Book Review: The Jefferson Bible

The Jefferson Bible:  The Life And Morals Of Jesus Of Nazereth, by Thomas Jefferson

This book, one of the most famous scissor jobs on the Gospels that has ever existed, except perhaps for Tatian’s efforts or the removal of Jewish elements from Luke’s Gospel by Marcion, gives the lie to anyone who would claim that Jefferson believed in the separation of church and state.  After all, Thomas Jefferson had no particular qualities to make him a fitting textual critic of scripture [1], not sound belief or knowledge of original languages.  Almost as upsetting to a believer as seeing the disrespectful and dishonorable way that Thomas Jefferson treated the scriptures here is the way that the introduction by Forrest Church, a man who claims to be a senior pastor of a Christian church, praises the efforts of Jefferson to find a rational Unitarian faith.  As I have not had cause to talk very much about the Unitarian faith, or its connection with rationalism, this book is a useful and historically significant manifestation of a tendency within intellectual snobbery to view itself as a peer of Jesus Christ rather than someone in need of grace and mercy.  The result, if one is a believer in Christ, is the deeply unpleasant feeling of extreme arrogance and presumption that is incompatible with the humility necessary for genuine conversion.

The contents of this volume are somewhat odd, but are certainly worthy of explanation.  The introduction, by Forrest Church, paints this book as a worthwhile example of Unitarian thought in its hostility to the miraculous, which is viewed as being a later addition to the “genuine” biographical and ethical core of Christianity by credulous and superstitious and uneducated people who were not as worthy to handle the teachings of Jesus Christ as the vastly better educated successors to Socrates and other early Greek philosophers.  Then, the majority of the text is made up of the English language version of Jefferson’s notable parallel Bible, which is included in the King James English, and contains notations about which verses Jefferson considered legitimate.  The foreign language texts that were a part of Jefferson’s original have not been included, as this is not a facsimile Bible, which is fortunate giving that the sample of Jefferson’s writing reminds me of my own chickenscratch and that would likely be an illegible volume.  Given the reverential treatment Jefferson’s pitiful efforts at textual criticism received in the introduction, the afterword by Jaroslv Pelikan is far harsher about its naivete and presumption, but ends up being equally critical to both faith and Jefferson’s Enlightenment rationalism, making it equally presumptuous to Jefferson’s own efforts.  The result is a book that is both of historical and philosophical interest but is not useful concerning the subject of Christianity.

In the end, the reason one would read this book is to see what Thomas Jefferson thought about scripture and how little he regarded it as an authority in his own life, and to see what other men think of Jefferson and his rationalist beliefs.  This is, to be sure, of interest to those who are fond of American history or the Enlightenment project, or who are students of it even if they are highly critical of its intellectual snobbery and the naive belief among the founders in their own rationalism and their own position as the peers of Jesus Christ and other greats among philosophy and ethics.  Yet this book places the reader in the difficult position of being just as critical, and likely just as presumptuous, as Thomas Jefferson himself.  If we are credible and take him as an authority we are giving him a legitimacy he does not deserve, and slighting the claims of our Lord and Savior, but if we are critical we are merely putting ourselves in the same position as Jefferson was vis-a-vis the Gospels as well.  The result is that this book is deeply unpleasant when it comes to serving as a mirror of our own standing as critics, and a reminder that even despite ourselves we too are children of the Enlightenment, and naive believers in the rationality of our own thoughts and judgments.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Bible, Book Reviews, Christianity, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Book Review: The Jefferson Bible

  1. Pingback: Book Review: KJV Word Study Bible | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Book Review: Biblio (IKUE-KELI Version) | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: Book Review: The October Testament | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: Book Review: A Little Book For New Philosophers | Edge Induced Cohesion

  5. Pingback: Book Review: Inventing America | Edge Induced Cohesion

  6. Pingback: But Sometimes Out Of His Senses | Edge Induced Cohesion

  7. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Twilight At Monticello | Edge Induced Cohesion

  8. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power | Edge Induced Cohesion

  9. Pingback: Book Review: The Bible In A Disenchanted Age | Edge Induced Cohesion

  10. Pingback: Book Review: The Bible And The Believer | Edge Induced Cohesion

  11. Pingback: Audiobook Review: Great Courses: Religion In The Ancient Mediterranean World: Part 2 | Edge Induced Cohesion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s