Jefferson, Paine and Jesus

Jefferson, Paine and Jesus October 17, 2012

I had an interesting exchange on my friend Justin Scheiber’s Facebook page with a Christian apologist named John Barron, who has apparently argued with Justin in the past. The exchange was about Dinesh D’Souza. Barron thinks that D’Souza is largely correct in his conclusions but not very good at presenting them and I said the following:

I’ve been reading and critiquing his work for a decade. I met him a few months ago when he debated Susan Jacoby. I went into it it already thinking that he was highly dishonest and left thinking that he was extraordinarily dishonest. I wrote several detailed critiques of his arguments and devoted two hours of my radio show to documenting his absurd and dishonest handling of the evidence. As just one example, he repeatedly argued that Thomas Jefferson’s use of the term “creator” in the Declaration of Independence was proof that Christianity was the absolute core of America’s founding, while simultaneously arguing that Thomas Paine was an anti-religious and anti-Christian crank. The reality, of course, is that Jefferson and Paine were in almost complete agreement in their views about Christianity.

Barron replied with nothing but a casual “no they weren’t,” to which I responded:

Then please spell out the differences. Both argued that much of the Bible was wrong and based on lies made up by the authors. Both rejected the trinity, the virgin birth, the resurrection, the claims of miracles and all other mythological elements of the Jesus story. D’Souza’s answer when I challenged him on this was to claim that the difference was that Jefferson admired Jesus’ ethical teachings while Paine did not, but that isn’t true. In the very first chapter of the Age of Reason, Paine delivers an extended defense of the ethical teachings of Jesus that was pretty much identical to Jefferson’s. So where do you think the differences lie?

Barron then left this reply:

when Jefferson said he was a Christian, what did he mean by that? And the “Jefferson Bible” was not to edit out the parts he believed were false, it was an “edited” version to include only Jesus teachings. Where do you get that Jefferson rejected what you claim, out of curiosity?

And I replied:

Wow, seriously? Are you that unfamiliar with Jefferson’s letters that you even have to ask that question? A fuller answer, with citations, will have to wait until I finish an interview for my book. But seriously, you cannot possibly ask that question if you had more than a glancing familiarity with Jefferson’s writings on the subject.

And then he doubled down on his ignorance:

if Jefferson (who claimed to be a Christian) had the same views as Paine (an Atheist) on God, Jesus and Christianity, you’ve got some splainin to do. You cant just ask me questions about my familiarity. You should probably offer something more than questioning me.

So he’s proven at this point that he is as ignorant of Paine as he is of Jefferson. Paine was certainly no atheist, for crying out loud. His book The Age of Reason began with a profession of faith:

As several of my colleagues, and others of my fellow-citizens of France, have given me the example of making their voluntary and individual profession of faith, I also will make mine; and I do this with all that sincerity and frankness with which the mind of man communicates with itself.

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life.

I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy.

Paine was strongly anti-religious, but he was surely no atheist. And one can stay in that same first chapter to find his views on the ethical teachings of Jesus:

NOTHING that is here said can apply, even with the most distant disrespect, to the real character of Jesus Christ. He was a virtuous and an amiable man. The morality that he preached and practiced was of the most benevolent kind; and though similar systems of morality had been preached by Confucius, and by some of the Greek philosophers, many years before, by the Quakers since, and by many good men in all ages, it has not been exceeded by any.

Jesus Christ wrote no account of himself, of his birth, parentage, or anything else. Not a line of what is called the New Testament is of his writing. The history of him is altogether the work of other people; and as to the account given of his resurrection and ascension, it was the necessary counterpart to the story of his birth. His historians, having brought him into the world in a supernatural manner, were obliged to take him out again in the same manner, or the first part of the story must have fallen to the ground.

The wretched contrivance with which this latter part is told, exceeds everything that went before it. The first part, that of the miraculous conception, was not a thing that admitted of publicity; and therefore the tellers of this part of the story had this advantage, that though they might not be credited, they could not be detected. They could not be expected to prove it, because it was not one of those things that admitted of proof, and it was impossible that the person of whom it was told could prove it himself.

But the resurrection of a dead person from the grave, and his ascension through the air, is a thing very different, as to the evidence it admits of, to the invisible conception of a child in the womb. The resurrection and ascension, supposing them to have taken place, admitted of public and ocular demonstration, like that of the ascension of a balloon, or the sun at noon day, to all Jerusalem at least. A thing which everybody is required to believe, requires that the proof and evidence of it should be equal to all, and universal; and as the public visibility of this last related act was the only evidence that could give sanction to the former part, the whole of it falls to the ground, because that evidence never was given. Instead of this, a small number of persons, not more than eight or nine, are introduced as proxies for the whole world, to say they saw it, and all the rest of the world are called upon to believe it. But it appears that Thomas did not believe the resurrection; and, as they say, would not believe without having ocular and manual demonstration himself. So neither will I; and the reason is equally as good for me, and for every other person, as for Thomas.

It is in vain to attempt to palliate or disguise this matter. The story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it. Who were the authors of it is as impossible for us now to know, as it is for us to be assured that the books in which the account is related were written by the persons whose names they bear. The best surviving evidence we now have. respecting this affair is the Jews. They are regularly descended from the people who lived in the time this resurrection and ascension is said to have happened, and they say ‘it is not true.’ It has long appeared to me a strange inconsistency to cite the Jews as a proof of the truth of the story. It is just the same as if a man were to say, I will prove the truth of what I have told you, by producing the people who say it is false.

That such a person as Jesus Christ existed, and that he was crucified, which was the mode of execution at that day, are historical relations strictly within the limits of probability. He preached most excellent morality, and the equality of man; but he preached also against the corruptions and avarice of the Jewish priests, and this brought upon him the hatred and vengeance of the whole order of priest-hood. The accusation which those priests brought against him was that of sedition and conspiracy against the Roman government, to which the Jews were then subject and tributary; and it is not improbable that the Roman government might have some secret apprehension of the effects of his doctrine as well as the Jewish priests; neither is it improbable that Jesus Christ had in contemplation the delivery of the Jewish nation from the bondage of the Romans. Between the two, however, this virtuous reformer and revolutionist lost his life.

Now on to the matter of Jefferson’s views on these subjects, which was nearly identical to Paine’s. Barron asked me what Jefferson meant when he said “I am a Christian.” One need only look at the context of that quote, which is from an April 21, 1803 letter to his friend Benjamin Rush:

“To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”

The part in bold is very important, of course. It shows that Jefferson not only did not believe that Jesus was divine, he didn’t believe that he had ever claimed to be divine. To Jefferson, Jesus was merely a human thinker whose views on ethics he accepted. Incidentally, he made an almost identical statement about Epicurus in a letter to William Short a year before this letter to Rush, calling himself an Epicurian but noting that some of his followers had distorted much of what he had said:

As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Epictetus, indeed, has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace. Their great crime was in their calumnies of Epicurus and misrepresentations of his doctrines; in which we lament to see the candid character of Cicero engaging as an accomplice.

Jefferson went into more detail about those “corruptions of Christianity” that he objected to in another letter to William Short on August 4, 1820, to whom he had sent a copy of his “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others.” It is to that document that he refers in this very long passage, where he compares the distortion of Jesus’ genuine views by Paul and the writers of the gospels to the distortion of Socrates’ genuine views by Plato and notes, once again, that he did not believe Jesus had ever claimed to be divine.

My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian. When Livy and Siculus, for example, tell us things which coincide with our experience of the order of nature, we credit them on their word, and place their narrations among the records of credible history. But when they tell us of calves speaking, of statues sweating blood, and other things against the course of nature, we reject these as fables not belonging to history. In like manner, when an historian, speaking of a character well known and established on satisfactory testimony, imputes to it things incompatible with that character, we reject them without hesitation, and assent to that only of which we have better evidence. Had Plutarch informed us that Caesar and Cicero passed their whole lives in religious exercises, and abstinence from the affairs of the world, we should reject what was so inconsistent with their established characters, still crediting what he relates in conformity with our ideas of them. So again, the superlative wisdom of Socrates is testified by all antiquity, and placed on ground not to be questioned. When, therefore, Plato puts into his mouth such paralogisms, such quibbles on words, and sophisms, as a school boy would be ashamed of, we conclude they were the whimsies of Plato’s own foggy brain, and acquit Socrates of puerilities so unlike his character…

I say, that this free exercise of reason is all I ask for the vindication of the character of Jesus. We find in the writings of his biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed. These could not be inventions of the groveling authors who relate them. They are far beyond the powers of their feeble minds. They shew that there was a character, the subject of their history, whose splendid conceptions were above all suspicion of being interpolations from their hands. Can we be at a loss in separating such materials, and ascribing each to its genuine author? The difference is obvious to the eye and to the understanding, and we may read as we run to each his part; and I will venture to affirm, that he who, as I have done, will undertake to winnow this grain from its chaff, will find it not to require a moment’s consideration. The parts fall asunder of themselves, as would those of an image of metal and clay.

There are, I acknowledge, passages not free from objection, which we may, with probability, ascribe to Jesus himself; but claiming indulgence from the circumstances under which he acted. His object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness, and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of their adoration. Moses had either not believed in a future state of existence, or had not thought it essential to be explicitly taught to his people. Jesus inculcated that doctrine with emphasis and precision. Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances, of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue; Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance. The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit towards other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence. The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation, is ever dangerous. Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion: and a step to right or left might place him within the gripe of the priests of the superstition, a blood thirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel. They were constantly laying snares, too, to entangle him in the web of the law. He was justifiable, therefore, in avoiding these by evasions, by sophisms, by misconstructions and misapplications of scraps of the prophets, and in defending himself with these their own weapons, as sufficient, _ad homines_, at least. That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible. The whole religion of the Jews, inculcated on him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration. The fumes of the most disordered imaginations were recorded in their religious code, as special communications of the Deity; and as it could not but happen that, in the course of ages, events would now and then turn up to which some of these vague rhapsodies might be accommodated by the aid of allegories, figures, types, and other tricks upon words, they have not only preserved their credit with the Jews of all subsequent times, but are the foundation of much of the religions of those who have schismatised from them. Elevated by the enthusiasm of a warm and pure heart, conscious of the high strains of an eloquence which had not been taught him, he might readily mistake the coruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of an higher order. This belief carried, therefore, no more personal imputation, than the belief of Socrates, that himself was under the care and admonitions of a guardian Daemon. And how many of our wisest men still believe in the reality of these inspirations, while perfectly sane on all other subjects. Excusing, therefore, on these considerations, those passages in the gospels which seem to bear marks of weakness in Jesus, ascribing to him what alone is consistent with the great and pure character of which the same writings furnish proofs, and to their proper authors their own trivialities and imbecilities, I think myself authorised to conclude the purity and distinction of his character, in opposition to the impostures which those authors would fix upon him; and that the postulate of my former letter is no more than is granted in all other historical works.

Here he refers to the effort to separate the accurate statements of Jesus from the distortions and lies imputed to him by his followers as separating the grain from the chaff. In the April 13, 1820 letter to Short in which he included this syllabus, he refers to that effort as separated the gold from the dross. And in yet another letter he says that Jesus’ genuine views were “as easily distinguishable as diamonds from a dunghill.” In that 1820 letter to Short, he calls Paul, who wrote the bulk of the New Testament, the “first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus” and the writers of the gospel a “band of dupes and impostors.”

But while this syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in its true and high light, as no impostor Himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with Him in all His doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin; I require counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc., etc. It is the innocence of His character, the purity and sublimity of His moral precepts, the eloquence of His inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which He conveys them, that I so much admire; sometimes, indeed, needing indulgence to eastern hyperbolism. My eulogies, too, may be founded on a postulate which all may not be ready to grant. Among the sayings and discourses imputed to Him by His biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same Being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross; restore to Him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of His disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of His doctrines, led me to try to sift them apart. I found the work obvious and easy, and that His past composed the most beautiful morsel of morality which has been given to us by man. The syllabus is therefore of His doctrines, not all of mine. I read them as I do those of other ancient and modern moralists, with a mixture of approbation and dissent.

When Barron claims that Jefferson, in compiling what is now known as the Jefferson Bible, did not intend to “edit out the parts he believed were false” but was merely trying to “include only Jesus teachings,” he is simply wrong. If that were the case, he would have included all of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels. But he doesn’t. As he makes clear in the letters cited above, Jefferson believed that many of the statements put into Jesus’ mouth by his followers were interpolations, statements that he had never said. And when he cut the gospels up, he not only cut out all of the claims of miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection, and all claims of divinity, he also edited out many statements that were attributed, he believed falsely, to Jesus by the authors of the gospels.

As a specific example, he argued that early Christians did not believe in the trinity, that this was a mythology created by the gospel writers and the later church. And he believed that the notion that Jesus was divine and part of a trinity was utterly laughable. This is from a letter to Rev. James Smith on Dec. 8, 1822:

No historical fact is better established, than that the doctrine of one God, pure and uncompounded, was that of the early ages of Christianity; and was among the efficacious doctrines which gave it triumph over the polytheism of the ancients, sickened with the absurdities of their own theology. Nor was the unity of the Supreme Being ousted from the Christian creed by the force of reason, but by the sword of civil government, wielded at the will of the fanatic Athanasius. The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs….In fact, the Athanasian paradox that one is three, and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, only deceives himself. He proves, also, that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck.

In a letter to John Adams on April 11, 1823, he likewise said, “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”

So there you have it. Jefferson very clearly did not believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he was the son of God (or ever claimed to be), or that he was resurrected or performed miracles. But he did respect his ethical teachings very much, as he respected the ethical teachings of Epicurus. And in all of those things, his beliefs were virtually identical to those of Thomas Paine.

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