Coinciding with an important new exhibition of President Thomas Jefferson’s Bible—and just in time for 2012 political debates about faith and politics—a complete, color facsimile of Jefferson’s famous “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” has been published by the Smithsonian. Plus, Tarcher Penguin, longtime publisher of a simplified version of Jefferson’s Bible, also has released a new pocket edition for 2012.
Was Thomas Jefferson
There is no question, according to historians working with the Smithsonian, that Jefferson owned multiple Bibles and regularly read from them. During his lifetime, Jefferson said that his daily preference was to spend about an hour before bedtime reading “moral” works, often including the Bible. However, Jefferson clearly was far from what contemporary evangelicals would call “Christian.” He was more than just skeptical about miraculous accounts in the Bible—he actively rejected them and literally removed them from his own edition of the Gospels. His daily regimen of moral reading included a wide range of ancient and contemporary philosophers. So, was Jefferson a Christian? Ironically, a progressive Christian theologian like Bishop John Shelby Spong might, indeed, call Jefferson a Christian. After all, Jefferson modeled his moral code on Jesus’ moral teachings. Nevertheless, many of he evangelicals who like to fly Jefferson’s banner above their cause would find this president’s faith sorely lacking.
In Jefferson’s own words from 1787: “Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are serviley crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”
An oft-quoted Jefferson affirmation of faith:
It’s true that, more than once throughout his lifetime, Jefferson called himself “a Christian.” A new inexpensive Tarcher-Penguin edition of the text quotes from an 1803 message from Jefferson, which says in part: “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.”
HOW JEFFERSON MADE HIS VERSION OF THE BIBLE
Jefferson’s own edition of the Gospels was painstakingly edited—and physically produced with razor and glue. This was no casual project for an idle day at Montecello. Records show that he spent years developing the final 1820, 84-page version. An artful writer and editor all his life, Jefferson was careful to produce this book in parallel columns displaying all four of the languages that educated readers of his era would have expected: Greek, Latin, French and English.
What is in Jefferson’s Bible? First of all, Jefferson never called it “The Jefferson Bible,” although that is now such a widely used title that even the Smithsonian edition uses that phrase as the main title for the new color facsimile. Jefferson’s own original title appears as the sub-title of the Smithsonian edition. However, his original intention is captured in that original title: Jefferson only included the life and teachings of Jesus using verses from the Gospels.
How did Jefferson produce his Bible? Equipped with a razor and glue, the Smithsonian says: “At seventy-seven years of age, Thomas Jefferson constructed his book by cutting excerpts from six printed volumes published in English, French, Latin, and Greek of the Gospels of the New Testament. He arranged them to tell a chronological and edited story of Jesus’s life, parables, and moral teaching. Left behind in the source material were those elements that he could not support through reason or that he believed were later embellishments, such as the miracles and the Resurrection.
“The act of cutting and rearranging passages from the New Testament to create something fresh was an ambitious, even audacious initiative, but not an act of disrespect. Through this distillation Jefferson sought to clarify Jesus’s teachings, which he believed provided ‘the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.’”
HOW TO READ JEFFERSON’S BIBLE ONLINE, PRINT, E-EDITIONS
Read Jefferson’s Bible online: The Smithsonian has produced a wonderful website about the Jefferson Bible exhibit, which includes a page-by-page option to view the entire book online. Of course, you won’t want to sit at your computer reading the entire text in the Smithsonian’s page-by-page viewer. But you can check individual pages and read entire passages.
Why you should buy the print edition now:
Here’s a strong recommendation from ReadTheSpirit—buy a copy of the Smithsonian’s facsimile of The Jefferson Bible now. Nationwide studies show that most American households own a Bible, most Americans claim they read the Bible regularly—and regular Bible readers own multiple editions. Many Americans preach, teach and share in small groups that include Bible study. This is the first time in two centuries that a reasonably priced facsimile of Jefferson’s Bible is available for general readers. This gorgeous Smithsonian edition is likely to go out of print and, perhaps, become a collector’s item. From a practical standpoint, imagine the spirited discussions you can spark in your class or small group by passing around a copy. Buy it now, while this edition is still available.
Want to simply enjoy and learn from Jefferson’s text yourself?
Also order a copy of the Tarcher simplified, pocket-sized edition of The Jefferson Bible. If you look around online, you’ll find many editions of Jefferson’s book, which is in the public domain now. You can even find free versions for e-readers. However, this Tarcher edition also represents a historical milestone in the Bible. Just prior to World War II, publisher Wilfred Funk produced this very attractive, simplified edition—a daring deed in 1940. Later, Grosset & Dunlap reissued Funk’s format of the book for the 1950s. This new Tarcher edition takes us back to that earlier era, including the original 1940 foreword to the book. It’s inexpensive, easy to tuck into a pocket and—let’s be practical about this—it’s much easier to read than parsing your way through all of Jefferson’s yellowing slips of cut-up paper in the Smithsonian edition.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.