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.
Jefferson's belief were much inspired by Islam. You recall, it were the Muslims that first officially recognized America as an independent nation after the revolutionary war. Jefferson played an important role in the treaty that signed between the Amerca and the Muslim country.
I can only imagine what Jefferson's razor might have done to the Koran. Someone said that he did keep one. I wonder if he had a go at it.
That's a question we should ask Keith Ellison, since he swore into office using Jefferson's Qur'an.
I believe in God and I don't believe Beyonce faked her pregnancy. I also believe you can believe whatever you believe and believe me, it's unbelievable all the believing I believe has taken place. Moving on.
If anything, this is a prime example of how someone, whether religious or not, can take an existing story and modify it so that it makes more sense to them. If Jefferson made changes to suit his beliefs, what is the likelihood that the story was changed many times along the way?
And the longer back you go, the higher the chance that changes could be successfully incorporated into the story.
Indeed, just look at the human genome and the state it's in.
We do have evidence of changes and edits in the bible, but they're all so minor that none change the meaning behind the text.
Arvine – we have evidence of a lot more than that. In the 3rd century, there weren't four gospels – there were dozens. The Council of Nicaea pared those down to four, and heavily edited those as well. The process was extremely political, and a lot of what was left out was extremely interesting. For details, I'd recommend "The Gnostic Gospels" by Elaine Pagels, who has done much original research on the original manuscripts that remain, as well as those referenced but destroyed.
Hmmmm... what counts as "edits" or "revisions"? there are big sections that the Catholic church removed from the bible. And translation DOES matter. For instance, God punished women for Eve's transgressions by causing them to suffer ____ in childbirth. It was originally translated as "pain" but the original word actually meant "work" or "labor." That's a pretty significant change in meaning.
Looks like after all the "fat" is removed and you are down to the meat, the Bible is only about a dozen pages. That should tell the believers something profound.
Well, at least it teaches me to love and respect you.
One of the Amazon versions is about 200 pages.
Wake up folks... Let's deal with today's issues. Not those of dead people.
This blog is a real waste of good talent. Use your knowlege for some way of improving our economy.
Out of work out of patience.
Jeffeson isn't alive. Our of work Americans are.
Start solving that proble. Idoits... Get a life folks.
That's why you're taking time to post on here. LOL!
Good grief, learn how to spell!
I too, LOL.
work today, eat today, live today....
Well put.... We all make a difference in our own special way.
Mine. Bug the crap out of CNN unblelief bloggers...
Bye for now...
Thanks, typing on smart phone keyboard is the pits...
Spelling check not available and have bigggg fingers...
I think this is probably the most fascinating article I've run across in the new year. I had never heard of this before, and will be downloading the Kindle version shortly. It sheds interesting light on Deism, the religious outlook shared by many of the Founders and other luminaries of the Enlightenment, and leaves the ridiculous fundie notion that America was meant to be a 'Christian' nation in tatters.
I was gonna guess he had names and addresses of black chicks in there
I believe that Jefferson would have been called an agnostic or even an atheist today. He removed references to miracles, etc. which he called "artificial vestments" and was left with the exemplary ethics of an exemplary man. A man- not a god, not a son of god. In short, he looked upon Jesus as an example of morality based on the principle of love. Of course, far-right-wing-religious-zealots today would take issue with this.
Again, to quote Jefferson, "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."
Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love.
There's nothing you can do that can't be done.
Nothing you can sing that can't be sung.
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
There's nothing you can make that can't be made.
No one you can save that can't be saved.
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you
in time – It's easy.
Why would you have to be a "far right wing religious zealot" to believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ? Millions of people all over the world believe that. It's the basis of the Christian faith and is not limited to the far right wing, or to zealots.
@All You Need Is Love
Word. Lennon Saves!
Its the Beatles... Pretty Easy to see that ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE!!!! Love is All you Need!!!
One is not agnostic when one believes in a Creator God but does not believe in a Personal God. That is what a Deist is. That is what Jefferson would likely have been called back then had his viewpoint been widely known. Jefferson is presumed to have disbelieved that Jesus was himself God, but rather another of the many Prophets that litter Hebrew history. however, since Jefferson is not here to ask and none of his writings actually say "I do not believe Jesus was the Son of God" we can never actually know. However, I doubt, based upon his writings, that he believed that no god existed.
Jefferson was a Deist, and most certainly believed in God. His views on the subject were very different from what is peddled by fundamentalist Baptists today, but it was the world view of many leaders during the Enlightenment, and is still practiced today.
I know, but it was basically Lennon's song. The "Lennon Saves" comes from a banner that appeared at one of their concerts after John's "bigger than jesus" controversy in 1966.
Praise to the prophets John, Paul, George, and Ringo!
PS....And Bishop White (one of the first three Episcopal bishops in the new US, did the same thing with the developing Episcopal prayer book. I learned about that in seminary in 1979. It too never was accepted, and we did begin with a more "religious" prayer book than he would have promoted.
Our modern day patriotic evangelical conservatives will no doubt claim that it's a fake. They will never face the fact that the early US was very much influenced by Deism, especially our founding fathers. Jefferson was perhaps one of the deepest embracers of this approach. He kept personal copies of the Torah and the Koran at his bedside. When the founding fathers talked about freedome of religion they meant it for all, not just various forms of Christianity. It is a shame we as a nation are fast losing this wholesome sense of toleration.
Interesting that religion was so important to him. All this shows a lot of thought and effort on Jefferson's part.
“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."
This is my new favorite Jefferson quote.
He must not have been aware of everyone that followed him on Twitter.
Hah! Cut n' paste. Isn't that what they all do anyway?
I can't help but to figure that he did it to search for the truth. So many of the scriptures seem to have different meanings based on the interpretations of different languages.
Second: Your "junior high" version was "translated" and no doubt "sanitized" to acceptable community standards by your Social Studies Teacher. Wouldn't you like to read Jefferson's account first hand, rather than just swallow what the teacher fed you?
Based on when he started assembling his bible, it was possible that he was strongly influenced in this by the Revolutionary Commune that made up Paris' Government following their own Revolution. This was while he was the American Ambassador to France. The elevation of the Church of Reason definitely shows itself in the selections he cut and paste. And yes, I first heard about and read Jefferson's Bible about 5 years ago, so I am not writing this from a position of Ignorance.
Mr. Horowitz might be forgiven for attempting to gin up greater interest and sales for the Jefferson Bible of which he is the editor, however, he should get his facts straight before making questionable assertions based upon them. The 1820's were not the"age of Unitarian Universalism;" the Unitarian Universalist Association was not formed until 1961. The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America were separate until that time and,at the time of Jefferson's cut and paste enterprise, had little to do with one another. In fact, most Universalists would have been scandalized by his exercise in reductionism.
Maybe so, but the author's main point – that the nation was undergoing a period of tremendous spiritual experimentation at the time – still stands.
The author is clearly referring to American Unitarian Association which was created in 1825.
And he is the editor of the reissue of the Jefferson Bible.
You are really picking at the minor things and missing the point of the story.
Well, I don't know how secret it is since I learned about it in Junior High School. It was explained to us that Jefferson wanted the teachings of Jesus to be appreciated without the distraction of the miraculous. I wish everyone would go out (if you are Christian, and maybe some of you if you are not) and get a copy of the New Testament (you know, the one with Little Baby Jesus and Revelations in it) with the "words" of Jesus printed in red ink. Take that, skim through it, and see how much of what you see there sounds anything like any of our supposed Christian leaders are saying... Get the truth for yourself folks dn't take anyone's word for anything.
Indeed, take your own razor to it.
Or, just order or download a copy of Jefferson's version from Amazon.
If most Americans knew about Jefferson's Bible, they would further try to push him to the background of American History. The deep irony here is that the bible wasn't delivered, in whole, from the clouds. People retold the stories orally, then they found someone literate to write it down, then people edited it (heavily, I might add), then people translated it, and now it sits in your bedside table. This happened before the printing press – so it was all by hand. The point is that, even if you think that these things did occur, you have no idea what the original stories were.
The Texas Shoolboard already decided what our kids need to learn and they want less Jefferson, Thomas and more Jefferson Davis.
umm... no, they weren't retold "orally". They were written jews who were citizens of Rome, were educated and could read and write. The Apostle Paul wrote most of the new testament in the form of letters delivered to the early churches. Many of them from within prison. The only time that they wrote something down was when they felt it was important enough to. In fact, the modern Torah, the Jewish Bible, if you will, is copied by hand letter by letter and if one mistake is made, even in punctuation, it is thrown out and started over.
Mistakes are still made. And there are no copies of the New Testament scriptures from before around 150, so there is nothing directly from any of the Apostles or their lifetimes.
Well how exactly were they passed on from around 30 CE until 70CE when the first Gospel was written, if NOT orally ? Tape recorder ? Which "Jews were citizens of Rome", exactly ? Technically Saul of Tarsus was NOT an "apostle" and while he did write some letters, he is also credited with some he could not have written, (Timothy I and II, and T'itus). But you are right. What you have today is Paulianity, not Christianity, as he radically changed the teachings of Yeshua bar Josef, and added the "salvation" paradigm, which Yeshua never talked about,and had huge fights with the "James Camp" in Jerusalem over those things. The Old Testament WAS in oral form until the Babylonian Exile, when it was compiled from at least 4 sources. :twisted:
@Truth Prevails. can you show us exactly how you are sure satan does not exsist? nice fallacy.
I'll jump in here: Satan most likely doesn't exist because he has had no measurable effect on our world in any tangible way. To say that you are sure he doesn't exist is silly, but any logical person can assume based on everything they know that he doesn't.
@Thingsastheyreallyareandastheyreallywillbe: Given that I have stated my disbelief in satan, just as I state my disbelief in god (all due to lack of evidence) the burden of proof lies on you...you believe both these exist, now back it. Simply put, I can't be 100% sure that no god(s) exist but given the lack of evidence (outside of the buybull and to use that as evidence/proof is circular), I see no reason to believe in either. I am an Agnostic Atheist. Agnostic simply because I can't be sure and Atheist due to not believing. Anyone who claims to be sure satan or god exists is simply a liar. So can you say beyond 100% certainty that both satan and god exist?
Well put. I've got no problem with that. I am a Christian and I have no proof to show you that God exists, if you don't believe that a God could exist. If you could then my proof would be his Creation which is all around you. But, my belief is solely founded by belief. The fool has said in his heart there is no God. Even Jefferson believed in a Creator God.
Do you believe that Leprechauns exist? If not, prove that they don't? Rainbows exist. Gold exists. Shoes exist. Leprechauns therefore *must* exist.
The question "Does God exist" is pure gibberish. You can't answer the question when no one can say exactly what "God" is. It has far too many meanings across many languages.
Thanks for getting doubters a chance to prove their ignorance.
How exactly is it our ignorance? We're not the ones making the claim without evidence/proof to back it.
Pot meet kettle!!
you go create a universe and get back to us. I look around and see GOD's handy work everywhere. More proof?
The universe is random...it's not proof of god or any supernatural being!! Read a science book instead of the buybull!! You proved your ignorance and lack of education with your statement!! Using a god to answer how the universe began is considered the god of the gaps argument and it falls short on anyone who has any comprehension of the scientific data we have to back the universe. How old do you think the earth is? Do you believe in evolution or do believe Adam & Eve were real? Until you can provide evidence that your god even existed, you have no point!
"I am an Agnostic Atheist. Agnostic simply because I can't be sure and Atheist due to not believing."
You need to check your facts. Atheism is a BELIEF system and therefore a religion. The existence or non-existence of God can neither be proven or disproven for various reasons. "God" has too many meanings across too many different cultures. Science is not developed enough to prove or disprove. God exists everywhere at once so cannot be discerned separately from the observable universe. Etc. Because Atheists insist that God does not exist and there is no proof of non-existence they BELIEVE it to be so. The fact that the vast majority of people believe in a Creator and that all cultures have a creation story is strong evidence that someone or some thing CREATED everything else. Heck, even Einstein believed in the Creator God, even if he didn't believe in a Personal God.
So...Atheism is not about not believing...it is about believing, strongly and sincerely, about something different then most other people. As it is about belief, it is a Religion...but then economics is a religion too.
@cbinal: I honestly believe there are good christians out there. I see no reason to believe and live my life in accordance to that. It works for me and I am quite content with that. My main issue is that when it comes down to it, there are so many gods available to believe in and so many different versions that all take from one book...no-one knows for sure if anyone is right and no-one can ever know.
I believe that given the vast number of beliefs they do need to be kept to the privacy of ones home/church life and not in politics or the public school system...respect for all.
@Elspeth: You're not intelligent and have no clue. Atheism is not a religion...there are atheistic religions. Atheism is simply a lack of belief. I suggest you do some research on this before spewing your stupidity!!
@Truth Again, well put and I agree, public schools should not be teaching about God or any other religion. Therefore you should agree that Evolution is a religion. It is a belief not based on truth but on the theories of some fanatical followers. You point earlier of the God gap proves my point. There is a gap in Evolution that is not proven therefore it is a belief system not fact. Therefore should not be taught to children as fact.
That isn't correct. Atheism is simply the lack of belief. It is NOT the belief that god doesn't exist.
Atheism from Websters says a doctrine or belief that there is no God.
Atheism as defined by the God of the Bible equals fool. The fool hsa said in his heart there is no God.
Even if atheism meant "believing that there is no god," believing in something (or in this case, nothing) doesn't suddenly make it a religion. If you believe in clouds, that is not now a religion.
Since Webster's dictionary was quoted for "atheism", here's what it says on religion:
the service and worship of God or the supernatural commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance
OK since I brought up Webster's Dictionary, did you know that Noah Webster also translated his own version of the Bible? He also felt the the blank pages and the inside covers of his dictionary should not be wasted space, so he filled it with verses from the Bible. He also made the statement that education "was useless without the Bible".
uh ok? good to know, I guess.
& the last 3 songs listed were THE BEST!!~ Waiting very ineltipntay for him to come to NY!!-1 of the best voices I have ever heard-no singers today can even compare to him : )
Perhaps this will stir people to investigate the true belief system of one of our great thinkers. We have been fed a whitewashed version of his thoughts by the crazy Fundamentalists who try to intimidate the rest of us in order to prevent logical questions that Jefferson had about mainstream religions.
Early 19th century American thought is hardly cutting edge stuff.
Details: You would rather believe the crap that Jimmy Swaggert dishes out, because it is more modern???
If you dismiss 19th century writing as too old and lacking relevance, I can only imagine your views on the Bible itself, which is at least a thousand years old... way too old to be relevant, huh?
I depise religiousity. It's abusive and it takes many different forms. I'm not convinced in the slightest though that rationality and science is our savior either. Neither address the many problems we have with ourselves and other people. I find that sad. The religious can go on arguing and the scientists proving. I will try to be still and listen to hopefully find ongoing healing for myself first and then others.
Yes, till the day you die you will try to find that healing....but never will.
Well, science did produce a polio cure. Isn't that a problem solved?
There is no such thing as no religion dope
Humanism, reason and rationality, philosophy, and the innate sense of human dignity are all great places to direct one's energy. The philosophical aspects of Buddhism are not quite so bad either.
I'm confused. Of the two twin peaks of human understanding, science and religion, you disbelieve in either. So, what exactly is it that you are sitting still and listening too?
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.