The Jefferson Bible
By Thomas Jefferson
Applewood Books, undated, 103 pages
President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), a deist, believed in the existence of a single deity who was uninvolved in the daily life of people. He disliked both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament for many reasons, especially because they include unnatural, even impossible events. He felt that some, but not all, of the ethical teachings in the Bibles are worth teaching.
He – like Leo Tolstoy in his The Gospel in Brief, and others - decided to cut and paste the New Testament Gospels, with no attempt to retain the order of the Gospel writers, and remove those items that distressed him, including the miraculous birth of Jesus, told with different "facts" in two of the four Gospels, and all of the other miracles, including the events that occurred after Jesus death. He solved the problem of the frequent differences between the Gospels about what occurred to Jesus at different times – for each Gospel has its own version of the life of Jesus that differs widely with the other three – by selecting passages from each that he thought made sense and blending them together to create what he considered a perfect no longer defective Bible, a Bible that teaches morality.
Those who suppose that Jefferson’s Bible has any relation to the New Testament are mistaken.
Jefferson’s well-meant volume is like the work of a foolish scientist who had a lovely wife and three beautiful daughters. He loved them all, but he disliked some physical and mental features in each of them; the eyes in one, the ears in another, the legs in a third and the general approach to life in the fourth. What did he do?
As a scientist, he was able to graft the four of them into a single woman, a woman of his dreams, a woman who attracted him physically and intellectually; he had the best of the four people most dear to him. Yet when the new creation was completed, he realized his mistake. His beloved wife was gone. True, her faults were removed, but so too was her personality that was so dear to him. Now she was composed of the best parts of his daughters; and, so, how could he live with her as a man lives with his wife; it would be incest. And he had lost his daughters as well. Now, too late, he realized that despite their human faults, these four meant more to him than any "perfect" being.
Bart D. Ehrman highlights a sample of about a hundred thousand differences between the four gospels in his 2009 book, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them). He points out that there is something far more significant than these different descriptions of New Testament events; it is the fact that each of the gospel writers wrote his book to offer his readers his unique understanding of Jesus life and mission. These views differ greatly. For example, Mark, writing a little more than several decades after Jesus’ traditional date of death, emphasized that Jesus was predicting the advent of a new and better world on earth during the lifetime of those listening to him. In contrast, John, who composed his Gospel decades later, after the death of all of Jesus’ contemporaries, stated that Jesus’ message was that people should strive to achieve an everlasting life in heaven.
Jefferson’s perfect Bible retains many "flaws" that Ehrman disclosed exist in the canonical version, such as the census in its opening verse, which history has shown never occurred, and the curious statement that Joseph had to take his family to Bethlehem because one of his ancestors had lived part-time in this city over a thousand years before he was born.
However, more importantly, Jefferson demolished the uniqueness of each of the four gospels. He created a Bible that each of the Gospel writers would reject. He distorted the moral teachings in two ways. First, as we said, he changed the overall focus and intent of the document. Second, by mixing the language of each gospel writer and presenting them in his own chronological order, he perverted the details of the teachings.
But the most significant problem with Jefferson’s Bible and with Jefferson himself is that despite promising the production of a book of moral teachings, he retained forty episodes in which the Gospel writers insulted Jews. The Gospels were written during a period of strife between the Jews and their sister religion Christianity. Both sides had people who made unfortunate overheated remarks. Many of them made their way into the Gospels.
The fact that Jefferson retained forty disparaging remarks in a book touted to be a book containing the best of morality, a small book of only 103 pages, is astonishing and tragic. Such insensitivity reminds us of his similar insensitivity toward his slaves. One wonders how such an intelligent man could make such mistakes. To say that he was influenced by his times is no answer. There were many people of his age and of earlier times who rose above bigotry. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), in his The Gospel in Brief, wrote his version of the Gospels with the same intent as Jefferson, but his work does not have these statements.
Most striking is that Jefferson included the following statement from John 7:1, "After these things Jesus walked in Galilee, for he would not walk in Jewry because the Jews sought to kill him." This is remarkable because the statement stands alone. There is no connection whatsoever with what proceeds or follows it in Jefferson’s Bible. It is gratuitous. If Jefferson could cut miracles and the supernatural from his Bible, why leave this sentence, a sentence that is not connected in any way to morality?
While insisting that he would include the ethical teachings of the Gospels, Jefferson violated one of the five basic ethical commands of Jesus, mentioned in Matthew, not to distinguish between people, to treat friends and enemies alike, to love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, Jesus said that this is the principal command.
In short, Jefferson saw himself as more able than those people who preceded him in deciding what it is proper for a good person to read. He failed because he distorted what he intended to improve and he created a work that is an embarrassment to thinking and considerate people and a violation of the basic teaching of Jesus.
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of a series of books on Maimonides, a twelfth century philosopher, and a series of books on Targum Onkelos, the earliest existing translation of the Hebrew Bible. Both are published by Gefen Publishing House.