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My Take: How Thomas Jefferson’s secret Bible might have changed history
A Smithsonian conservator displays the cover page from Thomas Jefferson's Bible.
January 11th, 2012
11:38 AM ET

My Take: How Thomas Jefferson’s secret Bible might have changed history

Editor's note: Mitch Horowitz is editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and editor of Penguin’s new reissue of The Jefferson Bible.

By Mitch Horowitz, Special to CNN

(CNN) Imagine the following scenario: A U.S. president is discovered to be spending his spare time taking a razor to the New Testament, cutting up and re-pasting those passages of the Gospels that he considered authentic and morally true and discarding all the rest.

Gone are the virgin birth, divine healings, exorcisms and the resurrection of the dead, all of which the chief executive dismissed as “superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.”

Such an episode occurred, although the revised version of Scripture remained unseen for nearly seven decades after its abridger’s death. Thomas Jefferson intended it that way.

During most of his two terms in the White House, from 1801 to 1809, and for more than a decade afterward, Jefferson the third U.S. president and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence committed himself to a radical reinterpretation of the Gospels.

With a razor and glue brush at this side, Jefferson lined up English, French, Greek and Latin editions of Scripture and proceeded to cut up and reassemble the four Gospels into an exquisitely well-crafted, multilingual chronology of Christ’s life.

Jefferson lined up different editions of Scripture.

In Jefferson’s view, this revision represented a faithful record of Christ’s moral code, minus the miracles that the Enlightenment-era founder dismissed as historical mythmaking.

The book eventually became known as The Jefferson Bible and is now being rediscovered in new editions, including one published this month by Tarcher/Penguin, and as the focus of a Smithsonian exhibit.

Ask most people today if they have heard of Jefferson’s Bible and you will receive blank stares. Indeed, for much of American history, The Jefferson Bible was entirely unknown. Jefferson intended it as a work of private reflection, not a public statement.

As contemporary readers discover the work, it is tempting to wonder how American history might look different had Jefferson’s radical document come to light closer to its completion.

Jefferson was still working on his Bible during his presidency, so its theoretical publication wouldn’t have compromised his electability. But if the book had been made public after its final completion in 1820, when Jefferson had only six more years to live, it likely would have become one of the most controversial and influential religious works of early American history.

A curator handles a "source" Bible from which Jefferson cut out passages.

That was a scenario Jefferson took pains to avoid. After being called an “infidel” during his 1800 presidential race, Jefferson knew the calumny he could bring on himself if word spread of his “little book.” Although he had his work professionally bound, he mentioned it only to a select group of friends. Its discovery after his death came as a surprise to his family.

Jefferson’s wish for confidentiality held sway until 1895 when the Smithsonian in Washington made public his original pages, purchased from a great-granddaughter. In 1904, Congress issued a photolithograph edition and presented it for decades as a gift to new legislators, a gesture that would likely cause uproar in today’s climate of political piety.

Because of the book’s long dormancy following Jefferson’s death, and its limited availability for generations after arguably the first truly accessible edition didn’t appear until 1940 The Jefferson Bible has remained a curio of American history.

So how would the earlier publication of The Jefferson Bible have changed American history? It's impossible to know for sure, but the 1820s inaugurated a period of tremendous spiritual experiment in America: It was the age of Mormonism, Unitarian Universalism and Shakerism, among other new faiths.

There’s little doubt that many Americans, who were already fiercely independent in matters of religion, would have seen The Jefferson Bible as the manifesto of a reformist movement call it “Jeffersonian Christianity” focused not on repentance and salvation but on earthly ethics. Such a movement could have swept America, and also have spread to Europe, where Jefferson was esteemed.

A broad awareness of Jefferson’s work would have surely engendered a more complex view of the religious identity of Jefferson and other founders. Indeed, one of Jefferson’s most trusted correspondents while he was producing his Bible was his White House predecessor, John Adams, who in turn confided to Jefferson his distrust of all religious orthodoxy. These men were impossible to pin pat religious labels on.

Because Jefferson published relatively little during his lifetime, the appearance of The Jefferson Bible would have created a different, and more confounding, public image of the statesman as someone struggling deeply with his own religious beliefs. The Jefferson that appears behind his reconstruction of Scripture is someone who brushed aside notions of miraculous intervention and canonical faith.

As The Jefferson Bible conveys, however, Jefferson considered Jesus’ moral philosophy the most finely developed in history, surpassing the ethics of both the ancient Greeks and the Hebrews. He insisted that Christ’s authentic doctrine was marked by a stark, ascetic tone that clashed with the supernatural powers attributed to him.

“In extracting the pure principles which he taught,” Jefferson wrote in 1813, “we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms. ... There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Jefferson’s minimalist approach to the Gospels reveals an attitude that he disclosed only privately, just months before his death: “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."

In that sense, Jefferson the politician wouldn’t have stood a chance in the current presidential race, where faith and piety are on constant display. The political process might be more open today to candidates of varying degrees and types of belief if The Jefferson Bible were more central to the nation’s history.

The Jefferson Bible opens a window on Jefferson’s struggle to find a faith with which he could finally come to terms. It was this kind of intimate, inner search not the outward pronouncement and establishment of religious doctrine that the man who helped shape modern religious liberty sought to protect in America.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mitch Horowitz.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: History • My Take • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (1,432 Responses)
  1. Reality

    Once again:

    Some more words of wisdom from a wise man:

    Jefferson noted this about the Book of Revelation: "considered it as merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams." [31]

    And this about Xmas:

    "And the day will come,
    when the mystical generation of Jesus,
    by the Supreme Being as His Father,
    in the womb of a virgin,
    will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva
    in the brain of Jupiter."

    – Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826)
    Letter to John Adams, from Monticello, April 11, 1823.

    January 12, 2012 at 7:49 am |
  2. Rainer Braendlein

    The "moral code" of Jesus was not the special point of his message, but the gospel.

    What is the gospel?

    Answer: Jesus died for our sins on the cross and resurrected.

    Believe that and get baptized.

    God will give you forgiveness and a new life (= eternal life) for free.

    Please notice: if you have yet received infant baptism, don't get baptized again, but refer to your infant baptism.

    Regarding the moral code of Jesus: When you believe in Christ, you get delivered and empowered to love God and your neighbour. Love is the fulfillment of the law (law=moral code).

    January 12, 2012 at 7:30 am |
    • Madtown

      What if I was born into a culture that has different religious traditions, and I've never heard of Jesus or the bible? What will become of me?

      January 12, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  3. HITLER WAS A CHRISTIAN

    CASE CLOSED.

    January 12, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • Mr. Hat

      Your point?

      January 12, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • ohnonothim

      Hitler was a politician, and his public religious positioning was simply expedient. He wrote in Mein Kampf that the churches needed to be brought into line as part of an effective political movement. His regime worked to undermine church influence and to take out problematic religious figures: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adolf_Hitler%27s_religious_views#Persecution_of_Christian_Churches . Meanwhile, the inner circle were developing their own state religion based on Ariosophy/Armanism ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ariosophy ), supposedly 'decoding' the Aryan pagan symbolism that was embedded in modern Christianity - removing the Jewish taint and restoring the traditions of the Fatherland. Evidence for this includes the required renouncement of the church for the SS and their families, the required adherence to the approved list of pagan holidays, and the focus on the supposed Aryan totem, the Juellechter, for celebration of solar festivals and other activities. They even went so far as to establish Juellechter factories at concentration camps, and had a magazine to promote these traditions: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julleuchter#Third_Reich_usage . Hitler was practicing the age-old political game of pretending to be what he needed to be to remain in political power, but being something different altogether. Just your ordinary political snake.

      January 12, 2012 at 2:43 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      Sorry, you are a naive fool and need to undergo some basic education.

      Hitler was not a Christian, but a neo-pagan.

      Hitler was baptized, but turned apostate in his youth (every historian can confirm that).

      January 12, 2012 at 7:06 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      @ohnonothim

      Thanks for your comment.

      I have bought the book "Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts" by Alfred Rosenberg, who was the chief high priest of the Third Reich. This book is such an anti-Christian abomination that I could vomit. The Nazis really wanted to create a pseudo-Christianity, which had had nothing to do with real Christianity. For example, they wanted to change Jesus' character and make him a proud master, greedy for honour, power and riches. Terrible.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:14 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @Rainer: Hitler only denounced the Catholic church. He never denounced christianity fully and there is no recorded history showing he was neo-pagan (unless you can provide a link to this otherwise), although his actions were atrocious and immoral to say the least. My understanding is that he was seeking to ensure it was one race and nothing more than that...his actions were not based on any form of religious belief, just pure delusions in regards to race. Regardless of what he believed, it is a good thing the man never won that war and is no longer around to torment and torture innocent people.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:37 am |
    • Doc Vestibule

      "My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God's truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. ...Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross."
      - Adolf Hitler, speech on April 12, 1922

      It gives me a mental image of Jesus suiting up in a S.W.A.T. uniform, strapping on his trusty Sturmgewehr 44 and kicking in the door of the Temple and delivering a catchphrase like "Nice to see jews"....

      January 12, 2012 at 8:14 am |
    • Dan

      Being born into a family of nominal Christians does not make one a Christian.

      January 12, 2012 at 9:33 am |
    • Rainer Braendlein

      @Doc Vestibule

      Hitler was a damned liar and deceiver. He will share a hot place together with Judas.

      Every historian will tell you that Hitler's speeches were, of course, expedient. He knew that plenty of Germans had still appreciation for Christianity, even when they were mere nominal Christians. Thus, he had to keep the fiction he would be a Christian. In fact he had abondoned the faith yet in his youth.

      The passage, you quoted, shows that Hitler misinterpreted the Bible totally. Jesus did not come to destroy the Jews, but to save them.

      The selling people in the Temple belonged to the class of people, which try to earn money by religion. They were on par with the Sribes, Pharisees and Judas Iscariot. This is not a specific Jewish problem or has nothing to do with the Jewish race, but every race suffers from such criminals. Hitler's conclusion was totally false. Jesus did not chase away Jews, but criminals. Assumed the Temple had been in Germany, Jesus had done the same.

      January 12, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  4. Frank Bund

    Jefferson was stupid for wasting his time on such a useless book to begin with. Why is this even in the news?

    January 12, 2012 at 12:41 am |
  5. Lucy

    I will use "Mr Hat" name now. I am very religious and very mean spirited. That rest of you can BURN IN HELL

    January 12, 2012 at 12:31 am |
    • Mr. Phist Lucy the Hat

      I just use all the names to keep them confused. My real name is Jesus Christ. Well, actually, Jesus is a Latinization of Jeshua, and "Christ" is of course an Anglicized version of the Greek word that means "messiah," but nobody in Jerusalem speaks Greeek, much less Anglicized versions of Greek, so even I would not know who you wanted if you asked me if I knew who Jesus Christ was.

      Don't even ask how I was a carpenter in a place that had no trees.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • Frank Bund

      That's Yeshua, and Greek was used by many around Biblical times, which is why the Old Testament was translated to it and was the popular version around the time of the writing of the New Testament.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:46 am |
    • Dan

      Mr. Phist Lucy the Hat:

      LOL...You think Israel has no tress???? Google Nazareth, but and then look at the "images" section. Wow!

      January 12, 2012 at 9:36 am |
  6. Mr. Hat

    BEING ATHEIST MEANS BEING MISRABLE

    January 12, 2012 at 12:27 am |
  7. Mr. Hat

    I'm gay if you did not know that.... and atheism is stupid

    January 12, 2012 at 12:25 am |
  8. Lucy

    I keep using "The Phist" name because someone is using my name and it is not fair!!

    January 12, 2012 at 12:25 am |
    • The Phist

      It's not me, numbnuts.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:29 am |
  9. Mr. Hat

    GA! I hate it when people use other peoples names!

    January 12, 2012 at 12:24 am |
  10. Charmota

    Atheism = Nazism = Buddhism

    January 12, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • Mr. Hat

      Why are you comparing two belief systems to a system of government?

      January 12, 2012 at 12:26 am |
    • Charmota shops at Non Sequiturs R Us

      Pickles = Existentialism = Aardvarks

      January 12, 2012 at 12:33 am |
    • The Phist

      Aardvarks taste better.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:35 am |
  11. Lucy

    Jesus is LORD and my dad says so so so I believe it and it's true and you can't proove it wrong! atheists are going to burn and there soulds will rot and they will burn and stuff and I love the Bible and JESUS because its such a loving word of GOD which is perfect and complete and has NO MISTAKE its awesome!!

    January 12, 2012 at 12:21 am |
    • Chrism

      How will Christians ever survive your razor-sharp satire?

      January 12, 2012 at 12:24 am |
    • The Phist

      OMG OMG ATHEISTS ARE WRONG ALL RELIGION ARE FAKE OMG I LOVE DAVID SILVERMAN OMG OMG

      January 12, 2012 at 12:28 am |
    • Dan

      @Chrism: "like"

      January 12, 2012 at 9:39 am |
  12. The Phist

    My parents raised me terrible thats why I used to not believe in God but now I do Thank God

    January 12, 2012 at 12:17 am |
  13. The Phist

    Atheists brainwashes people.... I used to be brainwashed too that's why I used to be an dirty atheist

    January 12, 2012 at 12:16 am |
    • The Phist

      If you want to use "The Phist," I highly recommend cleaning up that horrible grammar of yours. Otherwise you're not going to convince the internet that I've miraculously turned into a retard and become a christian.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:19 am |
  14. The Phist

    ALL ATHEISTS SHOULD BURN IN HELL....... I USED TO BE ONE UNTIL SOME HERE CONVINCED ME TO CONVERT

    January 12, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  15. Lucy

    I think Atheists have it right! jesus was a goat banging arab Why would people follo him? IDIOT LOOSERS!@

    January 12, 2012 at 12:15 am |
  16. The Phist

    I think Lucy is correct. I know that Atheism is silly and stupid. Jesus Christ was an awesome leader and I will convert to Christianity soon. God is wonderful. Peace

    January 12, 2012 at 12:14 am |
    • The Phist

      Unfortunately for you, I don't give a flaming pile of garbage if you use my name. E-reputation is not on my priority list.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:17 am |
    • Mr. Hat

      What the heck?

      January 12, 2012 at 12:19 am |
    • The Phist

      Ah, just some retard thinking it's chapping my balls.

      January 12, 2012 at 12:22 am |
  17. Atheism is not healhy for children and living things....

    Prayer changes

    January 12, 2012 at 12:12 am |
  18. Lucy

    I think everyone outside my religion should burn FOREVER!!!

    January 12, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • Lucy

      lol I never said that. I wish only registered members could post here

      January 12, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  19. Lucy

    ATHEISM is the biggest scam in history

    January 12, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  20. Rolden Gule

    I can claim I farted and the universe came to be.

    that's an explanation. but you need to explain how you came to such an assumption.
    god farted and the universe came to be.. fine, you can say that but you have to base it on a valid theory by putting as many pieces of the puzzle as you can.
    a 2000 year old book written by primitiveness who believed the earth is flat and snakes talk, should immediately by ruled out as absolute truth.

    January 11, 2012 at 11:42 pm |
    • The Phist

      I don't need any proof. I believe because look around! I mean, just look around! That proves it really happened exactly as you stated it. I shall now eat some fruit off of that tree you told me not to touch, thus sentencing mankind to burn in the fiery pits of hell unless they say "I'm sorry."

      Do you accept animal sacrifice?

      January 11, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      The Phist, you posted "I don't need any proof. I believe because look around! I mean, just look around! That proves it really happened exactly as you stated it. I shall now eat some fruit off of that tree you told me not to touch, thus sentencing mankind to burn in the fiery pits of hell unless they say "I'm sorry."

      Do you accept animal sacrifice?"

      Answer: Again, you non-believers don't understand the Garden of Eden parable. Bottom line, if you don't know to follow truth (Jesus), you then get conned by following lies (satan, the serpent who slithers on his belly in life making fools do anything he lies to them about).

      Christianity lesson 101

      Amen.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:02 am |
    • TruthPrevails

      @HS: Once again, using satan does you no good....remember we non-believers do not believe in satan any more than we believe in jesus or god. The burden of proof still lies on you, not us and you have still failed to provide that proof.

      January 12, 2012 at 7:28 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.