in this Narrative and of the order of their arrangement.
Consistent with his naturalistic outlook and intent, most supernatural events are not included in Jefferson’s heavily edited compilation. Paul K. Conkin states that “For the teachings of Jesus he concentrated on his milder admonitions (the Sermon on the Mount) and his most memorable parables. What resulted is a reasonably coherent, but at places oddly truncated, biography. If necessary to exclude the miraculous, Jefferson would cut the text even in mid-verse.” Historian Edwin Scott Gaustad explains, “If a moral lesson was embedded in a miracle, the lesson survived in Jeffersonian scripture, but the miracle did not. Even when this took some rather careful cutting with scissors or razor, Jefferson managed to maintain Jesus’ role as a great moral teacher, not as a shaman or faith healer.”
Therefore, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth begins with an account of Jesus’ birth without references to angels (at that time), genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from his collection.
No supernatural acts of Christ are included at all in this regard, while the few things of a supernatural nature include receiving of the Holy Spirit, angels, Noah’s Ark and the Great Flood, the Tribulation, the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, a future kingdom, and eternal life, Heaven, Hell and punishment in everlasting fire, the Devil, and the soldiers falling backwards to the ground in response to Jesus stating, “I am he.”
Rejecting the resurrection of Jesus, the work ends with the words: “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. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” These words correspond to the ending of John 19 in the Bible.
Concerning Jefferson’s principles of construction, Holowchak, in careful examination both of what Jefferson included and excluded, states that there were several principles of selection/deselection. Jefferson writes to William Short of the four Gospels (4 Aug. 1820: “We find in the writings of his biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.”
Concerning selection, there are:
- Sublimity Thesis (ST): All passages sublimely expressive of a Supreme Being are to be selected. An illustration is Luke 10: 27: “And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind: and thy neighbour as thyself.”
- Purity Thesis (PT): All aphorisms and precepts of pure morality and benevolence are to be selected. Consider Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Jesus (Matthew 5: 3–11) preaches: “3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. / 4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. / 5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. / 6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. / 7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. / 8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. / 9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. / 10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. / 11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”
- Guilelessness Thesis (GT): All passages describing Jesus as humble, innocent, simple, and ambition-free are to be selected. A fine example is Mark 2: 16–17, where Jesus eats with publicans and sinners in an effort to heal them, deemed sick. “16. And when the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners? / 17. When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”
Concerning deselection, there are:
- Unnaturalness Thesis (UT): All passages at variance with the laws of physical nature are to be deselected. An example is Matthew 17: 5. “While he yet spake, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” That a voice should come from the clouds is a contravention of the laws of nature.
- Inconsistency Thesis (IT): All passages inconsistent with a historical character, here Jesus, based on satisfactory testimony, are to be deselected. A fine illustration is Matthew 10: 34–35: “34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. / 35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law.” Jefferson omits these, as they depict Jesus in a rather unbenevolent manner.
Further information: Religious views of Thomas Jefferson
To glean the purpose of his two “bibles,” one must say something about Jefferson’s interest in Jesus. M. Andrew Holowchak, in Thomas Jefferson’s Bible: Introduction with Critical Commentary, has shown that there were two phases for Jefferson.
“There is what might be called his literary-criticism phase of his salad years and his naturalized-religion phase of his later, more mature years. In his literary-criticism phase, Jefferson’s interest in the Bible is critical. … The Bible is a significant work of literature that is taken literally by millions, in spite of numerous hyperboles and absurdities. Thus, it is as good a book as any, and much better than most, on which to hone one’s critical skills.” Here Jefferson follows the lead of Lord Bolingbroke whose religious views Jefferson commonplaced abundantly earlier in life in his Literary Commonplace Book.
Ingesting the writings and interfacing with the likes of Rev. Richard Price and Rev. Joseph Priestley, Jefferson begins in his forties his naturalized-religion phase. “Fascination with Jesus takes root when Jefferson reads philosopher and Unitarian theologian Joseph Priestley’s An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782) and later An History of Early Opinions concerning Jesus Christ Compiled from Original Writers, Proving that the Christian Church Was at first Unitarian (1786).” As Jefferson’s liberal political views, morally undergirded, become refined, he comes to see Jesus as a cynosure of sound republican government.
Jefferson’s overall aim in his bibles was to show that when the diamonds in the New Testament were extracted from the dungheap–a metaphor he oft uses–one is left with an incomparably beautiful and simple naturalized religion which aims to show that true, naturalized religion is to be found in the teachings of Jesus and is reducible to love of God and love of one’s fellow humans, and a commitment to truthful, authentic living. The metaphor strongly suggests:
- The salvageable teachings of Jesus and narrative of his life are diamonds;
- What remains are not merely residua, but feculence;
- Diamonds are few; there is dung aplenty;
- Diamonds and dung are immiscible, and thus, the diamonds are easily extracted, or relatively so; and
- Those who added the feculence to the teachings of Jesus have behaved criminally.
In a letter to Bishop James Madison (31 Jan. 1800), cousin to the politician and future president of the same name, Jefferson expresses keen interest in Jesus as philosopher. He writes of the beliefs of German philosopher and founder of Illuminism, Adam Weishaupt. “Wishaupt [sic] … is among those (as you know the excellent Price and Priestly [sic] also are) who believe in the indefinite perfectibility of man. he thinks he may in time be rendered so perfect that he will be able to govern himself in every circumstance so as to injure none, to do all the good he can, to leave government no occasion to exercise their powers over him, & of course to render political government useless. … Wishaupt believes that to promote this perfection of the human character was the object of Jesus Christ. that his intention was simply to reinstate natural religion, & by diffusing the light of his morality, to teach us to govern ourselves. his precepts are the love of god & love of our neighbor. and by teaching innocence of conduct, he expected to place men in their natural state of liberty & equality. he says, no one ever laid a surer foundation for liberty than our grand master, Jesus of Nazareth.”
As president, he expresses those sentiments in a letter to Priestley over a year later (21 Mar. 1801). “The Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.” The letters intimate great appreciation of the life and words of Jesus as the true cynosure of republican government.
It is understood by some historians that Jefferson composed it for his own satisfaction, supporting the Christian faith as he saw it. Gaustad states, “The retired President did not produce his small book to shock or offend a somnolent world; he composed it for himself, for his devotion, for his assurance, for a more restful sleep at nights and a more confident greeting of the mornings.” Yet Jefferson’s letters proffer evidence, shows Holowchak, that “Jefferson’s reconstruction of Jesus’ teachings probably had both personal and political motives. He wished to draw personal inspiration from the booklet, as indicated by his remark to Adams in the 1813 [Oct. 12] letter that the book was composed ‘for my own use,’ but as the 1800 letter to Bishop James Madison suggests, he likely thought also that a compendium of Jesus’ philosophical message, extracted from the Bible and demythologized, might prove both a catholicon for the ignorance of his time and a foundation for his republicanism. For those aims to be actualized, Philosophy of Jesus would have to be published, if only under a pseudonym.”
There is no record of this or its successor being for “the Use of the Indians”, despite the stated intent of the 1804 version being that purpose. Although the government long supported Christian activity among Indians, and in Notes on the State of Virginia Jefferson supported “a perpetual mission among the Indian tribes”, at least in the interest of anthropology, and as President sanctioned financial support for a priest and church for the Kaskaskia Indians, Jefferson did not make these works public. Instead, he acknowledged the existence of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth to only a few friends, saying that he read it before retiring at night, as he found this project intensely personal and private.
Ainsworth Rand Spofford, Librarian of Congress (1864–1894) stated: “His original idea was to have the life and teachings of the Saviour, told in similar excerpts, prepared for the Indians, thinking this simple form would suit them best. But, abandoning this, the formal execution of his plan took the shape above described, which was for his individual use. He used the four languages that he might have the texts in them side by side, convenient for comparison. In the book he pasted a map of the ancient world and the Holy Land, with which he studied the New Testament.”
Some speculate that the reference to “Indians” in the 1804 title may have been an allusion to Jefferson’s Federalist opponents, as he likewise used this indirect tactic against them at least once before, that being in his second inaugural address. Or that he was providing himself a cover story in case this work became public.
Also referring to the 1804 version, Jefferson wrote, “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’s claim to be a Christian was made in response to those who accused him of being otherwise, due to his unorthodox view of the Bible and conception of Christ. Recognizing his rather unusual views, Jefferson stated in a letter (1819) to Ezra Stiles Ely, “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”
After completion of the Life and Morals, about 1820, Jefferson shared it with a number of friends, but he never allowed it to be published during his lifetime.
The most complete form Jefferson produced was inherited by his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and was acquired in 1895 by the National Museum in Washington. The book was later published as a lithographic reproduction by an act of the United States Congress in 1904. Beginning in 1904 and continuing every other year until the 1950s, new members of Congress were given a copy of the Jefferson Bible. Until the practice first stopped, copies were provided by the Government Printing Office. A private organization, the Libertarian Press, revived the practice in 1997.
In January 2013, the American Humanist Association published an edition of the Jefferson Bible, distributing a free copy to every member of Congress and President Barack Obama. A Jefferson Bible For the Twenty-First Century adds samples of passages that Jefferson chose to omit, as well as examples of the “best” and “worst” from the Hebrew Bible, the Quran, the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhist Sūtras, and the Book of Mormon.
The Smithsonian published the first full-color facsimile of the Jefferson Bible on November 1, 2011. Released in tandem with a Jefferson Bible exhibit at the National Museum of American History, the reproduction features introductory essays by Smithsonian Political History curators Harry R. Rubenstein and Barbara Clark Smith, and Smithsonian Senior Paper Conservator Janice Stagnitto Ellis. The book’s pages were digitized using a Hasselblad H4D50-50 megapixel DSLR camera and a Zeiss 120 macro lens, and were photographed by Smithsonian photographer, Hugh Talman.
The entire Jefferson Bible is available to view, page-by-page, on the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s website. The high-resolution digitization enables the public to see the minute details and anomalies of each page.
The text is in the public domain and is freely available on the Internet.
In 1895, the Smithsonian Institution under the leadership of librarian Cyrus Adler purchased the original Jefferson Bible from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter Carolina Randolph for $400. A conservation effort commencing in 2009, led by Senior Paper Conservator Janice Stagnitto Ellis, in partnership with the museum’s Political History department, allowed for a public unveiling in an exhibit open from November 11, 2011, through May 28, 2012, at the National Museum of American History. Also displayed were the source books from which Jefferson cut his selected passages, and the 1904 edition of the Jefferson Bible requested and distributed by the United States Congress. The exhibit was accompanied by an interactive digital facsimile available on the museum’s public website. On February 20, 2012, the Smithsonian Channel premiered the documentary Jefferson’s Secret Bible.[