Thomas Jefferson and His Bibles

In November, the so-called "Jefferson Bible" will go on display at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington D.C. and American Christians will thus soon be confronted by the fact that not all of the founding fathers had a "high view of Scripture." With conservation efforts under way, it is a good time to reflect on just what Jefferson was trying to accomplish in editing this Bible.

Thomas Jefferson loved to read the four gospels, but he did not believe that the Bible was the inspired Word of God. The Bible was useful for moral improvement, but it should ultimately be read like any other great book. He told his nephew, Peter Carr, to read the Bible with a critical eye, "as you would Livy or Tacitus." When Carr began to study the Old Testament story in which Joshua asked God to command the sun to stand still so he could finish his battle with the Amorites (Josh. 10:1-15), his uncle informed him to read the passage in the way that any good astronomer would read it. Such a biblical story needed to be examined rationally, in accordance with the "law of probabilities."

Jefferson was even harsher on the New Testament book of Revelation. He described the fantastic stories in this book as "the ravings of a Maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams." He concluded that "there is not coherence enough in them to countenance any suite of rational ideas."

It was the Gospels—the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth—that drew Jefferson's attention more than any other books in the Bible. He had little respect, however, for the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. He accused them of offering only fragments of Jesus' moral precepts. The Gospel authors had disfigured Jesus' true teachings with the "mysticisms of a Graecian Sophist." The four traditional Gospels and the other biblical books that explained the meanings of the Gospels (i.e., the Pauline Epistles) were corrupted by the authors' inclusion of irrational stories such as Jesus performing miracles, Jesus rising from the dead, and Jesus redeeming the sins of the world. Jefferson set out to correct this problem, devoting much of his intellectual energy to creating versions of the Gospels that did not obscure the true message of Jesus.

Jefferson produced two different versions of the Gospels. Neither of them contained stories from the life of Jesus that could be explained only supernaturally. Sometime in 1804, while serving his first term as president of the United States, Jefferson compiled a forty-six-page booklet that he called "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth." The pamphlet was constructed by taking two copies of the New Testament and excerpting those passages that he believed best reflected the "pure" teachings of Jesus.

About sixteen or seventeen years later, Jefferson produced a more sophisticated version of this project. The Jefferson Bible, which was published posthumously for the first time in 1895 under the title The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, was a testimony to Jefferson's profound intellectual skills. Jefferson's text was published in four columns. Each column was filled with his edited text in a different language—Greek, Latin, French, and English. Ample space was allotted for the Sermon on the Mount and other passages where Jesus expounded on matters related to personal and societal morality.

The phrases that Jefferson left out of his Bible are revealing. His account of Jesus' birth, for example, makes no reference to angels or prophecies. The words of Jesus that correlate with traditional Christian doctrines, such as the reference to him preaching "the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins," were omitted. All references to healings and other miracles, such as the turning of the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, were cut. The last verse in the Jefferson Bible reads: "There laid they Jesus, and they rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed." There is no mention of the resurrection.

The creation of this so-called Jefferson Bible, as the late historian Edwin Gaustad taught us, was not intended to "shock or offend," but was "for his assurance, for a more restful sleep at night and a more confident greeting of the mornings." For Jefferson, the moral teachings of Jesus represented the essence of Christianity. They should thus be read and practiced by all true believers. In the end, the Jefferson Bible is perhaps our best guide to the rational religion of this follower of Jesus.

As a historian of early America, I am excited that this important piece of American religious history will be on display. I plan on making a trip to the Museum of National History to see it. But I am doubtful that the Jefferson Bible will find its way into the faith and freedom tours of the nation's capitol city conducted by today's Christian nationalists.