Question: I've heard that Thomas Jefferson wrote some kind of bible, but wasn't he an atheist?
Answer: Jefferson did indeed write a bible... a bible of sorts… but he was also most likely an atheist. So the paradox seems to run deep… but none actually exists; the work that he wrote is a bible in name only — and calling a book a bible doesn't make it so. But we do have another paradox: Jefferson, a great man of letters, betrayed even elemental scholarship in crafting the work that became known as the Jefferson Bible.
Jefferson is a hero to many of us. He had the courage of a Founding Father, the acumen of a statesman and the cachet of a visionary. He was also a doer, rising to the presidency and serving as our third president. But some would argue that his highest achievement was writing one of the great documents in the history of humankind, the Declaration of Independence (his was the majority voice). So it is with great trepidation that I raise my pen against Jefferson… or at least against his bible. But the problem remains: his bible is not a bible at all… and worse… his Jesus is not the Christ.
The Jefferson Bible may lie by its title, but its subtitle describes the work precisely: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Of the Bible's sixty-six books, Jefferson drew only from the four gospels, and from within the gospels he only focused only on the words of Jesus. His technique was unique; Jefferson (literally) cut-out of his full Bible, snippets of the life of Jesus and then reordered them into a reasonably accurate chronology… and make no mistake: Jefferson did a fine job at crafting a synoptic gospel of sorts. What makes the resultant work diabolical, however, is that Jefferson (as is consistent with the work’s subtitle) only took the segments of Scripture that displayed Jesus’ human excellencies — like his teaching and his compassion — all the while (and scrupulously) avoiding any text that shows supernatural activity.
The unscholarly act of ignoring context can be a problem among those who haven't mastered the thinking part of reading, but I expect better from Jefferson. The literature of the cults (and particularly that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses) frequently presents Jesus in such a positive light. Titles like Jesus, the Great Teacher or Jesus, or Jesus, the Greatest Man to Ever Live would not likely offend the nominal or biblically illiterate Christian. But titles of this flavor are euphemisms for Jesus — a Great Guy… but no God. Jefferson revered the person of Jesus — and he wanted to present Jesus’ life and teachings in a positive light… but hiding the full (and plain) biblical teaching that Jesus was God was a huge problem — one that Jesus himself addressed.
“A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.” (Luke 18:18–19, NIV)
In the above verse, the seeker acknowledged Jesus’ earthly goodness — and that seems positive to me… but why then did Jesus challenge him? Because assenting to Jesus’ human goodness while not breaking through to his deity is damnable. Jesus taught over and over again that he was God, and his miracles were designed to give him credence. So, when a person who has adequate evidence of Jesus' deity acknowledges only his humanity, that affirms Jesus’ historical presence on the one hand… but dismisses his revelation as God on the other. That was Jefferson’s sin. He had all the data, he had the wherewithal… and he simply knew better than to do what he did.
There is no way on earth that a man with Jefferson's academic acumen would have missed the central and overtly declared theme of the Bible — the Gospel of Jesus Christ: God became man and died for our sins. He rose from the dead and intercedes for us in heaven. Jefferson crafted a “bible” with the Gospel purposely omitted, because the Gospel is supernaturally driven… and Jefferson had an axe to grind.
In a communication to John Adams, Jefferson said 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 chosen 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."
Jefferson had no faith that the Bible was delivered to us unadulterated. He believed that the clergy changed the scriptures to their personal benefit by adding the supernatural elements… and I fear that this paranoia cost him dearly. The Bible has been preserved by God himself, and it has been delivered to us in the form he wants for us. That might sound like mere dogma, but we Christians invite all people to test the biblical manuscripts as they would any other manuscripts. The biblical texts have been preserved with no significant changes through the millennia. Jefferson — a man of broad intellect — stumbled over a very narrow prejudice, and in so doing he betrayed his scholarship.
Let me aver again that Jefferson accomplished his objectives in writing his bible — and that’s admirable if he stayed in his little bubble. But he’s Jefferson — and as such he carries a certain mystique of rightness which radiates out to the unstudied masses. You see, he committed a big crime here — making others twice the children of hell as he himself (Mat. 23:15). This brilliant man could not have missed the Scripture’s insistence that Jesus Christ was God Himself. That was the purpose of the many miracles that Jefferson ignored — and this by Jesus’ own lips.
“The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me,” (John 10:24–25, NIV)
Furthermore, could Jefferson have missed the Apostle John’s own summation of and purpose for his gospel? After all, Jefferson only considered the four gospels for his work…and this was one of them!
“Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:30–31, NIV)
To get a feel for Jefferson’s bible, consider his treatment of the Gospel of John chapter nine.
"And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him."
That’s it! A teaching on sin…but no healing! He left out the part where the blind man regains his sight. Now, I agree… there’s a lesson in every healing… but there’s also a healing in every healing. I ask again, how could this man of letters violate such a basic rule as context?
Sadder yet, look at how he ends his bible… with no resurrection!
"Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus, And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed."
That’s the big lesson in the Jefferson Bible. Many people want a “piece” of Jesus — his status in history, literature and among men, but relatively few know (or even want) the real Jesus — the God of very Gods who suffered and died for us. It’s a trick of Satan to present a good Jesus, as did Jefferson, instead of the true Jesus, as does the Bible. Isn’t it true that Jesus was a great moral teacher? Sure… but you can’t have that alone: Jesus claimed to be God over and over, so if he were just a great moral teacher, then he was lying about being God... which would be quite an immoral act!
There is only one Bible. It is God’s complete written revelation to us. From cover to cover it points to Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Educated men of Jefferson’s era knew the Bible well; to them biblical literacy was common — the very language of culture and scholarship. When such men eschew its teaching… but more so go out of their way to teach heresy… I’m sure that Satan smiles.