Was the Jefferson Bible an evangelism tool?

David Barton says it was. Barton is a collector of historical documents who is a favorite of Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich. On his website, Wallbuilders, Barton says:

The reader, as do many others, claimed that Jefferson omitted all miraculous events of Jesus from his “Bible.” Rarely do those who make this claim let Jefferson speak for himself. Jefferson’s own words explain that his intent for that book was not for it to be a “Bible,” but rather for it to be a primer for the Indians on the teachings of Christ (which is why Jefferson titled that work, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”). What Jefferson did was to take the “red letter” portions of the New Testament and publish these teachings in order to introduce the Indians to Christian morality. And as President of the United States, Jefferson signed a treaty with the Kaskaskia tribe wherein he provided—at the government’s expense—Christian missionaries to the Indians. In fact, Jefferson himself declared, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” While many might question this claim, the fact remains that Jefferson called himself a Christian, not a deist.

This section is taken from a prototype of a letter which could be sent to a local newspaper if articles appear which discount the Christianity of the Founders. Barton seeks to portray Jefferson as a Christian, in the evangelical sense. This video clip provides more detail.

As I understand it, Jefferson did indeed favor Christian teaching for Native Americans. However, there is abundant reason to doubt that he wanted them to become Christians in the evangelical sense. If so, his little Reader’s Digest version of the Gospels would have been a poor way to do it. Here is how the Jefferson Bible ends:

And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?

49 Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias.

50 And straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink.

51 The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him.

52 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.

53 And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him:

54 Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.

55 The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.

56 Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him.

57 But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs:

58 But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

59 And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.

60 And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.

61 Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.

62 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.

63 There laid they Jesus,

64 And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.

No Easter morning?! How can you evangelize without the victory dance of the resurrection? Can you imagine how the evangelical world would react if one of today’s GOP candidates produced an edited New Testament missing Easter? I doubt we would have tributes to his Christianity, such as Barton gave in the video above.

The Jefferson Bible is intriguing and can be freely read at Google Books. To explore the claims of Jefferson’s Christianity, please read the introduction which includes letters about the project to Benjamin Rush and Charles Thompson. This snippet makes Jefferson sound very un-evangelical:

3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he [Jesus] fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about 33 years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.

4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective, as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often uninintelligible.

5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian Sophist (Plato), frittering them into subtilties and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man. The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.

Note in point 3, there is no reference to the resurrection of Christ. In point 4, there is contempt by Jefferson for the New Testament record, calling it “mutilated, misstated, and often uninintelligible.” Then in point 5, the sentence in bold above makes it clear that Jefferson did not see Jesus as divine. From his writings and his reduction of the New Testament, it appears that he thought Jesus was an overachiever in the moral sense, an enlightened teacher who provided his students with enduring guidance. In that sense, Jefferson was a Christian, but in today’s political scene, he doubt he would get a warm reception in Iowa.


Jefferson wrote John Adams about his desire to create a compilation of Jesus’ teaching. In it, it seems clear that he was not simply creating a simplified version of the New Testament for Native Americans. Rather, he was teasing out “diamonds in a dunghill.” In the Oct. 12, 1813 letter, Jefferson wrote to Adams:

In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurgos, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on by the unlettered Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Christians of the first century. Their Platonizing successors, indeed, in after times, in order to legitimate the corruptions which they had incorporated into the doctrines of Jesus, found it necessary to disavow the primitive Christians, who had taken their principles from the mouth of Jesus himself, of his Apostles, and the Fathers contemporary with them. They excommunicated their followers as heretics, branding them with the opprobrious name of Ebionites or Beggars.

At the least, Jefferson shows no interest in the canon of the Gospels. Even if he later hoped his efforts would help in making native people more European, his intent as expressed to Adams was to craft a document “for his own use.” Note his belief that the church perverted the teachings of Jesus. He closes his description of his editing work by noting that the Ebionites were excommunicated because they held to the primitive teachings. Not much is known about the Ebionites but apparently they did not hold to the divinity of Jesus and discounted his virgin birth.

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  • No Easter morning?! How can you evangelize without the victory dance of the resurrection?

    Heh-heh… so the Jefferson Bible is kinda like Jesus Christ Superstar without the funky rock score!

    (Seriously, I’ve known many Christians who are ambivalent about JCS — they like it as a good telling of the Passion up to and including Jesus’s death, yet they don’t like it, because it takes an agnostic position on the Resurrection.)

  • Yeah, kinda like that…

  • It’s also worth recalling Jefferson’s private letter to his nephew Peter Carr, in which TJ advises the younger man on a number of matters related to education. Among other points, he recommends the study of Spanish and French as being languages of practical and political value, but discourages the study of Italian on the grounds that although “it is a delightful language,” learning Italian would only tend to cause confusion and errors in French and Spanish grammar.

    Anyway, the whole section on religion is worth reading — and I quote it in full so that no one can accuse me of taking Jefferson’s words out of context:

    4. Religion. Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand, shake off all the fears & servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.

    On the basis of the famous and much-quoted passage that I’ve highlighted, some secularists have speculated that Jefferson would’ve been an outright atheist if Darwinian theory had been available to him — i.e., they assume that Jefferson insisted on clinging to Deism only because he lacked any alternative hypothesis to explain the existence of life on Earth. But I’m not convinced that Deism was merely a “god of the gaps” construct for Jefferson, or that he had some instinctive preference for atheism.

    You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible, then as you would read Livy or Tacitus.

    Note that Livy and Tacitus were eminent Roman historians whose writings sometimes included claims about supernatural events, such as statues coming to life or animals speaking in human tongues. So Jefferson is reminding his nephew to employ appropriate skepticism when reading putatively “historic” narratives in the Bible.

    The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor, in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature, does not weigh against them. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates.

    Jefferson does not mention David Hume by name, but here and in the following passage he invokes a favorite argument of Hume…

    For example, in the book of Joshua, we are told, the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus, we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, &c. But it is said, that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine, therefore, candidly, what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand, you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis, as the earth does, should have stopped, should not, by that sudden stoppage, have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time gave resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities?

    …namely, that if someone claims to have seen a miracle, one should take into account that miracles are by definition exceedingly rare, but liars are as common as weeds — thus, our common-sense informed by everyday practical experience favors the probability that the miracle-claimant is telling a whopper.

    You will next read the New Testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions: 1, of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven; and 2, of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition, by being gibbeted, according to the Roman law, which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile, or death in fureâ. See this law in the Digest Lib. 48. tit. 19. §. 28. 3. & Lipsius Lib 2. de cruce. cap. 2. These questions are examined in the books I have mentioned under the head of religion, & several others. They will assist you in your inquiries, but keep your reason firmly on the watch in reading them all.

    IMHO, although Jefferson ostensibly encourages his nephew to consider both sides dispassionately, with the phraseology “reversing the laws of nature at will” he kinda steps over the line into blatantly “evangelizing” on behalf of the skeptical/secular position, and against the orthodox Christian view.

    Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you.

    Note that whatever Jefferson’s private convictions about the existence or non-existence of God, he clearly rejects the notion that belief in God and/or a fear of Hell is necessary for virtuous conduct. The “comfort and pleasantness” that one feels when being virtuous is, I assume, a reference to Aristotle’s discussion of eudaimonia (“a rationally ordered happiness”) as the outcome of practicing virtue.

    If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision.

    Jefferson’s confident assertion that God will be extremely forgiving of “honest disbelief” — i.e., having wrong ideas about God, but for worthy reasons — would probably not be endorsed by many Christians. However, I think it is loosely paralleled by a doctrine that Catholicism calls “invincible ignorance,” and I’m pretty sure that some Protestant theologians have written on this theme as well.

    I forgot to observe, when speaking of the New Testament, that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us, to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration, as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, and not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Most of these are lost. There are some, however, still extant, collected by Fabricius, which I will endeavor to get & send you.

    I think it’s safe to say that very few Christians today would encourage anyone to read both the four canonical Gospels and the multiple “pseudo-Gospels” with no favoritism towards one or the other!

  • ken

    Maybe it was the 1st ever “Christianity for Dummies” book.

  • Maybe it was the 1st ever “Christianity for Dummies” book.

    More like “Ethical Monotheism for Dummies” or “Deism for Dummies” or possibly “Unitarianism for Dummies.”

    As Warren notes, insofar as Jefferson denied the Incarnation and the Resurrection, he was not a “Christian” as the term is defined by the Nicene Creed.

  • Perhaps Jefferson could be called a “Jesusite” rather than a “Christian” — since he admired the moral precepts of Jesus of Nazareth, but clearly did not regard Jesus as the Anointed One, the promised Messiah of the Jews, etc.

    Regarding Jefferson’s claim that within his edited version of the Gospels “will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,” it’s possible that TJ was here revealing his own ignorance of the work that had already been done by Pharisaic Judaism prior to Jesus — in other words, that the “Oral Torah” had made the “Written Torah” significantly more “sublime and benevolent” even before the time of Jesus.

    On the other hand, while recognizing that the Pharisees’ tradition had already made the Law of Moses much more humane than it was in its original form, and thus recognizing that Jesus “stood on the shoulders of giants” and was in some ways less morally innovative than the Gospels make him out to be, it seems to me that Jesus improved on Pharisaic Judaism in two very significant ways:

    (1) His formulation “what goes into a man’s mouth does not defile him” (Matt. 15:11) emphatically distinguishes ethical conduct from ritually proper conduct. Mind you, Hillel’s “standing-on-one-foot summary of the Torah,” which said that the Golden Rule was the important thing and everything else was “just commentary”, suggests that Pharisaic rabbis were already leaning in this direction, but AFAIK none of them ever put it as bluntly and starkly as Jesus did.

    (2) The whole “Great Commission” thing. This is a huge can of worms, but IMHO, proactive evangelizing to Teh Heathens is in certain ways a definite improvement over “hiding your light under a basket” and only accepting converts if they come a-knockin’ at your door. (And, if Emily K. is reading this, I understand the historical factors that made Jews very opposed to proselytizing, but at the same time I would insist that if you believe your religious system is more ethical than what the pagan barbarians next door are doing, you do have some sort of obligation to go knocking on their doors and at least advertise your religion a little.)

  • Lynn David

    Throbert McGee…… Perhaps Jefferson could be called a “Jesusite” rather than a “Christian” — since he admired the moral precepts of Jesus of Nazareth, but clearly did not regard Jesus as the Anointed One, the promised Messiah of the Jews, etc

    I’d think that gnostic would be suitable for Jefferson.

  • Emily K

    Regarding Jefferson’s claim that within his edited version of the Gospels “will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,” it’s possible that TJ was here revealing his own ignorance of the work that had already been done by Pharisaic Judaism prior to Jesus — in other words, that the “Oral Torah” had made the “Written Torah” significantly more “sublime and benevolent” even before the time of Jesus.

    Thanks for acknowledging this Throbert; too many people in the world who think they are educated about Western religion are so ignorant of this.

  • Thanks for acknowledging this Throbert; too many people in the world who think they are educated about Western religion are so ignorant of this.

    I should say thanks, also, Emily — not so much to you personally, but to Jewish tradition generally, as it played a role in “saving” me from degenerating (as an ex-Catholic) into a crabby, fault-finding atheist in the manner of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins.

  • I have come to realise that my belief in Good is really a matter of Faith. I told myself that Games Theory, Kantian reasoning etc justified it empirically – which they do. But I eventually realised that even if they hadn’t, even if they contradicted it, I’d still believe it.

    God I see as superfluous. The concept of Jesus as “Moral Over-Achiever” sounds in tune with my belief, which is basically that of Jefferson minus the deity.

    I’m no Christian. I do try to live by Matthew 22:39-40 (Or Hillel’s version in Shabbat 34a IIRC) and 1 Corinthians 13.

  • oft

    As I understand it, Jefferson did indeed favor Christian teaching for Native Americans.>>>>

    There goes Separation of Church and State. So he wasnt’ an evangelical; big deal.