Thomas Jefferson was the nation’s third president and the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. Among his vast body of writings is the “Jefferson Bible,” a religious text in which he compiled extracts from the New Testament gospels. It is one of Jefferson’s most perplexing compositions. Jefferson was skeptical about basic Christian doctrines, so why did he produce his own version of the gospels? What was the Jefferson Bible meant to accomplish?
What is the Jefferson Bible?
There were actually two “Jefferson Bibles,” produced about fifteen years apart. We know much more about the second Jefferson Bible, since it survived and the first one did not. The first Jefferson Bible was completed in 1804. As Jefferson explained later, the text distilled Jesus’s “pure and unsophisticated doctrines” and left much of the miraculous content of the gospels behind. (By gospels, I mean the four accounts of Jesus’s life conventionally included in the New Testament. The Jefferson Bible did not include material from any other sections of Scripture.) By 1804, Jefferson considered himself a “real Christian,” by which he meant that he was committed to the ethical precepts of Jesus. However, he did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God or that he worked miracles.
Jefferson titled his second compilation the “Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” a volume he created around 1820. The second compilation was more elaborate than the first, including parallel extracts from the gospels in English, French, Greek, and Latin. Jefferson literally cut sections out of physical copies of the Bible, leaving behind many miraculous claims about Jesus. He pasted the cuttings in parallel columns in a blank book. The Smithsonian Museum of American History now owns this volume. It is this compilation that most scholars have in mind when they refer to the Jefferson Bible.
What was the Jefferson Bible meant to accomplish?
The Jefferson Bible mostly included Jesus’s teachings and some aspects of his ministry. Most critically, Jefferson’s gospel account ends with the disciples rolling a stone in front of the tomb and leaving. In other words, he left out the resurrection. Jefferson similarly excluded many of Jesus’s miracles, as well as accounts where angels played a role.
It is not quite correct to say that the Jefferson Bible leaves out all supernatural phenomena, however. The compilation does include discussions of hell, the coming resurrection of humanity, and the last days before the world’s end. Why Jefferson included those items and not others is not entirely clear. Some of them are part of Jesus’s parables, which Jefferson wanted to include. The gospels do, of course, include a lot of supernatural material, so Jefferson may have found it impractical to remove every instance of topics he found implausible.
The point of the Jefferson Bible, which Jefferson did not publish during his lifetime, was to compose an ethical and nonsupernatural version of Jesus’s life. He told a few trusted correspondents about it and said that it was meant for his personal use. Jefferson considered himself a Christian. But he did not believe the miraculous content of the Bible, so he took it upon himself to cut out that material. What remained was the philosophy of Jesus. This, to Jefferson, was the “most benevolent and sublime” system of ethics the world had ever known.