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The Jefferson Bible

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

About nine years before his death, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) compiled a folio booklet of 83 leaves which he entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, and English. The booklet, which has come to be known as the Jefferson Bible, expresses the religious principles of the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third president of the United States.

The original manuscript is in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., but facsimiles were published by Congress in photolithograph copy. Except for two maps of Palestine and Asia Minor, the entire volume is a compilation of four parallel columns of Gospel texts, two to a page, in the four languages mentioned in the title. The texts were not written but were cut out of printed pages of the respective New Testaments and pasted in the booklet. All the evidence points to the winter of 1816-1817 as the date of composition.

The volume contains no writing by Jefferson, except for the table of contents. However, the many references to the collection in his letters indicate that it fairly represents the extent and limitations of his religious beliefs. In a letter to a certain Charles Thompson, Jefferson speaks of this "little book, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus. A more beautiful and precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus."

Plan of Selection. Exactly 990 verses are extracted in the brochure. Most of them are from Matthew and Luke. The few selections from John’s Gospel include Jesus driving the money lenders out of the temple, the parable of the Good Shepherd, Judas’s betrayal of Christ, the trial of Jesus before the high priest, and Peter's denial of his Master. Adhering to a plan to select only passages “whose style and spirit proved them genuine, “Jefferson eliminated everything in the Gospels that implies strict mysteries, as wel1 as comments by the evangelists on the teachings of Christ. All references, therefore, to the divinity of Christ, baptism, the Eucharist, and the primacy of Peter are omitted. Little is taken from the Fourth Gospel. No miracle of Christ is listed. Where a moral precept occurs in a miraculous context, it is cut out of its setting and verses are skipped, if necessary, in order to avoid retaining a miraculous event.

Jefferson’s Beliefs. In spite of frequent charges that Jefferson was an infidel, the Morals of Jesus reveals him as a deist, that is, one who rejects the need for revelation and consequently repudiates any form of established religion beyond the limits of independent reason and will. See Deism.

Jefferson included in his Bible the Lord's Prayer, the Eight Beatitudes, the parables of the Unjust Steward and the Ten Talents, and the Sermon on the Mount. Acceptance of these passages presupposes belief in God and obedience to His will. Also the Morals of Jesus shows that its author believed in some kind of future life, where the good are rewarded and the wicked punished. Besides the parables of Lazarus and Dives, the Pharisee and the Publican, and the Wedding Feast, Jefferson included the whole discourse of Christ about the Last Judgment, including the verse in Matthew’s Gospel in which Christ says, "And these will go into everlasting punishment, but the just into everlasting life" (Matthew 25:46).

The need for practicing virtue and the duty of avoiding sin are also subscribed to by Jefferson. Practically every selection in the anthology treats directly with the observance of the commandments of God. The single word "precept" occurs 10 times in the short table of contents, along with a listing of such sins as adultery, injustice, avarice, pride, hypocrisy, and swearing. On the side of virtue, the double precept of the love of God and neighbor is referred to twice, the only duplication in the syllabus. It is also the only case in which Jefferson quoted parallel passages from all three Synoptic Gospels on a single precept of Christ.

Unique among the extant writings of one of the American Founding Fathers, this booklet faithfully reflects the principles which guided Jefferson's interior life and his personal relation with God.

For further information read BIBLE; JEFFERSON, THOMAS; NEW TESTAMENT

  [John A. Hardon, S.J.]

Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home
Vol.5, pp. 645-646

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
No reproductions may be made without prior written permission.

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