I first heard of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible as a warning. I was a teenager in a Bible study, and one of the pastors of the church brought up the third American president and his effort to “fix” the Scripture. Jefferson—who wrote the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights”—took for himself the liberty of editing the Gospels. He cut them up, using a sharp knife to excise what he saw as the problematic parts of the sacred text.
But, the pastor said, don’t we all kind of do that? We have our favorite verses. And there are other parts of the Bible we ignore. Whether or not we wield actual scissors, we have to be careful, because it’s so easy to mutilate the Word of God.
There is certainly some truth to this, but it turns out it is not as easy to “fix” the Scripture as that pastor imagined. Jefferson, at least, had a hard time of it, according to a fascinating new book by Peter Manseau, the curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. The Bible resisted Jefferson’s cuts, and the truth is stronger than its would-be editors.
The Jefferson Bible: A Biography is part of an excellent Princeton University Press series on the “lives of great religious books.” This installment follows titles on John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison, and C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, not to mention “biographies” of the biblical books of Genesis, Exodus, Job, Song of Songs, and Revelation. Manseau, in his volume, traces the origin of this particular, peculiar “great religious book” to Jefferson’s childhood Anglicanism. In that world, colonial Virginia law punished the heresy of doubting the divine authority of Scripture, while a burgeoning liberty movement questioned the government’s right to criminalize belief.
A Hard Gospel
Jefferson, like many at the time, shed his orthodox Christianity in stages. He started by doubting the Trinity. Then Old Testament miracles. Then New. He eventually embraced a religious skepticism that was held in check only by the same force that compelled him to conceal the fact that he had fathered multiple children with his deceased wife’s enslaved half-sister: public opprobrium. What would people think?
Jefferson hid his infidelities to conform with the mores of his day even as he spoke about the importance of intellectual boldness, heralded revolutions big and small, and mulled the idea of editing the Gospels to, as he put it, “winnow this grain from its chaff.”
His first effort at revising the text came while he was president—in a 46-page booklet he called The Philosophy of Jesus. The volume has been lost to history, but at one point he explained the project in detail to his frenemy John Adams. He said he had extracted, reduced, and cut down the gospel until the only thing left was “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals that has ever been offered to man.”
It was an easy process, Jefferson said. He cut the text up verse by verse, and the good parts stuck out “as diamonds in a dung hill.”
It wasn’t until 1820, more than a decade out of office, when he finished the fuller second version of his edited gospel. He called it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He read from it devoutly, Manseau says, until he died in 1826.
But the Jefferson Bible may have proved the opposite of what Jefferson intended. It doesn’t show Jesus to be a great moral teacher once his story is stripped of the miracles, exorcisms, and other acts that the former president found hard to believe. It presents Jesus rather as someone who didn’t do anything. As Manseau writes, “Jefferson’s is a hard gospel. The blind to not see; the lame do not walk; the multitudes will remain hungry if loaves and fishes must be multiplied to feed them. Even those who look to Jesus for forgiveness of sins are left wanting.”
The Jefferson Bible begins with the heading “Chapter 2.” The former president dispenses with Matthew’s genealogy, Mark’s reference to the prophecy about a voice crying in the wilderness, Luke’s narrative about an angelic announcement to a virgin named Mary, and John’s proclamation that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (1:5).
Instead, Jefferson cuts straight to the Roman Empire requiring everyone to return to their home city to be taxed. Joseph takes Mary to a manger in Bethlehem, and a baby is born. This Christmas scene has neither angels nor shepherds, star nor magi. The birth is revised to be unremarkable.
Jefferson allows the line “and the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom,” but excises the rest of the verse: “and the grace of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40, KJV).
Nor, in Jefferson’s revision, is the grace of God visible in Christ’s ministry. In Matthew 12:12, Jesus proclaims that “it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days” (KJV), but we don’t see him actually doing well. The following verse, in which Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, disappears. Jefferson’s version has Jesus commenting that a blind man is not blind because of any particular sin of his own or his parents (John 9:3), but he doesn’t give the blind man sight (v. 6). It shows Jesus allowing a woman to anoint his feet with her tears and an alabaster box of expensive oil (Luke 7:36–38), but he withholds the words “Your sins are forgiven” (v. 48). In Jefferson’s version Jesus dies and remains dead.
“The text often has a feeling of a series of jokes without their punch lines,” Manseau writes. “Jefferson apparently never contended with the possibility that, without all the stories he rejected, it’s unlikely we would have heard of Jesus at all.”
A snip here and there doesn’t “fix” the text. It just leaves weird holes. And perhaps this temptation is common, as my pastor suggested. We seek to make the Scripture sublime with our revisions, but we only succeed in making it sad.
No Easy Fix
In all likelihood, Jefferson’s attempts to fix the Scripture would be just as forgotten as our own if not for the fact of his being Jefferson—author of the Declaration of Independence and champion of a new, robust religious liberty that came, for many, to be a defining feature of America. Manseau’s history follows the fate of the singular book as it is subsequently discovered and rediscovered and as various people attempt to turn it into an icon of American religion. The former president’s revised gospel is sometimes held up as evidence of the great Christian devotion of the Founding Fathers, as in David Barton’s discredited The Jefferson Lies. More often, the spliced words are presented as a symbol of the freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment. Cyrus Adler, a predecessor of Manseau’s at the Smithsonian, wrote that the book was evidence that in America “all people may worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience.”
Manseau, for his part, hesitates to turn the “great religious book” into a simple icon. He notes how often such efforts fail. How often they end up strangely misshapen, serving unintended conclusions and undercutting their own points. Just as Jefferson could not quite reconfigure the gospel to fit his preferences, Americans cannot quite “fix” Jeffersonian history to be more useful. The truth—whether it’s the truth of Jesus’ life and morals or the truth of a Founding Father’s personal hypocrisy—will escape your grasp.
That is not to say that the truth cannot be known—only that it cannot be contained and controlled. This is, I think, the lesson of Manseau’s history. The Jefferson Bible, it turns out, does offer us a warning. It’s this: You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. But, as the popular saying goes, not until it’s finished with you.
Daniel Silliman is news editor for Christianity Today.