Jefferson and Jesus

Despite considering himself a Christian, Thomas Jefferson was regarded by many of his colleagues as an atheist.

I mentioned Jefferson briefly in a post I wrote some time ago on Benjamin Franklin. There I described Jefferson as conflicted morally. The conflict I referenced seemed to be fairly contained to elements of race and slavery. These conflicts did not detract from his faith.

Late in his first term of the presidency, Jefferson starting cutting from the King James version of the gospels what he considered to be the authentic deeds and actions of Jesus. What was it about the Gospels that made him want to cut out parts of it? He explained this in a letter to John Adams dated January 24, 1914:

The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with with their texts, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt as to what parts are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick diamonds from dunghills.

What was the result of Jefferson’s cutting and pasting? He described that in an earlier letter, again to John Adams dated October 12, 1813.

There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.

In 1816 he returned to the project and pasted French, Greek, and Latin translations along side of the parts he had judged authentic and therefore cut from the rest of the Gospels. He called the book “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”. In 1904 the book was published by order of the Fifty-seventh congress and a copy given to every member of the House and Senate.

Photo by David Paul Ohmer