The Jefferson Bible

Kind and gently souls, I’ve added pictures from Monticello as a consolation prize, not really much of a prize I suppose, to brace yourself for an odd document that sits in the Smithsonian, the Jefferson Bible. Based on letters to friends and peers, the third President contemplated what would become the Morals and Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth in the late 1700s, created an early version in 1804 (no copy exists today), and completed the now on display in 1820. In this compilation, using a razor blade, he cut, reorganized, and pasted multiple passages from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to create his own chronological narrative.

No matter your religious views, the first four books of the New Testament, known as the Gospels, are, without a doubt, the most influential and studied books in human history. One story. Four accounts. The tax collector. An evangelist. A doctor. And the unwavering apostle. Differences abound across each telling. For example, one miracle is found in all four, the Feeding of the Five Thousand. Lazarus returning from the dead only appears in the Book of John. Yet, neither appear in Jefferson’s Frankenstein creation.

When I stumbled across this, I found the man’s work baffling and fascinating on multiple fronts:

  • For one, I have never considered taking apart a Bible, let alone re-imagining and binding a book together to retell the gospel. Sacrilegious? Hubris? Or, breaking down a complex problem?
  • Travel back in time. Imagine 1819. Can you comprehend the challenge? Candlelight. Cutting device. Glue. And trying to piece together four differing viewpoints; yet, find a cohesive timeline despite jumping from book to book, often forward and backward in the same gospel. Jefferson even created an index of the entire volume. Hollywood has filmed eight-plus movies about the Alamo. Would you consider watching six, recording portions of each on a VHS tape, and re-mixing to reimagine Davy Crockett and Sam Houston’s last stand? Even Christopher Nolan would struggle. Would he even try?
  • Again, why? Today, in some congregations, shredding the word of God would be considered blasphemous. How would this look in the early 1800s? For a man of his stature, why try?
  • Jefferson included the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew and the Lord’s Prayer from Luke. Yet, decided to omit the seven miracles from the Book of John and ends when the stone tomb is rolled shut. No resurrection. Why? There is that word again. Why? Why? And why?

I can only contemplate this tome was his study aid. A means to compile notes and then re-read while traveling or lounging in his study. No Evernote, Simplenote, or Roam Reader to fall back upon while sitting by the fire at Monticello.

In his later years, Jefferson wrote frequently and struggled with religious doctrine. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, who doesn’t? Believers, non-believers, and lost souls alike.

After digging deeper, I realized he never wanted his thoughts to become public. From his letters to Richard Rush, ”I have considered it (religion as noted in the full letter) as a matter between every man and his maker, in which no other, & far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” And, ”I very much wish that these letters should remain unseen and unknown and, if it would be too much to ask their return, I would earnestly entreat of you so to dispose of them as that they might never be seen, if possible, but by yourself, with whom I know their contents would be safe.”

Part of me wants to write the Smithsonian and beg the curator to pull the book, and corresponding letters, off the floor, and send back to the archives never to be seen again. As religious philosophy is ever-evolving, respect one’s privacy. Similar to the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones movie, lose this piece of history in a warehouse full of crates stuffed with other oddities and the supernatural.

And, like myself, many struggled with what to do with this book, and how this still exists is a tale to behold. Found in the archives. Debated in Congress. A bill passed for the US government to become a book publisher (hard to fathom), printing a copy for every incoming Congress member. This went on for years.

So, pull the book? Who would want to take that step now? Can you ever go back home again?

With this volume, we have a view of how a founding father struggled with mortality and religion. More importantly, we see how he broke down problems and studied complex ideas. In the current world, where education, understanding, and true journalism has been pushed aside favoring immediate clickable gratification and fake news (that drives more clicks and corresponding revenue), I’m thankful journals and relics make one ponder the complexity and humanity of the founding fathers, even those with complicated legacies. A key driver behind our Constitutional framework, author of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, and founder of the University system, Jefferson struggled. And faltered.

As Lincoln once said at Gettysburg, we have a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”This was Jefferson’s legacy. A Republic with Democratic principles and religious freedom.

Be thankful.

And if you’ve ever wanted to read a book of the Bible in Latin/Greek, English, and French that omits portions violating the laws of physics or contradicting his view of the most influential books in history, this is the work for you. Me? I’m still not sure what to make of this cut-and-paste project. Arrogance? Homage? Prayer? What one stumbles upon in a global pandemic.

Still pondering …