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The Jefferson Bible

Updated on January 14, 2016

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

During the latter years of Thomas Jefferson's life, he took a sharp razor and painstakingly cut out all of the divine and most of the supernatural references to Jesus from the New Testament and pasted them in the corresponding time-line to textual events. He entitled this effort: "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." His purpose was to discover the actual teachings without regard to any religious interpretation of those teachings. The result was that the words attributed to Jesus were just as morally sound without being divinely motivated. (Now what Jefferson might have reasoned about Luke 12:47-48 is quite the ethical dilemma, but that verse, in general, is a discussion for a later time.)

An Age of Reason

Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries were children of the Enlightenment, the natural progression first seeded in the Renaissance where humanity was just beginning to catch the trace glimmers of a world beyond the veil of prevalent theosophy. The process took over 300 years, but was a steady, inevitable growth. With the Age of Reason came a deeper questioning and subsequent yearning for the progress that was possible without doctrinal restraints. Looking to natural law, Jefferson believed that man could self-regulate without dependency on an outside agency...whether that separate agency be through interpretation of God's will by ecclesiastical powers or by the Divine Right of Kings. This did not negate one's choice of faith, but rather it worked together...science and faith as part of the same mechanism.

The Spirit of Inquiry

While the concept of Deism (the natural world as self-evident of higher design, but not dependent on human interpretation of that designer) was growing among intellectuals of the era, Jefferson, himself, made no proclamation of being a Deist, although his central ideas and personal observations aligned and he is reasonably associated with that view. In correspondence to his nephew, Peter Carr, in 1787 he advised: "Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." [1]

God, endowing man with reason, a self-evident trait, would, in a Naturalist's view, be expected to be used.

In his own words (Query XVII of Notes on the State of Virginia): "But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. ... Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error." [2]

Raised in the Anglican church, Jefferson held some foundation for what he would accept in a theosophic context and that which he would leave open to rigorous scrutiny encouraged by the new paradigm of intellectual freedom. It is well known that he kept his personal religious views private. What he openly admired were ideas and the inspiration and inquiry that developed from them. Make no mistake, had he been born 200+ years earlier, he'd have most likely found himself bludgeoned by that same church if ever discovered altering text. He was a man who not only relished, but took full advantage of the intellectualism the Age of Enlightenment allowed.

Jefferson demonstrated in his cut and paste effort that the parables of Jesus are as meaningful and relevant to living an ethical and moral life without being attached to a divine source as are Aesop (approx. 620 and 560 BCE) and his fables, which also point to ethics and morals through the use of story. Jefferson's effort further suggests that there is immeasurable value in inquiry, and that well-being, both individually and collectively, may be achieved, indeed flourish, when unburdened of the extraneous interpretations of any singular theosophical text or world view.

References 1-2: Jefferson's Religious Beliefs at https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-religious-beliefs

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    • Taopi profile image
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      Taopi 18 months ago

      Much appreciation Jonny, for your comment! I'm very pleased you enjoyed the essay.

    • jonnycomelately profile image

      Alan 18 months ago from Tasmania

      A most enlightening hub and commentary, Taopi. Thank you, and please keep it coming.

    • Taopi profile image
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      Taopi 18 months ago

      Jefferson was an intelligent, interesting man, no doubt. To understand more where he was coming from and who he was influenced by, read some Voltaire, for sure.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 18 months ago from Australia

      Ok. I'll try to read the actual book. I'm sure he was a great man.

    • Taopi profile image
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      Taopi 18 months ago

      Hi Oztinato, he took out only the references to the supernatural regarding the life or divinity of Jesus, but left in everything else. The intent was to see if the teachings stood the test of time (again, like Aesop's fables), and found they did. Jefferson was a highly educated man, and so he understood rhetoric, metaphor, etc., but his intent was more a method of discovery than a dispute of divinity.

      Remember, the 18th century, especially toward the end, was the first time in about 1800 years that minds were free to look deeper and question things without grave reprisal. While the Church retained a measure of influence socially, its political power had collapsed to all intent and purpose. Inquiry and philosophies flourished. The world was viewed less in supernatural (theosophic) terms and more in scientific and philosophical.

      Thanks again for commenting!

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 18 months ago from Australia

      Perhaps he left out certain things he simply failed to understand. Ancient cultural metaphors for example. Or perhaps anthropological concepts .

    • Taopi profile image
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      Taopi 18 months ago

      Thank you, Catherine, for your comment! Yes, I think it tells a lot about Jefferson. The more I study the Enlightenment, the more I admire the minds of that Age. In many ways, it goes to show that wisdom is not only timeless, but flourishes when the mind is free to explore and discover.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 18 months ago from Orlando Florida

      Very interesting hub. I first learned about the Jefferson Bible about 10 years ago. I thought it explained a lot about Jefferson that he sought to remove all the superstition and other things of doubtful truth and keep only the words of wisdom.

    • Taopi profile image
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      Taopi 19 months ago

      Thank you for your comment, KoffeeKatch Gals!

      Philosophy and its layers were the principle mechanism behind educating the aristocracy and in the High Middle Ages, that privilege extended to the merchant class. All of this would circle around the bible as ecclesiastic central point for the Latin West, philosophically, politically, morally and spiritually.

      With literacy and education being a commodity only afforded by the upper tier of society, the majority of people were dependent solely on clerical interpretations of religious and political questions. The Enlightenment was an Age where inquiries and debates could be posed beyond those ecclesiastical interpretations without political/religious retaliation. Reason and Humanist debates upstaged the supernatural as principle guiding force once the Church had lost its political power. It was this principle (and subsequent freedom of open inquiry) that prompted Jefferson's New Testament task...the moral and ethical good could be achieved in society without supernatural agency.

      The 18th century was a powerhouse, if you will, of expanding philosophies and philosophers (Voltaire, Kant, Rousseau, etc.) and Jefferson, a man of deep inquiry and astute observation, was a true child of the Age.

    • KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

      Susan Haze 19 months ago from Sunny Florida

      Jefferson was an interesting man for sure. I don't remember ever hearing that he was so interested in the bible or philosophy.

    • Taopi profile image
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      Taopi 19 months ago

      While there is no doubt that the Reformation opened the doors to the Enlightenment, Protestantism is still bound by article of church doctrine--‘articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae’--which is where Jefferson and the religion would part ways. Jefferson doubtlessly studied Aristotle (et al), and one can clearly see the influence of the ancient Greek philosophers in his own inquiry and reasoning (as were all great intellectuals influenced)...virtue being the gateway to happiness among them.

      Very much appreciated your comment, Perspycacious, and I think, in general, we might agree on the value of virtue in Jefferson's mind.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 19 months ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      It seems to me that the essence of Protestantism is the individual's search for truth, as Jefferson seems to have pursued. His own philosophy that virtue is the gateway to happiness could be considered to be his conclusion.

    • Taopi profile image
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      Taopi 19 months ago

      Thank you, Shyron, for sharing your thoughts! I am in the process of adjusting this hub to expand a little on Jefferson's ideas as Oztinato has suggested and which I agree would have value.

      To the Deist, both the atheist and the religiously inclined would experience equal benefit of a moral and ethical life because it is efficacious as a collective. I imagine it would be close to Buddhism in this respect. The world keeps on spinning with the same dilemmas whether any given theosophy or any philosophies exist or not.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 19 months ago from Texas

      Can the parables of Jesus be just as meaningful to living an ethical and/or moral life without being attributed to a divine source?

      Taopi, this is a question you should put in the question section of HP.

      My answer to this question would be. Yes, atheists can live an ethical and moral life and they do not believe in God, yet.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia

      I don't approve of people getting "in your face" as it's annoying. It's misguided but not much more. Sure if people are pointing a bayonet that's going too far!!

    • Taopi profile image
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      Taopi 19 months ago

      No, not violent, just aggressive, the "in your face" approach to proselytizing one's faith. I don't see this as much as I used to, at least not in real time. It leaves so little room for the discussion of ideas.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia

      Taopi

      any "aggressive systems" don't fall under the category of ethical. Aggression immediately disqualifies them. By aggressive I am assuming you mean violent.

    • Taopi profile image
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      Taopi 19 months ago

      Again, I thank you, Oztinato. I will put some information together in the next couple of days and see if I can expand on Jefferson's position for the essay here. You have offered a valuable critique of the effort, and I have appreciated that.

      I do agree with tolerance of religious sentiment, and the value that is often contained within, although will confess to a limited patience with the more aggressive systems proselytizing their doctrine.

      Thank you, again.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia

      Jefferson was obviously very advanced spiritually. However we should tolerate and appreciate all religions. Yes many religions make big errors.

      I think if you expand the Hub with more info it will be a winner.

    • Taopi profile image
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      Taopi 19 months ago

      Thank you, Oztinato. I very much appreciate your comment.

      I don't think Jefferson would deny a spiritual component to life or its value in achieving a greater understanding of the world or ourselves. I do know that he did not like (vehemently, did not like) dogma nor religious interpretations of existent texts, which made him a perfect candidate for the Deist viewpoint. I don't think Deism negates the spiritual need in humans, but allows it greater possibility.

      We are certainly in agreement that there seems to be an innate impulse in humans to have either a centralized religion or search out the spiritual nature in things in solitude. I do, however, think it is subject to the same evolutionary process as everything else undergoes. Jefferson, I venture, would argue against medievalism in religious thought and doctrine, while keeping to what has been evidenced as beneficial to the good of all.

      The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying: "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change." This is sound reasoning. He's not saying we throw it out, but that we adjust to reality. Were Jefferson alive today, I believe he would sincerely agree with H.H. and respect such a statement.

    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 19 months ago from Australia

      Virtuous human ethics such as compassion and selflessness are extremely valuable in themselves without any particular religion. That said, it has yet to be achieved without a religious or spiritual basis. This may be due to an inbuilt psychological and even genetic predisposition for "us" to have a religion of some kind as it's been a part of us for so long as a species ( for a minimum 100,000 years ).

      An interesting Hub but I would like to see it expanded. Maybe more about Jefferson and other attempts to establish virtues without religions?