The Jefferson Bible: Q & A with Peter Manseau
October 8, 2020
Thomas Jefferson created “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” widely known as “The Jefferson Bible” in 1920, ten years after he completed his second term as President of the United States. Using a penknife and glue, Jefferson created a new testament that focused on Jesus’s moral teachings, removing stories about miracles and divinity. In a new book titled: The Jefferson Bible: A Biography, Peter Manseau, the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian, tells the story of the Jefferson Bible, and how it has been perceived throughout generations of Americans.
In an email Q&A with Interfaith America’s Editor, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, Manseau explains the genesis of The Jefferson Bible and how it continues to resonate in our time.
What was the context in which the Jefferson Bible came to be, and what was Jefferson trying to accomplish?
Jefferson was just about the least likely person to take a knife to scripture. He was a lifelong Anglican, born into the established church of the colony of Virginia, a respected land-owning vestryman who supported local churches, clergy, and conventional religious projects in a variety of ways. Yet seeing the conflicts between the sects of his day made him keenly aware that there was a great variety of religious perspectives that must be considered in the young United States. He was also deeply shaped by the ideals of the Enlightenment, the notion that received wisdom should not be taken at face value but tested and confirmed. Through the last two decades of his life, Jefferson sought to apply this understanding to Christian tradition; he believed that by viewing the Gospels through the lens of reason, he could set aside the miraculous and supernatural elements in order to arrive at what he thought Jesus truly was: a great moral teacher. To test this theory, he performed the experiment of radically editing the Bible, cutting it apart and pasting it back together to craft a testament he could wholeheartedly believe in, which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth — the book we know as the Jefferson Bible today.
Was it viewed as ‘heretical’ at the time, taking out all the references of Jesus as Divine? And did Jefferson view this as a way to ‘universalize’ the teachings?
The Jefferson Bible surely would’ve been seen as heretical or worse if he had let it become widely known. However, Jefferson had endured enough questions about his religious proclivities through the years that he knew to keep his scripture redaction secret. Only a few trusted friends knew about his desire to reduce the Gospels to their core teachings. Already it had been said that he represented the desire for religion to have no role in American public life — “Jefferson and No God,” as the famous phrase of the election of 1800 put it. He assumed, rightly, that the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth would have been taken as proof. Yet really his desire was not to undercut Christian influence but to show how Jesus should be considered alongside history’s other great teachers. Jefferson believed figures like Jesus and Socrates, for example, had much to say to each other, and that a conversation between their doctrines would enrich humanity.
There is a re-examination of Jefferson’s morals in light of his being a slave owner – does the Jefferson Bible reveal any clues as to how he could maintain this moral hypocrisy?
Jefferson’s enslavement of hundreds of men, women, and children is often explained through the logic of his being a man of his time. Yet the Jefferson Bible shows that in many ways he was decidedly not a man of his time. In matters of religion he was among the most forward-thinking of his contemporaries, able to recognize the value to society of having many different religious perspectives in conversation with each other. All of this makes it far more difficult to excuse his immoral participation in slavery as being unavoidable in the time and place where he lived. At the same time, it is important to remember that everything we know about Jefferson would not have been possible without the institution of slavery– there is no Jefferson as we know him without it, and there is no Jefferson Bible.
Are there parallels to the Jefferson Bible in other traditions? What does it say for how people might be considering religion today in a time of rising secularism?
A few years ago the American Humanist Association published a book they called A Jefferson Bible for the 21st Century, in which they applied Jefferson’s razor to scriptures from a number of religions, choosing the “best” and the “worst” examples from the texts of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Mormonism, along with Christianity. It was an interesting experiment, but it mostly showed how Jefferson’s project can’t easily be separated from the historical context in which it was made. His desire to reconcile Christianity with the Enlightenment emerged as much from his own personal experiences as from the broader culture of which he was a part, and so it is not as universally applicable as some might hope. That said, it is the case that, particularly in secular and pluralistic countries like ours should be, many have a sincere longing to reduce the teachings of various traditions to their core elements in order to find paths toward an agreement. The Jefferson Bible points toward the limits of this approach. So much can be lost or obscured in the effort to transform religious traditions. From the perspective of interfaith engagement, it is often better to grapple with traditions on their own terms than to force them into shapes closer to our assumptions of what they should be.
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