Friday, November 26, 2010

Research notes: Religious skepticism & Thomas Jefferson Bible

Research notes: Religious skepticism & Thomas Jefferson Bible

"Jefferson Bible reveals Founding Father's view of God, faith"

Religious skepticism is a type of skepticism relating to religion, but should not be confused with atheism. Religious skeptics question religious authority and are not necessarily anti-religious but are those skeptical of a specific or all religious beliefs or practices. Some are deists, believing in a God but rejecting mainstream religions. Socrates was one of the first religious skeptics of whom we have records; he questioned the legitimacy of the beliefs of his time in the existence of the various gods.

The Jefferson Bible, or The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth as it is formally titled, was Thomas Jefferson's effort to extract the doctrine of Jesus by removing sections of the New Testament containing supernatural aspects as well as perceived misinterpretations he believed had been added by the Four Evangelists.

In an 1803 letter to Joseph Priestley, Jefferson states that he conceived the idea of writing his view of the "Christian System" in a conversation with Dr. Benjamin Rush during 1798–99. He proposes beginning with a review of the morals of the ancient philosophers, moving on to the "deism and ethics of the Jews," and concluding with the "principles of a pure deism" taught by Jesus, "omitting the question of his deity." Jefferson explains that he really doesn't have the time, and urges the task on Priestley as the person best equipped to accomplish the task.

Jefferson accomplished a more limited goal in 1804 with “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth,” the predecessor to Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He described it in a letter to John Adams dated 13 October 1813:

“ In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurges, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines. ”

Jefferson frequently expressed discontent with this earlier version. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth represents the fulfillment of his desire to produce a more carefully assembled edition.

Using a razor, Jefferson cut and arranged selected verses from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in chronological order, mingling excerpts from one text to those of another in order to create a single narrative. Thus he begins with Luke 2 and Luke 3, then follows with Mark 1 and Matthew 3. He provides a record of which verses he selected and of the order in which he arranged them in his “Table of the Texts from the Evangelists employed in this Narrative and of the order of their arrangement.”

The Jefferson Bible begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels, genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus' resurrection are also absent from the Jefferson Bible. It does however include references to Noah's Ark, the Great Flood, the Tribulation, and the Second Coming, as well as Heaven, Hell, and the Devil. The work ends with the words: “Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” These words correspond to the ending of John 19 in the Bible.

After completion of the Life and Morals, about 1820, Jefferson shared it with a number of friends, but he never allowed it to be published during his lifetime.

The most complete form Jefferson produced was inherited by his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, and was published in 1895 by the National Museum in Washington.

The book was later published as a lithographic reproduction by an act of the United States Congress in 1904. For many years copies were given to new members of Congress. The text is in the public domain and freely available on the Internet.

In the introduction to the Akashic Books 2004 edition of The Jefferson Bible, Percival Everett describes the work with a derogatory tone:

“ Jefferson's recasting of the four Gospels of the New Testament…was an interesting (or not) bit of play intellectualism. Many claim his "translation" amounts to little more than a paraphrasing of the parts of the Bible with which he agreed. In fact, a glance at [several earlier translations of the Bible] might lead one to agree with this assertion. Still, he took it upon himself to do it, whatever it was he did. He decided that the rules of the club to which he wished to belong were not the rules he wanted to play by. So instead of changing clubs, he changed the rule book by literally cutting and pasting together only the sections that he found relevant to his interpretation. ”

  • The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (2006) Dover Publications paperback: ISBN 0-486-44921-1
  • The Jefferson Bible, (2006) Applewood Books hardcover: ISBN 1-55709-184-6
  • The Jefferson Bible, introduction by Cyrus Adler, (2005) paperback: ISBN 1-4209-2492-3
  • The Jefferson Bible, introduction by Percival Everett, (2004) Akashic Books paperback: ISBN 1-888451-62-9
  • The Jefferson Bible, (2001) Beacon Press hardcover: ISBN 0-8070-7714-3
  • The Jefferson Bible, introduction by M.A. Sotelo, (2004) Promotional Sales Books, LLC paperback
  • Jefferson’s “Bible:” The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, introduction by Judd W. Patton, (1997) American Book Distributors paperback: ISBN 0-929205-02-2