Thomas Jefferson's Cut-and-Paste Bible
Our third president sought to separate the words of Jesus from the 'corruptions' of his followers.
Last November, in response to protest, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery removed a video installation depicting ants crawling over a small crucifix. This coming November, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History will exhibit a cut-and-paste Bible of a mere 86 pages. Were it the work of David Wojnarowicz (the artist behind the crucifix video) or Andres Serrano (of "Piss Christ" fame), this Bible would doubtless stir up a hornet's nest. But in fact, it was created by Thomas Jefferson.
During the election of 1800, Jefferson was denounced as a "howling atheist" and "a confirmed infidel" known for "vilifying the divine word, and preaching insurrection against God." But the Virginian also revered Jesus as "the first of human Sages" and was, according to one biographer, "the most self-consciously theological of all American presidents."
The book that the Smithsonian is preparing to put on display is actually one of two Jefferson Bibles. Jefferson produced the first over the course of a few days in 1804. Not long after completing the Louisiana Purchase, he sat down in the White House with two Bibles and one razor, intent on dividing the true words of Jesus from those put into his mouth by "the corruptions of schismatising followers."
The result was "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth": a severely abridged text (now lost) that, like the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, consisted entirely of Jesus' sayings. In this "precious morsel of ethics," as Jefferson put it, Jesus prayed to God and affirmed the afterlife, but he was not born in a manger and did not die to atone for anyone's sins.
In 1820, after retiring from public life, Jefferson produced a second scripture by subtraction—the book that is now being restored in D.C. In "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," he again sought to excise passages "of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, or superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications." This time, however, he arranged his material chronologically rather than topically, and he included both the sayings and actions of Jesus. He also included passages in English, French, Latin and Greek.
To readers familiar with the New Testament, this Jefferson Bible, as it is popularly called, begins and ends abruptly. Rather than opening, as does the Gospel of John, in the beginning with the Word, Jefferson raises his curtain on a political and economic drama: Caesar's decree that all the world should be taxed. His story concludes with this hybrid verse: "There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed." Between these points, there are no angels, no wise men, and not a hint of the resurrection.
After completing this second micro-testament, Jefferson claimed in a letter to a friend that it demonstrated his bona fides as a Christian. "It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus."
That, of course, has been hotly debated from the election of 1800 to today, and Jefferson has been called an infidel, a Deist and more. What is most clear is that he was not a traditional Christian. He unequivocally rejected the Nicene Creed, which has defined orthodoxy for most Christians since 381. And he was contemptuous of the doctrine of the Trinity, calling it "mere Abracadabra" and "hocus-pocus phantasm."
None of that prevented Jefferson from claiming to represent real Christianity, or from dismissing his clerical despisers as "Pseudo-Christians"—imposters peddling a counterfeit faith. Religion is about doing good, he insisted, not abstract theologizing.
Americans have long been a people of the book. John Winthrop quoted from the Bible in his "city on the hill" sermon in 1630, and American political leaders have been quoting from it ever since.
But we craft new Bibles too, from the Book of Mormon of the Latter-day Saints to the Christian Scientists' "Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures" and Elizabeth Cady Stanton's "Woman's Bible." Jefferson was out in front of all of these efforts. Here, too, he was a declarer of independence.
When the Jefferson Bible goes on display in November, Americans will have another opportunity to debate not only their third president's faith (or lack thereof) but also the religious character of the nation and the true meaning of Christianity. This seems as good a time as any to ponder whether the "sum of all religion" is, as Jefferson once put it, "fear God and love thy neighbor."
Mr. Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University.