From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
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“Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to extract an authentic Jesus from the Gospel accounts. The White House, Washington, D.C. 1804. Thomas Jefferson was frustrated. It was not the burdens of office that bothered him. It was his Bible. Jefferson was convinced that the authentic words of Jesus written in the New Testament had been contaminated. Early Christians, overly eager to make their religion appealing to the pagans, had obscured the words of Jesus with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the teachings of Plato. These “Platonists” had thoroughly muddled Jesus’ original message. Jefferson assured his friend and rival, John Adams, that the authentic words of Jesus were still there. The task, as he put it, was one of “abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of his biographers, and as separate from that as the diamond from the dung hill.” With the confidence and optimistic energy characteristic of the Enlightenment, Jefferson proceeded to dig out the diamonds. Candles burning late at night, his quill pen scratching “too hastily” as he later admitted, Jefferson composed a short monograph titled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. The subtitle explains that the work is “extracted from the account of his life and the doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John.” In it, Jefferson presented what he understood was the true message of Jesus.
Jefferson set aside his New Testament research, returning to it again in the summer of 1820. This time, he completed a more ambitious work, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English. The text of the New Testament appears in four parallel columns in four languages. Jefferson omitted the words that he thought were inauthentic and retained those he believed were original. The resulting work is commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible.”
Who was the Jesus that Jefferson found? He was not the familiar figure of the New Testament. In Jefferson’s Bible, there is no account of the beginning and the end of the Gospel story. There is no story of the annunciation, the virgin birth or the appearance of the angels to the shepherds. The resurrection is not even mentioned. Jefferson discovered a Jesus who was a great Teacher of Common Sense. His message was the morality of absolute love and service. Its authenticity was not dependent upon the dogma of the Trinity or even the claim that Jesus was uniquely inspired by God. Jefferson saw Jesus as a man, of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, (and an) enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions of divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law.
In short, Mr. Jefferson’s Jesus, modeled on the ideals of the Enlightenment thinkers of his day, bore a striking resemblance to Jefferson himself.”
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth
Extracted Textually from the Gospels
Compiled by Thomas Jefferson
Edited by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.
“. . . Thomas Jefferson believed that the ethical system of Jesus was the finest the world has ever seen. In compiling what has come to be called “The Jefferson Bible,” he sought to separate those ethical teachings from the religious dogma and other supernatural elements that are intermixed in the account provided by the four Gospels. He presented these teachings, along with the essential events of the life of Jesus, in one continuous narrative.
This presentation of The Jefferson Bible offers the text as selected and arranged by Jefferson in two separate editions: one edition uses a revised King James Version of the biblical texts, corrected in accordance with the findings of modern scholarship; the second edition uses the original unrevised KJV. The actual verses of the Bible used for both editions are those chosen by Jefferson. Visitors should find the revised KJV text much easier to read and understand. Those seeking the precise English version Mr. Jefferson used when making his compilation can click on “Unrevised KJV text.”
Introduction: Mr. Jefferson’s Compilation
Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to William Canby, “Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus.” He described his own compilation to Charles Thomson as “a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen.” He told John Adams that he was rescuing the Philosophy of Jesus and the “pure principles which he taught,” from the “artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms as instruments of riches and power for themselves.” After having selected from the evangelists “the very words only of Jesus,” he believed “there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
The most difficult decision to be made in presenting Jefferson’s compilation for the World Wide Web is the choice of the English translation to be used. Jefferson’s original paste-up job included side-by-side versions of the text in Greek, Latin, French and English, the latter being the King James Version (KJV). This version, though unquestionably the most beautiful ever made, has been widely discredited in this century because of its many inaccuracies and because so many of the words of the text are either obsolete or have changed so much in meaning that they are confusing and misleading to the reader. Certainly, Jefferson, who was fluent in Greek, Latin and French, had these side-by-side versions to guide him to a fuller understanding of the text and did not rely solely on the King James. There is no question that, if Jefferson were supervising this project, he would prefer a version that was as accurate as possible, especially if it were to be the only one made available.
Needless to say, it would have been simpler for the editor to present only the King James Version, just as it was in Jefferson’s original compilation. But the purpose here is to offer a work that fulfills Jefferson’s intentions for a meaningful, living book, not to pedantically present a document for historical interest alone. Happily, the editor had a corrected edition of the King James Version available to him from a previous project. This revised KJV had all the faults of the old King James removed without significantly altering the beauty of the King James language, and this is the version that is offered here. [Several additional books from this King James Version Revised are available at The Holy Bible: King James Version Revised.] The only drawback in using a modern rendition of the ancient texts is the discovery that three of the verses included by Jefferson in his compilation were not actually a part of the most ancient manuscripts. These three verses, noted in the “Table of Texts,” are of minimal significance however, and their omission does not affect the reading in any meaningful way. For those who prefer the version exactly as used by Jefferson in making his compilation, the original “Unrevised KJV” is also made available.
Previous editions of Jefferson’s compilation display the source of each verse along with the verses themselves, thus retaining the paste-up character of the original. This tends to distract readers from the message of the text, and forces them constantly to be aware of cuts and omissions. In this edition, all such documentation is included in the “Table of Texts Employed,” and the verses are listed in chapters and with sequential numbers, just as in the King James Bible itself.
Reading The Jefferson Bible
The editor suggests that The Jefferson Bible be read as Thomas Jefferson intended, without even thinking about what was left out or moved from one place to another. His purpose was to present a code of morals, suitable for instruction in ordinary living, not a code of religious dogmas and supernatural beliefs. It is the editor’s hope that readers of The Jefferson Bible will be better able to appreciate the strikingly sublime ethical philosophy of Jesus when his words are separated from the other doctrinal issues, and that they will be able to agree with Jefferson that these “doctrines of Jesus are simple and tend all to the happiness of man.”
Jefferson’s Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others
“In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Jefferson described his views on Jesus and the Christian religion, as well as his own religious beliefs. He appended to this description a Syllabus that compared the teachings of Jesus to those of the earlier Greek and Roman philosophers, and to the religion of the Jews of Jesus’ time. This letter and the appended Syllabus are interesting to anyone studying the Jefferson Bible because they explain precisely Jefferson’s views which later led him to make the compilation of the moral philosophy of Jesus in the form presented on this website. Both the letter and the Syllabus are presented below, and may be found in the Memorial Edition of Jefferson’s Writings, Vol. 10, pg. 379. Following the syllabus is a letter to William Short, which contains further discussion of the syllabus. This letter is found in Vol. 11 of the Memorial Edition, pg.243.”
Letter To Dr. Benjamin Rush.
Washington, April 21, 1803.
“In some of the delightful conversations with you in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you that one day or other I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. 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 in which he wished anyone 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. At the short interval since these conversations, when I could justifiably abstract my mind from public affairs, the subject has been under my contemplation. But the more I considered it, the more it expanded beyond the measure of either my time or information. In the moment of my late departure from Monticello, I received from Dr. Priestley his little treatise of “Socrates and Jesus Compared.” This being a section of the general view I had taken of the field, it became a subject of reflection while on the road and unoccupied otherwise. The result was, to arrange in my mind a syllabus or outline of such an estimate of the comparative merits of Christianity as I wished to see executed by someone of more leisure and information for the task than myself. This I now send you as the only discharge of my promise I can probably ever execute. And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies. I am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public, because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquisition over the rights of conscience which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith which the laws have left between God and himself. Accept my affectionate salutations.
Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others.
In a comparative view of the Ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the Jews and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors.
Let a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of the sects of ancient philosophy or of their individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.
1. Their precepts related chiefly to ourselves, and the government of those passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquillity of mind.[Note] In this branch of philosophy they were really great.
2. In developing our duties to others, they were short and defective. They embraced, indeed, the circles of kindred and friends, and inculcated patriotism, or the love of our country in the aggregate, as a primary obligation: towards our neighbors and countrymen they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity and love to our fellow men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of mankind.
1. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief in one only God. But their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.
2. Their Ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree.
In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared. His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence.
The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.
1. Like Socrates and Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.
2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. I name not Plato, who only used the name of Socrates to cover the whimsies of his own brain. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life and doctrines fell on unlettered and ignorant men, who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.
3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about thirty-three years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.
4. Hence the doctrines he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.
5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor.
Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.
The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.
1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of His attributes and government.
2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
3. The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
4.He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state, which was either doubted or disbelieved by the Jews, and wielded it with efficacy as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.
[Jefferson’s note:] To explain, I will exhibit the heads of Seneca’s and Cicero’s philosophical works, the most extensive of any we have received from the ancients. Of ten heads in Seneca, seven relate to ourselves, viz. de ira, consolatio, de tranquilitate, de constantia sapientis, de otio sapientis, de vita beata, de brevitate vitae; two relate to others, de clementia, de beneficiis; and one relates to the government of the world, de providentia. Of eleven tracts of Cicero, five respect ourselves, viz. de finibus, Tusculana, academica, paradoxa, de Senectute; one, de officiis, relates partly to ourselves, partly to others; one, de amicitia, relates to others; and four are on different subjects, to wit, de natura deorum, de divinatione, de fato, and sommium Scipionis.”
Letter To William Short. Monticello, April 13, 1820.
“Your favor of March the 27th is received, and as you request, a copy of the syllabus is now enclosed. It was originally written to Dr. Rush. On his death, fearing that the inquisition of the public might get hold of it, I asked the return of it from the family, which they kindly complied with. At the request of another friend, I had given him a copy. He lent it to his friend to read, who copied it, and in a few months it appeared in the Theological Magazine of London. Happily that repository is scarcely known in this country, and the syllabus, therefore, is still a secret, and in your hands I am sure it will continue so.
But while this syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in its true and high light, as no impostor Himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with Him in all His doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin; I require counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc., etc. It is the innocence of His character, the purity and sublimity of His moral precepts, the eloquence of His inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which He conveys them, that I so much admire; sometimes, indeed, needing indulgence to eastern hyperbolism. My eulogies, too, may be founded on a postulate which all may not be ready to grant. Among the sayings and discourses imputed to Him by His biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same Being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross; restore to Him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of His disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of His doctrines, led me to try to sift them apart. I found the work obvious and easy, and that His past composed the most beautiful morsel of morality which has been given to us by man. The syllabus is therefore of His doctrines, not all of mine. I read them as I do those of other ancient and modern moralists, with a mixture of approbation and dissent…”
RE: posted by [ knuje ]
to the author:
“You are completely misreading some important historical terms…. first, Jefferson was less concerned with discounting other philosophical influences on the words of Jesus than he was in discounting the miracles, which he thought were nonsense…. Jefferson believed Jesus was a great philosopher, but like many of his compatriots rejected divinity and religiosity…. Also, you use Deism to mean something that it does not, you are thinking of Monotheism…. Deism means belief in God that is based on reason, not revelation, and specifically rejects revelation, magic, and miracles…. there are variations also: Monodeism (specifying one deistic God); Pandeism (combined with Pantheism, God is silent because God has become the Universe); Polydeism (multiple Gods all of whom abandoned the creation); Panendeism (combined with Panentheism, God is the Universe but is also above it)…. So yes Jesus was a great philosopher, but under any of the above he was just a great philosopher…”