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)
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  3. kindness

    A thought to consider without ego
    Accept Jesus christ as your lord and saviour. You never know how soon is too late. Trancend the worldly illusion of enslavement.
    The world denounces truth....

    Accepting Jesus Christ will result in something like seeng a new colour. You will see it .....but will not be able to clearly explain it to anyone else..... Its meant to be that way to transend any selfism within you.

    Currently.... your constructing your own path that suits your sin lifestyle.

    Look closely at the economy ponzi, look at how society idolizes Lust , greed , envy, sloth, pride of life, desire for knowledge, desire for power, desire for revencge,gluttony with food etc .

    Trancend the temporal world.

    Just think if you can find a truth you can take with you in any of these things. When you die your riches go to someone who will spend away your life. You will be forgotten.... history will repeat iteslf, the greatest minds knowledge fade or are eventually plagerzed, your good deeds are forgotten and only give you a fleeting temporary reward . your learned teachings are forgotten or mutated, your gold is transfered back to the rullers that rule you through deception. Your grave will grow over .
    Trancend your egoism and free yourself from this dominion of satan. Relise your a sinner and part of the collective problem of this worldly matrix... Repent....

    Evidence follows faith. Faith does not follow evidence..... Faith above reason in Jesus Christ.

    Read Ecclesiastes. Read corinthians.

    You cant trancend your own egoism by adapting a world philosophy to suit your needs. Seek the truth.

    Sell your cleverness and purchase bewilderment. You don't get what you want you get what you are in christ.

    I promise this has been the truth for me. In Jesus christ .

    Think of what you really have to lose. ...your ego?

    Down is up. Break the Matrix of illusion that holds your senses captive.

    once you do . you too will have the wisdom of God that comes only through the Holy Spirit. Saved By grace through Faith. Just like seeing a new colour.... can't explain it to a transient caught in the matrix of worldly deception.

    Your all smart people . I tell the truth. Its hard to think out of the box when earthly thinking is the box.

    May 8, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
  4. keçi

    Harikasınız ya.Bu bilgileri bulmam da bana yardımcı olduğunuz için teşekkürler.Hep demişimdir, bilgiyi saklamanın bir anlamı yoktur diye.Siz böyle yapmadığınız için teşekkürler.Kolay gelsin.

    March 27, 2012 at 11:00 am |
  5. Daniel

    As RAN said – you have it right. If Jefferson's gospel re-write had been published then, it would have been ridiculed, as it should be. Jefferson was simply an unbeliever. He has no basis whatsoever for what he did – to take out the divine and miraculous aspects of the Lord's mission on earth. None whatsoever, no rationality, no historical evidence, no literary analysis – none, he simply didn't believe in miracles. As if he personally defined the Renaissance, a period populated by many learned, scientific and christian men.
    His rewrite of the gospels is not only irrational, it's un-rational – it has no basis (even a false one). Atheists and Agnostics (and non-christians in general) keep saying that faith is what one believes without a basis in reason. The reality is the opposite – it's nonbelief that has no rational basis – that chooses to ignore 3,500 years of history and the saving work of God on Earth and on mankind. As for miracles – it's hardly rational (in fact it's stupid) to think that the God who created the universe, with all its laws and humankind, with its capability to think for itself, cannot perform miracles outside of the physical laws He created. If you choose to not believe in God (that's your right), that's fine – but to claim miracles are irrational doesn't follow.
    Frankly, it's atheists that irrational and rather pathetic human beings. You cannot be complete until you acknowledge your Creator, and then can see yourself as you truly are. Luckily, the current surge of atheists and agnostics is just another wave as seen before in history, and it will fade (as in fact he has largely started to on a worldwide basis).

    March 17, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
    • mms55

      i read this completely and did not see anywhere that said he didn't believe in god or jesus.we have to remember that the bible was written by man not god or jesus and anything envolving man will be corupt ,we can't help it.as far as i.m concerned all relgions are cults for the weak minded and it's used for power and nothing more.

      March 23, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
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  13. Religion is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer is delusional.

    March 11, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • healdog70

      Nothing delusional about prayer; thinking so is just that.

      May 17, 2012 at 11:37 pm |
  14. Fotos De Jesus

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  15. Alfalfuh

    You mean Justin's secret Bieber.
    Masturbation is good too, even infant's enjoy touching themselves.

    March 6, 2012 at 9:36 am |
    • James

      The thing that makes this holiday so wordneful is the warmth of good spirits. The problem is that we should all be this way, all the time. Why wait for christmas to spread good cheer, in a world that is so close to destroying itself. Instead of tripping over each other to look like the better man, why don't we treat each other as the better man? The christmas season has been entrenched with myth and legend and pagan practices to numerous of which to mention. One could, and probably have written a book on it. The christmas tree story itself is a ritual. St. Nick was a real man whose generosity and magnanimity won him a spot as Santa; but I think that if he were alive he would be appalled at what this world has done with him. I don't think Jesus hates this holiday, but it defeats the purpose to which he has called us. We need to be willing to have this christmas spirit all year long. Gods will on earth is what we should be concerned with, not a mad rush for gifts and celebration.

      May 19, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  16. Badacnu

    Midori0Akagawa on May 10, 2009 I love this song and Avenue Q and Ib4d love to see this live! But Ib4m from Germany and I think it will take many years, till I can get to one of their shows T-T Thank you for taking it here x3

    March 4, 2012 at 12:55 am |
  17. Ramavadh

    , my feeling is that at least since the 1980s we pay clsperviie to the Bible and that our insistence on using the KJV actually works to keep us distant from the Bible and more engaged with the Book of Mormon. People can argue that the language of the Book of Mormon is that of the KJV until they're blue in the face but frankly the language of the Book of Mormon is much simpler and clearer than the KJV.I consider myself to be somewhat well educated and not to toot my own horn, but I have a reasonably good (but not Rosalynde-level) vocabulary. Yet reading the NRSV for the last while I've found that I understand the New Testament (the simpler of the two) much better than I ever did when putting serious effort into the KJV.Because of the clarity of the language, its use as a foundation of testimony, and its place in LDS history and the mission of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon will continue to be the scripture that the great swath of Mormons will invest time and energy in somewhat to the detriment of the Bible.

    March 2, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  18. Ran

    Adding on subtracting to the Bible is a huge sin. Although I have respect for Jefferson as he was one of the presidents of this great nation, he has no right cutting and pasting verses he likes in the Bible and making his own 'approved' version. The Bible is the living Word of God. Jesus did perform all the miracles and more, as John puts it, more than can be contained in thousands and thousands of books. Every single word, phrase and verse in the Bible is true.
    People can't go about modifying the Bible, that's ridiculous. As to the author's prediction to how the Jefferson manuscripts would have changed the political climate of today, I totally disagree. I'm sure even if it were discovered and circulated soon after being compiled by Jefferson, people would have been quick to call it out as fake and blasphemous and it would have disappeared into nothingness. No sane Christian will accept such a bogus manuscript. Jefferson, unfortunately lived in deception, fortunately he didn't infect others with his theories.

    February 29, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Steve the Goat

      You're sad and pathetic. I feel sorry for you and anything you spawn. There is no god. The sooner you figure that out, the sooner you'll advance yourself as a human.

      March 4, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
  19. Usman Akhtar


    Forget about the past worry about your present and future in Paradise. Watch these videos to know the truth and to open your eyes and your mind.Watch these videos to see who your Lord, Your Savior, is truly and who take Jesus back after his Cruisifiction. I Challenge you to deny these videos and the massage in these videos. Paradise, who’s Paradise? Think about your kids and what they believe in. Listen to these creatures very carefully. These creatures are saying the name of their and every bodies Creator. May be GOD wants to give you a chance? I hope you won't call these creatures terrorist. Good Luck. I hope after finding the truth you will love the One and Only Provider, Savior, Creator and Owner of Paradise. Watch these videos to know who send Angels to heal people who ever Jesus(AHS) touched.
    Watch these videos.
    Watch where this Red car is going.
    Usman Akhtar

    February 18, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • Rebeka

      Non-Christians have aguerd again and again, they dislike being inundated by Christianity promotion. Many points can be made in defense, including- 1. I don't like TV advertisements, so I mute them. The fact that most Americans are Christians is just the way things are, accept it and move on. 2. Advertisements are everywhere, if you really truly disbelieve, then you should be able to ignore the warnings of hell, without a problem. Your inner Soul may be nudging you to believe, and you may be angry that you live in a Christian oriented society. Nobody's life is perfect. You may think that we are arrogant. Please try to understand that an important part of Christianity is our belief that Jesus asks us to promote his message of salvation, and we are just following our belief. I have to add that, if there were no judgement day, then what incentive do non-believers have to act with compassion for others, etc. I personally don't know how to quell the non-believers irritation at our signs, etc. other than what I have stated here. I'll give you this- the universe is such a wonder, that however it got started, the reasons are mind boggling- It's really no giant leap to go from being in awe of its origin, to believing in Jesus Christ as the son of God.

      March 1, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  20. k

    True religion is to believe and obey only One God. Every time humanity deviated from this path, God sent down His of prophets (Noah, Ibrahim, Mosses Jesus and Mohammed were among thousands) who carried this single message to the whole humanity (And they all had the highest moral standards). That is the message of Islam.

    God speaks to the whole humanity through His book Quran..

    “Proclaim, He is the One and only GOD. The Absolute GOD. Never did He beget. Nor was He begotten. None equals Him." [112:1]

    “They even attribute to Him sons and daughters, without any knowledge. Be He glorified. He is the Most High, far above their claims.” Quran [6:100]

    “The example of Jesus, as far as GOD is concerned, is the same as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him, "Be," and he was.” Quran [3:59]

    “…anyone who murders any person who had not committed murder or horrendous crimes, it shall be as if he murdered all the people. And anyone who spares a life, it shall be as if he spared the lives of all the people....." Qur'an [5:32]

    Most exalted is the One in whose hands is all kingship, and He is Omnipotent.The One who created death and life for the purpose of distinguishing those among you who would do better. Quran [67.2]

    Subsequent to them, we sent Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming the previous scripture, the Torah. We gave him the Gospel, containing guidance and light, and confirming the previous scriptures, the Torah, and augmenting its guidance and light, and to enlighten the righteous. Quran [5:46]

    Thanks for taking time to read my post. Please take a moment to clear your misconception by going to whyIslam org website.

    O people of the scripture, do not transgress the limits of your religion, and do not say about GOD except the truth. The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was a messenger of GOD, and His word that He had sent to Mary, and a revelation from Him. Therefore, you shall believe in GOD and His messengers. You shall not say, "Trinity." You shall refrain from this for your own good. GOD is only one god. Be He glorified; He is much too glorious to have a son. To Him belongs everything in the heavens and everything on earth. GOD suffices as Lord and Master. Quran [4:171]

    (Jesus) As a messenger to the Children of Israel: "I come to you with a sign from your Lord – I create for you from clay the shape of a bird, then I blow into it, and it becomes a live bird by God's leave. I restore vision to the blind, heal the leprous, and I revive the dead by God's leave. I can tell you what you eat, and what you store in your homes. This should be a proof for you, if you are believers. [3:49]

    February 15, 2012 at 11:49 am |
    • Billy11B

      One would have to accept the premise that the events you mention and the sources you reference are true. Difficult to do without proof. My experience in Iraq and Afghanistan is that fundamentalist religion based on writings that cannot be proven are the cause of the inhumanity suffered in those regions. I would not want any government based on religion. It is immoral.

      February 17, 2012 at 1:05 pm |
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About this blog

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.