The Jefferson Bible: A Reconciliation of Jefferson & Christianity As a work of theological literature, Thomas Jefferson’s The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, or otherwise popularly known as the Jefferson Bible, has historically either been considered a philosophical masterpiece or shrugged off as irreverent blasphemy. From a fundamentalist point-of-view, Jefferson had desecrated the world’s most glorified and holy text, butchering doctrines by which countless people live with his illicit cutting-and-pasting.On the other hand, thinkers from the Enlightenment camp saw Jefferson’s aggressive interpretation of the New Testament as a necessary adaptation to modernity, a much-needed reconciliation of an outdated text with a changing world that no longer blindly accepted the obsolete values of antiquity. Either way, Jefferson distinguished himself by doing what no one else had dared to attempt – instead of playing a game that he did not enjoy, he went ahead and changed the rulebook.In this manner, he sparked a theological revolution that ultimately transformed spirituality in the United States, from the rigid conception of righteousness as defined by the Pilgrims to what we know as virtue today. The intent of the Jefferson Bible was primarily didactical, meant to teach what Jefferson saw as the most beneficent and transcendent system of morals to ever arise from human civilization – the teachings of Jesus – to a cynical modern world and perhaps more direly, the fledgling nation-state of America, a society pervaded by sectarianism.
But Jefferson also had a vision for theological progress, one that involved religion moving away from blind faith, belief in the supernatural, and trust in the Church. Instead, he championed a version of Christianity modified to represent the ideology of the Enlightenment, with rationalism, tolerance, and individual liberty at its core. Thus to this end, the Jefferson Bible is devoid of any sign of divinity, absent of even the most widely accepted miracles, from the Jesus’ virgin birth to his resurrection from the dead.Although such an approach can understandably be interpreted as atheism, Jefferson only removed what he thought to be obstructionist artifice that convoluted and obscured the key points of Jesus’ life and teachings, the human morals of love, peace, and neighborliness behind the fictions. As a result, in his bible, angels never appear to the shepherds, the Holy Ghost has no trace of existence, and Jesus’ baptism is mentioned but neither heaven opens nor does God’s spirit descend like a dove.Although Jefferson appears to seriously undermine Christianity and perhaps even religion altogether with his seemingly hostile deletions, he was no atheist. From a pragmatic perspective, he needed a general belief and adherence to Christianity in order for his bible to have any impact.
The code of ethics as prescribed by both Jesus and Jefferson relies on the condition that there is a heaven and a life after death, as incentives for humanity to behave benevolently for the temporal duration of their worldly lives.Ideologically, Jefferson did not attack the existence of God, rather all the dogmatic intermediation required under the Church for a human being to reach Him. In this way, he was above all else a humanist, resonating the Enlightenment values of human potential, individual freedom, and democracy. As such, Jefferson wanted to bring God closer to the common man, so close in fact that each human being could potentially find God within himself (instead of in some obscure Trinity) – that is if he lives a Samaritan life by Jesus’ moral standard.Thus Jefferson’s Jesus is not a deity or shaman or faith healer, but simply an extraordinary human being with a reformist mind and an enlightened sense of morality, qualities of the ideal leader of humanity. Through him, the Jefferson Bible exudes a refreshing sense of optimism in the dignity and goodness of humankind, in turn rejecting the medieval perception of the individual as a weak, corrupted, fallen creature.
In the end, Jefferson’s version of the gospels is the manifestation of how he perceived Jesus the human being would have wanted it, not how Jesus the son of God or the Pope or his priests would have liked it.With respect to societal impact, the Jefferson Bible could very well have been the humble beginnings of ideological globalization and universalism. Through his complete humanization of Jesus, Jefferson revitalized New Testament teachings with an emphasis on Jesus’ extension of individual values to humanity as a whole, impelling people to connect and form bonds with all mankind on the basis of their grand commonality of being human. Jesus globalized the conception of neighborliness to incorporate all people, gathering them into one family, under the bonds of love, peace, charity, and common needs and desires.He pushed to not only ensure decency of action upon human beings but actively forced the internalization of benevolence, universal charity, and philanthropy – social utilities that make up the essence of genuine virtue. Though it is undeniable that human cultures will always enjoy their differences, Jefferson seemed to yearn for this global integration of values toward a universal, absolutist system of morality that Jesus appeared to want, a moral code that would appeal to all of mankind.And since he clearly saw the teachings of Jesus as the superior set of beliefs by which to live, Jefferson’s underlying motivation for slicing up the New Testament into his own bible was none other than the expansion of Jesus’ Christian ideals, just with an emphasis on the humanistic side of them.
Thus Jefferson’s critics, including the Church, should have absorbed his pure teachings – perhaps Christianity could have conquered the world by now.Ultimately, it can be inferred that Thomas Jefferson developed a little trinity of his own, combining didactics, humanism, and universalism to form a new modern-age ideology by which today’s world could live. In this way, he separates himself from the crowd of Enlightenment thinkers and authors, giving birth to an American Enlightenment that retained the fundamental ideals of its European counterpart but departed from the beaten track.To explain such a distinctive presence, Jefferson most likely read and studied very widely, running the gamut from Baruch de Spinoza all the way to Thomas Paine, but he made it all his own possession, taking and modifying the parts with which he agreed and cutting out the parts that did not suit him, just as he did with the Jefferson Bible. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the striking similarities between Jefferson’s major ideas and the principles of English philosopher John Locke.
Although Locke advocated for an abundance of different religions as opposed to Jefferson’s utopian world of a singular, absolutist belief system, the two thinkers are bonded by their common sentiment that human nature is characterized by reason, sensibility and tolerance, and of course, their famous mutual conviction that all men are created equal. Looking back into history, Thomas Jefferson, a founding father of both a nation and an ideology, has without a doubt left a most resounding impact on American culture and society.Today, though they may not consciously recognize it, billions of people live by the universal morals of the Jefferson Bible. Perhaps if we all embraced Jesus’ humanistic teachings and established a Jeffersonian utopia, the world could finally rest in peace and prosperity.
Unfortunately, we will never know – Jefferson will always have his enemies, and our world will likely forever continue to be divided by opposing ideologies. Regardless, humanity will never stop searching for the answers to progress, searching for the truth, searching for a way to live up to our full potential as human beings – all that Jefferson really wanted.