You may be aware that, after he retired, Thomas Jefferson took a knife to his copy of the Bible and removed every mention of miracles and the supernatural. He basically removed everything silly from the holy book and kept the good parts.
The short book now sits in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The story behind that book — and what it’s come to symbolize — is a fascinating one. The writer and historian Peter Manseau, who serves as Curator of American Religious History for the Smithsonian, has now written that story in The Jefferson Bible: A Biography.
In the excerpt below, Manseau introduces us to Jefferson’s thinking and why he hesitated before creating his personal nonsense-excluded Bible:
Extricating biblical passages he found instructive and useful from those he did not, Jefferson dug into the scripture most of his countrymen took for granted as the word of God no less zealously than he had into the burial barrows near his home. Doing so was the enactment of his long planned intention to extract the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth — “a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man” — from the “dross of his biographers,” which to Jefferson accounted for the majority of the New Testament’s text. On more than one occasion, Jefferson referred to his desire to differentiate the words of Jesus from those of others claiming to speak for him in colorful language evoking both discovery and disdain.
“It is as easy to separate those parts,” Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1814, “as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.”
As bookends of his adulthood — the barrow digging occurring as a young man, and the Bible cutting in his dotage — these two acts of excavation have a surprising amount in common, and together say much about the third president and his times.
Each effort was methodical, meticulous, and seemingly unconcerned with conventional squeamishness, superstition, or notions of propriety. Each, in other words, might be seen as a practical application of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Each also was undertaken to correct misapprehensions of history. In the case of the barrows, Jefferson hoped to consider and discount local legends that obscured rather than revealed the American past. In the case of the Gospels, he hoped to show how true Christianity, too, had been hidden over time by misinformation. To Jefferson, the Jesus of history was buried as surely as bones of the Monacan dead, not by Virginia dirt and stone but by the sedimentary layers of centuries-old religious tradition, which the founding iconoclast elsewhere dismissed summarily as the “abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”
And yet, for Jefferson, only one of these excavations was an act suitable for putting before the public, and remarkably it was the one which found him poking at the skulls of children until they crumbled in his hands. News that he had devoted more than a decade of his life to plotting how he might dismantle the Bible, he suspected, would be a bridge too far — or, to use a more apt cliché, digging his own grave.
Though he was a man who took up his pen against empire and crown, Jefferson knew that taking a blade to the New Testament’s pages would lend credence to suspicions that he was an infidel, a heretic, or worse. His Bible redaction was a project which he had long considered, but had discussed with only a few trusted correspondents. Jefferson made no plans to publish it and consented to have an early outline printed only when given assurance that his name would be in no way associated with its publication. By some accounts he read from The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth nightly, and yet it seems he hoped virtually no one would know it existed. Perhaps the last monumental work of a monumental life, the Jefferson Bible is an ambivalent scripture that has taken on an outsized significance in a nation for which religious ambivalence is the one enduring creed.
(Excerpted from The Jefferson Bible: A Biography by Peter Manseau. Published by Princeton University Press and reprinted here by permission.)