Saturday, April 11, 2009

Jefferson's Version of the Bible

We hear sometimes that President Thomas Jefferson sat up all night in the White House one night and used a razor blade to cut and paste an edited version of the New Testament. He removed the virgin birth, the miracles of Jesus, and the resurrection. One could infer from that a lack of religious faith on the part of Jefferson. We could assume he could not accept such miraculous events and focused instead on the teachings of a man even atheists admit was very wise.

But there was a different motive. According to this document on Colorado State University's website:

It turns out that the claim that Jefferson questioned Biblical integrity is controversial. Indeed, it has been pointed out that Jefferson was a Christian, and that “his intent for that book was not for it to be a ‘Bible,’ but rather for it to be a primer for the Indians on the teachings of Christ.”

And a further opinion from D. James Kennedy on World Net Daily:

It is not a Bible, but an abridgement of the Gospels created by Jefferson in 1804 for the benefit of the Indians. Jefferson's "Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted From the New Testament for the Use of the Indians" was a tool to evangelize and educate American Indians. There is no evidence that it was an expression of his skepticism.
Jefferson, who gave his money to assist missionary work among the Indians, believed his "abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians" would help civilize and educate America's aboriginal inhabitants. Nor did Jefferson cut all miracles from his work, as Beliles points out. While the original manuscript no longer exists, the Table of Texts that survives includes several accounts of Christ's healings.


US said...

fascinating... I'd love to read more. great post.

look for me to link to this article shortly.

klkatz said...

fascinating... i'd love to read more. great post. jefferson is an interesting character to say the least.

look for me to link to your posting shortly.

JMS said...

Your research is incomplete and incorrect. Please read “Jefferson and Religion” by Eugene R. Sheridan with an introduction by famed religion scholar Martin E. Marty. It is published by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation as part of the Monticello Monograph Series. Sheridan was the former senior associate editor of the Jefferson Paper Project at the University of Virginia.

The full title of Jefferson's "bible" is: “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions” (p. 44).

A very important point which Sheridan notes, is that the word “Indians” here is a code word for Jefferson's Federalist political and orthodox New England Congregationalist attackers.

Sending his “Philosophy” to Native Americans simply does not fit with the rest of the events and evidence in the story and there is no record he ever attempted to have the “Philosophy” distributed to Native Americans.

History Matters said...


Thanks for your comments. I appreciate you providing a source.

You said, "Your research is incomplete..." Yes, it almost certainly is! But I'm trying to catch up by learning more each year. Might it be fair to see that most research is incomplete? And you said, "...and incorrect." Perhaps, but I'm not sure the same could not be said for the book you mention. It strikes me that the portions discussing the "code word" idea is largely opinion on the part of the author. At least, I could not find other sources discussing the same thing.

As far as not fitting the rest of the evidence, I don't agree. But that is indeed my opinion. Keep in mind that this blog is a hobby, not a full-time job. My degrees are not in this area and the books and articles I have published are not in this area. Consequently I rely on statement of historic facts and on opinions of scholars to make sure I'm offering content with at least some value.

I'll wander into the mud a little bit, though. Looking at another act of Jefferson, it seems he did want to educate the Indians about Christ. Consider this excerpt from House Resolution 888: "Whereas Thomas Jefferson urged local governments to make land available specifically for Christian purposes, provided Federal funding for missionary work among Indian tribes, and declared that religious schools would receive 'the patronage of the government';"

And it is clear from other sources that he knew full well that his political opponents and many voters were highly suspicious of his credentials as a Christian. His "Bible" would have only heated that controversy.

At the Jefferson Library at the University of Virginia, there is a discussion of Jefferson's "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." It says: "His original idea was to have the life and teachings of the Saviour, told in similar excerpts, prepared for the Indians, thinking this simple form would suit them best."

To summarize, I don't think my post was misleading. My research is incomplete, and if I find to my satisfaction that my post is misleading, I will correct it.

Shelama said...

The Indians as "code" is veryinteresting; had never heard that before.

But I've another question concerning the Preface to the first published Jefferson Bible (1902), which states that Jefferson himself called his book, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, extracted from the account of his life and doctrines, as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of Indians, unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehension.”

Is this quoted title directly and reliably traceable to Jefferson himself? Or is it an attribution of the author of the Preface?

Even as I read about it on University of Virginia's Jefferson Library online, dense as I am, I find it a bit confusing as to whether the writings of Jefferson himself are being quoted, or if it's quoting commentary by Randolph or Randall.