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.
His laws are not to tourcher or punish us. Any good parent would put restrictions on their children for their own good and protection. He is the heavenly father. His laws are for our own good. Love God and love otthers as yourself. What is so bad about Do noy steal, murder, commit adutry? Why do so many loath that? Even Jefferson though not believing in God saw the good in his moral law. That should say something.
Most parents don't allow their children to suffer for eternity. And most parents probably don't have a problem with poly-cotton blends. And most parents probably wouldn't allow their children to beat their slaves. But I guess your god isn't most parents.
When the new testiment encouraged "slaves remain with your masters" It was in a very differnt cultural context then the racism that took place in our countrys history. Many slaves were in debted to their owners and had to work off their debt. It isnt a verse that supports slavery and if anyone argues that they are taking it out of context. they do the same thing with the verse about women remaining quiet. The root of the greek work means to "remain in your seat" in other words show common respect and curtisy to the teacher. In addition women did not have the same education as men did but now they do. Jesus had great respect for women in his ministry, yet people will always accuse the scripture of being anti-women. The cotten-blend was just taken out of context as it doesnt even apply to the NT. And as for the hell thing. He created us to live in perfect surroundings and we choice to know evil. Evil is the absence of God. We chose hell. What you should say is most parents would do anything to save their children from Hell....and he did. You can offer a rope to a person about to fall but they need to grab on to it. He isnt a God that controls us. We make our own decision.
God the father is the worst child abuser in the history of the world..wretched parenting and eternal punishments for wrongdoing. Where's the celestial child protection services?
I believe in God, but the Einsteinin form of God.
I had no idea. I want it!!!! I was already a huge fan of his writings, but now I have even greater respect.
Don't you think that Mr. Jefferson would prefer that this so call "Jefferson Bible" you call it, to be a private memoir or a personal
guiding words from his Creator and not let you people publish it now and speculate on it without asking him (because you can not ) about his real purpose for it. I believe that if he is alive today, he will sue your a__ off.
The lead in for this story is "What's in Jefferson's Secret Bible?"
Most likely, the truth and perhaps a joint, however I believe Jefferson preferred smoking a pipe.
Don't care what anyone says, Love God, Hate Religion is how I now choose to live my life.
Im sad that so many have misundertood the Bible. To say the God of the Bible is just an egotistic God who kills and throws people into a firey pit is not Truth. Yes, their is evil/pain all over but God did not create it. Science says there is no such thing as cold just the absence of heat. This is like God. He is love, joy, peace, paitence, and kindness the evil in the world is from our lack of God. However, in his perfect nature he is also Just. A good judge wouldnever let those who have continuelly broken the law go unpunished. He would be a very unjust judge. God is Just and whether we admitt it or not we are all very messed up inside. We need help. Maybe Jefferson didnt believe in the power/Truth of God almighty but he clearly belived in the importance of God "moral law". He couldnt have enough faith to think God's power concured materiel law(in refernce to the miricles: walking on water, healing ect..) but I can tell you that ive seen God's power concur the material in my own life and the lives of those around me. My mother-inlaw has stage 4 bone marrow. She was given a few weeks to live. She was weak and fragile and left to die by all the drs. Through prayer and faith that God could concur what the physical couldnt. She had a full recovery and not an once of cancer was found in her body. This was God not science. God is real. He is with me everyday and opinion nor scienific facts will be able to change my heart bc Im tasted the spirit of God in my life and its reality. I hope more will come to know the God that nit them in their mothers womb. God bless
If God is truly 'Just' as you say (though I do not believe He can be, because He is not), but just for the sake of argument, let's say He is just. If that were true, then He would have already smited many of our leaders, especially those preaching hate and intolerance. The fact He has not proves He is either not; or not just.
I believe He is both.
God is both Just, Merciful and also paitent. He's giving us time to repent from our sins. Dont wait. Judgment day is coming..bc he IS just.
Dad, let's be honest. You're anything but patient, not that such a time-dependent concept is relevant to a being that is outside of time. I mean, you have this universe that's billions of years old, but you only give this humans less than a blink of an eye to determine exactly what you want – and it's not like you've been real clear.
We're still so entombed in the dark ages. I'm surprised nobody has protested the publication of this book and tried to burn it. Or lobby to have Jefferson's body dug up and burned at the stake. I guess some people feel God gave us brains but doesn't want us to use them. Or maybe just never question a man made invention. I believe in God, just not his spin doctors.
Atheism is merely an anti-thesis to the Christian thesis, which is giving us this ooze of man-centered spiritualistic piety (synthesis) that we see going all the way back to not only Jefferson's day but all throughout history. Instead of reading the first five books of the Bible and reacting to what you don't understand, try reading the whole Book with the understanding that God has been working out His plan for millenia to save an ungrateful and rebellious race of beings (that's us), who don't even deserve His love. If that message is offensive to you, that's by God's design to help you understand your true condition.
I thoroughly enjoyed and continue to enjoy the Jefferson bible. The ny public library has a 1902 or 04 edition. It was given to new congressman and senators up till the early 1950's or 60's. It by passes the politics and business of religion and gets to the root of the matter – guidelines for living with others. Live with intention, DrbilltothCom/blog
Many of the Founding Fathers wrote on subjects such as these because they were likely tired of the contemporary bible thumpers in their midst.
I'd like to tell progressives that they are not alone in their admiration for Jefferson and his take on religion. I am a conservative, however, I do not base my political views on social issues, only economic and foreign policy issues. To me, the economic and foreign policy issues outweigh the social issues. The "Religious Right" is a sizable group of people, but there is also a sizable group of "Economic/Foreign Policy Right, Socially Left or Neutral" people. It irratates me when people on the left act like all people on the right are religious fanatics. Far from it.
Then, Notso, I suggest you disassociate from the 'right' label, because you no longer fit in. The new right has morphed into a religious/christiany crusading club that threatens to gup any semblance of ever having a secular government.
The right has become an irrational religious/political machine.
One need only to look at the current republican candidates to form an opinion of the right. I think most people understand that in any group you'll find some outliers, but with guys like Santorum doing so well in the polls, of course opinions are going to be formed.
My dream is a right candidate that is openly agnostic or at least a deist, like Jefferson. "Look folks, I won't be focusing on gay marriage or abortion. The economy is going to be my focus. We will be throwing out the tax code, and starting over. There are ways to build a tax code that is both good for the economy, and brings in enough revenue for the government to function. Specifically, this is what I would do if you elect me: ......, ......, ...... "
Then we are even.
It irritates me when people from the right label all people on the Left as lazy, welfare drawing, godless, immoral, communist, treeehugging pansies who hate America and are trying to take money and guns from the hard working small business owners.
There are a few funny things about this artical. First the "Jefferson Bible" was only introduced almost a century after his death, and that the editor has the balls to put self interperetation to a short artical about Jefferson's motives for this Bible. I beleive there is more to this Jefferson Bible than is being told to us.
Some of the most remarkable persons in history have made the most simple mistakes/ misgivings with respect for religion.
This wouldn't be the first, or last time, a president acted like a sixth grader. What would happen if that was a cook book and this "wise man" had erased parts of the ingredients?? What would your meal tastes like? The understanding of God, Jesus, and the work of the Holy Spirit is contingent on faith. The laws of our land require us to accept them in whole. We don't get to pick and choose our favorites and reject what we don't/ won't understand. God is not to be mocked!
That may be Karl, we will probably never know.
I found Swannie's reply interesting and flawed; sure they are aware that the modern Bible has been translated and revised countless times over the centuries by humans. The early church held a conference and people debated which gospels should be in or out. That makes the bible a work of man, although with the best of intents.
I vigorously disagree with Swannie – we DO get to pick and choose, we are very fortunate in this country to have "Laws of the land" that give liberty to all in which to exercise freewill. Isn't that a core value the founding fathers wanted to instill in our young nation?
Swannie – Taking it as whole is what allowed slavery to persist for so long, as God is complicit. Everything is to be mocked, God is not above reproach.
In the words of Rodney King, can't we all just get along?
In the words of Rodney King, can't we all just get along? Well no, most likely not.
I find it rather arrogant that a man decides to "revise" the gospels only due to the fact that he finds certain parts to be far-fetched. It is also interesting to hear talk about the Age of Enlightenment. Voltaire, a key figure in this age was quoted as saying that Sir Isaac Newton would have been a much better scientist had he not also been a Christian. He critiqued Newton on the idea that man would be able to withstand velocities of 40 mph or more without some sort of protective covering. He blamed Christianity mainly for this "miscalculation". Man has a wonderful history of scoffing at things they do not understand or believe and blaming it on stupidity or religious fervor.
Wait – it's arrogant to cherry pick the bible and remove parts you don't find convenient? I'll be sure to keep that in mind...
I find it arrogant for people to claim they know the mind of god. I find it arrogant for people to claim that their own religion is correct and others' wrong. I find it arrogant to claim the dominant religion in your society and geography is correct while you condemn those that do the same thing, but with the dominant religion in their society and geography. I find it arrogant for people to claim that a book of ancient myths is true, but you need the magic glasses of "faith" in order to understand how to get the magic glasses of faith in order to understand why you need the magic glasses of faith. I find it arrogant for religious people to scoff, period. Scoff at yourself, scoffer.
Christians cherry pick all the time: John 3:16 John 3:16 John 3:16. How bout all that good old testament stuff?? I want to see some edorsements for slavery at a basketball game, I want to see Tim Tebow sporting the verse about dashing babies against rocks, I want some chopping off of the foreskins of dead philistines!!! haha, I think it could have used a little more revision
Yea! You tell them Confused. It's just like when the Church imprisoned and tried Galileo and Copernicus because they had the audaccity to go around saying the earth was NOT the center of the universe as the Bible said. Luckily we all know the Bible is correct and the Sun, planets, and stars all revolve around God's creation... just like the Bible says.
Stupid scientists. They would have been righter if they had read their Bible and followed it blindly like a good christian.
momoya Best reply or comment I've seen yet.
I find the recent coverage of the Jefferson Bible fascinating because the media is using terms such as "secret." Really? I learned about his Bible in both American History and American Literature college classes at a large public university back in late '60s and early '70s and even wrote a research paper based on it. Did colleges quit teaching about Jefferson during the last three decades?
I also have known this fact for quite some time. It surprises me that this article has been written in 2012.
American education is abysmal. WE were never allowed to use "open books", nor received "take-home" final exams! I'm not surprised one iota!
Want more proof? Look around at the electorate!
So Jefferson probably only kept the punctuation marks and took a razor to everything else.
"The bible is the literal word of GOD written by those he inspired". Was the baseline baptist belief for the five years of Baptist bible studies I attended in the 50s. I have a 5 year perfect attendance pin for bible study, I went early and stayed late..
What I learned, in those five years, is that any reasonable and intelligent person who actually reads the first five books in the official context will become an atheist. What is written is so far fetched, consistently evil, obsessed with massacre and genocide including the favorite practice of killing women and children. One can only conclude the depicted God is a primitive megalomaniac. Selfish, spoiled and determined to get his way at whatever cost, is consistent throughout, while any hint of love or compassion is totally absent. Patently the glorification of a pagan GOD, insecure and fearful of his fellow GODS.
How this depiction of page after page of horror can be the foundation of Christianity is unbelievable and looked at with a critical eye has changed little over the centuries. The fundamental laws of Christianity and Islam are so nearly the same it scares me to hear politicians advocate a christian religious law.
I agree with the studies which conclude the more knowledgeable of the bible a person is the more likely they will be an atheist.
You too, eh? Pretty much the same with me about 19 years ago. Glad to hear about others like you, especially considering how most believers react to the story when I attempt to explain why I no longer believe.
Vet in GA,
Correct. This Hebrew "God" is as blatantly ethnocentric as a Mafia don, rallying the "Chosen" "Family" to action, commanding hell and havoc to outliers and benevolent to those who toe the party line.
Im the opposite. Reading the enitre Bible reinforced my faith. You didn't get the answers you wanted so now you're mad. It's the standard atheist line: "I'm more righteous than God, so now I believe in me."
Sorry, dude, I'm not buying what you're selling. Maybe you should try rereading the Bible and this time keep an open mind. I know atheists aren't good at that drill, but try it anyway. It will rock your world.
Fred, YOU telling atheists to have an open mind?????
Fred, your accusations don't have any weight. You present atheists and their thinking incorrectly and that false image causes you to assume a meaning that does not exist. You remind me of when I was a christian, and a misinformed muslim asked me why I believed in the trinity–jesus, mary, and joseph–all as three persons of god. Her argument was ridiculous because she was using what she presumed christians believed rather than using what christians actually did believe. That is what you are doing, now.
I am reasonable and fairly intelligent, have read the first 5 books (and the rest of it), took it all in context and never even considered atheism. In my humble opinion, atheists are not as smart as they think they are and are just mad at God for whatever reason, or think whatever they did can't be forgiven. Live His Way, or suffer the consequences.
"just mad at God for whatever reason"
It's awfully hard to get mad at an imaginary being – unless you find yourself perturbed by leprauchans, mermaids and invisible unicorns.
But oh, you believe in unicorns. Right.
"Live His way or suffer the consequences" ... hmmmm... yeah ... do what I SAY or you'll be sent to a place of pain torture anguish and suffering for all eternity. Golly gee this 'god' of yours really loves us, doesn't it? well "Seig Heil" to this 'god' of yours huh?
All Christians seem to have the same idea that atheists are just mad at god, or hate god, or some other such nonsense. No, atheists don't believe in god. Me being mad at god would make about as much sense as me being mad at Zeus.
But, when Zeus gets mad, he has those cool lightinig bolts to throw down upon you lol ... this 'god' of some dead guy named Abraham just send people to eternal gulags. I'd rather have Zeus' lightning bolts. Those ancient Greeks and Romans really knew how to party!!! They even had a god for their wine.. I mean .. c'mon .. to-ga .. to-ga .. TO-GA :)
It cracks me up when christians think that atheists are "mad at god". The fact is, I was kind of sad when I realized I didn't believe in god, because it used to comfort me to think that there was a supernatural power looking over me. But honesty is more important than comfort (at least to me), so I can no longer believe in something for which there has never been a shred of proof. There is no proof of any god, and there is no evidence that the bible is anything more than a collection of ancient mythology. If you look at the workings of universe, there really doesn't seem to be any need for a god.
Plus, the whole scapegoat Jesus thing is a complete turn-off. I was raised to take responsibility for my own actions. If my actions are so horrible that someone must be tortured to death to atone, then that someone should be me. But as my worst sin was stealing a library book in ninth grade, I kind of think the torture thing is a bit excessive.
I think it all depends on which book you stole.
It wasn't one of those atheist, sciencey books, was it?
maybe she stole a –GASP– bible? lol :)
momoya, you stated earlier that the trinity is jesus, mary and joseph. It is however, jesus, god and the holy ghost (holy spirit). This from an atheist, but one who studied the bible.
Reading the first five chapters of ANY book will not give you the whole picture. Otherwise, our history books would have the American Indians still owning this country and every mystery novel would be aggravatingly unsolved. If you are basing your life conviction on 5% of the story, then you haven't given yourself a true chance. I believe you have the God-given (yes, I went there) right to chose what you believe in (conservative christian, judaism, atheism, muslim, etc.). However, if you are going to make a stand, at least be well-informed. The Bible should not be cherry-picked, but seen as a whole. It is an evolution from worship by the literal sacrificial lambs to the metaphorical sacrificial lamb. Are there some awful things in the first five chapters? Yes, but it was also reflective of the times. What makes the Bible significant is the fact that it comes around to a point of view of love, forgiveness and inclusion. Those who whip out the Old Testament and start using it as a condemnation of what they are not comfortable with, miss the entire section where it states it is not for us to judge man, but only God's. Read the whole story, then make a decision. Whatever that decision is, it is yours to make.
mmaxum2002, You obviously did not read the whole post, or even the whole sentence from which you lifted my quote. Go back and have another go at it. :)
Although I never went to bible school I sat in the pews of fundamentalist churches for several years looking up every scripture quoted and reading the lessons carefully. I went from blind faith to doubt to repulsion and on to apologizing to everyone I'd ever preached to. Once the blinders of church are off the evil of the book shines through. I have now totally recovered from a very bad bout of Christianity.
Truth has a point there, although I expect we'd be hard-pressed to find a religious order of any ilk who do not conveniently gloss over or outright omit the parts that get in the way of their fun. The recent archeaological evidence for the deletion of God's wife, for example. But back at the religious climate of 1820, keep in mind that even Christmas was still illegal in much of the USA, awaiting the growing political power of the German and Irish immigrants to open up the staunch protestant myths that still grip the US and Canada. If you ask me, even releasing these papers NOW is Risky Business if it's a reformation you're wanting.
Mr Jefferson was a crazy old coot who copulated with his slaves and had several children with his slave mistress. He lived his life like he liked his bible. Cut out all the convicting info and live it like you want to . Jefferson was no where neer a christian probably closer to an athiest at the best agnostic.
You might want to go back and actually read the article this time @Truth. The part you claimed that he cut out, is actually the part that he kept in. He cut out the miracles, and left all of Jesus' teaching about morality.
'Neer' as I can tell 'yer a little illiterate...
@ truth~ near...you spell it with a "a" .
He was a deist. He believed in God but didn't believe in His intervention in the everyday dealings of mankind- no miracles, no burning bushes, etc.
Just because Jefferson had interactions with slaves it does not make him a "crazy old coot"--that description suits your you better, I think. It sounds to me like Jefferson was way ahead of his time and was a true progressive.
Jefferson WAS no where near a Christian, I take that as a compliment, and I'll bet he would too.
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