Former US president took a razor to parts of the Gospels he did not agree with to compile his own version
- guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 17 January 2012 08.29 EST
He was one of the men who laid the foundations for God’s own country, but Thomas Jefferson had his own revolutionary ideas about the Bible.
The third US president’s unwillingness to swallow miracles such as the virgin birth led him to cut out parts of the Gospels he did not agree with and compile his own version.
The original, which has been painstakingly restored by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, where it is on display, was created by Jefferson in 1820 by cutting out passages from six other volumes with razors. He then pasted them into a book of his own, which he had bound.
During Jefferson’s life the book’s existence was known only to his friends and family. His great-granddaughter sold it to the Smithsonian Institution in 1895 and it was finally published in 1904, 78 years after his death.
A heavily redacted version of Jesus’s life story, The Jefferson Bible omits many passages fundamental to mainstream Christianity, including the resurrection and ascension to heaven, the holy ghost and holy trinity. The Smithsonian said Jefferson left out “those elements that he could not support through reason or that he believed were later embellishments”.
Mitch Horowitz, editor of the new edition, said: “Ethically, Jefferson was a Christian, but – as he put it – ‘a real Christian,’ who believed in the moral philosophy of Christ rather than the religion later created around Christ, which Jefferson felt would have appalled the man himself.”
Jefferson’s unorthodox approach to Christianity did not go unnoticed at the time, though it might come as a surprise to many on the religious right today, who tend to revere the Founding Fathers. Despite the fact that he would later allow the Capitol building to be used for church services each Sunday, Jefferson was described by preacher John Mason as someone who “writes against the truths of God’s word; who makes not even a profession of Christianity”.
The author of the declaration of independence had been strongly influenced by the rationalism of enlightenment France, where he served as US ambassador from 1785-1789. Earlier in the century, philosophers such as Voltaire and Rousseau had disparaged the influence of the clergy and Christian institutions and sought to understand Jesus as a man whose teachings had been distorted by later generations.
“There’s an incredible beauty and realism in Jefferson’s rendition,” said Horowitz. “The figure of Christ emerges as a vivid and consistent figure of great moral power. What Jefferson did was create a deeply persuasive historical and ethical portrait of a great teacher.”
The exhibition at the Smithsonian continues until May.