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The Jefferson Bible — and How Not to Respond to Grief

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Soon after Thomas Jefferson was elected president in 1800, he began editing a work he hoped would prove he was a real Christian.[1] The election of 1800 was particularly bitter, with Jefferson’s religious convictions, or lack thereof, being the basis of frequent attacks on his character. Alexander Hamilton even labeled him an “atheist in religion and a fanatic in politics.”[2] Even though Jefferson won the election, the accusations of being an atheist, a major taboo in the 18th century, wounded Jefferson personally. He had to set the record straight.

Jefferson exalted Jesus as a great moral teacher. But, in Jefferson’s mind, monks, priests and kings had ruined Christianity by turning Jesus into something Jesus himself never claimed to be: the Son of God. Jefferson believed in a rational, watchmaker-like God who subsequently refrains from doing anything unreasonable, and this would include miracles. Thus, any miracle attributed to Jesus was a pious fabrication meant to deceive the common people[3] and, as a result, had to go. Entitled The Morals and Life of Jesus of Nazareth and known today as the Jefferson Bible, Jefferson’s edited New Testament contains only the passages from the gospels Jefferson deemed in accord with reason. Having separated the real words of Jesus “from the rubbish in which it is buried,” Jefferson hoped his newly improved Bible would rouse idle, irrational churchgoers up from their dogmatic slumbers to see the real Jesus.

So with a pair of scissors and a razor, Jefferson personally removed every miracle from the New Testament. The Virgin Birth, an event Jefferson compared to Minerva springing fully armed from the head of Jove?[4] Snipe. Feeding multitudes on a mountainside? A merry tale, certainly told to please children, but insipid, irrational, impossible. Rip. And rising from the dead? Great teachers of morals have lived since Jesus’ day, but when they died, they never walked out of their graves. Cut. Jefferson ended his New Testament with Jesus’ burial, finishing the job Pontius Pilate never could and keeping Jesus locked up in his tomb.

Ripping pages from the Bible is an act so violent and full of hubris it actually has a biblical parallel. In Jeremiah 36, God sent a message to the wicked king Jehoiakim through Jeremiah, a message Jehoiakim cuts off “with a knife and throw[s] [God’s word] into the fire…until the entire scroll was consumed” (Jeremiah 36:22). Jefferson may have praised Jesus as a great moral teacher, but he exalted his own edited text over the biblical depiction of Jesus as a savior, priest and king. But why did Jefferson do it? Was it his time in France as a diplomat in 1785-1789, reading Deist tracts by Voltaire and absorbing the hyper-rationalist philosophy of pre-Revolutionary France? Or perhaps Jefferson was too smart for his own good?

The Jefferson Bible is not merely the product of Jefferson’s education.

Jefferson’s Suffering

If one looked into Jefferson’s formative years during the American Revolution, one would see that the Jefferson Bible is not merely the product of Jefferson’s education. Instead, the Jefferson Bible seems like it derives more from Jefferson’s Job-like level of suffering. Jefferson lost 3 children during the American Revolution, including a horrible miscarriage during the summer of 1776 with Jefferson in Philadelphia. Worst of all, Martha died from the complications of childbirth in 1782, an event that wounded Jefferson so much he withdrew to his room for weeks. He was beyond belief at her death, and thereafter wandered the dark and tangled woods of Albemarle,[5] during which he may have been contemplating suicide. His days, Jefferson wrote a friend, were “a gloom unbrightened with one cheerful expectation.” The child, a daughter named Lucy, died in 1784.[6]

Perhaps to alleviate his grief, Jefferson left Virginia after his wife’s death to serve as a diplomat in France. It is not surprising that in France Jefferson gravitated towards the hyper-rationalist philosophy of Deists like Voltaire, whose bust Jefferson later displayed at Monticello. Voltaire believed in God of pure reason who removed himself from the world and displayed little care for the people living on it. Jefferson had suffered five devastating losses to his family, so a detached, watchmaker God must have seemed devastatingly reasonable to Jefferson. Why not remove the miracles from the New Testament, when God had not performed miracles for Jefferson?

Jefferson’s life illustrates the dangerous snare of looking to Jesus as a moral teacher at the expense of having a personal relationship with Jesus.

How Not to Respond to Grief

The way Jefferson responded to his losses provides us with a model of how we should not respond to our grief. Jefferson’s life illustrates the dangerous snare of looking to Jesus as a moral teacher at the expense of having a personal relationship with Jesus. No moral teacher can provide a hope that transcends all understanding in the midst of very real and very terrible hardships. If Jesus is still in the tomb where Jefferson left him, then we are dead in our sins and have no reason to abstain from pleasures that promise to ease our grief. Then Jefferson incurred massive debts thanks to such pleasures and his penchant for fine wines and architecture, debts his slaves had to pay when they were sold upon his death in 1826. How would we regard Jefferson today if he had turned to Jesus instead of making such an idol for himself? Would he have freed those slaves?

The example we have to follow is that of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We cannot understand why God brings sorrowing and suffering upon on us, nor can we understand the full extent of God’s mercies given to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus took on flesh and personally experienced every trial and hardship common to men, up to and including death on a Roman cross. We’ll never be able to rationally explain why Jesus Christ would die for sinners like us, and few things in the story of Jesus and the salvation he accomplished for us make rational sense. But that doesn’t mean the gospel’s not true.

[1] Ellis notes he began the project in 1802, “when the attacks on his religious beliefs had begun in earnest,” in American Sphinx, 309.

[2] Holmes, Faiths of the Founding Fathers, 81.

[3] Ellis, American Sphinx, 309-10; Holmes, Faiths of the Founding Fathers, 83.

[4] “From Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 11 April 1823,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 13, 2018, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-3446.

[5] Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Random House, 1998), 78.

[6] “Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello: Lucy Jefferson (1782-1784).” Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Accessed July 02, 2018. https://www.monticello.org/site/jefferson/lucy-jefferson-1782-1784.

Image Credit: Library of Congress

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Winston Brady

Winston Brady is a Humanities teacher at Thales Academy in Apex, NC where, in addition to his teaching duties, he designs lesson plans and ebooks to use in a Classical curriculum and is the Chair of the History Department. He and his wife Rachel have a two-year-old son, Hunter, and they live in Raleigh, NC.

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