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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 • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (1,432 Responses)
  1. Rev. Roger Wolsey

    Here's the text of Jefferson's edited version of the New Testament. Enjoy! http://www.angelfire.com/co/JeffersonBible/

    February 6, 2012 at 2:34 pm |
  2. Dr.K.

    What's in Jefferson's bible? A thinking man trying to reconcile rational thought with an utterly irrational aspect of his culture.

    February 3, 2012 at 12:14 am |
    • Rev. Roger Wolsey

      Enjoy! http://www.angelfire.com/co/JeffersonBible/

      February 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Dr.K., sounds like something that would lead to insanity. It's why I am atheist.

      February 19, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  3. Nii Croffie

    The 10 Commandments were close to the Code of Hammurabi, a Sumerian King. Sumerians are the ancestors of the Chaldeans (Babylonians). The Bible also never said that only Hebrews had encounters with YHWH but just that He chose them for His redemptive work.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
  4. Nii Croffie

    Jews, Mormons, Atheists, Christians? True religion vs false religion? Spirituality is the message. Love ur neighbour as urself. This is what YHWH, Adonai, Jesus Christ, said. Kill urselves over this not theological legalistic talk. Ultimately all religions n non-religions are false only God is true.

    January 31, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Rational Libertarian

      My poo varies in shades of brown. This is also true.

      February 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • Tom

      I think Dr. Bronner sums this up pretty well:

      "Thank God we don't descend down from perfect Adam & Eve to sinful sinner, Brother's Keeper, divided slave! United, hardworking-trained-brave, from dust we ascend up! Thank God for that! Our Brother's Teacher of the Moral ABC mason Hillel taught carpenter Jesus to unite all mankind free! "The 2nd Coming of God's Law!"

      Today in one world with atom bombs, we're on the mountain top, the crest, the crossroads! Today our new, courageous 6000 year young `Love and Teach Love Brother Love', that constructive-good, that God within, must become more energetic, united and intense than our age-old, fear-driven `Kill or be Killed Selflove', that jealous power and glory-seeking beast within, always has been!

      Enjoy only 2 cosmetics, enough sleep & Dr. Bronner's `Magic Soap' to clean bodymind-soul-spirit instantly uniting One! All-One! Absolute cleanliness is Godliness!

      TO SIMPLIFY & ENJOY LIFE MORE, DILUTE 1/2 OZ. OR 2 SQUIRTS OF THIS PURE CASTILE SOAP WITH 2 GALLONS OR SINKFUL HOT WATER, THEN TOWEL MASSAGE, A FACIAL PACK, THEN WRING TOWEL OUT & FINGERTIP MASSAGE YOUR HAIR & SCALP. "

      February 3, 2012 at 1:31 pm |
  5. Obersturmbannführer

    The 10 Commandments were lifted from Egyptian law, the story of Noah was lifted fro the Babylonian 'Epic of Gilgamesh', the whole Bible is an almagation of stories picked up by desert nomads over thousands of years. To worship it in a church is plain nuts.

    January 27, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • Nii Croffie

      Define nomad and desert. I will dare u to dismiss them based on these two things. Hebrews were descended from Babylonians and became a nation in Egypt. They were not Bedouins. True nomads avoid towns but the Patriarchs did not. If u r so dismissive how then do u claim u know what it is saying. LOOK

      January 31, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
  6. Beau Doiron

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pr_t0ZC8ih8&w=640&h=390]

    January 27, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  7. Mrs Whit

    Not a secret bible at all! Readily available for many years. About as secret as math, science, physics etc. Only the words of Jesus.

    January 24, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Picked one up at Borders last year.

      January 24, 2012 at 10:31 pm |
    • David

      Yeah, misleading story ... it's been around forever (first published in the late 1800s). Good read, but the bible is still nutty. Jesus provided nothing original in his "social" doctrine, and was still a batty nutcase. Just what you'd expect from dessert nomad from that time.

      January 25, 2012 at 5:54 am |
  8. Interesting

    Interesting that Jefferson felt that he could not identify with any of the churches of his time. A contemporary of his also felt the same way in 1820. He went to a grove and asked God what church to join. In response, God and Christ visited him and told him not to join any of them because none of them were fully true or being directly guided by Them. Ten years later in 1830, Christ restored His church. Accordingly, when Jefferson died in 1826, there was no true church on earth. Who was this person through which Christ restored His church? Joseph Smith.

    January 24, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Almost

      You are leaving out the really good parts like how he also went on to marry 14 year old girls and keep them hidden from his first wife. Oh and how about how he restored the practice of polyamory where they shared wives amongst themselves. Doubt me? Check your history again.

      January 24, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • alsmeer1

      Who was this person through which Christ restored His church? Joseph Smith.

      NOT. Jesus is the only One. joseph smith was / is a false prophet. wanting glory for himself. just like lucifer when he tried to attain God-hood and the One True God cast lucifer out of heaven. where do you think joseph smith/mormons get their 'we can become gods' theology?

      January 28, 2012 at 11:28 am |
    • GeorgeH

      I don't whether to laugh or scream in frustration. There is not a shred of evidence to substantiate the comment of Interesting or the reply by Alsmeer1. They just babble on as if what they are saying is true, although there is no credible evidence to back up either of their stories. This is a good example of how religion is so dangerous and destructive to society.

      January 28, 2012 at 1:42 pm |
    • rzzzll

      Both you and alsmeer1 are wrong. You follow false prophets and a false zombie god that's only one of three gods in "christianity". They violated and usurp the authority of the Tanakh. Hashem's way is the only true path, this "New Testament" is nothing but a lie by a heretical Jewish sect corrupted further by Greco-Roman philosophy and paganism. The true faith is through the Eternal One. Shema yisrael, adanoi eloheynu adonai echod – "Hear O Israel the Lord is G_d, the Lord is ONE." Not 3, not 2, just 1. Got it blasphemers and heretics? One.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:47 am |
  9. jimtanker

    None of this means that there ever was a person named Jesus or that anything that is atributed to him actually happened.

    January 24, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
    • Thomas

      None of this article proves that. But any serious review of history proves beyond a shadow of a doubt not only that Jesus existed (and exists) but that he did great miracles that prove His claim that He is the Son of God and the only name given under heaven by which we can be saved from God's wrath.

      January 24, 2012 at 8:49 pm |
    • AGuest9

      "But any serious review of history proves beyond a shadow of a doubt not only that Jesus existed (and exists)"

      And, how is that? Still exists? Where is this 2000+ y/o person? What is the shadow of doubt? Only your beliefs.

      January 24, 2012 at 10:33 pm |
    • momoya

      It's not a question of there being a Jesus who claimed to be some sort of messiah in Judea at the time in question, it's a question of just how many Jesuses there were at that time period running around proclaiming to be the messiah.

      January 24, 2012 at 11:09 pm |
    • David

      Thomas, your'e smoking crack. Jesus was a rather common name for the time (not as common as it is in Mexico today, though) ... most accounts of Jesus were written many years, if not hundreds of years, after his (not agreed to) death. The story is really silly. Try Christopher Hitchens' "God is NOT great" - lots gems in there about how silly it all is.

      January 25, 2012 at 5:57 am |
    • Jason

      Then why does the Talmud, Tacticus, and Josephus acknowledge his existence? If he didn't exist at all, then where do these stores come from the in first place?

      Also, does this mean Alexander the Great never existed since there are no records of first hand accounts of his life?

      January 25, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • rzzzll

      Jason – I don't doubt the existence of a Yeshua, a Yehoshua. However the works of the Talmud, Tacitus, and Josephus were written many decades after his purported execution. Thomas – you are a believer in a false zombie god, if this Yeshua truly preached what is written down in the "New Testament" he would be a Jewish heretic and blasphemer against the Oneness of HaShem. All those bizarro magical mythical elements are a corruption from Greek philosophy are a twisted perversion, nothing more than a rehash of Osiris or any other zombie god origin stories. Christianity is a Jewish heresy mixed with Greco-Roman and other pagan thoughts and elements. Islam is even further off track. Acknowledge Judaism which is the true path Hashem has set before us. G_d has no "son", only the son of righteousness the moschiach the anointed one, a HUMAN like you or I who will herald in an age of Peace before the Final Judgement.

      January 31, 2012 at 3:57 am |
  10. Truth

    Well known fact that the catholic church hacked it to pieces to suit their needs omitting several gospels and anything counter to their laws. I think it smart of him to piece the puzzle to find the true teachings of Jesus which are more aligned with the Kabalah.

    January 23, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • toronto girl

      No surprise, JC was jewish afterall.

      January 24, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • BlogHaha

      Not , surprised , it's not the first time that whites try to rewrite history to suit themselves
      SamO samO

      January 24, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • Runner 23

      Interestingly enough if you do research on the books that the church did not put in the Bible you will find that they were all written at least 150 years after Christs death, and after all of the apostles had died. The four gospels that were put into the bible were all written within the life spans of the apostles and with eye witness testimony. The church had very good reasons to not put those books in the bible, not just because they disagreed with what the church said.

      January 24, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • AGuest9

      "Eyewitness testimony", Runner? Luke was a traveling companion of Paul, a Greek who was possibly a physician who was very well-written. According to most bible researchers, he likely compiled information and discussed it with Paul, but did not know Jesus. What Luke presents is hearsay, not eyewitness testimony.

      January 24, 2012 at 10:55 pm |
    • Runner 23

      Yes but think of all of the eyewitness testimonies he had around to ask and write about. Sure he had it second hand from all 12 apostles, but the story doesnt change with only one person inbetween

      January 24, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  11. BLE, Sr

    From the 1st Book of Noah, Genesis. Where did Noah get the information from to write Genesis? From God. People should try and do more research before making up feel good insights to say there is no God. God always was and always will be. This is what I believe based on FAITH!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    January 23, 2012 at 8:31 pm |
    • stephen douglas

      good for you...

      January 23, 2012 at 9:51 pm |
    • momoya

      That's classic!

      January 23, 2012 at 10:39 pm |
    • AlBr

      Good points you have made, except that the Book of Genisis was not written by Noah. Rather, it was Moses.

      January 24, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
  12. Rediculigious

    The "religions" coming out of America (from Jeffersons hack job of the Bible and John Smiths gold tablets) is a wonderful addition to our cultural makeup. After all why should the Jews and the Arabs get all the credit?

    January 23, 2012 at 7:23 pm |
  13. Just Us

    Perhaps we could send a copy to Gingrich?

    January 23, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
  14. Woody

    There are a few bloggers out there who are saying, 'everybody reads the Bible in different ways. What's the big deal?'
    In fact, probably all of us need to read the Jefferson Bible. Well, Mitch Horowitz doesn't clarify very well that Jefferson did not believe in the Resurrection. Without that, Christian faith doesn't mean anything... at least that's what Paul of Tarsus thinks.
    That's the big deal.
    Jefferson was not an 'atheist' but he certainly wasn't what we call a Christian in the normal sense.

    January 22, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • stephen douglas

      Jefferson himself acknowledged he was in a sect by himself, although he really was not. He viewed the teachings of Jesus to be the best ever taught, but he did not believe in all the miracles attributed to Jesus – and rightly so. It is most likely that the crucifixion was a sliick trick pulled off by Jesus as the Muslims claim, or that at least the ressurection was another embellished lie. Strip away all the so called miracles and stories of healing, and keep the fine teachings and parables. I hope to get a copy of the Jefferson Bible some time to have and study. Has to be better than the King James version.

      January 23, 2012 at 10:05 pm |
    • Ran

      I can only imagine that Jefferson would be an atheist if he lived today.

      January 24, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Jason

      Crucifixion as a slick trick? How exactly to pull that off? Besides, Roman solders who failed to carry out an execution order would themselves be put to death (even in error on their part).

      January 25, 2012 at 9:59 pm |
  15. David

    Thank God for Thomas Jefferson!

    January 22, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • AGuest9

      Actually, thank Jefferson's parents.

      January 24, 2012 at 10:57 pm |
  16. iminim

    Whatever you may think of Jefferson's version of the Bible, it is obvious that he put much more thought and investigation into his pursuit of religious knowledge than the vast majority of those who claim to know the Bible in today's society.

    January 22, 2012 at 12:27 am |
    • stephen douglas

      Isn't that the truth.

      January 23, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
  17. Cris C.

    Unfortunately for Jefferson, in his older years, he took an interest in liberalism and worldly philosophy that always exalts man to a plane that is on a level with or even higher than God himself, while at the same time makes God out to be a liar. When you dabble with and entertain false doctrine you open yourself up to being sucked in.

    January 22, 2012 at 12:06 am |
    • A. Wolf

      Thank you for accusing the founding fathers of whatever "liberalism" is supposed to mean 200 years ago; it gave me quite a chuckle! And thank god they were "liberalist" enough to craft the First Amendment to protect us from theocracy.

      January 22, 2012 at 2:35 am |
    • AGuest9

      How can something that doesn't exist be a liar?

      January 22, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • momoya

      @AGuest9,

      The character of god, as presented in the bible, is a liar. Of course that god does not exist, as can be proven by multiple logical arguments. In other words, if you read a book about the Tooth Fairy, and that book had her lying at various times, you would say that the Tooth Fairy (as presented by that book) was a liar, even while you don't believe in the Tooth Fairy. It's how most people talk about imaginary characters in books. You don't think PhD's in Literature say "as presented in the book" every time they discuss Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, do you?

      January 22, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • David E.

      When you consider the fact that man created the concept of a god, Jefferson merely exposes mysticism for what it is, a fraud. "Religions are all alike, founded on fables and mythologies." Thomas Jefferson

      January 23, 2012 at 9:22 am |
  18. g silas

    Is Jefferson also considered as 'Americas founding fathers'?

    January 21, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • jean

      Considering that Jefferson was instrumental in founding this nation, wrote the Declaration of Independence and was the third president of the U.S., yes, he is certainly considered one of the founding fathers.

      January 22, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • AGuest9

      "No Child Left Behind" apparently came years too late for you.

      January 22, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  19. ALBERT

    Albert Einstein: God is a Product of Human Weakness

    The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.

    if this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?

    January 21, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
    • weak?

      Id like to see you tell that to the many who have suffered brutal persecution and endured painful deaths when faced with the option of denying the God who has changed their life or die. Id say it takes an incredible amount of strength, courage, and faith. Haha, weak. Thats hilarious. Youre clearly out of touch with what it means to have faith. Maybe thats your fault for not investigating it before passing judgment or maube its the fault of the people youve met who claim to have faith but dont live it. Prolly a mix of both. Either way. You couldnt be more wrong.

      January 21, 2012 at 11:26 pm |
    • Omnipotent

      Omnipotent Def: almighty or infinite in power, as God.

      So God is all powerful- well yea, he's God. That dosnt mean he chooses to exercise "control" on everyone. He has given us Free Will. No one is forced to love or obey him. Evil/pain in the world is an absence of God. He's given us a way out. Yet you curse him with the very breath he is giving you right now. You ignore your opportunity to repent of your sins bc you are comforted with the thought of not having any accountability for your actions. Im sorry to say that THAT is true "weakness".

      January 21, 2012 at 11:38 pm |
    • David E.

      @weak, you're an idiot. More death and suffering have been inflicted upon humanity in the name of religion than all other ideologies combined. The catholic church alone, is responsible for the deaths of tens of millions, all the while enriching itself with the treasure of those it oppressed. Religion has perpetrated the greatest hoax in the history of mankind.

      January 23, 2012 at 9:31 am |
    • J

      @David
      One day you and I will bow before our creator.
      Love you buddy.

      January 23, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • NOT an idiot...you just dont get what im saying

      David: im not talking about people who completely go against the teachings of jesus and think its important to control others into believing exactly what they believe. God doesnt control us and jesus never taught to do that. So people who have done evil in the name of their religion are NOT following the Bible anyway. Im talking about the millions that have lived a peaceful loving life but have been persecuted for sharing the peace of god with other(with kind words not war) . This includes the Men that wrote the gospils. they died horrible deaths. Yet some people think they made it all up to trick people. Would you be crusified upside down for something you know you made up or for something you know you witnessed??? think about it

      January 24, 2012 at 9:01 pm |
  20. Ben Elifint

    Spelling, grammar, and punctuation, people. "Shiver!" "Cringe!"

    January 21, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.