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Jefferson’s Bible

Thomas Jefferson kept his religion to himself. Privately in 1820, for his own moral reflection, he assembled a volume he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. He took several King James Bibles and, with a razor, literally cut passages from the four gospels of the New Testament — choosing segments that offered ethical or moral instruction — and then pasted them together to create his own 84-page book. He left out anything "contrary to reason" and elements he believed to be later additions. For example, he kept the Beatitudes but excised the miracle of the loaves and fishes. What remained he melded into one chronology, no longer separated into traditional books of the New Testament. One could argue that he edited out the divinity of Christ, but one could also argue that he created a volume on which all people of good will — no matter their belief or lack thereof — could agree on as a model for good conduct, a nice thought on this Easter Sunday. He kept the volume private throughout his life. Discovered only late in the 19th century, it has been restored and will be on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History until July 15. Jefferson meant no disrespect. He simply wanted to clarify Jesus's teachings, which he called "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man." Jim Verhulst, Perspective editor

Above is one of the Bibles from which Jefferson cut out the passages he wanted to use in his own volume. To the right is page 13 of his Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. It is an example of how he rearranged scripture into one chronological narrative. A partial transcript, with the relevant source, is printed below.

Matthew 7:1: Judge not, that ye be not judged.

7:2: For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

Luke 6:38: Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over, shall men give into your bosom.

Matthew 7:3: And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Jefferson’s Bible 04/07/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 7, 2012 5:30am]
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