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Jefferson's bible: Most sublime and benevolent

Updated on May 8, 2014


Using shears and a jar of paste, Thomas Jefferson revised the long-standing text that had shaped cultures, societies, and governments alike. He edited the one of the oldest books mankind has known.

Not satisfied with ancient teachings, he altered the writings to reflect the ideals he shared with his contemporaries...

Thomas Jefferson cut god right out of the bible.

Jefferson had fundamental disagreements with King James on more than one battlefront.

As to his purpose, he wrote “...I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus."

Jefferson viewed Christianity not as a religion, but a philosophy. He had no belief in the supernatural references that pepper the bible. Removing all passages that relate to divinity, prophecy, the trinity, and miracles, he trimmed the King James Bible from 773,000 words all the way down to 25,000. In 1804, he completed The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.

Thomas Jefferson Bible, 1820.  Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History.
Thomas Jefferson Bible, 1820. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History.

Unsatisfied with his first effort, he reworked and revised his text until The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was completed in 1820. Jefferson’s bible ends not with the resurrection story, but with the a simple and final statement: “There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”

In a letter to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson described his intentions. “In extracting the pure principles which he 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... There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Jefferson shared the completed work with his friends and peers. But he was cautious.

He refused to allow his book to be published.



Although he was a man of great conviction, he did not wish to be "exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies."

Speak now... or forever have the wrong motto on your nickel.

He had no desire to preach or to debate his personal religious views in a public forum. His passion was private. Further, he understood that the conflict his views would create could only distract from his political issues. Jefferson made the decision to protect his profession at the expense of his faith.

Like all of the founding fathers, Jefferson felt strongly about separation of church and state. The U.S. Constitution contains only a single reference to god: “Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and Eighty Seven”. One mention, and secular at that.

"Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved," he wrote. "I have considered it as a matter between every man and his maker, in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle."


Was Thomas Jefferson an atheist?

He referred to himself, as did many founding fathers, as a deist. Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln are the only two presidents who did not affiliate with a church.

There is a school of thought that holds Charles Darwin responsible for two theories of evolution. The first is his stated theory of evolution of species through natural selection. The second theory of evolution can be found in the philosophical debate that “natural selection” created. By providing a plausible scientific explanation for something that had previously been attributed to supernatural forces, Darwin opened a door for religious skeptics.

Armed with the concept that there may be practical scientific answers to life’s mysteries, many who defined themselves as deists evolved their philosophies to atheism.

In 1799, Jefferson wrote, “It is impossible for a man who takes a survey of what is already known, not to see what an immensity in every branch of science yet remains to be discovered.” The more we learn, the less we know. Every answer in turn asks more questions.

Had Jefferson been able to study The Origin of Species, what would his thoughts have been? Darwin himself was ambiguous about his own conclusions. We are left only to analyze and debate what Jefferson’s stance may have been.

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was officially published in 1904 – 100 years after his first draft was completed. After years of passing quietly through Jefferson’s family, the original cut and paste manuscript was discovered around 1895 by a librarian at the Smithsonian. It resides there safely to this day.


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  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    JJ:

    I'm glad I could turn you on to this.

    I do my fair share of bashing, but I hit at the concepts, not the people. Humanism is all about healthy, happy people and I can't deny that faith is a large factor in that equation.

    Jefferson's bible has had a major impact on my philosophies. I really does open up that nice, big, gray area. Elbow room, and fresh air to breathe :D

    I mentioned before, it's the concept of throwing the baby out with the bath water... Jefferson kept the baby and just threw out the dirty water.

    For my part, when I first heard of this bible, my jaw hit the floor. I couldn't get my black and white mind around it. It was such a huge contradiction... it took a good deal of work for my stubborn secular self to really understand it.

    The cutting and pasting is metaphorical AND literal.

    TJ's bible is simply beautiful.

    Er, I mean sublime.

  • jj200 profile image

    jj200 7 years ago from My Bedroom

    Hi Jen, very interesting writing here. I had not known about Jefferson's, shall we say, dirty little secret? In fact, it's such an anti-bible that he created. I mean, back in the formative days of the bible, it was written so that all the people who were mad about it could rejoice in spreading the word to everyone in an effort to make them believe. And here he is, concealing it. Brilliant.

    As a self-proclaimed Questionist and a young person, I still haven't figured out what I believe, but I'm certainly on board with this idea. Modern Christianity and its original form, have been so tainted in it's various readers' and authors' subjective recounts of "what actually happened." I think that the morals, values, lessons - whatever you may call them - in the bible are really the most important and compelling part. I wish more people focused on that. Instead these days its all about "believing in God" and "salvation." It's not enough to be a "good" person, you have to join club.

    When I was a little kid, going to our Catholic church scared the pants off me, and though I didn't know the word at the time, I felt like I was in a cult: with all the hand stuff and sitting, kneeling, standing, eating, drinking, chanting. Then years later, still a child, I read some of the bible and wondered what the point of a church was.

    Anyway, it's refreshing to hear a non-believer who isn't merely a God, bible and christian basher, and who is intelligent enough to recognize that there is value to this historic text. In these days where so many people see faith as black and white, it's nice to take a few steps back and see that it's all just gray.

    Peace, JJ

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    I'm glad you enjoyed it.

    Thanks for stopping over :-)

  • avangend profile image

    avangend 7 years ago from St. Louis, MO

    Very interesting hub; I did not know this about Jefferson, and I was intrigued. The histories of the great thinkers of the world are always worth delving into, and thank you for delivering an avenue to do so.

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    I'll happily debate religion and history all day long. I'm passionate. For many many years, I kept my outlook close to my heart as well - but I did that out of guilt and maybe a little fear.

    The "internets" came along after the fact for me. If I had been able to read and study openly, I would not have been so miserable. I have no desire to change any person's point of view, but if somebody is searching for a little validation, I'll stand up for them.

    Your comment here is completely perfect. :-)

    Faith kept in the heart is the strongest kind. I may have to start calling you T-Jeff.

    :-)

    Peace

    Jen

  • profile image

    ralwus 7 years ago

    Hmmm, very interesting and you are really a great writer girl. You did a bang up job presenting this. yeah I knew of TJ's beliefs, but never about his edited bible. I pretty much did the same thing with mine in a similar fashion. I have a different outlook though that is kept close to my heart. I don't speak of it ever online. Peace, CC

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    Hello James

    The phrase that comes to my mind is "Throwing the baby out with the bath water."

    My interest in this subject, and others as well I believe, lies in the idea that there is value to be found here regardless of one's beliefs or inclinations.

    This is a obviously secular interpretation. Being a non-believer, I appreciate this point of view. I also appreciate the attempt to make sense of the philosophy from a different point of view, rather than to simply toss the whole thing out.

    Thanks for the link!

    Jen

  • James A Watkins profile image

    James A Watkins 7 years ago from Chicago

    I don't suppose it is a bad thing to adhere to at least part of Jesus' teachings. And you are right in your comment above that most people have no idea what the Founding Fathers really stood for. You can read their own words here.

    https://hubpages.com/education/Founding-Fathers

    It is well known that Jefferson and Franklin, brilliant men who fancied themselves intellectuals, were the least Christian of all the FFs.

    I would say Jefferson was a founder of the Social Gospel movement, that claims Jesus was a nice feller who was really smart. It is important for people to understand, though, that this is not who Jesus said He was. The Social Gospel makes Jesus out to be a liar or a lunatic. In which case I would wonder why they would want to follow his teachings.

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    scissors and a bottle of Elmer's glue...

    razor blade and a can of rubber cement...

    Exacto knife and a pan of melted wax...

    command C and command V.

    The evolution of Cut and Paste.

    I have been known to type command Z on my light table, then have a split second of confusion when what I just pasted up crooked doesn't revert back one step.

    Thanks for stopping by Niteriter (best name EVER)

    Jen

  • Niteriter profile image

    Niteriter 7 years ago from Canada

    I enjoyed the image of this very thoughtful man labouring over his work with shears and a jar of paste. I can barely hold my thoughts long enough to cut and paste with a text editor! You've done an excellent job here.

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    I think "separation of church and state" worked so well in the founding years that we don't get an accurate picture of the religious philosophy of that time.

    There are so many assumptions that are just wrong. It doesn't help when folks do things like put "In God We Trust" on a coin featuring a founding father who had no "trust" to speak of.

    Sigh.

  • pylos26 profile image

    pylos26 7 years ago from America

    I love these kinds of revealed facts...hope it don't stun any believers that think all the founding fathers were christians. Cus it just ain't so. It's like you mentioned...most were Deist.

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    Rochelle, I'm so happy you stopped by. I respect you on HP, and your comment means a lot to me. Thank you :-)

    Would they recognize us? I would think not in broad terms. But, I like to think they would get a kick out of what we are doing with their concepts of Freedom of Speech and Religion. We may ourselves not be an extraordinary mob, but we are an extraordinary gaggle hanging around on the fringe. :-D

    TJ would surely NOT recognize his own nickel.

    The nation as a whole is not what they envisioned. But those nifty freedoms they proposed give us lots of fun ways to play, don't you think?

    The beauty is in the framing. They understood that what is "relevant" would be changing with each generation. Therefore, the constitution is alive, as they say. It's wonderful, to me :)

    Peace

    Jen

  • Rochelle Frank profile image

    Rochelle Frank 7 years ago from California Gold Country

    Your subject is beautifully presented. Jefferson was a true genius and a very complex personality. The founders of the US were quite an extraordinary mob. Would they recognize us today?

  • Tamarii2 profile image

    Tamarii2 7 years ago from NEW YORK

    Just dropping in to thank you for answering one of my questions.Enjoyed reading your hub.

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    Hi John

    Thanks for stopping back :-)

    The natural attraction for a non-believer to this bible is that the divinity has been removed. As you said, it makes Jesus' message clear.

    More importantly from my point of view, this work allows the philosophy to be presented in a credible way. An atheist will not necessarily discredit the King James bible on principle. Without a belief in the divinity, the book simply holds no meaning.

    I'm happy you are enjoying it!

    Take good care

    Jen

  • aguasilver profile image

    John Harper 7 years ago from Malaga, Spain

    Thanks...the fact that Jefferson cut out anything that was not contextual to Jesus in the flesh actually makes it easier to see what Christ was stating.

    But I'm not sure why as a non believer you are "naturally attracted to this edited version" because leaving aside the edited out sections, Jesus still makes some pretty challenging statements on his own!

    Anyhow it's bookmarked for my reference and I hope to spend some time in it studying, though time is short!

    Thanks again for the hub!

    John

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    Thank you, aguasilver.

    As I mentioned before, this is a passionate subject for me.

    I'm a non-believer, so I am naturally attracted to this edited version.

    It's so interesting that we each can find value in this. I hope you enjoy your studies as much as I have.

    Jen

  • aguasilver profile image

    John Harper 7 years ago from Malaga, Spain

    Just starting to read Jefferson's amended bible, thanks for writing this hub, it's a real treat!

    When I first came to faith, I ONLY wanted to read the 'red letter' bits of the bible, then over the years I extended it to all of it and have found that this led me to understand more readily how the whole book forms a picture of history past, present and future.

    But it will be good to read such an intelligent man's version and see what different conclusions can be formed, if any!

    Once again I thank you for your hub!

  • profile image

    Nia L 7 years ago

    Hi.Interesting hub. You might want to check this out too:

    http://hubpages.com/hub/Scientific-Evidence-of-the...

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    Hello Atheist Classical. You and I would have a great time discussing this over coffee ;-)

    Have fun arguing! It's fascinating, isn't it?

    Jen

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    Friendly- Hi! Thanks for stopping by.

    I'm completely ok with this. In my former Catholic life (although I have always been atheist-leaning) I did not have a problem either. What Jefferson did was to extract the morals and philosophies from the book, which as you mentioned, is the work of man.

    He exercised the very principles that he fought for when founding our nation. Freedom of religion. Freedom of speech.

    If god is in your heart, he is safe from Thomas Jefferson ;-)

    By that, I mean ink and paper cannot possibly be as sacred as what one keeps in his own heart. Also, there is no intention here to affect other's beliefs. He kept his book secret.

    We have no "right to intermeddle". Except when you're on a forum, which is where people go to intermeddle.

    Thanks for your comments, I am on my way to your hub right now my friend.

    Peace

    Jen

  • Atheist Classical profile image

    Atheist Classical 7 years ago from Southern California

    Such an interesting post. I've seen the online version, but I recently bought a bound copy to argue over with my son (17). Such fun.

  • Friendlyword profile image

    Friendlyword 7 years ago from house9466@yahoo.com

    Are you ok with this... If it is the word of God how or why would you change it. I agree we all grow and learn and things Change. And that is why I know the Bible is the word of man not God. Look in your heart for the word of god. It never changes. Thank you, for the history lesson.

    I just finished writing a pretty serious hub. I hope you will take a look. I need everyones help on this.

    http://hubpages.com/hub/Why-do-Black-Men-Leave...

    Friendlyword

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    Thank you Q!

  • Quilligrapher profile image

    Quilligrapher 7 years ago from New York

    A great hub, Jen. I give it a thumbs up!

    Q.

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    @ Daniel: Thanks for your input my friend. I think the only that any of us can do wrong, in terms of faith and religion, is to stop asking our questions.

    @twalker: I'm happy you like the link. It is from Beliefnet.com which is an awesome site for all things faith related. They did a great job analyzing TJ's bible.

    For the record: with this much quoting, I'd have to say it was a wyanjen/TJ joint publication. LOL His words deserve more than paraphrasing.

    Thanks for stopping by guys :-)

  • twalker74 profile image

    Tyson Walker 7 years ago from Las Vegas Nevada

    No need to worry wyanjen. Very well written. And thanks for the link to the entire work. It is one of those things I heard about, but never remember to look for. It is because of the actions of men like Jefferson that the "spirit of the law" will always outlive the "letter of the law." Something that infuriates all people resistant to change.

  • Daniel Carter profile image

    Daniel Carter 7 years ago from Western US

    What a powerful hub this is, and how eloquently you have written it. Thanks so very much for this. Having been raised in a very religious family, I pretty much take a similar attitude as Mr. Jefferson and others. The simple truth is, the more I know the more questions I have. Again, thanks for a terrific hub!

  • wyanjen profile image
    Author

    Jen King 7 years ago from Wyandotte Michigan

    Hi Beata. I was a little concerned that this article got too heavy, but you picked up on what I was trying to say with it. Thanks for checking it out. I feel much better now ;-)

    I am also passionate about all of these things, and by studying Thomas you get it all.

    Jen

  • Beata Stasak profile image

    Beata Stasak 7 years ago from Western Australia

    There is so much to learn and so little time.

  • Beata Stasak profile image

    Beata Stasak 7 years ago from Western Australia

    Your great article combined all my passions: history, philosophy, biography, science, politics, reading and writing,

    I really enjoyed it very much and learnt heaps. I also believe, that more we explore scientifically more we realize how little we know and there is only so much we can explore, learn and absorb. Our brain capacity is huge but still limited. Science and religion can coexist together but religion and politics should not. Thank you for your great article.