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Jefferson's Rationalist Bible

The third U.S. president cut and pasted Scripture to suit his Enlightenment attitudes


It must have been a peculiar sight: The author of the Declaration of Independence, seated in his Monticello mansion, cutting the Bible into pieces.

But such was the pastime of Thomas Jefferson during his last decade, reviving a project he originated while serving as the nation's third president.

Driven by a desire to select what he considered the most attractive and authentic material from the Gospels, Jefferson pasted up 46 pages' worth of his favored passages. He took translations of the Bible from several languages Greek, Latin, French and English (the King James Version) - and arranged his selections in parallel columns.

The English version has now been reissued as "The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" (Beacon Press, $16, 192 pages). Appropriately, publisher Beacon Press is an arm of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Jefferson's religious outlook fit the budding Unitarian movement of his day, though he never formally affiliated with ft.

The Founding Father's treatment of the Bible, meanwhile, was radical.

The Old Testament was of no interest to Jefferson, who regarded Jesus as a reformer of "the depraved religion of his own country." He further repudiated the writings of the Apostle Paul, whom he considered the "first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus."

He also eliminated much of the material from the four Gospels, whose compilers he castigated as "groveling authors" with "feeble minds." Jefferson censored any hints that Jesus was God, or even had an unusual relationship with God, and all supernatural events.

"No miracles, no metaphysics, no mystery," summarizes Martin E. Marry of the University of Chicago. All that's left are probables and aphorisms. "He made a Socrates out of Jesus."

Deciding what to keep was easy, Jefferson wrote John Adams, because it was "as distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill." What was left at the end was "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

He told another correspondent that the discards were "so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture," and wrote yet another that they reeked of "vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications."

Today, historians such as Yale University's Jaroslav Pelikan are struck by the project's "sheer audacity."

Jefferson did not employ technical study of ancient manuscripts or newly emerging theories from European liberals about literary sources that might underlie the biblical texts: He simply picked What he liked.

The Rev. Forrest Church, a New York City Unitarian pastor, prodded Beacon Press to issue the Jefferson Bible and wrote an introduction for this edition.

Church first heard about Jefferson's work in 1956, when his father, Frank Church, was presented a copy on being sworn in as a U.S. senator. It seems the Government Printing Office had published Jefferson's Bible in 1904, and the tradition of giving copies to new senators and representatives lasted for decades thereafter.

Jefferson's Bible is a curious sidelight on an ever-intriguing figure, whose image has become more controversial in recent years with claims that he fathered children with a slave, Sally Hemings.

The third president's place among early American heroes is also being challenged by the boost his predecessor and great rival, John Adams, has received from a current biography by David McCullough.

According to McCullough's account, the two founders were religious contrasts–Jefferson the iconoclast and individualist, Adams the devoted Massachusetts Congregationalist who attended church twice on Sunday and hoped each July 4 would be marked with public worship services of thanksgiving.

Yet it was Adams who encouraged Jefferson to pursue his biblical research when they took up an active correspondence late in life.

Allen Guelzo of Eastern College says Adams' personal theology was similar to Jefferson's, and the letters between the two show they had "mutual contempt" for Christian orthodoxy.

Mark Noll, an evangelical historian at Wheaton College in Illinois, agrees that "Jefferson's respect for the New Testament needs to be taken seriously," even by those who accept the miracles that Jefferson himself spurned. Here was a man who studied Scripture every day during the last 50 years of his life, Noll notes.

Jefferson once said, "There is not a young man now living in the U.S. who will not die a Unitarian." That forecast was mistaken.

America was soon swept up in a spiritual revival known as the second Great Awakening. Nor have liberal ideas about the Bible ever commanded much support of the masses.

So the Jefferson Bible can be seen as the time-bound "product of an age, and a class, that was inebriated with Enlightenment rationalism," says Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University.

Marty, from the University of Chicago, thinks Jefferson's selective use of Jesus is "a good warning" for all readers of the Gospels.

Everyone who reads the Bible is tempted to be selective and ignore the "rough stuff," he observes. People who might scratch their heads over Jefferson "need to ask, what am I doing to Jesus?"

The Oregonian 07-28-2001

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