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.
What an ego-driven exercise in futility. Clearly Jefferson didn't get it, and it seems Mr. Horowitz doesn't either. Jesus of Nazareth repeatedly claimed divinity in the gospels. To try to separate his moral code from his divinity is the same nonsense claimed today by those who consider him only a "wise teacher." Every book in the Old Testament and New Testament points to Christ as Messiah. Jefferson's denial of that shows not only ignorance of the purpose of the Bible but an arrogance that words taken out of context and rearranged still have meaning.
You can't prove that Jefferson was wrong.
What can you prove about Jefferson?
Totally incorrect. A moral advice like "Don't kill" or "Don't Steal" does not lose any of its validity irrespective of whether a wise man gave it or a wise man claiming divinity gave it..
Reasonable people realize the truth in such advice and take it as is. But it is only in the minds of simpletons that the divinity of a person talking is important and as such needed to ingrain even such basic ethics.
"What if every American's vote counted equally and so Bush would not have been president?"..............................America is a republic, not a democracy. If we want democracy we will have to get rid of the Senate, the Supreme Court and the Electoral College.
Disclaimer: I am a big Jefferson fan and have always taught him in a favorable light.
However, knowing what I know about the man's life, I have never been surprised at his various attempts to remove moral/religious values from public discussion. In this case, he is just removing the more in-depth moral contexts of Jesus' teachings. A lot of slave holders did when they tried to use the bible to justify slavery (Jefferson didn't go to that extreme, but he came close).
When you sleep with your slave, own other humans, compromise on principals, spend recklessly, live life without thinking of the consequences of your actions (check out the debt he left his family) then of course you want to remove the one mirror that will reflect negatively on your soul/conscience
Uh – he was trying to winnow the New Testament down to ONLY its moral statements. Your arguments don't hold up to what Jefferson actually produced.
narrowing down the bible to moral statements that he could digest by removing the fuller context of the moral statements found in the rest of the bible does not mean he was making it more moral. Instead it means that he was trying to ignore an entire philosophy that would have forced him to free his slaves immediately.
Instead he took a stance which allowed him state that slavery was wrong but he would keep his slaves regardless. Dickens had much harsher things to say about slaveholders who took Jeffersons morally ambiguous stances on slavery in his 'American Notes'. Stowe did the same in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Both helped bring forth Emancipation. However, today they would just be dismissed as religious fanatics who made decisions based on fairy tales.
What an interesting last sentence!! "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."
Did anyone else catch that? This is part and parcel to the approach and philosophy of all revisionist, anti-religion individuals such as Mr. Horowitz. Cloaking themselves in an ostensible veil of interest in First Amendment freedoms, if you read their words carefully you can easily discover their belief and intent touching on the topic of religious freedom.
They supposedly wish to protect an "intimate, inner search" of a religious nature; but note that he specifically states (perhaps by a slip of the tongue) that "outward pronouncements" were NOT what Jefferson sought to protect. Thus, it is not a great leap to see that Mr. Horowitz, along with most others of his ilk, would, in fact, prefer that those who desire to "outwardly proncounce" their religious beliefs should not be protected and, rather, should be muzzled from "imposing" on the freedom FROM religion enjoyed by people like him.
A very nuanced and crafty commentary on his part. Happily for Mr. Horowitz, it will be missed by most readers, thus keeping his true agenda concealed under an ostensibly appropriate defense of religious "freedom."
You're reading too much into what is a simple statement of one man's opinion.
In addition to overreaching, you're ignoring that many early Christians believed in self-enlightenment, rather than in receiving wisdom from a hierarchically organized Church. Mr. Horowitz's closing statement fits in nicely with this view, which both he and Jefferson would certainly be aware of.
I think "establishment" is the key word in his closing statement: "outward pronouncement and establishment of religious doctrine". But I agree, it is odd. Outward pronouncement by the American government is clearly out, but by individuals, that's free speech.
Just think.. if the following sentence was written in an article, ""It was NOT this kind of intimate, inner search – the outward pronouncement and establishment of religious doctrine – that the man who helped shape modern religious liberty sought to protect in America.""
would you have supported it? 20 bucks says you would have waved it on a banner.. That, my friend, is the problem with religious fundies who use the same mentioned first amendment to push for theocratic nation agenda.. Sad!
ps. notice that the position of "NOT" has been changed.. that's all
Thank you much Nick for your comment on the Tea and Coffee otoanizarigns. There is considerable political unrest throughout the country. But anytime ordinary people civilly convene together it is generally a good sign. I wish the Coffee organization well.
Well, he tried to hide a lot of things, didn't he? Fathering a child through a slave being the foremost. Perhaps he should have kept some of those passages in the Bible that he cut out...
Fathering CHILDREN, you mean.
A good first step toward the enlightened position of Atheism. :)
In the 1700's, God was the only accepted explanation for the world. How would our current understanding of the universe and evolution have changed the thinking of people like Jefferson?
For people who haven't visited Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello, I highly recommend it. You get an even deeper appreciation for this exceptional man and his constant thirst for knowledge and applying it.
If during that time of TJ he was found out to being mistreating the Bible into the making of his own choice of words...! He would have facedcdeath as a witches been treated...! Am sure still even at this era if any one does that will face terror...
I think they (Americans) were beyond witch trials in Jefferson's time. Of course the pendulum may swing back some day.
Appreciate your well put answer and yes (History does repeat it's self in many different means at different times).
You mean the witch trials from 130 years earlier that were started by a paranoid rural group and then stopped by a similar christian group? Of course you only know the negative stereo type. Do some research and you will find that the salem trials were not indicative of most puritans of 1680 (1630 maybe).
Sounds like Jefferson was a wise man, not believing the fairy tales told by corrupt people in power long before him. Jesus was a man, a prophet, but not a god.
That is YOUR opinion.
My opinion is all this religion junk is about as truthful as the story of Frosty and the Easter bunny. Grow up people, imaginary friends are for children.
@C.K, it's more than just an opinion. It's common sense. We know there are men, and we know there are prophets because we can see them in front of our eyes. These two things are therefore, plausible.
That he was a god is implausible and therefore requires evidence. We can dismiss it due to the clever, and now famous HItchens-rule: "That which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence."
I dismiss the notion that Jesus was divine. It makes no sense, and there's no evidence that it's true.
I am always cautious about "what if" notions about history. What if Nero had not burned Rome? What if the South had won? What if Pearl Harbor had not been bombed? Because anything after such a what if is a WAG (mere speculation). We must always look at what actually happened but are free to learn from it and behave differently. It is not an absolute necessity that we nuke our species into the stone age, but to avoid it we must adopt major changes and soon. A 21st century at all like the 20th (given technological advances) and we most certainly can accomplish the unthinkable. Now THAT can alter history (but it is still a what-if hypothesis)
A more recent "what if":
What if every American's vote counted equally and so Bush would not have been president?
Nero didn't burn Rome, the Christians did. It was an act of self fulfilling prophecy. Nero had lions, and gladiators to deal with the Christian plague. The stories about Nero were written by Christians. Do you really think they would place blame on themselves? Of course not. Nero was the wisest emperor because he could see what the future of humanity would be if Christians ruled. Nero was right!
What if the current president were half the messiah he promised to be; respected those who elected him; worked to improve the U.S. instead of ravish it; knew how a free economy functions; bailed out somebody other than his political hacks; shut down POW camps; respected the U.S.-Mexico border; did not sell guns to Mexican criminals; respected Arizona; respected U.S. corporations and their workers; valued the superb skills of the U.S. health care professionals; respected the Cambridge police Department; respected the Queen of England; did anything that was not politically motivated? Suppose he was actually capable of being more than a part-time guest lecturer? Suppose he actually had experience and a track record? Or even a birth certificate?
And what if Acorn hadnt perpatrated voter fraud across the nation just so we could elect the token black man as opposed to a black man that actually deserved to be in the position.
It's hard to believe that there are still any IGNORANT birthers left. Some people just don't learn even after being thoroughly humiliated by FACTS. Some people just aren't bright enough to accept the TRUTH. Wow!
you mean every native american in the dakotas would have voted equally and counted once? every U of Wisconsin student would have counted once? Every voter on both sides would have been counted once? Got news for you, your myth is crap, Bush won regardless. If your myth was more than crap then the dems would have fixed the voting system when they had both houses, the pres and the supreme court. But they didn't because they were equally guilty. Neither side is willing to lose their two largest vote getting cash cows: 1. Corrupt elections and 2. stupid voters who believe urban legends.
Why not get an education? Gore got more votes than Bush. FACT.
Do some archival research of the major news transcripts from the days immediately following that elections. Multiple states reported issues on both sides (wisconsin and NM are the two that jump to mind, there was a third that bush could have sued in and won the election even if Gore was given Florida). The mainstream news stopped reporting on the more racially polarizing ones once both camps flocked to Florida. Once the bush camp stated they would only pursue litigation on florida and respect the court's decision there, then the news dropped the others entirely. the only follow up that CNN ever did was when a group of republicans started tracking license plated on reservation voting places in 04. The courts let them do that because those same places were busted for allowing voters to vote multiple times on '00. The point is that both sides cheated and the official numbers are not accurate. No one will know what the actual count so saying that one side won the popular vote is a faulty argument since even that number is wrong. Your side lost, live with it. Independent voters like me just sat back and laughed at the rest of you.
You are unfortunately and incredibly a true moron. What did your diatribe against Obama have to do with the article? And, why should anybody respect the queen of England? You are quite obviously just one more Tea Party nut falling from the crazy tree. Do us all a favor: don't vote; don't breed; get back on your meds; and, please shut up and post no more of your banal commentary. Much of what is wrong with this country is found in people of your ilk.
I'm not sure if calling him a tea partier is correct. he did reference several things that Liberals have wanted Obama to do for a while. You are correct though since he should probably get back on meds. He is obviously bi-polar. Afterall, no one can argue for both sides. The Dems and Repubs won't allow it. just look at the trolls who post here? None are capable of considering logic from the other side of the spectrum, and independent views are discarded as too radical of a concept to discuss intelligently.
As it seems some thing much bigger is brewing up and much closer than we think..!!!
Armageddon, World War III, Antichrist, And The Second Coming Of Jesus
Already Muslims have been mercilessly expelled from Palestine while Zionists in their bloodthirsty lust for land and power are not' satisfied with Palestine. In their arrogance they openly admit that they want all of Syria, all of Lebanon, all of Jordan in addition to Iraq, Iskenderun from Turkey, the Sinai, and the Delta area from Egypt and the upper Hejaz and Najd from Saudi Arabia. Yes, they even want the holy city of Medinah.
He's not a very moral deity if he needs war and massive bloodshed to accomplish his second coming. If the Christians are speaking truthfully about what's written in their bible, then I can't imagine that Jefferson found anything morally acceptable. His personal bible must be very small indeed. I am terrified to open a book whose pages have inspired the inquisition, the massive witch hunts, the crusades, a justification for the slave trade, the decimation of Native American culture, the total lack of respect for natural beauty, and the oppression of minorities. Sounds like a great book indeed! I think I'll continue to read the Egyptian Book of the Dead. I don't think I'll find anything of value in the bible.
I am actually quite tired of Muslims and Palestine and their petty bickering for barbaric rights. They are 1/3rd of mankind but are provoked into immeasurable violence over a postage stamp of a Israel. You know it just does not wash. Israel is not causing it: Muslims are simply barbaric from Chechnya to New York and from Mindanao to Detroit. In short they are maniacal. They now have enough nukes to start the chain reaction that will draw in the remainder of the world and are just nuts enough to do it.
Are you saying that not even in TJ's Bible you find any thing of value?
MI'm saying that I haven't read any version of the bible, King James or Jefferson. I look at the example set by people who adamantly believe in what's written in the bible and I think to myself, "this is a very dangerous book!" I say this somewhat hypocritically because I have nothing but respect for Mother Teresa, Thomas Jefferson and the few Christians who have actually done something great for the world. My comment was tongue-in-cheek satire, trying to get the judeo-christian-muslim masses to think, rather than just to believe. I'm sure there are plenty of good things written in the bible, as the example set by our founding fathers proves, but there is also obviously a lot of terrible material that should not be thought of as the inerrant, infallible word of jehovah. Christians today want to preach to me that their religion is the one, true religion, and that their bible is 100% Truth. The history of christianity is my counter argument.
Either you are one eyed that's if you not totally blind folded as the justice you believe in...!
We were given brains to think with and accept what we want to accept in our lifes as a path of living... And I do respect TJ for expressing clearly what his brain and heart had accepted as a path...!!
Reading was always about stimulating the mind into thinking and making choices...
And do not pursue that of which you have no knowledge. Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart – about all those [one] will be questioned. (17:36)
Quran certifies that Jesus pbuh had powers which TJ excluded as a myth...!
That is from the news of the unseen which We reveal to you, [O Muhammad]. And you were not with them when they cast their pens as to which of them should be responsible for Mary. Nor were you with them when they disputed. (3:44)
[And mention] when the angels said, "O Mary, indeed Allah gives you good tidings of a word from Him, whose name will be the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary – distinguished in this world and the Hereafter and among those brought near [to Allah ]. (3:45)
He will speak to the people in the cradle and in maturity and will be of the righteous." (3:46)
She said, "My Lord, how will I have a child when no man has touched me?" [The angel] said, "Such is Allah ; He creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, 'Be,' and it is. (3:47)
And He will teach him writing and wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel (3:48)
And [make him] a messenger to the Children of Israel, [who will say], 'Indeed I have come to you with a sign from your Lord in that I design for you from clay [that which is] like the form of a bird, then I breathe into it and it becomes a bird by permission of Allah . And I cure the blind and the leper, and I give life to the dead – by permission of Allah . And I inform you of what you eat and what you store in your houses. Indeed in that is a sign for you, if you are believers. (3:49)
And [I have come] confirming what was before me of the Torah and to make lawful for you some of what was forbidden to you. And I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, so fear Allah and obey me. (3:50)
Indeed, Allah is my Lord and your Lord, so worship Him. That is the straight path." (3:51)
The Quran was written many hundreds of years after the Biblle was compiled and voted upon. The presence of a well known figure in a subsequent book does not prove anything.
The Quran contained all in a summarized form...
What's in his bible? A fairly tale, just like in the rest of them.
From what the article is stating, it seems like his bible is comprised of exerpts from the new testament, but without the miracles, magic and other supernatural things and focuses on the philosophy of a single man.
It is a shame that we no longer have leaders such as Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, or Lincoln. There men were intelligent free thinkers. Unfortunately, such a person would be unelectable in modern America.
Very true. Sad, but true.
By the fourth century, c.e., the Christian world was saturated with all kinds of "gospels" and other spurious literature about Jesus. Some of these books contained fantastic stuff about the baby Jesus killing other kids in order to bring them back to life. Or making clay birds and bringing them to life. The early church rooted out such nonsense and kept the kernel of truth about Jesus. Jefferson is another in a long line of improvisors according to taste. If they publish his bible, "sitting ducks" will send it to the top of the best seller list. Sitting ducks are vulnerable to any pseudo-scholarly treatment of scripture. I wonder if the Jefferson Bible would clear as much $$ as The DeVinci Code.
You forgot the nonsense of Jonah living in the belly of a whale for 3 days.
This troll does not know how to write complete sentences.
The Jefferson Bible has been available in print for quite some time. You can order it or download if from Amazon.
Nicene creed: God, Jesus and Holy Spirit are one and the same. Deuteronomy: God (Jesus) told his people, go into Canaan and kill every living thing. Commit total cultural genocide. Revelation: Jesus will come back and slaughter everyone who doesn't believe in him. Moral of the story: Jesus isn't a very nice deity.
The following US Presidents were all Master Masons, with the exception of Lyndon Johnson who did not complete the Three Degrees of Masonary: George Washington, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, James Polk, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, James Garfield, William McKinley, Theodore Rosevelt, William Taft, Warren Harding, Franklin D. Rosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jerald Ford.
Although most religeons believe in a God, the Masonic Order believes in the Supreme Architect of the Universe, NOT in a cow, skull full of blood, a statue, a religeous symbol, a human from the past, or anything else that man may create to incorrectly choose worship. It is an internal spriritual peace and life harmony that one reaches and shares with like minded people with self imposed obligations which bind us like the cement that binds the building blocks of life together, only into brotherly love and trust. This allows us to trust and walk upright amoung brothers and keep our passions within bounds so that we do not violate our obligations to ourselves or brothers.
Was Thomas Jefferson a Freemason? This question has been asked by Masons and others and not conclusively answered for 200 years. In 1960, Brother William R. Denslow, Masonic scholar and editor of the Transactions of the Missouri Lodge of Research, concluded that Jefferson was not a Mason, saying all claims for his membership are based on association or insinuation, with no proof by records.
Masonry is the purest spiritual, moral and philosophical pursuit that can be followed in this country. How does one become a Mason? I am told Albert Pike was a member of the KKK, worshiped the devil, etc. but when I read Morals and Dogma, I see no evidence of such claims. Thanks to the Masonic ideas that this country was founded on, we now have more liberty and freedom than most other societies. I thank the Masons for their bravery during the American Revolution. I thank the Masons for their bravery during the anti-masonic hysteria that keeps being instigated by evangelicals. Kudos to you for being a Mason.
Jefferson was the greatest of our founding fathers. His philosophy is the epitome of american democracy.
Couldn't agree more...
Jefferson was still giddy from the newly established cult of Reason. Reason had been enthroned during the French Revolution, with an ensuing bloodbath – in the name of reason. Then came Napoleon, an enemy of the church, and his concept of total war. Jefferson could not foresee the twentieth century in which humans turned their scientific developments into the meatgrinder of World War 1. Or that the twentieth century would be the most godless and bloody century in human history.
Twaddle. Jefferson was a Deist, plain and simple.
And how much of that violence was directed by the Catholic Church? Catholics should be burned and not heard.
You, perhaps inadvertently, say what gives rise to the fundamental indictment: "cult of X" / "in the name of X". Unfortunately, that indictment falls at least as much upon your cult as upon others. I am not using "cult" here as much in the recent and pejorative sense, as the more general sense of describing affiliation with an identifiable system of beliefs.
he is doing what centuries of others had done. cut n paste, translate, at the end, you have amway. jews, christians, and muslims, all the children of abraham, what a scam
Yup – Amway. Joey's punctuation wasn't the best but Amway is indeed a word.
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.